The Cheerleader Murder Plot
Everyone in Channelview knew that Wanda Holloway would do anything for her daughter. That was the problem.
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When Houston winters are grim, they are that much grimmer in Channelview. Heading east out Interstate 10, the big city’s stately pines, designer skyscrapers, and tasteful suburbs give way to pockmarked asphalt, ramshackle churches, and rusting ship-channel businesses. When the cold, steady winter rain starts to fall, as it did unrelentingly last January, Channelview seems drenched in a dingy futility. The only color seems to be the perilous orange of the refinery gas flares; at the Dell Dale highway exit, the white elephant rearing about the flea market looks hopelessly grimy, and off the road the rain soaks the yards of the tract and trailer homes to a dirty brown. In such weather, people lose their resolve: In the Baptist temples, they turn to hymns of salvation but do not keep time with the melody; in the pawnshops, they hock their baby furniture, stub out their cigarettes, and think about looking for work out of town. Winter in Channelview can bring menace and breed hopelessness, two qualities with which Wanda Holloway, who had spent most of her life here, was more than well acquainted.
This January, however, was going to be different. Slight and pretty, with dark shoulder-length hair brushed off her face, Holloway, 37, had the tighter jawline of so many women who start with little but the determination to better themselves. She had certainly done that. Holloway had worked as a secretary, she was a gifted pianist at her church, and she had married well. Holloway, in fact, had made herself into a well-regarded member of the Channelview community. She was, in local parlance, “a lovely person” in a place where that was not so common; she was, in the words of her daughter’s junior high school principal, “very refined, spoke good English, and was beautifully attired.”
But unbeknownst to almost everyone, Wanda Holloway was also a brooder, and, law enforcement sources speculate, she had spent years brooding on a problem for which she finally found a dark solution. The story has since made headlines in everything from the Channelview Sentinel to the British tabloids; Holloway believed that by hiring someone to kill 38-year-old Verna Heath and her 13-year-old daughter, Amber, she would assure her own daughter, Shanna, of a place on the cheerleading squad at Channelview High School. For help, she turned to one Terry Harper, her first husband’s brother, who would later recall that when ordering the hit, Wanda was calm: “She wanted it done. She said she could handle it.” As has also been reported, Terry Harper, fortunately, could not. He took her scheme to the police. The two officers who arrested Holloway on January 30 would remember that when they told her that she was charged with solicitation of capital murder, she showed no reaction at all.
She was, most likely, the last person to respond in such fashion. That was, after all, before the story of the Pom-pom Mom would cause an international sensation, before the value of cheerleading would be as hotly debated as the Gulf War, before every major player in this drama would receive a call from Geraldo, before the people of Houston and beyond would open their morning papers to find that, thanks to the strange, seemingly inexplicable dreams of one formerly anonymous, innocuous woman, their winter doldrums were over and a true story of Channelview had begun.
“This is a made-for-TV movie, not a feature film,” one lawyer remarked dismissively a few weeks before Holloway’s February indictment. He may or may not be right, depending on which production company eventually wins the rights to whose story, but his remark still speaks to some essential Channelview truth: Here, a smaller, diminished view of life has a way of eclipsing larger ones. If, far away, Holloway’s story is viewed as an aberration, closer to home it makes more sense. To those who know Channelview, Wanda Holloway’s story is a story of place, and to understand the place is to understand almost everything.
“God created Channelview so the people of Pasadena would have someplace to look down on,” said criminal attorney Mike Ramsey, who was born and raised in Channelview. Physically, it straddles I-10 just outside of Houston on the way to Beaumont, though it has less in common with other faceless suburbs than with distinctive small towns. The brochure for the North Channel Chamber of Commerce depicts the area as one where new brick mansions nestle in pine groves, complete with ponds populated with regal swans, and the streets have pastoral names like Woodforest and Sterling Glen, but Channelview is in no way bucolic. The brochure also asserts that lights from tankers on the ship channel glisten just as brightly as those of the Houston skyline at night, but Channelview is in no way romantic. It is instead unabashedly rough, taking a defensive posture against the world. Neighboring communities like Deer Park and Baytown were created and dominated by Shell and Exxon and so maintained a corporate courteousness that Channelview lacks — the place has no sponsor. One tabloid TV show got it right when it focused on a welcome sign that announced, “Don’t Mess With Channelview.”
Mostly white, resolutely working class, it was, even as late as the seventies, a Ku Klux Klan stronghold. In the sixties and seventies, when Wanda Holloway was coming of age, the high school students could be evenly divided between dopers and ropers. Mike Ramsey and most of his friends grew up on better-than-nodding terms with the bars on Market Street. One of his friends had an ear torn off in a fight, and when an emergency room doctor told Ramsey that he could reattach the ear if Ramsey could retrieve it, the lawyer returned to find a scroungy dog sniffing hungrily for more remains. You don’t see “Yard of the Month” signs in Channelview; instead, particularly on the south side of I-10, you see homes guarded by German shepherds, rottweilers, or mastiffs. People here have even steeled themselves against the very air they breathe, laced as it is with industrial toxins: “We don’t trust air we can’t see or hack off a chunk and chew on it for a while,” joked one resident.
As is true of many places where passions lie close to the surface, so too does the desire for redemption. Though one Channelview resident gaily tells the story of the Baptist preacher caught “doin’ a parishioner” in the back of the church bus, the portable signs in Channelview announce that Jesus is Lord, and on Sundays, the churches, mostly Baptist, are full. The ministers preach against aspiring to wealth, against sex, and now, even against cheerleading. Punishment is severe; hell is no abstract concept here. “I believe if people are going to this place, it deserves to be preached on,” the pastor at Holloway’s church warned his congregation one Sunday. Still, the fear of eternal damnation would not necessarily have stopped someone like Holloway from plotting a murder one day and playing the piano in the church the next — Jesus, she would have learned since childhood, forgives all who are saved, and she had been.
In fact, the sin that preoccupies most Channelview residents is the sin of pretension. Because so many daddies work in the petrochemical plants, most families make the same amount of money. Alice Johnson Junior High, which Amber Heath and Shanna Harper, the daughter of Wanda and her first husband, Tony Harper, attended, had been named after a custodian. In spite of Channelview’s toughness, its residents are unfailingly polite — even those who’ve moved away slip back into yes and no ma’aming here — and the loyalists can think of no better place to live. Parents wonder why their kids want to go into Houston when Baytown has a mall that’s just as good. It’s not a place for strivers — “If Tony Harper had raised those children, they’d of been at our level,” sniped one person who found Shanna’s Liz Claiborne purses to be a bit much. For the most part, people in Channelview know just how harsh life can be and so have learned to keep their dreams modest, in check. Most often, they pass them on, unfulfilled, to their kids. In this way, Wanda Holloway was both of Channelview and desperate to escape it, for she believed in a future that was much grander than her past. She could not see that her life story was one in which all Channelview truths applied.
Wanda Holloway was the best-dressed woman at her February arraignment, a distinction that is not difficult to achieve at the Harris County criminal courthouse but that, regardless, would not have surprised those who knew her. The first thing people said about her was that she was always nicely dressed or impeccably dressed or beautifully dressed, which was not necessarily a compliment but was definitely Channelview code for the fact that she had a tendency to hold herself above others. “People with our backgrounds typically do not have the money to dress like that, or if we do, we don’t, because it’s not that important,” explained one person who grew up with Holloway. “You would never see Wanda outside bathing a German shepherd or digging in the dirt.”
Indeed, the day that she would plead innocent, Holloway was smartly dressed, the high level of concentration required to produce her ensemble clearly evident. For that courtroom appearance, she wore a black-and-white houndstooth skirt under a black jacket, along with a white shirt with a black-and-white polka-dot collar. Her black purse matched her black pumps, which, decorated with slyly sexy black-and-white piping, came from Dillard’s. She had accented her nails in a deep red, which matched the wallet from which she extracted pictures of her kids to show a friend seated next to her. She giggled once or twice and marveled at the doggedness of the press; the only sign that she was nervous was the way she anxiously swung on crossed leg back and forth while waiting for the proceedings to begin.
It was this prideful nature — the other quality consistently ascribed to Holloway — that rubbed people in Channelview the wrong way and caused them to reexamine her ambitiousness in less than generous terms. “She has a very bad craving for money, and she loves to dress the part,” said someone who knows her well. “She was always, always wanting this and wanting that.”
Holloway grew up on the south side of I-10, the rougher stretch of Channelview. Her father was a tester at a concrete plant, and her mother worked in the high school cafeteria. “Wanda felt people looked down on her,” recalled Tony Harper. If she felt some shame at her station, Wanda inherited from her father, Clyde Webb, a drive that she might one day use to propel herself beyond it. Tony described Webb as “headstrong” and, by way of example, said that when Webb lost a power struggle at the church to which he and his wife belonged, he left with a splinter group and started a new one. The Webbs did not have any more money than anyone else in town, but they always seemed to stretch for their kids. Their son was not remembered as being exceptional; Wanda, however, was consistently referred to by those who knew her as an overachiever. As a young girl, she took piano lessons and, in high school, was zealous about her business courses, at which she excelled. “She was very hyper, very active, she always wanted everybody to like her,” says Tony of their high school days. But Holloway never could get the acceptance she wanted. She longed to try out for the cheerleading squad or the drill team, but her father found the activities an affront to his conservative religious beliefs. The costumes, he said, were too skimpy. Whorish.
Other dreams slipped away more gradually. When she married at eighteen, Holloway abandoned her business education; her husband did not want her to work, and she wanted to start having children. Tony, whom she had known most of her life, came from a family that was not wealthy but was wealthier than her own: His father owned three gas stations, and his mother had her own business, Peggy’s Cameo Boutique, a lingerie store. Tony and Wanda settled into the classic Channelview life. “I thought you got married, got a job, had kids, and that was it,” Tony said simply. “We had a good life; we were going in the right direction.” Wanda may have coveted her mother-in-law’s Cadillac — she wanted her own Lincoln Town Car — but in those days, Tony, a sturdy-looking man with a solid, somewhat obdurate air, had a modest job at a railroad warehouse, and the couple lived in a house on the same street as the rest of the Harper family. It was when her children were born that Holloway’s hopes seemed rekindled. Her son, born in 1973, she named Shane, after the heroic loner in the movie of the same name. When her daughter was born four years later, Wanda stressed the point, naming her Shanna. Though Tony prospered, opening Harper’s Insurance (“Insurance With a Personal Touch”), the marriage foundered. The divorce in 1980 was testy but far from acrimonious: Wanda got the house and most of the furnishings; Tony cleared out with his water skis, recliner, and pickup truck.
It was Wanda’s next two marriages that caused talk in Channelview. The first was to an older, wealthier man living in Beaumont, and when that ended, after a brief try at a reconciliation with Tony, she married another older, wealthier man from Channelview, C.D. Holloway. C.D. had his own oil-field service company. Though he was twenty years her senior, the two had been attracted to one another when she was his choirmaster and Wanda was the pianist at the Missionary Baptist Church. C.D. and Wanda made their home in Sterling Green, a tony subdivision by Channelview standards, and eventually, Wanda got her Lincoln Town Car. Local gossips took note of C.D.’s airplane; Wanda took to talking about diamonds and moving to River Oaks or Memorial. But like many people from Channelview, the couple never made the break. They stayed in the modest tract house with the sloping roof and pink burglar bars. “Maybe he just gave the appearance of cutting a fat hog in the rear,” said one Channelview native of Holloway’s wealth.
Still, with C.D., Wanda seemed to have found a measure of peace. A friend once asked her if all that money made her happy. “Well,” Wanda said, smiling, “we’re havin’ fun.”
After Wanda Holloway’s arrest, much was made of the differences between her and her nemesis, Verna Heath. The police and the press painted Verna and her daughter, Amber, as winners, while Wanda and Shanna were assigned the roles of also-rans. Verna had been a twirling champion and was the daughter of a well-known twirling teacher; Wanda had never been allowed to set foot on the field at halftime. Even the economic differences between the two families were said to be profound — Jack Heath managed a Gerland’s Food Fair in Deer Park, while C.D. Holloway had his own company. (The two families actually lived around the corner from one another, and their houses have the same floor plan.) But as with so many competitors, the similarities between the two women far outweighed their differences — for a time at least. When Verna stood behind the screen door, her stocky body tense, her arms folded over her chest, her chin thrust forward, and told one reporter that Wanda Holloway “is a mother who goes 150 percent in everything she does,” it was possible to believe that she was talking about herself. Or, as Tony Harper put it, “Verna is the same caliber woman as Wanda is.”
Wanda’s ambition would naturally lead her to Verna Heath. Verna, after all, had succeeded in a realm where Wanda had been prohibited. Those who dismiss cheerleading as trivial and vapid miss its essential and enduring reality — that it is still one of the best ways a young woman can advance herself socially, not just in school, but beyond. If it remains important in a place like Plano, where a child can have many options, it is doubly so in a place like Channelview, where feminine beauty is short-lived and harshness is the norm. Verna learned this lesson at home. “My first twirling experience was with a stick with a cork with my father’s trotline painted sliver,” said Joyce Brown, Verna’s mother. Brown, who grew up poor in Huffman, recalled that the school drum majorette was one of the most beautiful girls she had ever seen: “She rode my bus, but whenever she put her stick down, I picked it up.” Fiercely intense, Brown made three of her four daughters into twirling champions (her older daughter and son triumphed in 4-H), just as today she tries to mold the talents of the daughters of refinery workers. In her cinder block studio in Highlands, she offers not only twirling but also tap dance and modeling.
Verna absorbed her mother’s lessons well, channeling her competitive instincts into the family tradition. “I remember in twirling, there were girls who liked it because they liked being in front of the band,” she said of her school years. “But it was my life — I loved it.” She learned about jealousy too: “In high school, one girl would not even stay in the band because I got drum major and she didn’t.”
But when it came to her own daughter, Verna abandoned her mother’s old-fashioned quest for beauty and poise for something more contemporary. Both Verna and Wanda sent their daughters to the Alpha Gymnastics studio, a towering gym in Pasadena just across Spencer Highway from Gilley’s. There, the girls could learn cheerleading from teachers certified by the National Cheerleading Association, as well as tumbling and gymnastics, skills now demanded of most cheerleaders. (“A lot of these girls think they’ll be a cheerleader in a month,” said one teacher of this new professionalism. “They can’t understand why they’re not going to make it.”)
At Alpha, parental sacrifice is powerfully evident. Often, the kids are better dressed than their mothers, and there is more tension in the viewing area than on the floor. Mothers invoke Mary Lou Retton and sound like professional handicappers when they talk about how much more demanding the physical requirements of cheerleading have become. They wince when a child blows a somersault and snap at a son who needs help with his long division while his big sister does flip-flops on the mats below. They shell out $36 an hour for private lessons and then coach the coach, politick the school sponsors, demand that the newspaper run their daughters’ cheerleading pictures, and even, sometimes, float nasty rumors about the competition. Last year there was a bomb threat at the cheerleader tryouts at Alice Johnson Junior High, though it has not been tied to Holloway’s case. “This has probably happened before, and the people just didn’t get caught,” half-joked one woman who knew of the rivalry between Verna Heath and Wanda Holloway, as well as the cheerleading milieu.
Among these moms, Verna and Wanda were well known. Each had the reputation of going all out for her daughter. Amber, who inherited her mother’s opulent brown curls and her father’s pale-blue eyes, had accompanied Verna to her grandmother’s twirling studio since she was a small child. She had been winning twirling contests since she was three. By the seventh grade, Amber had become a yearbook star, having been named friendliest and most spirited. Shanna, an honor student like Amber, was also popular and talented. She was vice president of the eighth grade when Amber was president. (The two did not compete — they ran for different offices.) Both girls were pretty, though both could affect a fussed-over, far from casual style. It is not surprising that, like their mothers, they both were considered snappy dressers. “Shanna always mentioned that she would like to be Amber’s friend because they were so much alike,” one of Shanna’s friends said. Too often, however, her best friend was her mother. Perhaps driven by her own dreams, Wanda saw to it that Shanna had private cheerleading lessons, a modeling stint at San Jacinto Mall, and mother-daughter outfits that further blurred the distinction between Shanna’s life and her own — one of the outfits was even a cheerleading suit.
The relationship between Verna and Wanda began when their daughters were sleep-over friends in elementary school. Like many friends, they shared coffee and car pool — “My wife had braided Wanda’s hair before,” Jack Heath told the Dallas Morning News, offering proof of their intimacy. But they were never the best of friends. “I’ve always been so busy, I never had time for close friends,” Verna said of her role as a mother. It may be, too, that Wanda underestimated the force of Verna’s ambitions for her own daughter.
The first sign of trouble appeared in 1989, when Shanna was scheduled to try out for seventh-grade cheerleader at Channelview’s public junior high school. Wanda had planned for the event — she had taken Shanna out of Channelview Christian School, a private elementary school, and enrolled her in Alice Johnson Junior High to assure her eligibility. What she had not foreseen was that Amber, who was still at Channelview Christian, would be one of Shanna’s competitors. Verna, intending to send her daughter to Alice Johnson when she reached seventh grade, got the principal’s permission to let Amber try out, and during the three days during which campaigning was allowed, Verna picked Amber up at the private school and drove her to the junior high to meet, greet, and lobby her future schoolmates. This was a carefully orchestrated campaign — Verna even had flyers printed with peppermint candies attached. In response, Wanda was “severely bent out of shape,” according to one observer. It is possible that this particular competition made her feel like a Channelview nobody all over again — it wasn’t just her daughter who was threatened but her own hopes of advancement. As Tony Harper noted, “She couldn’t be a cheerleader, but she could be a cheerleader’s mom.” And perhaps she felt betrayed by a friend.
Wanda complained about Amber to the school board; she pestered other parents to urge their children not to vote for “the outsider,” as she came to call the girl. She even talked about getting a lawyer. However, she could not save her child, or herself from disappointment: With two slots open and three competitors, Amber won but Shanna did not. Wanda was devastated. “Wanda went through a lot when Shanna didn’t make it,” said one school administrator. “Had they not allowed Amber to try out, Shanna would have made it.”
In deference to Wanda — and, it was said, her powerful husband, C.D., who was then on the board of the Channelview Band — the school later amended the rules so that potential cheerleading candidates would have to spend one semester in the Channelview system before trying out. For Wanda, it was small consolation. “She felt so helpless,” the administrator continued. “She was so desperate. She felt her child had been cheated.”
The next year, Wanda worked even harder to get Shanna elected. Months before the event, she called on her ex-husband Tony and told him that she wanted to create something special to guarantee victory for Shanna. In what would become known as the Ruler Incident, Tony came up with the idea of handing out wooden rulers and number-two pencils printed with “Vote for Shanna Harper for Cheerleader.” “I thought it was a good idea because most kids couldn’t afford them,” Tony said. Wanda thought it was a good idea too and offered to split the cost with him. Anxious and excited, she called him every day until the supplies arrived. Then, when the campaign began, she took them to school. Later that day, Harper got a tearful call from his ex-wife. “They’re not gonna let me do this,” she told him.
The handouts did not comply with the school-election code — rules that Wanda would have been familiar with, according to Tony — and the vice principal had confiscated them, with the support of the cheerleading sponsor. When Wanda continued to pass the rulers out a few days later, a meeting was called at the school. The sponsor asked the parents of the cheerleader candidates to attend. One member of the group was Verna Heath. Afterward, Shanna was disqualified. When Wanda learned of the decision, she was mortified. She begged the vice principal to reconsider, as did Tony, to no avail. “She did it because the Heaths and other parents had had such luck the years before,” said one person close to the Heaths. “She thought she could make up for last year.” Sometime after that, Shanna told her father that she didn’t want to be a cheerleader anymore. Her mother, however, was not about to give up the fight. “Wanda,” the source continued, “had personalized it.”
People in Channelview wondered why Wanda chose to involve her ex-husband’s brother, Terry Harper, in her plan. He was not the luckiest member of the Harper family; “Lots of rain hits him,” explained Paula Asher, Tony Harper’s attorney. Married several times, Terry had had some minor brushes with the law; he had been charged with several misdemeanors including drunk driving. Around Channelview, that just made him rough around the edges. To the police, however, Wanda’s choice was less mysterious. “You don’t just go to Kmart and hire a hit man,” said Sergeant Flynt Blackwell, who worked on the investigation. Most ordinary people lack the underworld connections of, say, Colombian drug dealers. When they go looking for a hired killer, they turn to the first person they know who had the slightest criminal history. But, as Wanda would learn, trouble with the law does not a criminal make — one reason why so many people who shop for killers wind up talking to police informants and, in turn, undercover cops. Such was the case with burly, blue-eyed, gap-toothed Terry, 36, a sandy-haired construction worker who lived in a trailer. He had decided in the fall of 1990 to quit “cussin’, drinkin’, and going to clubs” and had instead put his faith in the Lord. Wanda Holloway would be the first to test his resolve.
Cheerleader tryouts for Channelview High School were not scheduled until March 1991, but Wanda had begun to stew on the event several months in advance. She had taken a job doing clerical work in the high school band director’s office and had asked at least one administrator for advice on advancing Shanna’s chances. Should she try to cozy up to the sponsor? Was there any way to get Amber or another competitor disqualified? Eventually, however, her quest led her to Terry’s trailer: She pulled up outside, honked the horn, and when he came out, said that she wanted to talk to him but not at home. The two met at a nearby convenience store called Bo’s. Though Terry would later describe Wanda’s mood as “no different from normal — she’s a very outgoing person,” Wanda had a probing question for him. She wanted to know just how much he loved his niece and nephew. “Well,” Terry told her, “I love them with my life.” Wanda was glad to hear it and then told him that she wanted two people taken care of and she didn’t care how. Terry appalled, had a straightforward answer to Wanda’s straightforward request. “I said, ‘I don’t do anything like that and I don’t know anyone who would do a thirteen-year-old child.” Wanda said that she would get back to him. “I thought, fine,” Terry recalled. “I just wanted to get out of the car.”
He heard nothing more from Holloway until Christmas Eve, when, opening presents at his parent’s house, Shanna asked to speak with him privately. “Mom wants you to call her at this number,” she said. Terry figured that Wanda wanted one of two things: to call off the deal or to push him to find someone to pull it off. When he discovered that it was the latter, he tried to reason with her, Why didn’t she just let Shanna try out for cheerleading, and if “she doesn’t get it, she don’t get it?” he asked Wanda. She had her answer ready. “No,” Terry said Wanda told him, “she’ll be too devastated and never try out again.”
Realizing that Wanda intended to go through with her plan, Terry went to his brother, Tony, who directed him to the Harris County Sheriff’s Department. When he was asked later by one reporter why he had come forward, Terry’s explanations were both metaphorical and practical. A man of aphorisms, he quoted the two pieces of advice he likes to live by. The first was, “Your mind’s like a parachute, it only works when it’s open.” The second was, “Truth’s like iodine, it only helps when it hurts.” But the main reason Terry went to the police was that if anything should happen to Verna or Amber Heath, he wanted to be sure that he was not considered a suspect.
Convincing the cops that Wanda was serious, however, was tougher than he expected. That was partly because Terry was put in touch with Detective George Helton, a lanky and garrulous chain-smoker. Hits were a sideline, not a specialty of this seventeen-year law enforcement veteran and Harris County Organized Crime/Narcotics Task Force member. He was happier busting dope dealers. Besides, Helton had worked the ship-channel area for more than a decade and was all too familiar with the dead-end weirdness that characterized it. The last hit he had investigated near Channelview involved a husband who wanted to get rid of his wife. “I don’t care if you hit the bitch in the head with a hammer,” he told Helton right before he paid him the $5,000 fee. The police arrested the man and informed his disbelieving spouse while she was shopping at Kroger. The husband went to trial and got probation; the couple remain reconciled to this day. Then, too, Helton had just bought himself a new pair of $300 lizard-skin shoes, and he did not want to ruin them by traipsing around in the rain for surreptitious meetings that might go exactly nowhere. “No shit,” he said without enthusiasm when Terry, over coffee at McDonald’s, said he knew someone who wanted two people killed.
With the assistance of Sergeant Flynt Blackwell, Helton put a wire on Terry and showed him how to record his phone conversations with Wanda. Over the next three weeks, Helton came to believe Terry’s story: The police became convinced that Wanda did intend to go through with the crime and that she was no longer shopping for a killer — she had settled on Terry’s choice of a murderer for hire. Then they haggled over price: The $2,500 that the police quoted to assassinate Verna, coupled with the $5,000 quoted to do in Amber, was, in Terry’s words, “just too much money for her.” Wanda had to settle on only one murder and figured that killing Verna would leave Amber too distraught to compete. On the day that she was to make the down payment that would lead to her arrest, Wanda dropped Shanna off at church and then passed on a pair of diamond earrings as payment to Terry. Removing them, she said, “I couldn’t pull the trigger myself, but I can sure do it this way.” When Flynt Blackwell went with Helton to arrest Wanda the next day, he noticed that she was impeccably dressed.
As spring progressed, it became much harder to remember that the lives of several people — including those of two teenage girls — had been so adversely affected. (“I felt numb and I felt hurt and I sank into the couch,” Verna said of the day the police told her of Holloway’s intentions. “You’ve really got to dislike someone to do that.”) The story was simply too entertaining, too ripe for exploitation. As Alice Johnson principal Jim Barker noted, “The farther you get from this building, the bigger the story becomes.”
In appeared to have everything, at least as far as neighborhood gossips, news directors, and movie producers were concerned: It had Texas, it had cheerleading. (A Current Affair neatly linked the two by asserting that “the bizarre murder-for-hire scheme” was “unfolding in the back yard of the most famous cheerleading squad in history, the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders.”) It had indisputable evil: “I just hope we never experience anybody in this country doing this again,” Terry Harper’s attorney, former district attorney Mike Hinton, huffed to a camera crew from Inside Edition. “Over a cheerleader, for God’s sake! Our country cannot tolerate this — period.” It was also a cautionary tale of parental love gone awry, complete with an inarguable moral: The police’s casting of Wanda Holloway as the ultimate stage mother inspired Houston Post columnist Bonnie Gangelhoff to write, “The lesson here, perhaps, is that for children to grow into confident adults, honors must be their own and so must the pain of losing cheerleader competitions.” Wanda’s story may have been played as a grotesque archetypal — and predictable — components which meant that it gave everyone a chance to feel smug. Once again, people in Pasadena — and elsewhere — had a place to look down on.
Naturally, the case of the Pom-pom Mom sparked much tortured and unnecessary debate on the value of cheerleading, which in turn embarrassed many Texans who had hoped that they had put cheerleading behind them. “Cheerleading,” posited the Dallas Morning News cautiously, “is a big deal to some in Texas. To them, the ideal boy plays football and his girlfriend twirls a baton on the field or waves pompons on the sidelines. And it is seen that way in Channelview.” The Houston Chronicle was more bullish on the activity: “CHEERLEADING ‘NOT THE ISSUE’ IN ALLEGED MURDER CONTRACT” was one headline. (Perhaps the most-subdued coverage was the local Channelview paper’s: “MURDER-FOR-HIRE CASE CALLED ‘REALLY STRANGE’” was the headline a few days after the story broke.) The national press, of course, had no qualms about blurring the carefully constructed distinctions the rest of Texas put between itself, cheerleading, and Channelview. A Current Affair drew the logical, time-honored conclusion: “At one time or another every girl in America dreams of being a cheerleader,” intoned the reporter. “That’s especially true in Texas. Pom-poms are a major part of the Lone Star legend.”
It was only a matter of time before the rest of the press dropped any pretense of seriousness, largely because the story was such a tabloid-TV natural. Representatives of Sally Jessy Raphaël, Oprah, and Geraldo holed up at the Galleria. A gutsier team from a British network bunked at the I-10 Holiday Inn, much closer to Channelview. Their targets were the drama’s stars: Verna Heath received roses every day from a producer from A Current Affair and, after refusing to go on camera, was supposedly ambushed by another reporter wearing a hidden microphone. Verna briefly agreed to do the Sally Jessy Raphaël show — until the topic was changed from stage mothers to people who have been the targets of hired killers.
When the major players proved elusive — Wanda’s besieged lawyers, it was stated on the evening news, had refused interviews from “around the world” — the press set out to create other stars: Inside Edition offered to fly to principal Barker’s home, for instance, and then turned to Terry Harper, who appeared on camera in jeans, boots, a new duster, a pink bandanna, and a gimme cap. Casting him as a hero of the story, the reporter asked how he felt. “Tired,” he said, sighing deeply. That was not a universal feeling. Virtually every character in the drama — including a Houston Chronicle reporter — was contacted by a movie company. “I cannot answer any questions unless they are submitted in writing,” one newly-savvy player joked. The press coverage even produced a bonanza for Alice Johnson students: Yearbooks containing pictures of Shanna and Amber, which once sold for $15, started going to reporters for $50.
It was, then, not surprising that what had initially been shaped as a tragedy became a comedy. A reporter on the incident that appeared in a Bowling Green, Ohio, paper ran under the heading of “THE LIGHTER SIDE.” The story was also featured humorously in Newsweek and in the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. A series of Scotty cartoons in the Houston Post linked it to the war in the Middle East — a main character headed for a peace demonstration not in Washington but in Channelview. It was a source of some pride in Channelview that Johnny Carson added the topic of his monologue. (Wanda, he asserted, wasn’t hard to find: “She was out on Main Street, saying, ‘Gimme me a g, gimme a u, gimme an n, gimme a g-u-n.’”)
Before long, this seemed a story with only one loser, Wanda Holloway. “I’m gonna sic Mrs. Holloway on you” became a running joke at Alice Johnson Junior High.
By the time of cheerleader tryouts on March 22, school administrators had had more than enough. They tried to keep the date and time from the press, and now administrators in shirt-sleeves patrolled the grounds, their arms folded, their eyes fixed on the crowd like Secret Service men. The one reporter who found her way into the boys’ gym, where the event was held, was summarily ejected.
On this day, Verna Heath looked like a woman who had had more than enough too. She had lost weight, and her jaw was firmly set; she fixed a steely gaze on strangers who ventured into the gym. She sat high up in the bleachers with other cheerleading parents, who held video cameras and silver balloons emblazoned with the word “Good Luck.” Her ensemble made you think of Wanda Holloway, and how natural she would have looked, sitting proudly in the stand: Verna’s opulent mane was coiffed superbly, her purple jacket matched her purple pumps, which coordinated nicely with her aqua slacks and her print blouse, which contained both colors. Once, she left the bleachers to place a steadying hand on Amber’s shoulder. Dressed in black shorts and a chartreuse T-shirt with her name in cursive across the back, Amber looked less like the vamp of her newspaper photographs and more like a gangly teenager, with long skinny legs and her thick, coarse hair barely restrained by two hair clips. Everyone hoped that she could put the chilling times behind her, though it hadn’t been easy — during the tryouts campaign, someone had defaced Amber’s photograph on one of her elaborate posters by writing “bull’s-eye” on her forehead. But, in the gym, the audience acted as if nothing had happened. There was no special applause for Amber, and the program went off without a hitch. With four candidates for four placed on the freshman cheerleading squad, everyone could be a winner. “Amber did make cheerleader and she was happy and her mama was happy,” recalled one person there. “Everyone met in the hall and cried and hugged afterward.” Shanna did not perform that day.
It was a more arduous time for Wanda Holloway. People turned on her. She was no longer a lovely person, but one who looked far too comfortable in front of the television cameras. A more penitent performance was called for (just as, at school, Shanna was being scorned by her fellow students for acting as if nothing was wrong). When Wanda refused to get counseling for her children, Tony Harper sued his ex-wife for custody, which for a time gave credence to an alternative theory of the entire narrative — that Terry and Tony had framed Wanda in order to get custody of Tony’s children, an interesting notion but one that was not supported by any prior attempts at custody on Tony’s part. In eleven years he had made no effort to modify his custody or visitation rights. Now, with the trial date approaching, Tony and Wanda share custody of their children, though Shane, an honor student himself, has shown a clear preference for his father. His college money will now go to his mother’s defense: “It’s all down the tube,” he told Tony, disgusted.
As the June trial date approached, people began to turn aspects of the case into a kind of parlor game. “This case has too many ironies,” they said, shaking their heads and smiling. They speculated that if the Channelview High School band director had not forbidden ninth-graders to do so, Amber would have tried out for twirler instead of cheerleader. They said if Wanda had just let things be, Shanna’s talent would have won her a spot on the cheerleading squad this year. They might have also said that in setting out to destroy Verna, Wanda had managed to hand her enemy the kind of victory she sought to avoid at all costs: The agony of the Heath family notwithstanding, they are sure to realize some fame and fortune from the movie offers that are coming their way. Meanwhile, Holloway may lose virtually everything if she is found guilty. “She created a scenario where her own daughter will be deprived of her mother,” said Tony’s lawyer, Paula Asher. “What she sought out to do to Amber Heath is what she created for her own child.”
But losing should be nothing new to someone from Channelview, which is, of course, who Wanda Holloway has been all along. In her desperate attempt to escape it, she has come to embody it: as victim and villain, she has made herself into a true heroine of Channelview, putting herself in her place for good.