When a Loved One Is Murdered

In 1976 a serial killer broke into my house and strangled my girlfriend. I eventually found happiness again—but not peace of mind.

July 2002By Comments

MONDAY, AUGUST 16, 1976: Gerald Ford was still president, and Elvis had exactly one year to live.

I was 22 years old and living in South Austin with Dianne Roberts, my girlfriend of almost four years. We’d met in the fall of 1972, my first semester at Southwest Texas State University, in San Marcos. Dianne was an art student, a tall beauty with long brown hair. I was an English major who played bass guitar. The first time we met, we both realized there was a spark between us, but neither of us did anything about it. The next time we met, I didn’t let her get away, and from then on we were as close as toes in a sock. Even our friends assumed we’d be together forever.

In the summer of 1974, Dianne and I quit college and moved to Austin. I was going to be a rock star. To get by in the meantime, I worked as a mail clerk, and Dianne worked at a credit bureau. In 1976, after numerous bad garage bands and false starts, I hooked up with a hot guitarist with cool looks named Eddie Muñoz. By August we had a band called Jellyroll and a slew of gigs lined up. The first one was still two weeks away when a friend of Eddie's called with a proposition. A glam-rock singer who went by the name of Queen Bee needed a guitarist and a bassist for a gig in San Antonio the following Sunday night. Eddie and I were so excited you'd have thought it was Madison Square Garden or jamming with the Stones.

Sunday morning came. Dianne slept late. She was still in bed when Eddie's horn beeped in the driveway. I knelt down to kiss her good-bye. I remember her pale skin and sleepy smile. "Bye, sweetie," I said.

"Bye, sweetie," she said. And I left.

I could have invited her to come along, but it was going to be a long day and a long night. Rehearsal was at noon and our gig at least twelve hours later. Eddie wasn't taking his girlfriend either, and he was driving, so it never came up.

We went on just after two in the morning. The band sounded like a cross between the MC5 and the Shirelles, and the crowd seemed highly entertained. Eddie and I were psyched. On the way back to Austin, we talked nonstop about how fabulous Jellyroll was going to be. Eddie dropped me off at home around two o'clock Monday afternoon.

I've relived the next moments a zillion times. I go up to the front door; it's unlocked. The house is silent. Dianne is in the bedroom, naked, lying on her stomach on the bed. I kneel down to kiss her. "Sweetie," I say softly, and gently tug on her shoulder. Her body rolls over like a plank. Her face is bloody; her eyes are open; a pillowcase is wrapped tightly around her neck.

It was as if I'd crossed a threshold into a hellish twilight zone. Nothing was real. But in that zombie fog, certain details stood out: an ashtray full of strange cigarette butts doused in the kitchen sink; a missing windowpane in the extra bedroom. Part of me realized she was dead but part of me didn't. When the police came, I told one officer, "Maybe she's not really dead; she's just sick. Or is she . . .?" He just looked away.

They took me downtown and fingerprinted me. A bald detective called Curly led me to a tiny room and told me to write down everything I'd done in the past two days. When I was finished, Curly took me to the lieutenant's office, and they began to interrogate me about the kind of lifestyle Dianne and I had led. They seemed deeply offended by our eccentricities.

Things were much more conservative in 1976. I had long hair. My eyes were smudgy from the eyeliner I'd worn at the previous night's gig. Dianne's art was unusual and provocative: a huge oil painting of odd supernatural beings, a watercolor of an old woman sitting on a nest of oversized eggs, and, on a bedroom wall, a sepia-tone photo of a bearded man, with a real bayonet protruding from his forehead.

They thought her poetry was weird too, and after taking inventory of all the books we had on witchcraft and the occult (a benign interest we shared with many of our friends), they had us pegged as drug-crazed rock and roll weirdos, maybe members of some kind of cult. It gradually dawned on me that they were trying to get me to confess. Either that or they thought Dianne's death was the result of some strange sex-drugs-witchcraft ritual—that she'd "brought it on herself." Enraged, I did my best to straighten them out. Meanwhile, I could hear detectives in an adjacent office laughing and joking about details of the case.

I was the one who had to call Dianne's father in Houston to tell him that his daughter had been murdered. I had a reputation as a prankster and was unable to convince him that this wasn't some macabre joke. I finally gave the phone to Curly, who had Mr. Roberts hang up and call the Austin Police Department. "Ask for homicide," he said.

Around this time I fell into a black hole of despair. If there is a God, I thought, where in hell was he?

At some point I suddenly remembered the missing windowpane and realized what it meant. For a few months Dianne and I had rented a room to a friend of mine from high school. The last month he lived with us he lost his key, and instead of getting a new one, he would enter the house through his bedroom window, unlocking it by taking out a loose pane. I never got the window fixed after he left. One day while Dianne and I were out, he returned to pick up some of his things, entering in the usual manner. When we got home he was still there, and he had a friend with him, a guy named Lyle he'd met on a construction job. I didn't like his looks. His eyes were cold.

About a week later the ex-roommate found out that Lyle was out on bail for rape. Although he was shocked, the two remained drinking buddies. My old friend had a drinking problem, but I'd never taken it seriously. I'd never fixed the window either. Now I realized that my own negligence had played a role in Dianne's death. Guilt like that lasts a lifetime.

Sometime between midnight and dawn, I was informed that the killer had been arrested. His full name was Lyle Richard Brummett, of Kerrville. He admitted murdering Dianne. He also confessed to killing other women.

Lyle Brummett is a serial killer, though that term was not widely used in 1976. Because a federally imposed moratorium was still in effect then, there was no death penalty, a fact that I regret to this day. The district attorney approved a plea bargain in exchange for two life sentences.

Brummett was eligible for parole in 2000. He was denied it but will be eligible again next year. I remain in touch with the Victim Services Division of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, which keeps me informed of all upcoming hearing dates and also makes sure that the members of the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles are fully aware of the horrible crimes he has committed and the pain and loss he has inflicted on others. In the wake of his violent life, the world continues to be a lesser place.

I have a different life now. I've been married to Lois Richwine for more than seventeen years. We have a brilliant and beautiful eight-year-old son. It was Lois who rescued me from that black hole of despair, shock, and grief.

Beginning with that gig on August 16, 1976, I had an exciting and fulfilling music career. In the mid-eighties I started writing fiction and magazine features between gigs, and before long I was writing for a living and playing on the side. But it wasn't until 1999, when I was working on a memoir, that I wrote about Dianne's murder for the first time.

When I wrote about Dianne, her death and its effect on me, the words flowed like blood from a slashed artery. Not a day had passed that I hadn't thought of her—and the thoughts almost always triggered flashbacks, hallucinations, and terrible pangs of guilt.

If I expected a catharsis after I wrote about Dianne, it didn't work out that way. Things got worse. The situation came to a head near the end of summer 2001. So many people I knew died that season that I dubbed it my "summer of death." I finally started seeing a psychologist. She told me I had post-traumatic stress disorder and recommended a treatment called eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, or EMDR (see "The Eyes Have It," Texas Monthly, September 1998). The theory is that, during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, the brain is sorting and filing information. A traumatic experience, such as a violent crime, can cause that filing system to go haywire. Memories of the event pile up and never get properly sorted out. Later on, something will trigger thoughts about the event, resulting in flashbacks and panic attacks.

In my EMDR therapy, the psychologist had me concentrate on specific painful memories while keeping my eyes trained on the repetitive movement of her hand, back and forth from left to right. It sounds kooky, I know, but I immediately started to feel a little better.

My mental state continued to improve over the next few weeks. Although the usual clichés about putting it behind you and time healing all wounds still seemed like empty lies to me, at least I could think of Dianne without automatically seeing the same horrible mental images I'd lived with for the past 25 years.

My fourth session with my therapist was the afternoon of Tuesday, September 11. As the terrible drama unfolded over the course of the day, and our friends in Manhattan were finally accounted for, it began to dawn on me that I was reacting to the event in a profoundly personal way. Thousands of innocent people had just been horribly murdered before the eyes of millions. Never in history had so many people witnessed an act of evil, monstrous violence at the same time. As the media attempted to define and describe the horror of what had just occurred, there seemed to be a collective sense of violation and loss of innocence. People said, "The world will never be the same again." And all I could think was Now you know how it feels. I've felt that way since August 1976.

Then a strange thing happened. I felt a sense of relief, of letting go. Certainly, it was partially the accumulation of my therapy sessions, which helped me break the spell of years of epic grief, but I think a significant part of the phenomenon was that I felt a rush of solidarity with all those people crying out in a single scream of anguish. My best attempt at an analogy is that it was like putting out an oil well fire with a blast of TNT.

I still have occasional nightmares and depression, but since my treatments, I've been able to remember Dianne and that time of my life with less pain and to think about her without automatically thinking of the monster who murdered her. It's something less than peace of mind, but I never asked for that—and anyway, I think I've learned to live without it.

Austin writer Jesse Sublett recently completed his memoir, Supercool.

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