Who Killed Mary Eula Sears?
Thirty years ago, a 77-year-old woman who loved to paint flowers and landscapes was brutally murdered in her Abilene home and stuffed in a closet. A jury found a local ne’er-do-well guilty of the crime and sentenced him to death. But three decades later, the verdict still divides this tough west Texas town—and the victim’s family.
Mary Eula Sears spent her final afternoon painting pictures in the scrubby West Texas plains she had known her whole life. It was November 22, 1981, a crisp fall Sunday, and Sears had driven from Abilene to meet her friend Billie Joe Carmichael in the town of Merkel, seventeen miles away. The two women had a ritual: they would drive the rural back roads until they found something worth rendering, like an old ranch house or a barn built ages ago, when Sears was just a little girl growing up down the road.
Sears was 77, tall and thin, and wore her silver hair in a bun. She had always been an artist, which made her stand out in Abilene, a city known for cattlemen and commerce. She worked with oils, watercolors, and pastels, and she loved teaching kids about art. “I feel what I paint,” she would say, “and I want others to feel and see what I see.” Her landscapes were serene and her flowers were wild with color.
The Sears name was an established one in Abilene, which is home to Sears Boulevard and Arthur Sears Park, named for Mary Eula’s uncle. The Searses were one of Abilene’s early ranching families: her grandfather Frank Sears had built a ranch in nearby Truby in 1890, and her father, Alex, had also been a rancher. When Mary Eula grew up, she too became a pillar of the community, a member of just about every local civic group, from the board of the Fine Arts Museum to the Taylor County Historical Commission. But even as she became a prominent citizen, she remained an odd bird who lived alone in an antiques-cluttered house, stayed up late, and did as she pleased. She liked to wear costume jewelry but also some very real and very big diamonds, including one that hung around her neck. She had been married once, decades earlier, but never had children. When the marriage ended, she proudly took back her maiden name.
That November day, Mary Eula returned home from her painting trip around dinnertime, fed her two dogs, talked on the phone to her sister, Boog Eyssen, and went to bed after locking her doors; though she was a free spirit, she was a cautious one. The next morning, around six, she called her yardman, W. B. Rhodes, to tell him that his son Bubba was at her house and having car trouble. She hung up, gave Bubba a cup of coffee, and called Rhodes back five minutes later to say he had gotten his car started. That was the last anyone ever heard from Mary Eula Sears.
Around noon Boog phoned Mary Eula and received no answer. She called several more times as the day wore on, before finally driving over to check on her sister. She brought along her grandson Alex Eyssen and a neighbor, Vivian Bridges. Boog opened the door with a spare key, and the three entered a home that was in complete disarray: chairs overturned, drawers open. Alex, who was just six years old, still has a clear memory of pictures cocked sideways on the walls. “It was obvious someone had gone through the house,” he says. “I had a bad feeling.” The three made their way to Mary Eula’s bedroom, where a chair was crammed under a closet door handle, as if to keep someone in. Bridges moved the chair and opened the door.
There was Alex’s Aunt Ta, still wearing her pajamas and robe. “She was slumped down in a corner,” he remembers. “Blood was everywhere.” She had cuts and bruises on her face and shallow stab wounds all over her body. Her eyes were still open. The killing blow had been to the throat, and she had bled to death. “She suffered one of the worst deaths I’ve ever seen,” says Roger Berry, who headed up the investigation for the Abilene Police Department. “In the dark, suffering like that—it was a terrible way to die.”
From the start, the murder frustrated Abilene police. Eleven officers searched every room of Mary Eula’s house for clues, but all they found was the murder weapon, a bloody hunting knife that had no fingerprints on its ridged handle. Partly because the home’s ornately carved antique furniture had few smooth surfaces, only two usable fingerprints were found, and both of them belonged to Officer Berry. No hairs, no semen, and nobody else’s blood but Mary Eula’s.
The police got their first lead the next day, from two men who had gone to Mary Eula’s house the morning of the murder to work on the foundation. One said that he had shown up at 7:45 a.m. and seen, parked in the driveway, a metallic green 1971 Buick LeSabre with tricked-out hubcaps and tennis balls on its two CB antennae. His partner wasn’t there yet, so he left. The two men returned around 8:45, and one knocked on the front door. Someone responded from behind the door and said Mrs. Sears wasn’t there but would be back in thirty minutes. The voice, the worker said, “sounded like a black female,” though he also told police it could have been a black male’s. His partner, looking through a back window, saw what seemed to be a black man standing under an archway in the living room, though he wasn’t sure. The workers left again, and when they returned at ten the Buick was gone and no one answered the door.
It didn’t take police long to track down the car’s owner, Troy Robinson, a twenty-year-old with a history of burglary and theft. By then they had received a call from a jewelry store owner, who said Robinson had come into his shop the afternoon of the murder to sell some fancy earrings that, it turned out, belonged to Mary Eula. Investigators also learned that Robinson and a group of friends had had a wild night on November 22 that went on well into the morning. They partied at the house of a woman named Ann Dorsey; they partied at the C&B Lounge, an all-night neighborhood bar and eatery; they partied at the Wildcat Apartments, which were located on the same block as a house known as the “gambling shack.” They played dominoes, smoked weed, shot speed. The dominoes game ended not long before the sun came up. Mary Eula was killed soon after.
The case seemed like it would be open and shut, especially when Robinson told investigators that he never let anyone else drive his Buick, which had to be started under the hood. But when police revealed they were filing capital murder charges against him, he changed his story. At some point before dawn on the morning of November 23, he said, his cousin Wayne East, with whom he’d been partying, had borrowed the car to drive a girl home. Robinson insisted that the jewelry he had tried to sell came from East. Still, he was indicted for capital murder that December.
Investigators began looking closely at 26-year-old East, who had been thrown in jail days after Sears’s death on an unrelated charge. East, who was the stepson of Sears’s yardman, W. B. Rhodes—and had done yard work at the Sears house earlier that summer—denied having anything to do with the murder. He did, though, admit to borrowing Robinson’s car and driving a seventeen-year-old girl named Dee Dee Martin home. She had hurt her foot, he explained, and wanted a ride. He insisted he’d given the car back to Robinson and walked to his mother’s house. Later that day, he said, Robinson picked him up and they tried to sell some jewelry that was in Robinson’s possession. Eventually, East returned to his in-laws’ house, where he was living with his wife and three young children.
The police and the district attorney’s office were under intense pressure to wrap up the investigation. The basic facts—that Sears was a prominent citizen, that she was elderly and vulnerable, that the murder was so vicious, and that the suspects were black—all contributed to a strong sense of urgency in mostly white, conservative Abilene. Almost every day, investigators visited Robinson and East in their cells, hammering away at what happened that night. For several months the case went nowhere. Then, on March 12, investigators got their big break. After giving five very different statements in which she mostly said that she didn’t know anything, Martin, the girl whom East claimed he drove home, now said she had seen it all. Not only had East given her a ride, he had told her on the way that he was planning to rob a woman, and when Martin tried to flee, he cut her on the foot. When they arrived at Sears’s house, Martin stayed in the car, she said, until she heard a muffled scream. She went in and saw East standing behind Sears with his arm around her neck. He cut her in the chest, demanding to know where she kept the jewelry. At some point, Martin heard a knock on the front door and managed to ward off the visitor. Soon after, East stabbed Sears in the throat; the elderly woman slumped to the floor, and Martin fled.
Hours after Martin told her story, charges against Robinson were dropped, and East and Martin were indicted for capital murder. In June prosecutors made a deal with Robinson: in exchange for an affidavit describing his whereabouts that morning and implicating East, he’d get six years for a different burglary charge and immunity in the Sears case. In the affidavit, he said that in the hours after the murder, he couldn’t find the knife he usually kept under the front seat of his car. When he asked East where it was, his cousin told him, “I had to stab the old bitch and stuff her in the closet.”
The case was much stronger now, but Timothy Eyssen, Sears’s nephew and the DA in Wichita County, thought the inexperienced Taylor County DA, Patricia Elliott, might need some help. So, a month before trial, he arranged for her to hire J. Russell Ormesher, a retired chief felony prosecutor from the Dallas County DA’s office. Ormesher had never lost a felony case while working for law-and-order DA Henry Wade and had sent six men to death row. Soon after coming aboard, he realized the case needed Martin as a witness, and the best way to ensure that was to offer her a deal, which Martin signed, accepting twenty years for burglary in exchange for testifying against East.
At the trial, the state spent half its time setting up Robinson’s alibi, with four witnesses saying they had seen him that morning either with his girlfriend, Bonnie Covington, or cooling his heels waiting for East to return his car. Two more witnesses put East at the dominoes game and in Robinson’s cool green LeSabre and told of hearing him say suspicious things about the murder afterward (“Troy didn’t do that”). Three people said East had sold them some of Sears’s jewelry. The two foundation workers said they had seen and heard a black man and a black woman at the house that morning.
And that black woman, prosecutors said, was Martin, whose testimony was their most important weapon. She told of having spent the night drinking beer, smoking pot, and shooting speed. She said East borrowed Robinson’s car, drove to Sears’s house, and stabbed Sears. She saw it.
To no one’s surprise, East was found guilty. During the punishment phase of the trial, prosecutors called up more than a dozen people who told stories about terrible things East had done, from stealing railroad ties to hitting his wife. A woman named Barbara Hardaway said East had raped and threatened to kill her. Most compelling was a sixteen-year-old boy who said that when he was five East had sodomized him. According to True Detective magazine, which covered the case in lurid detail, the jury took only eighteen minutes to give him the death penalty.
in 1976, five years before Mary Eula was murdered, she had rented a house she owned to her young second cousin, Julie Denny, and Denny’s new husband, Mike. It was just down the alley from Mary Eula’s home, so the two women spent many evenings together, visiting and talking about art and the family. Denny, a schoolteacher, saw a bit of herself in her iconoclastic cousin. Denny had always loved paintings and had minored in art at Southern Methodist University; when she and Mike got married, Mary Eula let them choose any painting they wanted for a wedding present. They picked a watercolor of a ranch house. “I loved her ranch houses,” says Denny, who still maintains the drawling perkiness she possessed as a Cooper High cheerleader.
One night, when Mary Eula was visiting, she told a harrowing family story that Denny had never heard before. In 1909, when Mary Eula was four, her father, Alex, left the family ranch near Anson to meet Tom Barnett, a cattleman who owed him $2,000. The next day Alex Sears’s charred torso was found in a burned schoolhouse. His head, arms, and legs had been consumed by fire. Locals were horrified. “A pall of deep gloom has been cast over the entire city by this terrible tragedy,” reported the local paper. Barnett, an obvious suspect, claimed he hadn’t seen, much less killed, Sears; still, he was arrested and put on trial. He was found guilty and given life in prison. However, before he could be sent to the state penitentiary, an angry mob of hooded citizens broke into the county jail and shot him to death.
Denny remembers Mary Eula recounting a family legend that her mother was the hooded vigilante who shot Barnett full of holes. Mary Eula believed in the biblical idea of an eye for an eye and was a staunch supporter of the death penalty. So was Denny. After Mary Eula was murdered, Denny was relieved when Wayne East was caught, satisfied when he was found guilty, happy when he got the death penalty. “At the trial all the stories fit,” she says. “Plus there was an eyewitness.”
In 1992, eleven years after Mary Eula’s death, Denny—by then a successful real estate agent and the mother of three children, Austin, Kate, and Liz—was sitting in the Episcopal Church of the Heavenly Rest when she looked up at a stained glass window above the altar and had a vision of Mary Eula there, standing next to Jesus. It was a sign, she thought, a message from God, to do . . . what, exactly? She wasn’t sure. She knew it sounded crazy, but her faith was strong, and every time she went to church she felt Mary Eula’s presence. Eventually Denny figured that Mary Eula was telling her to make sure that East, who had been sitting on death row for a decade, received his final punishment. Around this time Denny told a friend the dramatic stories of Mary Eula and Mary Eula’s father, and her friend gave her a copy of Julia Cameron’s popular book The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity, which helped Denny come to a new realization: she was an artist, a creative soul, just like her cousin. She flew to Los Angeles, took a course in screenwriting, and wrote a screenplay based on Alex Sears’s murder. It was called Amos: 5, a reference to the biblical chapter that contains the verse “Let Justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”
Meanwhile, East sat at the Ellis Unit, just north of Huntsville, waiting to die. His previous life had all but disappeared—his wife, Tammy, had divorced him, and he hadn’t stayed in touch with his children. As he wound his way through the laborious appeals process, he got an execution date but also received a stay. And he protested his innocence to anyone who would listen. No one believed him until 1990, when the federally funded Texas Resource Center—which was later superseded by the Texas Defender Service—took over his case and began analyzing files that other attorneys had missed. These lawyers found that one of the punishment-phase witnesses, Hardaway, had an extensive criminal history as well as a history of severe mental illness, including what a later court termed “bizarre sexual hallucinations”—none of which was revealed to the defense. They found affidavits from two people who had not been called as witnesses, who averred that they had seen Robinson that morning at the house of an infamous fence, gambler, and small-time criminal named Danny Jay Rogers at times that contradicted those in the state’s elaborately constructed alibi. Again, these had not been turned over. The lawyers also found evidence that some of the witnesses in the case, including Martin, had been hypnotized—a fact never turned over to the defense. (At the time, the prosecution was not required by law to do so.) “[D]eliberate, egregious misconduct by the police and prosecution deprived the defendant of the opportunity to effectively defend himself,” two of East’s lawyers, Robert Owen and Greg Wiercioch, later wrote, in an application to the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles. “If everything had been turned over before his trial, East would have walked,” Wiercioch says. (Ormesher, who helped prosecute the case, disagrees and in a letter to the board of pardons noted that the lawyers’ claims about misconduct were “repeatedly rejected” in the appeals process.)
After several years of hearings, in 1997 the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals vacated East’s death sentence because of the failure to reveal Hardaway’s criminal record. Defense lawyers went back to Abilene to prepare for a new punishment phase, and James Eidson, the DA since 1987, also began an investigation. One of his assistants, Kollin Shadle, discovered even more affidavits and statements that hadn’t been turned over—and eventually gave them to the defense attorneys.
Eidson decided to cut his losses. In August 1999, he called a meeting of Sears’s family members; Denny showed up, along with nine others. Eidson was worried, he said, about the state’s chances of getting another death sentence, to say nothing of getting another guilty verdict if they had to retry the whole case. He listed the problems and asked family members whether they would be okay with a deal: if East would plead guilty, the state would take him off death row and give him a life sentence. Denny says she was troubled by Eidson’s lack of certainty. “I said to him, ‘You sound like you aren’t sure East is guilty.’ He paused and finally said, ‘We may never know the truth about what happened that night.’ ” (Eidson remembers the exchange somewhat differently. He believes he said, “We are certain Wayne East was an accomplice. We may never know if Wayne was the actual killer.”)
The family agreed to the offer and East signed it, giving up the right to continue fighting for his innocence, at least in the courts. “It’s obvious what we had to do,” says Wiercioch. “Even with all the suppressed evidence we’d found, we didn’t think we had a snowball’s chance of getting a new trial or of going in front of another jury and avoiding another death sentence.” That same day the court held a hearing at which family members were given the chance to make victim impact statements in front of East. Only Denny did so. Among the things she read were verses of Scripture, such as “Anyone who kills a person shall be put to death” (Numbers 35:30) and the passage from Amos that meant so much to her: “Let Justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” East was hustled back to prison.
Over the next few years Denny sold houses, took up painting, and sent her kids off to college: Austin to the University of Texas, Kate to Colorado State, and Liz to Texas Tech. Always in the back of her mind, though, were Mary Eula and Wayne East. “The thing I kept coming back to was, they said we may never know the truth,” she says. “Somebody’s in prison for more than twenty years and they don’t know the truth?” Finally, in June 2005, she decided to seek some answers. “It is hard to explain,” she wrote in a letter to East, “but it seems that I have some reason to discuss with you what happened.” He responded warily to the person who had publicly called for his execution, but agreed to see her.
Before Denny visited East at the Polunsky Unit, in Livingston, she asked Eidson if she could go through the boxes of case files. When he granted her access, she was amazed at what she found. There were affidavits and statements from people who said they knew or had been told that East had killed Sears. But there were others from people who said the killer was somebody else. One person said she’d heard that five people were involved. Another said a frightened Danny Jay Rogers had fled to California. She also discovered that Robinson had failed two polygraphs and the prosecution had made deals with several of the witnesses to drop various charges in exchange for testimony. What’s more, East’s court-appointed attorney, Larry Robertson, seemed to have given up without a fight. He had called no witnesses at all and hadn’t even tried to establish an alibi for East. (It also didn’t help that Robertson had meager resources at his disposal. There was, for instance, a $500 limit on what he could pay his investigator, who later told me, “I was getting $25 an hour, and when I reached $500, I quit.”)
Denny found the six different statements Martin had made in the months prior to East’s indictment and was stunned to see that in four of them Martin insisted that East had driven her straight home that morning. In another she said a woman at the dominoes game named Linda Blanton had stabbed Sears. In the sixth statement (the one that got her and East indicted) she said East had cut her foot with a knife—but at trial she’d said she cut it on a sprinkler head, echoing East’s account. Denny was learning something that’s true of many capital murder cases: nothing is clear, nothing is simple.
And the prosecution plays to win. Denny also discovered a couple of documents no defense attorney had ever seen, memos that assistant DA Shadle had written to Eidson in 1998 and 1999 that showed just how rattled the DA’s office had been. “So many stories from before the original trial and continuing until now that nobody really knows what the truth is,” wrote Shadle, who had done a thorough investigation, interviewing players on both sides of the law. He summarized some things that were in the public record but also some that were clearly not: How Martin, in prison, had allegedly told other women that she had killed Sears. How an investigator had threatened to charge a man with running a gambling ring unless he testified against East. How another investigator had explained the state’s motivation for not turning over evidence to the defense: “If Pat [Elliott] had put all that stuff in, we never would have gotten [East] convicted in the first place.” Danny Jay Rogers’s name kept coming up, Shadle noted: “Everyone . . . on the street invariably asks . . . ‘How come Danny Jay never got arrested?’ ” Shadle had asked one of the DA’s investigators, David Dalbert, the same question. Dalbert, Shadle reported, “basically told us that he had his suspect [East] and he didn’t pay any attention to all that stuff.”Why had the prosecutors focused on East, Denny wondered, and why had they ignored so many other plausible suspects? A month later, she drove to Livingston to meet East. She took along her cousin Tommy Bye, an Episcopal priest who warned Denny that East would try to manipulate her. They walked past the heavy gates and armed guards into a room where East sat in a small cage behind a Plexiglas window. She was nervous but easily fell into conversation with him. He had a kind face, she thought, and looked her in the eye. “I’ve waited so long for something like this to happen,” he told her. “I really appreciate it.”
After they left, Denny burst into tears. “I believe him!” she cried. A sticking point for her was the guilty plea, but Bye, a veteran, told her that he understood an innocent man pleading guilty to avoid death. “In the trenches,” he said, “when you’re worried about getting killed, you’ll do anything to stay alive.”
Over the next few months, Denny and East wrote each other dozens of letters. She sent him money for a typewriter, and he began typing his letters to her. She sent him a copy of Rick Warren’s self-help best seller The Purpose Driven Life, and he sent her a certificate saying he had completed a prison class on the book’s precepts. She visited again. They were an odd couple—though each was from Abilene and each was born in the fifties, one was an upper-middle-class white lady who lived in a West Texas ranch-style house, while the other was a poor black man who lived in a tiny East Texas prison cell.
Her family did not approve. Why on earth, they wondered, would Julie befriend Mary Eula’s killer? Her father, a retired judge, was especially critical. “He believed in the judicial system,” says Denny. “He believed that it works. He said, ‘Why did he sign the deal if he was innocent?’ ”
But Denny was emboldened by talking to the Reverend Andrew Penns, who had been the head of the Abilene branch of the NAACP in 1981. He told her that talk on the street at the time said East wasn’t the killer. Then, at a debutante party in 2009, Denny met Stan Brown, Martin’s attorney, who talked to her about the case and suggested that Denny contact the West Texas Innocence Project.
Everything seemed to be pushing her along, and the further she went, the crazier the story got—and the more possible it seemed that the State of Texas had railroaded an innocent man. Her quest became a spiritual one. “This completely changed my life. If you read the Scriptures and you’re obedient and you follow a call, you’ll be blessed. One line in the Bible says, ‘Live by faith, not by sight.’ That’s what I’ve done. God’s leading me to do something about this.” In July 2010, she wrote a column for the Abilene Reporter-News op-ed page, calling East’s case Abilene’s To Kill a Mockingbird. She urged readers to write to the board of pardons. “Thirty years in prison for an unsolved crime is long enough.”
A week later Timothy Eyssen, Sears’s nephew and the former Wichita County prosecutor, responded in the same space, calling her concerns “unsupported, uncorroborated, and unfounded.” He pointed at the guilty plea and wrote, “Wayne East is not an innocent victim of the justice system.” The Sears family, which had been through so much private tragedy, was now having a very public and very emotional battle.
This past May, I made the trip to the Polunsky Unit to see East myself. I found a short, balding, nonthreatening 55-year-old man—according to the available records, East has been a model prisoner—who spoke calmly and cautiously about the past. East was born in 1955, the oldest of four children. His father was a janitor and his mother a maid, but East says he basically raised himself. “I was an adventurous kid,” he said. “I was hardly ever at home.” He started getting into trouble at the age of 14, when he tried to pass a bad check. Then he was nabbed for joyriding. He had problems at Cooper High and was suspended after many bouts of truancy and fighting.
The worst thing he was accused of was that rape of a five-year-old boy in 1971, a crime so awful it had played a role in getting him the death sentence a decade later. East denied the charge to me. One afternoon, he said, he was playing football with some friends when they were approached by a policeman and a boy, who accused East of taking him into a vacant house and sodomizing him. East says he has no idea why the boy picked him. “I didn’t know what sodomy was. They threatened me, said if I didn’t sign this paper and say I did it I’d be charged as an adult and go to TDCJ [the Texas Department of Criminal Justice]. If I signed, I’d go to TYC [the Texas Youth Commission] and get out in eighteen months.” He was sixteen years old. He says his mother told him to sign and he did.
After he was released from TYC, he worked construction, drove a truck hauling oil-field mud, and did odd jobs. In 1979 he married Tammy Houston, whom he’d met in junior high, and they had three children. When East wasn’t working he was roaming the city: “I’d be at the club, on the streets, maneuvering and going around.” Even though he was married, he would stay out for days at a time. Tammy, who now lives in Dallas, says, “I wouldn’t see him for a week. He was kind of wild. He hadn’t sowed his wild oats yet, I guess.”
East’s version of that November night in 1981 is simple. He and Tammy had recently returned from California after several months of trying to start a new life there. That evening, he went to the C&B, where he met up with Robinson, who invited him to a dominoes game. East says he went but felt out of place because he didn’t know anyone there well, other than his cousin, and because he didn’t shoot speed (“I’m afraid of needles”). Shortly before dawn, Martin, whom he’d recently met, asked him for a ride. “Dee Dee was complaining about the cut on her leg. She wanted to go home. I borrowed Troy’s car. We got there, she got out, I said, ‘See you later,’ and I left and came straight back and gave Troy his car.”
He still can’t understand why Martin said she saw him kill Sears. He believes that he was set up, that everyone lied about him, that it was a conspiracy.
This is not, on the face of it, an outlandish notion. For many African Americans, Abilene in 1981 resembled the Deep South in the sixties. Whites controlled everything in town. Blacks worked as maids, janitors, and yardmen and lived in run-down neighborhoods. Prejudice was rampant. “The n-word was everywhere we went,” says East. “Adult men were addressed as ‘Boy’ anywhere outside the hood.” The law was especially hard on black men, says Reverend Penns, who knew many of the players in the Sears drama, including East. “With Mrs. Sears being such a prominent member of the community, it wasn’t likely Wayne East would get a not-guilty verdict.” Penns says it was common for blacks to get raw deals, especially in cases involving white victims. “When it was black-on-white crime, the defendant really had to prove himself, have a good attorney. They almost never did.”
By contrast, the wealthy Sears family got the best prosecution money could buy. Ormesher, the special prosecutor hired a month before the trial, was paid $27,838 by the family—plus another $8,000 from the Texas Prosecutors Coordinating Council—to help try East. (Such arrangements are perfectly legal, as long as the elected DA calls the shots.) Ormesher was a top-flight prosecutor, a star at the Dallas County DA’s office, which was known for its tough approach to crime.
Leon Petty, one of the first black police officers in Abilene, agrees that the criminal justice system in 1981 wasn’t fair to black men. “It has been slanted over the years,” says Petty, who was not involved in East’s case. “In a lot of cases we may have put people behind bars who shouldn’t be there.”
To my surprise, Otis Wiley, the chief investigator for the DA’s office during the Sears case, agrees with some of the second-guessing of East’s guilt. In May I went to see him at his home on the outskirts of eastern Abilene. I sat in his living room as Wiley, who is African American, told me his theory of what happened that night, based on his investigation. “They were all at a party, a bunch of people, in and out. Robinson loaned them his car—Rogers, Martin, and East. The way they got in was East—he had worked for Sears. They started robbing her, and Rogers supposedly stabbed her.”
“Rogers and not East?”
“There’s no way we could put the knife in East’s hand,” Wiley admitted. “We didn’t actually know he was the one who did the actual stabbing, but he was in on robbing her. We felt that possibly Rogers did the stabbing.”
“But,” I asked, “if you thought Rogers stabbed her, how did Martin come to say that she saw East kill Sears?”
Wiley laughed and held out his hands. “Yeah, I don’t know.”
Despite these doubts, every single Abilene law enforcement person I spoke to believes that East got what he deserved, that he was at Sears’s house and was somehow involved. “There is no doubt in my mind that Wayne killed that lady,” says Roger Berry. Ormesher (who says the talk about Rogers being the killer was mostly “street rumors” from the drug world) agrees and in his letter to the board of pardons called East “murderous and demonically cruel.” Eidson says that because East was at the scene, even if he didn’t kill Sears, he’s a party to the crime. “If he’s guilty as a party, he’s still guilty. And if that’s the case, he would have gotten a life sentence back in 1982. You wouldn’t want to give someone the death penalty for being a party. So ultimately justice was served.”
When I asked Wiley why everyone was so sure East was at Sears’s house when she was killed, he said, “Well, Mrs. Sears called W. B. Rhodes and said Wayne was there.”
I was confused. When Sears made that mysterious early-morning phone call to her yardman, hadn’t she said that it was Bubba who was at her house?
Wiley shook his head. “It was Wayne.”
So I went to the DA’s office to read the original affidavit. Sure enough, Wiley was wrong—kind of. Yes, according to the Rhodes affidavit, Sears had said Bubba was there, but she also mentioned that “the man at her house did not favor Bubba at all and that he was acting funny.” The police must have supposed, understandably, that she had mistaken East for his stepbrother Bubba, who, like East, had done yard work for her.
The further I got into the files, the shakier East’s story seemed. For instance, his alibi was completely bogus. He claimed back in 1981 that on the morning of the murders he had gone to his mother and stepfather’s house. But that story doesn’t hold up. In the DA’s files, next to Rhodes’s affidavit, was one from East’s mother, Isabella, who swore, “Wayne did not come by my house that same morning.” Clearly, either East’s mother had lied—though she wouldn’t seem to have had a reason to—or East had lied.
And East, it turns out, may have lied about at least one other important thing. While reading his files, I came upon a 1971 TYC psychological report that contained several mentions of the sodomy of the five-year-old boy that East once confessed to but now denies ever happened. One doctor who examined East wrote, “We discussed his committing offense. Wayne asserted he does not feel that he has been unjustly treated by being sent to our school, he admitted that he had forced a boy to let him perform rectal sodomy in him but he demonstrated no remorse for this act.” Of course, it’s possible that East failed to show remorse because he didn’t commit the crime. In his therapy sessions he may have admitted to the sodomy for the same reason he says he had confessed to it earlier: doing so seemed like the easiest way to speed up his trip through the criminal justice system. Asked about these admissions today, though, East simply claims that the caseworker wrote up a false report.
After several trips to Abilene, I finally understood why the police had gone so hard after East. He had, by his own admission, borrowed Robinson’s car not long before Sears was murdered. Sears had seen someone she could have easily confused with East at her house right before she was murdered. East had lied about his whereabouts after she was murdered. And, years earlier, he had confessed to committing another unspeakable act.
I took all this information to Denny, who wavered a little. She was hurt and confused and wrote a letter to East, chastising him for his refusal to come clean. “When you are willing to be completely open,” she told him, “good things will finally come your way.” But she did not change her mind about the injustice done to East. Where was the proof that he had killed Mary Eula? Or that he was even at the house? He could have been, but many others could have been there as well. Bubba, who still lives in Abilene, thinks that when Sears called his father that morning, she likely mistook East for him. But he acknowledged that Sears, an elderly white lady, could easily have confused any of the young black men connected to the story—Robinson, Rogers, East—for one another. “She might have called all of us brothers,” he says. It’s possible that any one of a number of people wielded the knife as a botched burglary turned into a cold-blooded murder. Ultimately, there was no proof East had killed Sears.
No proof, that is, other than Dee Dee Martin’s testimony.
She came from a good family. Her father, who did various jobs, died when she was eight, but her mother, a hardworking cleaning lady, was strict on her brood of five, getting them to school every morning and keeping them out of trouble. Dee Dee—the baby of the bunch—was an A student and a good athlete, but when she was fourteen her mother died, and Dee Dee began to lose her bearings. She started running with a bad crowd and doing drugs. Soon she was shooting speed, hanging out with anyone who would score for her. After serving six years for burglary in the Sears case, Martin got out in 1988. She promptly fell into the world of crack cocaine and started stealing to pay for the drugs. After her eighth bust, she fled the state, then returned in 1996. Prosecutors threw the book at her; she went to prison and finally got out in 2008.
Today she lives in a supervised boarding house in rural Del Valle, southeast of Austin. At 47, she says she’s been drug-free for sixteen years. She’s going to beautician’s school and hopes to stay in the Austin area when she graduates this month. When I went to visit her on a broiling June afternoon, she walked out of the plain yellow trailer she shares with three other women; she was wearing sweatpants, a gray T-shirt, and a monitor bracelet on her ankle. She’s a large person—six feet tall and at least two hundred pounds. She seemed nervous as she sat down on top of a picnic table in the group area of the home. “I’m gonna be honest with you,” she said in a soft, almost apologetic voice, “and this is the honest-to-God truth. In Mary Eula Sears’s home, I don’t know what happened.
“As God is my witness, I was not in that home.”
I stared at her, my mind racing past all the grim and elaborate things I had expected to hear—a story about Robinson, Rogers, or even East wielding a knife in a moment of rage or panic. Instead, Dee Dee Martin, the woman whose eyewitness testimony sent Wayne East to death row, told me a story that was almost anticlimactic—yet staggering in its implications. The night leading up to Sears’s murder, she said, she was at her friend Ann Dorsey’s, when a good-looking man walked in wearing cowboy boots. He took one off and showed her what was inside. “He had a boot full of money,” she said. The man was Wayne East.
She said the two of them left for Robinson’s girlfriend Bonnie’s apartment, where they played dominoes and shot speed. Then, Martin says, East and Robinson took her home. But Robinson drove. “He didn’t let nobody borrow his car. They took me home. My house was close to Mrs. Sears’s house. They dropped me off, and I went in, and my brother Woody was in there. He looked up and says, ‘Hey, what you doing?’ and I says, ‘Oh, nothing.’ ”
Martin shifted uneasily on the picnic table—the late afternoon summer heat was intense—and explained why she told the jury a very different story thirty years ago.
“I ain’t going to say I was a naive kid back then, but I was scared to death. I was seventeen years old, and when they took me in for questioning, I didn’t have a clue. I was like, ‘Yeah, I was getting high, but I ain’t done nothing.’ They started telling me I’m going to get on death row, they’re going to shoot something in my arm and kill me. So I said what they told me to say. If you looked and seen statement after statement, each one of them is different. From the beginning. And that’s because from Pat Elliott to Otis Wiley, all of them, anything they telling me, that’s what I said.
“Otis Wiley, because he was black, was the main one who always came to my house. He would say, ‘You know you was over there, you and Wayne was at Bonnie’s, then y’all got in the car and then y’all went to Mrs. Sears’s house.’ He would say, ‘See, it went like this. Listen to me now, listen to me now. I’m sure it went like this: they told you that they was going to go knock off something. Y’all just wanted to get high some more.’ I vividly remember: ‘Listen to me now. I’m sure this is how this went.’ ”
Martin says they were relentless, coming to her home, taking her downtown. “I had a bad cut on my leg, and Patricia Elliott said, ‘He cut you on your leg, didn’t he?’ She started putting it into my mind and just, like, weaving a web of lies for me. Then some guy would come in and say, ‘You know if you don’t talk to her, they gonna put you to death.’ I was scared to death.” Finally Martin agreed to testify in exchange for twenty years. “I said exactly what they wanted me to say. Everything I testified to, they put it in my mind.” (Elliott declined two requests to be interviewed for this story.)
But why talk now? “I’ve been carrying this around with me for thirty years. I am a changed person, a churchgoing woman, a Christian woman today. . . . God said the truth will set you free, and I’m going to tell the truth today. Sometimes I think maybe that’s why God is keeping me living, to tell this story because they need to know about Abilene.”
She swears she doesn’t hate anyone in her hometown, even though she feels many people there destroyed her life. “I blame the district attorney’s office, I blame the police department, all of them for the situation I’m in today,” she says. “Okay, I’ve made some bad choices. But I was at the start of my adult life. As God is my witness, when I tried to tell them the truth—this man took me home—I was pressured, coerced, to say what they wanted me to say. I guess they needed a living person, an eyewitness. This is what the law is made of?”
As I drove away, I looked in my rearview mirror and saw Martin standing by herself, watching me leave. She seemed completely alone in the world. I played back her recantation in my head. Was it for real? As with so much else in this case, it’s impossible to know the truth. On the one hand, her statement really isn’t that surprising. Back in early 1982, before she’d confessed, she wrote a letter to East while he was in jail in which she said the same things she’s saying now: “I don’t know what happened that night” and “I was at home.” Even at trial, East’s lawyer had said, “Our contention is that she was not there.”
And we know that law enforcement officers are prone to apply pressure to solve brutal, high-profile cases. They have even been known to put words into the minds and mouths of innocent suspects, especially young, scared ones. Robinson, currently serving forty years for selling cocaine, said that’s exactly what they did in Abilene. In a 1993 affidavit, he spoke of the incessant interrogations he underwent—and the intense suggestions the police made. “One thing the police told me was that all I had to do was admit I had been at Mrs. Sears’s house but that Wayne had killed her. I told them they were crazy if they thought I was going to admit to that, but they kept at me. I would not be at all surprised if that is why Dee Dee finally broke down and testified that way, if they threatened and treated her the way they did me.”
The biggest reason to believe her: she seems to have little to gain from telling this story—besides the utter enmity of Abilene law enforcement.
On the other hand, this is story number seven, told by a former drug addict, thief, and—say Berry, Ormesher, and Wiley—liar. Ormesher thinks Martin may be acting out of fear of East, who was up for parole when I spoke to her. “She ain’t doing nothing but lying,” says Wiley, who insists he never put words in her mouth.
Penns doesn’t know whom to believe. “I’m not saying East’s totally innocent,” he says, “and I’m also not saying he was guilty. But thirty years is a long time—if he didn’t actually commit the murder.”
For almost twenty years now, Mary Eula Sears’s death has been a guiding force in Julie Denny’s life. Every person she has met, every line of Scripture she has read, has pushed her further along a path she feels God—and Mary Eula—prepared for her. In some ways she has become more like her late cousin, and her transformation into an artist was completed over the past two years, when she had two big art shows at Abilene galleries. She has become almost as well-known as Mary Eula. At her most recent exhibit, in May, she showed thirty rural scenes, floral still lifes, and portraits. Her landscapes are serene and her flowers are wild with color.
And her goal of helping Wayne East received a boost in May when Thomas Leeper, a member of the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, contacted her. Denny spoke to him for thirty minutes, pleading for clemency. Leeper told her he had received many letters from others inspired by her editorial, which she’d posted on Facebook. Denny was excited—maybe something concrete was finally going to happen.
Then, on July 31, she was struck by another in a long line of family tragedies when her 29-year-old son, Austin, died of a drug overdose. Austin had been struggling with addiction, but he had recently finished a month-long treatment in a rehab clinic. He was happy and hopeful, and so was she. Indeed, she thought she was about to witness two miracles: her son’s healing and her friend’s parole. Both had been at the top of her prayer list; every day and every night she had knelt and prayed for Austin and Wayne, two men whose lives had been ruined by drugs.
God answered her prayers about her son, though not in the way she wanted. “Austin’s in heaven,” she says. “God healed him. It’s not how I would have preferred it, but that may have been God’s choice.”
Then in early September she opened a letter from the Department of Criminal Justice—and had to sit down. Wayne East had been tentatively approved for parole, a rare occasion in Texas for a man convicted of capital murder. Denny was ecstatic. “It’s a miracle,” she says. “I had to read the letter three times.” She had heeded the call, she had lived by faith. After almost thirty years, the truth was about to set East free.
Or maybe it was the absence of truth. “The bottom line,” she says, “is just what the DA said: we don’t know the truth about what happened that night. Unless a person is proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, he’s supposed to go free. That’s the law. You shouldn’t be able to put someone on death row on a hunch.”
If East returns to Abilene, he’ll find a city very different from the one he left. Most of his family is long gone, as are many of the people he once knew—Rogers died in 2006, Robinson remains in prison, and others have scattered across the state. One ghost that still haunts the city is that of Mary Eula, whose paintings are all over town, in the permanent collection of the Grace Museum and in many private homes. One of her early works hangs on the wall in the basement of the Episcopal Church of the Heavenly Rest. It’s an oil rendering of the original church’s 1884 one-room stone structure. The Dennys are members of the congregation, and in May, Alex Eyssen, who, as a boy, discovered Mary Eula’s body three decades ago, became a member too. On the day of his baptism, Eyssen, now a defense attorney, was taking a tour of the church with the preacher when they walked through the basement. There, on the wall, Eyssen saw something familiar and was overcome with emotion. Though he’d never seen the painting before, he immediately recognized the style—the lines, the colors, the feel. It was as if Aunt Ta were there in the room with him. He smiled.
“Not a day goes by that something doesn’t bring her back,” he says. “She was an amazing person. She’s everywhere, all around me.”