A Kiss Before Dying

Betty Williams was a fast girl from the wrong side of the tracks. Mack Herring was a handsome football player with all the right friends. When he broke up with her during her senior year at Odessa High School, her world fell apart. But she asked him for one last favor: to kill her.

WHEN FOOTBALL SEASON ENDED and there was nothing much to do on Friday nights except drink beer and stare up at the wide-open sky, teenagers used to park their pickups across the street from Odessa High School and wait to see the ghost they called Betty. According to legend, she would appear at the windows of the school auditorium at midnight—provided that students flashed their headlights three times or honked their horn and called out her name. The real Betty, it was said, had attended Odessa High decades before and had acted in a number of plays on the auditorium’s stage. But the facts of her death had been muddled with time, and each story was as apocryphal as the last: She had fallen off a ladder in the auditorium and broken her neck, students said. She had hanged herself in the theater. Her boyfriend, who was a varsity football player, had shot her onstage during a play.

So many teenagers made the late-night pilgrimage to see Betty that the high school deemed it prudent to paint over the windows of the school auditorium. During a later renovation, its facade was covered with bricks. But the stories about Betty never went away. Students still talk of “a presence” in the auditorium, one that is to blame for a long list of strange occurrences, from flickering lights and noises that cannot be explained to objects that appear to move on their own. Some claim to have seen her pacing the balcony or heard her footsteps behind them, only to find no one there. Rumors have flourished that a coach who knew the real Betty is visited by her, on occasion, in the field house and that a former vice principal who once caught a glimpse of her after hours was so spooked by the encounter that he refused to be in the school again by himself. “I hear her name on a daily basis,” says theater arts teacher Carl Moore, who has taught at Odessa High for four years. “Whenever something unexplained happens—a book falls on the floor in my classroom or the light board goes out during a technical rehearsal—someone always jokes, ‘It’s Betty.’”

What may be nothing more than just a ghost story can also be seen as something more complicated—as a metaphor, perhaps, for the way that one crime has lodged, uneasily, in Odessa’s collective memory. The teenagers who pass down stories about Betty are too young to remember the Kiss and Kill Murder, as it was christened by the press in 1961, but it was the most sensational crime in West Texas in its day. The notoriety of the case has long since faded, yet 45 years later, something lingers. When Ronnie White, who graduated from Odessa High the year that the murder took place, returned to his alma mater to teach history, in 1978, he was astonished to hear students talking about the former drama student named Betty whose spirit supposedly haunted the auditorium and the popular football player who had had a hand in her killing. “I couldn’t believe what I was hearing,” he says. “I thought, ‘Good Lord, they must be talking about Betty Williams.’”

September 23 [1960]
 Study Hall

 …Well, I’ve finally made the rank of Senior and I can hardly believe it! I really don’t feel much different. We get our Senior rings Wednesday. I’ll be glad.
 It sure does feel funny to be on the top of every thing looking down. Seems strange to think that this is really all of high school. Next year???
 We had our pictures made last week. If they turn out half-way decent, I’ll send you one. Send me another picture if you have it.
 Well, the bell is about to ring so I’ll write more later.
 Love,
 Betty

WHAT MOST PEOPLE REMEMBER ABOUT BETTY WILLIAMS is that they hardly noticed her at all. She lived in a small, well-worn frame house on an unpaved street not far from the oil fields west of town, where gas flares burned and drilling-rig lights illuminated the desert at night. Her father, John, was a carpenter who had difficulty finding steady work, and her mother, Mary, had taken a job at J.C. Penney to help make ends meet. A strict Baptist, her father often preached to Betty about sin and eternal damnation, and on more than one Sunday morning, he prayed that she might learn to be a more obedient daughter. At seventeen, Betty was pretty in an unremarkable way, with sandy-blond hair that brushed her shoulders and big, expressive blue eyes that could feign sincerity when talking to authority figures but were alive with irreverence.

Betty disdained conformity and reserved particular contempt for the girls with matching sweater sets and saddle shoes who seemed to look right through her. She fancied herself an intellectual and put down her opinions on everything from boys to religion in dozens of letters and notes that she passed in study hall. She read Jack Kerouac’s On the Road and the poetry of Allen Ginsberg, and she listened to records of Lenny Bruce’s stand-up routines, in which he railed against racism and skewered middle-class hypocrisy. She too liked to get a rise out of people, and she thrived on attention, whether she got it by arriving at Tommy’s Drive-In dressed entirely in black but wearing white lipstick or in jeans and a T-shirt, under which she didn’t bother to put on a bra. She freely expressed opinions that went against the grain, like her belief that segregation was unjust and that blacks should not have to attend a separate high school across the railroad tracks. In bedrock-conservative, blue-collar Odessa—where the John Birch Society’s crusade against communism and other “un-American influences” had struck a chord—she was seen as an oddball. “Most people do not understand me,” Betty wrote to a friend her senior year. “There are people willing to be my friends, but mostly they [are] either too ignorant to understand why I’m like

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