Hannah Overton’s Day in Court

Hannah Overton, a Corpus Christi homemaker and mother of five, was arrested in 2006 after Andrew Burd—a four-year-old foster child whom she and her husband were in the process of adopting—mysteriously died of a rare case of “salt poisoning.” Hannah, who had no previous run-ins with CPS, no prior arrests, and no history of violence, was charged with capital murder. Prosecutors painted a macabre portrait, arguing that she snapped under the demands of parenting and force-fed Andrew a lethal amount of salt.

Case Study

All murders begin as mysteries. In the aftermath of a killing, especially one to which there are no surviving witnesses, there’s often very little to go on: the brutal fact of a dead body, a dark sense of violence and terror hanging in the air, and the scattered details of a crime scene that will hopefully add up to a lead. Gradually, investigators make their way, figuring out who did it, and where, and when, and how. They may even have a theory about why.

A Question of Mercy

Every so often during the five years that Tim Cole worked on the Heather Rich case, he would leave the courthouse in the evening after the North Texas sky had grown dark and drive to the Belknap Creek bridge, just south of the Oklahoma border. The winding stretch of blacktop that led there eventually came to an end, giving way to a dirt road. Cole, the district attorney of Montague County, would follow the road north as it meandered toward the Red River, until he reached a backwater creek. He might spend an hour out there, standing on the old cement bridge, without seeing a single pair of headlights cut through the darkness. Cole prepared for the trials of Heather’s killers this way, turning over the details of the case as he stared down at the murky, slow-moving water where her body had been found. 

Heather was from Waurika, Oklahoma, a town of 2,064 people that sits twelve miles north of the Red River, along what was once the Chisholm Trail. A pretty high school cheerleader, she was just sixteen—a year younger than Cole’s own daughter—when she was killed, on October 3, 1996. The killers were three teenage boys, including the captain of Waurika High School’s football team, who had engaged in a night of heavy drinking and sex before Heather was shot in the head. Long before “Steubenville” and “rape culture” became buzzwords on social media and 24-hour cable news shows, Waurika found itself at the center of a now-familiar conversation about lost values and teenage dissolution. Where were the parents? How had something this horrendous happened in such a small, tight-knit community?

Two of the teenagers who were charged with Heather’s murder, Curtis Gambill and Josh Bagwell, were bad kids as far as Cole was concerned. Curtis had a criminal record and a violent history and had been briefly committed to a mental hospital. Josh too had had brushes with the law. Except for an initial, misleading account of the crime that Curtis gave to the Texas Rangers, neither one had cooperated with the investigation or expressed any remorse. But the DA puzzled over how Randy Wood—the soft-spoken, well-regarded captain of the Waurika Eagles—had gotten mixed up in such an appalling crime. Cole had made a name for himself securing the harshest penalties a jury would hand out, but he was flummoxed by what to do with Randy. Cole knew that the seventeen-year-old had never been in trouble before, and he believed Randy was being truthful when he told investigators that he had never intended for Heather, who was a friend, to be killed that night.

To win convictions against the other two teenagers, Cole needed Randy to testify for the state and describe what he had seen take place on the Belknap Creek bridge. Before entering into any kind of agreement with him, though, Cole wanted to verify that the boy had been candid with investigators. One afternoon following his arrest, Randy was transported from his jail cell to the office of a respected polygraph examiner in Dallas, where he underwent a lie detector test. Randy told the examiner that it was Curtis who had shot Heather on the bridge, and that afterward, Josh and Randy had thrown her body into Belknap Creek. The results showed no deception. 

The fact that Randy had not actually fired the gun, Cole knew, did not help the boy’s case. Under Texas law, all three teenagers—not just the gunman—were considered equally responsible for Heather’s murder. So Cole offered Randy a deal: in exchange for his testimony, he could plead guilty to murder, making himself eligible for parole in thirty years. (If he went to trial and was convicted of capital murder, he would receive an automatic life sentence and not be considered for parole for at least forty years.) Randy took the deal, and as Cole prepared to bring the two other teenagers to trial, he and his investigator began to visit Randy in jail, to glean more information before he testified for the prosecution.

Cole tried to establish a rapport with the teenager who sat across from him in the sheriff’s private office, studying the floor. Upon learning that Randy liked cheeseburgers, Cole began bringing lunch from a nearby burger stand. Once, with his investigator at the wheel, Cole took Randy, who remained in shackles, for a drive around the county so that he could glimpse the outdoors. They discussed Randy’s hard-luck upbringing and the things they shared in common, having grown up playing football in small towns on opposite sides of the river. Mostly, they talked about the case. Randy did not deny his role in the crime or make excuses for what he had done; he said only that he had not known how to stop what was happening when they reached the bridge. He had been afraid of Curtis, who wielded the shotgun. Each time Cole visited, Randy told the DA that he was haunted by his failure to stop Heather’s murder. 

Then, two days before he was set to testify in Josh’s trial, Randy backed out of the deal, saying he could not plead guilty to something he did not do. Cole was devastated, certain that Josh would avoid punishment. The next day, however, Randy explained that he still wanted to testify, without the protection of a deal. By taking the stand with no agreement in place, Randy would be incriminating himself under oath while awaiting his own capital murder trial. Over the frantic protests of his attorney, the boy did just that, recounting to jurors what he had seen that night. Cole was dumbfounded. If Randy understood that he had doomed himself to a future trial at which there would be no presumption of innocence, he didn’t seem to care; he said he wanted everyone to know that he was speaking the truth—something he felt he owed Heather and her family. It was the legal equivalent, Cole remarked, of committing suicide in the courtroom. 

Randy Wood, who is 34, at the James V. Allred Unit in January 2014. 

With Randy’s testimony, Cole was able to secure a capital murder conviction and a life sentence for Josh. By then, Curtis had pleaded out, earning himself a life sentence as well. When Randy turned down another plea bargain before his own trial, again refusing to say that he had killed Heather, the outcome was a foregone conclusion. He had forced Cole’s hand. The DA prosecuted Randy for capital murder and asked a jury to find him guilty. He was convicted and handed an automatic life sentence. 

Randy at the same facility in 2002.

Years later, long after Cole had boxed up his case files and stowed them in the attic of the Montague County courthouse, he would find himself thinking about Randy. Cole had not lost sight of the horror of Heather’s murder or of Randy’s own culpability; he would never forget the awful details he had recounted to jurors during Randy’s trial. But the prosecutor was moved by the knowledge that the teenager had tried—too late—to make things right. Seventeen was an awfully young age to be given up on, Cole thought, and he wondered sometimes if Randy was not deserving of mercy.

Last summer, Cole was sitting at his desk, surrounded by the files of other felony cases he needed to attend to, when he began to do some quick calculations. He was startled to realize that Randy was 34 years old. The teenager he remembered had spent half his life in prison. Cole began to wonder: What would the right punishment have been for Randy? What number of years would have accounted for the dreadfulness of what he did, while also considering the good? And then another thought hit him: What would it be like to sit and talk with Randy again?

Heather had slipped out her bedroom window shortly before midnight on October 2, 1996, having made plans to meet up with Josh. It was their first date. Josh was a senior at Waurika High School and came from a wealthy family who owned land along the river. His mother, who was divorced, was an attorney in Lawton, an hour’s drive away, and his grandparents, whom he lived with, exerted little control over him. He had a predilection for sports cars and assault rifles, both of which he owned, and he bristled at authority. (Once, after he was arrested for drunk driving, he scuffled with police officers, yelling, “I want my f—ing attorney!”) Heather, a sophomore, was elated that he had said she could ride on the back of his Dodge Stealth in the homecoming parade later that month.

Heather in a 1996 school photo.

In a time when teenagers were not ceaselessly interconnected by texting and Twitter and Instagram, Heather was rarely content to stay at home. Sometimes she would climb out her window to smoke a cigarette or catch a ride and cruise all three blocks of Waurika’s mostly shuttered main drag. Three years earlier, her home life had been plunged into chaos when her father, Duane, an electrician for a utility company, was horribly burned on the job after a transformer blew up. To support the family, her mother, Gail, had purchased the local Subway franchise and worked constantly to make ends meet. Heather put in long hours at the family business and helped care for her father during her mother’s absences. She began acting out in self-destructive ways that fall, discreetly cutting herself with a razor blade. Less than a week before she sneaked out to meet Josh, she was suspended from school for three days after she was caught drinking while leading cheers at a Waurika Eagles football game. 

When Josh was late to pick her up that night—the plan had been for him to wait by the church near her house at midnight—she decided to strike out on her own, walking nearly a mile down Waurika’s darkened streets to the travel trailer behind his house, where he had mentioned that he and some friends would be hanging out. No one was there, but she decided to wait. 

When Josh arrived at the trailer, he was accompanied by two friends of his, Curtis and Randy. The boys had spent the evening draining a bottle of whiskey. Besides football, there was little else to do in Waurika. There was no movie theater or coffee shop or public park, only a Sonic in Comanche, seventeen miles away. On weekends, teenagers drove the back roads out to Lake Waurika or headed into the country to pasture parties, where methamphetamine—the cheap, homemade speed that was becoming popular in North Texas and southern Oklahoma—was passed around as often as marijuana. Heather had smoked pot before, and she had tried meth that fall, but despite her best efforts, she was not much of a partier; a few beers left her unsteady on her feet. 

At the trailer, Curtis, Josh, and Randy began working their way through a case of beer. It was a Wednesday night, and there was school in the morning, but none of them much seemed to care. Their plan, if they even had one, was to drink themselves into oblivion. 

Randy was already halfway there. For him, the evening was not unlike many others. He often had the dazed look of a kid in his own world. Randy had first smoked pot in the third grade, after stealing it from his mother, Kathy, who was an avid partier. He was fourteen, he remembered, when he got high with her for the first time. One night during his junior year of high school, he had come home to find Kathy and her dealer sitting beside a mound of meth on the kitchen table; he recalled his mother instructing him to take some and leave. Kathy did not know who his father was, and she had moved him all over Oklahoma when he was a kid, so much so that he had attended three different schools during the fifth grade alone. Funny and easygoing, Randy was universally liked wherever he went, but no matter how many times he started over, he had never been able to leave his drinking and drug use behind. Only one adult—a high school history teacher who took him aside his freshman year—had ever warned him to slow down.

Of the three boys who were at the trailer that night, Heather knew Randy best. They had dated before, although things had never gotten serious. She had brought him with her to First Assembly of God Church and helped him with his homework, which he struggled with. He had ferried her around Waurika in his grandmother’s old brown Cadillac Fleetwood, the only car his family owned. Once, after driving Heather to an orthodontist appointment in Duncan, half an hour away, he had let her take the wheel of the Cadillac for a heart-stopping ride along the shoulder of U.S. 81. That was as exciting as things ever got. There had never been much of a spark between them, just a comfortable friendship. Not long after the start of school that fall, he had broken things off after hearing that she had gone skinny-dipping at a coed pool party without him.

The outlier that night was Curtis. The wiry nineteen-year-old did not attend Waurika High, and Heather had never met him before. He was from Terral, a tiny town south of Waurika on the cusp of the river, and he was a drinking and hunting buddy of Josh’s. Randy had met him one summer when they both worked in the watermelon fields, loading ripe fruit into the backs of semi-trailers. On their lunch breaks, they had gotten high together, but Randy had seen little of him since. Randy knew nothing about Curtis’s past—how he had spent years in juvenile detention centers and had broken out of each one. How he had brought an unloaded gun to school and threatened to kill his teachers. How he was eventually kicked out for terrorizing other students. How he was rumored to have slaughtered neighbors’ livestock. How he had once boasted that his fantasy was to kidnap and rape a girl, then “blow her head off.” All those details would emerge later, during the investigation. That night, Randy just thought he was someone to get wasted with. 

Pages

Subscribe to RSS - Criminal Justice