The Talented Mr. Khater

The first time Callie Quinn met Youssef Khater, she hated him. He was standing in the kitchen of their shared house in Santiago, Chile, carrying on about some extreme marathon in front of her other new roommates. While he smiled easily and was objectively handsome—a tightly coiled five feet six inches or so, with luminous brown eyes and boyish features—he also had tasteless tribal cuff tattoos on both biceps, seemed obsessed with expensive athletic gear, and was talking nonstop about the sponsors who were clamoring to support him as one of the best Palestinian runners in the world. She had just moved in, and already she found him insufferably arrogant. 

A 23-year-old with blue-green eyes and alabaster skin, Callie had arrived in Chile just five weeks earlier. As a native of Canyon Lake, an hour outside Austin, she had longed to live abroad ever since taking a high school trip to the Galapagos Islands. Travel—specifically immersing herself in other cultures—electrified her, and when she enrolled at the University of Texas at Austin, she declared herself a geography major. In class, her professors repeatedly projected pictures of Chile and lectured on its sublime terrain. Callie vowed to live there after graduation. It didn’t matter that she didn’t know a soul in South America. (“I admired her courage and independence,” her father would later say. “At the same time, I wanted to wring her neck.”) 

On March 4, 2011, she bid her parents and older brother farewell and boarded a flight for Santiago. Chile is the longest country on earth, with the driest desert, the Atacama, to the north and the volcanic daggers of Patagonia to the south, and Callie marveled at the landscape even from her airplane window. Santiago, the capital, sits nestled in a smoggy bowl between two mountain ranges; on the bus from the airport, Callie eyed concrete buildings and the chocolate-milk-colored Mapocho River. The city had a postapocalyptic patina, but it also had a strong economy, well-regarded English schools, and the second-lowest homicide rate of any major metropolis in the Americas. 

Callie, photographed in Austin in April 2015. (Photograph by Joel Salcido, grooming by Lynda Coleman)

Not that Callie was concerned about crime; first on her mind was a work visa. Chile, she’d heard, handed them out like candy, and she hoped to stay a year or two. Sure enough, it took only a month for her to earn an English-language teaching certificate and snag a job at Bridge Linguatec Institute. There she learned of an opening in a twelve-bedroom, hostel-like house on Avenida Condell, a tightly partitioned two-story in the leafy neighborhood of Providencia that was painted in almost as many colors as it slept nationalities. Loud and mouthy, Callie easily befriended several of her roommates. She accompanied Edmund Attrill, a leonine Brit who had studied theater, to protest the impending construction of a hydroelectric plant in Patagonia; she went out dancing with Sabine Schmidt, a stern German with a gap between her teeth who once got upset at a study showing Germany to be the least funny nation; and she told goofy jokes over pisco sours with Molly Parsons, an English teacher from San Antonio whose eyes fluttered upward when she spoke. Bonding over their Texas roots, the two soon became best friends. 

The house on Avenida Condell that Youssef and Callie shared in 2011.

And then there was Youssef, who complained that she talked too much. At 33, he was older than the others. He had been born to Palestinian parents in Haifa but grew up in Denmark, and now the Federación Palestina de Chile—an organization representing the country’s sizable Palestinian population, the largest outside the Middle East—was sponsoring him in his quest to set a record by running the 2,653-mile length of Chile. Over dinner after his long hours of training, Youssef would regale the roommates with accounts of his time in the Danish special forces—how he’d had to stand for minutes in a room full of mace or swim to the bottom of forty-foot-deep pools. Ed and Sabi, who were especially close to him, hung on his every word. Callie just rolled her eyes. 

But after several weeks in the house, she had to admit that he did have a certain magnetism, and that his heart was nearly as big as his tales. If a roommate caught a cold, he’d run out to the grocery store for kiwis and limes, to make what he called a “vitamin C smoothie.” He gave away the extra Under Armour sports clothing he received from his sponsors and administered acupuncture, which he’d learned in Denmark, in the living room for free. One rainy afternoon, he decreed it “chocolate day” and, after ransacking the grocery store for sweets to share, gathered the roommates for a showing of Cool Runnings, his favorite movie. When he began dating a fellow Palestinian, a stunning dance teacher and single mother of two named Sohad Alamo, he hosted a barbecue birthday party for her nine-year-old daughter. Callie began to take his stories in stride. Once, when she was Skyping with her mom, he poked his beanied head into the frame. “Now I see where Callie gets her good looks,” he said, smiling. 

Youssef in Brazil in 2010.

So in July, when Youssef mentioned that he’d just purchased two new condos downtown and offered to rent one to her and Molly, Callie didn’t think twice. It was winter in the Southern Hemisphere, and their house had no heat—it was 36 degrees outside and in. The condos were not only heated but at the center of the city’s nightlife. She and Molly gave Youssef a security deposit and their first month’s rent, about $1,000 between them. On Wednesday, July 20, the day before move-in, Callie arranged to meet Youssef at eight in the evening on a street corner downtown so he could show her where to pick up the keys the following morning. 

Youssef arrived thirty minutes late. He was in high spirits; three Danish women had been kidnapped in the Atacama, he said, and he was meeting up with some of his old buddies from the Danish special forces later that evening to make plans to rescue them. But first, he announced, he would take Callie out to celebrate her new digs. After an almost hour-long, meandering journey to the real estate office—Youssef didn’t seem to know where he was going, and when they finally reached the office, Callie noted that it was surprisingly dingy—they agreed to walk the mile or so back to Providencia, where they would eat. It was the first time Callie had hung out with Youssef one-on-one. As they ribbed each other, she found that she was actually enjoying his company. 

A little past the river, Youssef’s cell rang. It was Sabi, and Callie could discern from the sharp tones that she was upset. Youssef, it turned out, owed Sabi money; over the past few months, he had borrowed from her and two Mexican students who had recently moved out of the house. He had not yet repaid them, and the three now needed the money back: the Mexicans were leaving for Buenos Aires the next morning, and Sabi was leaving for Ecuador shortly thereafter. Youssef assured her that he had the cash—in fact, he was carrying it in his backpack. He would not be home until late, but he would send the backpack home with Callie. 

It was nearly eleven o’clock when Callie and Youssef finally sat down for dinner at Entre-Choke, a bar a few blocks from their house. Youssef ordered lomo a lo pobre and vodka drinks for the two of them. She had never seen Youssef touch alcohol; in fact, he always declined the Carménère shared around the house. Yet here he was, downing three consecutive screwdrivers. The Chilean national soccer team was playing on a TV in the corner, and Callie was amused watching Youssef grow animated, talking faster and faster, saying how happy he was to help her and Molly. Did she remember, Youssef asked at one point, that house he’d pointed out on their walk, the one that had burned down a week ago? Callie nodded, noticing his long, upturned eyelashes. He’d heard there was a golden toilet seat inside. He grinned.

Callie’s phone rang. It was Sabi, calling to ask why she wasn’t home yet. Callie explained that she was at dinner but, per Youssef’s request, didn’t say with whom. Fifteen minutes later, Sabi called again. Callie promised to be home soon. When Sabi called a third time, Youssef told Callie to ignore the phone. “She’s obsessed with me,” he said. He changed the subject back to the golden toilet seat. They should go find it, he said, looking into her eyes and smiling again, a little flush. Callie laughed. It was ridiculous, but she was game. 

The house was actually one of Santiago’s oldest tire shops, Vulcanización Escoda, and after the fire, the facade had been covered up with corrugated metal. When they reached it, Youssef parted the rusted sheets, and he and Callie slipped in. The ceiling had burned away completely, leaving a portal onto the fuzzy midnight sky. Ashes fluttered from every surface like millions of moth wings. Youssef, after looking around for a tool with which to pry the toilet seat off, rustled up a crowbar. He led the way to find the bathroom.

“That’s not gold,” groaned Callie as soon as they edged into the lavatory. The toilet seat was generic beige plastic. Institutional eggshell. 

Youssef decided to pry it off anyway, working the crowbar around the back edge.

“I’ve got to go,” said Callie. “I have work at seven-thirty.” 

Youssef told her to wait; he didn’t want the soccer fans who were now spilling out onto the streets to give her trouble. Callie, unconcerned, made her way back toward the entrance. She didn’t hear the footsteps in the ash behind her.

“Hey, Callie—” called Youssef, and as she began to turn, she felt the crack of metal across the back of her skull. She fell backward. A knee shunted into her ribs and pinned her to the cold concrete. When she opened her eyes, Callie saw Youssef’s face, contorted with rage, inches away from her own. He was straddling her now, his hands grabbing her neck. 

“Why did you tell Sabi that I owed you money?!” he spat, his fingers wringing her windpipe tighter and tighter, his brown eyes fixed on her with an unflinching intensity. “Why!” 

Callie couldn’t comprehend. “You’re going to kill—” she choked, before the hot ringing pain, the anger, and the ash overtook her. Then she saw nothing at all.

The tire shop where Youssef lured Callie.

A Closer Look at the Texas High School Student-Teacher Sex Epidemic

According to an admittedly unscientific survey by Houston PR firm Drive West Communications, Texas has the most incidents of illegal teacher-student sex of any state in the nation. (Alabama is head of the class for this dishonor on a per capita basis.) Drive West, helmed by Terry Abbott, a former Houston Independent School District press secretary and later U.S. Department of Education chief of staff, found that were 179 such Texas incidents last year, up 27 percent from three years before.

Abbott admitted that his survey is based on published media reports rather than official crime data, hence the unscientific nature of the survey. He also admitted that his survey makes no distinction between two different Texas crimes: various degrees of statutory rape and improper relationship between an educator and a student.

My Brother’s Secret

I’d not seen my stepbrother Dale in more than two years when a bitter norther slammed into Texas in December 1989. Schools closed, pipes burst, and sleet-covered highways took on the look of salvage yards. I was sitting alone one blue-gray afternoon, listening to the frozen rain tick on the windows of my house in Belton, when the phone rang. 

It was Dale’s mother, and she was in a panic. She was at Arlington Memorial Hospital, where her son was in intensive care. “He might not live through the night,” she said. “You’ll have to tell your mother and stepfather. They’ll never believe me if I call them.” I knew she was right; ever since her divorce from my stepfather, more than thirty years earlier, he had done little to hide his loathing for her, even after he’d retained custody of their two sons, Elden and Dale, and rebuilt a family with my mother and me. I promised to be at the hospital as soon as I could, then phoned my mother in Oklahoma. “What’s wrong with him?” she asked, stunned. I told her I didn’t know. 

But that was not exactly true. Sitting in the car on my way to the hospital, inching across the ice on Interstate 35, I played news headlines from recent years over and over in my head. AIDS, a disease unknown to Americans just a decade earlier, was filling hospitals and clinics and hospices across the country with patients covered in lesions and fighting for each breath as their lungs were steadily destroyed. And in the late eighties, only one outcome awaited its victims: death. 

The disease was not an equal-opportunity killer. True, straight men, children, women, even one nun were among the dead. The disease could take years to develop after initial infection. A blood transfusion during surgery, experimentation with injecting recreational drugs, a one-night heterosexual stand during the wild seventies—even in the early years of the pandemic, people knew that any of these could lead to AIDS. But the overwhelming number of people dying from the disease were gay men who had contracted HIV, the blood-borne virus that causes AIDS, through unprotected anal sex. Some born-again preachers and politicians proclaimed AIDS to be “the gay plague,” God’s punishment for homosexual perverts.

My family came from a small town in Oklahoma that could hardly be described as open-minded. AIDS was not a topic that my parents discussed. (In fact, I can remember no conversations concerning sex.) My education on the disease had come almost entirely from the book And the Band Played On, which I’d read the year before. I’d recognized Dale’s life in its pages. Now, thinking of him, I gripped the steering wheel, dreading what awaited me in Arlington.

I arrived at the hospital to find Dale lying unconscious in the ICU. He was connected to a ventilator, and each time it breathed for him, his body jolted. After going bald in his twenties, he’d taken to wearing a toupee, but the dark-brown, almost black bouffant was gone, and his pale head on the pillow struck me as impossibly small. His hospital gown was open, revealing crusty lesions on his chest. I reached down and took his hand. He squeezed, but it seemed like just a reflex. 

I asked a nurse what was wrong. When she said she could not comment to anyone unfamiliar with Dale’s “underlying physical issue,” I lied, saying I knew all about it. She paused. “He has something that’s like pneumonia,” she said, “but not exactly pneumonia.”


“Yes,” she said.

I nodded. I knew about pneumocystosis from my reading. Caused by a fungus, it was a devastating lung infection similar to one that had been found only in rats—until, that is, gay men in San Francisco began showing up with it at hospitals in the early eighties. Only one thing could so damage an immune system that someone could contract the infection. My stepbrother, lying before me, was dying of AIDS

I found a pay phone in the hallway and called my mother. The diagnosis was complicated, I said, and she and my stepfather needed to come to Arlington quickly. 

Heading back to the ICU, I ran into my stepbrother’s business associate, Tony. We’d met just once before. He and Dale ran a dried-flower store at the massive Grand Prairie marketplace known as Traders Village, where you could seemingly buy everything from used tires to precious stones. It was there, maybe three years earlier, that Dale had given me a promotional vinyl copy of Willie Nelson’s Phases and Stages, and Tony had shaken his head, muttering, “You like Willie?” He and Dale played LPs like Carly Simon’s Torch. But Dale knew I was as much shit-kicker as aging hippie, and he’d picked up the Willie record for me from a Traders Village dealer. 

“I guess you’ve figured out what’s wrong with him,” Tony said. I nodded again. “He’s so afraid his dad will find out. He’s told the doctors and the hospital staff not to discuss anything with anyone unless they know already.” 

Suddenly, he reached out to embrace me. I hugged him awkwardly. His eyes began to water as he shook his head. “He just can’t have his dad find out.” 

Man on Fire

The strip-center parking lot where the Reverend Charles Moore chose to end his life is as large as a football field and as lonely as prairie, the cracked gray asphalt dotted with weeds, shards of glass, and crushed Copenhagen cans. The faded yellow paint on the pavement recalls other days, when the Dollar General here was a Piggly Wiggly and members of the Night Prowlers, a teenage car club, would come park  their hot rods and open the hoods. Residents of Grand Saline (population 3,136) know the lot as the Bear Grounds, and on Friday and Saturday nights, high school kids still gather to hang out and play music on their truck radios. (“Bear,” as any of them can tell you, was the nickname of Wayne Clark, a car buff who used to park his ’55 Chevy here and watch the world go by on U.S. 80.) When the kids get bored, they pile into their trucks and “take the loop”—pull out onto the highway, drive to the west end of town, cruise through the Sonic, then drive back, past the Salt Palace and the Salt City Inn. It doesn’t take long to complete this ritual circle of small-town life. On any given Friday night, as many as two dozen kids may meet at the Bear Grounds. 

But on the morning of Monday, June 23, the parking lot was almost empty. Angi McPherson, a receptionist at Sophistikutz, a hair and tanning salon next to the Dollar General, got to work at eleven and noticed an elderly man standing some 150 feet away from the storefront. Dressed in khakis and a pale-blue shirt, with thinning white hair and tortoise-shell glasses, he didn’t exactly look out of place. He could have been one of the many locals going to pick up a prescription at Economy Drug or a cane at BT Medical Supplies, a few doors down.

Except that he wasn’t going anywhere. Monday is a slow day at Sophistikutz, and as morning turned to afternoon, McPherson found herself watching the man. Other shoppers came and went, but he stood by his car, a Volkswagen hatchback, leaning against it with his ankles crossed, looking toward the road. Occasionally he would walk over to a storage crate that the Dollar General was using as it remodeled its store, and he’d lean against that for a while. It was a hot, windless afternoon that only got hotter; still, the man stayed out there.

Mallie Munn, one of the Sophistikutz stylists, noticed him too. She saw him move the car a few times to other parking spaces, but never too far away. He had stuck a few pieces of paper on the hatchback window; maybe, she thought, he was selling it. He’d open the trunk and root around, as if looking for something, then close it and go back to standing. He watched as cars and eighteen-wheelers rolled by on their way to Dallas, seventy miles west, and east to Mineola. Several times every hour, the earth would shake and the air would fill with the deafening blast of a horn as a train approached on the railroad tracks just across the highway. 

Economy Drug and BT Medical Supplies closed at five-thirty, and not long after that, the man’s movements became more deliberate. He began to pace back and forth between his car and a particular parking space not far from the road. Munn and McPherson, on a work break, went out to sit on the curb in front of Sophistikutz. They were joined by McPherson’s boyfriend, Dewayne Mosley, and their friend Steven Goggans, who had just gotten off work at BT Medical. 

“Guys, what is he doing?” asked Munn as the four watched the man lay a white foam cushion in the parking space, on the pavement next to the concrete bumper. The man got on his knees. Munn, who had moved to Grand Saline from Seattle, had seen Muslim cabbies stop their cars and get out, lay down a mat, and pray, but she’d never seen anyone do that in Texas. “Is he pulling weeds?” she asked. Was that a gardening cushion? 

After standing around all day, the man now seemed full of purpose. He began pouring something on himself—over his left leg, over his shoulder, down his right side, and finally on his head. It was such a hot day that maybe, the friends thought, it was water. But he was using a red can. “Is that gas?” McPherson asked. She and Munn stood up. The four stared as the man set the can aside and picked up something long and thin. “He has a lighter,” gasped Munn. 

 The man was still kneeling, his back straight. He raised the lighter to his head.

The Witness


Ms. Lyons,
Hi, if you are reading this then they killed me. I wanted to tell you that I enjoyed talking to you, you seem like a really great lady. I’m sorry we didn’t meet under different circumstances… . Thank you for your kindness. Have a wonderful day.
—Letter from death row inmate Robert Coulson, June 25, 2002

Early one morning in April, Michelle Lyons pulled up outside her daughter’s elementary school in Huntsville, seventy miles north of Houston. Set deep in the Piney Woods, Huntsville—which is home to no fewer than five prisons—is a company town whose primary industry is confinement. Many parents who were dropping their children off at school that day worked for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, Huntsville’s largest employer. Michelle, who sat behind the wheel of her blue Chevy sedan nursing a travel mug of coffee, had worked for TDCJ herself for more than a decade. She had been the public face of the agency, a disarmingly friendly, upbeat spokesperson for the biggest prison system in the nation. Though she had left the position two years earlier, she was still well-known around town, and several mothers waved as her car idled in the drop-off line. “Have a beautiful day,” she murmured when her nine-year-old leaned in to kiss her goodbye. 

When Michelle first went to work for TDCJ, in 2001, she had begun each weekday morning by driving into town, past the picturesque courthouse square and toward the Walls Unit, the 165-year-old penitentiary that is Huntsville’s most iconic landmark. The prison, whose ramparts measure more than thirty feet high, is a colossal, foreboding structure crowned by razor wire—a two-block-long, red-brick fortress that houses the most active death chamber in the country. Michelle’s office occupied a corner of an administrative building directly across the street from the Walls, and one of the requirements of her job as a public information officer had been to attend every execution the state carried out. She had also attended executions for her previous job, as a reporter covering prisons for the hometown newspaper, the Huntsville Item. Michelle spent many evenings—hundreds, in fact—standing shoulder-to-shoulder with witnesses in a cramped room that afforded a view of the death chamber, where she watched as men, and two women, were injected with a three-drug cocktail that stopped their hearts. All told, she had seen 278 inmates put to death.

As Michelle pulled away from the school, she headed out of Huntsville, toward Interstate 45 and her new job more than an hour’s drive away, in downtown Houston. She cracked her window, grateful for the cool air on her face. Mornings, when her commute offered time to think back on everything she had seen at the Walls, were the hardest. She was flooded with memories from her time inside the Death House: of the conversations she had shared with particular inmates in the hours before they were strapped to the gurney; of the mothers, dressed in their Sunday best, who had turned out to attend their sons’ executions; of the victims’ families, their faces hardened with grief; of the sudden stillness that came over the prisoners soon after the lethal drugs entered their bloodstreams. She could still see some of these men—their chests expanding, their chins stiffening as they took their last breaths. 

These memories intruded with such frequency that Michelle no longer tried to push them out of her mind. Instead, she had started recording voice memos, letting her thoughts unspool as she drove alone in the car. She kept one eye on the road that morning as she rummaged through her purse for her iPhone, finally fishing it out and holding the microphone up to her mouth. “I support the death penalty,” she began. “I believe that there are some crimes that are so heinous that the only way you can truly pay your debt to society is with your life.” She spoke with the same deliberation she had used when addressing reporters outside the Walls after high-profile executions. “But in other cases, I feel very conflicted,” she added. “There are men I watched die that I don’t think should have.” A piece of folk art she had picked up on a trip to Austin—an evil-eye charm to ward off bad spirits—bobbed from her rearview mirror. “I thought being away from the prison system would make me think about it less, but it’s been quite the opposite,” she continued. “I think about it all the time.”

As she approached Houston’s outer suburbs, the East Texas pines receded, replaced by roadside billboards hawking vasectomy reversals and personal injury lawyers and Chick-fil-A. Michelle thought back to a few months earlier, when she had called her former boss, Larry Fitzgerald, on the way to work, as she did every now and then to check in on him. The authoritative sound of his voice—Larry had been a radio news reporter back in the sixties—had always reassured her. It was Larry who had recruited her to TDCJ, and their friendship had continued after he retired and Michelle succeeded him as the agency’s director of public information. Though Larry was 38 years her senior, they had remained close because of the peculiar history they shared. Wardens, guards, and prison administrators had come and gone, but she and Larry had each been a constant presence, attending virtually every execution during the period when George W. Bush’s bid for the presidency had thrust Texas into the international spotlight. 

Despite all the time the two had spent together—the workday lunches, the happy hours, the long evenings waiting to hear if the appellate courts would grant a reprieve—Michelle had never asked Larry how he felt about watching inmates die, and he had never offered his opinion. So when she had phoned him from the road the previous fall and he had casually mentioned that he was having nightmares—which he downplayed by calling them dreams—about his time inside the Walls, his words had sent a jolt through her. She could still picture the exact moment he made this admission: she had been making a turn onto the Hardy Toll Road, and the morning sun had been unbearably bright. That Larry too was struggling had unnerved her. He had always been the less serious one, the one who could shrug off the solemnity of the moment with a dry aside. Often after they exited the Death House, he would suggest they go drink margaritas. 

Michelle had forgotten where she had left off with her dictation. She was thinking about Larry, wondering which executions he relived in his dreams. Her own hard moments came when she was awake. She could still picture Ricky McGinn’s mother, an elderly woman who had arrived at her son’s execution in a floral dress and pearls. Michelle would never forget watching her try to rise from her wheelchair so she could see through the large pane of glass that separated her from the death chamber. On the other side lay her son, who had been sentenced to death for the rape and murder of a twelve-year-old girl. McGinn was flat on his back, each limb restrained with leather straps, an IV line stuck in each arm. The old woman, her wrinkled hands pressed to the glass, had watched intently as her son’s body went slack. Michelle thought about her as she drove to work that morning. When the Houston skyline rose up in front of her, she realized her face was wet with tears.


This was my first execution and I was completely fine with it, although many, many people asked me about if I really was okay. I really was. In fact, I felt bad, like, “Am I supposed to be upset about this? Do people think I’m bad or evil or something because I’m not?”
—Michelle’s journal, October 1, 1998

Before the responsibilityof watching an inmate die fell to a handful of state employees, executions in Texas were conspicuously public affairs. Few events in the nineteenth and early twentieth century could rival the spectacle of a hanging on the courthouse square, and Texans often marked years in relation to not just major fires and floods but also these sensational dispensations of justice. That changed in 1923, after an epidemic of lynchings began to erode the distinction between legal hangings—conducted only after a defendant was found guilty, by a jury, of a capital crime—and vigilantism, which prompted the Legislature to outlaw all public executions. From then on, defendants sentenced to death were sent to Huntsville, away from the emotionally charged settings of their crimes. Executions took place in the south wing of the Walls and were attended by a small group of prison employees and reporters. Electrocution, which was considered more state-of-the-art than the gallows, was adopted as the official means of execution.

For the next forty years, witnesses were subjected to a gruesome sight. Though the electric chair did its work more efficiently than the noose, it still proved to be a crude way to kill someone. In his memoir, Have a Seat, Please, the late Huntsville Item editor Don Reid described in unsettling detail the 1938 electrocution of “a tall, powerfully built Negro” named Albert Lee Hemphill, who had been convicted of the robbery and murder of a Dallas man. Reid recounted watching as Hemphill was led into the death chamber, where, just feet from the assembled witnesses, he “sank to his knees and sang ‘Just a Closer Walk With Thee’ in a deep, rich, and unfaltering baritone.” (Until 1989, nothing but a metal rail divided onlookers from the person slated to die.) When the 23-year-old finished, he was strapped to the chair, where a guard laid a Bible in his lap. Then the signal was given. “The room exploded with the mounting whine of the generators,” Reid wrote. “Hemphill’s body slammed forward against the restraining leather straps, and the Bible came sliding down his lap to the floor. I shrank back as the second jolt brought an odd red glow to Hemphill’s skin and steam drifted from his head and chest. A dreadful odor of burning flesh enveloped us all.”

Three hundred and sixty-one men were put to death by electrocution before Old Sparky was decommissioned, in 1977. The Legislature decided to retire the sturdy, high-backed, solid oak chair after a Dallas TV reporter named Tony Garrett filed a lawsuit along with the American Civil Liberties Union seeking permission to film executions and broadcast them to the public. When a federal judge in Dallas ruled in January 1977 that executions could indeed be televised, Texas lawmakers quickly moved to approve a new method that would be less offensive than electrocution. Their deliberations came on the heels of a four-year moratorium on the death penalty; the U.S. Supreme Court had only just reinstated capital punishment the previous July after a long legal battle over whether or not it violated the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment. Texas lawmakers settled on lethal injection, a method developed by the Oklahoma state medical examiner that was yet untested but promised a “gentle, humane” death, as one prison chaplain told a reporter, “just like … laying down and going to sleep.” James Estelle, the director of the Texas Department of Corrections (as TDCJ was then known), heralded it as “a more civilized way of carrying out our responsibilities.” 

Because of appeals and legal challenges, this new procedure would not be put into practice until five years later, when a Fort Worth man named Charlie Brooks became the first person in the United States to be executed using lethal injection. (A Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling had by this time barred executions from being televised.) Just before midnight on December 6, 1982, witnesses were led into the Death House, a small structure inside the Walls prison complex where Old Sparky had been housed since the fifties. There, they saw Brooks strapped to a gurney, “stiff with fright,” as Dick Reavis wrote for this magazine (“Charlie Brooks’ Last Words,” February 1983). An IV line led from Brooks’s arm through a small opening in the wall to an adjacent room, where the executioner was concealed behind a one-way mirror. Sentenced to death for the murder of a Fort Worth mechanic, Brooks met a far less violent end than his victim, who had been shoved into the trunk of a car, bound with coat hanger wire, gagged with tape, and shot in the head. When the lethal drugs began flowing, “a look of absolute, unmitigated terror took over his face,” wrote Reavis. “His agony of anticipation [lasted …] perhaps a minute, perhaps two minutes, before he felt death creeping in.” Brooks gasped and wheezed, then fell silent. At 12:16 a.m., seven minutes after the injection had begun, he was pronounced dead.

In the years that followed, prison officials from more than a dozen other states visited Huntsville after their legislatures adopted lethal injection as the method of execution. They toured the Walls, learning the precise protocol that TDCJ had developed for putting inmates to death. The process began with the warden asking the condemned to walk from his holding cell, where he had eaten his last meal, to the death chamber, fifteen feet away. There, five guards who constituted the “tie-down team” quickly strapped him to a gurney, buckling thick leather belts across his arms, legs, and torso, and a two-person “drug team” inserted IVs into his arms. Only three people remained in the chamber after that: the inmate, who gave a final statement; the prison chaplain, who had spent the day with the condemned and now stood at his side; and the warden, who motioned to the executioner when it was time to begin. Then the three-drug cocktail was injected into the IV lines. First came sodium thiopental, an anesthetic; followed by pancuronium bromide, a muscle relaxant; and finally potassium chloride, which causes cardiac arrest. For the witnesses who looked on, the experience was not unlike watching someone drift off to sleep.

By the time Michelle arrived in Huntsville, in the late nineties, executions had become routine, even banal, affairs, many of which merited only a brief mention in the local news. Because of the protracted appeals process for death row inmates, their sentences were often not carried out until more than a decade after their crimes, when many of them were more temperate, acquiescent versions of the men they had once been. Michelle was struck by the decorum inside the Walls, where men who had committed acts of extraordinary violence freely walked to the death chamber without any hesitation or need for force. She noted in particular the small courtesies that the prison staff extended to the condemned, as when the warden ensured that a pillow be placed at the head of the gurney so the inmate would be more comfortable, or when the chaplain placed his hand on the right leg of the restrained prisoner, just below the knee, to reassure him during his final moments. Later, as Michelle went about her job as TDCJ’s spokesperson, the incongruous civility of these gestures would never be far from her mind.

The Murders at the Lake

Editor’s note: This story has been serialized.
Book I: The Cop
Book  II: The Detective
Book III: The Lawyer
Book IV: The Journalist 
Book V: The Inmate


Every murder involves a vast web of people, from the witnesses and the detectives who first come to the scene, to the lawyers and the juries who examine the facts, to the families of the victims, who must make sense of the aftermath. The more traumatic the killing, the more intricate the web. In the summer of 1982 the city of Waco was confronted with the most vicious crime it had ever seen: three teenagers were savagely stabbed to death, for no apparent reason, at a park by a lake on the edge of town. Justice was eventually served when four men were found guilty of the crime, and two were sent to death row. In 1991, though, when one of the convicts got a new trial and was then found not guilty, some people wondered, Were these four actually the killers? Several years after that, one of the men was put to death, and the stakes were raised: Had Texas executed an innocent man?

This story examines the case through the viewpoint of five people: a patrol sergeant who investigated the crime; a police detective who became skeptical of the investigation; an appellate lawyer who tried to stop the execution; a journalist whose reporting has raised new doubts about the case; and a convict who pleaded guilty but now vehemently proclaims his innocence.

A word about the reporting. This article is the result of a full year of research—dozens of interviews were conducted with the principal and minor players, and thousands of pages of transcripts, depositions, and affidavits, from the case’s six capital murder trials and one aggravated sexual abuse trial, were carefully reviewed. Still, what follows is not a legal document; some of the people involved in the case are dead, others don’t remember much, and even others—including the patrol sergeant who investigated the case and the DA who prosecuted it—refused to be interviewed. What follows is a story, built around the question that has haunted so many people for so many years: What really happened at the lake that night?

I. The Cop 

Patrol sergeant Truman Simons was driving down Franklin Avenue, in downtown Waco, when the call came over the police radio. It was around six-thirty on a summer evening in 1982, and the 39-year-old officer had just returned to his squad car after visiting his wife, Judy. His shift, from three p.m. to one a.m., didn’t allow the couple to see much of each other, so he’d stop by her office when he could, then head back out on patrol. Now it was dinnertime, and Simons had been thinking about grabbing some food, maybe at the Whataburger over on Seventh. 

The call was urgent: a body had been discovered at Speegleville Park, near Lake Waco. Simons, a ruggedly handsome man with dark-brown eyes and a brown mustache, took a deep breath. Waco had been having a violent summer; it was July 14, and already a dozen people had been murdered in the city of 100,000. Some cases were the kind he’d seen before, like that of a prostitute who’d been stabbed and thrown into the river. But others had left even the most hardened officers in the Waco Police Department reeling. Just ten weeks earlier, a father of five had been beaten to death by a stranger in his front yard because he wouldn’t light the guy’s marijuana cigarette. In June two cops had been shot in a gun battle downtown. For all of Waco’s small-town feel, Simons—himself the father of a young boy—recognized that these were big-city problems.

Simons knew Waco well. He had grown up in Rosenthal, a tiny town just south of the city, and joined the WPD in 1965, a few years after dropping out of high school. He hadn’t really intended to become a cop, but once on the force, he found the work to be a calling, and over his seventeen-year career he’d covered every inch of Waco, leading both the narcotics and tactical squads. “I’m just an old country boy,” he would say, but behind his self-deprecating manner were a sharp intellect and an insatiable drive for justice. Over time, many of his peers had gravitated to desk jobs, but Simons remained committed to the streets. It was there, he felt, that he could actually solve crimes, often using a network of informants he had carefully developed over the years. On the streets he could also stay away from the politics and backbiting within the police department, which at times had made him consider quitting. He was a man who liked to work alone, following his gut instincts; he’d worked the streets long enough now to have seen many of his hunches proved right. Though he wasn’t a regular churchgoer, Simons felt God’s hand in his work, and he often quoted from the Book of Matthew: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the sons of God.”

Simons turned his patrol car around and headed for Texas Highway 6 and the Twin Bridges that spanned Lake Waco. He’d driven that road many times, and as he crossed the reservoir, he looked out over the water. Waco didn’t get much credit for physical beauty, but this lake, just inside the city’s western border, was a jewel, deep and blue. It had been created in 1930, when engineers dammed the Bosque River, and now there were six parks along its edges, with pretty white-sand beaches. Speegleville was the largest, a pleasant, wooded wilderness that made for good camping, hiking, and fishing.

At the park entrance, Simons met a couple of other policemen and some sheriff’s deputies. Together they drove into the park, heading down a rutted dirt lane that snaked through the brush, until they came to a lonely fork in the road at the edge of the woods. A crowd of deputies from the sheriff’s and constable’s offices stood around talking; several reporters milled about as well. Simons parked and made his way to one of the deputy constables, who pointed out two young men standing nearby. They had been looking for a place to fish when they’d spotted the body near the foot of a tree, lying beneath some low-hanging branches. Thinking that it was a prank—a mannequin, perhaps—or that maybe they’d come across a sleeping drunk, they’d stopped to investigate. But their curiosity had quickly turned to horror: a young man, in jeans and an orange shirt, lay gagged, his hands bound behind him. His shirt was stained with blood, his chest full of stab wounds.

The sergeant got on his hands and knees and crawled under the branches. The victim, he could see, was just a boy, with a wispy mustache. He wore a pair of half-tinted aviator glasses, which were slightly cocked on his face. As Simons stood up, WPD detective Ramon Salinas showed him a photograph of an eighteen-year-old named Kenneth Franks, who had been reported missing earlier that day. The dead boy was clearly Kenneth, the men agreed, studying the photo. But there was more, said Salinas. Kenneth had last been seen with two girls from Waxahachie, a blond seventeen-year-old named Raylene Rice and a brunette seventeen-year-old named Jill Montgomery. They too were missing. 

Simons felt uneasy. Nobody seemed to be in charge of the crime scene yet, so he took command, instructing the deputies and cops to fan out and search the area. Within minutes, a cry arose from about 75 feet away. Simons hurried over. Lying in the grass was the body of a young blond woman. She had been stabbed repeatedly and was naked except for a bra that was tied around her right leg. She was gagged, her hands bound behind her back. Heart pounding, Simons peered around the immediate surroundings. He and his fellow officers soon spotted something else: a bent knee, rising above some weeds. It belonged to another young woman, this one dark-haired. She had been stabbed multiple times and was naked, gagged, and bound. Her throat had been slashed. She still had on a Waxahachie High School class ring. They had found Raylene and Jill.

None of the officers on the scene had ever encountered a crime this grisly. The teens had been bound with shoelaces and strips of towel and stabbed a total of 48 times. Many of the wounds were shallow, suggesting they had been tortured. “I’ve seen a lot of gory things,” Salinas later told a Waco reporter. “Guys getting their faces shot off. But that didn’t bother me like this.” The murders, another official said, were “the most sadistic” and “cruel” he had seen in his career. Simons, walking among the bodies as he searched for clues, was shaken. Who would do something like this? And why? On instinct, he kept returning to Jill, who he sensed had been the main target. Standing over her, he felt overwhelmed by the evil that had befallen her. 

Simons crouched down next to her lifeless body. “I don’t know what’s happened to you,” he whispered in her ear, “but I promise you one thing. Whoever did it won’t just go to jail—he is going to pay for this. I promise you that this won’t be another unsolved murder case in Waco, Texas.” 

The next morning, citizens across Waco awoke to a terrifying headline. “Man, 2 Teen-age Girls Found Stabbed to Death at Lake Park: Police Say Bodies Bound, Girls Nude,” read the front page of the Waco Tribune-Herald. Local newscasts repeatedly showed images of ambulance workers and police officers, including Simons, carrying three body bags out from the brush. The youth and innocence of the victims—all three were high school students—made the crime particularly senseless. Fear spread through town, and residents began locking their doors at night and pushing for park curfews.

The case was quickly assigned to WPD lieutenant Marvin Horton, who headed up a special investigative force of seven full-time officers. For days, the department’s phones rang nonstop as people called in with leads, most of which amounted to nothing: someone claimed that members of a biker gang known as the Scorpions had bragged about the killings; someone else reported having given a ride to an “extremely nervous” man with blood on his pants who had been walking along a nearby highway on the morning after the bodies were found; one caller reported that someone had been doing “Indian rituals” near the crime scene; another said that there was a “devil’s cult” operating in the area.

Investigators learned that the girls had driven from Waxahachie, an hour north of Waco, in Raylene’s orange Ford Pinto to pick up Jill’s last paycheck from Fort Fisher, at the Texas Ranger Hall of Fame and Museum, where she had been a tour guide that spring. The girls cashed it at a supermarket and drove to Kenneth’s house. Jill knew Kenneth from the Methodist Home, in Waco, a boarding school for troubled and academically challenged kids; the two had lived there for a while and dated each other but were now just friends. Kenneth told his father that they were going to Koehne Park, which was directly across the lake from Speegleville Park. It was a spot where teenagers often congregated to drink, smoke, and hang out. 

After that, however, the teenagers’ trail vanished. Though several people had seen them arrive at Koehne, and Raylene’s car was found there, no one had seen them leave. No one had heard any screams. Investigators couldn’t figure out how they’d gotten across the lake to Speegleville. There was no evidence of a boat, and there were no tire tracks around the Speegleville gate, which closed at eleven. A couple of Bud Light cans found near Raylene’s body yielded no fingerprints. The grass around the girls was flattened, as if they’d struggled with whoever killed them, but there was no knife, very little blood on the ground, and no semen anywhere—even though the medical examiner eventually determined that the girls had been sexually assaulted.  

“It’s amazing the lack of information we’ve found out there,” Sergeant Dennis Kidwell told the Tribune-Herald. WPD officers combed the parks repeatedly and interviewed between 150 and 200 people, yet they found few clues and no discernible motive. “Nothing like this had ever happened in Waco,” Officer Dennis Baier would remember years later. “As a police department, we were totally unprepared for the complexity of this case.”

Simons in particular seemed to be deeply affected by the brutal scene he’d encountered. Though he was not officially assigned to the investigation, he spent hours at the lake, devoting much of his free time to searching the woods and talking to people. This didn’t surprise his fellow officers; it was this kind of dedication that had helped him solve difficult cases in the past. “When he got on the trail of something,” remembered Officer Richard Ashby, who patrolled the streets with Simons in the late sixties, “you couldn’t get him off.” Police chief Larry Scott agreed. “He would work like a bird dog, around the clock,” he recalled. Simons, a man of intuition, couldn’t always explain his methods, but everyone knew they got results. “I don’t know how he does it,” said one of his fellow officers around the time of the investigation, “and I don’t want to know.” (Simons declined to be interviewed for this story.)

Compelled by his vow to avenge the teenagers—he’d whispered the same promise to Raylene and Kenneth as he had to Jill—Simons kept tabs on investigators’ progress, even stopping by police headquarters after his shift to read their reports. He was especially baffled by the question of where the kids had been killed. In his long career, he had discovered that he could often feel the violence in the air at a crime scene—and later use that sense to connect the perpetrator to the deed. But he hadn’t felt any violence at Speegleville. These kids, he felt sure, had been killed somewhere else.

On September 9, Simons walked by Salinas’s desk and saw the case file lying out. Opening it, he read that there were still no definitive leads. The police had developed a few suspects, including Terry Lee “Tab” Harper, a local tough guy with a long record of assaults. They had also recovered a few hairs from the bodies of the teenagers. But the hairs did not implicate anyone in particular, and eight weeks into the case, there was simply not enough evidence to make any arrests. Though the WPD would continue to respond to new leads, the investigation, Salinas had written in the report, was now officially inactive. 

Simons called Chief Scott at home. He had been working on the lake murders in his spare time, he told his boss, and he wanted permission to take over the case. Simons and Scott often had disagreements; in truth, the two men didn’t much care for each other, and the cop had already told the chief he was considering leaving the force at the end of the year. But Scott knew this case had to be solved. He was persuaded when Simons told him he had some new ideas. As Scott would later recall, Simons said he would solve the case in a week. 

The next day, Simons pulled all the police reports that had been filed in the case and, with the help of Baier—whom Scott assigned to assist Simons—began looking for any leads that hadn’t been exhausted. Before long they found a tip from Lisa Kader, a seventeen-year-old who had lived at the Methodist Home with Kenneth and Jill. During an interview with investigators, she had fingered a man named Muneer Deeb, who she said didn’t like Kenneth and became angry at the mere mention of his name. Simons knew Deeb: he was a 23-year-old Jordanian immigrant who ran the Rainbow Drive Inn, a convenience store across the street from the home. He walked with a limp and went by the nickname Lucky. 

Simons and Baier set out to investigate. There had indeed been bad blood between Deeb and Kenneth, they learned; Kenneth had shouted obscenities at Deeb inside his store, called him Abdul, and made fun of his limp. The source of the conflict, it appeared, was a sixteen-year-old Methodist Home resident named Gayle Kelley, who frequented the Rainbow Drive Inn and whom Deeb had offered a job. Deeb had an unrequited crush on Kelley, yet she was close with Kenneth. Such was the animosity between the two men, said several witnesses, that when Deeb learned of the murders, he laughed, saying he was glad Kenneth was dead. 

For Simons, this was a promising start, and later that afternoon he and Baier sat down to interview Kelley, who had also been a friend of Jill’s. As Kelley, a slim brunette, answered their questions, Simons got a sudden hunch. He stopped Kelley mid-sentence. Had anyone ever told her, he asked, that she looked a lot like Jill? Yes, Kelley replied—in fact, people had asked if they were sisters. Baier didn’t see the resemblance, but Simons mentally filed the detail. That night, the officers got a huge break when a panicked Kelley called Simons at one in the morning. “He did it!” she screamed. “He did it!” After Simons calmed her down, she explained how, earlier in the evening, Deeb had taken her and a friend to a gory movie. Afterward, Deeb had confessed. “I did it,” he said. “I killed them.” Though he then apologized and said he was joking, Kelley felt certain he was not.

Simons phoned Scott with the news later that morning. Simons told the chief that Kelley had also said that Deeb was about to flee the state because the bank was foreclosing on his store. He needed to be arrested at once. Baier, however, wasn’t so sure. He, Salinas, Horton, and another investigator on the case, Sergeant Robert Fortune, didn’t believe there was nearly enough to make an arrest and were wary of Simons’ certainty. “He played things close to the vest,” Baier would explain later, “and that bothered some people.” Nevertheless, Scott, convinced of Deeb’s flight risk, approved the arrest, and that night Simons brought the store owner in for questioning. 

Deeb loudly protested his innocence, claiming he knew nothing about the killings. Yet during his interrogation, Simons made another breakthrough. From the start, he’d felt that Deeb was too slight to have committed three murders on his own, and earlier he had followed up with the original tipster, Kader, to ask if she could think of any other suspects. Kader had mentioned a rough biker character known as Chili—his real name was David, she thought—who hung around the convenience store. Now, at police headquarters, Simons grilled Deeb about his acquaintances. Did he know a man named Chili? Yes, admitted Deeb; he often spent time at the Rainbow Drive Inn. When Simons took a break, Fortune—who’d been present for the interrogation—mentioned that he too knew Chili. His name was David Spence, and he had just been arrested with his friend Gilbert Melendez for cutting a teenage boy on the leg and forcing him to perform oral sex on Melendez.

A knife, a sex crime, a violent man: Simons was sure he was on to something. The next day he spoke with Jill’s mother, Nancy Shaw, and her aunt, Jan Thompson, and revealed a theory that was beginning to take shape in his mind. Kelley, he posited, had been the target of the killers. But in a case of mistaken identity, they had attacked Jill, and Raylene and Kenneth had been caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. When Simons then learned that, two weeks before the murders, Deeb had taken out an accident insurance policy on Kelley that paid $20,000 in the event of her death—and listed himself as Kelley’s common-law husband—he felt his instincts confirmed. Now there was a financial motive too. 

“Truman thought Deeb would confess,” recalled Baier. “He really believed that.” Deeb’s family hired a lawyer, who pushed for a polygraph test, and after four days Simons agreed to set it up. After three hours of testing, the operator delivered his opinion: no deception. The results sent Simons into despair. Going into a separate office, he sat on the floor, absently tracing his finger on the carpet as he and Scott discussed what to do next. “He felt humiliated,” remembered Salinas. 

To some of Simons’s colleagues, the results of the polygraph were no surprise. They had come to distrust the sergeant for his tendency to build cases on his own; in a vocation that valued teamwork, being a loner didn’t win him any friends. He seemed to prefer the company of hustlers to that of his fellow cops, and he was known among local law enforcement for his distaste for rules. (“You can put away the bad guys all you want, but you’ve got to do it right,” said a former investigator with the McLennan County DA’s office years later, recalling Simons’s work.) For his detractors in the WPD, Simons’s efforts to go after Deeb were evidence of his questionable methods and fixations. “You all just fucked up the whole goddamn case,” a disgusted Horton told Simons and Baier in front of a crowd of detectives the morning after Deeb was brought in.

But Simons knew he was on the right track, and he was going to see it through, skeptics be damned. (When Deeb’s lawyer asked him if the store owner was still a suspect, Simons retorted, “You bet your ass he’s still a suspect.”) He called the sheriff’s office and asked if there were any openings as a jailer. It would mean a cut in pay and status, but Simons didn’t care. He had a plan. David Spence was at the county jail awaiting trial for aggravated sexual abuse. If Simons had a job at the jail, he could get close to Spence and use him to solve the lake murders.

Simons’s plan had been forming ever since he’d first learned about Spence. Soon after his interrogation of Deeb, he’d headed over to the jail with Baier to meet the inmate. To his surprise, Spence was so friendly that they fell into easy conversation; Simons even told him he was quitting the force. Spence, unaware that he might be a suspect, offered to help the officers in their investigation. At the time of the murders, he’d been working at Burke’s Aluminum, next door to the Rainbow Drive Inn; his girlfriend, Christine Juhl, worked in Deeb’s store, and Spence had spent many hours there, hanging out and playing video games. Spence said he’d have Juhl ask around on the street about the murders. 

Spence was the kind of criminal Simons knew well: rough, poor, and full of swagger. A middle school dropout with a fondness for beer, marijuana, and amphetamines, he had married at 16, become a father of two by 18, and divorced at 20. He’d robbed a Fort Worth convenience store with a hatchet at 21 and served fifteen months. By the time he got out of prison, he had become entranced by the biker lifestyle. He got tattoos: dice on his right arm, Harley wings on his left. Now 24, Spence had become more and more unpredictable and violent. But he was lonely at the jail. And he liked to talk. 

Soon after Simons began his new job as a sheriff’s deputy, working the graveyard shift from midnight to eight, he and Spence began having regular conversations, often about the Lake Waco case, which the inmate clearly enjoyed discussing. Simons would allow him long phone calls to Juhl, sometimes until three or four in the morning, but she failed to turn up any new leads. Afterward, the two men would sit and talk—about life, love, God—sometimes until the sun rose. “I get people talking, and then I shut up and listen,” Simons would later explain. Spence’s lawyer in the abuse case, an earnest attorney just three years out of law school named Walter Reaves, had instructed his client not to speak to Simons, but Spence ignored him; when Spence’s father asked Simons if he should hire a lawyer for his son for the murder case, the deputy said Spence didn’t need one because he hadn’t been charged with murder. 

Spence had, however, been informed that he was a suspect by then. Simons told him early in their relationship, a few weeks after arriving at the jail. Spence was caught off guard and hurt—hadn’t he been trying to help the investigation?—but he enjoyed his time with the deputy so much that he nevertheless continued their late-night discussions. Spence claimed he’d had nothing to do with the murders, but Simons bided his time, talking to other inmates and coming to the jail outside work hours. 

In early January, the deputy’s patience paid off: an inmate named Kevin Mikel told him that Spence had bragged about killing the teenagers. Mikel gave Simons some corroborating details, such as how Kenneth had been bound with shoelaces and Raylene had had a bra tied around her leg; he also reported that Spence had suggested that Gilbert Melendez—Spence’s co-perpetrator in the abuse case—had been involved. Spence knew Melendez through his younger brother, Tony, with whom Spence had gone to school.

Before long, other inmates were also coming forward with things Spence had told them: he had been in a satanic cult; he’d been paid to kill the teens but had killed the wrong ones; a foreigner named Lucky had paid him to kill the three because a girl had dishonored him. Simons decided to share his findings with Waco’s new district attorney, Vic Feazell. A charismatic, headstrong lawyer, Feazell had stepped into office that month, at the age of 31. After campaigning on the promise to shake up a complacent DA’s office, he’d been elected in an upset, and he now set about hiring more prosecutors, tightening protocols for defense attorneys, and increasing security measures. (His office, outfitted with an elaborate taping system, was soon nicknamed Fort Feazell.) A Baptist preacher’s son who took to the pulpit himself on occasion, Feazell— married and with a son of his own—had promised that he would be active in the courtroom; his first trial as lead prosecutor, in fact, was to  be Spence’s aggravated sexual abuse case. 

Simons was sure the DA would be interested in his jailhouse findings, but when he approached one of Feazell’s assistants, he was told that, as hearsay, the inmate testimony was probably inadmissible in court. Simons was undeterred; he felt that his relationship with Spence was the key to solving the case. Spence had grown so dependent on their conversations that he would sometimes call Simons at home, waking him up to talk. At the jail, Spence had taken to pacing back and forth, crying hysterically after each marathon phone call with Juhl, despairing that she was about to leave him. Sitting calmly nearby, Simons would tell him to let it all out. When Juhl finally did break things off, Spence went so berserk he had to be given a shot of Thorazine. “The only friend I’ve got,” he told Simons that night, “is the guy who’s trying to kill me on this lake case.” 

Spence seemed more and more bewildered about what was going on in his mind. The two men started discussing the idea that maybe, like Ted Bundy, Spence had a split personality, and Chili was his evil half. Spence insisted he couldn’t remember murdering anyone, but he began to wonder if it was possible that he had really done it.

“Did I kill them kids?”

“I think you did,” said the deputy.

“Why don’t I know?” 

In early March Feazell announced that he was creating a task force to take a new look at the Lake Waco murders. Despite some qualms about Simons’s methods, he included the deputy on his team, along with the two cops most familiar with the case, Salinas and Baier. This made for an awkward arrangement, since Simons and the WPD officers had been on cool terms after he’d left the force. Baier and Salinas decided they’d focus on the rest of the city and leave the jailhouse world to their old colleague. 

Simons, meanwhile, began to work on Gilbert Melendez. A tough 28-year-old from Waco who’d served time in the mid-seventies for assault with intent to murder, Melendez had been given seven years after pleading guilty in the aggravated sexual abuse case. (Spence was found guilty in late March and given ninety years; he was allowed to remain at the jail because he was helping with Simons’s investigation.) Melendez had always denied any involvement in the lake murders, but now Simons, encouraged by the headway he’d made with Spence, began to press the inmate. Things were about to get crazy, he said, and Melendez might want to consider talking. Melendez gave it some thought. Later that day, when Simons returned to see him, he had something to say. “I was out there,” he told the deputy. Simons informed him that if he confessed and testified against Spence, he’d almost certainly avoid the death penalty. “I’ll testify,” said Melendez. 

Simons turned on a tape recorder as Melendez recounted the events of that night. He and Spence had been riding around in Spence’s car, he said, drinking and smoking, when they went to Koehne Park. There they’d seen the kids, whom Spence enticed into the car with the promise of beer and weed. Spence raped and stabbed Jill, then Raylene, and finally he killed Kenneth. He and Melendez drove the bodies to Speegleville and dumped them there. Then they went home.

It was just what Simons had been waiting for—a statement from an actual eyewitness. But as Baier soon pointed out, there was a problem: when asked for details on Spence’s car, Melendez had said it was a station wagon. Yet Spence hadn’t bought his station wagon until two weeks after the murders. Simons went back to the inmate, even taking him to Koehne and Speegleville parks the next morning; over two days, Melendez gave three statements that included other discrepancies, such as different times for when he and Spence arrived at Koehne Park. Simons thought the inconsistencies were likely due to Melendez’s drug- and alcohol-addled memory, but the changing statements, plus the fact that Melendez claimed it had been Spence alone who did all the raping and killing, made other investigators suspicious. Though Melendez took two polygraphs that seemed to confirm his involvement, he also recanted his confession entirely. He was sent to prison.

It was April 1983; in a few months, the local media would mark the one-year anniversary of the murders, and yet the investigation was still floundering. Then Simons got a surprise visit from Ned Butler, an assistant DA who had recently been hired to try capital cases. He gave Simons a cryptic message: soon, Butler said, he’d be able to tell the deputy whether his theory that Spence had killed the teenagers was correct.

Butler, it turned out, was a big believer in forensic odontology, or the study of bite marks. He’d made use of the discipline two years earlier to help solve a violent Amarillo murder in which the killer had bitten his victim. When Butler first saw the lake murders file, he immediately asked Salinas if they’d checked the bodies for bite marks. After studying the autopsy photos himself, he determined that several of the wounds on the girls’ bodies did, in fact, look as if they’d been made by human teeth. He had a mold taken of Spence’s teeth, then personally delivered it and the photos to Homer Campbell, a forensic odontologist in Albuquerque who had helped solve the Amarillo case. Within days, Butler got remarkable news: Campbell was certain that Spence’s teeth had made the marks.

At last, Simons had confirmation of what he had suspected all along. Even Feazell was won over. The task force now gathered momentum as investigators found witnesses who told of suspicious things Spence had said the previous summer: that he thought he had killed somebody, for example, and that he had raped two girls at the lake. More significant, the officers also had another suspect: Tony Melendez, Gilbert’s younger brother. A 24-year-old who was wanted in Corpus Christi for robbery and rape, Tony had been taken into custody by the WPD for questioning about the lake case and his brother’s involvement and then sent to the Nueces County jail. Though he insisted he had been in Bryan painting apartments the day of the murders, he failed a polygraph, and jailhouse informants claimed they’d heard him say he was at Lake Waco. That October, Feazell announced that his office was steadily putting together “a puzzle where someone is trying to hide some of the key pieces.”

One month later, the puzzle was finished. On November 21, 1983, a McLennan County grand jury indicted Deeb, Spence, and both Melendez brothers for the murders of the three teenagers. The DA’s office was exultant. “We started with nothing, and we have found pieces literally in the dark and fit them together,” a spokesman told the Waco Citizen. A grateful city breathed a sigh of relief. “We were finally going to hear the real story,” remembered Jan Thompson, Jill’s aunt. “We were finally going to find out what happened to our kids.”

The criminal trials for the lake murders were the most anticipated in Waco’s history. Throughout the spring of 1984, an endless string of pretrial hearings domi-nated the local papers; in nightly broadcasts, Waco’s citizens were regaled with details of the defendants’ shady pasts, including the rumor that Spence was a Satan worshipper. In April district judge George Allen made a decision: Spence would be tried first, followed by Gilbert, Tony, and then Deeb. Each man was charged with three counts of capital murder, and each would stand first for the killing of Jill Montgomery. 

The run-up to Spence’s trial was particularly contentious. His lawyers, Russ Hunt and Hayes Fuller, were convinced their client was being railroaded—in their view, Spence’s long-running interrogation by Simons had been unorthodox, and the jailhouse testimony against him was suspect. Furthermore, although forensic odontology was admissible in court, there was no established science behind it, and allowing Campbell’s testimony would be a “travesty of justice,” argued the lawyers. After having their motions repeatedly denied by Judge Allen, Hunt and Fuller sent a 33-page letter to the FBI and the U.S. attorney’s office asking for help. “An innocent man has been charged with this crime and is very likely going to be convicted in state court and sentenced to death,” they wrote. 

The lawyers’ pleas were ignored. Then, six days before Spence’s trial, they were dealt an even bigger blow: in an unexpected about-face, Tony pleaded guilty in exchange for a life sentence. It was yet another coup for Simons, who had visited Tony in jail until the inmate finally broke down. In a written confession, he stated he had participated with Spence and Gilbert in raping and killing the teenagers.

The trial began on June 18, 1984. Outside the majestic McLennan County courthouse, news crews set up cameras on the lawn; inside, the third-floor courtroom was jammed with spectators, who crowded into seats, stood in the aisles, and even sat on the floor. Relatives of the victims, including Kenneth’s and Jill’s parents, and friends who’d driven in from Waxahachie sat together with members of the DA’s office. (Raylene’s family chose not to attend the trial, and later they refused to comment on the case.) Everyone strained to catch a glimpse of the accused killer, who had gotten a haircut and wore a suit and tie. For Jill’s family, the day was especially excruciating. Her brother, Brad, who had refused her request for a ride to Waco on the day of her disappearance, was so distraught and full of rage that Simons feared he’d lunge at Spence as soon as he laid eyes on him; the deputy made him promise he’d behave himself. Jill’s mother, Nancy, who was scheduled to be a witness, had forced herself to study the crime-scene photos as a way of bracing herself for the gruesome details she’d hear in testimony. 

The state’s case was based on the theory that Deeb had hired Spence and the Melendez brothers to kill Kelley for insurance money, but that Spence and the brothers had mistakenly killed Jill because she looked so much like Kelley. They’d killed Kenneth and Raylene to prevent them from talking. From the beginning, Feazell was a formidable prosecutor, calling 39 witnesses. “Evidence will show,” he declared, “that David Wayne Spence … not only bragged repeatedly that he was responsible for the murders but that he had details [about] how the murders were committed.” Seven jailhouse informants took the stand. One testified that he heard Spence say he’d bitten off one of Jill’s nipples; another stated that Spence told him that when he saw the teenagers, he’d said, “There’s the motherfucker that beat that Iranian on a drug deal. Let’s go get them and fuck them up.” Yet another claimed that Spence told him he had sexually assaulted the girls with a “whoopee stick.” The inmates denied receiving anything in return for their testimony. Several other witnesses reported the suspicious remarks Spence had made—about raping two girls at the lake, about being scared he might have killed someone. One testified that he had heard Deeb ask Spence if he knew of someone who could “get rid of” Kelley for a share of insurance money and that Spence had replied he could do it.

But the state’s case was entirely circumstantial until Campbell, the bite-mark expert, took the stand. Using electronically enhanced autopsy photos, the odontologist testified that Spence was “the only individual” to a “reasonable medical and dental certainty” who could have bitten the women. Hunt and Fuller promptly called their own expert, who said the quality of the photos was too poor to make a valid comparison. However, though he couldn’t say Spence was the biter, he also couldn’t exclude him. (The medical examiner said she had not recognized the bite marks at the autopsy, but she was now certain that some of the victims’ wounds had a pattern that sug-gested teeth.) Campbell’s words had a distinct impact. “We had life-size pictures of the marks and a cast of [Spence’s] teeth brought into the jury room,” remembered one juror afterward. “The testimony—‘everyone’s bite mark is different, like a fingerprint’—was very convincing.”

The defense tried its best. Hunt and Fuller pointed out that none of the hair or blood found at the crime scene tied Spence to the murders, and they insisted that Deeb had been joking about getting rid of Kelley and that Spence knew it. Besides, the lawyers argued, Spence knew Kelley, so the mistaken-identity theory made no sense. Hunt even got an insurance salesman to explain that Deeb’s insurance policy on Kelley was the kind often used to cover employees in case of accidents. 

Still, the defense attorneys made a miscalculation in their overall strategy. They had hoped to introduce evidence showing that the crime could have been committed by two other men—James Bishop, a former Waco resident who had moved to California right after the murders and then been arrested for raping and attempting to kill two high school girls on a beach, and Ronnie Breiten, a man who had been seen in bloody clothes after a night fishing at the lake. But the judge ruled the evidence irrelevant to the case against Spence and refused to allow it.

The trial lasted just over two weeks. In his closing statement Feazell reminded jurors of the substantial testimony against Spence, the pain of the victims’ families, and the torture the teenagers had endured. “Folks,” he implored in the same preacher’s cadence he’d used throughout the trial, “it has been two years, and there are a lot of people who have been waiting for your decision.” 

The twelve jurors found Spence guilty in less than two hours. As the verdict was read, Spence stared solemnly and a collective gasp went up from the courtroom. His mother, Juanita White, who’d attended every day of the trial, burst into tears. Three days later, Spence was given the death penalty.

“We feel the angels have been with us,” a fragile-looking Nancy told news reporters at the close of the trial. Afterward, when the crowds and cameras had dispersed, the jurors asked to meet Simons, about whom they had heard so much. Feazell brought him to the jury room. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he announced as Simons entered, “I thank God for men like Truman Simons. So should you.”

A week later, Simons felt like taking another look around the lake. He asked an investigator with the DA’s office to accompany him, and the two men wandered through Koehne Park. About 25 yards from the spot where Tony had said Jill was murdered, Simons was suddenly overcome by a strong feeling. He grabbed a stick and dug deep into the leaves. There, in the dirt, lay a gold bracelet. 

Simons, who’d relied on his gut so many times before in his career, was stunned. Could the bracelet be Jill’s? He took it to the girl’s mother and aunt, who both said she had owned a bracelet like it. As the trials for Spence’s accomplices approached, the discovery seemed to be a sweet validation of all his work.

His tenacity, in fact, was about to pay off in other ways. Not long after Spence’s trial, Gilbert contacted the deputy; he had seen a news report on Spence’s getting hustled off to death row, and he now wanted to make a deal before his own trial. In January 1985 Gilbert wrote out a sixteen-page confession, pleaded guilty for two life sentences, and agreed to testify against Deeb.

Deeb’s trial, which began on February 25, lasted twelve days and featured forty witnesses, many of whom had testified against Spence, including one jailhouse informant. The ace in the hole, though, was Gilbert, who took the stand to describe the murders and stated that Spence had said Deeb would pay them $5,000 for killing Kelley. After closing arguments, in which Feazell likened the store owner to Judas Iscariot for his “dirty hands” in the killings, Deeb was found guilty in less than two hours. Like Spence, he was given the death penalty. 

That October, a second trial for Spence—this time for Kenneth’s murder—was just as straightforward. Feazell didn’t have to rely as heavily on the murder-for-hire theory; thanks to Simons, he had new ammunition. There was the gold bracelet, entered now as conclusive evidence of where the teenagers had been killed. More important, Tony, in the expectation of getting help with parole, had agreed to give a more detailed statement and testify against Spence. On the stand, Tony told basically the same story as Gilbert, saying that he and his brother and Spence had killed the teenagers at Koehne and then loaded the bodies into Gilbert’s truck. The brothers’ testimony differed on some details—Tony said they’d partied for two hours before the violence began and that he stabbed Jill; Gilbert said the violence began almost immediately and that Tony stabbed Raylene—but they were consistent in their portrayal of a night characterized by beer, weed, and bloodshed.

Throughout the proceedings, Spence exhibited little of the calm he’d shown during his first trial. He was continually unnerved by Feazell, who seemed to enjoy provoking him: during jury selection, for example, as Spence’s lawyers questioned potential jurors, the DA passed him taunting notes (“You’re drowning and your lifeguards don’t swim!” read one). Spence, who had two new attorneys—Walter Reaves, who’d represented him on the aggravated sexual abuse case, and Bill Vance—grew increasingly agitated, eventually trying to fire his lawyers. “I know that we didn’t do this,” he cried out in exasperation at one point. “And I know that you know it too, Vic!” As before, the jury found him guilty. Again he was given the death penalty. “I’m really getting tired of this shit,” Spence whispered to his father, Edwin, before being sent to the Ellis Unit, outside Huntsville.

Feazell and Simons were hailed all over McLennan County as heroes. It had taken more than three years, but the tireless lawmen had finally brought the killers to justice. (With the four men safely behind bars, the DA chose not to prosecute further.) For Feazell in particular, the victory could not have come at a better time. Months before, in the spring, the DA had drawn nationwide attention when he cast doubt on the murder claims of famed serial killer Henry Lee Lucas. Feazell’s findings, which showed that Lucas lied about his victims, had embarrassed the Texas Rangers, who had used Lucas’ statements to erroneously clear dozens of murders. But as spring turned to summer, the limelight had grown dark: in June, Dallas television station WFAA ran a ten-part investigative series on Feazell and his office, accusing him of, among other things, dismissing DWI cases in exchange for money. Feazell had called the charges a “smear campaign” brought on by “the big boys in Austin” because of the Lucas case; now the convictions in the Lake Waco murders offered irrefutable proof of his commitment to the law. 

Simons, meanwhile, became one of the most well-respected officers in the state. Two years later, he’d win a Texas Peace Officer of the Year award. He’d also be the featured protagonist in a best-selling book about the murders, Careless Whispers, which won the 1987 Edgar Allan Poe Award for fact crime book of the year. Despite this acclaim, Simons felt the most satisfaction from having fulfilled his calling. “I am a peacemaker,” he told the book’s author, Carlton Stowers. “I followed the direction that has been pointed out to me.”

He had one last gesture to make. Three years after her murder, Jill’s remains lay in an unadorned grave in a country cemetery just north of Waxahachie. The girl’s father, Rod Montgomery, owned a granite company and cut tombstones, but he had been so devastated by her death he had found it impossible to put up a marker. Now Simons, with the help of Stowers, ordered one and had it installed. The large, elegant slab of Dakota Mahogany granite was decorated by Jill’s mother with the girl’s photo, a poem, and the inscription “Forever Seventeen.” Not only had Simons kept his promise to avenge Jill, he had also made sure she would never be forgotten.

He could not have known that his promise, and every action he took to fulfill it, would shortly come under intense scrutiny—and, in the years to come, set the course for one of the strangest, most serpentine cases of criminal justice in modern Texas history. 

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. 

Sinners in the Hands

Andy and Patty Grove never planned to settle outside of Texas. Their roots in the state reach back many generations. Patty’s ancestors came to Texas on a wagon train from Tennessee in the 1830’s (an elementary school in Houston is named for her great-grandfather); Andy’s father owned a tract of land that is now part of the posh Houston neighborhood of Hedwig Village.

The Earth Is There to Catch Us When We Fall

I don’t remember the first horse I saw or touched; I just know that horses have always been with me. In them, I see what I hope are the best pieces of myself. Horses are at once familiar and unknowable. Each of their individual parts, a razor ear or a knobby fetlock, is fantastically peculiar and ungainly looking, but taken together, the whole is a graceful machine. They are brave beyond reason. They smell good. They have complicated emotional lives; they remember and forgive. There are other things about horses, harder to fathom, that also draw me to them. This resonance I don’t understand fully, but there it is, as native to me as the dimple in my cheek. Genetics are partly to blame. My father loved horses as a child growing up in New York City, where he cadged rides by working at a tony Bronxville hunter/jumper stable and hand-walked hot Thoroughbreds after their morning workouts at Belmont Park. After he was drafted into the Korean conflict, he gave up horses and did not return to riding as an adult. Life got in the way. At times, life has gotten in my way too. But even during the long stretches when I did not ride—periods of a suburban Fort Worth adolescence when riding wasn’t possible, or dark years at a rainy Oregon college where horses seemed distant and unavailable—the desire never left.

I drew horses, dreamed horses, saw make-believe horses in my backyard. My parents, hallelujah, allowed me to take riding lessons when I turned seven. My teacher, Myrna, was friendly and bright-eyed, with quickness in her movements and her speech, like a grackle with a checkered scarf at her neck. She was probably in her forties then, the matriarch of a close-knit confederation of grown kids, shirtless toddlers in diapers, slouchy teenagers, sons-in-law, and benign ne’er-do-wells wearing welding caps and permanent squints from cigarette smoke. I’d never encountered a family like Myrna’s, in which women wore kerchiefs to batten down the high-rise of curlers in their hair and everyone lived in a thicket of mobile homes parked amid the barns. Their world, full of slinking cats and apologetic dogs, was as exotic and beguiling as a gypsy camp. Myrna was a wonderful teacher, patient, exacting, quick with a correction or a you-can-do-it, but life among her tribe was complicated. Sometimes we’d drive out for a lesson and there’d be no parade of wash hanging on the line, which meant Myrna and her crew had bugged out, maybe for a week, maybe a couple of weeks, with no word of where they’d gone or why. 

I rode next at a barn with fine-boned, sensitive Arabian horses and, after that, with an encouraging college student who taught me to jump and told me I had talent. I was in middle school by that point, and taking weekly lessons was expensive and sometimes tricky to schedule. I loved it, but I let it go. We could not support a horse. I could not get myself to lessons. I didn’t necessarily want to compete, but going round and round a ring wasn’t what I wanted either. I was thirteen, after all. I didn’t know what I wanted, much less how to get there. 

Decades passed. I’m a colossal late bloomer and come to things slowly. My first horse finally materialized in my thirties, a tall, solemn red gelding called Alazán, the Spanish word for “sorrel.” My husband, Michael, and I had settled in Marfa, and along with our house in town we owned a scrubby seven-acre plot where Michael kept a cabinetmaking woodshop. For years, buying a horse was always something that would happen someday, but never right now. Other things were more important: a roof on the house, a crown for a busted molar, vet bills for our aged red heeler. Then one afternoon a rancher friend mentioned that he was taking horses to auction, older animals that could no longer do the work required of them. They’d likely be sold to the meat men for 60 cents a pound. Inside my chest, a bowknot untied. Someday became right now. I announced I’d match the meat price for the red gelding, and 24 hours later, he was chewing hay in our pen.

Alazán was a ranch horse who had hauled cowboys and chased bulls for years in some of the roughest country Presidio County offers, which is saying something. He was rather a giant, more than 16 hands and 1,250 pounds, his bone heavy and his mane and tail streaked with white and gold. Alazán had not been abused as a ranch horse, but he’d been used hard, and consequently he wasn’t much of an optimist in terms of what to expect from people. It was months before he came to me on his own. He used to turn his back to me when I went in the pen. I spent afternoons reading on an upended bucket, ignoring him. Eventually, curiosity won over, and he tiptoed behind me and whuffled my hair with his nose, then exhaled with a great sigh and smacked his lips. After that, he brightened up when our family came to see him. Never an overtly affectionate animal, he’d slide near us and hover while we cleaned the pen or washed out his buckets, hoping for a scratch or currying. 

Most of my rides were alone. We would mosey down a dirt road, Alazán dancing and snorting as we passed the pasture with llamas. I admired his mane riffling in the wind and the lightness of his step in spite of his size. Riding disguises your humanity and allows you to go almost unseen by wildlife. Jackrabbits don’t zigzag away when you pass. Coyotes trotting a ridgeline take a glance and look away. The badger trundles to his burrow. One day my friend Sherman, a rancher and a former game warden, came out to admire the horse. “He was a fine, fine-looking fellow when he was young,” Sherman said. “I bet he loved to work.” Indeed, if we were out and spotted cattle, Alazán would perk his ears and swing toward them on his own in a long-strided trot—in his mind, there was work to do. We sometimes rode on the ranchland of friends, where I let Alazán open up. He leaned forward, accelerating keenly, the rush of wind a roar all around us and the passing mountains a blur. It felt very fast. Perhaps it was. 

Better Off Red

No beast on this planet eats bitter produce, unless forced by dire circumstance. But man eats grapefruit, and therefore is no beast. Grapefruit is bitter because it contains a flavonoid called naringin, one of many bad-tasting compounds Mother Nature created to protect plants from hungry animals and to let animals know which plants are likely to hurt them. Naringin can, in fact, hurt us: it interacts in unpredictable ways with many common medications, including antihistamines and blood-pressure drugs.


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