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