The Longest Ride of His Life

One day Randall Adams hitched a ride with a young man named David Harris. Six months later, Adams was on death row for killing a cop—with Harris’ gun, in Harris’ car—and Harris was the key witness against him.

It has been almost eleven years since that bitter-cold November night when Dallas police officer Robert Wood was gunned down by the driver of a car he had stopped for a minor traffic violation. The murder case has been to the U.S. Supreme Court, and it may be headed there again. Eleven years after the shooting, the case still rustles the memory and haunts the conscience of Dallas. 

The only one who got a good look at the killer was Robert Wood, and for all practical purposes Wood was dead before he hit the ground. For several days the police searched for the wrong make of car, and for several weeks they assumed that the killer was Hispanic or black. The intensity of the investigation and its strange twists and quirks attracted considerable media coverage and aroused the city of Dallas to unaccustomed passion. By the time a legitimate suspect was arrested a few days before Christmas, 1976—nearly three weeks after the shooting—Wood’s murder had become the longest and certainly the most embarrassing unsolved cop killing in the city’s history. When a jury returned the death penalty the following May, there was a genuine feeling of exhilaration within the law enforcement fraternity, a belief that the painful affair had finally been put to rest.

But it hadn’t. The case continues to haunt the conscience of Dallas for the very good reason that Dallas may have convicted the wrong man. Some top-notch lawyers who have reviewed the evidence are convinced that Adams is innocent, and so is a critically acclaimed filmmaker. Those people have discovered new evidence, and more important, they have uncovered dramatic insights into the old evidence. At stake is more than the life of one man. The stake is justice.

The four-day Thanksgiving weekend was winding down that frigid Saturday night in 1976. Shortly after midnight, Officer Robert Wood and his partner had stopped at the drive-in window of a Burger King on Hampton Road, which runs along the river bottom just west of down-town, through a high-crime district of warehouses and dreary housing projects. Wood’s partner was Teresa Turko, one of the first females ever assigned to street patrol. She had been on the force for only about a year and, like the other women assigned to the dangerous job of patrolling the streets, was under unusual scrutiny and pressure to perform. Wood and Turko were being served coffee and a milk shake when they spotted a dirty blue compact car traveling near the Hampton Road viaduct with only its parking lights on.

A less conscientious cop might have stayed put and finished his coffee, but Wood flashed his red lights and gave chase. When he climbed out of his patrol car and walked toward the blue car, Wood apparently intended just to warn the driver; he left his ticket book on the seat. The standard procedure was to radio the vehicle’s description and license number to the dispatcher, but most two-officer patrols ignored the procedure, and Wood ignored it too. It was also standard procedure for the second officer to stand at the right rear fender of the stopped vehicle, but investigators concluded later that Turko either stayed in the patrol car or at best stood beside its open door, drinking her milk shake. When Wood was shot, Turko dropped her milk shake and managed to fire several shots as the killer sped away. She immediately radioed for help, and within five minutes another unit was on the scene and others were on the way. But the killer’s car had disappeared.

Badly shaken, Turko could supply only a skimpy description. The killer drove a blue Vega, she thought. She had gotten just a glimpse of the back of his head—he wore a heavy coat with the collar turned up, and his hair was dark and medium-length. She saw only one person in the car, and she couldn’t tell if he was black or white. For several days her description was all the police had.

That night and most of the following day, the investigation centered on Turko. She was taken to headquarters, stripped of her gun and identification, and placed in a tiny room that was used to interrogate prisoners. Sergeant Gus Rose, probably the best detective on the force, questioned Turko repeatedly, once for four solid hours; still, she was unable to supply additional information. Wood had been the second cop in less than a month to fall victim to a wanton and seemingly random shooting, and the fear, anger and frustration that pervaded the ranks gave the new affair the irrational quality of a witch-hunt. Though an internal affairs investigation eventually concluded that Turko had done the best she could have under the circumstances, the consensus among senior officers was that the one cop who could have prevented Wood’s death—or at least apprehended his killer—had failed her baptism of fire. Even so, the way Turko was badgered made a lot of cops uncomfortable. She was relieved of patrol duty until the completion of the investigation. She agreed to take a lie detector test, but the results were inconclusive. She also agreed to undergo hypnosis, and an expert was flown in from California.

“They treated her like a common criminal,” recalled Dale Holt, one of the internal affairs investigators. “Gus Rose was one of the finest detectives I ever knew, but, frankly, I got into it with him over how they were treating Turko.”

Five days after the shooting, the police got their first break. A woman waiting at a stoplight next to an off-duty cop rolled down her window and volunteered the information that the police were looking for the wrong make of car. “The newspapers said it was a Vega,” she said, “but it was a Ford product”—a Mercury Comet, as it later turned out. The surprise witness was Emily Miller, a 36-year-old white woman married to a black man, a self-described “nosy type” who happened to be driving down Hampton Road with

More Texas Monthly

Loading, please wait...

Most Read

  • Viewed
  • Past:
  • 1 week