The last time anyone heard from Mary Eula Sears was November 23, 1981, when the prominent Abilene resident was brutally murdered in her own home by . . . well, to this day, no one is entirely sure. Sears was descended from an esteemed lineage—her forbears were early Abilene ranchers—and she garnered plenty more attention following her death. The search for her killer became a top priority, and Abilene police zeroed in on Wayne East, though they had no physical evidence. They eventually found a witness against him, which was enough to convict him of Sears’s murder and send him to death row, where he sat for years despite new information that the prosecution had hid important evidence—and that investigators had never been certain he was the actual killer in the first place. Thirty years later, Michael Hall found the sole witness against East, and she recanted everything she had said at trial. What happened in Abilene back in November 1981? Hall delves into the heart of the crime, searching for a truth that not even the citizens of Abilene are quite sure of. Here’s the story behind the story.
What inspired you to write this piece? Why write about it now? How did you find out about this crime?
I had been getting letters from East for a while, but they hadn’t stood out from the hundreds of other prisoner letters I get, in which the guy or girl claims he or she is innocent. Then I got a letter from a woman named Julie Denny, who was a second cousin to Mary Eula, and Denny said she was certain East was not guilty and that I should look into it. Then she wrote an editorial in the Abilene paper saying this—and a week later East’s nephew, a former DA, wrote an opposing editorial saying she was wrong, that East is guilty as sin. At that point I knew this was a great story.
I wasn’t planning on this being a thirty-year-anniversary piece, but as we approached that date—and as it took me increasingly longer to finish up my reporting—we thought, let’s just run it on the anniversary.
One of the most difficult tasks as a reporter is talking to relatives of the deceased. How did you handle this situation when interviewing Julie Denny? And what do you think generally is the best way to go about it?
Julie was very willing to talk. She wasn’t a problem at all, because she had a cause: free Wayne East. Other family members, such as Sears’s nephew Tim Eyssen, were different. He thought I was on Denny’s side, and so he wouldn’t talk to me. Neither would his son, Alex, at first. But as the story evolved from being one focusing on Wayne East to one focusing on Mary Eula and the mystery of who killed her, Alex was more comfortable talking about it.
It’s hard talking to family about something like this. There’s no easy way. They have to live with what happened, while you, as the reporter, get to flit into their lives, ask questions, and leave. The only way to do it is to be as honest and upfront as possible and hope they are willing to talk.
Has working on this story changed your perception of law enforcement and the justice system?
No, it’s just another in a long line of stories that tell me that our system, however good, has a lot of problems. In high-pressure situations, law enforcement officials make up their minds on who is the bad guy, they overreach, and plenty of poor saps get dragged into cases in which they probably don’t belong. I think that law enforcement gets it right 90 percent of the time. But their confidence crosses over into arrogance, and when they find themselves in that other 10 percent of cases, I think they push and push and act like they know the truth—even when they have no idea what it is. And juries believe them.
What is the most interesting thing you learned while writing this story?
I really like Abilene. I’d never done a story there, and I liked the people, the funky old city, the contrast between old-time ranching and modern urban life.
With stories like these that deal with sensitive crime issues, there must be information that you have to keep under wraps. Did you encounter this situation? If so, how did you manage to reconcile the journalistic principles to report the truth as well as respect privacy?
That really wasn’t an issue in this story. There were sensitive issues, though—the hardest part was how to properly deal with Dee Dee Martin’s recantation, which basically was a bold accusation of law-enforcement misconduct directed at several aging Abilenians, one of whom I had gotten to know and like a lot. I had to go back and read him what she had said—which was, basically, that he ruined her life as well as Wayne East’s. He didn’t like that at all.
How long did it take you to write this story? Explain the process you had to go through to collect all of this research.
It took longer than I thought it would. I originally thought the story was one about the strange relationship between East and Denny, a kind of “Odd Couple” story. But that shortchanged some of the other elements. I had thought this was a real “innocence” story, but the more I researched, the more I found that East wasn’t as innocent as he claimed. In other words, I started to see why the police had gone so hard against him. I didn’t think that was justified, but I understood it. When Dee Dee recanted, I realized that just about everyone in the story was flawed. Maybe the story was a big-picture look at the whole crime—a deeper look at the victim (the fascinating Mary Eula), the convict, his prime defender, and the woman who blows up everything we thought we knew about