Mary Eula Sears spent her final afternoon painting pictures in the scrubby West Texas plains she had known her whole life. It was November 22, 1981, a crisp fall Sunday, and Sears had driven from Abilene to meet her friend Billie Joe Carmichael in the town of Merkel, seventeen miles away. The two women had a ritual: they would drive the rural back roads until they found something worth rendering, like an old ranch house or a barn built ages ago, when Sears was just a little girl growing up down the road.
Sears was 77, tall and thin, and wore her silver hair in a bun. She had always been an artist, which made her stand out in Abilene, a city known for cattlemen and commerce. She worked with oils, watercolors, and pastels, and she loved teaching kids about art. “I feel what I paint,” she would say, “and I want others to feel and see what I see.” Her landscapes were serene and her flowers were wild with color.
The Sears name was an established one in Abilene, which is home to Sears Boulevard and Arthur Sears Park, named for Mary Eula’s uncle. The Searses were one of Abilene’s early ranching families: her grandfather Frank Sears had built a ranch in nearby Truby in 1890, and her father, Alex, had also been a rancher. When Mary Eula grew up, she too became a pillar of the community, a member of just about every local civic group, from the board of the Fine Arts Museum to the Taylor County Historical Commission. But even as she became a prominent citizen, she remained an odd bird who lived alone in an antiques-cluttered house, stayed up late, and did as she pleased. She liked to wear costume jewelry but also some very real and very big diamonds, including one that hung around her neck. She had been married once, decades earlier, but never had children. When the marriage ended, she proudly took back her maiden name.
That November day, Mary Eula returned home from her painting trip around dinnertime, fed her two dogs, talked on the phone to her sister, Boog Eyssen, and went to bed after locking her doors; though she was a free spirit, she was a cautious one. The next morning, around six, she called her yardman, W. B. Rhodes, to tell him that his son Bubba was at her house and having car trouble. She hung up, gave Bubba a cup of coffee, and called Rhodes back five minutes later to say he had gotten his car started. That was the last anyone ever heard from Mary Eula Sears.
Around noon Boog phoned Mary Eula and received no answer. She called several more times as the day wore on, before finally driving over to check on her sister. She brought along her grandson Alex Eyssen and a neighbor, Vivian Bridges. Boog opened the door with a spare key, and the three entered a home that was in complete disarray: chairs overturned, drawers open. Alex, who was just six years old, still has a clear memory of pictures cocked sideways on the walls. “It was obvious someone had gone through the house,” he says. “I had a bad feeling.” The three made their way to Mary Eula’s bedroom, where a chair was crammed under a closet door handle, as if to keep someone in. Bridges moved the chair and opened the door.
There was Alex’s Aunt Ta, still wearing her pajamas and robe. “She was slumped down in a corner,” he remembers. “Blood was everywhere.” She had cuts and bruises on her face and shallow stab wounds all over her body. Her eyes were still open. The killing blow had been to the throat, and she had bled to death. “She suffered one of the worst deaths I’ve ever seen,” says Roger Berry, who headed up the investigation for the Abilene Police Department. “In the dark, suffering like that—it was a terrible way to die.”
From the start, the murder frustrated Abilene police. Eleven officers searched every room of Mary Eula’s house for clues, but all they found was the murder weapon, a bloody hunting knife that had no fingerprints on its ridged handle. Partly because the home’s ornately carved antique furniture had few smooth surfaces, only two usable fingerprints were found, and both of them belonged to Officer Berry. No hairs, no semen, and nobody else’s blood but Mary Eula’s.
The police got their first lead the next day, from two men who had gone to Mary Eula’s house the morning of the murder to work on the foundation. One said that he had shown up at 7:45 a.m. and seen, parked in the driveway, a metallic green 1971 Buick LeSabre with tricked-out hubcaps and tennis balls on its two CB antennae. His partner wasn’t there yet, so he left. The two men returned around 8:45, and one knocked on the front door. Someone responded from behind the door and said Mrs. Sears wasn’t there but would be back in thirty minutes. The voice, the worker said, “sounded like a black female,” though he also told police it could have been a black male’s. His partner, looking through a back window, saw what seemed to be a black man standing under an archway in the living room, though he wasn’t sure. The workers left again, and when they returned at ten the Buick was gone and no one answered the door.
It didn’t take police long to track down the car’s owner, Troy Robinson, a twenty-year-old with a history of burglary and theft. By then they had received a call from a jewelry store owner, who said Robinson had come into his shop the afternoon of the murder to sell some fancy earrings that, it turned out, belonged to Mary Eula. Investigators also learned that Robinson and a group of friends had had a wild night on November 22 that went on well into the morning. They partied at the house of a woman named Ann Dorsey;