Today marked a turning point in the case of Hannah Overton, the Corpus Christi mother of five who has fought for eight years to prove her innocence. This morning, in a decisive 7-2 ruling, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals overturned her capital murder conviction. The court stopped short of declaring Hannah actually innocent, but cited “the fundamental unfairness of her trial,” pointing to the ineffective counsel she received when she was prosecuted in 2007.
Defense lawyers get a lot of grief for a lot of reasons: they thrive on technicalities, they charge high fees, they advocate for the obviously guilty. They don’t get much credit for working the system pro bono to free the innocent. On June 12 the Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association did just that, honoring two longtime lawyers, Mike Ware and Keith Hampton, with the Percy Foreman Lawyer of the Year award at the twenty-seventh annual Rusty Duncan Advanced Criminal Law Course in San Antonio.
It’s been eight years since the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals found that the DA who prosecuted Anthony Graves for capital murder had done something unconscionable: withheld favorable evidence and used false testimony to secure a conviction—a conviction that sent Graves to death row.
It’s become a familiar scene, especially in Texas: an innocent man walks out of prison, where he’s met by an exuberant crowd of family, lawyers, and journalists. The members of his family hug him, cry, and laugh with relief. His lawyers stand before the gathered press and raise serious questions about how the state could have made such a terrible mistake to lock up an innocent man.
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.
Every story of a wrongful conviction is a story of lingering bitterness and lasting feuds. Consider Anthony Graves, who is filing a complaint with the State Bar against prosecutor Charles Sebesta, who has never admitted to the mistakes that led to Graves’s sitting on death row for twelve years.
On April 21, 1993, the El Paso police picked up a seventeen-year-old boy named David Rangel and questioned him about a double murder that had occurred the night before. Detective Al Marquez and a second officer browbeat Rangel for hours, telling him—falsely—that others had already implicated him and that he would get life and be raped in prison if he didn’t cooperate.
On Friday the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University announced that Texas Monthly executive editor Pam Colloff had won the Louis M. Lyons Award for Conscience and Integrity in Journalism. This is, of course, not the first major award for Pam in 2013. Just seven months ago she won a National Magazine Award for Feature Writing. But the Lyons is possibly even harder to win than an NMA.
Fran Keller, one of the last Americans in jail from a long-gone era of hysteria over “Satanic ritual abuse,” is free. The 63-year-old grandmother walked out of Travis County jail last night at 7:30 after posting bond. She had been awakened at 1 a.m. at her cell at the Gatesville Unit and told to get ready—she’d be going home after 21 years in prison. Her ex-husband Dan will be freed sometime next week.
To careful observers of Michael Morton’s long search for justice, one of the biggest revelations of Mark Alan Norwood’s capital murder trial came late in the day Wednesday, when a Williamson County employee named Jennifer Smith took the stand. For much of the day, testimony had centered on the bloody blue bandana that had been found behind the Morton home in 1986 and was finally subjected to DNA testing in 2011.