Poisoned With Love
Behind a mask of Hill Country gentility lurks a gothic tale of homicide, manners, and Riopan Plus.
There was something inexplicably sinister and foreboding about the old Norton mansion, but nobody thought of it as a tableau for murder. It sat on the crown of a hill just east of Llano, sheltered by a fence and dense clusters of elm, cedar, and post oak, looking down on the town like the ghost of a Jonah ship. Hardly anyone alive knew its secrets, its failed visions, its unanswered love. Old-timers told of parties there in the thirties and even as late as the sixties, but no one could recall a wedding or a birth or any of the other events that celebrate life’s continuity.
For more than a century the mansion had housed the damned and the dying. Its original owner, F. R. Malone, was an investor who came from Louisiana after the Civil War to make his fortune in the iron boom. The mansion was his dream, but it also became his epitaph: Malone apparently went bust before he could move in. After that it was owned by a group of doctors who turned it into a tuberculosis sanatorium and attempted to maximize their profits by forcing their patients to live—and frequently die—in neat rows of tents on the mansion grounds. The doctors went broke in 1911, and four years later another mining magnate, Tom W. Norton, bought the property, burned the death tents, and scrubbed down and renovated the mansion as a home for his wife and five daughters. For a time the mansion on the hill became the vortex of social life in Llano, the site of endless teas and galas. But none of the daughters ever married or had children. When the last of the Nortons died in February 1988, the mansion once again fell dark and silent, its secrets intact.
The last surviving daughters, Cordelia and Catherine, had shared the old house and fading glory of the Norton name for the last quarter of a century. They lived alone on their seventy-acre estate, seldom entertaining or receiving visitors. In the small town below, the mansion became a source of curiosity and gossip; a generation had died and another had grown up since the house was part of Llano’s social fabric. “All the time I was growing up,” recalled Llano County district attorney Sam Oatman, whose family helped found the town in the 1850’s, “I wondered what was going on up there. There were stories about wild parties and other things, but it was just speculation.”
Speculation was that the Norton sisters were lesbians. Cordelia courted the bull-dyke image: a butch haircut, men’s clothes, no makeup except for fingernail polish, and a tongue as caustic and salty as a drill sergeant’s. “She liked to come on tough,” said Jim Myers, who had worked for Cordelia for 23 years. Texas Ranger John Waldrip remembered that Cordelia was “rough as a cob,” and Llano County sheriff Gail Ligon, a distant relative of the Nortons, recalled that “she’d give you a cussing at the drop of a hat.” Even Cordelia’s business ventures had a masculine cast—she raised cattle and owned a beer distributorship. “She wanted to be known as one of the guys,” said Jimmy Walker, who had been Cordelia’s banker. Nobody knew (or at least nobody was willing to talk) about Cordelia’s early life, but she had been an officer in the Women’s Army Corps during World War II and, according to one story, had studied medicine in New York until a broken love affair caused her to quit and return home to Llano.
Catherine was the exact opposite, the consummate female. She was the youngest of the Norton girls—since childhood Catherine had been known as “Girlie.” Friends described her as frilly and docile; “a hat-and-gloves type,” said one. Like Cordelia, Girlie was regarded as a good businesswoman, but the businesses she chose were a dress shop and a flower shop. As her mother—known in her day as Lady—had done, Girlie traveled widely and collected antiques.
Together Cordelia and Girlie acted out their roles as lord and lady of the mansion. The trappings of grandeur—the servants, the gardeners, the dances and galas—were dim memories. As shadows lengthened, the sisters became almost obsessively secretive and frugal. “They wanted to know everything about everybody in town,” said Dutch Swenson, who operates a coin shop across from the courthouse and who had known the sisters for sixty years. “But they didn’t want anyone to know anything about themselves.” The mansion became more museum than home, a hodgepodge of rare vases, icons, Persian carpets, and other antiques and memorabilia. People speculated what would become of the estate when the sisters were gone; the only relatives the two ever mentioned were distant cousins in New Mexico and New York.
When Girlie and Cordelia died within a day of each other—Girlie on February 19 and Cordelia on February 20, 1988—no one was shocked. Girlie was 75 and Cordelia was 83, and both had been in poor health for weeks. It seemed ordained that they share the final page of the Norton legacy. A handful of old friends came to pay their last respects. So did one young friend, Tim Scoggin, who had been an apprentice mortician in Llano in the mid-seventies. Scoggin had moved to San Angelo and had achieved a measure of success as a real estate dealer and businessman, but he remained the Norton sisters’ dearest companion and confidant. “Cordelia and Girlie would call him anytime, night or day,” recalled Swenson. “And he’d jump in his car and drive two and a half hours to run some little errand.”
Except for Scoggin, the sisters might have been alone at the end, but he was there for them, fixing their meals, delivering their messages, driving them to doctors’ appointments. While Scoggin was taking Girlie for a checkup at Scott and White Memorial Hospital in Temple (she had recently undergone surgery for cancer of the pancreas), Cordelia took sick—a sudden attack of vomiting, diarrhea, and abdominal pains—and had to be hospitalized in Llano. Scoggin and Girlie returned to the mansion that night, and when Scoggin looked in on Girlie the following morning she was dead. Doctors at Scott and White were stunned when they heard: She had checked out fine the previous day.
A few hours after Scoggin discovered the body, he telephoned Mary Moursund, the executrix of the Norton estate, to report that Catherine had died. On the following night—a Saturday—Cordelia died too. As the sisters had wished, Scoggin arranged to have both bodies cremated. Moursund says he telephoned again on Sunday night and inquired about the Norton sisters’ will. “When the will is filed for probate,” Moursund said tersely, “you’ll get to see who got what.”
The shocker came a month later, when Moursund discovered a $30,000 check drawn on the account of Catherine Norton and deposited the day of her death into the account of Tim Scoggin. On closer inspection she began to think that the check had been forged.
And still nobody suspected murder.
People in Llano knew very little about Tim Scoggin. They had heard that his father was a career employee of El Paso Natural Gas, that he grew up in Andrews and nearby Jal, New Mexico, and that after high school he attended mortuary school in Dallas. Around 1975 Scoggin turned up in Llano to apprentice at Waldrope-Hatfield Funeral Home. Girlie owned the only flower shop in town then, and that’s where they met.
In 1977, when Scoggin was still in his early twenties, he moved to San Angelo to take a better-paying job with another mortuary. After that, people in Llano saw him from time to time, always in the company of one of the Norton sisters. When Scoggin visited, he always stayed at the mansion. What people didn’t know—and what they couldn’t figure out—was why. The Norton sisters weren’t the sort to open their lives to anyone. Why Tim Scoggin? Dutch Swenson offered an oversimplified observation that may have explained the relationship, at least from the sisters’ point of view: “Cordelia was looking for a gardener back then. Young Scoggin said he’d do the work hisself and not charge nothing, and that set pretty good with Cordelia.”
Tim Scoggin was a strange young man, apparently sensitive and intelligent. His hobby was painting flowers and lacy designs on porcelain urns. He sometimes told people that he had studied under the masters in Europe, though actually he had learned the craft from an elderly woman in Llano. Indeed, most of his friends were old women and, occasionally, old men. In San Angelo his closest companions were elderly, mostly wealthy women who belonged to his porcelain-painting club. He doted on them, and they responded. To someone younger, Scoggin’s constant attentions might have seemed cloying and oppressive, but to the aging and lonely, the central fact was that Scoggin was always there in times of crisis.
He was a diminutive figure—maybe five four, maybe 125 pounds—and he talked in such a high-pitched voice that over the telephone people assumed they were speaking to a woman. His manner was as effeminate as Cordelia’s was masculine, but he had a boyish charm and persistence that made old people feel important. There was nothing funny about Tim Scoggin, yet on meeting him you wanted to laugh: The ludicrous combination of his squared-off rimless glasses, jug ears, and wavy rust-colored hair somehow suggested a Howdy Doody doll playing Secretary of State.
Scoggin was also uncommonly ambitious. Even when he was working for slave wages at the funeral home in Llano, he never doubted that he would better himself. “It was just a matter of time,” he said. He had chosen a mortician’s career because he had assumed it was lucrative; his mother’s family in Oklahoma were funeral directors, and they lived handsomely. But there was a catch, as he quickly learned: The people who made good money were those who owned the funeral homes, and the only way to own a successful home was to inherit or buy one that was already established. And still Scoggin was confident. “I seemed to meet the right people,” he told me. “I was lucky that way.”
The Norton sisters introduced him to one of their oldest friends, Nell Summers, whose husband, Tab, had worked as a mortician at Robert Massie Funeral Home in San Angelo. With Tab’s help and a fine recommendation from his sponsor in Llano—“He will be a credit to the funeral profession,” wrote D. C. Waldrope—Scoggin moved to the larger town.
Compared with Llano, the old fort town of San Angelo was a metropolis of opportunity. During his two years at Robert Massie, Scoggin made no great impression on his boss, but he did manage to beguile an aging secretary named Irene Hutchins. Her husband, Jim, had retired from a railroad job and had started buying and selling real estate. In 1979 Jim Hutchins made Scoggin the manager of one of his properties, Cactus Lane trailer park.
Time would come when Irene Hutchins regretted that decision. Scoggin seemed to draw bad luck, not for himself but for those around him. One day while Scoggin was attending a porcelain-club meeting, a trailer belonging to an old couple named Olgie and Leita Nobles caught fire. The Nobleses closed their business and rushed home to the trailer park, and while they were away someone came into their store and stole a satchel of money. One of their relatives thought Scoggin was somehow mixed up in the curious juxtaposition of disasters, but not Leita; she believed that her husband had taken the money. Previously a fire had destroyed a house that Scoggin had bought and was having renovated. Fire marshal Ken Land had ruled arson in that case, but no one was charged and Scoggin collected a tidy insurance settlement.
Irene Hutchins knew from her days at the funeral home that Scoggin had an unfortunate habit of exaggerating small accomplishments—an avid reader, he claimed to have read every book in the Llano public library. When the truth might have served him better, Scoggin seemed predisposed to lie. So when the Hutchinses learned that Scoggin was telling people he owned their trailer park, they thought it was funny. “We knew he was a liar,” she said, “but it wasn’t important.” They also learned to live with his eccentricities, which could be as bizarre as they were endearing. Later, Irene recalled Scoggin mentioning several times a book he was reading on the subject of murdering people with rat poison. “He seemed fascinated,” she said.
When Jim Hutchins learned that he had cancer of the pancreas in 1982 and began his long slide to death, Scoggin was a pillar of strength. “Tim became a faithful friend,” Irene said. “We were spending most of our time at Scott and White. I can’t tell you how many trips Tim made, taking care of business for us.” When Jim died in April 1983, Irene quite naturally turned to Scoggin for support and advice. She confided that she kept some Krugerrands in a lockbox at the bank. That was the worst thing she could do, Scoggin warned, and he advised her to do what his parents did and keep her gold in a purse hidden in her attic. “That’s an idea,” she replied, although she had no intention of moving her gold. A few days later, she learned from a neighbor that Scoggin had come into her home while she was away. “Tim told me he just stopped by to use the telephone,” Irene said. “I knew he was lying.”
Something else happened about that time, something that put an end to the warm feelings Irene Hutchins had for Tim Scoggin. She began to suspect that he was stealing money from the coffers at the trailer park. By that time the park had been sold to absentee owners in California, but Irene held the mortgage and kept an eye on the business. “I called California and told them what I suspected,” she said. “They came to San Angelo and confronted him. Tim admitted he took the money—I don’t know how much. But he promised to borrow it from the bank and pay them back.”
Scoggin may or may not have borrowed money from a bank at that point, but he did borrow $34,000 from Olgie Nobles, the tenant whose trailer had been damaged by fire. Scoggin told Olgie and Leita that he needed the money to keep the bank from seizing his trailer park. “He was sitting in his office crying like a baby,” Leita recalled. “That’s when Olgie gave him the money.” During that same time period Scoggin borrowed on several other occasions from the Nobleses. Counting a promissory note that he signed when he took over their business in 1986, the amount exceeded $175,000.
When Olgie died in March 1988, Scoggin owed the Nobleses more than $100,000. That didn’t include a $15,000 check drawn on Olgie’s account, dated three days before his death, and deposited in the account of Tim Scoggin two days after Olgie’s death—with a signature that authorities believe was false. Olgie died five weeks after the Norton sisters did and of the same symptoms that had killed Cordelia. And still nobody suspected murder.
Leita Sutton Nobles came from that hard-edged stock whose resiliency and make-do philosophy settled the Hill Country and made it habitable. Her father raised nine children by working a tenant farm near Lampasas. Her brother Leonard quit school in the seventh grade and started out on horseback for Junction, where over the years he built up a business buying and selling furs, pecans, eggs, and scrap metal. Olgie, who was Leita’s second husband, drove a cattle truck in the spring and summer and worked for Leonard in the fall and winter. In 1962 Olgie and Leita moved to San Angelo and opened their own business in a jumble of concrete-block buildings on the Rio Concho near downtown. In the spring and summer they sold evaporative coolers—swamp coolers, they are called—and cooler parts; when business fell off in the fall, they bought and sold pecans; and when the pecan harvest ended, they bought and sold furs until it was time to sell coolers again. They were doing all right until Tim Scoggin came into their lives.
The Nobleses were hardly the type to squander or fritter away money. Olgie sometimes hid cash in out-of-the-way places, just to keep it from Leita, and she did the same. Olgie was a hard drinker with an eye for the girls, and for forty years he and Leita had fought like cats and dogs. Yet each was a pushover for Tim Scoggin. For some reason, Scoggin had a stronger influenced over Olgie than he did over Leita. When Olgie loaned the young man money—Leita didn’t always know how much or when—it was with a handshake and nothing else.
In the autumn in 1985, while Leita was vacationing in Las Vegas, Scoggin persuaded Olgie to sell him their business. “I couldn’t believe it when I heard what that old man had done,” Leita said—she frequently referred to her husband as “that old man.” Nevertheless, she went along. She took for granted that Scoggin was prosperous. By then Scoggin had formed a partnership with a realtor named Jerldine Barrett, a woman old enough to be his mother. What’s more, the Nobleses were under the impression—as were a number of others in San Angelo—that Scoggin stood to inherit a sizable fortune from two old women in Llano. Some understood him to say that the Nortons were his aunts.
The deal that transferred the title of Nobles Air Conditioning to Tim Scoggin was closed on September 25, 1986. The bank financed $49,000, and Scoggin signed a promissory note for $80,000, agreeing to pay the Nobleses the balance at $1,700 a month. Eight days later, on October 3, a release of lien was filed at the Tom Green County courthouse, showing that Scoggin had paid off the entire $80,000. Though the signatures of Olgie and Leita Nobles were later found to be phony, nobody questioned the document at the time. Scoggin continued to make the $1,700-a-month installments—at least he continued to satisfy the Nobleses that he was trying to make the payments. They knew nothing about the document, of course. In April 1987, Scoggin used the document as part of an agreement to secure a bank loan.
All the while, Scoggin treated Olgie and Leita Nobles with the love and consideration he might have shown his own parents. And he continued to travel back and forth to Llano, watching over the Norton sisters. Leita Nobles went to work for Scoggin, teaching him the business. Against her advice, he stopped dealing in pecans and furs—both of which were money-makers—and he added a line of hardware, though Leita warned that he couldn’t compete with Wal-Mart. Later he added a specialty shop called Addie Mae’s Christmas and More, for which he borrowed another $20,000 from Olgie. Business went from bad to worse. Leita spent most of her time on the phone, fending off creditors. “He’d lie to them and say the check’s in the mail,” she said, “and leave me to explain it.”
By then the Nobleses had moved out of the trailer park and into a modest brick home in the Grape Creek community north of San Angelo. While Leita helped Scoggin at the store, Olgie spent most of his hours in his private room at the rear of the house, smoking, drinking whiskey, and thinking up new hiding places for the stacks of money he had squirreled away. Neighbors told Leita that Tim Scoggin sometimes dropped by during the day to talk to Olgie—about what, she couldn’t imagine. One day Scoggin told Olgie that he had spotted two prowlers trying to break into a shed where Olgie had stashed a blue bag containing $33,000. Relieved that his young friend had prevented the theft, Olgie hid the blue bag somewhere else. To this day no one knows where.
The Norton sisters telephoned the store regularly. Leita had begun to recognize their voices. Later she recalled a particular conversation—she heard only Scoggin’s side of it, but he said something about needing poison to kill coyotes on Cordelia’s ranch. Leita remembered too that John Posse, a subcontractor who installed coolers for the Nobleses, had a permit to buy strychnine and offered to get some for Scoggin from a dentist he knew who raised cattle. Ranchers in Llano County say there hasn’t been a calf attacked by a coyote in living memory, but nobody in San Angelo knew that.
Four days before Christmas 1987, on his regular run to the liquor store, Olgie Nobles totaled his pickup truck and very nearly himself. Doctors had to completely reconstruct his face; for weeks he ate nothing except baby food. Leita quit work to take care of him, though she wasn’t feeling well either. For a long time she had suffered from ulcers, and lately they seemed to be worse, much worse. They were bleeding, and she had diarrhea too. She practically lived on 7-Up and stomach remedies like Maalox and Riopan Plus. Scoggin was a godsend, bringing mail, groceries and medicine.
By late March Leita thought Olgie was on his way to recovery, but she was wrong. She returned home one morning to find him violently ill. His system had been traumatized by the wreck three months before, but this was something different. Without warning he had uncontrollable vomiting, diarrhea, and stomach cramps. The second day, he was much worse, and she called the doctor. She wanted to take him to the hospital, but Olgie wouldn’t hear of it. By the third day he was in a stupor, and on the morning of the fourth day she found him dead.
One of the first things Leita did was to contact Scoggin, who was visiting his parents in Midland. Scoggin had seemed mildly depressed since the deaths of the Norton sisters a month earlier. Leita thought his depression was because of the will: The sisters left their entire estate in a trust to benefit the Llano city park and cemetery. In character, however, Scoggin hurried back to San Angelo and made himself useful. A few days after Olgie was buried, he came out to Leita’s house and addressed all of her thank-you cards.
Leita’s vomiting and stomach pains got worse. In early May Scoggin drove her to see a doctor in Brownswood. The doctor diagnosed the problem as bleeding ulcers and ordered Leita to be hospitalized and given blood transfusions. During her two-week confinement, Scoggin telephoned the hospital every day, not to speak to Leita but to check on her condition. When she was released, Scoggin drove her home. Within a week she was worse than ever. “I woke up one morning,” she said, “and when I tried to climb out of bed, it felt like a rock was tied to my feet.”
On May 28, three months after the death of the Norton sisters and two months after the death of Olgie Nobles, Leita was admitted to Shannon Medical Center in San Angelo, paralyzed and obviously suffering from something more severe than bleeding ulcers. Doctors began running a series of tests to find out what. While Leita was in the hospital, her bank notified a friend who was picking up her mail that nine checks written between May 12 and July 28 had suspicious signatures. Five were written while Leita lay paralyzed in the hospital. The checks amounted to $38,700 and had been deposited into Scoggin’s account.
To the astonishment of nearly everyone, the tests established that Leita Nobles had been poisoned with arsenic. Few members of the hospital staff had ever encountered a case of arsenic poisoning. The medical examiner in San Antonio said that he hadn’t seen such a case in twenty years. And still no one suspected murder.
Whoever tried to kill Leita Nobles made two big mistakes. First, the killer miscalculated the modus operandi of the poison. Administered in sufficient amounts—a gram is more than enough—arsenic begins its deadly work in a few hours. Victims experience a slow, agonizing demise: vomiting, diarrhea, stomach cramps, convulsions, stupor, coma, and finally death from circulatory collapse. Unlike strychnine’s dance of death, which kills almost instantly, arsenic’s can take from 24 to 72 hours. But here’s the snare: If arsenic is taken in small amounts over long periods an intended victim builds up a tolerance. During Victorian times arsenic was called the inheritance powder because of the propensity among family members to use it on one another. In the classic plot, a killer first built up his own tolerance by taking small daily doses, then invited their heirs to a feast liberally spiked with the powder of eternal sleep. The beauty of the plot was that arsenic is odorless and tasteless.
Arsenic has another property that the killer may not have considered. It is a heavy metal. Though the poison clears the bloodstream in four days, traces persist in hair and fingernails indefinitely—even a body that has been cremated can be tested for arsenic. In the case of Leita Nobles, hair samples established that she had been given small doses of arsenic over a long period, starting about mid-December 1987, just before Olgie’s near-fatal accident, and continuing until she was hospitalized in late May. Forensic pathologists were able to read a strand of Leita’s hair as one would read tree rings. The outer band of the hair sample showed that the first dose of poison was a weak concentration of 8.5 parts per million (ppm). A segment representing late May—the time her paralysis appeared—registered a whopping 130.1 ppm, a dose that should have been fatal. (Apparently Olgie died from a massive dose; a subsequent test of a hair sample taken from his exhumed body established a concentration of 99.8 ppm.) By attempting to poison Leita with small doses, the killer inadvertently gave her a tolerance for the poison. Otherwise her death would have been marked off like the others—one more old person dead from natural causes.
But then the killer made his second big mistake: failing to realize that the victim’s nephew was a district attorney in a nearby county. He was Ron Sutton, the toughest prosecutor in the Hill Country. The only child of Junction’s fur-and-pecan merchant, Leonard Sutton, Ron was a burly, rumpled man with an eagle eye and a bulldog tenacity. His district included Kimble and four other counties. He had prosecuted some of the Hill Country’s most sensational murder cases—the Slave Ranch trail in Kerrville, for example, and the bizarre case of Genene Jones, the nurse convicted of killing babies entrusted to her care. Sutton had become something of an expert in toxicology, and when he learned that someone had tried to poison his Aunt Leita, he started his own investigation.
“Until I heard what happened to my aunt,” Sutton told me, “I had no reason to think that my uncle’s death was anything but natural. He’d almost been killed in a car wreck. He was a hard drinker and had smoked all his life. But when my aunt told me that Olgie died of exactly the same symptoms that had put her in the hospital, I knew it had to be murder.”
Once Sutton convinced the two lawmen in charge of the investigation—Tom Green County sheriff’s investigator Bill McCloud and San Angelo-based Texas Ranger George Frasier—that they had a case of attempted murder, there was never any suspect except Tim Scoggin. According to Leita, Scoggin admitted writing checks on her accounts at the Citizens State Bank in Miles. “He came by the hospital with his lawyer and begged me to get him out of his mess at the bank,” she said. “I said no. He ought to have come to me before he did what he did.” Scoggin had also begged Mark Heinze, an officer at the bank, to allow him to pay back the money to Leita instead of filing charges. Seeing Scoggin face to face, Heinze remembered a telephone call shortly before the forgeries were discovered. A woman identifying herself as Leita Nobles called and asked questions about the Nobles account—at least Heinze thought the caller was a woman. Suddenly he wasn’t sure.
Though San Angelo was not part of Ron Sutton’s district, the prosecutor drafted papers to have his uncle’s body exhumed. Then he helped lawmen subpoena Tim Scoggin’s financial records. In interviews with his aunt, Sutton learned of Scoggin’s friendship with the Norton sisters and of their almost simultaneous deaths in February. Frasier called fellow Ranger John Waldrip in Llano. Waldrip remembered Scoggin from an investigation in 1983, when the Norton sisters had reported that someone stole a small safe—a lockbox, really—from their home. The safe contained about $40,000 in cash and fifty Krugerrands. There were also some stocks and bonds from their father’s estate, but the sisters had no idea of their value or even what they were.
“It had to be an inside job,” Waldrip said. “There was no forced entry. The safe was in a closet, behind some boxes, under the stairwell. There were a lot of antiques in the house, but the burglar took just the safe.” Cordelia told Waldrip that Scoggin had been with her when she bought the safe. “I wanted to interview Scoggin and other workers and visitors,” Waldrip recalled. “But Cordelia flatly refused. She said she’d rather lose it than insult her friends.”
The telephone call between the two Texas Rangers was the first time lawmen linked the crimes in San Angelo with the deaths in Llano—and the first inkling that the Norton sisters had died from other than natural causes. On August 24 Sutton arranged a multi-jurisdictional meeting at a neutral site in Brady. Among those attending were the two Texas Rangers, Lieutenant McCloud, Tom Green County assistant district attorney Sam Oatman, and Sutton, the prosecutor-at-large, who brought the financial records subpoenaed from Scoggin.
The records made interesting reading. Among other things, they showed that in 1985, when Scoggin reportedly was broke, he declared the sale of $650,000 in stocks. On an application for a bank loan, he listed fifty Krugerrands among his assets. Records showed that Scoggin rented a lockbox at a bank on August 30, 1983—roughly the time of the burglary at the Norton mansion—and last entered it on September 26, by which time the box was empty. The Rangers then quickly established that on September 19 Scoggin sold 35 Krugerrands at $412 each to two coin dealers in Dallas.
The most provocative piece of evidence to emerge from the Brady meeting came during a telephone call to Sutton from the medical examiner’s office in San Antonio, where the exhumed body of his uncle, Olgie Nobles, had been sent for testing. “It’s definitely arsenic poisoning,” Sutton told the others as he hung up the phone. “By God, we got it now.”
On the strength of the evidence presented at the Brady meeting, Llano County district attorney Oatman got the ashes of the Norton sisters exhumed. Arsenic traces were found in Cordelia’s remains but not in Girlie’s. Warrants were issued to search the Norton mansion as well as Scoggin’s apartment and place of business in San Angelo. Investigators had already searched the Nobleses’ home at Grape Creek, but they searched it again. Samples taken from hairbrushes, toothbrushes, food and medicine containers, and septic tanks were sent to the Department of Public Safety lab in Austin.
Bill McCloud found an important clue in a chance remark by one of Leita Nobles’ cousins. “I had been racking my brain, trying to figure out how the killer poisoned Leita,” said McCloud. “I was talking long-distance to one of her cousins, and he said something about how she’d been living on 7-Up and Riopan Plus, and then it hit me.” McCloud drove back to the home in Grape Creek and this time found what he was looking for—a bottle of Riopan Plus discarded in a trash basket in Leita’s bedroom. Traces in the bottom of the bottle tested positive for arsenic. McCloud also learned that Scoggin had purchased arsenic at Abbott’s Supermarket in San Angelo. Guy Abbott, a former lawman who had known Scoggin since the early eighties, when they both lived at Cactus Lane trailer park, recalled that Scoggin said he needed some arsenic to kill raccoons that were vandalizing his business. “I told him we had some at the store,” Abbott said. “That was on December 9, 1987. On December 11 he came in and bought it.”
On October 7, 1988, Tom Green County prosecutors indicted Scoggin on charges of murder, attempted murder, and felony theft by check. Two weeks later, officials in Llano County indicted him on charges of murdering the Norton sisters and forging a $30,000 check on Girlie’s account. Since early September he has been held on bonds totaling more than $300,000.
The evidence of murder is largely circumstantial. Nobody can prove that Catherine Norton was murdered, much less that Scoggin did it. The theory of the prosecutors is that Girlie was killed with strychnine rather than arsenic, which would explain why she went so quickly and why the postmortem of her ashes came up blank. Witnesses will testify that Scoggin purchased strychnine and arsenic shortly before the series of poisonings, but no one can say for certain that he used them for homicidal purposes.
What seems clear is that Tim Scoggin was a young man in a hurry. Still in his early thirties, he enjoyed leaving the impression that he had it made. “He told my wife that he would never have to worry about money,” said Ben Jenkins, an insurance agent who was Scoggin’s next-door neighbor in San Angelo for five years. “We assumed he had an inheritance.”
Is it conceivable that the Norton sisters led Scoggin to believe he was heir to their estate? At least one old friend though so. Jim Meyers, the man who had worked for Cordelia and later had bought her beer distributorship, told me, “I can believe that Cordelia might have dropped some hints. Deep down I don’t think she ever considered it, but I can believe she led Scoggin to believe it.”
From conversations with people who knew Scoggin, I had formed a mental picture of him as a swishy, preppy twerp in penny loafers, a cashmere sweater knotted loosely around his neck. But I was surprised: Even in jailhouse greens, Scoggin managed to look respectable, correct, businesslike, even impertinent. His high-pitched voice was startling at first, but there was a Mr. Belvedere arrogance about it, a tone that demanded that this chap be taken seriously. He sat with his knees locked, his hands folded tightly in his lap, clutching a pencil and notepad, as if he were the interviewer.
At first he didn’t want to talk, but when I steered the conversation to Tim Scoggin he quickly warmed to the subject. I had agreed in advance with his San Angelo attorneys, Steve Lupton and Dan Edwards, to avoid questions related to the case, and they watched to make sure I complied. Lupton and Edwards were savvy courthouse lawyers—both had served as Tom Green County prosecutors—and since it was obvious I intended to write the story either way, they perceived a strategic advantage in allowing their client to look as human as possible. The interview took place in a private office of the county jail on January 19, 1989, three months before the trial was scheduled to start April 17.
With little prompting Scoggin painted a picture of himself as a popular, hard-working, above-average student at Jal High School—editor of his yearbook, member of the drama club, officer on the student council—with an abundant talent for art and an outgoing personality. He sold paintings and mowed grass at the country club to buy a car. He also revealed himself to be acutely class-conscious.
“Jal was a company town,” he said. “Everyone worked for El Paso Natural Gas. Very middle-class, sheltered from the real world. No poor people, hardly any blacks or Mexicans. All the kids my age had cars.” Scoggin had never been around the lower class, he told me, until he managed the Cactus Lane trailer park. Those people puzzled him, but he learned to adjust.
Scoggin had been in jail for four months, and he gave me a short critique on the criminal justice system. Obviously, he saw himself as a breed apart from other inmates. And yet he seemed determined to make the best of a bad situation. “I have always been a conservative Republican,” he told me. “My expectation of jail was luxury living, color TVs, suites like the Ritz. If a person was in jail, I assumed that person was guilty. I’ve changed my point of view.” He continued to run his business affairs from jail and used his spare time to study math and history. Somewhere among Scoggin’s personal belongings, I imagined, was a grade-school report card with the evaluation “Uses time wisely.”
News of Scoggin’s arrest hit hard with some of San Angelo’s senior citizens. One of the women in the porcelain-painting club remarked that they were all lucky they didn’t end up as victims, which so infuriated another member that she stormed out of the room.
Irene Hutchins gave thanks that she had been spared. “I firmly believe that God has his arms around me,” she said. “Or else I would have been a victim too.”
Nell Summers, a longtime friend of the Nortons and the person most responsible for bringing Scoggin to San Angelo, wouldn’t talk about the case but volunteered that she didn’t believe the Norton sisters were poisoned.
With one exception, none of the women that Scoggin befriended has shown up at his courtroom hearings. The exception is Jerldine Barrett, the realtor who was his business partner. Barrett knew everyone involved—the Norton sisters, the Nobleses, Nell Summers, Irene Hutchins. “Tim was my best friend,” she says. “We talked about everything.” In a statement to investigators, Barrett revealed that Scoggin told her Olgie Nobles poisoned his wife and, in the process, got arsenic in some cuts on his hands; in effect, Olgie murdered himself. She expects the prosecution to call her as a witness.
Leita Nobles sits in her wheelchair, her hands in basketlike braces to keep her fingers from crinkling up like dead leaves. She may never fully recover and dreads the ordeal of testifying. Though her nephew has convinced her of Scoggin’s guilt, she still has trouble accepting it. “Tim was real good to me,” she says. “He was good to everybody, except Meskins—he didn’t like Meskins at all. I can’t get over what he did.” On the table next to her wheelchair is a small clock encased in porcelain. The tiny flowers on the side of the case were painted by Tim Scoggin. Leita is proud to own it.