THE MEMORIAL SERVICE FOR COLLEEN REED didn’t quite close the book on the case of serial killer Kenneth McDuff, but it was a conclusion of sorts to a gruesome chapter in our recent history. Led by an honor guard of uniformed police officers, a legion of lawmen and prosecutors from half a dozen local, state, and federal agencies gathered at an Austin church on a warm October evening to mourn Reed, a 28-year-old woman they had never met—and by extension, to mourn an untold number brutally murdered by a man who appeared on the cover of the August 1992 Texas Monthly beneath the headline “Monster.” Fighting back tears, the lawmen listened as the names of fourteen known victims were read aloud while Reed’s sister, Lori Bible, placed fourteen white roses in a single vase. In the final analysis they had come to lament the failure of their own profession to combat such pervasive evil. Their presence was as close to a mea culpa from the Texas criminal justice system as you’re likely to get.
McDuff has been raping, torturing, murdering, and thumbing his nose at the law since he was a teenager growing up in Rosebud in the sixties—an aggressively negative personality that has always intrigued the experts. When I wrote about him after the 1991 and 1992 sprees, during which he murdered Reed, Melissa Northup, and perhaps as many as ten other young women, a psychiatrist berated me for not reporting that poor Kenneth obviously came from a broken home and was the victim of child abuse. In fact, McDuff was spoiled rotten by his mother and older sisters and allowed to do anything he damn well pleased. McDuff’s relatives confided to lawmen a few years ago that as a teenager, he had raped members of his own family and killed at least one other woman. One woman he raped and tried to kill survived and gave birth to his daughter, whom McDuff later befriended and tried to lure into prostitution.
Only McDuff knew for sure how many he had killed, and he never talked, at least to the cops. He steadfastly refused to reveal where the bodies were buried, prolonging the suffering of his victims’ families. He obviously took perverted pleasure in keeping his secrets, yet he seemed unable to resist boasting about his bloody conquests to underworld associates and accomplices. But for that central flaw, juries never would have heard the damning testimony of two sidekicks and been able to sentence McDuff to three separate death penalties for the 1966 murder of Edna Sullivan and the 1991 slayings of Northup and Reed.
This past September the flaw snared him again. An informant cultivated over many weeks by two deputy U.S. marshals in Waco, brothers Parnell and Mike McNamara, finally agreed to help the lawmen find out where three of McDuff’s victims were buried. (The identity of the informant remains closely guarded; all the McNamaras will say is that the informant was not an accomplice and that McDuff is not benefiting in any way from the disclosure.) The directions to the graves of Brenda Thompson and Regina Moore were extraordinarily specific: Take Gholson Road in McLennan County, look for a wagon-wheel gate, cross a dry wash, walk twenty paces from the fence, dig. “A blindfolded person could have found those two graves,” says U.S. attorney Bill Johnston of Waco, who, with his friends the McNamaras, had been investigating McDuff since 1992, when they finally convinced fellow lawmen that he was an unrepentant killer.
Finding Reed’s grave, however, proved more difficult. The search team was directed to a Brazos River bridge between two gravel roads in Falls County, but the informant supplied no other clear landmark. For most of a day, a bulldozer operator gently scraped away layers of the riverbank without success. The informant then began to drop other hints—move closer to the bridge, look for a cleared area—basically telling them when they were hot and when they were cold. “When we finally found the grave, it was a very emotional moment,” Mike McNamara remembers. “We had come to identify with Colleen, to think of her as a sister.”
At the end of the day the lawmen came to realize that they had at last detected a pattern in McDuff’s malevolence. He usually dug his graves in advance, always twenty paces from a landmark that he could find in the dark. His victims were selected at random—sometimes with an accomplice who drove while McDuff raped and brutalized them, sometimes alone. Once McDuff had “used them up,” as he liked to say, he made sure their death was savage. The two boys kidnapped along with Edna Sullivan were blown away as they crouched in the trunk of a car, begging for their life. When McDuff bragged about the adventure—and he always bragged—he recited chapter and verse. He seemingly enjoyed revisiting the graves, and not only in his imagination.
Something else about McDuff is clear in hindsight. He wasn’t clever or even particularly lucky, but he understood how to work the system and he knew that time was on his side. In 1972, when the U.S. Supreme Court essentially ruled that the death penalty was unconstitutional, McDuff had been on death row in Huntsville for six years. A mere four years later he was eligible for parole. Over the next thirteen years, on six occasions, he got one of the two votes required for parole. Though he was later convicted of trying to bribe a parole officer, no time was added to his sentence. By the late eighties, he had melted quietly into the system: The parole board had long forgotten that McDuff was a vicious killer and had come to regard him as just another prisoner in an overcrowded system. In 1989, under pressure from Governor Bill Clements to free up prison space, the board voted to put him back on the street.
We’ve learned about Kenneth McDuff the hard way. An investigation after his most recent orgy of murders resulted in the prosecution of the former chairman of the parole board, who was convicted of perjury, and prompted the Legislature to reform the parole procedure. The McDuffs of the world put the criminal justice system to the test, but in the end the system prevailed. A few days before Colleen Reed’s memorial service, McDuff received yet another stay of execution, but less than two weeks later, a judge in Waco lifted the stay and set November 17 as his execution date. By the time you read this, God willing, Kenneth McDuff will be rotting in hell.