The Murders at the Lake
In 1982 a brutal triple homicide shook the city of Waco and soon became one of the most confounding criminal cases in Texas history—one that still haunts the many people who have tried to solve it.
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.
II. The Detective
Jan Evans didn’t know anything about Waco before she moved there, in June 1981. An attractive blonde from Detroit, the 29-year-old thought the city’s name was pronounced “Wacko” and assumed its residents got around on horses. She was a tomboy who had grown up wanting to be a cop, like her grandfather, and joined the Detroit Police Department in 1977. But four years later she was laid off, and wanting to live someplace warm, she applied for a job in Texas. The Waco Police Department offered her a position, and when she arrived, she was pleasantly surprised to find that the city had cars and paved roads.
Evans threw herself into her job as a patrol officer; though she knew that many Southern cops believed police work should be reserved for men, her fearlessness and forceful attitude quickly earned her a reputation, in the words of Chief Larry Scott, as “one of the best officers we had in the department.” The Lake Waco murders, which took place a year after she arrived on the force, were a rude awakening. Evans had seen plenty of murder and mayhem in her career, but nothing this macabre. Though she didn’t take part in the investigation, she followed it avidly, and she was relieved when David Spence, Muneer Deeb, and Gilbert and Tony Melendez were finally put away.
Evans liked Waco. She found that the weather and the laid-back, friendly attitude of Texas suited her. She also fell in love with a fellow officer, J. R. Price, whom she married; the two bought some land out in the country and acquired a few horses. Evans changed her name to Jan Price, and after several dedicated years on the force, she became a detective.
Almost five months after the final conviction in the lake murders, at around noon on March 2, 1986, Price got a call about a questionable death at a house on North Fifteenth Street. It was a Sunday, and she had been working with one of her horses, but she was the on-call detective that week. J.R., who also got the call, was to serve as crime-scene investigator; taking separate cars, Price met him and Ramon Salinas at the address. There they found a footprint on the front door, which had been kicked in, and some smudged fingerprints around the house. In the back bedroom, facedown on the bed, lay the nude body of a 54-year-old woman. She had been raped, sodomized, beaten, and suffocated. Her name was Juanita White. She was David Spence’s mother.
White, the investigators learned, had gotten off work the previous night at nine-thirty, after her shift at Uncle Dan’s Barbecue, where she bused tables and washed dishes. When she didn’t show up for church the next morning, her Sunday school teacher stopped by the house and found her. White had struggled with her attacker—her nose was broken, her ear torn, her body battered. She also had marks on her skin that looked as if they’d been made by teeth. The contents of White’s purse were strewed across the floor, and her car was missing; the vehicle was found several hours later at an apartment complex about fifteen blocks away.
The crime struck Price as unbearably sad. White was poor and had had a hard life; she’d been married four times and had lived long enough to see her son vilified as a monster, only to die like this. To make matters worse, seven hours after the officers finished searching White’s home, they received a call to return to the scene: the house had been broken into again. The intruder had not taken anything of value—the TV was still there—but had ransacked the front bedroom, opening several boxes and scattering papers everywhere. The bedroom, Price discovered, had been Spence’s. “Somebody went in there looking for something,” she told me years later, recalling the strangeness of the case.
Price soon learned that White had been conducting her own investigation into the lake murders—going to bars and asking questions, interviewing figures in Waco’s demimonde, looking for evidence to prove that her son hadn’t killed the three teenagers. White had another son, Steve Spence, who told officers that she had begun to receive threats; she also thought her phone was tapped.
Price was astounded to find that a few days before her death, White had received a letter from Spence that had been sent to him by Robert Snelson, one of the men who had testified against him; he was the informant who told jurors that Spence had confessed to biting off Jill’s nipple. In his letter, Snelson wrote that he had made his testimony up. White rushed the letter over to Russ Hunt, Spence’s trial lawyer. “She was really excited,” he recalled. “She was sure it would result in her son’s exoneration.” Hunt, who still believed that Spence was innocent, made copies, one of which he sent to the U.S. attorney’s office. Leon Chaney, a private investigator who knew the case, remembered, “[White] called Hunt and me all the time; she was going to give us all these leads. On that Friday, she said, ‘I think I’ve found out what happened. I have a witness.’ ”
Two days later, White was dead. Price began to work the murder, but within days, she learned that someone—either from the sheriff’s office or the DA’s office—had been making calls to the Dallas County crime lab, where White’s body had been sent, to ask for the preliminary autopsy results. This was unusual; as far as Price knew, no one outside the WPD was on the case. Then, within a week, the DA’s office asked for all the police files on White. Vic Feazell was taking over the case and appointing Truman Simons as his investigator.
“I’d never heard of the DA getting involved so quickly in an investigation,” recalled J.R. “Two weeks into a whodunit like the White case, you’re just getting started.” Price would continue working the case for the WPD, but she felt blindsided, as if she had done something wrong. Other officers weren’t so surprised. They’d seen Simons take over an investigation before. (Simons has said that he got involved only after he received calls from a few of his informants.)
The rift between the WPD and Simons made Price nervous. She knew of the deputy’s reputation for relying on informants and had heard negative things about him from her fellow officers; as she would later say in a deposition, people arrested by the WPD “were getting right back out of jail because they were supplying information to Simons.” (Simons has always denied that he made deals with suspects, saying he didn’t have the power. As he testified in a deposition in 1997, “I’m a deputy sheriff, I’m not an assistant DA or a prosecutor. I don’t have the authority to do anything.”)
When Simons contacted Price, he told her that he already had a suspect. As soon as he’d heard about White’s death, he’d called Dennis Baier, who told him that a black man had been seen exiting White’s stolen car. Simons promptly put out feelers to his contacts on the street and got a name: Calvin Washington, a 31-year-old ne’er-do-well who, it turned out, had recently landed in the McLennan County jail for car theft. Simons had searched Washington’s sister’s apartment, where he had been arrested, and found a sweatshirt that appeared to have blood on it, as well as some tennis shoes whose treads Simons thought might match the footprint on White’s door.
The deputy had also heard—from other officers or his informants—that White had been bitten by her assailant, and so on March 17 he visited Washington in jail and asked for his permission to take a dental mold. (Simons would later say that it was Price who believed the wounds on White’s body were bite marks and that they agreed to get the mold after looking at autopsy photos together; Price insists that the mold already existed when she and Simons joined forces.)
Price was stunned that Simons had taken his investigation so far without her, but she agreed to accompany him to go speak with Jim Hale, a forensic odontologist in Dallas who was studying the Washington mold. She had been a detective for only two years at that point, and they were after a vicious killer. Perhaps Simons’s informants knew what they were talking about. Hale, at least, seemed to reassure her that Simons was on the right track. When the officers got to Dallas, he informed them that Washington’s mold matched the wounds on White’s body.
Simons told Price that, through his informants, he had learned that Washington had had a partner in crime, a nineteen-year-old named Joe Sidney Williams. When they returned to Waco, Simons set about gathering information on the young man, talking assiduously to sources both in and out of jail. Price continued investigating too, but she became increasingly frustrated with her partner. For one thing, Simons wasn’t filing any reports. “He didn’t want to tell you anything beyond ‘This is what I’ve got,’ ” Price told me. (Simons later testified that he didn’t file reports because the WPD and the sheriff’s office had different reporting systems and it would “mess up the statistics.”) And although Simons initially shared leads from his informants, Price told me that when she tried to corroborate their claims, several of them said Simons had instructed them not to talk to her. (Simons testified that he fully cooperated with Price.)
By mid-April, Price’s frustration had turned to suspicion of Simons’s techniques. As she would later testify, she had checked with the courthouse records and found out that many of the jailhouse informants were getting their cases dismissed by the DA’s office. Furthermore, in her view, the evidence that Simons had gathered was not very impressive—the blood on the sweatshirt, it turned out, was barely a drop, and the sneakers did not match the shoe print from the front door.
Then Price began to develop a different suspect. On May 1 a woman who lived a few blocks from White was violently attacked in her home. She was beaten with a hammer, raped, and left for dead. As in White’s case, the assailant had kicked in the door; he had also stolen her purse. The woman survived and identified her attacker, a young man named Benny Carroll, who had been dating her granddaughter. Eight days after the assault, Carroll was arrested for the rape, and he pleaded guilty. According to Price, she tried to share this development with Simons, but the deputy was too busy gathering information on Williams, who was arrested the following month for burglary. (Simons would later disagree and say that it was Price who fingered Williams as a suspect after his arrest.) A mold was promptly made of Williams’s teeth too. This time it was sent to Homer Campbell, the expert in Spence’s trial, along with Washington’s mold and White’s autopsy photos. When Campbell reported his results, his conclusion was different from Hale’s—it was Williams, he said, not Washington, who had bitten White. Nevertheless, Simons believed he had found his men.
Price didn’t agree with him, and neither did several of her fellow WPD officers, so in July, when Feazell held a press conference to announce the indictments, the cops kept their distance. By now the tension between the WPD and the DA’s office had grown to an all-time high. Not long after WFAA’s investigative series on alleged corruption in Feazell’s office had aired the previous year, Feazell had filed a libel suit against the TV station; its parent company, Belo; and one of its reporters. Feazell also included Chief Scott, who had publicly accused him of refusing to prosecute valid criminal cases. The acrimony was about to get even worse. In September 1986 Feazell was arrested on federal racketeering and bribery charges; once again, the DA claimed it was a retaliatory move by local and federal forces for the embarrassment he’d brought to the Texas Rangers in the Henry Lee Lucas case. “I think you all know what’s going on,” the DA told news cameras as he was taken into the federal courthouse in Austin. (He was acquitted of all charges in June 1987, and four years later his libel suit concluded with a jury’s awarding him $58 million, the biggest libel verdict in U.S. history.)
Meanwhile, Price refused to close the White case; though she now had other investigations to work on, she was convinced that Williams and Washington were innocent and spent her spare time interviewing their lawyers and sources on the street. The following summer, in August 1987, Williams went on trial. The case was a slam dunk for prosecutors, who presented the same type of evidence in White’s murder—informant testimony and bite-mark evidence—that had been used against her son just a few years earlier. Eight informants, two of whom had been in jail with Williams, took the stand. Campbell identified four bite marks on White’s body and testified that “the dentition of Mr. Williams [was] consistent with the injury” on her hip.
Though Price had been the police department’s investigating officer, she wasn’t called as a state witness. Instead she, along with three other WPD cops, testified for the defense to say how untrustworthy the informants were. When Williams was nevertheless found guilty and given a life sentence, Price was so peeved that she stepped up her informal investigation. She interviewed Washington and Williams again. She talked to inmates, some of whom claimed that Simons’ sources were liars. Others told her about special treatment that informants got from Simons, who gave them cigarettes, food, and time alone with their wives and girlfriends. (Simons has always denied giving inmates conjugal visits.)
In November Chief Scott decided to make Price’s investigation official. He gave her a partner, Officer Frank Turk, and took them off all other cases so they could look directly into the DA’s and Simons’s handling of the White case. “It’s the only time I’ve ever seen the police investigate a DA,” said Walter Reaves, who, after working as Spence’s lawyer, had gone on to represent Williams. Price and Turk made quick headway. On November 17 they spoke with Otis Douglas, an informant who had testified against Williams. Though he didn’t exactly recant, Douglas told them, “I feel Joe Williams and Calvin Washington are being railroaded.” They then spoke to WPD officer Mike Nicoletti, who gave a statement saying that on October 31 an inmate named Arthur Brandon had told him about a deal he’d made: if he testified against Washington, Simons would drop a pending murder charge. (The charge was indeed dropped, but Simons has said repeatedly that only the DA had the power to drop charges.)
On November 19 a furious Feazell dragged Price and Scott before a grand jury, cross-examined the detective, and demanded that she turn over her files on the White case. Price obliged, agreeing to halt the investigation until after Washington went to trial. But at the end of the hearing, she walked up to the DA and gave him a message. “When I’m done with the White case,” she told him, “I’m going to look into the lake murders.” (Feazell declined to be interviewed for this story, although he did communicate his view that Price’s account of these events was untrustworthy. “Jan Price was arresting our witnesses on the Juanita White case and holding them in the city jail, incommunicado, without access to a magistrate or attorney, trying to pressure them to change their stories,” he wrote in an email.)
Washington’s trial took place that December; he was found guilty and given life. After the trial, Feazell went on the offensive against Price, announcing that he was considering launching a probe for “witness tampering, retaliation, and subornation of perjury” by her and the WPD. Price and Turk returned to their investigation in earnest, tracking down all the informants who had testified against Washington and Williams. Some wouldn’t talk, but three of them recanted their testimony, saying they’d agreed to speak on the record for food, cigarettes, and conjugal visits.
One of these was a woman named Angela Miles, who had been serving time for burglary. At Williams’s trial, she had testified that she saw Williams and Washington in a club parking lot, sitting near White’s car. Now she told Price in detail how Simons had visited her after hearing that she had dated Washington; though she’d told him she had no information to offer, he kept returning, even bringing crime-scene photos. Right before the trial, Simons had written out a statement for her to sign; in it he offered various incriminating facts she knew nothing about. “I don’t know if Calvin Washington or Joe Sidney Williams Jr. killed Mrs. White,” Miles told Price. “I do know that just about every one of the witnesses who said that Calvin or Joe murdered Mrs. White would say anything to benefit themselves.” (In a deposition Simons gave in 1989, he said, “I only talked to Angela Miles one time, and she said that she couldn’t write a statement out, and as she quoted it to me, I wrote it out.” He insisted that he let her examine it. “She didn’t make any changes, she didn’t say anything was wrong with it, and she signed it.”)
The more people Price talked to, the more she doubted the case against Washington and Williams—and wondered about the case against Spence, Deeb, and the Melendez brothers in the lake murders. But the world that she and Turk were investigating was so shadowy that they never got anywhere on the Lake Waco case. Informants they interviewed offered myriad allegations about Feazell and Simons, and the two cops found themselves having to consider the sources. “These people’s whole lives were based on lying,” Price told me.
Price and Turk’s investigation went through May 1988, when she took their findings to the FBI and the U.S. attorney in Waco. Feazell’s antagonism, the open hostility between the DA’s office and the WPD, and the seedy informant underworld she’d spent months in had begun to make her feel paranoid. (“There were times I thought I was going to be ambushed at my house,” she told me.) Now she hoped she could help free Washington and Williams—and cast some light on the DA and his investigator.
But the case went nowhere. “After Feazell was acquitted in the federal case, the feds didn’t want anything more to do with him,” Price remembered. She was devastated. “I was brought up to do things the right way,” she told me. “If something’s not right, you do something about it. To see all this unfolding before my eyes and know I couldn’t stop it was terrible.”
Her ordeal over, Price began keeping tabs on the men who had been sent to death row as a result of Simons’s work, Spence and Deeb. She found herself rooting for two convicted killers. “I was hoping their verdicts would get overturned and they would be tried again so all the details about the investigation would come out.”
In June 1991 she got her wish with Deeb, when the Court of Criminal Appeals overturned his murder conviction. After his direct appeal had been denied, the former shop-keeper, who never wavered in his protestations of innocence, had resolved to free himself: sitting on the floor of his cell at the Ellis Unit, he’d studied law books and typed out cases, trying to learn the rhythms of legal writing. He eventually hammered out a 114-page writ of habeas corpus, a last appeal available to death row inmates in which evidence can be introduced to allege that their trial was unfair. The writ was full of typos but also cogent arguments; Deeb was granted a new trial when the court ruled that the jailhouse informant’s testimony that had been used against him was hearsay.
Spence wasn’t so lucky. The inmate had taken his mother’s death hard; his ex-wife, June Ewing, whom he had married and divorced years before, reported after a visit that he’d stood in the prison yard and screamed at the sky in anguish, “Are you real? Is my mother with you?” Sixteen months after White was murdered, Hunt and Fuller filed Spence’s direct appeal with the CCA. It was denied.
Spence’s execution date was set for October 17, 1991.
III. The Lawyer
In 1991 Texas was carrying out more executions than any other state. After the U.S. Supreme Court reinstituted the death penalty, in 1976, the first Texas execution took place in 1982; by the end of that decade, the state was responsible for 33 of the country’s 116 executions. There were many reasons for this: Texas’s law-and-order tradition, its system of electing tough-on-crime judges, its practice of appointing low-paid, inexperienced defense lawyers. Perhaps more significant, however, was the fact that Texas, unlike many states, had no law requiring that a death row inmate be granted legal representation for his writ of habeas corpus. In fact, it was standard practice for judges to set death dates before inmates had even filed these appeals.
Texas’s execution tally attracted the interest of anti–death penalty activists everywhere, and in 1988 a federally funded nonprofit known as the Texas Resource Center opened its doors in Austin to offer pro bono help to death row inmates, either by connecting them with law firms who could help with their habeas appeals or by representing them in-house. The TRC lawyers faced an enormous task: to persuade the courts that their clients, whom they knew in most cases to be guilty, had received an unfair trial or death sentence and thus deserved a new trial or at least a life sentence. To uncover any facts that might help save their clients—that prosecutors had concealed evidence, for example, or that an inmate had suffered an abusive childhood or was mentally disabled—the attorneys had to reinvestigate every case, searching through files and trial transcripts, visiting with inmates, and traveling far and wide to find old and new witnesses. The lawyers worked nonstop, often juggling several cases at once in a race against the clock, filing appeals and motions up until the very hour of a scheduled execution.
It was grueling, often heartbreaking work, and it tended to attract young, idealistic lawyers, like two attorneys in their late twenties named Rob Owen and Raoul Schonemann. Owen, a Harvard law graduate from Georgia, moved to Texas to work for the nonprofit in 1989; he encouraged Schonemann, an NYU law grad who’d grown up in Ohio and Indiana, to join him a couple of years later. The two had become friends after working one summer in Atlanta on death penalty cases with the American Civil Liberties Union, and they had developed a passion for representing the doomed. When Schonemann arrived for work, in the summer of 1991, he was immediately enthralled by the TRC’s pace. Six or seven full-time lawyers handled five to ten appeals at any given time, for convicts who had sometimes just weeks, or days, to live. “It was one crisis after another,” Schonemann told me. “Like a legal MASH unit.”
David Spence’s case came before the TRC that same summer. The nonprofit’s executive director scrambled to find a firm to represent him, but no one wanted to defend a man who’d twice been convicted of butchering three teenagers. Finally, on Labor Day, with 45 days until his execution, Owen and Schonemann were assigned the case. The two friends quickly got to work, furiously reading through thousands of pages of transcripts from Spence’s two trials and numerous files from the McLennan County DA’s office. The more they understood of the case, the more troubling they found it: the types of evidence used against their client—jailhouse testimony and bite marks—were well-known in legal circles to be unreliable. Other evidence, meanwhile, had never been turned over to defense attorneys, including dozens of police reports that seemed to contradict the murder-for-hire theory. Some reports noted that several people had seen Tab Harper, one of the police’s early suspects, at Koehne Park the night of the murders; witnesses also said he had bragged about killing three people. Other reports contained statements from people who claimed that the victims were heavy drug users; one witness said a friend of a friend had gone to the park that night to collect a $3,000 drug debt from Kenneth.
Then there was the report detailing a bizarre polygraph test taken by Kenneth’s father, Richard Franks. Franks had originally told a newspaper reporter that when his son didn’t return home, he became anxious that Kenneth might be in trouble and went out looking for him at four-thirty in the morning. But later he told the police that he was out driving around the parks at about eight in the evening; this inconsistency, among other details, had prompted Detective Ramon Salinas and Lieutenant Marvin Horton to briefly consider Franks a suspect. The polygraph, given twelve days after the murders, was ultimately inconclusive—yet decidedly strange. According to the report, Franks had become extremely upset toward the end of the test. “Oh, God, I was with them every minute all night when they were killed,” he sobbed. “I don’t have any guilt feelings about causing their deaths.”
“It was all mind-blowing,” Schonemann told me. He and Owen found plenty of evidence implicating others, yet little that pointed to their own client. In fact, not one of the seventeen people interviewed by police who had been at Koehne Park that night mentioned Spence or the Melendez brothers—or anyone who looked like them. It began to dawn on both lawyers that the Spence case was going to be different from any they had handled before.
The two lawyers hit the road, driving all over Central Texas to interview as many original witnesses and jurors as they could find. They also tried to track down all the jailhouse informants. But they were running out of time: Spence had been convicted of murder twice, which meant the lawyers had to file a habeas writ in two trial courts, and it had already taken a month just to read all the documents. On October 16, fourteen hours before Spence was scheduled to die, Owen and Schonemann filed a 164-page writ in each court, in which they stated that in only six weeks of investigating they’d discovered “strong indications of astonishing state misconduct” in the case against Spence for the Lake Waco murders. The prosecutors, Owen and Schonemann wrote, had “engaged in a campaign of deception that was breathtaking in its scope,” including withholding evidence that was exculpatory. The two asked for a stay of execution.
The trial judges postponed Spence’s execution to give the state time to respond, rescheduling the date for December 19. McLennan County DA John Segrest, who had succeeded Vic Feazell, filed a blistering answer. “These are serious allegations against public officials sworn to seek justice,” read the response. There had been no suppression of exculpatory evidence, the brief stated, and the police reports would not have made a difference in Spence’s verdicts. (As for Franks’s polygraph, “without context, it is just as likely that Richard Franks’ statement was that he was with them ‘in spirit.’ ”)
Spence’s prosecutors, in fact, had long maintained that they had turned over everything to the defense that they were required to. At a pretrial hearing in 1984, Spence’s lawyers Russ Hunt and Hayes Fuller had requested that all evidence in the state’s files, even documents the prosecution did not consider exculpatory, be turned over to Judge George Allen for an in-camera inspection in his chambers. The judge had agreed, and Feazell and Ned Butler, the assistant DA, had complied. Allen never disclosed anything from the file to the defense. (Years later, Feazell would tell the Waco Tribune-Herald that the accusation that he had not disclosed exculpatory evidence was “a total lie.”)
But Owen and Schonemann had bought themselves two more months, so they went out on the road again. They knew they had to attack the jailhouse testimony; if Robert Snelson had lied, they figured, other inmates probably had too. Owen tracked down one informant, Jesse Ivy, who had testified that Spence had admitted to killing the teenagers; now Ivy told Owen that Spence had said nothing of the sort. Simons and Butler had shown him photos and given him details, he explained. “The [murders] made me very angry,” Ivy wrote in an affidavit, so he’d talked about them with other inmates. “You could say that Truman Simons and Ned Butler put the facts of the case in my mouth, and I put them into the mouths of the other guys in the jail.”
There was also former inmate Kevin Mikel, who explained how he’d learned details of the murders. “Many times Simons fed me specific pieces of factual information about the crime,” he said in his affidavit, “and then later asked me to relate the information back to him for one of ‘my’ statements.” Simons showed him crime-scene photos and had been the one who told him about the bra tied around Raylene’s ankle. The lawyers found two other jailhouse inmates who had not testified but nevertheless claimed that Simons had fed them information also, offering them leniency and favorable treatment if they turned the words into testimony.
The original case seemed to be unraveling before the lawyers’ eyes. Their suspicions about the jailhouse testimony were further confirmed when they met with Jan Price. “I thought it would be awkward,” Schonemann remembered. “I assumed she wouldn’t be willing to speak with us, but she was candid and forthcoming.” Sitting at a Denny’s in Waco, the three discussed Simons’s work with informants, and Price gave an affidavit about the Juanita White case. “Simons’ ‘investigation’ included numerous promises to jailhouse inmates and the outright fabrication of evidence against the unlucky ‘suspects,’ ” she alleged.
The lawyers also found persuasive reasons to doubt the bite-mark evidence. They met with Lieutenant Horton, who stated in an affidavit that the medical examiner had initially told him that marks on Jill’s breast were “definitely not” bites; it was only after she reexamined the photos and talked with Butler that she changed her opinion. In addition, Owen hired a former president of the American Board of Forensic Odontology, Thomas Krauss, to review Homer Campbell’s conclusions; Krauss pronounced Campbell’s methodology “well outside the mainstream.” The lawyers then found that in August 1984, just two months after Campbell had testified against Spence, he made a mistake that called his expertise into question: he positively identified the remains of a woman alongside a highway in Arizona as those of a missing Florida teenager by comparing the dead woman’s teeth with an enhanced photo of the teenager’s teeth. “They matched exactly,” Campbell told a reporter. Two years later, the teenager turned up alive.
On November 27 Owen and Schonemann filed a supplement to their habeas writs with the Court of Criminal Appeals. The court was not impressed: one week before Spence’s execution date, the judges denied his appeal, sending Owen and Schonemann into another scramble. Their only option now was to go to the federal courts. On December 18, the day before Spence was to die, the lawyers filed for a stay of execution as well as a federal habeas corpus petition, citing 25 grounds for reversal. To their relief, the federal district court granted both. The fight for Spence’s life was back on.
Spence, of course, was not the only client Owen and Schonemann were responsible for; as they worked on his behalf, they were also managing the appeals of several other death row inmates. But Schonemann felt strongly about Spence, and the lawyer made frequent visits to the Ellis Unit to interview the convict. “He had had such an obviously unfair trial,” he told me. “The constitutional violations were egregious.”
The two men could not have been more different. As the mild-mannered Schonemann knew, Spence had a rough history—his ex-girlfriend Christine Juhl had told the police that he beat her, and testimony at the close of his first trial had included allegations of violent rape. But the inmate also had a soft side, composing poetry and writing heartfelt letters to Price, Gilbert Melendez, and Schone-mann himself. He sent gifts to Russ Hunt, including an elaborate stagecoach made out of popsicle sticks and a clock made of matchsticks.
“I was very fond of David,” Schonemann told me. “He was a likable guy, intellectually curious, gregarious. He liked reading about everything and loved talking about religion.” Other TRC lawyers who helped Owen and Schonemann with the case, such as Ken Driggs, agreed—Spence may have been a criminal, but he didn’t seem like a killer. “He’d had a real crappy childhood,” Driggs remembered, “and probably had a lot of anger, but I never read him as a dangerous guy, unlike some others we worked with.” There was no reliable forensic evidence that Spence had killed the teenagers—and to all his lawyers, he had consistently maintained his innocence. Yet there was one nagging question: How to explain the many people who’d heard him say he was the murderer? They couldn’t all be lying.
A possible answer came from Spence’s ex-wife, June, who, besides Schonemann, was one of the inmate’s most consistent visitors. On her first visit, she’d demanded to know the truth, and then she’d kept asking. “I’d say, ‘David, if you did this, you deserve to die,’ ” she told me when we talked last May. “He’d say, ‘June, I didn’t do this.’ ” Once a year, she would bring the couple’s two sons, Joel and Jason, for a four-hour, no-contact visit. He had never been violent with her or them, she recalled. “We used to fight. I’d knock the shit out of him, and he’d say, ‘You done?’ He never bullied me or bit me. He wasn’t perfect. He wasn’t very intelligent. But he was kindhearted to those he loved. I left him because he was drinking and smoking too much weed.”
June became convinced that Spence had bragged falsely about committing the murders to earn jailhouse status. He thought he could outsmart Simons, she said, and used the jailer to get phone call privileges with Juhl. “He wanted to be something more than he was, something big,” she told me. “I’d heard he was claiming he did it. I told him, ‘This guy is saying you told him all those stories—why is everyone talking about it? Did you say it to be a big man?’ He said yes. ‘So someone would keep coming back to talk to you?’ ‘Yes.’ He told me he didn’t have any idea it would get so out of hand.”
Though Schonemann never saw this side of Spence, some of the inmate’s other lawyers did. “David was kind of a braggart,” Hunt told me. “I wouldn’t doubt that he started saying the police thought he did it, or he might have said he did it, to make himself look like a badass. He probably thought that a credible investigation would show he didn’t do it.” Owen concurred. “He wouldn’t be the first inmate to falsely confess, thinking, ‘They can’t convict me, because I didn’t do it.’ If he did say such things, he couldn’t have realized the scenario that would be created by the bite marks and the company of snitches.”
In April 1992 the federal court denied Spence’s petition for habeas corpus relief. Desperate to keep the case open, Owen and Schonemann filed a motion to amend the judgment, and four months later the court granted them an evidentiary hearing on the case’s exculpatory evidence. By then Schonemann had lost his most important cohort: Owen had received a job offer in Kentucky and left the TRC. A new lawyer, Joel Schwartz, stepped up to help.
Schonemann and Schwartz had no time to lose. There were so many witnesses they wanted to call that they first persuaded Judge Norman Black to let them collect depositions instead of having everyone testify in court. Then the two set out to attack what they saw as the most powerful element of the state’s case: the accomplice testimony of the Melendez brothers. Schonemann had been visiting Gilbert and Tony periodically since 1991; though both had told him they had lied in their statements and testimony, they refused to speak on the record. The brothers were set to testify against Muneer Deeb at his retrial, in December 1992 in Fort Worth, and both had been promised help with their paroles if they did.
Then, on the eve of trial, Schonemann got a surprise. In advance of their testimony, Tony and Gilbert had been brought to Fort Worth, and the two were allowed to see each other for the first time in ten years. After talking, the brothers refused to take the stand against Deeb. Their decision would prove pivotal: after two weeks of testimony, in a ruling that sent shock waves through Waco, Deeb was found not guilty. Simons, an observer in the courtroom, was flabbergasted. “That’s hard to believe,” said the deputy to reporters as he walked out. Feazell, who had followed the trial from Austin, where he now worked as a private attorney, was also taken aback. “I am perplexed and bewildered, as I’m sure a lot of people are,” he told the Waxahachie Daily Light.
Schonemann visited Tony and Gilbert again. Each brother now spoke at length, officially recanting his testimony about Spence. Tony said he had learned of the lake murders from other inmates, the media, and interviews with Simons; though he had insisted to his lawyers that he was innocent, he’d pleaded guilty because they warned him he would get the death penalty if he went to trial. Gilbert said that he had been clueless too, throwing in details he had heard on the news. “I thought that actually when I started giving the statement,” he said in a deposition, “[Simons] would see that I didn’t know what I was talking about and tell me I was full of shit and I was lying. That didn’t happen. He ended up helping me make the statement, and I just got deeper into this.”
Simons hadn’t expressly told him what to say, Gilbert continued, but he’d made suggestions and given alternative scenarios. When the deputy drove Gilbert out to Koehne and Speegleville parks for the inmate to walk him through the crime, Gilbert said, he had taken his cues from Simons when identifying the spot where the teenagers were killed. “I didn’t have any idea,” Gilbert said in the deposition. “I just guessed at it.”
In truth, back in December 1983 Gilbert had told his first trial lawyers that he had made up his story based on some offhand bragging Spence had done just six weeks after the murders. The two had been sitting on a picnic table at Koehne Park, Gilbert said, when Spence brought up the crime. “This is where they say those three teenagers were killed,” he said Spence told him. “Me and some friends of mine from Fort Worth, you know, we did that, we took care of them.” When Gilbert didn’t believe him, Spence described how he’d picked up the teenagers at the tables. “He said one of them had some big tits,” Gilbert told his lawyers. “He said, ‘I tried to tie the other one up with her bra.’ ” Spence also said he’d driven their bodies across the bridge to Speegleville. Gilbert had initially brushed the incident off. “He likes to brag a lot,” he told his lawyers, “and I just thought he was just trying to brag about that because he thought it was something cool.”
Though he’d ended up retracting all his statements, Gilbert now told Schonemann, he had agreed to testify against Spence at his second trial because “it looked like it was just a hopeless cause.” Spence had already been found guilty; what would a jury do to a two-time felon who was Mexican American? So he gave a new statement, with even more detail, and pleaded guilty. Simons, he claimed, got him food and visits with his girlfriend in the DA’s office and said he would help him get parole.
Schonemann was encouraged. Simons’s exchanges with the Melendez brothers had never been revealed to Spence’s defense lawyers. And other law enforcement officers, the TRC team was learning, had always doubted Gilbert’s statements. One of those was Chief Larry Scott. “Mainly because of the number of them,” Scott stated in his own deposition. “[Simons] brought to my office no less than five separate confessions.” The WPD’s policy, he said, was simple: “If it’s additional information that you are wanting to put in their confession, you put a supplement to it, you don’t take a whole new confession.”
Horton had also been suspicious. “I heard Truman Simons say to Gilbert Melendez, ‘Gilbert, we’re going to turn the recorder off now and get our story straight, and then we’ll turn the recorder back on,’ ” he said in an affidavit. “I remember thinking that that was the stupidest thing I had ever heard an investigator say.” (Simons later said in a deposition that “[Horton’s] whole affidavit was a lie.”) Even Butler seemed to have sensed the unsoundness of Gilbert’s statements. Early in the investigation, the prosecutor had written a note on his stationery: “G[ilbert] M[elendez] told [fellow inmate] Robert [Garcia] he did not know anything but was going to make up a story to get off of [the] sexual abuse case.”
Why would Gilbert confess to such a horrible crime if he didn’t commit it? “I didn’t have a choice,” he would say several years later. “I was going to get convicted of those murders whether I did it or not. It was either plead guilty and stay alive or go to trial and get a death sentence. I believe that by confessing, I saved my life.”
Back at the TRC, Schonemann’s peers found the Melendez recantations encouraging. The nonprofit didn’t get many wins in its fight against the death penalty, but Spence’s case was looking promising. Feeling buoyed, Schonemann and Schwartz, now joined by Ken Driggs, decided to again attack the only physical evidence against Spence: the bite marks. Though there was nothing exculpatory in the odontology testimony, the lawyers decided to address it at the upcoming hearing anyway, just to put it in the record. “We were pulling out all the stops,” Schonemann explained to me.
Despite the fact that U.S. courts had been admitting forensic odontology since 1954, it was a highly contested practice, with no proven record or methodology to show that a person’s teeth left a unique impression or could be matched to a mark on the skin. Krauss, the odontology expert that Schonemann and Owen hired for their first writs, had suggested back in 1991 that the TRC set up a blind panel of odontologists and do a two-part study: analyze the autopsy photographs for marks, then compare the marks with dental molds from Spence and four other subjects. Now Driggs asked Krauss to set up the study. Krauss did, choosing five experts around the country. He sent them molds and five-by-seven autopsy photos, refusing to enhance the images as Campbell had done because, according to other experts, doing so could produce false or misleading results.
The results, as they came in, proved astonishing. Though the experts identified several patterns that were possibly bite marks, they couldn’t go much further. One said the photos were of such poor quality that he refused to compare them against the molds. A second wrote that the marks were “more likely than not made by insects or artifacts.” If the purpose of the exercise, he continued, was to match these marks to a set of teeth, “it borders on the unbelievable.” A third thought that some contusions on one body were “probable human bite marks,” but he couldn’t match any of the molds to them. Two others did match a mark to one of the molds, but it was not Spence’s. It belonged to a housewife from Phillipsburg, Kansas.
Unfortunately, however, the odontologists took a long time completing their assessments, and as the October 1993 deadline for the depositions approached, the TRC team realized the full odontology report was going to be late. So they filed all the other documents they had collected—including fifteen witness depositions—and when Krauss sent the final results of the study three months later, they filed those too. Then the lawyers waited. This, Schonemann felt, was Spence’s last good shot at a new trial.
On February 16, 1994, Schonemann got his answer. In a mere three paragraphs, Judge Black rejected eighteen months of grueling, pavement-pounding work. He was “not persuaded that this evidence [was] material,” he wrote of the TRC’s findings. Schonemann had never felt so low. “I was absolutely crushed,” he told me. “Judge Black didn’t address anything we had done.”
Schonemann and his team appealed to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in December 1994. Then, just when it seemed things couldn’t get worse, in September 1995 the TRC found itself forced to shut its doors. Congress, no longer willing to pay to defend convicted murderers, had pulled the nonprofit’s funding. Schonemann found himself without a job. Spence found himself with no lawyers.
Schonemann was not about to give up: after landing a job at the Capital Punishment Clinic at the University of Texas School of Law, he continued to represent Spence pro bono. But he braced himself for more bad news, which—hardly to his surprise now—he got in March 1996, when the Fifth Circuit turned down his client’s appeal. In her opinion, Judge Edith Jones acknowledged that the prosecution had withheld evidence but reasoned that, even if the evidence had been revealed, it would not have affected the jury. She also reasoned that though a couple of jailhouse informants may have lied, such revelations would not have changed the outcome either. She recognized the inconsistencies in Gilbert’s testimony but said his words had been corroborated at Spence’s second trial by Tony—as well as by the bite-mark evidence. “David Spence’s hideous cruelty permeates the testimony of each man,” Jones wrote. In the end, she went on, justice had been delivered when one “dogged police officer, Truman Simons, volunteered to pursue the investigation.”
Spence by this time had grown resigned to his fate. “He always told me he’d be dead before the truth came out,” remembered June. “He accepted it and said, ‘I’m going home. I’m going to see my mom.’ ”
Schonemann, however, was frantic. He tried to interest national media outlets in the story, even sending a pitch to 60 Minutes, but every journalist passed. “Reporters wanted a cut-and-dried case,” he remembered. The Spence case was much too complicated.
Eight months after the Fifth Circuit’s ruling, Schonemann got a call from John McLemore, an investigator who worked for Brian Pardo, a Waco insurance magnate. McLemore and Pardo had recently met Spence when the two were invited by a prison ministry to visit the Ellis Unit. A conservative who favored the death penalty, Pardo had asked to see his hometown’s most infamous killer, expecting to find a monster. Instead he’d come face to face with a chubby middle-aged man who insisted he was innocent.
Pardo was intrigued. He sent McLemore to visit Schonemann, who handed over trial transcripts and case briefs for them to read. As Pardo worked through the documents, he grew incredulous. “There was no evidence he was guilty,” he would later tell NBC’s Dateline. McLemore also became uneasy. “I was amazed,” he told me. “I thought, ‘How can you put someone on death row without evidence? I’m not sure he’s innocent, and I’m not sure he’s a good guy. But what is happening is wrong.’ ”
Pardo set up a war room at his corporate headquarters and hired additional investigators. In February Spence got his new date with death: April 3, 1997. There was no time to lose, and the group feverishly got to work. McLemore sent out copies of the TRC’s brief to journalists, trying to get attention for Spence; he also made a case for the inmate’s innocence in the March 1997 issue of Pardo’s monthly political newsletter, Capitol Watch. Pardo hired a blood-spatter expert, who concluded from crime-scene photos that the teenagers could not have been transported from one park to another; the blood, which had flowed from each body in predictable lines and had not smeared or intermingled, seemed to indicate that they had died where they were found, in Speegleville. If this was true, then the confessions of the Melendez brothers were decidedly false.
Schonemann remembers that Spence was encouraged by his new, unlikely ally. “He thought the cavalry was coming,” he told me. The lawyer, on the other hand, spent the month of March in a state of high anxiety. “When you’re working under an execution date, every minute not spent on the case feels wasted.” He filed motions for stays of execution and successor habeas writs with the Texas courts. He filed petitions with the U.S. Supreme Court, a motion to reconsider with the CCA, and a petition for clemency from the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles and Governor George W. Bush. In late March, he met with two of Bush’s legal aides. “You’ve convinced me that something’s seriously wrong with Waco law enforcement,” one of the aides told him, “but you haven’t convinced me that Spence is innocent.”
“If we could conclusively prove innocence,” replied Schonemann, “we would be asking the governor for a pardon, not a life sentence. There is far too much doubt to carry out an execution. It’s immoral to go forward with this much doubt.’ ”
On the morning of April 3, Spence met with his loved ones, including June, one of his sons, and his brother. He signed the paperwork for disposition of his personal property and recited the 23rd Psalm, saying it gave him peace. June asked him to spend ten minutes alone with each of them. “Give us all something,” she said. Schonemann spoke with him too. There was some hope, he told Spence—there were still petitions pending.
But the CCA denied Schonemann’s last-ditch motion, followed by the Supreme Court and the Board of Pardons, which turned down his requests at four o’clock that afternoon. At a quarter before six, Governor Bush, Spence’s last hope, also denied a reprieve.
Spence was strapped onto the gurney in the execution chamber. As IVs were placed in each arm, he looked through the glass at relatives of the Lake Waco victims. Kenneth’s mother, Sandra Sadler, had come to watch, as had Jill’s brother, Brad; her sister, Monica; and their father, Rod.
“I want you to understand I speak the truth when I say I didn’t kill your kids,” said Spence. “Honestly, I have not killed anyone. I wish you could get the rage from your hearts and you could see the truth and get rid of the hatred.”
Brad was having none of it. “Just die,” he said, glaring at Spence through the glass. “Just die.”
Spence turned to his own family. “I love you all,” he said with tears in his eyes. “This is very important. I love y’all and I miss y’all. Okay, now I’m finished.”
At 6:32 p.m., Spence was pronounced dead.
IV. The Journalist
In the spring of 1997 Fredric Dannen had just returned to New York City after a month of reporting in Hong Kong for a magazine article on organized crime. At 41, Dannen had built a formidable writing career, publishing a best-selling nonfiction book about the music business, Hit Men, before joining Vanity Fair and then the New Yorker as a staff writer. A native of New York and an accomplished pianist, Dannen had a small build and an intense disposition, and he was known for his ability to get interviews with tough subjects, from Los Angeles police chief Daryl Gates to New York drug kingpin Lorenzo Nichols. Over the years he had made a name for himself as an investigative reporter with a penchant for penetrating dark and complicated worlds, such as those of the Mafia and the gangs of Chinatown.
On March 30 Dannen was busy writing in his apartment when the phone rang. On the line was a publicist he knew who happened to do work for Brian Pardo; the publicist asked if he wanted to take a look at one of the habeas writs for David Spence. Dannen was preoccupied with his article but asked the publicist to messenger it over. He didn’t know a lot about the death penalty, yet when he read the writ, the inmate’s conviction didn’t make sense. “I kept shaking my head,” he told me. “Spence’s attorneys made a stronger case for prosecutorial misconduct than the state had made against him for murder. It’s not that I thought he was innocent, but I thought, ‘They can’t execute him based on this record.’ ”
Nonetheless, Spence was set to be executed in four days. One thing Dannen was particularly struck by in the writ was the blood-spatter report. He sat down, typed a letter to district judge George Allen, and faxed it to him the next day. “I acknowledge that I am not in possession of all the facts,” he wrote, “but I cannot fathom why, if there is new evidence that casts doubt on the state’s case against Mr. Spence, he should be executed without a hearing.” Dannen added that he planned to look into the case for a magazine story. “I hope that Mr. Spence is still alive when I do so.” He then called the chairman of the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, though by the end of the conversation, he was convinced that Spence had no chance of a reprieve. “I knew they were going to execute him,” he later told me.
On the morning of April 3, Dannen could barely concentrate on his Hong Kong article. He had been in touch with a KXXV television reporter in Waco, who promised to phone him when Spence’s sentence was carried out that evening. Dannen hoped the reporter would call before the execution took place to say a court had stayed it, but she didn’t contact him until his watch read almost eight. “He’s gone,” she said. Dannen felt light-headed, as if he had vertigo. The next day, at lunch with his sister, he shared Spence’s story. “I’ve got to go to Texas and find out what the hell happened,” he told her.
Three months later, Dannen flew to Austin. He had recently left his position at the New Yorker to work as a freelancer, and he thought Spence might be his next story. He had never been to Texas before, and he hired Peter Blum, a retired police detective and friend whom he’d met while reporting on Chinese gangs, to go with him. “For Fred, Texas was as exotic as a foreign country,” remembered Lawrence Wright, a staff writer for the New Yorker (and a former Texas Monthly staffer), who hosted Dannen and Blum in his home, in Austin. “Blum was there to help with research but also I think to act as a bodyguard.”
The two began to make daily trips to Waco, Blum at the wheel of the rental car because Dannen hated to drive. They met with Pardo, who eagerly shared his files. They also sought out Spence’s former attorney Walter Reaves, who was now representing another death row inmate with innocence claims—Cameron Todd Willingham—and Raoul Schonemann, who was still doing work for the Capital Punishment Clinic in Austin and representing death row inmates. Dannen rented an expensive high-speed scanner and began uploading pages and pages of court transcripts, case briefs, and medical reports onto his computer. “Most journalists who came to Texas after Spence was executed weren’t interested in him but in finding stories about the Texas criminal justice system,” remembered Schonemann. “Fred was interested in David Spence.”
Spence, in fact, was about to become the face of a national debate over capital punishment in Texas. The state was on track to see the highest annual number of executions in its history: while only a total of three people had been given a lethal injection in 1996, as of April 1997 Spence was already the fourth inmate to have received one that year, and by July the state had dispatched 24 men (the total for the year would be 37). This spike in executions began to attract the kind of attention for Spence that had eluded him in life. In July New York Times op-ed writer Bob Herbert dedicated three columns to Spence and the death penalty. An HBO documentary released two months later, The Execution Machine: Texas Death Row, featured Spence in his final week. Some forty pounds overweight, his eyes staring blankly, the inmate looked soft and harmless. “If they execute me on April 3,” he told the camera, “it will be a cold-blooded, calculated murder.” Dateline would eventually follow with an hour-long show, in January 1998, that questioned Spence’s guilt.
Dannen, on the ground in Texas, immersed himself in the case. He and Blum met with Vic Feazell, who had gotten divorced and started dabbling in the film business. The former DA remained confident of Spence’s guilt and felt he had nothing to hide; he was even contemplating filing a libel suit against Pardo for maligning him in Capitol Watch. Feazell eventually gave Dannen access to hundreds of tapes he had made of the many conversations in his office about the lake murders. Dannen and Blum also tracked down Truman Simons, who was still a sheriff’s deputy in Waco. The interview went smoothly, so the two were surprised when, as they got up to leave, the conversation took a turn.
“Simons said, ‘What have y’all heard about Waco?’ ” Blum later recalled in an affidavit. “I replied, ‘What’s there to know, Truman?’ Mr. Simons said, ‘People get killed here real easy.’ Then, leaning in for emphasis, he added, ‘Even cops.’ ” Blum and Dannen were taken aback by what they understood to be a threat. Though other people they spoke to said the two New Yorkers were overreacting (“I kept telling Fred and Pete, ‘That’s just how these guys talk,’ ” said Bernadette Feazell, Vic’s ex-wife), the exchange nevertheless made them nervous.
Dannen was something of a curiosity in Waco—a stubborn, garrulous reporter with a New York accent knocking on doors, asking questions about a fifteen-year-old murder case, typing answers feverishly on his laptop—but he had a knack for getting people to open up. He interviewed relatives of the victims, such as Jill’s aunt Jan Thompson, and won over numerous Waco residents. Dannen and Blum also drove to Dallas to meet Muneer Deeb, who in his years out of prison had been profiled in Life magazine; filed a $100 million civil suit against Feazell, Simons, and other law enforcement officials (it was thrown out of court); started a limo company; and spoken on Amnesty International panels, including one with the Dalai Lama. “He’s one of the bravest people I ever met,” Dannen told me. “He was like a death-camp survivor.”
After three months, Dannen and Blum returned to New York. Dannen wasn’t fully convinced of Spence’s innocence—as a veteran journalist, he’d made a career out of being skeptical—but he’d learned enough to know he had the makings of a great story. He began working on a proposal for a book about the lake murders, and in September 1998 he sold the book to Simon & Schuster.
Blum felt strongly that it wasn’t safe for Dannen to continue his reporting on the lake murders, at least not in Waco, and advised him to stay in New York. But Dannen ignored his friend’s warnings, and in October 1998 he returned to Austin alone, taking along his computer and a digital keyboard on which to play Chopin and Gershwin. That same month, after succumbing to complications from HIV, Gilbert Melendez died in prison, a development that only fueled Dannen’s determination.
Dannen bought a Chevy Blazer and took driving lessons, tracking down sources who had never spoken to authorities or who had documents related to the case. He also built friendships with more people around Waco, sometimes crashing on their couches when his reporting kept him late. One night, driving home at midnight after a long interview with Dennis Baier, a discombobulated Dannen was pulled over by a cop for driving the wrong way down a one-way street. The officer was none other than Jan Price. “She scared the hell out of me,” said Dannen. “Talk about a commanding presence. I told her I was exhausted after talking with Baier for five hours. She smiled and said, ‘That would turn anybody’s head around,’ and let me go with a warning.”
From the start, Dannen had been working on a theory, based in part on Schonemann’s writs, that the murders had taken place after a drug deal gone bad. Dannen showed the crime-scene photos to a longtime homicide detective he knew in New York, whose reaction supported this idea. “He said there was no way this was a murder-for-hire,” Dannen told me. “Those kids were stabbed forty-eight times. This was a homicidal frenzy.” There was one person in particular who Dannen figured might offer insight on the matter: Kenneth’s father, Richard Franks, whose accounts of that night had troubled a few police officers.
Kenneth’s parents had divorced in 1975, after Franks had acknowledged he was gay. When Kenneth’s mother moved away, the boy had lived with Franks and his partner, Kenneth King. Dannen reached out to Franks to learn more, but for almost a year, he refused to sit for an interview. Finally Franks relented, and the two men met at a Luby’s on Valley Mills Drive. Dannen found a middle-aged man still mourning his son. “At times he talked as if he was in a trance,” Dannen told me, “almost like he was hypnotized.”
Franks said little about the night his son had died, but Dannen believed that he knew more than he was letting on. Dannen soon found what seemed to be confirmation of this during a visit with Thompson. A soft-spoken, patient woman who kept journals about the Lake Waco investigation, Thompson had attended Spence’s aggravated sexual abuse trial in 1983, as had Franks; it was there, she told Dannen, that Franks had unexpectedly mentioned to her a phone call he’d received the night of the murders that made him think “something was wrong” out at the lake. Who had been the caller? Dannen wondered if the answer lay in another detail Thompson shared with him.
In April 1983 she had received a letter from a young woman who wrote to say that she and her boyfriend had been at Koehne Park and seen Kenneth with the girls in the Pinto. Later in the evening, the woman wrote, she saw Kenneth in the front seat of a maroon Lincoln Continental with Robert Frueh, a local reverend with a fondness for teenage boys who often cruised through Waco’s parks. Her personal opinion, she continued, was that “this Frueh guy had something to do with it.” Frueh was no longer alive—he had been stabbed to death by a teenager in 1991—but Dannen discovered that he had lived less than a block away from Franks. Surely they knew each other, mused Dannen. Had Frueh called Franks because he had seen Kenneth in trouble? Is this what had driven Franks out on a desperate search for his son that night, well before the murders were reported?
The police had seen the letter, and they’d questioned Frueh back in 1982 before letting him go. (Franks was never accused of any wrongdoing.) But Thompson had never stopped wondering if they’d made a mistake. In fact, she told Dannen, though she had felt immeasurable gratitude to Simons and was convinced Spence was a low-life, she had harbored doubts about the case from the beginning. They were vague feelings, and she’d never mentioned them to her family. Yet some things just didn’t add up, such as the prosecution’s mistaken-identity theory; for one thing, Jill had large breasts, while Gayle Kelley was flat-chested, a discrepancy that Thompson felt sure a man like Spence would have noticed. Then there was the gold bracelet at Koehne Park, which Thompson had come to believe was planted. It was only after she had described the bracelet to police that it was found, she told Dannen. When Simons had shown it to her, all she could say was that she’d bought Jill one that looked similar. But this one, she said, looked shiny and brand-new, not like it had been sitting outside for two years.
Convinced he was on the right track, Dannen shared some of his own suspicions with Thompson. He had collected enough evidence, he told her, to believe that the entire case against Spence, Deeb, and the Melendez brothers had been concocted. There was a much stronger case to be made, he felt, for the involvement of Tab Harper, whom witnesses had seen at the park that night and whose name he had encountered in police reports and interviews several times. For the first time in years, Thompson felt calm. “It was such a relief,” she told me, “to know there was somebody who understood how I felt.”
The two became fast allies. Thompson vowed to help Dannen, doing what she could to open doors for him in Waco and Waxahachie as he tried to reconstruct what had happened on July 13, 1982. She liked the journalist, even if she found him odd. “He was a little twitchy,” she told me. “And he didn’t eat just anything.” She made calls and introduced him to sources who might not otherwise have talked, such as a woman who claimed she had seen Harper’s van next to the Pinto that night. After her family’s long heartache, Thompson felt, Dannen was finally going to bring her niece true justice.
Dannen himself was beginning to feel drawn into the lake murders for reasons that went beyond his book contract. The idea that justice had not yet been done—and that he might be able to do something about it—energized him. But first he needed to figure out if his evolving theory about the night had any credence. Based on his reporting, he felt sure it involved Harper, who was allegedly both a drug dealer and close to Kenneth, and two henchmen. Harper was no longer alive to talk; he had killed himself with a shotgun in 1994 when police tried to arrest him after he’d attacked an elderly couple with a knife. Dannen would have to find evidence to support his ideas in other ways.
Since returning to Waco, Dannen had spent a lot of time with Reaves, Spence’s attorney in the abuse case and in his second murder trial. Reaves, who had also represented Joe Sidney Williams, suggested that Dannen take a look at the Juanita White case. Like Price, Reaves was certain that Williams and Calvin Washington had been convicted with faulty evidence. The courts, it seemed, had agreed: in 1992, in a remarkable decision, the Tenth Court of Appeals had overturned Williams’s murder conviction, ruling that testimony against him from one of the informants was inadmissible. After serving seven years, Williams was released in June 1993 and eventually received $31,250 for his time behind bars. “Ex-Inmate Now Free as a Bird” read the front page of the Waco Tribune-Herald.
Washington, however, remained in prison, and Dannen decided to examine his case. In early 1999 he obtained a copy of White’s autopsy report, which noted the presence of semen. At the time of White’s murder, in 1986, DNA testing was not yet an established practice; the first conviction in the United States based on DNA evidence did not occur until 1988, and it was only in the mid- to late nineties that genetic testing became widely used in courts. The semen found on White’s body had never been tested for DNA, Dannen realized with excitement. What might it show if it was?
That June, Dannen tracked down Williams, who was still living in Waco. Over breakfast at the downtown Hilton, he proposed that the former inmate provide a blood sample, so that his DNA could be compared against that of the semen at the crime scene. The first DNA exoneration in the country, in 1989, had come about when the DNA of a Chicago man convicted of rape was shown not to match that of the semen found on his alleged victim’s underwear; since then, this exclusionary approach had led to the exoneration of dozens of others. Now, Dannen told Williams, DNA testing might prove irrefutably that he had not been White’s assailant. Williams put down his fork. “Let’s go right now,” he said.
Williams had blood drawn by a doctor that day, and Dannen had the sample sent to the Tarrant County medical examiner for safekeeping. Then, in August, the journalist visited Washington in prison; he too agreed to provide blood. All Dannen needed at this point was DNA from the crime scene. At Reaves’s request, the DA’s office arranged for four envelopes from White’s rape kit to be sent to the medical examiner; to Dannen’s horror, they were empty. In December, however, he discovered that the crime lab that had performed White’s autopsy had saved vaginal and anal swabs. Dannen and Reaves, as Williams’s lawyer, arranged for all the evidence to be tested at a lab in California named Forensic Analytical, and the DNA results came back in November 2000: the semen did not belong to either Washington or Williams.
Dannen had paid for all the DNA testing himself; by the time the results came in, he’d spent close to $10,000. Now, putting aside any remaining semblance of journalistic objectivity, he signed a paralegal agreement to work for Reaves, who offered to help get Washington out of prison pro bono. “My responsibility to Calvin Washington took precedence over my interests as a journalist and book writer,” Dannen told me. “I was now acting as an unofficial investigator for Mr. Washington.”
One important question remained: Whose semen was it? Dannen, who had read every file in the Lake Waco case, remembered the affidavit Price had given Schonemann in 1991, in which she identified a suspect named Benny Carroll. He and Reaves went looking for Carroll, but to their dismay, he was dead; after being paroled, he had died of a self-inflected gunshot wound, in 1990. There was good news, though: the lab that had performed an autopsy on Carroll had saved some of his blood. McLennan County DA John Segrest ordered that a sample be sent away for DNA testing and received results in February 2001. It was a match.
After further DNA tests on the sweatshirt revealed that the blood on it did not belong to White, as Simons had theorized, Judge Allen ordered Washington released on July 5. In October Governor Rick Perry gave the former inmate a full pardon based on innocence. He had spent more than fifteen years behind bars.
Washington’s exoneration made news across the state. “Waco Men Were Victims of an Investigation Gone Awry” ran an Associated Press headline. Not surprisingly, Feazell didn’t see it that way, telling reporters that the DNA results changed nothing. He pointed to the informant testimony and said there was “pretty solid evidence” that Williams had left a bite mark on White’s body. Simons, who had become a private investigator after retiring from the sheriff’s department in 2000 and now did work for Feazell, agreed. He would later point out that the only thing the DNA proved was that neither Washington nor Williams had raped White; it did not exclude them from the crime scene.
Their opinions were in the minority. “The big paradigm shift for everyone was Calvin Washington,” said Dannen. The idea that there could have been flaws in the Lake Waco convictions was no longer far-fetched. In fact, by this time Dannen had discovered that the crime-scene evidence from the lake murders had never been tested for DNA either, and he was already working on proving that the last of the four defendants, Tony Melendez, was innocent. Reaves had agreed to represent Melendez pro bono too.
While investigating the White case, Dannen had learned that the evidence from Speegleville Park had ended up in the possession of David Chapman, the special prosecutor in Deeb’s retrial. To retrieve it, Dannen had turned to Thompson for help; as a relative of Jill’s, she had the authority to request that her niece’s personal belongings be returned. In September 1999, in a conference room at a Fort Worth Marriott, Chapman delivered boxes containing pieces of clothing, the bloody bindings, the stray hairs, the two beer cans, and more. With Thompson and her husband present as witnesses, Chapman transferred every item to a representative of the Tarrant County medical examiner’s office. Dannen then arranged for a series of DNA tests, beginning with one of the beer cans. When the medical examiner’s tests did not return any DNA profiles, Dannen arranged for the evidence to be sent to Forensic Science Associates (FSA), a California lab run by Ed Blake, one of the country’s pioneering DNA scientists.
In July 2001, after Washington’s release, Thompson told Dannen she couldn’t keep her doubts quiet anymore—she had to tell the rest of her family, and she needed his help. “I’d carried this around too long,” she explained to me. She asked Dannen to make a presentation, and she set up a meeting at Nancy’s house. The family gathered in the living room—Jill’s parents, her brother and sister, another aunt, Thompson, and Thompson’s husband and two daughters—as Dannen laid out his case for Spence’s possible innocence and Harper’s involvement. In a wide-ranging presentation that spanned more than three hours, he offered details about Deeb, who had died of liver cancer in late 1999; Simons’s methods; the informants; and the confessions of the Melendez brothers. Dannen told them he did not think Carroll was connected in any way to the Lake Waco killings, though he did consider the burglary at White’s house after her death to be highly suspicious. He also played audio from Feazell’s tapes, including one in which Feazell spoke disparagingly about Simons’s investigative methods.
The family was impressed—and heartened when Dannen told them he planned to publish his findings in his book, which would be out in about a year. “He was so sincere and earnest,” recalled Thompson. She wondered about Tony; if he was indeed innocent, surely Dannen’s discoveries could help exonerate him somehow.
Even Jill’s brother, Brad, who had been so vocal in his hatred for Spence, was stirred. He was especially struck by one detail: after Spence’s second trial, Dannen told them, Carlton Stowers, the author of Careless Whispers, had bought Gilbert’s truck and towed it to Simons’s property. Both Melendez brothers had testified that they had used the vehicle to transport the teenagers’ bodies to Speegleville Park. Though it was supposedly key evidence, the truck then sat outside for more than two years before Simons sold it to a junk dealer, who scrapped it. (According to Dannen, the state’s forensic expert in Deeb’s retrial told him that when he asked to test the truck, he was informed it had disappeared in Mexico.)
“The truck being destroyed—that was huge. Why would it be destroyed?” Brad told me. “We held Truman on a pedestal for so long. Now it was possible he’d orchestrated the whole thing.”
Dannen had now been in Texas for almost three years. He had more or less abandoned his life back in New York and dedicated himself entirely to solving the Lake Waco murders. Though he had money from his book advance and a few movie options on his magazine stories, paying for the DNA tests had exhausted his savings. He was living an unsettled life, moving from an Austin apartment to a friend’s guest room in Salado to a girlfriend’s house in Waco.
All his time went to investigating the case, circling back to his sources over and over again in the hopes of uncovering new information. “He was obsessed,” remembered Thompson, whom he talked to almost every week. “He was going to find the one person who would give him the answer. I don’t know how many times he told me that Harper’s sister was going to open up to him and say, ‘My brother did it.’ Then he went to Richard Franks—I don’t know how many times he tried to get him to talk.”
Dannen was also growing increasingly nervous about his safety. “I was like the Anne Frank of Texas,” he joked. “I felt at risk.” His work on the White case had caused bad publicity for Simons and Feazell, and he worried about the enemies he was making with his investigation, even as he got no closer to actually solving the case. “I’d interviewed mafiosi and hung with the triads in Hong Kong,” he told me, “but the first time in my career I felt I’d put myself in harm’s way was being a Jewish boy from New York investigating Texas law enforcement.”
In July 2002 Dannen was drawn into Feazell’s libel suit against Pardo, which the former DA had filed in 1998. At a court hearing in Waco, Feazell accused Dannen of not returning his tapes; Dannen, in an affidavit, said he had made copies and given them back. In September, worried that Feazell would subpoena him so he could be questioned about his work on the lake murders, Dannen packed up the Blazer with his keyboard, a kitten he’d named Calvin, his clothes, and all his hard drives—which held transcripts of the seven hundred interviews he’d conducted—and left the country, driving to San Miguel de Allende, where a friend had offered him a place to stay.
Keeping his whereabouts a secret, Dannen continued his investigation from Mexico, hiring a detective service to pursue leads. He traced the van that Harper had driven the night of the murders—the one that witnesses had seen parked next to the Pinto—and discovered that, though the vehicle had been destroyed, the owner had saved its interior gold carpeting. Dannen had a sample of the carpet sent to the Tarrant County medical examiner; the lab, Dannen told me, was “unable to exclude its gold fibers from the gold carpet fibers found on Kenneth’s body.” Dannen also managed to locate the two men he believed were with Harper that night; they were in prison for other crimes. Occasionally he slipped back into Texas to do a clandestine interview when a source, such as Harper’s sister, agreed to talk.
In 2004 Dannen finally finished a draft of his book. He was awarded a Soros Justice Media Fellowship a year later; in its commendation, the foundation wrote that Dannen’s would be “the first book to prove a wrongful execution has taken place in America.” But the manuscript was not, in Dannen’s opinion, ready to publish. He worked on a couple of rewrites, telling his friends and sources back in Texas that it wouldn’t be long until he could publish everything. All he was waiting on was his final chapter: the exoneration of Tony Melendez.
Yet by 2008, he was no closer to proving Melendez’s innocence. He had now spent about $30,000 on testing, and the FSA lab had found nothing earth-shattering. He and Reaves decided to make a case to Governor Perry for clemency. Bernadette Feazell, who knew Perry, arranged for the two to present Melendez’s case to the governor’s deputy general counsel, Mary Anne Wiley. According to Dannen, Reaves, and Bernadette, after a nearly three-hour meeting, Wiley appeared convinced that Melendez was possibly innocent—and that Spence might have been too. But, she told them, she couldn’t go to the governor for a pardon without DNA evidence. When Reaves and Dannen explained that they had exhausted their funds, Wiley recommended they seek help from the Texas Center for Actual Innocence, at UT’s School of Law. (A representative from Perry’s office insists today that the meeting was solely about funding: “Ms. Wiley’s willingness to meet with interested parties on matters of criminal justice should never be construed as support for, or against, a person or issue being discussed.”) Dannen made a presentation, and UT gave him more funds, which he sent to FSA for another round of testing.
Back in Waxahachie, Thompson was glad to learn of the new tests, but as a year passed, then another, and then another, she and her family began to despair. “Fred would call now and then and say, ‘I’m almost ready,’ ” remembered Thompson. But what was taking so long? Nancy, who had seemed receptive to Dannen’s ideas in 2001, re-embraced Simons’s theory, telling anyone who asked that Feazell had convicted the real killers. Discussing the case had become so painful that she and Thompson quit talking about it. Brad, meanwhile, had subjected himself after Dannen’s presentation to ruthless second-guessing about his behavior at Spence’s execution. But now he didn’t know what to think. “In 1984,” he told me, “we were all mad at who the justice system—the police, the DA, the judge, the jury—said to be mad at. We were told it was the truth. Now none of us could honestly say we knew without a shadow of a doubt that that’s how it happened. Our feeling of being satisfied, of getting justice, was taken away.”
In the summer of 2013, Thompson stopped talking to Dannen. Abandoning hope that he would ever print the truth, she destroyed her journals and shredded all the documents she’d collected related to the case. “After so long,” Thompson told me, “and all the promises he made, I lost faith in him. I know he put in many hours and sleepless nights, but I also know he raised hopes for people and didn’t follow through.”
Lawrence Wright, who hasn’t talked to his friend since 2002, recalls Dannen’s single-mindedness. “He was so obsessive—he would never be satisfied until he had proved the case, nailed the story. What makes a great reporter is, you can’t be happy until the story is really done. But sometimes you get hold of a case, and sometimes the case gets hold of you.”
Last spring, I tracked Dannen down. He was still living in San Miguel de Allende, playing chamber music and serving on a board that helps rural Mexican schoolchildren. Beginning in 2009, he and Reaves had been in a three-year tussle with the FSA lab after they had tried to take the DNA evidence to another lab for new testing; when FSA refused to release it and demanded an additional $35,000 to write a final report, Reaves had threatened to sue. It was only in December 2012 that they’d finally reclaimed the material; now it was at Arkansas Genomics, a lab in Little Rock that does “touch DNA” testing. (Touch DNA, one of the latest developments in genetic testing, isolates and profiles the DNA in skin cells left on physical evidence when a person touches it.) It had been fifteen years since Dannen’s initial book contract, and most people—journalists, editors, his old friends in Waco—had given up on ever seeing his research in print.
Yet Dannen remained thoroughly excited about the case. “We have a better shot at freeing Tony now than ever before,” he told me. I called him several more times through the summer, and in our talks he turned often to Spence, saying he had all kinds of photos of the inmate and letters he had written. “I know him better than anyone I never met,” said Dannen. We discussed bite-mark evidence and how a landmark forensics report by the National Academy of Sciences in 2009 had thoroughly discredited it (“The scientific basis is insufficient to conclude that bite mark comparisons can result in a conclusive match,” the report stated). A story by the Associated Press in June 2013 also found that since 2000, at least 24 men who had been charged or convicted of murder or rape based on bite-mark evidence had been exonerated.
When I asked Dannen why he hadn’t tried to help free Melendez earlier by publishing everything he had, he said, “It wouldn’t have made any difference for Tony—absolutely none. A book comes out by a New York writer that says Tony’s innocent and Texas may have executed an innocent man—and Tony’s going to get clemency? Nobody who knows how this works would believe he’d get pardoned on the basis of my book.” Better to wait for the DNA results, he said, to prove that Melendez didn’t do it and that others did. This, and only this, would ultimately lead to a hearing where Reaves could question the men who put Melendez and the others in prison and sent Spence to his death, making them answer for their actions a generation ago.
Toward the end of last year, I began to hear from various sources that it was just a matter of time, maybe weeks, before the DNA results came out. “I think we’re really close,” said the usually cautious Reaves in late January. A few days later I called Dannen again. He was confident, even giddy. “I’m not a forensic expert, but I feel the case has taken a turn,” he said. Could he be more specific? “The evidence is telling us things it never could tell before because the technology wasn’t there,” he said. “Fourteen years is an eternity in DNA technology.”
He pinged excitedly from topic to topic, referencing everything from Shakespeare to the TV series Homeland. Speaking of his decision to move to Mexico, he even referred to the Wizard’s words to the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz (“You are under the unfortunate delusion that simply because you run away from danger you have no courage. You’re confusing courage with wisdom”). He spoke as if he were getting ready for battle. “This whole experience changed my life, radicalized me,” he said. “Getting Calvin out was the greatest thing I’ve ever done. Getting Tony out will be the other greatest thing.”
Was Dannen about to solve the 32-year-old mystery? Could he now prove that Harper was involved in killing the teenagers, that Spence was innocent, that Melendez deserved to be free? “Either you believe in the system or you don’t,” he said. “I believe in our system. But the system failed in this case. I believe Raoul Schonemann made a legal case that should have prevented Spence from being executed. I can’t say for certain he was innocent, but I know that he was wrongly executed. And there’s not a shred of doubt in my mind that Anthony Melendez is innocent. Not a shred of doubt.”
V. The Inmate
For almost thirty years now, Tony Melendez has sat in a Texas prison cell and considered his life. He’s thought about his brother, Gilbert, whom he never got to see again after their brief reunion in 1992, before Muneer Deeb’s retrial. He’s thought about his mother, who lives in Hewitt, just south of Waco, and who used to visit until he finally asked her to stop; the drive was too far and cost too much, and she was getting old. He’s pondered the many things he did—and didn’t do—before he landed behind bars. “I wasn’t a good guy,” he told me last May, when I first visited him at the Polunsky Unit, in Livingston. “But I didn’t kill anyone. I’ve paid for the bad things I did.”
Melendez, now 55, is short and muscular. His hair is cut close to the scalp, and his close-set eyes are dark with worry. He is mostly confined to his cell; he gets two hours daily in the dayroom, where he can watch TV, and two hours outside. After all these years, he doesn’t remember exactly what he was doing on the night of July 13, 1982, but he knows he wasn’t in Waco. “I was with my uncle and my cousins in Bryan, painting apartments,” he told me. “We’d work ten hours a day, and I didn’t have a car, so I’d stay a week at a time. We’d paint all day, then throw down our sleeping bags, turn on the radio, cook, and go to sleep. Next day we’d get up, start working again.”
He and the three other defendants in the lake murders, he feels, were easy targets. “I wasn’t a saint, my brother wasn’t a saint. Spence was an ex-con. Deeb wasn’t from here,” he recalled. Though two investigators, Ramon Salinas, of the WPD, and Leon Chaney, who worked on Melendez’s behalf, found several alibi witnesses for him in Bryan, the inmate says he was never informed of their reports. He was held for questioning for two weeks. “They kept saying, ‘Tell us the truth. You did it, we know you did it—you’re going to die for it. Let us help you so you don’t go to death row.’ ” It was Melendez’s lawyers—Chuck Youts and Jim Barlow, both now deceased—who urged him to plead guilty. “Not once did I hear ‘We’ll beat this, you’re innocent,’ ” he said. “From day one, they told me I’d receive the death sentence if I went to trial. They told my mom and my girlfriend that they were killing me by not getting me to plead out.” (Melendez’s mother recalled this too. “I argued with his lawyer,” she told me. “I said, ‘They didn’t do this. Why should he confess?’ The lawyer told me, ‘You’re going to kill your boy.’ ”)
“I was afraid to die,” said Melendez. “And besides, everyone believed Feazell and Simons.” He based his first statement on what he’d read in the newspapers and heard from his jail mates; when there weren’t enough details in it for him to testify against Spence, he said, Simons took him out to Lake Waco and showed him around, casually slipping him details. “I would always get the girls mixed up,” Melendez recalled, “and he’d point at his head so I knew we were talking about the one with black hair.”
It was Gilbert who persuaded Tony not to testify before Deeb’s retrial. Their mother also urged him not to. “She said, ‘You already lied once, why lie again?’ I said, ‘I want to come home.’ She said, ‘The truth will come out. Lying is not going to help you.’ ” When Tony saw Simons, he was blunt. “You know I didn’t do this,” he said he told the deputy. “I’m tired of lying. I can do the time.”
But as that time stretched into a decade and then another and each parole was denied, Melendez grew increasingly hopeless. Everyone, it seemed, had forgotten him. In late 1999 he felt a spark of optimism when he received a couple of visits from Fredric Dannen, who interviewed him for his book and told him about the DNA testing being done on the crime-scene evidence. The inmate was also heartened when Walter Reaves took up his case pro bono a year later. But when the book never came, Melendez sunk into bitterness and depression. “I don’t trust Reaves or Dannen,” he told me. “I know they’ve spent time and money on the case, and they keep telling me they’re confident they can prove I wasn’t there. Why is it taking so long?”
In January I went to see Melendez again. He had recently received a letter from Dannen saying that a breakthrough with the DNA testing was imminent. Melendez was still wary of false assurances, and he was tight-lipped about what Dannen had promised. But he was hopeful in spite of himself. “They told me they got enough to get me out,” he said.
How that might happen remains to be seen. Because Melendez pleaded guilty, the burden to prove his innocence is especially great. If the new DNA evidence is favorable, Melendez could file a habeas writ and allege that he’s factually innocent or that his plea was unsound. These days there’s increasing credibility given to the idea that innocent people do plead guilty; the National Registry of Exonerations recently found that nearly 1 in 5 of the 87 inmates who were exonerated in 2013 had pleaded guilty to charges against them, often because of the guarantee of a lesser sentence. The other avenue for Melendez would be executive clemency, which also depends on DNA findings. “If the DNA test excludes Tony, Spence, and Gilbert,” said Reaves, “and it includes somebody else who was originally considered a suspect, that would be enough for an actual innocence writ or a clemency petition to the governor—or both.”
But even those results wouldn’t necessarily mean a get-out-of-jail-free card. “Texas law sets the bar very high for innocence claims, effectively requiring conclusive proof of innocence,” said Raoul Schonemann, who is now the co-director of the Capital Punishment Clinic. “Even if someone else’s DNA is found, the state can be expected to argue that that doesn’t prove Tony is innocent, only that another person was involved in the crime.” Rob Owen, now a clinical professor at Northwestern University School of Law, is also pessimistic about Melendez’s chances, having worked similar innocence cases. “Unless they get something powerfully exculpatory, Tony’s not getting out,” he told me. “I think it’s going to be an unsatisfying ending.”
Unsatisfying for some, perhaps. Feazell, who is back to being a lawyer, in Austin, still considers the lake murder convictions one of his biggest triumphs. “We got the right people,” he wrote recently in an email. “I believe that. I could never have asked for the death penalty if I didn’t sincerely believe they were guilty.” He has already raised doubts about the DNA evidence, saying he believes the material has been tampered with. “If there was the possibility of any DNA being there, why didn’t they turn it over to the proper authorities who could maintain a chain of custody?” he wrote in another email. “Instead, they took it from a lawnmower shed where it had been stored in the heat for a decade, by a court-appointed special prosecutor, and turned it over to a private lab they are paying for.”
He and Simons, who continues to work as a private investigator in Waco, maintain that there is abundant evidence—including the trial records and Melendez’s confession—that shows that the four men convicted in the murders were guilty. “The four juries in these trials concluded that Spence and the Melendez brothers were the killers,” Simons wrote in his own email. “The Court of Criminal Appeals and all of the federal courts, including the Fifth Circuit and the U.S. Supreme Court, agreed.” As for the journalist who has kept the case alive all these years, “Mr. Dannen is full of crap,” Simons told the Tribune-Herald in 2011. In other comments to the paper that same year, he was similarly unequivocal. “That case will stand on its own,” he said.
If there’s one thing for certain, it’s that the Lake Waco murder case does indeed stand on its own. It’s hard to think of another crime that has provoked so many long-lingering questions and involved so many people, all of whom have a stake in the DNA tests and many of whom remain haunted by events from three decades ago. “I’m still pissed off—I can’t talk about the case for very long before I start to get upset,” Russ Hunt, the attorney in Spence’s first murder trial, told me. Schonemann also can’t escape the past. “I live with this case every day,” he said. “There’s not a day that goes by when I don’t think about it.” Salinas, one of the officers to first discover the teenagers’ bodies, still wrestles with his memories. “It wasn’t right,” he said. “The way the investigation went, the way it was handled with the jailhouse informants, the way the bite marks were matched. It wasn’t right.”
But does that mean Spence was innocent? Even Hunt, who never believed the jailhouse informants, remembers speaking at trial with a bailiff at the courthouse—whom he did consider a credible witness—who told him, “I know you don’t think Spence did it, but he told me he did.” Other lawyers also still wonder about the incriminating things Spence said over the years. And when I tracked down Kevin Mikel, the informant who testified against Spence and later said his testimony had been influenced by Simons, he told me he believed Spence was guilty. Yes, Mikel said, Simons had shown him crime-scene photos and fed him information. But that didn’t change the truth. “That dude did it,” he said. “He told me a two-day story about the murders.”
Jan Price has retired from active duty and now works part-time in the WPD’s personnel department. The men she fought to free, Calvin Washington and Joe Sidney Williams, are back in prison—Washington for theft and Williams for cocaine possession and evading arrest—but she holds out hope that Tony, Gilbert, and Spence will get some vindication, if only because the system failed them, like it did Washington and Williams. “Did Spence do it or not, I can’t tell you,” she said. “I can tell you he shouldn’t have been prosecuted for it.”
Far from Waco, in Louisiana, Spence’s ex-wife looks back on the past three decades with deep sadness. “Those kids didn’t deserve to die,” June told me. “Their parents—it’s horrible what they’ve been through. But my two children suffered too. David’s mom suffered. I suffered. It never goes away.”
Melendez has various jailhouse tattoos: a cross on his left hand, a lowrider and a jalapeño on his right. But his most revealing tattoo is largely hidden under his prison shirt. I didn’t even notice it until he shifted in his chair and exposed something on his chest, something winding along his skin. I asked him if it was a snake.
“No,” Melendez said, flashing a rare smile. He pulled down the front of his shirt, revealing a noose tattooed around his neck and on his chest. “It’s to show I’m still here,” he said. “If I’d gone to trial, I’d be dead. They had the rope around my neck, ready to kill me. But I’m still here.”
Sitting in his cell, he writes a letter every few weeks to Jan Thompson. She first reached out to him a couple of years ago, and the two developed a correspondence. “I don’t know why I started writing,” Thompson told me, “but I felt it was the thing to do. I know he’s no angel, but as far as what he’s there for, that’s not what I call justice. I just don’t believe he had anything to do with the murders.” Melendez has written Thompson a stack of letters, and he recently began calling her at home every week to discuss the impending DNA results. “She’s gotten me through the last year or two,” he told me.
Thompson seems pleased to be there for her friend, happy to be part of what she hopes is the redemption of Tony Melendez. “Every now and then I think I should not have gotten this personally involved, but I felt like Tony needed to have someone on his side,” she told me. “I don’t know if I want to see an innocent man get freed or if I just so deeply want to know who the guilty people are. Though there’s a chance we’re never going to know for sure who killed those kids.”
Jill would be 49 today, and Thompson thinks of her often. After Jill’s parents divorced, when she was in middle school, the girl spent a lot of time at her aunt’s house. “She was shy and craved love and attention,” Thompson told me. Thompson never met Kenneth and barely knew Raylene, yet her thoughts turn to them too. “How much those kids suffered, how scared they must have been,” she said. “After all this time, I still think about it.”
On that last day, Jill had stopped by to see Thompson on her way to Waco. She was ex-cited about the trip and changed clothes several times before going to meet Raylene. Thompson was making a chocolate cake, and Jill, who had recently lost a lot of weight, asked for a slice. “I was getting ready to slap on the icing,” Thompson recalled, “but she said, ‘I like it better without icing.’ ” Jill said she would be home by dark, and then she was gone.
Now 76, Thompson doesn’t get out much. She uses a cane to walk, and because of failing eyesight, she can’t drive. Her husband died in 2005, and her daughters often stop by to visit the retirement village where she lives, in Waxahachie. Sometimes they take her to the country cemetery where Jill is buried. Thompson tidies the grave and inspects the mementos left by visitors—flowers, coins, ceramic unicorns (“Jill loved unicorns,” she explained). She used to find notes and letters from Jill’s old friends. “We will always love you,” they wrote. “We remember your smile.” And, simply, “We remember you.”
One letter in particular moved Thompson. It was left next to the brown granite headstone by a woman who had never met Jill but was drawn to visit the grave site after learning of the lake murders. “Someday,” the woman wrote, “we’ll all know what really took place.”
UPDATE: Tony Melendez, the last living Lake Waco murders defendant, died on Friday, January 13, 2017, at 57 at a prison hospice at the Michael Unit in Tennessee Colony, not far from Palestine. Melendez had been suffering from multiple maladies, including bone cancer and kidney failure. He had also recently undergone gall bladder surgery.
Melendez pleaded guilty to the savage 1982 murder of three teenagers in Waco; he also testified against another man, David Spence in 1985. In return Melendez got two life sentences. But Melendez later recanted, saying he had only confessed because he’d been threatened with the death penalty. “I was afraid to die,” he told Texas Monthly in 2014, insisting he was painting houses in Bryan, as several alibi witnesses had told police he was.
Spence was executed in 1997, Melendez’s brother Gilbert died in prison of complications from HIV in 1998, and Muneer Deeb—who won an acquittal in a 1993 retrial—died of liver cancer in 1999.
Melendez, who was most recently denied parole in May 2016, asserted his innocence until the end, says Jan Thompson, the aunt of one of the victims, who Melendez often called and wrote. When Melendez’s mother died of cancer a couple of years ago he became even closer with Thompson. “He still thought was going to get out,” she says. “He still thought he’d be exonerated.”