One thing I know about small Texas towns—having grown up in one myself—is that little is ever quite what it seems. Small towns don’t like to play up their unpleasant news, which means a lot of them have secrets.
This story is about the kind of secrets that stay buried for decades, and how some folks in this town helped keep them that way.
In the summer of 1987, thirty-year-old Susan Woods was living alone in her hometown of Stephenville, Texas, piecing her life back together after being abandoned by her husband. Then, one sweltering July evening, Susan’s father came to check on her.
Stephenville is produced and edited by Patrick Michels, and produced and engineered by Brian Standefer, who also wrote the music. Additional production is by Jackie Ibarra. Story editing is by J.K. Nickell. Executive producer is Megan Creydt. Paul Knight is our fact-checker. Artwork is by Emily Kimbro and Victoria Millner.
Additional field recording in this episode is by Zorric Sia.
Bryan Burrough (voice-over): The day he got the phone call, Don Miller was sitting alone in his enormous pickup truck. It was a burnt orange and white Ford F-250. This was at Christmas time in 2021. Miller had just retired from the police department in Stephenville, a rodeo town seventy miles southwest of Fort Worth, Texas. On the phone was a buddy from the department, who told him about a very strange conversation he’d just had.
A man in Abilene had called with information about the biggest case in Don’s career, a murder he’d solved fifteen years earlier. Before that, the murder had been unsolved for almost twenty years.
The murderer served prison time, got released, and, now, had just died. This man in Abilene had purchased the house trailer where the murderer died, and had found things inside that left him deeply disturbed.
Don Miller: And I said, “Hey, it’s Lieutenant Miller.” He said, “Yeah, I know.” He said, “I’ve got a whole bunch of really strange things.” He said, I bought his RV. And as I’m cleaning out this RV, I’m finding all kinds of crazy stuff. He says, “There’s pictures of you, there’s some sort of a manifesto, there’s some crazy letters.” He said, “What do you want me to do?” And I said, “I’ll be up there.”
Violent crime has always been rare in Stephenville, and the murder Don had solved was one that haunted everyone it touched. Once the murderer went away to prison, that seemed to be the end of the story. Until the day Don got that call.
He and his pal drove the two hours to Abilene on a Sunday. The man who bought the trailer had the papers in his garage. He was eager to be rid of them. When Don started going through them, there were the items he expected to find.
Don Miller: He’s got pictures of me, newspaper pictures of me on different things that I’d done . . .
But there was something else that drew his attention.
Don Miller: . . . and then this manifesto that he had written.
A manifesto—an autobiography really. The man who’d written it . . . Don knew he was a brutal man. A “monster,” is how he puts it. And he had many victims in this small town.
The ones he harmed directly, but also those he never physically touched. Whose lives were upended by this man and what he did. And what he got away with. For Don, it was almost like their voices, from long ago, came flooding back.
Don Miller: He’s a very mean, brutal person. The victims I know about are a smidgen of what he did.
Shannon Myers: The happiness turned to anger. Now you want me to talk? About this story? How dare you.
Cindy Hayes: I think I started screaming, “He did it. He killed her.”
Gloria Martin: I’ve got pictures of him at the party just grinning, not a care in the world. And all the while he knew he’s the one that killed her.
Michael Woods: They pulled up in a car. I pulled back my shirt, showed them my piece and said, we’re having a gun battle here or you’re leaving. Go for it.
Shannon Myers: He just—he kept telling me, you know, that I’m special, that I’m the special one. That still, today, sends shivers through my spine.
And now, here in his hands, were the words and thoughts and feelings of a man who during his life had never admitted any of this. Here it was, finally the whole ugly truth, almost two hundred pages, handwritten in capital letters, offering the answers to questions that had lingered in Stephenville for years. Don turned the page and began to read.
From Texas Monthly, this is Stephenville. I’m your host, Bryan Burrough. This is episode one: Susan.
On a Thursday morning in March, I stopped at Jake and Dorothy’s, the welcoming little diner in downtown Stephenville, to meet a local reporter.
Sara Vanden Berge: Hi, I’m Sara.
Bryan Burrough: Wonderful to meet you, Sara.
Sara Vanden Berge: Nice to meet you too.
Sara was a reporter and then an editor at the Stephenville Empire-Tribune.
Bryan Burrough: How long have you been here?
Sara Vanden Berge: So about thirty years, we’ve moved from—
Bryan Burrough: Thirty?
Sara Vanden Berge: Yeah, we moved from Southern California in ’90.
A few years ago, she left to start her own local news site, called Beneath the Surface News.
Bryan Burrough: Southern California!
Sara Vanden Berge: So yeah, I left L.A. and came here.
Bryan Burrough: That was not what I expected.
Sara Vanden Berge: No, I didn’t either expect that for my life, but it’s been good. Stephenville is a good place.
Sara’s been reporting on the town—including this murder case—for over twenty years.
Bryan Burrough: Well, first off, when you do take people on a tour or show them around town, what do you show them?
Sara Vanden Berge: You know, I’m always impressed with Tarleton State University.
Bryan Burrough: I haven’t been there yet.
I wanted to talk to Sara about this case—and you’ll hear some of that later—but first I wanted to get a sense of the town.
So we went for a drive. We started on the town square. In the middle, there’s a beautiful white limestone courthouse that was built in 1892. And on one corner, up on a pole, is a fiberglass Holstein cow they’ve named “Moo-La,” who’s stood there for fifty years to honor the local dairy industry.
Bryan Burrough: This is obviously a period building, 1889.
Sara Vanden Berge: It was a bank for a lot of years, and it’s now a retail store. It’s beautiful, it’s beautiful at night.
Stephenville is a little college town in the middle of farm country. In the summer, it celebrates the dairy industry with the Moo-La Fest. And the town is maybe most famous for the pro rodeo it hosts in the fall. For years, Stephenville has called itself the “Cowboy Capital of the World.” All through the fall, when the wind blows just right, the earthy smell of manure is ever present.
Over the last forty years, I’ve reported stories all over the world.
But I was raised in Central Texas, in a town called Temple, six exits right there on Interstate 35. And my favorite place to work has always been Texas, especially in small towns. They all feel familiar—the people, the ebb and flow of their lives, the town squares and the diners, the Friday night football games and the rodeos. To me, pretty much every Texas town feels a little like home.
Sara Vanden Berge: This whole square at night is beautiful. It’s just very lit up and they’ve got music down here, and they’ve got a couple nice restaurants and wine bars. So it’s a place where people come and gather in the evenings.
We kept cruising down Washington Street, past the Sonic and the Dairy Queen, a vape shop and a ladies’ boutique, and the red brick buildings at Tarleton State.
The town has grown an awful lot over the years, but the older neighborhood around downtown, around Central Elementary, looks pretty much exactly like it did 35 years ago.
Bryan Burrough: What was it like then?
Sara Vanden Berge: I think people back then, they weren’t as welcoming. There was people, a lot of folks were born and raised here and then never left. You know, they stayed. They made their homes here. And over the years, it’s grown to where a lot of people from all over have moved in. So it’s just—it was welcoming when I moved here, but I struggled with being an outsider for a really long time.
We ducked off the main drag and into a neighborhood of tidy little homes, shaded by big trees in their front lawns.
Patrick Michels: Older part of town?
Sara Vanden Berge: Yeah, for sure. Absolutely.
Bryan Burrough: Yeah, that’s prewar. This is it.
Sara Vanden Berge: Looks like it’s had a fresh coat of paint. Needs a mow job.
We stopped in front of a tiny bungalow on McNeill Street. In the summer of 1987, it was the home of a young woman named Susan Woods.
Susan was thirty years old and living alone that summer. She was quiet and shy, about five foot seven. She had an easy smile and lustrous brown hair that fell past her shoulders.
She’d recently been abandoned by her husband, a biker-type guy who left Texas while they waited for their divorce to go through. Susan lived here near her mom and dad and a few friends, worked at the Norton sandpaper factory—a local girl, a little lonely, a little sad, trying hard to put her life back in order.
But after a weekend that July, she missed her shift at the factory two days in a row. A supervisor called Susan’s father, Joe Atkins, who drove over to check on her.
And inside this house is where, on that sweltering Tuesday evening in July 1987, Joe Atkins found something no parent should ever have to find. He found his daughter naked, her hands tied back her back, her head sunk into a bathtub full of black water.
Donnie Hensley was one of the first officers who arrived that night.
Donnie Hensley: And when I pulled up, I saw Joe standing in the front yard.
He’d known Joe for a while; they often saw one another at the local golf course.
Donnie Hensley: I walked over, shook his hand, said, “Joe, what are you doing here?” He said, “Donnie, they killed her.” I said, “Killed who, Joe?” “They killed my daughter.” I said, “You’re s—ing me?” He said, “No.” So I shook his hand. I said, “Joe, I got to go to work.” I said, “You need to go and talk to your family and we will let you know as soon as we get finished here.” And we said a prayer for her and the family.
Then Donnie went inside and got to work. One thing struck him right off the bat.
Bryan Burrough: Tell me about the crime scene and what impression it made of you.
Donnie Hensley: Well, no forced entry.
He and a handful of other officers split the house into sections and started taking prints and gathering evidence. Donnie took the bedroom.
There, they found signs of a struggle. Bedding was everywhere and the mattress had been pulled off the box springs. A white electrical cord lay across the bed, with its plug on the floor.
What Donnie saw next would haunt him for years after. It was a pillow. As he studied it, he realized he could see mascara smudges—in the outline of a face. Her killer had obviously pressed it against Susan’s face. It was, in effect, her death mask.
As Donnie worked, other officers were in the bathroom, taking photos of Susan’s body and the surrounding scene. When they squatted down beside her, they noted an angry red line across her throat, suggesting her killer had tried to strangle her—maybe with the electrical cord. Her hands were tied behind her with a black tank top. It was clear that she’d been sexually assaulted.
Donnie Hensley: And whoever it was, the only thing that popped into my mind, this is a sick motherf—er, and he’s a monster. I mean, I’m sorry with the language, but it’s cop language.
In the bathroom, they also found two good sets of fingerprints and palm prints. But this being 1987, these weren’t much help. DNA analysis, and fingerprint databases—at least in Stephenville—were still years away. So while detectives had plenty of physical evidence, what they really needed was a suspect to compare it to. And it was clear that identifying the killer wouldn’t be easy.
Officers knocked on doors up and down the street. But no one had seen anything especially strange. At one point, Susan’s best friend Cindy happened to drive up with her boyfriend. And when she realized what was happening, what had happened to Susan . . . you could hear Cindy’s screams two blocks away.
The murder was front page news, of course. Most years you could count the number of murders in Stephenville on one hand. At Jake and Dorothy’s, the diner downtown, and at the churches that Sunday, and pretty much everywhere in Stephenville, it was all folks talked about for days.
Now, one thing I know about small Texas towns—having grown up in one myself—is that little is ever quite what it seems. Small towns don’t like to play up their unpleasant news, which means a lot of them have secrets.
This story, in Stephenville, is about the kind of secrets that stay buried for decades, and how some folks in this town helped keep them that way.
The next morning, there was a meeting at the Stephenville police department. A lieutenant named Ken Maltby announced to the group that no other officers would be working the case. He told them he was planning to take it on alone.
Bryan Burrough: Did you have thoughts or was there any speculation about why he wanted it this way?
Donnie Hensley: He wanted to be a hero, man. If anybody’s going to solve that case, it was going to be him because he wanted to be a hero.
For the next two months, Maltby investigated the murder, with little obvious progress. At one point, he and a Texas Ranger flew to Indianapolis to interview Susan’s husband, Michael Woods. Woods had moved there a year earlier.
The separation had been ugly, and Susan’s family believed that somehow, he had to be responsible for her death. But there was no sign he had ever returned to Texas. He seemed to have an ironclad alibi.
Then, in October 1987, Maltby was chosen to lead a new drug task force. It appeared that the investigation into Susan’s death might languish. That is, until Donnie decided to take it on in his spare time.
It’s been thirty years now since Donnie left the Stephenville force. Today, he’s a lean, leathery seventy-year-old retiree, living with his wife on a cul-de-sac in the nearby town of Granbury.
As I drove to Donnie’s home, I’d thought about what this case meant for his reputation. He’s had an accomplished career — after his time with the Stephenville PD, he went on to do security training for the United Nations in conflict zones in Kosovo and East Timor. But back home, he’s gotten a little heat over the years for his work on Susan’s case. People in town had always had strong opinions about the case, and they made sure Donnie knew them. When I went to meet him, I wondered if he wouldn’t be a little defensive.
In fact, he couldn’t have been warmer or more welcoming. As we sprawled across the leather sofas in his living room, he turned out to be an open book. Starting with the state of the case when he took it over from Ken Maltby.
He noticed something odd about Maltby’s work.
Donnie Hensley: I looked. I don’t know if Maltby had a photographic memory or what, but I couldn’t find no damn notes.
Donnie says Maltby never really explained what happened to his notes, if he took any at all. Maltby died in 2016. Donnie had to start from zero.
And he would still see Susan’s father, Joe Atkins, around town. And Joe would always ask about his progress. Donnie told me, most people just don’t know what it’s like to lose a child. And he would know. He lost a baby after it was born premature—it survived only about 10 minutes—and it was incredibly traumatic.
Donnie Hensley: So imagine losing one after you’ve raised them. If you raised that baby from birth to twenty to thirty years old and she’s your only girl, that’s got to tear your ass up, buddy.
Donnie would always make a point of keeping Joe in the loop, checking on him.
Donnie Hensley: You doing okay? Anything you think I need to do for you?” And that’s about it.
This connection to Joe made him even more motivated to solve the case.
Bryan Burrough: Now, initially you looked at several other local men.
Donnie Hensley: I looked at a bunch. I can’t tell you how many palm prints I took. Fingerprints. And anybody that might have had any contact with her, she might have dated one time.
Donnie knew early on that it would never be clear whether Susan had been smothered, strangled, or drowned. Her upper body had spent two days in the bathwater, and her remains were badly decomposed.
But as he saw it, there were basically two scenarios here: Either Susan was killed by a stranger—the kind of thing that was virtually unheard-of in Stephenville—or she was killed by someone she knew. There was no sign anyone had forced their way into the house. And the more Donnie studied the crime scene photos, the more he sensed that Susan had in fact known her killer.
What struck him was the living room table. There was an open can of Coke, and an ashtray with six cigarette butts. But Susan wasn’t a heavy smoker, and she avoided caffeine. One of her friends said she drank nothing but water. The table suggested she’d had a guest—a guest who stayed long enough to open that Coke and smoke six cigarettes.
But who would she have invited into her home? What Donnie heard from Susan’s friends and family was that her life, and her social circle, had really shrunk over the years—especially after her husband left. When he went back to Indiana, he’d taken their car, an old yellow Mustang. Susan worked at the factory six days a week, for months, saving up to buy another car. She spent Sundays—her only day off—mostly doing laundry and buying groceries. She only had a handful of girlfriends, and no serious time for dating.
But there was one thing.
Donnie Hensley: There’s actually one individual I thought was real good. Lived here in Granbury, was a bartender.
And that bartender, whose name was J. C. Baughman, worked at a bar in Granbury called the North Fork. Granbury is a smaller town about halfway between Stephenville and Fort Worth. Erath County—where Stephenville is the county seat—was a dry county in 1987. There were private clubs where you could bring your own liquor, but no actual bars. Across the county line, though, Granbury had plenty.
Donnie heard Susan and her work friends sometimes drank at the North Fork. One of Susan’s girlfriends said Baughman and Susan hit it off.
Bryan Burrough: What type of impression did you . . . I mean, as a suspect, did you like him?
Donnie Hensley: Oh yeah, I was damn sure interested in him.
As it turned out, Baughman admitted he and Susan had had a brief affair. He said she’d invited him over several nights to watch television and on one occasion they ended up having sex. Baughman told Donnie that Susan had ended it.
Donnie Hensley: I thought, okay dude, I want your palm prints and fingerprints. Then guess what? They didn’t match. Back-burner.
Bryan Burrough: As I recall, I think you gave them a polygraph and he passed that?
Donnie Hensley: Yeah, he didn’t do it. He wasn’t a murderer.
Donnie’s next lead was just a hunch: Roy Hayes, the boy dating Susan’s best friend Cindy. Roy and Cindy had, by chance, driven by Susan’s house the night her body was found.
Bryan Burrough: Did you ever consider Roy to be a viable suspect?
Donnie Hensley: Yeah, I polygraphed him.
Bryan Burrough: What made him a possible suspect? Other than—
Donnie Hensley: Access.
Donnie knew Roy had been in Susan’s house before. His fingerprints were pretty much all over the place. And that wasn’t all. Roy played Dungeons & Dragons, which in those days, at least in a place like Stephenville, carried a whiff of Satanism. When Donnie interviewed Roy, he asked him all about the game—how it’s played, how you became a “dungeon master,” and whether any of Susan’s neighbors played the game with him.
Roy explained there wasn’t much to it. You’d roll the dice and tell stories about your group’s adventures. On the Sunday night that Susan was killed, in fact, Roy said he’d been with friends at his weekly D&D game.
Late last year, I met Roy at his ranch-style home near downtown Stephenville, and I asked him to tell me how he remembered all this. We sat around his breakfast table.
Roy Hayes: Yeah. So I got grilled. Donnie Hensley had asked me to come down there and be interviewed and I talked to him and everything and he asked me, he said, “Well hey, would you mind doing a lie detector test?” And I said, “Well, I don’t see a problem with it.” I said, “Let me talk to a lawyer right quick, but let me make sure.”
Roy talked to a couple of lawyers his family knew. And the advice he got was that if he was innocent, he might as well just take the test.
Roy Hayes: And I said, “Okay, sure.” So I went back, talked to him, and then we set it up and we went down to Waco, the Texas Ranger station. They set me up for a lie detector test. And I sat in there for probably an hour and a half. And I sat in there and I answered their questions, and they had all sorts of questions. There was tons of them.
Donnie Hensley: I polygraphed Roy and I asked him, I said, “Roy, if you fail this polygraph what do you think I’m going to do? He said, “You’ll probably kill me.” I said, “No Roy, I’m not going to kill you.” He passed and I knew the polygraph operator in Waco and I asked him, says, “Any deception?” He said, “None whatsoever.” No red flags here.
To Donnie, it was one more dead end, and a not very memorable one at that. But to Roy—who was, after all, being questioned about the death of his girlfriend’s best friend—it wasn’t quite so simple. In fact, he remembers the polygraph very differently.
Roy Hayes: So I come out, Donnie meets me right at the door as I come out and he says, “Roy, you failed. You might as well confess.” And I’m like, “No, there’s no way. I didn’t have nothing to do with this.” He said, “Lie detector does not . . . it’s totally 100 percent. There’s no way that this is wrong. You did it.” And I said, “I did not do it.” And he told me a third time and I said, “I did not do it. We need to have another lie detector test.” And about that time, the guy who administered the test, he stepped forward and said, “Mr. Hayes, from what I could tell . . .” And I’m sitting here thinking, “Oh my God, I’m about to be arrested.” He said, “No, Mr. Hayes, from what I can tell from the lie detector test, you had nothing to do with this case.” And he said, “And thank you for coming in.” And to this day, I’m still not on real good terms with Donnie Hensley because I mean to me, I felt like I was owed an apology. I have never told him that. But no, I just don’t have anything to do with him whatsoever.
It wasn’t just the polygraph. Roy’s prints might’ve been all around the house, but they didn’t match the prints found in the bathroom directly beside Susan’s body. For Donnie, those prints were like having a lock that could open the whole case. But the key could be anywhere.
By Christmas, a full five months after Susan’s murder, Donnie could see he was getting nowhere. And more than a few people around town told him that was just plain stupid. Because as it turned out? Everyone in Stephenville knew who did it.
For the kids in Stephenville—and this was exactly the way I remember it growing up in Temple—weekends were pretty much always the same. Friday nights in the fall meant high school football. On Sundays, everything was closed. Everyone was in church. But on Saturday nights . . .
Bryan Burrough: You would ride between the Dairy Queens, is that right?
Cindy Hayes: The drag.
Bryan Burrough: Were y’all drag buddies?
Cindy Hayes: Yeah, we would drag together. Usually in her car. Sometimes mine.
This is Susan’s old “drag buddy” and best friend, Cindy Hayes. Today she’s Roy’s wife. I interviewed the two of them together. And I could tell . . . they’ve chosen to remember the Susan they knew, rather than the one that’s in the police files. She still brings smiles to their faces. I talked with them about what Susan was like back then, and how she met her husband, Michael Woods.
Cindy Hayes: Washington Street drag going over the railroad track. He was walking down the railroad track and she was going over. And she, I don’t know, I guess looked down the tracks and saw him coming or whatever. So I think she pulled over in a parking lot or whatever and he came up to her and that’s how they met.
At least that’s what Susan always told her. And before long, that was almost the only thing Susan was talking about: Michael Woods, and how dreamy he was. Which was quite a change from the high school girl who never dated back when she and Cindy were in the Stephenville High marching band.
Bryan Burrough: What did you play? What did she play?
Cindy Hayes: Both played clarinet. She was better at it than me. I was like, last chair, second to last chair. And she was always kind of in the middle toward the beginning. But our band director, he decided one year, he made a booklet up of our names and addresses and our birth dates. And he came to school one day and he said, some of y’all have the same birthdays.” And that’s how me and her met. Because our birthday’s April 6th. And that’s how we got to talking. And Susan always made good grades too. She had to work for it. But she did make, I believe she made honor roll.
Bryan Burrough: And what did she go do after high school?
Cindy Hayes: She went to work at a nursing home.
Bryan Burrough: Did she have any goals or ambitions in life?
Cindy Hayes: I mean, she . . . like you said, she wanted to be comfortable. She was not—we weren’t materialistic. We didn’t have to have a new car or anything like that. She just wanted to be comfortable.
Roy Hayes: She just had the standard that a lot of people do. They just wanted to live. Meet the right person. Be independent of her parents and stuff. Have a good job, a career. And have a spouse that had similar goals and aspirations.
Cindy Hayes: Inside and out she was beautiful. Inside and out. Just loved people, loved life. Trusted everybody. Very trusting, very loving, caring.
In those days, Stephenville, like a lot of small Texas towns, might be described as on the sleepy side. It was maybe ten thousand people, conservative and pretty insular. It’s fair to say that, certainly back in the seventies, if you were a young man who had long hair, or if you didn’t drive a pickup, you might get a funny look. Outsiders got noticed. Michael Woods got noticed.
For a long time, what you thought about Susan’s death had everything to do with what you thought about Michael Woods. He was different, and worse, he wasn’t from Stephenville. And new faces in small towns? Well, that can provoke all kinds of reaction. Excitement. Generosity. Or suspicion. Even fear.
I remember this back when I moved to Temple when I was eleven years old. Before long, the town kind of renders a verdict on you. And Stephenville’s verdict on Michael Woods was that he was one very bad dude.
Cindy Hayes: Okay, he moved down here with a neighbor of his from El Paso. I don’t remember the woman’s name, but she had two kids, and the son, Mike ran around with the son.
Stephenville was a town where FFA jackets, cowboy hats and close-cropped hair were common. Michael wore a leather jacket and engineer boots. He had a brown beard, shoulder-length hair, and a bad attitude.
Cindy Hayes: I know she was attracted to his long hair. And not many guys around here had long hair because we’re in cowboy capital.
Bryan Burrough: Surely there must have been more than the hair.
Roy Hayes: According to what the girls have told me, he did cast a passing resemblance to Bob Seger and she, Susan, had always been attracted to Bob Seger.
Bryan Burrough: You’re killing me.
Roy Hayes: Sorry. You asked.
Bryan Burrough: The cliche is women are attracted to guys onstage.
Roy Hayes: He was a musician too.
Cindy Hayes: It could have been part of that.
Roy Hayes: There was that. And he was rock and roll, which there’s not much of that, there wasn’t much of that back here during that time. So I’m sure all that is what she fell in love with because I mean she was really repulsed by the normal standard of the country western vibe and stuff.
Bryan Burrough: She was? Why?
Roy Hayes: Probably just being young and wanting to act out and be different. That’s how we are a lot of times.
Cindy Hayes: Just growing up with rock and roll.
Roy Hayes: If you’ve seen some pictures of her when she was younger, and I remember seeing pictures of Cindy and we’ve got some, she wears bell bottom pants and blue jeans and stuff. She wears kind of the hippie halter tops and stuff. They both do. And they’re not the regular country western scene that you see.
If Susan had a bit of a rebellious streak, Michael was pure rebellion. He drove a motorcycle, got into fistfights and never seemed to be able to hold a job. And though he always denied it, it was whispered around town he dealt a little weed.
Cindy Hayes: I thought he was very immature. He always wanted to have fun, have a good time.
Bryan Burrough: Did there come a moment to the extent that you had doubts about this young man and were able to say something to Susan about him?
Cindy Hayes: Yeah, me and her did talk. At the time I was going with a jerk myself. So we were, like, hammering each other’s boyfriends.
Roy Hayes: And oftentimes in relationships like that, it drives a wedge between the two and pushes them apart.
Cindy Hayes: And it did, for about six months. There was a wedge between us.
But Susan stuck with Michael, and eventually she and Cindy made up, the way best friends always have a way of coming back around.
Bryan Burrough: I have to ask you, in those early days before things got more under stress, how were they together?
Cindy Hayes: Um, they were okay.
Bryan Burrough: Did he seem kind and loving with her or short?
Cindy Hayes: Yes. No, he did. He seemed kind and loving, mhm, silly, funny.
Bryan Burrough: Kind of boyish.
Cindy Hayes: Yes. Yes.
And so, just a couple years out of high school, Susan moved in with Michael. But Michael was never really comfortable in Stephenville. There was the job thing and also, well, there’s no better way to put it: Susan’s parents just hated him. I mean, hated him.
So when Michael got a job offer from his uncle in El Paso, he jumped at it. Susan had never lived anywhere but Stephenville, but moving sounded like a grand adventure. Her parents were horrified. And her friends were a little skeptical.
Roy Hayes: I think Susan was very much in love with Mike and she felt if the man that she was wanting to tie her wagon to was wanting to go out there, and could succeed more likely out there, and support them and create the life that she has in mind, that she backs that. And I think she packed the car with him and they went out there and they put their best foot forward to try to start a new life because that’s where Mike was telling her that the new life was.
During this period, Cindy was getting letters from Susan every couple of weeks. Then one day, in 1980, Susan suddenly announced that she and Michael had gotten married. But each letter brought a mounting series of complaints about their new life in El Paso.
Michael’s job fell through, and then they were living with his mother. Then they were pawning their things. At one point she wrote they were living on bacon-bit sandwiches. From Cindy and Roy’s point of view, it just kept getting worse and worse.
Roy Hayes: But I also think that she must have still loved him if she was staying out there because if she had shrank back and she hated being out there, that probably would’ve shattered their relationship fairly quickly. And she would’ve just wrote her parents and asked them to send money to have her come home.
Cindy Hayes: She called my parents mom and dad also.
Roy Hayes: She would’ve had multiple ways to get from El Paso back to here. I mean, even if they had to drive out and pick her up.
Bryan Burrough: No, she didn’t run.
Roy Hayes: Yeah, she stuck by him.
Cindy Hayes: She stuck with him.
Roy Hayes: And I guess in the expectation that things would get better.
Cindy Hayes: Yeah, I think that’s what she thought, that things would get better.
Eventually, Susan and Michael moved back to Stephenville. Susan got the job at the sandpaper factory, and eventually they moved into the little white bungalow on McNeill Street, just around the corner from Central Elementary. Cindy says Michael worked some too, but the jobs never lasted long.
Many days, you’d see him laying out shirtless in their yard, lifting barbells or leafing through muscle magazines, with his Harley beside him in the driveway. This was the life they settled into for a while.
I’d been talking for a bit with Cindy and Roy when another friend of theirs joined us.
Bryan Burrough: Yeah. Oh is that Gloria?
Cindy Hayes: Yeah, that’s Gloria.
Bryan Burrough: Oh goodness. I’m so flattered.
In walked Gloria Martin, who had been close friends with Cindy’s cousin back when they were kids. A few years later, her friend Kathy wound up renting out a room to Michael.
Gloria Martin: And he was dating Susan so it just all wrapped up together again that my acquaintance, Susan, was tied in with my new friend Mike, who was living in the same house with my best friend Kathy. And the next thing I know, Susan’s over there all the time with Mike. And then they get married and I’d go over there before I’d go to the bar, they’d be my first stop. I’d go to Mike and Susan’s, hang out for an hour or so until it was time to go out and have fun.
Bryan Burrough: So when you’d go over there for an hour before going out on crazy Stephenville nights, what would an hour at Susan and Mike’s on a Friday night be like?
Gloria Martin: Well, more nights than I can remember she’d be making supper. She always made those little chickens, Cornish game hens. But she’d work all day and then come home and make him dinner. And then they started having problems and Mike just kind of didn’t want to work, and wanted to lift weights, and I’d go over there and lift weights after class at Tarleton when I was in my twenties. And Susan would be at work, but she didn’t care because Mike was in no way flirty with me. So I’d just go over there and hang out with him.
It was clear that what Michael really wanted from life was to make his living onstage, singing and playing guitar. And that Stephenville wasn’t the place where that was ever going to happen.
Gloria Martin: I don’t know, two or three times they’d get settled in, get a place, get it fixed up, buy their appliances. Mike would get itchy feet. We’re going, we’re going, she’d quit her job, move away, sell all their stuff, stay a month, starve to death, come back, and they’d start all over again.
This back-and-forth living couldn’t go on forever. Donnie Hensley learned from his interviews that the last straw, for Michael, came when he decided to try and start flipping houses. Susan didn’t want to invest the money she’d been earning. So they began to argue.
Finally, in the summer of 1986, a year before Susan’s death, Michael decided he couldn’t take it anymore. Speaking to detectives later, a coworker of Susan’s named Barbara Williams put it this way: “He more or less gave her an ultimatum: Texas or me. She chose Texas.”
Hearing all of this, I was surprised Susan stuck with Michael as long as she did. I asked Gloria if she was too.
Gloria Martin: I was toward the end. And I was surprised by how hurt she was when he left. Took so much of her stuff and left awful notes all over the house. You’ve heard about those.
I’d heard about these notes. The DA’s case file tells all about these parting gifts Michael left for Susan when he took off. Little handwritten notes, hidden in cabinets and coat pockets.
Bryan Burrough: Saying?
Roy Hayes: What a bitch she was. It was all her fault that he left and stuff . . .
Cindy Hayes: Her parents were horrible.
Roy Hayes: . . . that she was just such an awful person that she’s the one who was responsible for the destruction of the marriage. Just really talking bad.
Cindy Hayes: Her parents never liked him and never gave him a chance and all this stuff. It was very derogatory.
Roy Hayes: You know, “you’re a C-word.”
Gloria Martin: And it’d be two weeks later, she’d open a cabinet and there’d be a note telling her how horrible she was. And I can just remember going by there before class, or after class, or at night, and she’d just be crying.
Cindy Hayes: Called her every name in the book.
Roy Hayes: I mean, that’s not normal how you break up a relationship. You don’t go to that much animosity creating stuff. Basically like little emotional booby traps.
He even left her a cassette tape on which he had recorded a farewell message.
Roy Hayes: OK, the famous tape. And I mean he, my wife, myself, and Gloria Martin all listened to this tape. So we all three heard it. And I mean he spent thirty minutes, I guess thirty-minute tape, really speaking to a person in a way that you would never speak to anyone that you ever cared a lot for. It was awful. It was just plain awful. Thirty minutes of just listening to it. And we did listen to the whole thirty minutes. So it’s not like we listened to it five minutes, shut it off.
Cindy Hayes: She went to Saint-Gobain Norton’s to go to work and she said, “Can y’all stay here? Shut the door and lock the door behind you. Can you stay here and listen to this?” And we’re like, “Sure, you know. Okay.” And we were just mortified. We were looking at each other like, “Oh my God.”
Roy Hayes: Once Mike gets up there, he’s kind of realizing what he’s done and he calls back down here and talks to Susan and says, “Hey, I’m seeing a counselor up here and stuff.” And he’d like to see, have that tape for us to listen to and stuff to kind of help me . . .
Cindy Hayes: Because I’m in anger management.
Roy Hayes: . . . and I’m trying to get my anger under control and everything. So Susan, being the good person as she was, when ahead and sent it to him, and we had told her, “No, make a copy of it before you do this.” But she was a sweet person. She was kind and considerate to a fault and she just wanted it over. So if you want the tape, it’s your tape. I don’t need it. I don’t want to listen to it again. She’d send it off to him.
For Susan and her friends, the tape and the little messages Michael left changed everything. What had been a difficult break-up suddenly took on ominous overtones. No one knew if Michael was capable of violence, but then no one wanted to find out, either. Susan was deeply frightened. Her friends swooped in to support her. Roy came over to help secure her house by nailing the windows shut.
Roy Hayes: So I went over there with a nail and a hammer and I nailed all the windows—
Bryan Burrough: You slept on her couch at night?
Cindy Hayes: Yes I did. She worked second shift. She didn’t get home until, what was it, midnight? She got in—
Roy Hayes: I even left a pistol over at her house.
Cindy Hayes: Yeah.
Bryan Burrough: And she gave it back.
Cindy Hayes: Yes.
Roy Hayes: She called Cindy. But Cindy said, “Hey, we got to go over there and get that pistol. It’s scaring her to death. She’s afraid of it.” And I said, “Sure, whatever you want to do.”
Bryan Burrough: Okay. So she asked you to stay over there. You’re nailing windows shut. Is she just scared of somebody getting in?
Roy Hayes: She’s scared of Mike.
Cindy Hayes: Mike.
Roy Hayes: And she just wants to make sure she’s safe. If she’s going to see Mike, she wants to make sure it’s going to be on her terms in an environment that she can control. Not one where she’s going to be alone, woke up in the middle of the night by someone who comes through. And—
Cindy Hayes: My mother even asked her to come live with my mom and dad. My mom and dad had a large home. Well, me and my mom took care of elderly ladies and my mom even had a bedroom that was empty and she was like, “Please, Susan, just come and stay with us,” you know?
It took a few months for things to settle back down. That spring of ’87 Susan filed for divorce. Because Michael had taken their car, she was working six days a week to save up enough money to buy a new one. By the time she started seeing J.C. Baughman—that bartender from Granbury—her life was finally beginning to brighten a little.
Gloria Martin: Well, when he left, after she stopped crying, she bought a new car and she started dating and going out and she was the happiest I’ve seen her in a very long time.
Cindy Hayes: Yep, me too.
For Susan, it wasn’t just the start of a new life after marriage. It was the start of a life she’d never lived before. Cindy says in high school, Susan had never really dated. She and Michael met shortly after she graduated. Now for the first time, at the age of thirty, she was piecing together a life of her own.
Cindy Hayes: I think she felt like her burden was off her shoulders. She was turning around. She was happy-go-lucky. I would take her to the grocery store usually on Sunday night or Sunday evening to buy her groceries and stuff. She had coworkers that would take her to work back and forth.
Roy Hayes: She was kind of like what you’d read in a book, a person who has turned a chapter. And she was moving on with the next chapter of life and she’d resigned that one away. And now she was optimistic on what was going to be going forward.
On the last Friday in July, Roy and Cindy took Susan to a carnival, twenty miles away in the town of Hico. Cindy’s thirteen-year-old cousin was spending the weekend with her, and they figured maybe this was something she’d like.
Cindy Hayes: I did not—we didn’t, I don’t think none of us had a really good time. I just had an incredible feeling come over me that something was gonna happen. At the carnival. I just had this dread come over me. I really thought we were going to be in a car wreck or something, that kind of thing, you know? And so he suggested, “Well hey, why don’t we go back to Stephenville, let’s go to the Dairy Queen.”
Roy Hayes: So I took her and Susan and her cousin all back over there and bought them hot fudge sundaes and stuff.
Cindy Hayes: When we went to the Dairy Queen, Susan was very self-conscious about . . . she always watched her weight. She always had her certain weight and everything. And so when he bought us all a sundae, this was so not like her, just so not like her. Because she would normally eat one thing and then she’d be done. But she looked at me and I never will forget it. She looked over at me and she goes, “You know Cindy, I believe I’m gonna have me another one.” And so I think Roy offered to buy her another one. She goes, “No Roy, no, you bought me this one. I’m gonna buy me another one.” And she sat down and ate it and was just happy as she could be. And that was so not like her. So not like her.
That was the last time they saw her. Four nights later, Cindy and Roy had gone to dinner at Cindy’s aunt’s place, not far from Susan’s.
Roy Hayes: And we left her aunt’s house which was two blocks away. And we drove down the street and went past the house and we saw all the police lights and yellow tape—
Cindy Hayes: Well I remember I told you I hadn’t heard from Susan in a couple of days. I hadn’t heard from her. I said, “Let’s go by her house.”
In the yard when they arrived, they spotted Susan’s father, Joe Atkins.
Cindy Hayes: I got out and went over to him and started talking to him. And that’s when he told me that she was dead. And I was like, “Oh my—” You know. He was very hysterical. Of course, he found her, you know? And I think I started screaming, “He did it. He killed her.” Yeah. And I was talking about Mike.
But Michael was a thousand miles away, and he wasn’t cooperating.
Next time, on Stephenville:
Bryan Burrough: You gotta tell me that again. I’m just having a hard time—so, they literally said, “Get in the car—”
Michael Woods: Well, they didn’t arrest me. They asked me to come downtown. But after that I started carrying a gun everywhere because I know Texas cops. So they pulled up, told me, “get in the car, we’re going to the airport.” “Nope, we’re having a gun battle right here. Go for it, see if you clear leather.”