So they pulled up and 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.”—Michael Woods
After Susan Woods was killed, just about everyone in Stephenville—including the police—figured they knew who’d done it. Her estranged husband, Michael Woods, was a long-haired biker who smoked pot and played rock music—a complete misfit in the “Cowboy Capital of the World.”
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 Gustavo Martinez and Zorric Sia.
Bryan Burrough (voice-over): In northern New Mexico, sprawled along the highway between Santa Fe and Taos, is the town of Española. It’s gorgeous country, desert and worn hills, but still, I was a little uneasy. I’d been told the town had a sketchy reputation—that it was plagued by gangs who peddle heroin and meth. I’d been warned not to go out at night unless I had to.
But I wasn’t here for the nightlife. I was just here to talk to one man.
On that rainy afternoon in October, mine was the only car at my lonely motel, in a vast dirt parking lot with mud holes the size of Buicks. I waited, wondering if he would really show, wondering what he would be like after all these years.
I was standing on a second-floor walkway, looking the other direction, when out of nowhere, I realized a man had materialized at the foot of the stairs. He was on the small side, maybe five-six, and built like a fire hydrant. He had a gray ZZ Top beard, and brownish gray hair that fell to his chest. And as he trudged up the steps toward me, I saw he was wearing suspenders over a T-shirt covered with what looked like dog hair.
This is Michael Woods, Susan’s estranged husband. The man everyone in Stephenville immediately suspected when she was killed.
Michael is in mid-sixties now, wrinkled and worn. Over the years I’ve interviewed my share of people who have been through things—abuse and war, violence and prolonged captivity. And as we sat down in my hotel room, Michael gave off an overwhelming sense of someone who’d been somehow traumatized. I knew he’d been through a lot—almost all because of what happened after that night in 1987.
But as we began to talk, he proved lucid and clear-eyed. And he told a compelling story. That summer of ’87, when Susan was found murdered, Michael was living a thousand miles away, in Indianapolis. He only learned of her killing, he told me, after local police arrived on his doorstep. The police in Stephenville, he was told, wanted to bring him back for questioning. But he was in no mood to go. Then one day, out of nowhere, two Texas cops paid him a visit.
Bryan Burrough: Can you walk me through what happened?
Michael Woods: Yeah. They pulled up in a car, informed me that we were going to the airport, I was getting on a plane. I pulled back my shirt, showed them a piece and said, “No, we’re having a gun battle here or you’re leaving. Go for it. Clear leather. Bet you don’t clear leather.” They left.
It’s almost absurdly dramatic, the way Michael tells it, and there are people today who tell me it never happened. But Michael insists it did. And it kind of makes sense. In those first days and weeks after Susan’s death, Michael says he was a wreck.
His nerves were pretty much shot. He says he was being harassed by police in Indianapolis. Over and over again, they pressured him to sign a confession, to go back to Texas and face the Stephenville police—which was the absolute last thing he wanted to do. And after all of that, here was a Stephenville cop and a Texas Ranger outside his house.
Bryan Burrough: Okay, you to—you have to tell me that again. I’m just having a hard time. So they literally said, “Get in the car, go to the airport.”
Michael Woods: Right.
Bryan Burrough: At that point, do you usually carry a gun or had you been carrying—
Michael Woods: I carried a gun even in the shower once they’d arrested me the first time. 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 and they don’t really care about the law. So they pulled up and 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.”
From Texas Monthly, this is Stephenville. I’m your host, Bryan Burrough. This is episode two: “Michael.“
From the moment Susan’s body was found that hot July evening, as far as folks in town were concerned, there was only one real suspect. That’s what I heard from investigators on the case. And that’s what I’d heard from Susan’s friends, Cindy and Roy Hayes, and Gloria Martin.
Bryan Burrough: Now was there anybody that y’all knew that thought this was anyone other than Michael Woods?
Cindy Hayes: Nobody.
Roy Hayes: No. Everybody in this town thought it was Michael Woods.
Gloria Martin: That’s what everyone thought. Because Susan’s house was a fortress. Roy had locked all her windows. I’d even tried to break in it one night when I was supposed to spend the night with her, and I can get in almost any house if I know I’m supposed to be in there. Every window was nailed shut. Nobody got in that house without her letting them in. And she didn’t let strangers in her house. So it couldn’t have been anyone but Mike.
Of course, most folks in Stephenville didn’t know the half of it. They didn’t know the sordid details of their breakup, including those nasty notes and the cassette tape Michael had left for Susan—and how much they’d frightened Susan. But plenty of people did know Michael by his reputation, and that was more than enough reason to suspect him.
For starters, he wasn’t from Stephenville, or even anywhere close. He wasn’t even from Texas. Michael was born in Indiana, and he was one of seven siblings raised by a single mother.
Michael Woods: Yeah, she was a little hellion. She liked to party and have kids. Supposedly she was Catholic, but you couldn’t tell except on Easter Sunday. Oh, and Christmas Eve. We always had to go to mass on Christmas Eve.
Michael told me his upbringing was erratic and abusive. Money was scarce, they often moved from one apartment to the next. One of his mother’s boyfriends was usually in the mix.
At one point, when Michael was seven or eight, his mother decided they all needed a fresh start. She had a brother stationed at Fort Bliss, and moved the family to join him there in El Paso. Michael says his mom went from job to job, and in El Paso, too, the family moved often.
Michael Woods: At one point she got horses and we moved out to something that was called Future Land Project, which was like seven miles outside of El Paso. There was nothing out there but power wires. There was one well for a small community of maybe, I don’t know, ten trailers and everybody used the same well, and we raised horses for a while. It was very marked by turmoil. I was happy whenever I was out on a horse away from everybody else.
Meanwhile, Michael had learned the guitar, and he loved it. He especially liked Southern rock: Charlie Daniels, Marshall Tucker, Skynyrd.
Michael Woods: And I could stand out on a street corner and play guitar and sing and pick up a few bucks or I could go to a friend’s house and entertain them and stay the night, get a free meal, whatever else.
Michael was still a teenager. His mother had remarried. The whole family moved to Virginia when the new husband got transferred, and that’s when Michael started running away from home.
Michael Woods: Mostly the East Coast and in between El Paso and Indiana. Well, just about anywhere I could get people to throw me money for playing guitar or find a couch to sleep on. It wasn’t as rough as being home.
Bryan Burrough: So how on earth do you meet somebody from Stephenville, Texas?
Michael Woods: Well, I was staying in Virginia at my parents’ house and we had an old family friend from El Paso who was moving from El Paso to Stephenville. She needed somebody who could drive a big truck.
This was in the late seventies. Michael was in his early twenties at the time.
Michael Woods: So I flew down and drove her big truck from El Paso to Stephenville. I got to Stephenville and they asked me to stay for a while, so I did. And for a while Stephenville was okay and then my hair got long.
Today, Michael is the first to admit he was, shall we say, a little ragged around the edges. He walked around without a shirt when it suited him. And when it didn’t suit him, his leather jacket and especially his shoulder-length hair marked him as a rock-and-roller—in a town that styled itself the “Cowboy Capital of the World.” Remember, this was small-town Texas, before long hair was common. There were folks in Stephenville who regarded Michael as a cross between Charles Manson and a zoo animal.
Bryan Burrough: Well, what were you doing for a living? Just hanging out—
Michael Woods: Hanging out. Couldn’t be a musician in Stephenville, Texas, because they listened to country and western music and I didn’t play it.
I worked in a hayfield for a while. I worked at a Sonic for a little while. I went through a variety of jobs. I just did whatever I could until they got tired of me or I got tired of them.
I had a bit of an attitude problem back then because when people would try and say stuff to me like, “Hey, fur face, get over here,” I would not react well to that. And in Stephenville, Texas, during that time period, big guys liked to push their weight around and that didn’t work with me. I figured if you’re going to push me around, I’d just pop you in the mouth and we’ll see where it goes from there. So I didn’t get along real well.
And it wasn’t long before the police got to know him too.
Michael Woods: I would get, not arrested, but stopped for walking down the street because my boots had flat toes, they weren’t pointed, and I had long hair. And they’d just stop me and harass me, anytime they felt like it. And later I got a nice Harley that I liked to ride around on. They didn’t like the leather jacket, they didn’t like the Harley-Davidson, they didn’t like me. So they just pulled me over any old time they felt like, just to see what’s up.
Stephenville was not Michael’s kind of town. He didn’t have many friends there, didn’t go to church, or the football games, or the rodeo. And I have to wonder if he wouldn’t have just rolled right on to somewhere new, if it hadn’t been for a single chance encounter.
Bryan Burrough: How did y’all first meet? Do you remember?
Michael Woods: Yeah, I was playing video, not video, pinball in a convenience store. And she had gotten off of work and she was looking to drive around and drink a couple of beers and had a friend with her.
Now, this is not the story that Cindy and Roy remember they used to hear from Susan. But it’s how Michael says he remembers it.
Michael Woods: They came in the store and I was playing pinball and I took one look at her and I had to talk to this girl. So I went over and talked to her and they decided they could have me hang around with them for the night. And I did. And she tried to pawn me off on her friend. She thought I wanted to get laid. So her friend was all willing and up for that, but I wasn’t up for that. I wanted to get to know Susan. I was taken with her from the first time I saw her. She was a very pretty lady.
And here he was, a vision of Bob Seger at the Kwik-E-Mart. Susan, it’s pretty clear, was charmed by all the things that made Michael such a misfit in town. I had the clear sense he kind of reveled in this. I mean, when Michael came to meet her parents, he didn’t exactly turn up in a blue blazer with a vase of lilies.
Michael Woods: Well, she had given me her address and told me to come over anytime after noon. And she works the night shift, she got up at noon. So I showed up on her doorstep, it was about 90 degrees outside. I was wearing a pair of cutoffs and sandals and not much else. And her mother opened the door and about fell on the floor. How disgusting, a man walking around with no shirt and, you know, short shorts and just disgusting. So right from the beginning, her family didn’t care for me one bit. Her dad showed me he had a, I think it was a .357, I can’t remember, but he showed me a pistol he had in his closet. He said, “If you ever hurt my daughter, I’m gonna shoot you.”
Michael says that pretty much set the tone for things with her family. Pretty quickly, Michael says he saw a rift between Susan and her parents too.
Michael Woods: I think it was because of me. I don’t know. I didn’t know them before I met them, but she basically didn’t have anything to do with her family except on Sundays she would talk to her mom, usually on the phone.
This was around the time Cindy says she drifted apart from Susan too—also because she didn’t approve of Michael. So for a while, it was pretty much just the two of them.
And when it was good, they were in their own little world.
Susan loved sitting at Michael’s feet when he sang. One of her favorites was the song “Amie,” by Pure Prairie League. Or anything by Journey.
Bryan Burrough: Was there literally no one else in that town that you could adopt as a friend?
Michael Woods: Not in town.
Bryan Burrough: Who played music or . . .
Michael Woods: Not in town. Nope. It was as hardcore country as you can get. It was pitiful. I had a couple of friends that lived out of town, but they were guys that rode bikes and wore leather and were pretty much outcasts of their own community. And I’d go ride with them and stuff like that, but . . .
There just wasn’t a whole lot for Michael in Stephenville. And so, in 1980 he talked Susan into going back with him to El Paso, where his uncle promised him a job at his auto shop.
Michael Woods: We got there and about the second or third day she said that her parents were going to disown her if she was living with a man without being married. So I agreed to marry her.
The rest of their days there weren’t much more glamorous. This was the difficult time Cindy told me she’d read about in Susan’s letters from El Paso, the days of pawn shops and bacon-bit sandwiches.
Michael Woods: It was tough. We didn’t live in the car, but we did live in a sparsely decorated apartment because it was all I could do to get an apartment, and furniture costs money and we didn’t have a lot of money. And I was looking to get in a band or something, and working at my uncle’s shop.
When Michael and Susan would go out and play cards at night, he says Susan got jealous, that she was convinced his friends’ wives were hitting on him. And whether that’s true or not, it’s clear it was a lonely life for her in El Paso. To hear Michael tell it, she became withdrawn.
Michael Woods: She wasn’t anywhere the same kind of person. All she wanted to do was stay home. I asked her, “Well, if you’d go out and get a job, it’d be easier. We’re both working. We’d be making money.” And she wouldn’t do it. “Nope, I don’t like it here. I don’t want to be here. I’m not working.” She felt safe in Stephenville, which is ironic because that’s where she died. And she missed her friends; Cindy Hallmark was one of her best friends.
And so they went back to Stephenville.
Susan found work at the sandpaper factory, and eventually found them a house, the white bungalow on McNeill Street. But of course, Michael never got comfortable.
Michael Woods: Well, we were married for like five and a half years and I suppose half of that time I was somewhere else.
It was never long before he’d take off, usually to Indianapolis, where his brother lived. Sometimes Susan tried going with him, but for her, only one place would ever be home.
Michael Woods: Well, we had one big problem. I couldn’t stand Stephenville, and she didn’t ever want to leave Stephenville again. She just made up her mind. No matter what I did or where I went, she didn’t want to go. So she went back to Stephenville and I stayed in Indiana. We did that a few times and it was always the same thing. It was when she was out of Stephenville, she wasn’t happy. And when I was in Stephenville, I wasn’t happy. So . . . I can’t stand that place.
By the time I went to New Mexico to talk to Michael, I knew just what his old Stephenville neighbors thought of him, too. After Susan’s murder, their statements to investigators painted a pretty clear picture: Scary biker guy, smoked pot, sat out in the front yard with his shirt off, usually with a dog latched to the motorcycle beside him.
Michael Woods: That was accurate. I had little choice but to be kind of a scary person because otherwise people would pick on me. I’m not very big. Susan was an inch taller than me. And I ran into a bunch of guys who thought that I didn’t deserve to be with her. A bunch of guys went home with busted lips. But I never got arrested for that. I guess big guys don’t like to admit it when they’ve had their tail stomped by a little guy.
I’m like five-foot-six and and at the time I weighed 145 pounds. I’ve put on a lot of weight since then. I weigh a little over 200 pounds now, but I spent almost two decades training to survive in prison. So I put on weight, you know?
The last straw came in February 1987. Michael had been away since the previous summer, but he came back to Stephenville to give things one last shot.
Michael Woods: Yeah, I came back, she said things were gonna be different. And earlier times I had been flipping cars, buying a car and fixing it up, and selling it. Did that for money and I wanted to do that with houses. She wouldn’t have no part of it. She was working, it was her money. She’s going to do what she wants and I can forget about what I want to do. And I blew up. I left her a tape where I cussed her out. And I took the car and left.
Bryan Burrough: Okay, so you leave for good in early ’87. You go up and you’re living with your brother?
Michael Woods: Yeah. He bought a house that was slated to be condemned. It was a 1800s house that needed some vast repairs. He bought it for $5,000 and we rebuilt it. We separated it up until it was two large apartments and two small apartments. And I stayed in one of the small apartments.
That small apartment had a big hole in the roof, so Michael slept in a tent—inside the house. He remembers his first night there—it actually snowed inside the house.
Michael Woods: You got to get by however you got to get by, right?
Michael says their neighbors used to get mad at them for parking in front of their house. Sometimes they even called the cops.
Michael Woods: One day, it was after I had been up late, I was out in the front yard, probably seven or eight in the morning. And these cops come pulling up and said, “Well, can we speak to Ricky?” And I said, “Well, Ricky’s my brother, can I help you?” So they said, “Well, yeah, you can help us. You mind coming downtown and talking to us about it?” And it’s like, “No, I don’t mind.” I thought it was about parking. It wasn’t any big deal. I went downtown.
From the minute I got in the car, they kept asking questions about, “Well, where are you from? You come from Stephenville, Texas. What was your house like? What did it look like?” They were just asking lots of questions about the house. And I got in there and they started questioning me. And there was more questions about the house and this, that, and the other, just off-the-wall questions that didn’t make any sense to me. And then they stopped and said, “Well, you’re lying. We know you killed her. She’s dead. You killed her.”
Bryan Burrough: Was that how you found out?
Michael Woods: Yep.
Bryan Burrough: Do you think this would’ve likely been the next day?
Michael Woods: I believe it was on a Wednesday. And—
Bryan Burrough: They found the body Tuesday night.
Michael Woods: Yeah, I believe it was Wednesday that they did this.
Bryan Burrough: Wow.
Michael Woods: I immediately got sick. I had to go to the restroom, throw up, defecate. I had to empty my system. I got real sick and come back and talked to them some more. And they kept being accusing. At one point, they wrote out this confession and asked me to sign it. And I said, “No, I’m not signing that. I don’t know what the hell you’ve written here. I’m not interested in signing it.” They said, “Well, you’re just signing what you said.” It’s like, “No, I’m not signing anything. I want a lawyer.”
Michael says, that was the end of the interview. And so, he went home.
Michael Woods: But after that, the harassment started. Cops started acting in Indianapolis the way they’d been acting in Stephenville, you know, just pull over and talk to me for no reason. I got arrested a couple times for being drunk in public when I hadn’t been drinking. There’s no court, there’s no nothing. They just arrest me and throw me in the cell with a bunch of rough dudes. Let me out the next morning. I don’t remember how many times they did that.
This was all prelude to that day when Michael got a visit from the Stephenville detective Ken Maltby and that Texas Ranger—the moment you heard about at the top of the episode.
Michael Woods: I remember pulling back my shirt and showing him my .357 Magnum and said, “I bet you don’t clear leather.” Because they politely pulled up and told me, “Get in the car, we’re going to the airport.” No.
Back in Texas, the newspapers quoted Stephenville police saying Michael wasn’t cooperating. But Michael says that’s not true. He says his attorney offered to give police Michael’s fingerprints and any other physical evidence they wanted—but with a catch. Michael would only provide it in Indiana. He was adamant that he wasn’t going to Texas. I found documents in the case files that back him up on this.
But Michael and his attorney also had evidence they were not willing to hand over.
Michael Woods: I had at least a dozen witnesses as to where I had been over the last few days. However, my attorney at the time told me, “If they get ahold of your witnesses, they’re going to do everything they can to try and make your witnesses look bad and try to turn them against you. So, don’t give them the witnesses until you’re charged with something.” My brother made out an affidavit. My sister-in-law made out an affidavit. They weren’t interested in me having an alibi. They were interested in getting me to Texas. As I said, they could have had the fingerprints anytime they wanted.
Instead, they fall into a kind of holding pattern. In Stephenville, Donnie Hensley is busy interviewing whoever he can think of who might be a suspect. In Indiana, Michael is just waiting, noting all the well-dressed strangers watching his house.
Michael Woods: You know, people in suits. People in suits driving down the street where nobody lives that has a suit. You know?
Of all the leads Donnie Hensley had pursued, Michael Woods was very clearly at the top of the list. By this point, in fact, he was pretty much the only suspect left. Thinking he had to have ducked back into town somehow in order to kill Susan, Donnie made the rounds of Stephenville gas stations, showing photos of Michael.
Donnie Hensley: I could never get him in Texas. Trust me. I looked. I looked at routes, because I knew he was driving that car. And I couldn’t put him in Texas. If I could have put him in Texas in that time period, I could have got . . . I could have got an arrest warrant, got him extradited back from Indianapolis. But I couldn’t. It just was not there.
What Donnie still needed most were Michael’s fingerprints. If he could get them, he was certain they would match those found in the bathroom beside Susan’s body. Donnie says he has no memory of Michael offering his prints; maybe there was some kind of miscommunication here.
The truth is lost to time. What matters here is that Donnie believed he‘d have to find a way to get those prints himself. He knew about Ken Maltby’s wasted trip to Indianapolis, so he decided to try something different.
Bryan: Tell me about the surveillance.
Donnie Hensley: We had a cool surveillance van with a periscope. We watched his house, watched his house, watched him all out there, smoking dope. Watched his house. Watched his house. He was out there playing with guns in his front yard.
Back in Stephenville, Susan’s family was making a big deal of the fact that Michael had taken not only the yellow Mustang, but a fur coat and some crystal figurines that, they felt, belonged to Susan.
Donnie Hensley: And lo and behold, he had a yard sale. And from that surveillance and what we see was the knickknacks that he stole from Susan at the garage sale.
This was the break Donnie had been waiting for. Evidence of a theft.
Donnie Hensley: We sent an undercover in to the garage sale from Indianapolis. He told us what all was there and it matched with what we knew he had taken. He had little figurines. She collected them.
Of course, Michael has a different story about how this all went down. To him, the search warrant was part of an escalating pattern of harassment by the Indianapolis police.
Michael Woods: And the way they got their search warrant was they took pictures of some of the items we had out. I was trying to get money for a lawyer and we had a yard sale going on, so they took some out of focus pictures of some glass items and said, “Well, these items were stolen at the time.” Complete, utter bullshit. They were not taken at the time. The items I had, I had from before when I’d been in Stephenville. But, they used that as an excuse to get a search warrant and they came in, tore apart the house. I mean, they tore it apart. Then they found, after their exhaustive search, a roach—a marijuana roach in my sister-in-law’s purse. So they arrested me, my friend Dennis, and my brother for that roach.
Michael says they all spent a night in jail but got out the next day without being charged. But it was enough to give Donnie what he’d come for: Michael’s fingerprints. He got on a plane and carried them back to Texas.
And then? Nothing. Michael heard nothing for days—from the Indiana police, from Donnie, from Texas. The waiting was excruciating. The days stretched into a week, then two, then a month.
And still: nothing. Michael didn’t understand what was going on. All he knew was that the undercover cops no longer seemed to be watching his house. He tried to put it all out of his mind. But he found it impossible.
The months stretched into a year, then two. While he was happy he wasn’t being hassled by police anymore, Michael soon had a new problem—starting when Joe Atkins realized his daughter had a life insurance policy, and that Michael was in line to get the payout.
Donnie Hensley: Susan had an $11,000 insurance policy that he was a beneficiary of. And Joe says, “They going to send that to him?” I said, “Joe, the only thing I know you can do is file a wrongful death suit.” So he did.
This was in 1989, two years after Susan’s death. Her family sued, claiming Michael was responsible.
Donnie Hensley: And I called Mike. I said, “Hey dude, you got a court appearance. Are you going to come?” He said—and he told me straight out, he said, “There ain’t no planes that fly to Texas. There’s no road to be driven to Texas. I ain’t coming.” That was it.
To Michael, it looked like one more trap to draw him back to Stephenville.
Michael Woods: They wanted her insurance money from when she died.
Bryan Burrough: Right.
Michael Woods: Which I’m told, that turned out to be $20,000 because of the way she died.
Bryan Burrough: Okay.
Michael Woods: They wanted that money. So they sued me for wrongful death.
The suit went ahead without Michael to defend himself, and the judge ultimately found him liable for Susan’s death. With damages, the judgment amounted to a stunning $700,000—plus interest. As Michael understood it, it couldn’t be collected, so long as he never returned to Texas.
Michael Woods: Last I heard from the police it was, “Don’t leave town.”
This advice was relayed by Michael’s lawyer.
Michael Woods: But he told me “If you leave town, they’re going to jump on you and arrest you.” So, that pretty much put an end to my blossoming career because there’s no way you’re going to make any money if you stay in the same town. As a musician, you get an act together and travel. That’s the only way you make money.
Michael tried to make a go of it playing around town, but pay was like 35 bucks a night.
Michael Woods: So we played dinner music and other bands would hire us to play with them because they didn’t have enough vocals.
Mostly, though, Michael sank into a deep funk. He tried to live a normal life, but the cloud of suspicion never really went away. In fact, after an Indianapolis newspaper ran an article or two on the case, it followed him to Indiana.
Michael Woods: I did a downhill spiral for the whole time because I tried to shrug it off and just live a normal life. I had a couple of times, because there were articles in the paper and whatnot, I had people come up to the stage and say, “Aren’t you the guy that killed his wife?” Kind of puts a damper on the rest of your evening when they do that.
I was going to a therapist. I was on antidepressants. I was taking anything anybody offered me at a gig, and I mean anything. Just anything. “Get me out of this world.” And I drank like a fish. Just, nothing seemed to cheer me up—or if it did, it wasn’t for long.
Michael felt stuck with this cloud hanging over him and no way out from under it. This was nothing like the life he’d imagined…
Michael Woods: When she started divorce proceedings, she told me, “If you don’t come back to Texas, I’m gonna get a divorce.” Well, I didn’t figure that piece of paper was going to make any difference. I knew that sooner or later we’d get back together because she loves me and I love her. So, I figured, you know, we’re gonna get back together sooner or later. She’ll probably date a couple of cowboys and remember why she loves me. So, I thought we were going to get back together. When she died, that was . . .
Bryan Burrough: Were you able to get anything like, I don’t know, help?
Michael Woods: I was too far gone for therapy to be much good for me. They said that I had an identity crisis and I needed to learn how to be me without my wife, which at that time, I just . . . I wasn’t me without her.
There’s no other way to say it. Michael’s life was a trainwreck. He lived in a kind of twilight existence—a job here, a gig there. Looking back today, he admits it’s all a kind of blur, year after year of pills and booze and hard drugs that sapped him of anything like ambition or focus. He lived day by day, hoping something would change. This went on for years.
Michael Woods: I suppose the low point was probably about fifteen years in. I just . . , I was dating women trying to find some other way to be whole and nothing was working. And I was thinking I was doing okay, but I wasn’t.
I had these pills that were tranquilizers that I was supposed to take to go to sleep and I took a whole bottle of them and just figured I’ll just go to sleep and not wake up. But what I did do was I slept for three days and I woke up and I was still depressed.
He made stabs at living a normal life. He insists he tried. At one point he enrolled at a local college, but his heart wasn’t really in it. He found work installing home alarms. He says he woke every morning believing this would be the day the Texas police came for him.
Mentally, and even physically, he began to prepare for a life in prison. For years he worked out fiercely, trying to bulk up to defend himself against other inmates. It left his body as broken as his spirit: a compression fracture in his back, a rebuilt wrist, and eventually, arthritis.
Michael Woods: Yeah, I’d get in a bad mood starting early April because her birthday’s April 6th. I’d get in a bad mood starting April and it would last all the way through July, last through July and then I’d start to get better after that. So it basically ruined every summer.
Almost twenty years went by. Finally, in the summer of 2005, he told a new friend about his situation. She decided to try and help.
Michael Woods: Her son had a birthday and she hired us to play his party. And it was the end of July, nineteen years after the incident. And I got finished playing and I left the stage and I went around behind the house and I broke down and I was crying. And she asked me what I was crying about. Well, I told her that my wife had been killed and they still haven’t found the guy and they blamed me for it, and that’s what’s going on. So she called Stephenville, Texas, and said, “What’s going on with this case?” At that point, Don Miller decided to give it a shot.
At the time, Don Miller was an easy-going lieutenant on the Stephenville police force, trying to clear several old cold cases.
Don Miller: So I called her and I said, “Who are you, and why are you interested in this case?”
This is Don.
Don Miller: And she told me that Michael was still a suspect. It was killing his family, him and his family. And she wanted to know where the case stood. And so I told her, I said, “Look, I can’t go anywhere with this case until I get Michael cleared, and Michael is not talking to the police, so I need to talk to Michael.” And so she said, “Okay, well I’ll talk to Michael and I’ll get back with you.”
Don didn’t hear more for several months. Eventually, though, he tried to follow up.
Don Miller: So I called Michael and I said, “Michael, this is Lieutenant Miller in Stephenville. I need to finish working on your wife’s murder. I need to talk to you. Will you talk to me?” And he said, “Man, I don’t know. I just don’t trust the cops. Not at all.” I said, “Well, Michael, you and I have got to work together to get this thing resolved.”
So Michael, after a series of phone calls, he was very hesitant, but he said he would work with us. I said, “Okay.” So I got the plane tickets, we’re getting ready to go. Michael Woods calls the police department. He says, “Tell Miller not to come.”
But Don decided to go anyway. He felt he had to. Only if and when he was able to clear Michael of the murder would anyone in Stephenville ever accept the idea that someone else may have done it. Because whoever it was was still out there.
Next time, on Stephenville.