I was like, “Look, I’ve been told not to talk to the police.” And he said, “Michael, everybody’s kind of over this. . . . If you don’t help me, we’re never going to find who did it.” And I couldn’t live with that.—Michael Woods
Nearly twenty years after Susan Woods’s murder, Stephenville Police Lieutenant Don Miller takes up the case. And with Michael Woods’s cooperation, and help from new technology, Don finally makes a break in the case. But what he uncovers raises even more questions about why Susan was killed—and how her killer evaded justice for so long.
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): It was a cold winter day in Indianapolis, in early 2006, when Don Miller arrived along with his partner Russell Ford. They’d just flown in from Dallas, and they were there to try and see Michael Woods, the estranged husband of Susan Woods—the man Susan’s friends and family believed had killed her.
They found their way to Michael’s address, and pulled up in front of a worn two-story home in a working class neighborhood. They took a deep breath and stepped onto the front porch.
Don Miller: We’re a couple of Texas boys. We weren’t ready for how cold it was gonna be. And so we go up dressed in our summer attire—I might have had on a sport coat—and knock on the door, and not thinking Michael was gonna answer, but he did. He answered the door, he cracked the door open. And I told him who I was and he said, “Miller, I told you I wasn’t gonna cooperate.” And I said, “I understand.” And I just started talking.
They weren’t the first police officers who’d made this trip from Texas, hoping they could charm Michael into cooperating. The last two who tried it, Michael says he invited them to try their luck in a gun fight in his front yard. He didn’t trust the police, and that went double for Texas police. He suspected they would do just about anything to blame him for Susan’s death.
But things were different now. Michael was different. Worn down by nearly twenty years of drugs and booze and broken dreams, the ever-present suspicion that he had killed his wife. The certainty when he opened his eyes almost every morning that this would be the day he got hauled off to a Texas prison.
All this time, Michael had never been told he was no longer the focus of any investigation into Susan’s murder. But he hadn’t been arrested for it, either. He’d lived almost twenty years in limbo. Don sensed Michael needed a resolution. So even though Michael had told him not to come, Don knew that Michael needed him. He was Michael’s only hope of ever clearing his name. So he just kept talking.
Don Miller: You know, I just went through the . . . I said, “Look, Michael, I’ve gotta have your DNA. And if you don’t give me your DNA, Michael, if you don’t cooperate with me, then I’m gonna turn around and I’m gonna leave and this case is gonna go nowhere. You’ve got to help me.”
On a summer night nineteen years earlier, somebody had murdered Susan Woods in her home—and whoever did it had also smoked six cigarettes and drank a can of Coke left on the living room table. Don Miller had DNA from the cigarettes. He just needed someone to match it to.
Don explained all this there on the porch. Proving that Michael’s DNA didn’t match was the only way he could ever be fully cleared of the murder.
Don Miller: And somewhere during the conversation, he opened the door, he stepped out on the porch, he said, “Get my DNA, and then get off.”
Michael just wanted to be done with Stephenville and get on with his life. But Don needed to draw this out a little longer. He had to buy some time for his partner—because neither of them actually knew how to use the cheek swab kit they’d brought to collect his DNA.
Before they’d left Stephenville, their plan had been to grab two kits from the police department, then open one and learn how to use it during their flight to Indiana.
Don Miller: Well, on our way up there, Ford told me, he said, “Miller, we only have one buccal swab kit.” And he said, “I’ve never used one.” And I said, “Okay.” He said, “I don’t know what I’m doing.” And I said, “Well, I’m sure there’s instructions on the inside.” And he said, “Yeah, there it is.” I said, “Okay. So look, when we get up to Michael’s front door, I’m just going to start talking to him. And the minute he gives us consent to get his DNA, I want you to open the package, start reading the instructions. I’m going to stand there and talk to Michael.” And I said, “When you know how to do it, you step up. I’ll get out of the way. And you get his DNA.”
So as Don and his partner shivered in the cold, and as Michael’s patience began to thin, Don just stalled.
Don Miller: Russell read the instructions on how to get the DNA. He stepped up next to my right shoulder. I moved over, he got Michael’s DNA. Michael said, “Now leave.” And we did.
From Texas Monthly, this is Stephenville. I’m your host, Bryan Burrough. This is episode three: Don.
When Don Miller flew back to Texas, he carried a sample of Michael Woods’s saliva with him, ready to test it against the evidence gathered at the crime scene. And in that moment, as he looked out the window, he might have felt an echo of his friend Donnie Hensley, who’d made the same trip eighteen years earlier carrying a card with Michael’s fingerprints.
After all, the only reason Don was even on the case was that Donnie hadn’t been able to solve it. Back then, in 1988, Donnie had been convinced that he finally had Michael. But when he got back to Stephenville, he ran smack into one of the rudest surprises of his entire career.
The prints didn’t match. Nothing matched. Whoever left those prints in Susan’s bathroom, it was not her husband.
Donnie Hensley: Prints didn’t match. Palm prints didn’t match. So guess what I did? Mike goes on the back burner and I was totally . . . I mean I was out of gas.
It looked like a dead end. Michael Woods looked like a dead end. There had to be an explanation, but Donnie wracked his brain and couldn’t think of one. In his bones, he knew Michael had done this. Everyone in Stephenville did. Donnie wasn’t ready to call Michael and tell him he’d been cleared, but there was no way to tie him to the crime.
And Donnie was also peeved that it had taken almost a year just to get to this point. He couldn’t fathom how the last two officers—a Texas Ranger and a Stephenville officer—had flown to Indianapolis and come back empty-handed.
Donnie Hensley: Dude, I hate talking about dead people but they’re both dead now. But wouldn’t you have thought a crack-ass jackass investigator from Dallas PD walks into a small town with all this expertise don’t you think, “Hey dude, maybe we gotta get some prints.” “John, what do you think?”
Bryan Burrough: Now this takes us pretty much up to the summer of ’88. This a year after the case. Not many murders are getting actively worked a year afterwards. You’ve been on it six, nine months. At that point there’s not much left to do, is there?
Donnie Hensley: No. Pray and hope.
At one point, in desperation, he grabbed the crime scene photos and drove an hour and a half to Lampasas, where a former FBI profiler was teaching a class.
Donnie Hensley: And I asked him about it. I had him look at it. And he looked at him and everything else. He said, “Can I show the class?” I said, “I don’t care. I need all the help I can get, dude.” And somebody in the class is a female officer, can’t remember her name, don’t know where she’s from. She says, “Did you ever look at auto erotica?” I said, “No, I have not.”
In other words, this other officer wondered if maybe Susan died during some kind of elaborate sex game.
Donnie Hensley: So I went to researching auto erotica. And about an average of four people at that time period per year was ever attributed the accidental death by auto erotica. And a lot of that included self-suffocation.
This represented a hard left turn, and Donnie kind of knew it. But it’s a sign of his desperation that he considered it for a time before dismissing it. Everyone wanted the case resolved. Not long after, in fact, Donnie was at work when he was stopped in the hallway by one of his superiors. He wanted an update.
Donnie Hensley: I said, “I looked at everything, even auto erotica.” He said, “Well did that work out?” I said, “No.” He said, “Well you need to tell the dad that it was a auto erotica and let’s close this case.”
In other words, Donnie says his boss wanted him to embrace a far-fetched theory that neither of them really believed in—just to make the whole murder case go away. But Donnie had grown close to Susan’s father. He felt an intense loyalty to the family. He had sworn to them he would find Susan’s killer, and he still intended to do it.
And given the violence evident at the crime scene— judging by the photos I’d seen—to suggest this was an accident was just absurd.
Bryan Burrough: And your response was?
Donnie Hensley: F— you. Well, if Miller hadn’t stopped me walking down the hall, I would’ve killed him.
Whatever happened, it’s clear Donnie wasn’t getting along with his superiors. And soon after, he was reassigned to patrol duty, a serious demotion. And so, barely a year after Susan’s death, there was no longer anyone actively investigating it.
The case haunted Donnie for years. In 1993 he resigned from the Stephenville force and went on to train international police for an arm of the United Nations. He helped investigate atrocities in East Timor, and in Kosovo.
Donnie Hensley: I had nightmares, dude. I was on a mountaintop in Kamenica. I had one officer wounded, one dead. The first Kosovo police officer killed in line of duty. That didn’t haunt me. Susan did. I mean, I’m sorry, but every time I talked to Joe Atkins, my heart broke. And I’m a tough old cop. I mean, I thought I was.
In my experience, small towns don’t often embrace bad news, and usually don’t mind when it goes away. So when Susan’s murder went unsolved for a year or two, and then another year and another and another, there actually wasn’t a ton of people in Stephenville clamoring for closure. Everyone thought they knew who had done it anyway. And the prevailing point of view seems to have been that justice would find Michael Woods eventually.
I heard about this from Susan’s friends Cindy and Roy Hayes.
Bryan Burrough: So a couple years go by, three, four, five years go by. Does this get talked about on the anniversary?
Cindy Hayes: Oh yeah.
Bryan Burrough: Is it I something that—
Roy Hayes: Well not by us and the police department. I mean we talk about it.
Bryan Burrough: It just becomes this local mystery?
Roy Hayes: Yeah, it just pretty much falls off the face of the earth. We all—
Bryan Burrough: Is it something that you’re in . . . that people would come up and ask about or?
Roy Hayes: No.
Bryan Burrough: Is it considered not cool to talk about?
Roy Hayes: Pretty much either people forget about it because they’re not associated with it. Or everybody thinks Mike Woods did it, he fled off to Indiana and that until the police can get him back down here, no charges are ever going to be filed. That’s where it seemed to stay.
Sara Vanden Berge, the reporter who showed me around town, came to Stephenville in 1990, just three years after the murder. And she spent more than a decade working at the local paper. She says that in all that time, she never once heard about the murder.
Bryan Burrough: So that was one of the questions I was going to ask you. So you had lived here for fifteen years and had never heard of it?
Sara Vanden Berge: Never heard of it, nope never.
Bryan Burrough: It’s the weirdest thing. And it may just be because Stephenville is too big to be a classic small town. This isn’t a town of six hundred where everybody knew this woman who’d been horribly killed. This is a town with a small college and that was changing a lot. And I didn’t get the sense that this was some type of murder that loomed over the city’s memory.
Sara Vanden Berge: No, no. I never got that sense either.
By 2000 or so, thirteen years after the killing, most folks in Stephenville had all but forgotten it. The town was growing fast in those years. Newcomers like Sara were flowing in, and Stephenville began to change—slowly, sure—becoming a little more diverse, a little less insular, a little more welcoming.
Then, in 2005, the police chief and the district attorney noticed that Stephenville had a backlog of three unsolved murders—a lot for a town this size. One, of course, was Susan’s. The chief called in Donnie’s friend Don Miller, a garrulous good ol’ boy, popular around town, and asked if he might try and clear them in his spare time.
One day last October, I met him for lunch in Stephenville, to hear how he came to investigate this case.
Man in diner: I thought you were out on . . . I didn’t know you were—
Don Miller: Hey. How are you?
Man in diner: —out on parole.
Don Miller: Out on parole. I just made parole. [Laughs]
Man in diner: Oh, did you?
Don Miller: I did, yes sir.
We met at Jake and Dorothy’s Cafe, a diner that’s been in downtown Stephenville since 1948. I absolutely love small-town diners, and this is one of the best.
Man in diner: Didn’t mean to interrupt. Well, actually I did mean to interrupt you, Don.
Bryan Burrough: We’ll get you on the tape!
Don Miller: You kind of look around this restaurant now. The people, how they’re dressed would’ve been the exact same in ’06 or whenever, in 1987.
Bryan Burrough: Well, sitting here, it’s easy to imagine that—you know, you got the wonderful vinyl seating, the wonderful Formica. I mean, this is prime Texas diner stuff. You don’t want to change this stuff.
Don had come to Stephenville from Galveston in the mid-seventies. In the late eighties, he was mainly working on a drug task force. But he happened to be one of the first officers to arrive at the scene of Susan’s murder.
Don Miller: When the call came through, my partner and I did go up and we did enter the crime scene and saw Mrs. Woods, her—anyway, we saw her, she was bent over the bathtub. We glanced into the bedroom, saw the bedroom was a disarray, and then we left the crime scene, and we waited for the detectives to show up. So once the police got there, we released everything to them and we left.
All these years later, Don figured he couldn’t do much with the case. But he did have some strange new tools to work with: for one thing, DNA testing was now available. Don took the six cigarette butts from Susan’s living room and sent them in for testing.
Don Miller: The problem is, at that particular time, there was no matches in the computer for the DNA. So I did have male DNA, unknown DNA, I’d submitted it through a program called CODIS files. There was absolutely no hits, so I was at ground zero.
And that’s pretty much where Don was when he heard from Michael Woods’s friend, Barbara Gary, asking him for help. Pleading for his help, actually, because of how Michael was falling apart.
Don knew that Donnie Hensley, and Susan’s family, remained absolutely certain Michael was the killer. But given that Michael’s prints didn’t match those at the scene—a fact that no one had actually ever told Michael—Don wasn’t so sure.
Barbara Gary had said she’d ask Michael to call Don. But after six months, Don still hadn’t heard from him. Finally, in early 2006, Don got Michael’s number and called him up.
This time they talked. Michael was still skeptical, still nervous. But when Don pushed to come interview him, Michael relented. And then changed his mind. That’s when Don decided to go anyway, and ended up shivering on that Indiana porch.
Michael Woods: And then he started doing a real investigation. He started questioning me on the phone and all that. And I’d been told not to talk to the cops, you know, “Don’t talk to him for any reason.” I told him I didn’t want to talk to him.
Michael says he went back into counseling, just to handle the pressure of talking with the police again. It all seemed like such a huge risk. He was still certain that if he cracked that door open for them, he’d somehow wind up in prison.
Michael Woods: And he came up and started talking to me and he is asking me all these questions. I was like, “Look, I’ve been told not to talk to the police. I don’t know what you think I can do to help you.” And he said, “Well Michael, everybody’s kind of over this. It’s a cold case. It’s over with. I’ve talked to everybody else. If you don’t help me, we’re never gonna find who did it.” And I couldn’t live with that. I was kind of putting myself at risk but what can I say? I was younger. Sometimes you gotta take chances in life.
Bryan Burrough: All right. So you’ve now got Michael Woods’s DNA on a swab. You take it back to Stephenville. Can you walk me through what happens now?
Don Miller: Well, from Stephenville, I hand-delivered—I never used the mail on big evidence, but I hand-delivered the DNA to a lab. I think it was in Waco, Texas.
Because Michael’s fingerprints didn’t match those at the scene, Don was fairly certain his DNA wouldn’t match. But it was a first step, just ruling him out as a suspect.
Don Miller: And I know in my mind, I know that that DNA is not gonna match the cigarette butts. I know that for a fact. But I also know that because everybody in town thinks that Michael Woods killed Susan Woods, I had a great deal of burden to get him cleared out of it where everybody would accept it.
And so I waited several months, and then eventually we got the results back that it was not a hit. It did not match. So I called Michael and I said, “Michael, this is Lieutenant Miller, and you are officially 100 percent cleared from the case. Your fingerprints don’t match, the DNA doesn’t match. You’re no longer a suspect.” And Michael started crying and he said, “I thank you.” And he hung up on me.
Michael Woods: I had a hard time trusting him even after that because we had a lot more conversations to have and I felt like this could be some big ploy to get me.
Bryan Burrough: I’m trying to figure out how this ended for you. I mean, because there isn’t any Christmas morning for you. You know? I mean, you get a nice phone call, but that’s between you and one cop. Certainly all the people in Stephenville—nobody there was running around saying, “We really should raise a glass to poor Michael Woods. We were such jerks to him.”
Michael Woods: Nobody is.
Bryan Burrough: I mean, is there anything that you might have looked for? I mean wanted from Stephenville?
Michael Woods: No, there’s nothing in Stephenville I care about except Susan.
Don knew it would take a lot for Michael to ever trust him. But he still needed him.
Don Miller: I needed a dialogue with Michael Woods because I had a feeling that whoever killed Susan was going to try to tell me something that she was involved in weird, kinky sex that she liked crazy stuff in the bedroom.
Remember, officers knew from the crime scene that Susan had been the victim of a violent sex crime.
Don Miller: And I needed Michael, who was her estranged husband to counter that. And he did counter it, but I also knew that I just couldn’t start asking him straight-up questions about that until he knew for a fact that he was cleared.
Bryan Burrough: So even before you formally cleared him, you’re already thinking ahead to using him as a source of information and almost a de facto ally.
Don Miller: That is correct. You know, I had known through the previous statements that she was a quiet, conservative Stephenville girl. And intuitively, by looking at the bedroom for the few minutes I was there, I knew that a horrendous fight had happened in that bedroom. And I also knew that something horrible had happened in the bathroom. And I knew whoever did this to her was, in my mind, his alibi would be, she liked kinky, weird sex, and it got out of control and that was what happened. I had to have Michael Woods to counter all that.
So I waited a couple of days and called him back. And then just as I had suspected, Michael said that she was completely straight. There were no fantasies going on in her mind. She wasn’t into bondage, wasn’t into kinky sex, wasn’t into rough sex. And he laid it out for me.
So now Don had what he needed to argue against anyone who tried to say Susan’s death was an accident. But while clearing Michael was great for Michael, it was not so great for Don. Now he was out of suspects.
Don figured his only hope of finding one was the fingerprints lifted from Susan’s bathroom mirror and tub. In 1999 the FBI had unveiled a national fingerprint database; a department could submit unidentified original prints and have them compared against thousands of others.
Bryan Burrough: All right. Let me stop you there then, and let’s address that.
Don Miller: Yes, sir.
Bryan Burrough: I think a lot of people who are listening to this are going to say, “Well, why wasn’t that done ten years before?”
Don Miller: The problem was when the case went dead for ten years, no, nobody was working it. And technology had evolved, but nobody was working it. When I started working it, I had ten years of technology advances that I really needed to catch up with myself.
I had asked the chief before if I could hand-deliver the fingerprints to Washington, D.C., to the FBI lab. And I was told, “No, you can send them by mail.” And in my mind I thought, “Well, if I send them in the mail and they don’t ever get there, then I’ve lost the key to the case.” So I didn’t do it.
Then Don heard that the Texas Department of Public Safety had gotten access to the FBI database. Now he wouldn’t have to fly anywhere with the prints to get them checked.
So one day in May 2006, Don made the three-hour drive down to Austin and handed the fingerprints to a DPS officer.
Today, fingerprint databases are so common, this would’ve been a routine thing. But to Don, in 2006, it almost smacked of science fiction. He’d never tried it before. No one in Stephenville had. He wasn’t really expecting much, certainly nothing like a breakthrough, but it was worth a shot.
Bryan Burrough: A few days later you get a call back. Walk me through what happened.
Don Miller: And so Brian Strong calls me back and he says, “Hey, we got a hit on your fingerprints.” And he said, “We got a match on the mirror and we got a match off of a Coke can.” And I said, “Okay, who are they? Who do they belong to?” And he said, “They belong to a guy named Joseph Scott Hatley.” I said, “Who’s he?” And he said—Brian said, “I don’t know.”
Joseph Scott Hatley. The name meant nothing to Don. And then things got stranger still.
Don Miller: So he said, “These prints originated in Las Vegas, Nevada.” And he said he got arrested for armed robbery. I said, “Okay. All right.” He said, “That’s all the information we have.” I said, “Okay.”
Don put the phone down slowly. Las Vegas? The prints in the database were from an entirely different crime in an entirely different part of the country: a robbery in 1988, three states away. It crossed Don’s mind this newfangled database might not be all it was cracked up to be. But if this Joseph Scott Hatley could be their man, if he had any link to Stephenville, Don knew who would know.
Don Miller: So I called the district attorney, his name was John Terrell. I called the DA and I said, “Do we know who Joseph Scott Hatley is?” And actually the DA said, “I know exactly who he is.” He said, “Come down here; I’ll have the file ready.”
The file Don was given, it turned out, was about yet another seemingly unrelated crime, an old investigation into the rape of a sixteen-year-old girl there in Stephenville.
Don Miller: It happened about a year after Susan Woods had been killed. And this little sixteen-year-old girl in her statement talks about this horrendous rape. She thought she was going to die, and she names the assailant as her on-again or off-again boyfriend. And his name was Joseph Scott Hatley.
Hatley had been 23 at the time. And Don read that before he could be questioned, he had fled town and ended up in Las Vegas. That’s where he’d robbed a hotel clerk, gotten arrested, and gotten himself convicted of armed robbery. And then, after serving his time—poof—he seemed to have vanished.
But he was a Stephenville boy. Don saw that Hatley came from a well-known local family; his father had owned a diesel-repair shop, but had since died. Hatley’s mother and sister still lived in town.
At a glance, though, there was nothing tying Hatley to Susan Woods. But then, scanning the file’s yellowing pages, down deep in the long, gruesome single-spaced statement from the teenage rape victim, Don found what he was looking for.
The statement said the attack happened in a roadside park, along the highway south of town. At one point, after the girl had already been raped several times, she got up and ran. She said Hatley chased her, caught her, and fell on top of her.
And the report quoted her statement to the investigators. She said: “He laid on top of me and told me if I didn’t mind him he would kill me . . . and that . . . he had done it before.”
Don Miller: And as I looked at the file, I knew for a fact that we had the right guy.
Next time, on Stephenville.
Shannon Myers: I drove 85 miles an hour down to the sheriff’s office and said, “Scott is back. Scott is back.” I was frantic. And they were like, “No, he’s not. No, he’s not.” Yes, he was. And they didn’t even know that he was back in town.