In the series finale, Scott Hatley’s journal tells the story of how he built a new life on the run from police. And when the truth comes out, people in Stephenville must confront how little they knew about the man who killed Susan Woods.
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. Studio musician is Sean Giddings.
Bryan Burrough (voice-over): The year was 2006. Nearly twenty years had passed since Scott Hatley murdered Susan Woods. Much of Stephenville had moved on. Few in town even remembered the killing. But not everyone had forgotten, of course. Susan’s family never gave up waiting for Michael Woods to be brought to justice. Michael spent his life looking over his shoulder, waiting for the real killer to be arrested. And as the years ticked by, not much happened.
Now, all of a sudden, things began to move quickly. After Don Miller learned the fingerprints in Susan’s bathroom belonged to Hatley, Don made a quick search for Hatley’s whereabouts, and located him in Texas. He was living in Round Rock, north of Austin. Don called the local police and asked them to bring Hatley in for questioning. He drove down with his partner, Russell Ford.
Don Miller: So, I’m going down to Round Rock, Texas, to talk to Hatley. Not to arrest him, but to talk to him. But before I interview him, I get an evidence research warrant for his DNA, and for his fingerprints and his palm prints. Now, I know for a fact that I’m going to get a match on the DNA, and I know that his fingerprints are going to match, and I know that his palm prints are going to match.
It wasn’t just that the federal fingerprint database tied Hatley to the prints found in Susan Woods’s bathroom. What made Don certain was what Shannon Myers had told the sheriff’s deputies back in 1988: that while Hatley was assaulting her, he had threatened to kill her—and said he had killed before.
Don Miller: I know it’s going to be him. I know for a fact it’s going to be him.
Bryan Burrough: All right. Before you go down there, do you have much of a sense who Joseph Scott Hatley was in 1987?
Don Miller: No. I didn’t know. I knew that his parents were respectable people, nice people. But that’s all I knew. Very few people knew I was even working this case. Because Stephenville was a small town, I kept everything under wraps. So I didn’t go try to find out who he was. I got his fingerprints. You know, I’ve got this statement from this little sixteen-year-old girl. I know who he is, and I know what he is.
Don knew there were lots of people in Stephenville who would still look at Scott Hatley and see the young man they thought they knew—not a murderer and a rapist, but a quiet, clean-cut local kid. One of their own. But Don had seen enough to know just who he was dealing with.
The date was June 6. Six-six of oh-six. As the two officers headed south, Don turned to his partner and told him it was an appropriate day to meet the devil himself.
From Texas Monthly, this is Stephenville. I’m your host, Bryan Burrough. This is the final episode, episode six: “Hatley.”
Much later, Don would come to know Hatley well from the writings he’d left behind. Those pages didn’t just tell the story of Hatley’s life as a free man after Susan’s murder. They also helped to answer a vexing question: How had Hatley gotten away with not just one vicious crime, but two? And how had he gotten away with it for so long? As Hatley tells it, he could hardly believe it himself.
Three days after Susan Woods’s body was discovered, her family and friends gathered in a chapel at the Stephenville Funeral Home to say goodbye. As they looked around the room, they wondered if her husband, Michael, would show his face. He didn’t. But Scott Hatley did.
In his handwritten manifesto, he says hundreds of people were there. He saw police among them, quote, “trying to get a glimpse of their elusive suspect.”
And as the days went on, Hatley clearly relished the fact that no one seemed to suspect him. He didn’t claim to have committed the perfect murder. In fact, the carelessness of his crime made it seem all the more incredible that he was still free. He said, quote: “I figure even Barney Fife could have figured this one out.”
In his sister Regina’s kitchen, he and other “members of the Round Table” endlessly debated who might have killed Susan. Only he knew that the killer was in their midst. While there, Hatley even fielded regular updates on the police investigation from his cousin Cindy Hallmark and her boyfriend Roy Hayes.
Roy Hayes: Donnie Hensley and Joe Atkins were really good friends, from the golf course and stuff. He would learn stuff from Donnie. Joe would come home and share it with Erma.
That’s Roy, talking about Susan’s parents, Joe and Erma Atkins. And in the months after Susan’s murder, Cindy would sit with Erma often, and they would grieve together. Cindy would console her and ask if there was any news.
Roy Hayes: So Erma was sharing stuff to Cindy. Cindy, of course, would come to the Round Table that Scott describes. You know, Scott would ask questions, Regina would ask questions, and we’d talk about the way the case was proceeding and why it hasn’t been solved, what’s going on. And, you know, why hadn’t they made an arrest? Why didn’t they have Mike booked and brought back down to Texas, and why wasn’t he in prison or in jail?
One aspect of the case seemed to especially fascinate Scott.
Roy Hayes: He was drinking heavily and making jokes. He’d call the cops the Keystone Kops. And if you wanted to find a cop, you need to go to the doughnut store—that they were all down at the doughnut shop, and if the murderer wandered in there, they might be able to find the murderer.
Cindy Hayes: Or Jake and Dorothy’s.
Roy Hayes: Or Jake and Dorothy’s.
In his journal, Hatley says he couldn’t believe it. The police never even interviewed him, though he’d been at the Round Table, with Susan, a week or so before she was murdered. He wrote, “My God, how could the cops have missed that?” He mocked the police for fixating on Michael Woods. He called Michael “yet another one of my victims.”
Gloria Martin remembers seeing him around this time.
Gloria Martin: Well, my birthday was in March, in ’88, and it was nine months after Susan had been killed, or eight months. And Roy and Cindy brought him with, to my birthday party at a bar here in town.
Cindy Hayes: He wanted to come with us.
Gloria Martin: And somewhere I’ve got pictures of him and everybody at the party just grinning. And he’s just—not a care in the world. Susan was the main subject we talked about.
Cindy Hayes: Just smiling away.
Gloria Martin: Just smiling away. Just as innocent as the day is long. And all the while he knew he’s the one that killed her.
Hatley didn’t change his lifestyle. He sat in Regina’s backyard most nights, and every weekend, smoking cigarettes and drinking vodka. When a teenage girl moved in next to Regina’s house, Hatley decided he liked her—and pursued her.
This is how he introduces Shannon Myers in his life story. He knew it was reckless, and he could tell she had trouble at home, but he enjoyed carrying on this secret relationship with an underage girl. He says of Shannon: “She was wild. She was crazy. I liked her.”
And after the night in his apartment, the first time Shannon says he raped her—when she went to the police and never heard anything—she’d always figured the police saw it as a “he said, she said” kind of thing and couldn’t make the case against him.
But Hatley’s journal tells more of the story. He says a Stephenville police officer did come speak with him. When Hatley saw the officer, he figured this was the day he’d been waiting for: that they’d look into Shannon’s accusation, connect him to Susan’s murder, and now he’d have to answer for his crimes. Instead, he says, the lieutenant only warned him to stay away from Shannon, who the officer said was, quote, “a screwed up little girl.”
He couldn’t believe it. He’d eluded the police yet again. But now he also began to feel that he was being watched. He lived near the police station, and each day he’d watch the cruisers drive by, hiding behind his window.
He began fantasizing about leaving town on a cross-country crime spree. He says he thought about taking Shannon—they’d be like Bonnie and Clyde—but that she didn’t go for it. He claims they argued about his plan on that long, brutal night at the roadside park.
Shannon told me she never entertained this crime-spree fantasy for a moment, and doesn’t remember fighting about it that night, or ever. She says the only reason she went back to him that night was because she wanted answers, to understand why he’d hurt her before.
But Hatley wasn’t interested in explaining anything. In his writings, he admits he raped her that night. Don told me as far as he knows, this is actually the first time Hatley admitted to the crime.
Meanwhile, the morning after he raped Shannon in that park, he awoke to a knock on his door. Glancing out through the curtains, he saw a sheriff’s deputy. And this time, he was not about to answer the door. Hatley says he found a bottle of vodka and took a long, slow drink. He went to his bedroom and got his pistol. He says, quote, “If the deputy stepped foot in my house, I was going to kill him.”
But instead, the deputy walked back to his car and drove away.
Hatley sensed the deputies would return in force before long. He returned to his bedroom. He packed some clothes into a bag. He grabbed a briefcase and his gun, and put them all in his truck. He drove to his bank and emptied almost everything from his checking account. Then he headed west—no clue where he was going.
He drove and drove. He imagined driving the highway till it ended, maybe seeing the ocean in California. But when he saw a billboard for Las Vegas, he steered there instead.
He wandered the city. He says the lights on the Strip took his breath away. In a motel on Fremont Street, he drank and brooded. More than once, he put his gun into his mouth. He tasted the metal. And he decided he couldn’t do it.
After a few days, with his money running low, Hatley walked into a strip mall shoe store, pulled his gun on the clerk, and walked out with $120 from the register. Then he went to a motel and held up its clerk, and walked out with a few handfuls of coins.
It was the following day, as he drove around looking for his next target, that he noticed the police officer on a motorcycle behind him. Then more squad cars fell in line. Then he saw a helicopter overhead. Over a loudspeaker, an officer told him to pull over. Hatley did as he was told.
He slid his gun into his lap. He realized that this could be his big shoot-out, the thrilling end to his life of crime. But he never raised his gun. In the end, he writes, he was too much of a coward to go through with it. He pulled over into a Denny’s parking lot and, as the officers instructed, lay flat on the asphalt.
He was arrested, fingerprinted, and booked into a jail. Hatley sensed it was a matter of time before the Stephenville police arrived to haul him back to Texas, to answer for the rape and—no doubt—the murder. But to his surprise, they never came. He couldn’t believe it. Instead, he received a 120-day prison sentence in a youth offender program. Then he was free, heading back to Stephenville in his parents’ car.
He returned to face the rape allegations Shannon had leveled against him. He says his parents hired a retired attorney—this is the private investigator Shannon remembers—and that this attorney pretty much destroyed Shannon’s reputation in front of the grand jury.
Roy Hayes remembers how Shannon’s allegations were being spun around town.
Roy Hayes: But what we had heard is that Scott had broke up with her, she did not take the rejection well, and that she started accusing him of rape because he had broken up with her. And that’s what we had heard. And then the next thing we know, his mother had went to the church and got all the members of the congregation to sign up about what a great boy he was, how he would’ve never done anything like this. And that was taken to it. And then it was nobilled by the grand jury. And we thought, “Well, if the grand jury sits here and says it didn’t happen and there was no case, then she must have made it up.”
Even after hearing that he’d run off to Vegas and committed armed robbery, it was hard to believe he was a cold, hard criminal.
Roy Hayes: And putting it together with everything else I knew from high school, and everything with him, and as nice a guy as he supposedly was in school, we thought this was just beyond him. That it was just the liquor.
For all his talk about inner “monsters” and “demons,” at this point, as far as anyone else in town was concerned, Scott Hatley had nothing left to answer for.
Around this point in his autobiography, Hatley pauses to try and explain himself. He insists that the crimes he committed—the women he hurt, the woman he killed—none of it was voluntary. He says, “Fire is seductive. It draws you in and puts you in a trance. You are burned before you even notice it.” In other words, evil—maybe unleashed in his session of satanic worship—had somehow seduced him. Now he saw he’d been given a chance to start over. So Scott went back to working for his dad, and even did some volunteering—he led a troop of Cub Scouts. But he soon realized he couldn’t stay in Stephenville. It was just too much. He saw police everywhere he went. He sensed it was only a matter of time before they realized what he’d done.
This time, he went east, to Nashville. His brother had become a long-distance truck driver, and Scott thought he’d try it too. The way he tells it, he was good at it. He says he worked so hard, his dispatcher once asked him what he was running from. He says he answered, “Myself.”
Alone out on the road, Hatley says, he also, quote, “honed [his] skill at picking up broken women,” mostly in roadside bars. He says his goal was to pick up one woman in every state—he even told his sister about it. She said that was horrible.
Did Hatley commit more crimes out on the road? He doesn’t write about it, if he did, and he was never accused of anything we know of. But when I spoke with Don Miller in the park outside Stephenville, he told me he remains convinced there’s more.
Don Miller: I know for a fact that the victims I know about are a smidgen of what he did.
Bryan Burrough: You think—not proven.
Don Miller: I can’t prove it. I’ve tried; I can’t. But he was an over-the-road truck driver. And, you know, there’s dead bodies, rape victims all up and down the interstate. He drove the Eastern United States and up into Canada.
Shannon told me she also believes there are other victims out there who haven’t been connected to Hatley. It’s one of the main reasons she wants this story told.
It’s an unsettling possibility. I mentioned it in my conversation with Katherine Ramsland, the forensic psychologist.
Bryan Burrough: The detectives involved in the case believe strongly, to this day, that after leaving Stephenville and being a long-haul truck driver, that he almost certainly is responsible for other killings, or certainly other acts of violence that were never pinned on him. Do you find that hard to believe?
Katherine Ramsland: It’s not hard to believe. I’m certain he, along his trucking route, would’ve found opportunities to indulge in some kind of violence. Whether he murdered anybody I think is unclear. But—and I see that happen a lot. Officers will often say, “I know that there are more out there,” but, you know, I say, “Then find them. Let’s see.” Because we know the trucking routes. We know John Does and Jane Does. We know women who’ve been killed but that it’s currently unsolved. Let’s have a look. Instead of just saying, “I think there are more,” let’s see if there’s any evidence for that.
Bryan Burrough: Yeah, it’s easy speculation.
Katherine Ramsland: Yes.
Bryan Burrough: But I think that that’s not necessarily within the abilities of the Stephenville Police Department, either then or now.
Katherine Ramsland: But they wouldn’t have to. There are so many cold case groups out there with lots of resources that would take that on—would say, “Okay, let’s see.” The FBI has a highway serial killer initiative, and they have databases for this. It would not take the Stephenville Police to do this. We have the resources to see if there’s more.
In time, Hatley began to build a new life in Nashville. He married. He and his wife had two children. But out on the road, he took pills to stay awake. And one day in Dallas, he rear-ended another truck. He ended up getting fired.
He got another job in Nashville, at a grocery warehouse. And the years slowly passed . . . five, then ten. Then, in the late nineties, Hatley’s company offered him a promotion and a transfer back to Texas, to help run a warehouse in Round Rock.
It felt like a serious risk, going back to Texas, but he couldn’t pass up the money. He and his family found a nice apartment, right next to a swimming pool. But Hatley’s drinking had slowly gotten out of control. It was destroying the marriage. He and his wife fought, sometimes violently.
He worked nights and slept most days. And that’s where he was—sleeping—on the morning in June 2006 when they finally came for him.
The way Hatley tells it, a pair of Round Rock officers showed up at his door, spinning a tale about a coworker of his stealing from the warehouse. They said they needed him to come to the station and give a statement. Hatley claims he knew it was a lie, but he went anyway.
The man who appeared before Don Miller in June 2006—a “monster” and a “devil,” by Don’s estimation, and by his own admission—was now a forty-year-old warehouse supervisor, nearly three hundred pounds, with close-cropped dark hair and a matching mustache.
Don wasted little time getting to the real reason he was there.
Don Miller: The first time I talked to Hatley, you have to understand, I already know what he is. I already know what he did. But he comes in and he tries to act calm, cool, collective, nonchalant—which, to me, is a big red flag anyway. If I were to call you into my office and say, “I think you killed somebody,” you would immediately—immediately—start denying it, and hard denying it. That’s not what he did.
Don says Hatley played it like his memory was fuzzy. Maybe he’d had sex with Susan, maybe not. Such a long time ago it was hard to remember.
Don Miller: All those are the wrong things to tell me. But I wouldn’t have cared what he said. Already knew he did it—already knew it. I’m just going through the motions, because I know eventually, unless he lawyers up, he’s going to lay a story down. And so, like I said, I hit him with the question, “Is there any reason why your DNA would be anywhere in or around Susan Woods?” And he said, “No.”
Don didn’t need a confession. The physical evidence alone was enough for an arrest. So he didn’t push.
Don Miller: And I said, “Okay. Thank you very much.” I get ready to release him, but then Round Rock says, “You got to hold him.” I said, “Why?” And he said, “Because we’re talking to Hatley’s current wife and kids,” and what I found out through Round Rock Police Department is: Hatley’s not a very nice husband.
There at the station, in another room, Hatley’s wife was considering charges of her own. She said Hatley had abused her, and she had photos from a few months earlier, showing the damage he’d done to her face.
The police asked Hatley to come back the next day. This time, Hatley had no doubt how serious the situation was—that they knew what he had done. If he was going to run, this was his last chance. He asks, quote, “Was I crazy for going in? No. I was tired.”
Meanwhile, Don had gotten new prints and a DNA sample from Hatley, and he was busy getting them processed.
Don Miller: And so, while I’m getting everything from the evidence lab processed that morning, they’re talking to Hatley. And as they’re talking to Hatley, Hatley changed his story. He said, “Yeah.” He tells Round Rock PD he did have sex with Susan.
Don had expected this. With the physical evidence against him, Hatley’s only hope was to claim that Susan died during rough consensual sex that got out of control. But Don knew that was a lie—he had Michael Woods ready to testify that this didn’t sound remotely like Susan.
That night, after leaving the police station, Hatley took his family out for dinner at an IHOP. When they finished, they walked outside. His wife and kids got into their van. Hatley hung back and lit a cigar. At that moment, Round Rock police surrounded him there in the parking lot and arrested him on charges of abusing his wife.
Meanwhile, the crime lab had confirmed that Hatley’s DNA matched the cigarette butts found in Susan’s living room. Don prepared a murder warrant.
That’s when they brought Scott Hatley back to Stephenville. And that’s when people in Stephenville came face-to-face with the difficult truth: for going on twenty years, they had been blaming the wrong man for murder.
Every writer has his reasons for the stories he decides to tell. I realized early on that this one drew me in because I’ve encountered a version of it before, in my own hometown of Temple.
I’m not the kind of writer who is usually driven by moral outrage, but I confess that what happened in Temple, much like what happened in Stephenville, did leave me angry.
The Temple story centers on a kid named Danny Corwin. In the late seventies, he was two years ahead of me at Temple High. I didn’t know Danny, but I knew both the girls he raped, one of whom he nearly killed, as a teenager. He kidnapped her from the high school parking lot, took her to a quarry, and drove a knife into her chest. Somehow she survived—and identified him.
He faced a life sentence. But the Corwins were active at First Presbyterian Church, and the family and church leaders pressed the district attorney for a much lighter sentence. And they succeeded. Danny was a good kid, everyone said. Some folks around town whispered that the girls must’ve lured him on.
He ended up serving nearly ten years at the state prison in Huntsville. Afterward, in the mid-eighties, he enrolled at Texas A&M. While he was there, he raped and murdered three women. They executed Danny Corwin in 1998. I’ve always felt that someone in Temple should have apologized to the families of those women he killed. I’m not sure that ever happened.
Sara Vanden Berge: Have you been by the jail? The Erath County Jail.
Bryan Burrough: Oh, wait, there’s a—there’s—
On our drive around Stephenville, I talked with Sara Vanden Berge—the local reporter we first met in episode one—about what it was like here when Hatley was arrested.
Sara Vanden Berge: And I interviewed him here at the jail as well. The old part.
Bryan Burrough: You just want to stop in the jail parking lot? Is that okay?
Sara Vanden Berge: Yeah, sure.
Bryan Burrough: Do you remember when you first heard about the case?
Sara Vanden Berge: Yeah, I got a call from my editor at the time, and he called me into his office and said, “Hey, they just broke a cold case, and they want a reporter down here.” And they sent me down.
Bryan Burrough: So you had lived here for fifteen years and had never heard of it?
Sara Vanden Berge: Never heard of it—nope. But when it did break, and all of the rest ensued, it became really important. And it always was, I’m sure.
Bryan Burrough: Why?
Sara Vanden Berge: Well, for people who didn’t know about it, like me, it was fascinating. I mean, “Oh my God,” people have always said, “there’s a twenty-year-old cold case?” Nobody knew. And who was this woman? They wanted to know all about it.
Bryan Burrough: Walk me through what happened.
Sara Vanden Berge: What I remember is that he was really anxious to talk to me, and—
Bryan Burrough: Why?
Sara Vanden Berge: I don’t know. They brought him in, and they put him in jail. And I sent in an open records request and asked if I could get a jailhouse interview, and immediately he agreed to it. Didn’t ask his attorney. I mean, this guy was up for murder, and he wanted to get his story out there. And I think what that tells me is he thought if he could get somebody on his side and get it out in the media, he could convince everybody that he was innocent. He had been doing it for so long, that I think he thought, “Why stop now?”
At this point, Hatley wasn’t as forthcoming as he was later in his writings. He denied murdering Susan Woods. He didn’t talk at all about Shannon Myers.
Sara Vanden Berge: Denying a murder, but very soft-spoken, kind of articulate. You know? But the one thing he kept trying to tell me is, “When the real story comes out, you’ll see that this wasn’t just me killing a girl.” He gave me the impression that it was going to be more of a “she died in a rough sex” sort of thing. And he was going with that from the very beginning. And I think he thought he was smarter than everybody.
Bryan Burrough: Wait, you said you thought he thought he was smarter than everybody?
Sara Vanden Berge: I think so.
Bryan Burrough: I’ve talked to people who knew him as a child, as a teenager, who say that.
Sara Vanden Berge: Oh, yeah. But he’d gotten away with it for so long.
And just like Temple after the news about Danny Corwin, Stephenville also had a hard time coming to grips with news that one of its “good boys” had been charged with murder. It was a conversation Don found himself having regularly. Many people just didn’t want to believe it. Starting with Susan Woods’s father, Joe Atkins.
Don Miller: He’s at the golf course. And I get Mr. Atkins. I said, “Mr. Atkins, come out here to the car. I need to talk to you.” So I get him in the car, and I said, “Look, Joe, I’ve got the arrest warrant for”—I mean—”I know who killed your daughter.” And he said, “Yeah. Michael Woods. You gotta put him in jail.” I said, “No sir, it wasn’t Michael. It’s Joseph Scott Hatley.” And he looked at me and he said, “What’d you say your name was?” And I said, “My name’s Lieutenant Miller.” He said, “No, no, you’re wrong. You’re wrong. It’s Michael Woods. It’s not Joseph Scott Hatley.” I said, “No, I’m telling you, it is.” And I said, “And I can prove it to you.”
And I called Roy—Roy Hayes. I don’t know him. I said, “Hey, Roy, it is Lieutenant Miller, Stephenville Police—I need to talk to you.” And he said, “What about?” And I said, “I need to talk to you about Susan Woods.” And Roy said, “Do I have to?” He said, “I really don’t want to talk to you.” I said, “Well, no, you don’t have to, but I think you want to hear what I’ve got to say.”
Remember, Roy Hayes had been through that long polygraph test, and still felt the sting of having been suspected.
Roy Hayes: And I’m sitting here thinking, “Oh my God, we’re going through this again. They’re going to wrongly charge someone else, just like they did me with this crime.”
Bryan Burrough: You hear the name “Scott Hatley” is about to be arrested. Was this totally out of the blue? Was there anything that you thought, “Well, maybe that time he said . . .”?
Roy Hayes: I could have been hit by lightning, it was that random.
Cindy Hayes: Yeah.
Roy Hayes: On a clear sky, on a clear day with no clouds, it is just that big a deal for me. Like I said, I’d never known Scott to ever lift a finger towards anybody in violence. And I’d played games with him, I’d played football with him, I’d been in school with him—we’d done backyard football, where it pretty much turns into a wrestling match, because who scored what?
Cindy Hayes: Yeah.
Roy Hayes: But I would’ve never thought it. But once that happened and they told us, me and Cindy instantly got on the phone and we called the Atkins. Because I knew the perception on this. And we told Ms. Atkins and we told Joe, “We are on Susan’s side. We don’t care if this is Cindy’s cousin or not—right’s right, wrong’s wrong. We are here to support your family, and we will do whatever it takes to clear this.”
But that support for Susan’s family felt like a betrayal to some members of Cindy’s family—who, after all, were Scott’s family too.
Cindy Hayes: It tore our family completely apart.
Roy Hayes: Yeah. It tore our family. Like I was saying, she was the matriarch. His mother was furious at us for working with the cops and supporting the Atkins family. Because she told us point-blank, “We need to circle the wagons. It is our family against the cops. It is the cops against Scott, and y’all two need to stay out of it.”
Cindy Hayes: “Y’all need to let the cops do their job.”
Roy Hayes: And we were pretty much told, towards the end, that we need to make our own family traditions up, and we need to go our own way. Because we just really weren’t wanted anymore.
For Hatley’s victims, though—the ones still alive—the news was not simply long overdue. It was cathartic. Around that time, Michael Woods had gone back to school.
Michael Woods: Well, I was in class, and I always kept my phone on because I needed to be available, and I got a call, and he says, “Michael, we’ve—we’ve arrested him.” And I took a break from class, went outside—hadn’t had a cigarette in a year—went outside, and my professor who came out with me gave me a cigarette. I needed a cigarette. I had a cigarette. Kind of cried a little bit, and it was just . . . it was surreal.
Bryan Burrough: Did you ever—had you given up on that? I mean, it’s easy to say, “I always knew they’d get him,” but twenty years is a f—ing long time.
Michael Woods: I was beginning to think maybe they would never find him. Yeah.
But there was one person, above all, whose life was going to change with this news. Shannon.
Shannon Myers: It was on Father’s Day weekend, is when he called me. And he goes, “Hey, we arrested Scott.” And it was just like, I just, I rejoiced, and I was like, “Yes, I can finally live.” And I called my kids, of course. They were still teenagers, and my son was ten at the time, and my daughter was thirteen. And I just—I held onto them, and I was like, “We’re gonna be okay.” And they were like, “Okay, Mom, you’re getting weird.” And it was—I could live again, you know?
But it wasn’t simply relief that Shannon felt at that point—not after Don asked to come interview her.
Shannon Myers: Well, he should’ve just talked to me over the phone, because I could talk to him over the phone. Now he’s wanting to come down? I—the happiness turned to anger, because I was like, “Oh, so now you’re wanting to listen to me. Now you want me to talk about this story? How dare you?”
Eventually, though, she did agree to meet. And as they spoke, Shannon realized that Don did believe her. She remembers he said it repeatedly, and she realized that’s what she really needed to hear. For the first time, she felt something like validation.
Today, Shannon goes by Shannon Myers Barrientos. She works for a school district in the Houston area. She’s been back to Stephenville a time or two, but she mostly stays away. There are some memories from her teenage years that Shannon says are just gone. And she’d like to keep it that way. Like the first time Scott assaulted her, in his apartment. There are moments, she says, she’s just blocked out.
Shannon Myers: But the second one, I always held onto it. And through the years, I often wondered, “Why? Why am I holding onto this? Why can’t I let it go like the other abuse?” And when Miller called me and told me that he needed to talk to me about Susan Woods, I sighed to myself, and I’m like, “This is why, Shannon. This is why.”
In the end, there was no showy trial, no dramatic perp walk, no teary confessions. When he was confronted by the physical evidence, Hatley quietly cut a deal to serve thirty years. As part of the deal, he agreed to give prosecutors information about one of his cellmates in the Stephenville jail. It wasn’t what some had hoped, but Susan’s parents wanted to avoid the attention that a trial would bring.
They sent him to Huntsville, where in time he claimed to have rediscovered the Lord. He wrote his manifesto. And then, in 2017, he was diagnosed with bladder cancer. The cancer went into remission, and Hatley was released the following year, having served just over ten years.
He entered a halfway house in Midland, Texas. He found a job there repairing oil field trucks. But at the start of the pandemic, he was laid off. He moved into an RV park outside Abilene to be near his daughter, Amanda. He was sober, and things went well for a time. It didn’t last.
I spoke to Amanda, who told me she didn’t know for sure, but she thinks her father probably started drinking again. For months, she wouldn’t see him—then he’d reappear at her doorstep. She said they fell into having stupid arguments.
On Halloween 2021, Hatley told her his cancer had returned and spread to his spine. Six weeks later, his landlord found him dead on the floor of his trailer. He was 56.
Near the end of my conversation with Sara, we talked about what this story says about Stephenville.
Sara Vanden Berge: You know, I think Hatley was . . . He fooled a lot of people for a long time. But I think when I look back on it, what really bothers me—and it goes back to what you talked about earlier about the grand jury nobilling him for his assault on Shannon. She told them, “He told me that he killed somebody. He told me that he killed somebody.” And she told that to the police. And nothing was ever done.
In hindsight, Don told me his department should have pinpointed Hatley early on. After all, he’d been at a party with Susan Woods just a week before she died. But he says nobody they interviewed ever mentioned Hatley either.
The only thing he can see that would have made a difference is if the sheriff’s department had seriously looked at Shannon’s statement—that Hatley said he had killed before—and shared it with the police department. But even if the police had seen it, it’s not at all clear they would have taken it seriously.
Bryan Burrough: On the other hand, you and I have been both been around enough of these that you can imagine some deputy or sheriff or investigators saying, “Sure, sure, sure.” It was just big talk.
Sara Vanden Berge: Yeah, I think that’s right. And I think that she was obviously up against that. But gosh, you know, if they had just listened to her, how different things would’ve been.
There are probably people listening to this right now who think the worst of Stephenville, its police department, and maybe its people. But the fact is, this could have happened anywhere. People make mistakes, and so do overworked police and sheriff’s departments. It happens.
For me, what’s more difficult to forgive is the way much of Stephenville scapegoated Michael Woods and pretty much ignored Shannon Myers. They were both outsiders, people who came from far away.
You can’t really blame the town today. The town that sheltered Scott Hatley, blamed Michael Woods, and turned up its nose at Shannon Myers is long gone. Could something like this happen in today’s Stephenville? Me, I’d like to believe it couldn’t.
Early in the summer—in June, before the worst of the summer heat settles in—folks in Stephenville come out to the city park for the annual Moo-La festival. There’s music and dancing, a mechanical bull and carnival games. You can watch videos about the local dairy industry, if you like, and sample the official milk of the Dallas Cowboys.
The biggest crowds come for the mutton busting, to watch little cowboys and cowgirls cling to the back of running sheep.
[voices and crowd cheering]
And then, right around sunset—weather permitting—comes the main event. In a clearing away from the popcorn stands and the cornhole games, pilots climb into the baskets of hot-air balloons and fire up the burners. The balloons rise slowly, and the evening sky is filled with the glow of their colors. Above the tree line, they cruise along quietly.
From way up there, you can see how the town has grown. It’s not the same place that Susan Woods knew. But you can still see signs of the town that kept calling her back home. The old courthouse, and Jake and Dorothy’s Cafe. The sandpaper factory where Susan worked—it’s still there. The house where Susan lived, and where she died.
The house where Hatley grew up. The hospital where Shannon was treated. And out beyond the edge of town, of course, the little roadside park.
And then, further out, running through the trees and fields, in nearly every direction, are the same old roads that lead you out of town.