Christopher Allen Whiteley never learned to drive. At 28, he had spent much of his adult life in prison, serving time for aggravated assault and struggling with an addiction to methamphetamine. That’s why, on the morning of December 2, 2020, he was planning to hitchhike to work. Around 9 a.m., he grabbed his blue and white backpack and walked out the door of his girlfriend’s house near Lipan, an unincorporated town of about five hundred in rural Hood County, about an hour’s drive southwest of Fort Worth. According to the Hood County Sheriff’s Office, that morning he took a shortcut through dense brush to get to Howell Road, a narrow country lane where he planned to thumb a ride to his job painting houses. But Whiteley never made it to work that day.

The next day, a friend of Whiteley’s filed a missing persons report, and that evening as the sun was setting, Hood County sheriff’s deputies searched the woods between the girlfriend’s house and Howell Road. First, they spotted Whiteley’s backpack beneath a cedar tree. Then, about fifteen feet away, they spotted Whiteley’s body in brush so dense that “it was a miracle . . . that our deputies found him,” said Lieutenant Johnny Rose, one of the on-scene investigators and the spokesperson for the sheriff’s office. 

Soon, Hood County justice of the peace Kathryn Gwinn arrived on the scene to determine the cause of death. She had seen victims killed by guns, knives, and car crashes, but nothing like this. Whiteley’s throat, from under one ear to the other, was torn open. Small, thin scratches marked his torso, forehead, and one side of his face. He was shirtless, even though the weather had been cold. “We had no idea . . . what exactly happened, after going over the scene. We couldn’t make those calls at all,” Gwinn told me. Like most small counties, Hood County doesn’t have its own medical examiner, so Gwinn called the M.E.’s office in nearby Tarrant County for help. 

At that point, the sheriff’s office was still treating the area where Whiteley was found as a potential crime scene. But around lunchtime the following day, December 4, Gwinn received a phone call. Had she seen the press release that the Hood County Sheriff’s Office had just sent out? “Mountain Lion attack leaves man dead,” read the headline. The release stated that the sheriff’s office, game wardens, and a trapper with the U.S. Department of Agriculture were all searching for the offending animal. “Please don’t interfere with the process of locating the animal and stay clear of the area being actively worked by officials,” said Sheriff Roger Deeds.

Though Deeds and his deputies already suspected that a lion had killed Whiteley, the medical examiner’s preliminary autopsy report prompted them to go public with the theory. According to Susan J. Roe, the deputy medical examiner who signed off on the document, the punctures and lacerations on his neck were “consistent with that of a large cat (mountain lion).” Gwinn was confused about the autopsy: Hood County has its share of coyotes, bobcats, and even the occasional escaped kangaroo. But there has never been a documented mountain lion sighting in the county, much less an attack, according to TPWD records.

It didn’t take long for the news media to seize on the sensational story of Texas’s first confirmed fatal mountain lion attack, or at least the first since officials started keeping records of such events. Hood County Today: “Mountain Lion Attack Leaves Man Dead”; the Fort Worth Star-Telegram: “Missing man found dead in Hood County after mountain lion attacked him, officials say”; British tabloid the Daily Mail: “Mountain lion ‘attacks and kills a man’ in Texas as residents are warned to keep children inside amid hunt for killer big cat.” Most of the stories took note of another startling development: Just days before, a mountain lion had been spotted in the densely populated suburb of Rowlett, just twenty miles northeast of downtown Dallas, and about a hundred miles northeast of Hood County. Some concerned North Texans had to wonder: were they safe from lions?

Mountain lions are known to have killed fewer than thirty humans in U.S. history, mostly in the Mountain West and California. No one in Texas has ever been recorded as killed by Puma concolor, and there have only been a handful of non-fatal attacks in the state—all in West Texas. Although the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department has confirmed several lion sightings in the neighboring counties of Somervell and Palo Pinto, it had only heard rumors of such big cats in modern Hood County. Sheriff Deeds, who’s lived in the area since 1987, says he has “heard stories from ranchers [that] there’s mountain lions out there.” He also told Texas Monthly that he and some locals had seen evidence that a mountain lion attacked a horse in Morgan Mill, near Lipan, not long before Whiteley’s death.

With the mountain lion story prowling about on the internet, Deeds turned to specialists for help with the investigation. Britton Stuckey, a Hood County game warden, went to the scene the day after Whiteley’s body was found. In his site visit report, Stuckey wrote that he found no evidence of a mountain lion attack. The usual telltale signs were all absent. There were no lion prints, feces, or “territorial scrapes,” small mounds of debris that lions pile up and mark with urine at most kill sites. However, he did note “the large presence of human tracks and disturbances” from first responders at the scene. That afternoon, Stuckey, who had relied on specialists in putting his report together, advised the sheriff’s office to reach out to a Texas Parks and Wildlife biologist for further expert assistance with the investigation, according to emails obtained by Texas Monthly through state open records law.

As soon as he saw photos from the scene, Jonah Evans, then the mammalogist for TPWD, believed there was no way that a mountain lion had killed Whiteley. Some of the distinctive markers of a mountain lion attack—including clear marks from canine teeth and missing organs from the abdomen—weren’t evident. An expert in animal tracking who has seen hundreds of mountain lion kill sites in person and in photos, Evans was tasked with leading TPWD’s effort to assist the sheriff’s investigation. He was especially intrigued by the lack of lion tracks in the sandy soil. 

The next step was to go to the scene. In internal emails, Evans wrote that he worried TPWD staff “may contaminate a potential crime scene,” but the agency ultimately decided to send two of its biologists to visit the site on Saturday, December 5, two days after Whiteley’s body was found. They were joined by Mike Bodenchuk, an experienced mountain lion trapper and director of Wildlife Services Texas, a division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Bodenchuk started at “ground zero,” the dense thicket where sheriff’s deputies recovered Whiteley, and then worked his way outward. The only animal tracks he found within 150 yards were those of coyotes, deer, hogs, house cats, and dogs. “In two locations, I identified tracks of a mid-sized dog,” Bodenchuk wrote. Bodenchuk concluded that they were made two to three days apart and likely indicated that a free-roaming dog lived nearby. As Bodenchuk wrapped up his work at the scene, it was clear to him, too, that a mountain lion did not attack Whiteley. 

Two days after his visit to Howell Road, Bodenchuk walked into the Tarrant County Medical Examiner’s Office in Fort Worth, carrying a mountain lion skull. He wanted to show the room of medical examiners and other personnel from the office, including Roe, why he had confidently ruled out an attack by a mountain lion. And what better way to do that than with a prop? Mountain lions kill their prey by stalking it, and then attacking from behind. The cat will jump on its prey’s back, digging its claws into the flesh while latching onto the neck and throat with its teeth. It uses its strong jaws to crush the windpipe, killing by asphyxiation. With a lion’s small but powerful jaw, the bite marks are almost dainty—typically two puncture marks on each side of the throat with minimal blood. They crush, rather than tear, major arteries. Only later, hours after the kill, does the lion return to feed. Whiteley’s throat, however, had been torn wide open. He had died of blood loss, and the scratches on his body were superficial, bearing none of the puncture wounds that would come with a lion latching its large, curved claws into his flesh. There were no signs his body had been fed upon.

Moreover, Bodenchuk explained, lions tend to leave behind significant signs of struggle with their prey, such as disturbed leaves, broken twigs, and distinctive tracks. But the scene where Whiteley was found was minimally disturbed. It didn’t appear as if Whiteley’s body had been “cached,” a behavior whereby lions hide their kills so they can return for multiple feedings, according to Bodenchuk, Evans, and Stuckey. All three men said that it was more likely that Whiteley fell or crawled into the brush where his body was found.

There was also no evidence that the lion returned to feed. Stuckey installed game cameras around the site in the hopes of capturing the culprit on film, but the cameras yielded nothing more than photos of cows, deer, hogs, and a bobcat.

Bodenchuk concluded that an animal may very well have killed Whiteley, but it was no lion. Without being able to examine Whiteley’s trachea, which had been removed from his body by the medical examiner’s office, he was unable to offer a more definitive analysis. 

The following month, on January 25, Roe delivered her final autopsy to the sheriff’s office. She ruled Whiteley’s death an accident and reported that meth had been found in his system. The cause of death: “injuries of neck due to animal attack.” The reference to a mountain lion—or a specific animal of any kind—had been dropped. The next day, the Hood County Sheriff’s Office wrote in a press release that it was closing its investigation into Whiteley’s death, saying it agreed with the medical examiner’s conclusion “since there were no signs of foul play in Whiteley’s death.” 

mountain lion death
Dense brush where Christopher Whiteley’s body was found, outside Lipan.Courtesy of Texas Parks and Wildlife

Both Deeds and Rose told me they accept the medical examiner’s determination; however, they both maintain that a mountain lion is the likely culprit. Rose said there’s an obvious answer to the question of what in the area could be big enough to take down a man like Whiteley, who was five-foot-six and weighed 145 pounds. “That would be a mountain lion, but I have no proof,” he told me. 

Gwinn said she wishes there would’ve been further investigation by the sheriff’s office, but “I can’t do their job for them.” 

The sheriff’s office is quick to point out that because fatal mountain lion attacks are so rare, there are few people who have firsthand experience investigating them. “None of these people who are experts had ever dealt with a human kill,” Rose told me in March. “I don’t know what point of reference they’re going off of other than it would be like an elk being killed or a deer.” 

(In fact, Jim Vaught, a trapper from New Mexico who is among the few to have investigated a fatal mountain lion attack on a human, told Gwinn that he was sure that Whiteley had not been killed by a mountain lion.)

According to Deeds, deputies began to suspect that a mountain lion was to blame almost immediately after the body was found. “There was nothing that was consistent with what a human would have done or should have done or could have done,” Deeds said. “Everything pointed to a large animal, like a cat.”

Rose further explained the theory: “The blood evidence showed that he was attacked when he was standing up. It wasn’t something where he was lying down—passed out or asleep or whatever—he was standing when he was attacked,” Rose said, describing Whiteley’s fatal injuries. “Those injuries are consistent with an animal ripping out someone’s throat.”

If a mountain lion didn’t kill Whiteley, what, if anything or anyone, did? 

DNA testing could have given better insight into this question, but no test was ordered by the sheriff’s office. Without a request to collect DNA, the Tarrant County medical examiners followed standard procedure, washing the body shortly after the autopsy, effectively eliminating potential DNA evidence. But Evans was startled by the decision. “I was surprised that they would do this so quickly given that the cause of death was yet to be determined,” he wrote in his report. The medical examiner’s office declined requests for an interview and didn’t answer questions submitted by email.

The sheriff’s office did send Whiteley’s fingernail clippings to a USDA laboratory to search for any traces of mountain lion DNA. That test came back negative. The lab also tested two hairs removed from Whiteley’s clothes, which were determined to be from a dog. Rose contends that the hairs came from a dog that stayed at the house of his girlfriend, Tylor Messina, who declined to be interviewed. But Whiteley’s mother, Kimberly Spruill, says no dog lived there. However, she says small dogs lived at a mobile home in Dublin where Whiteley sometimes stayed. 

Asked if an investigation was conducted to locate a dog that could’ve attacked Whiteley, Rose responded with a question: “Can a dog take you down—take a grown man down? I don’t know that that’s possible.” 

In fact, every year several thousand Americans are hospitalized after attacks by dogs, some of which knock down their victims. Dogs kill about twenty humans each year. Police even train dogs to take down adults, Evans remarked.

“It could’ve easily been a dog” that killed Whiteley, Bodenchuk told me, pointing to the gashes on Whiteley’s throat and the large volume of blood found on his clothes. Based on the spacing between the alleged “bite marks,” as well as the size of tracks found near the scene, a medium-sized dog could fit the bill. “A pit bull has a midsized foot and is a midsized dog. I hate to pick on that breed, but that’s a popular breed and they are powerful enough to do something like this.” However, a pit bull, with its short legs and heavy muscle, wouldn’t be able to spring straight for the throat on a man Whiteley’s size. And there were no bite marks on Whiteley’s arms or legs indicating that a dog brought him to the ground before going in for the kill.

Evans’s summary report recalls a phone call among himself, Bodenchuk, Gwinn, and Vaught. During the call, Vaught, who has also investigated killings of humans by domesticated dogs, said such an attack would raise the possibility that a second person was involved, and either failed to control the dog or intentionally sicced it on the victim. “If it was a domestic dog, I think that raises all kinds of questions about how the investigation was handled,” Evans says. “Was [Whiteley’s death] intentional? Whose dog was it?” 

Though Evans believes a dog attack is possible, he considers an incident involving another person—whether a homicide, a hunting accident, or something else—to be a more likely explanation. In a report compiled in early December, Evans wrote that the circumstances of Whiteley’s death “paint an odd picture: (Victim reported missing in early hours of the morning when it was very cold, but he wasn’t wearing a shirt; victim was recently release [sic] from prison; and victim was coming from a nearby house known to be occupied by transient individuals).” Although he wrote that he is not a law-enforcement specialist, and that it is not TPWD’s place to speculate as to the actual cause of death, “law enforcement may want to consider the potential that this may be a homicide,” he wrote. 

When Bodenchuk searched the woods during his December 5 site visit, he found something that the sheriff’s deputies had evidently missed: shoe prints not left by investigators.

About eighty yards northwest of where Whiteley was discovered, Bodenchuk found two distinct sets of tracks—one made by treaded shoes and another by slick-soled shoes like the brown cowboy boots Whiteley wore that day. Both seemed to head toward the scene. At another site, closer to the body, only one set of tracks appeared to lead away from the scene, and they looked like they were made by the same treaded shoes. Bodenchuk said it was possible the prints from the treaded shoes were made by a nearby landowner checking on his cattle.  

Rose didn’t think much of the footprints, positing that they were left either by first responders or neighboring landowners. “People go in and out of those woods,” he said. Because they had already decided there was no evidence of a crime, he added, the newly discovered footprints didn’t warrant any follow-up. As to why Whiteley was shirtless? Rose said no one at the sheriff’s office thought anything of it. He referred to the M.E.’s ruling that an animal was responsible. 

But even the Tarrant County Medical Examiner’s Office appeared to doubt its original analysis. During Bodenchuk’s December 7 meeting with officials there, one of the medical examiners asked him for his opinion: could Whiteley have died at the hands of a human? With the M.E.s asking his opinion on what is supposed to be their area of expertise, Bodenchuk was at a loss for words: “I had to say I have no experience with human-caused mortality.”

mountain lion death
Christopher Whiteley and his mother, Kimberly Spruill.Courtesy of Kimberly Spruill

Whiteley’s friends and family may never know exactly what happened that December night, but they’re confident there’s more to the story than just a big cat.

Robert Fowler, a Hood County resident and friend of Kimberly Spruill, Whiteley’s mother, believes Whiteley was killed by a person. “He was murdered! I’m going to put it that way,” Fowler said. He dismisses those who say they’ve seen mountain lions in the area at any point, recently or in the distant past, as “just them dopeheads.” Fowler also has thoughts about why the sheriff’s office was quick to jump to their conclusion: “So they could get it off of their books.”

Patrick Feeney, Spruill’s boyfriend, agrees with Fowler’s characterization of the sheriff’s office. “They don’t want to spend the time,” he told me. Feeney believes that finding justice for Whiteley simply wasn’t a priority for investigators, who he says jumped to a conclusion they thought would merit the least hours of interviews and desk work. “Bottom line is they don’t want to mess with an ex-con.” (Deeds maintains the work done by his office and other assisting agencies constituted a thorough investigation.)

In the few months before his death, Whiteley’s life had been looking up. Though he’d spent much of his adult life behind bars, on June 3 he was released after serving a five-year sentence for aggravated assault. “Before he went to jail, I was scared,” Spruill said—both for his health and his future. Her son’s meth use severely damaged his teeth and gums and made him hot-tempered and unpredictable. But when Whiteley walked out of Billy Moore Correctional Center in Overton that summer day, he had a new set of teeth and a fresh outlook on life. Shortly after his release, Feeney took him to buy the boots he was wearing the day he died, the same pair he wore to the Odessa oilfield job a friend helped him land in August. (He juggled this part-time work with his house-painting gig.) With the money he earned, he finally bought the car he always wanted: a $500 Chevy Blazer, with a new motor and windshield that cost another $500. Spruill said she and Feeney planned to teach Whiteley to drive the car that winter. 

Since his death, she’s been distraught about what her son might have achieved in his life. That pain is made worse by the many questions left unanswered: Why was her son found shirtless in bracing cold? Why were investigators so quick to jump to a conclusion about the cause of her son’s death? What, or who, killed Christopher? 

Spruill isn’t sure she’ll ever learn the answers. “God knows what happened out there. I may never know here on this earth.”