23 Years Later, Kilgore Crime Going To Trial
By KENNETH DEAN
The song "Maniac" was No. 1 on the pop charts, "Mr. Mom" was king of the box office and the Kilgore High School Bulldogs had just blanked the Hallsville Bobcats 13-0.
The air was cold as a strong Canadian air mass pushed deep-south, plunging the mercury to record lows across Kilgore and East Texas on Sept. 23, 1983.
Across the little town, a restaurant stood empty.
There were signs of a scuffle, and law enforcement officers called to the scene would soon learn something was terribly wrong.
GOING ON TRIAL
Who Is Romeo Pinkerton?
The first responding Kilgore police officers, who answered the call of a frantic daughter looking for her mother, noticed the back door was open and inside there was flour and droplets of blood on the floor. In the office, a drawer was open with more blood on some files. The front counter area offered yet more blood on the floor. But where were the Kentucky Fried Chicken employees and two others?
Police immediately secured the restaurant as a crime scene and sent out a teletype to hopefully locate the two mothers and three Kilgore College fraternity brothers.
The next morning, an oil field worker checking a pumping station 17 miles from the restaurant would stumble across five lifeless bodies - the bodies of the missing.
His phone call to police would spark an intense investigation by multiple agencies that followed thousands of tips and hundreds of what one investigator described as "rabbit trails."
The investigation would span the next two decades and more before two cousins from Tyler would be charged with the crimes.
One of those men, Romeo Pinkerton, is scheduled to face five counts of capital murder when jury selection in his trial begins in the Bowie County Courthouse early Monday morning.
When detectives arrived at the oil lease on Walker King Road they found Mary Tyler, 37; Opie Ann Hughes, 39; Joey Johnson, 20; David Maxwell, 20; and Monte Landers, 19, had all been shot at least twice - "execution-style."
As news of the murders in rural Rusk County was released, a feeling of uneasiness began to spread through East Texas. An uneasiness spurred by the lack of arrests in the case.
The headline in the Tyler Courier Times-Telegraph the next morning read; 5 Die In Kilgore Abduction. Officials were cited in the story as saying robbery appeared to have been the motive, but there were no suspects and no solid leads. They asked the public for help and the tip lines began to light up.
At the scene, three of the bodies were positioned with their heads resting on crossed arms - each with two gunshots to the head.
Mrs. Hughes appeared to have been shot in the back as she tried to flee, and Johnson was shot in the abdomen.
The Tyler Paper report the day after the bodies were found stated Mrs. Hughes was clutching a clod of dirt and grass in one hand and her own hair in the other. Her body was approximately 20 yards from the others.
Johnson was on his side and appeared to have attempted to get up after being shot. The victims' pockets were all turned inside out and their identification was missing.
The grizzly scene would haunt seasoned lawmen for the rest of their lives, and some would vow to work tirelessly until those responsible were apprehended.
Authorities believe Maxwell and Landers had gone to visit their Phi Theta Omega fraternity brother at work and happened to be at the restaurant when it was robbed, shortly after closing time.
Police believe Johnson may have been accosted outside while taking out the trash and forced back into the business. Witness reports indicated Mrs. Tyler already had locked the front door.
Police believe the suspects demanded money and left the building with $2,000, the two women's purses and the five victims.
As the hours turned to days, officials continued scouring the area gathering evidence and interviewing potential witnesses and suspects. A reward of $50,000 was offered for information leading to the arrests of those responsible. But the trail grew cold, and it would be 12 years before an arrest would be made - an arrest that would later be expunged from the man's record.
In 1995 an original suspect in the case, James Earl Mankins Jr., was charged and indicted on five counts of capital murder. The case hung on a lone piece of evidence - a torn fingernail.
Investigators focused on Mankins, the son of a former state representative, shortly after they learned he had been arrested the day of the murders by the Longview Police Department for an unlawful carrying of a weapon charge. He was in possession of a handgun and a rifle.
Mankins bailed out of jail, and investigators learned days after the murders he had borrowed another handgun from an acquaintance in Gregg County. He returned the weapon the day after the murders.
Along with many others, Mankins was asked to appear at the Kilgore Police Department days after the killings for questioning and investigators immediately zeroed in on him as the "prime suspect," when they saw he had a torn fingernail.
Investigators made a plaster cast of the finger and experts said the nail was a match to one found on the body of one of the murder victims.
DNA tests were performed on the nail, and although there were varied results, the prosecution under then Texas Attorney General Bill Morales went forward and secured indictments.
"They indicted Jimmy based on this DNA and the doctor in Dallas said it was not conclusive and they could not use it to indict. But they (prosecutors) used it anyway to indict Jimmy, hoping he would talk once he was in jail," said Darrell Bennett, Mankins' attorney.
Mankins was cleared and all charges were dropped after the U.S. Army DNA Center in Washington, D.C., concluded the fingernail was not his.
"DNA is a wonderful thing. I imagine if it wasn't for DNA then they (prosecutors) would have convicted me and sent me to death row. I could have easily been executed," Mankins told the newspaper in an interview in 2005.
Mankins was arrested on unrelated drug charges in 1996 and sentenced to 10 years in the federal prison system. He was released in 2003, but was recently arrested for violating his supervised release.
In 2003, State District Judge Clay Gossett ordered that Mankins' record be expunged from all mention of the KFC indictments.
Prosecutors were left no closer to administering justice, and it would be another 10 years after the Mankins' indictments before the two cousins would be arrested after a DNA data base provided a match to crime scene evidence.
A BLOODY BOX
Many of the case files lingered undisturbed in a dark, cool closet in Austin for six years before a former FBI agent was hired by former Rusk County Sheriff James Stroud to investigate the case.
Stroud said he felt obligated to seek justice in the death of his friend David Maxwell and the other victims and was one reason he ran for sheriff.
His special investigator, George Kieny, the retired FBI agent, began re-examining the case and asked for the information to be entered into the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS).
The DNA evidence collected on a bloodstained box from the KFC crime scene was entered. The database indexes DNA from violent criminals and crime scenes in all states except Mississippi, and allows investigators to enter data and search for possible matches.
The next big step in the case came when investigators were informed a DNA match was found and that match was a suspect on the original list of suspects from 1983.
Kieny and other members of law enforcement began conducting more interviews, and new information resulted in the Attorney General's office once again becoming involved in the case.
Lisa Tanner, Texas Attorney General's Office assistant prosecutor, and her team of investigators began working with the Rusk County Sheriff's Department and the district attorney's office in rekindling the case and soon began presenting evidence to a special-called grand jury.
Darnell Hartsfield, Pinkerton's cousin, was tried and convicted for aggravated perjury in regard to his testimony to the grand jury. He and Pinkerton were now the focus and the prime suspects in the case, and Pinkerton is first to stand trial.
"The team worked to reconstruct the crime scene, reconnect the evidence and gather DNA from the two men indicted today in an effort to build a solid case with the grand jury," Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott said during a 2005 press conference announcing the indictments against the two men.
Dan Sitton, KFC of Nacogdoches executive vice president, told the newspaper last week that the victims have never been forgotten.
"We hadn't been able to keep up with the case in the last several years and haven't been in the loop, but we would like them to find the ones who did this," he said. "These were our employees and we have never forgotten."
Sitton said the late owner did not share his feelings with him about the murders to those around him, but that it affected everyone.
"It was a big blow, and I can't really say what his feelings were because he didn't disclose his feelings, but it was a blow to all of us," he said.
Sitton, as many do, hope the case will once and for all be solved so that the families left behind could have some closure.
"It was just a terrible incident that went on without any closure. It would fade awhile then we would get inklings things were coming up and then it would fade away again," he said. "I hope this tragedy is finally coming to an end."
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Thread: 23 Years Later
08-05-2007, 11:35 AM #1
- Join Date
- Oct 2002
23 Years Later"In Tempore"
08-05-2007, 04:04 PM #2
Its sad when crap like this happens in a small east Texas town...
all I can say is its well deserved and I hope he gets what he deserves....
and long live the Country Tavern
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