Death Row Granny

Bettie Beets killed two husbands. Now she's likely to become the first woman the state of Texas has ever executed

"This didn't seem to faze me, but then she fired again, and it paralyzed me and I fell off the porch to the ground. I then remember her saying not to move, that if I did she would shoot again."

Bettie was charged with "assault with intention to commit murder with malice." But the charges were dropped to a misdemeanor aggravated assault a few months later when Lane signed an affidavit saying he was at fault. He paid Bettie's $100 fine and $50 court costs. The judge gave her back her pistol.

Not long after the incident, the two re-married--then divorced again, in September 1973. She packed up Shirley and Bobby and moved several times, eventually landing in Little Rock, Arkansas, where she went to work at a convenience store.

Bettie was at a country-western club in Little Rock when she met a salesman named Ronnie Threlkeld. He saw a shapely, attractive blond nursing a drink at a table, refusing all the men who asked her to dance. "She was a little blond fox," recalled Threlkeld, in a recent interview.

Threlkeld persuaded her to dance, assuring her he wasn't like all the others. That night, he went home with Bettie and stayed. She was 39; Threlkeld was 36. "She wanted you to like her," Threlkeld says.

In fact, Bettie often raged that people didn't love her enough--that her children and men were always taking advantage of her. After one argument, Bettie slashed all four tires on Threlkeld's car. Another night, she came after him in a bar with a tire iron. Recalls Threlkeld: "She was a hellcat. Nobody messed with her."

Today, Bettie accuses Threlkeld of beating and choking her; an affidavit from her son Bobby backs up her claims. Threlkeld says he did nothing more than slap her once during an argument. Yet the two lived together off and on for two years. When Bettie moved back to Dallas to be closer to her children, he followed. They were married in February 1978.

Bettie's stormy relationship with her four daughters--Faye, Connie, Phyllis and Shirley--made the marriage difficult. "The most anger I ever heard from her was about those girls," says Threlkeld. She complained that they were always getting into trouble and asking for money. But the biggest problem, says Threlkeld, was that "she seemed to think they were a threat."

Their relationship ended one night in Dallas after she accused her husband of sleeping with one of her daughters, who was living with them at the time. Threlkeld says he was having a drink when the teenage daughter appeared in the kitchen and dropped her robe--and that Bettie then walked in the room. Though he swore there was nothing going on between them, Bettie refused to believe it.

The next day, Threlkeld says, he was loading his belongings in his car when Bettie tried to run him over; he managed to dodge between two cars as his wife roared past. (Bettie insists Threlkeld tried to ram her car.) Threlkeld returned to Little Rock.

Beginning in the late '70s, it seemed to Bobby, Bettie's youngest child, that his mother was developing two different personalities. Bettie drank and gobbled diet pills, but the transformation didn't take place when she was drunk. And it was more than being in a bad mood--more like Dr. Jekyll and Mrs. Hyde. "One minute we got along real well, and the next thing you know she was different," Bobby later recalled in an affidavit. "It was like she got hateful all of a sudden."

After Threlkeld left Bettie and returned to Little Rock, she called to advise him that she had filed for divorce and was going to marry a man who was good to her--a construction worker named Doyle Wayne Barker. They tied the knot in October 1978 and moved to Cedar Creek Lake, where Bettie had bought a lot, purchased a nice mobile home, and found work as a bartender and waitress.

"Bettie would always call me when she got married," recalled her mother, Louise Dunevant, in an affidavit. "Every one of them was just what she had been looking for."

Repeating the pattern, Bettie divorced Barker in July 1980, then remarried him in July 1981; once again, she claimed her husband beat her. "I never understood how someone could remarry the very person who beat you up so bad, just months before," Mrs. Dunevant said. "It was really sad."

Faye's husband, Leon, remembered seeing his mother-in-law on several occasions with black eyes, bruises up and down her arms, and split lips. "I'd ask her what the hell happened and she'd tell me Wayne did it," Leon said in an affidavit.

Bettie threatened to leave, but never did. It was as though she were addicted to the abuse. She would deal with the problem in her own way.

One day in 1981, Leon saw Bettie after an especially bad beating: Both her eyes were black, there were choke marks on her neck, and her arms were covered with bruises. Leon and Faye took pictures. Bettie talked about pressing charges.

But it wasn't necessary. Barker dropped out of sight.
Bettie explained that after yet another beating, he had walked out, saying he was going to get some cigarettes--and never returned. He even left his new pickup truck in the driveway.

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