By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
The media attention started a procession of the curious to Bettie's lot. "Every time we would walk by their place, my dog would run straight to that wishing well and stand there and bark," one neighbor told a reporter. "I guess he knew something we didn't."
Concerned that Bettie's third husband might also have met an untoward end, sheriff's deputies tracked down Ronald Threlkeld in Little Rock. Threlkeld was shocked, but thought back to the day his "little blond fox" had aimed her car at him. "I felt lucky to be alive," he says.
O'Brien soon discovered that Bettie had attempted to take out a $10,000 insurance policy on Jimmy Don's life in May 1983, just three months before his death. Bettie had given her daughter Faye's mailing address for the premium notices. But a relative of Jimmy Don who worked at the insurance agency, curious about the unfamiliar address and signature, had taken the policy back to the fire captain, who ordered it canceled.
Though Bettie contended that she had thought the policy form was for a credit card, the DA now felt he had a motive for the murder: Beets' insurance and pension benefits. He upgraded one charge against Bettie to capital murder.
Mother and daughter both told the grand jury they knew nothing about the deaths of the two men buried in Bettie's yard.
After years of battling a drug problem, Shirley was struggling to get her life together. She was working as a management trainee at a Mesquite Taco Bell.
One morning, her father, Robert Branson, came with his wife to speak privately to Shirley. When she returned to her cell, she began changing clothes.
"Where are you going?" Bettie asked.
"I'm going home," Shirley told her mother.
The East Texas town of Athens (pop. 10,000) is known for its annual Black-Eyed Pea Jamboree and as the place where the hamburger was invented in the 1880s.
But the October 1985 capital-murder trial of Bettie Lou Beets was the biggest event in its history.
Reporters from across the nation descended, setting up satellite trucks and interviewing everyone in sight. Neighbors told stories of a hot-tempered woman who threw hatchets and knives at a target tacked to a tree in her yard--and shot dead a neighborhood dog who had molested her poodle. Then there was her 1980 arrest for lewd conduct. O'Brien found a police report that revealed Bettie had been auditioning at a Dallas topless bar called Charlie's Angels when one of her pasties fell off. Bettie was arrested after she invited an undercover vice officer to put it back on. She pled guilty to a misdemeanor and received one year's probation.
With residents jockeying for seats in the courtroom, the trial finally got under way. E. Ray Andrews, Athens' best-known criminal attorney, was representing Bettie. Known locally as a genial rogue, Andrews was a witty, gregarious country lawyer. His cornpone approach hid an effective legal talent--at least when he wasn't drinking.
Forensics experts had identified Jimmy Don's badly decomposed body with dental records. An autopsy indicated he'd been shot twice--once in the torso and once in the back of the head--probably while in bed. Two bullets had been found in the sleeping bag. The murder weapon was a .38-caliber handgun--much like the .38 Colt Special found in Bettie's mobile home.
Jimmy Don's skull was brought into the courtroom in a box to show the wound in the back of his head. Barker had been shot in the head with a similar weapon.
But the most shocking testimony was that of Bettie's children.
After she agreed to testify against her mother, Shirley's bond had been lowered from $1 million to $5,000. She and Robby painted a picture of young adults who simultaneously loved and feared their mother.
Robby had come to live with his mother and Jimmy Don right after he turned 17, following years of separation and his arrest on a burglary charge in Corsicana. Robby and his stepfather got along well until the summer of 1983, when Bettie and Jimmy Don returned from a Virginia vacation to find that Robby had messed up the house and Jimmy Don's boat.
Nervously chewing gum, Robby told the packed courtroom how his mother had brought him into her plan. At about 9 p.m. on the night of August 5, 1983, Bettie calmly informed her son in the kitchen that she was going to murder Jimmy Don that night.
Bettie sent Robby out of the house; she didn't want him to be around when she did the deed. Robby climbed on his motorcycle and drove around the lake aimlessly, returning to his mother's place about midnight.
In the living room, he found Bettie, who quietly told him she had taken care of Jimmy Don. Robby walked to the back of the trailer, and there, near the back door, was a large shape encased in a blue sleeping bag.
Bettie asked him to help drag the body to the empty wishing-well planter. Robby and Jimmy Don had recently built it together, at Bettie's request.
They dumped the body in the planter. Bettie spent much of the rest of the evening cleaning house and doing laundry.