By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
HUGHES SPRINGS--From the porch of her red-brick home, poet Leafie Mason could stand watch over the energy that kept the small town she called home alive. Just beyond West First Street, yards away, runs the railroad track, a pathway for Kansas City Southern trains that daily hurry westward from Shreveport toward Dallas and back again. Farther in the distance is a boxcar storage area and what was once one of this region's most active switching stations.
The railroad is the reason for the existence of this quiet piney woods community of 1,938. It has spurred the economy, lured new residents, and, on a fall night in 1998, brought death.
In time Mason and her hometown would become a part of the violent legacy of a sadistic serial killer whom the media would elevate to Ted Bundy-like stature: Angel Maturino Resendiz, the 41-year-old freight-hopping drifter who last week was convicted of murder in the robbery, rape, and slaying of 39-year-old Houston physician Claudia Benton. Before being apprehended, he had vented his homicidal rage in other cities in Texas, Illinois, and Kentucky between August of 1997 and June of last year, leaving nine dead. And though it would take months to prove it, he had also left his bloody mark on little Hughes Springs.
On the afternoon of October 2, 1998, Randy Kennedy, the town's 42-year-old police chief, received a call from a woman concerned about the well-being of 87-year-old Mason, whom she was to have given a ride to visit her sister at a nearby nursing home. There had been no response when the woman knocked at Mason's door. It immediately troubled her, she would later tell the chief, because Mason, well known for her punctuality and impatience with those who lacked it, was always ready and waiting for her daily arrival.
Kennedy hurriedly made the short drive to the West First Street address that had been so long familiar to him. As a boy he had mowed Leafie Mason's yard in the summers. "She was always very nice to me," he would later recall. "She would bring me a glass of iced tea or lemonade when I was working. She had a reputation for being pretty demanding and outspoken, but I liked her."
In the idiom of rural Texas, the spinster Mason was something of a local "character."
Entering the house where Mason had lived alone since the departure of a lifelong mentally disabled sister to the nursing home, Kennedy encountered a scene unlike anything he'd seen since becoming police chief four years ago.
In the back bedroom he found the bludgeoned, bloody body of Mason covered with a blanket and lying on the floor near her bed. She had been struck in the head repeatedly by an antique flat iron--a "weapon of convenience," as Kennedy would write in his report. A nearby back window, he noticed, was open.
News of the manner in which she died spread a wave of terror through the community 150 miles east of Dallas. Aside from a domestic homicide seven years earlier, no one could remember another murder occurring in Hughes Springs. A homicide-scene investigator from neighboring Mount Pleasant quickly suggested it was the work of someone who had known Leafie Mason. A resident. A neighbor.
"It was frightening to think it might have been done by someone we lived with, someone walking among us," remembers Betty Traylor, administrator of the nursing home where Mason's sister resides.
Leafie Mason's violent death occurred long before the world had ever heard the name of Angel Maturino Resendiz, long before news magazines would make him the subject of cover stories and paperback books would detail his aimless death travels.
When Kennedy's investigation of the crime reached a quick dead end, he compiled a narrative of the event and submitted it to the Texas Department of Safety's Crime Bulletin, a monthly publication distributed to others in law enforcement. "It was shortly after it was published," Kennedy says, "that I was contacted by Sgt. Ken Macha of the West University Police. He told me of the similarities in our cases." Police in the Houston suburb were investigating the murder of Dr. Benton.
"That was the first time I heard the name Resendiz."
Unknown to Kennedy, there was in the law enforcement community a growing belief that the Mexican national, who made frequent visits to the United States, had committed murders from the Rio Grande to Illinois. In each case Macha told him about, the similarities were chilling: Each of the murders had occurred near a railroad track; the killer had entered the homes of his victims through a window; he had used a "weapon of opportunity"; the assaults had all escalated to "overkill"; and, finally, each victim's body had been covered when authorities found it.
Authorities, Kennedy was told, had a name and fingerprints, a manhunt was ongoing, and rewards were being offered nationwide. Yet all the Hughes Springs police chief had was a palm print lifted from Mason's open window and a growing belief that his initial gut feeling--that his murder case involved a drifter, not someone local--was on target. He could only wait until Resendiz was captured and a palm print could be made to compare to the one Kennedy kept locked away in his evidence drawer.