The Dead Zone

Thanks to TV, crime scene investigating is the new hot profession, but Max Courtney knows it's more science than art

"They made a call to the card company and learned that someone had tried to use it in Vicksburg, Mississippi. We were still gathering evidence when the killer was arrested and the murder weapon was found in his car."

Though keenly aware of the anguish that attaches itself to criminal behavior, destroying lives both literally and figuratively, Courtney has learned over the years to detach himself from the residue of the violence he is summoned to investigate. It is a lesson he has learned to live by. Most of the time.

It was in the early '90s when the decomposing bodies of a Haltom City woman and her 5-year-old daughter, beaten to death during the Christmas holidays, were found in a closet that had been nailed shut. In truth, it would not be a difficult crime to solve since the husband and father had left a note, admitting to the murders.

Top: Max Courtney and colleague Candace Horney work the scene of a double murder in Mansfield. Middle: Horney videotapes the entrance to the apartment. Bottom: Courtney at work in his lab in Fort Worth.
Mark Graham
Top: Max Courtney and colleague Candace Horney work the scene of a double murder in Mansfield. Middle: Horney videotapes the entrance to the apartment. Bottom: Courtney at work in his lab in Fort Worth.
Top: Courtney fires a gun into a device that allows him to save spent bullets for ballistics tests. Middle: Jason Allison, a forensic examiner, hands the spent bullet to Courtney. Bottom: The bullet is subjected to ballistics tests.
Mark Graham
Top: Courtney fires a gun into a device that allows him to save spent bullets for ballistics tests. Middle: Jason Allison, a forensic examiner, hands the spent bullet to Courtney. Bottom: The bullet is subjected to ballistics tests.

"But I know that one really got to Max," says his wife, Ginger, who serves as business manager of FCS. "The cases that involve children and young people always do."


"What Max Courtney tells you," says Cleburne-based Texas Ranger George Turner, "you can take to the bank. I've yet to meet anyone in law enforcement who doesn't trust him completely. He played a very important role in solving that Grandview case back in '93."

Ah, yes, the Grandview case. Courtney had determined that the intruder who entered that apartment had worn boots. Using the chemical Luminol, he and an assistant had discovered a well-defined, unusually patterned print on the floor of the apartment.

Of all the evidence gathered from the crime scene, it would be that single bloody boot print that ultimately led to a 1994 conviction of a 20-year-old New Mexico native named Bobby Ray Hopkins. That and what the self-effacing Courtney describes as an investigator's most valued tools: a generous amount of patience, good fortune and help from others.

When he had shown a photograph of the boot print to Grandview police Chief Doug Allen, the officer's eyes had widened. "My God," he'd said, "we've got that boot over at the sheriff's office."

Turns out that Texas Ranger Turner was returning home on the Saturday evening when the bodies were found and had stopped at the scene. As the local authorities worked inside, Turner mingled among the growing crowd outside the apartment and heard talk that Hopkins had recently argued with one of the young women. Locating him at a residence on the opposite end of town, Turner immediately noticed what appeared to be bloodstains on one of the man's boots. He drove him to the sheriff's office for questioning and, despite not having enough evidence to jail him, the Ranger suggested that local authorities keep Hopkins' boots so that blood tests might be done.

Ultimately, it would be in Courtney's Fort Worth laboratory that three types of blood were detected on the boots: that of the killer Hopkins, and his victims, Marbut and Weston.

It is a fact not lost on Melody Smith, the mother of Grandview victim Jennifer Weston. "There's no way I'll ever be able to repay him for all the work he did on the case," she says. "I remember him coming up to me during the trial and introducing himself, telling me that he knew it was hard for me but that things were going to get better, to be strong.

"Listening to him testify about what had happened to my daughter and Sandi was one of the most difficult things I've ever had to do," she says, "but at the same time I appreciated every word he said because I knew that he was telling the jury what it needed to know."

Now, almost 10 years after those trying days in the courtroom, it is not the gruesome details of the testimony that stick in Smith's memory. Rather, it is an exchange between Courtney and the attorney defending the man who had murdered her daughter. "He [the defense lawyer] was asking Mr. Courtney how many hours he had put in on the case and how much he had been paid by the prosecution.

"The amount of time he'd spent on the case was incredible, hundreds of hours. But he said that he would not be charging the county for the full amount of time he'd spent on the case. The defense attorney seemed taken aback and asked why.

"Mr. Courtney told him that he didn't think Johnson County could afford such a bill. Then he said, 'A lot of what I've done is simply because those girls and their families deserve it.'"

"I called him recently," Smith says, "just to let him again know how much I appreciate what he did for Jennifer. I know he's busy, and I felt a little guilty for taking his time. But he said he was glad I had called.

"He told me it helped to remind him of the reason he does what he does."

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