By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
"But go right home after that," he told Nary Na. A pretty, petite Cambodian with long black hair and a sweet face, Nary was 14--10 years younger than Karage--and he felt she needed protection. It was September 1994, and she'd been living for a year in his family's home on Bennett Street in the "Little Asia" neighborhood of East Dallas. Though she'd often driven his car, Nary wasn't street-smart. Besides, Karage was the possessive type. He and Nary planned to get married in a few months.
Nary nodded and left, taking his Honda Accord. They'd arrived about noon at the Asian video store at the intersection of Carroll and Bryan streets, where other Cambodian refugees in the neighborhood hung out and sometimes gambled. Nary knew Karage had to be at work by 3 p.m. A high school graduate with training in auto mechanics, Karage had recently gotten a good job in a silicon wafer fabrication factory. That morning he'd gone with Nary to deposit his paycheck in the bank and had given her about $300 in cash. Like most teenage girls, Nary liked to shop. Karage liked being able to indulge her.
When Nary hadn't shown up by 2:30 p.m., Karage was upset. He called his boss to say he couldn't get to work that day. By 3 p.m., Karage was getting angry. He asked Pro Sok, the owner of the video store, to drive him around. Nary wasn't at home, she wasn't at the grocery and she wasn't with her mother. He couldn't imagine where she'd gone. Nary knew few people outside the tight-knit Cambodian community.
They'd met at the Buddhist Temple in Grand Prairie in October 1993. At her mother's urging, Nary had moved in with Karage's extended family. She wasn't going to school; the family was in the process of getting documents from her school in California. Though Karage could have gotten slapped with a statutory rape charge, theirs wasn't an unusual arrangement in Cambodian culture. Their families were very traditional.
As he searched for Nary, Karage's anger turned to worry. He enlisted family and neighbors to scour the neighborhood and even drove around the parking lot at Town East Mall. But when Nary still hadn't returned home after the mall closed, Karage flagged down a police car in the neighborhood around 10 p.m. and told the officers his "cousin" was missing.
Dallas police homicide Detective Kenneth Beck showed up and took Karage to the police station. He confronted Karage with gruesome news: Nary Na's beaten and bloody body had been discovered about 6:30 p.m. behind the Casa Linda Shopping Center.
The teenager had been the victim of a vicious attack. The medical examiner would later testify that Nary had "multiple blunt force injuries," as if she'd been beaten with a hammer, and a wire coat hanger had been twisted tightly around her neck. Her skull was fractured and her liver lacerated so severely it split, as if she'd been kicked.
Karage was horrified. He denied having anything to do with Nary's death. After more than six hours of interrogation, Karage gave Beck a written statement insisting on his innocence.
The medical examiner's office would later discover a "head hair fragment exhibiting Negroid racial characteristics" on Nary's skin. The DNA on Nary's body did not match Karage. That only confirmed Beck's belief that Karage had found Nary with another man, killed her in a jealous rage and then staged the search to deflect suspicion.
In a non-jury trial in 1997 with testimony that lasted only one day, Karage maintained his innocence. But state District Judge Karen Greene agreed with prosecutor Tony D'Amore: Karage didn't have a solid alibi. People told conflicting stories about where he'd been that day. Nary's blood was found in the trunk of his car, which was discovered late that night parked at the Minyard's. Most important, Karage was the only person who had a motive to kill Nary. Greene convicted Karage and sentenced him to life in prison.
"It was such a violent death I thought life was the only possible sentence," Judge Greene says. Repeated appeals failed to win Karage a new trial.
But after Karage had spent nearly seven years in prison, he finally persuaded authorities to run the DNA found on Nary through the database of serious offenders created in 2001. They found that another man did have a motive: Keith Jordan, a black man who lived a few miles from Casa Linda. He'd been convicted in 1997 of the aggravated kidnapping and sexual assault of a 14-year-old girl in circumstances similar to the attack on Nary.
At the request of the Dallas County District Attorney's Office, the police department assigned a different detective to reinvestigate Nary's death. Karage was released from prison; in December, Governor Rick Perry gave him a full pardon. Jordan now faces charges of capital murder in Nary's slaying.
The revelation that Karage was innocent caused some soul-searching among those responsible for his prosecution. But not as much as you'd think.