The Easy Crime
All it takes is for the caller to identify himself as a reporter from Dallas. Erinn Bryan immediately knows where the conversation is going. "You want to talk about Colin." Even over a phone line from Minneapolis, you can hear the breath leave her body. She exhales loudly, sadly, as if to say, not again.
Bryan knows what this call is about, because she receives one or two like it every year, when the calendar creeps toward May 13. She tries to avoid the date, tries to wrap herself inside an ordinary life with her two young daughters a thousand miles away from Dallas. It's all so mundane yet so perfect, the remedy to six years spent grieving and worrying. If she's not going to have a normal existence, well, at least she can pretend.
But here it is: May 13. The day on which Erinn Bryan's stepfather and the man she considered among her dearest friends, former Olympian and Dallas Cowboys punter Colin Ridgway, was murdered in his University Park duplex in 1993.
And still, no one has been punished for Ridgway's murder. Six years after the 54-year-old was gunned down in his Emerson Lane home--at 10:30 p.m., shot seven times by someone who was waiting for him--there has been only one indictment in the case, and that man was freed from custody days before he was supposed to stand trial in Dallas.
After sitting in Lew Sterrett Criminal Justice Center for five months--from September 1996 to February 1997, on $500,000 bail--Kenneth Bicking III of Fort Lauderdale, Florida, was cut loose by a judge who smashed the D.A.'s case on a technicality. Bicking returned home, and there have been no arrests since.
Mike Brock, the University Park police captain who's been in charge of this case since the beginning, admits his office is no closer to solving the crime than it was in 1993. The Dallas County District Attorney's Office does not foresee a date when anyone will be brought to trial for Ridgway's murder.
"Murder's the easiest crime to get away with," says one source close to the investigation, "because your best witness is dead."
The police remain convinced that Kenneth Bicking killed Ridgway. They remain convinced that Ridgway's wife, Joan, paid Bicking $5,000 to commit the murder so she could collect more than half a million dollars in insurance money. And they remain convinced that Kenneth Bicking Jr., who lives in Denison, put Joan and his son together. All three deny any involvement in the crime.
But the cops claim they have the evidence...just not enough.
"I don't even think I can put it into words," Bryan says of the frustrating, infuriating past six years.
She and her sister Shannon, Joan Ridgway's daughters from an earlier marriage, haven't spoken to their mother since Colin was killed. In September 1994, Shannon and Erinn alleged in a federal lawsuit, eventually settled out of court, that Joan was partly responsible for the murder. A Dallas County grand jury would later fail to indict Joan on murder charges, and she passed a lie detector test. Joan Ridgway, now Joan Jackson, has always insisted she had nothing to do with her husband's murder.
But Bryan doesn't believe her--Joan, her biological mother, for God's sake. She never will.
Colin Ridgway's murder, in essence, killed a family.
"You're shocked and filled with disbelief and think, 'This can't be my life,'" Bryan says as she holds the phone in one hand and a crying toddler in the other. "It comes completely out of the blue, and then you come to terms with it and move on and make a life with what you have. You miss them and think about them and move on. I don't know how other people cope, but that's how we cope."
Colin's unsolved murder--and that's what it is, at least until someone is convicted for it--is like all crimes without resolution. It continues to destroy everyone it comes in contact with: the stepchildren, the sisters Colin left behind in Australia, the brother-in-law who helped raise Colin. It's a virus that infects and consumes anyone who gets in its path. There's no amount of soap in this world that can wash it off you once you've come in contact with it.
Maybe that's because this is a particularly grim, seedy, made-for-the-tabloids tale that comes complete with allegations of murder for hire, rape, a vicious custody battle, cops who let the man they believe to be the killer slip through their shaking hands, and Florida lawyers who use expletives the way other people say the.
The main piece of evidence against Kenneth Bicking III was a statement from his then-estranged, now-ex-wife Katherine, in which she told police Kenneth admitted to her that he committed the murder. According to Katherine, Kenneth said he shot Colin in exchange for money from Joan, and that the deal had been set up through Kenneth's father. But state District Judge Mark Nancarrow ruled that the evidence was inadmissible in court, since it was based on a privileged conversation between husband and wife. The case fell apart after that, and Kenneth--who claimed his wife was lying, accusing him of the crime so she could get custody of their children--was set free in February 1997.
That is not the only crime Katherine has accused Kenneth Bicking III of committing.
According to Broward County, Florida, court records obtained by the Dallas Observer this week, Katherine claims that on April 2, 1997, less than two months after his release from Dallas jail, Kenneth picked her up at the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, drove her to his home in nearby Lauderdale Lakes, and raped her.
In an arrest report dated January 1, 1998, eight months after she alleges the attack occurred, Katherine claims he tied her wrists together and led her to a bed covered in plastic. She says Kenneth then set up a video camera and forced her to perform oral sex on him, after which he raped her repeatedly with "various objects." She alleges he then forced her to drink wine, took pictures of her, and forced her to draft a document at knifepoint giving him custody of their children, now ages 6 and 8. She says she was sure Kenneth was going to kill her if she didn't obey his instructions. Katherine says Kenneth then let her get dressed and took her back to the airport, where she says she called police.
Bicking's Fort Lauderdale lawyer, Eddie Kay, says his client is scheduled to go to trial in August. Kay insists Bicking III committed neither the sexual assault on Katherine nor the murder of Colin Ridgway. He refers to Kenneth as a fall guy, the victim of Katherine's plot to get sole custody of their children--and the University Park cops' desire to find somebody to blame for the murder.
"I have no idea what goes through the mind of the University Park Police Department," Kay says, "but I would suspect very little." He says a lot more, all of it expletive-ridden and off the record.
This story has all the makings of an Elmore Leonard novel, only without a final chapter, a tidy ending. And there's nothing remotely comical about this tale, not when you look beyond the headlines and mistakes and begin to assess the toll Ridgway's unsolved murder has taken on those around him, from the innocent to the accused. Even Joan Jackson is now in seclusion in Dallas, her friends gone and her once-promising art career abandoned.
The tragedy reaches all the way to Ridgway's homeland of Australia, where his only remaining blood relative lives--his sister Wanda, and her husband of 49 years, Kevin Dixon. Wanda and Kevin, whose home is littered with photos of Colin as a child, helped raise Colin from the time he was seven, when his mother, Alma, died suddenly from a stroke. Kevin used to take Colin to track meets, where he was a high-jumping star. Colin would eventually place seventh in the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne; at 17, he was then the youngest athlete ever to compete in the games. Nine years later, Colin was a Dallas Cowboys punter, though only for half a season, posting less than impressive numbers.
Wanda and Kevin are both in their 70s, and their health is failing. They moved to a remote part of northern Australia to be near a hospital. Wanda receives dialysis treatments several times a week, and Kevin has cancer and gets his oxygen through two tanks. When he speaks over the phone, there's a constant hissing in the background. It's not the overseas connection; it's the sound of the machines that keep him alive. Kevin says he began smoking heavily when he became obsessed with finding the people who killed his brother-in-law.
"This has wrecked my life," Kevin says. "Since this happened, I've been in a psychiatric hospital for six months, which is where they discovered I had cancer. I used to stay up every night ringing to America, and I was an inveterate smoker. It got to the stupid stage where all I did was smoke and became obsessed with trying to nail someone. Eventually my lungs gave up, and I'm on oxygen 24 hours a day. That's what it's done to me. It's frustration and bloody ruination. My wife cries all the time. Now, there's nothing left."
Kevin, the son of a police chief, was never officially notified of Colin's death. To this day, Kevin says, Joan has never sent a note or called to express her condolences. "She never had the guts to write to us," he says. "Can you believe that?"
The couple only found out about the murder from a friend who stumbled across the news in an Australian newspaper. The Dixons never had a chance to attend Colin's memorial service; he was cremated shortly after the murder.
Kevin and Wanda Dixon want someone to pay for Colin's death; Kevin talks about wanting to administer the lethal injection all by himself. He is furious with the University Park cops, angry even at Ridgway's friends--his anger knows no bounds. "This would have to be one of the greatest, most inept investigations I've ever had anything to do with," he says. "There's no such thing as the perfect murder."
Yet Erinn Bryan, who talks to Mike Brock of the UPPD almost monthly, says she almost hopes this case never goes to trial--all that pain to revisit, all those ghosts to confront one more damned time. Every day, she tries to put a little more of this behind her, hoping someday this wound will heal.
"I miss my mother very much," she says, her voice even and steady. "But where do you draw the line? Colin was a parent and a friend for 20 years, and I can't believe any family could get past this. I think my mother's got a terrible life. I feel terrible for her. What an awful life. But I think he's in good hands. He's probably in better shape than all of us."
E-mail Balls at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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