Burden of proof
The young bricklayer peered out the window into the gray January morning, sipped from his coffee cup, and resigned himself to an idle weekend. No construction crews, he knew, would brave the bitter temperatures and frozen roads to work. The previous night's blizzard, which left a 12-inch blanket of snow, had been the first of 1985, signaling to those who called North Texas home that their world would stand still until the thaw. He turned his thoughts to spending time indoors with his wife and newborn son. While they slept, he poured himself more coffee and turned on the television.
Minutes later he was in the bedroom, gently shaking his wife. "You aren't going to believe what's happened," he told her.
A solemn-faced newscaster had reported that a young nurse who worked the night shift at the local hospital had been reported missing. Even before her name was mentioned, the bricklayer recognized the woman in the photograph that appeared on the TV screen. Her name was Toni Gibbs, and she and his wife had once been members of the same college sorority. He remembered being invited to a party at the woman's house, and though he'd not known his hostess well, he'd liked her.
And now there was clear concern that something horrible might have happened. She had not reported for work and was not at the apartment where she'd been living since she and her husband had divorced. "This doesn't sound good," the young man told his wife.
It marked the first time in his life that a person he knew was the focus of such ominous attention, and it made him uncomfortable. He felt a sudden need to do something.
By mid-morning, as the sun broke through, it was announced that the local police were organizing search parties in a parking lot at Midwestern University. Anyone willing to help was urged to report. The bricklayer immediately telephoned his brother. For the remainder of the day they walked side by side with somber strangers, across frozen fields near Gibbs' apartment, along the muddy shoreline of the lake, up and down alleys, and through deserted parking lots. They found nothing.
When the woman's abandoned car was discovered two days later, little doubt remained that something unthinkable had happened. But, as days turned into weeks, the immediacy of the disappearance waned. Reporters rarely mentioned her name, the volunteer search parties no longer gathered, and the bricklayer returned to his job.
Then, one mid-February evening when he returned home, his wife met him at the door, her face ashen. "They found her," she said.
Earlier in the day, an electrician checking a faulty transformer had discovered Toni Gibbs' nude body lying in a scrub-brush field less than two miles from their suburban home.
News of the death hit his wife hard, but he thought the story would end for him there. Little did he know how the discovery would change his life, how involved he would one day become in the case. He had no idea that the murder of Toni Gibbs would take him on a journey marked by high-tech investigation, old-fashioned sleuthing, and horrific discovery throughout North Texas. He was unaware that he would become a major character in a story line that resembled something from Law & Order more than it did real life. How could he know? He was just a bricklayer.
Toni Gibbs' death was part of a long nightmare that began in the bone-chilling winter of 1984, just a few days before Christmas, and stretched into the dog days of late summer of '85, spreading a palatable fear among the 100,000 residents of Wichita Falls. During an 18-month span, three women--a college student and part-time hospital worker, the nurse, and a waitress--had been stabbed, strangled, and in two cases raped, their bodies left in the most unlikely places.
The first victim had been 20-year-old Terry Sims, a pretty Midwestern student who also worked as a technical assistant at the Bethania Regional Health Care Center. Her body had been found lying in her own blood on the bathroom floor in the home of a female co-worker with whom she had planned to spend the night. She had been bound with an electrical cord, stabbed repeatedly, and sexually assaulted.
In January, Toni Gibbs, the Wichita General nurse, had disappeared and died. She, too, had been stabbed and raped.
And in October, the nude and decomposed body of 21-year-old Ellen Blau, a Midwestern student and waitress who had moved to Texas from Connecticut, was discovered by a county employee mowing alongside a rural road.
While whispered concerns that a serial killer might be on the loose swept through Wichita Falls, officials from three law enforcement agencies--the Wichita Falls Police Department, which had jurisdiction over the Sims homicide; the Wichita County Sheriff's Department, which was in charge of the Blau case; and the Archer County Sheriff's Department, which was investigating the Gibbs murder--quickly developed different suspects in each death. Surprisingly, no link of the three murders was made. Instead, investigators focused on a suitor whose advances to Terry Sims had repeatedly been rebuffed, co-workers of Blau's who had acted suspicious from the day she had disappeared from the parking lot of a convenience store, and a 24-year-old employee at a nightclub that Gibbs had frequented.
In time, in fact, a troubled young bartender's assistant named Danny Laughlin would be indicted and tried in Archer County for the Gibbs murder. He had talked of a romantic interest in the nurse, seemed to know facts about her disappearance that were not public knowledge, and, according to an eye witness, was seen walking his dog in the field where Gibbs was killed only days before her body was discovered.
A jury eventually voted 11-1 for acquittal, but for many who had followed the case there remained a strong belief that Laughlin had only managed to beat the system; that he had, in fact, gotten away with murder. That cloud of suspicion followed him long after he'd taken leave of Wichita Falls, even beyond a day in 1993 when he died in an automobile accident.
It wasn't until 1996 that advancement in forensic technology allowed the testing of a small sample of DNA that had been taken from Gibbs' body a decade earlier and stored away in the Texas Department of Safety laboratory. Matching it against a blood sample taken from the suspect while he was in custody, the results finally proved that Laughlin--who had long insisted his only knowledge of the case had come from watching news reports and having read portions of a case file inadvertently left in a police station interrogation room where he awaited an interview--had not been the person who sexually assaulted the nurse, or who killed her.
Officially, the Gibbs murder investigation was re-opened. In reality, it only gathered dust, awaiting some new lead few expected would ever come.
Grieving and angered families of the victims aside, the memories of Sims, Gibbs, and Blau grew faint. Yet the murders continued to haunt longtime Wichita County District Attorney Barry Macha, who had been sworn into office 10 days after the first killing. Privately, he found himself troubled that his career might one day end with three of the most high-profile cases of his tenure still unsolved.
It was with that in mind that Macha summoned a relatively new investigator, John Little, into his office in the final week of 1998 and handed him three timeworn files, asking that he read through them. "See if you can find anything that's been overlooked," the district attorney instructed.
Macha made no mention of it at the time, but in the years that had passed since the crimes occurred, he had often taken solitary drives past key sites that had been visited during earlier investigations--the house where Terry Sims had been murdered, the street where Toni Gibbs' abandoned car was discovered, an apartment where Ellen Blau had briefly lived. They were all in a relatively confined area. Privately, he had long suspected that the person or persons responsible for the murders had some connection to that section of the city.
In time, his investigator, the former bricklayer, would agree.
John Little was a lifelong resident of Wichita Falls. He had begun his career in law enforcement later than most, joining the District Attorney's investigative team in 1993 at age 30. His first choice for a new career had been service with the Wichita Falls Police Department, but after completing the rigors of police academy training, he failed an eye exam. So he had approached Macha about becoming an investigator. When offered the position, Little immediately accepted, leaving behind all thoughts of being a cop and bidding his old livelihood good-bye. His days as a bricklayer had come to an end.
It was after the New Year when Little sat at his dining-room table, the files spread in front of him, comparing them, setting to memory the names that appeared in each of the reports. It was only after he had reread the file on the Ellen Blau case several times that a name suddenly jumped out at him. In an interview with a female co-worker with whom Blau had been living, a man who lived in a downstairs apartment was mentioned. His name was Faryion Wardrip, and he had "given me the creeps," Blau's friend, Janie Ball, had told a sheriff's deputy. It was indicated in the report that she and her husband had both warned Blau that if she ever saw Wardrip in the yard or hallway she should simply ignore him.
Little remembered reading Wardrip's name in other reports: He'd been a janitor, then an orderly, at the hospital where Gibbs had worked--one of dozens of employees routinely questioned and dismissed. Later, he'd been employed at a fast-food restaurant just a few doors from where Blau worked. The apartment where he'd once resided with his wife and children was only a block and a half away from the small frame house where Terry Sims had been murdered.
Most tellingly, a computer check revealed that Wardrip had only recently been paroled from prison after serving 11 years of a 35-year murder sentence.
The murder for which Wardrip had been convicted also involved a Wichita Falls woman: In May 1986, the body of 21-year-old Tina Kimbrew, bartender-waitress at a local hotel, had been found in her apartment by her grandmother and cousin. Dressed in a nightgown and robe, the auburn-haired native of nearby Vernon had been suffocated with a pillow.
Police Chief Curtis Harrelson, then briefing the media on the investigation, said there did not appear to be any connection between Kimbrew's death and those of the other Wichita Falls women.
But, three days after that briefing, a sergeant in the Galveston Police Department received an almost incoherent call from a guest in a shore-side motel who said that he wanted to confess to a homicide he'd committed in Wichita Falls. "I just wanted to come here and see the ocean before I killed myself," the sobbing caller said. He had walked the beach for two days before stopping into a Wal-Mart to purchase a knife, he said. But, he'd been unable to go through with his planned suicide and wanted to turn himself in.
The caller's name was Faryion Edward Wardrip.
Returned to Wichita Falls, he pleaded guilty to the murder of Tina Kimbrew in exchange for a 35-year prison sentence.
It was 11 years later, when it became clear that Wardrip was going to be paroled, that Kimbrew's parents finally gave up their ongoing campaign to keep him behind bars and, instead, agreed to participate in a new and unique Victim Offender Mediation/Dialogue program being run by the Victim Services division of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. Designed to benefit those troubled by past crimes, the revolutionary program afforded family members an opportunity to question an inmate about anything from details of the crime to motive to plans for his future. The only criterion was that both the perpetrator and the victim's family members had to agree to participate. Wardrip, a trouble-free prisoner and self-avowed born-again Christian, said he was willing.
So impressed was Tina's father, Robert Kimbrew, that at the end of the emotional five-hour session he extended his hand to the apparently shaken Wardrip and said, "If, when you get out of here and find yourself headed for trouble again and have run out of other people to turn to for help, you call me."
A portrait of contrition, the prisoner repeatedly insisted to his visitor that he'd never committed a violent act before and that it had only been his addiction to drugs that triggered the tragic death of Tina. Later, he would say, "I wanted to meet Mr. Kimbrew so I could tell him how sorry I was--that I live every day in memory of Tina. She was my friend."
He had even asked the father if he would mind his visiting Tina's grave when he was released from prison.
When he later met with Tina's mother, Wardrip had tearfully promised to continue with his Bible studies.
Finally paroled in December of 1997, Wardrip moved to Olney, a short drive south of Wichita Falls, where, with the help of his father, he managed to find employment at Olney Door & Screen. Soon he was an active participant in the Hamilton Street Church of Christ, singing in the choir and teaching a Sunday-school class. Divorced from his first wife since 1986, he soon married a woman he'd met at church.
Required to wear an electronic ankle monitor and allowed away from home only to work and attend church, Wardrip made no complaints about the conditions of his freedom, nor did he try to keep secret the fact that he'd been in prison. The reasons he gave for his incarceration, however, were patently false. To some, he told a story of being charged with vehicular homicide in the aftermath of an unavoidable accident. For others he fabricated a story of a drunken barroom brawl during which a man he was arguing with fell, hit his head, and died.
All that, the scripture-quoting Wardrip insisted, was in another life. That was the old Faryion Wardrip. Soon, he told fellow workers, he would begin studying for the ministry.
Though in truth a high-school dropout as a teenager in his hometown of Marion, Indiana, he constantly bragged of stellar academic achievements. He wove elaborate tales from his days in the military, failing to mention that he had been discharged dishonorably when caught smoking marijuana.
As a family member would later say: "Faryion is one of those people who would climb a tree to tell a lie when it was just as easy to stand on the ground and tell the truth."
Soon those outside Olney, Texas, would learn of his lying and manipulations.
John Little entered his boss' office, making little effort to mask his excitement, and slid onto the couch that was the only uncluttered spot in the district attorney's workplace. "What would you say," he asked Macha, "if I told you that I think I've got the guy we're looking for, that I can put him in the middle of everything that happened--and that he's already been to prison for one murder?"
Macha silently studied the investigator's face as he outlined Wardrip's proximity to each of the murdered women. Little had tracked his checkered employment record, learning that he had quit his job at Wichita General just four days after Gibbs' disappearance, and had contacted utility companies to verify his residences at the time the crimes were committed. He also noted that there had been a telling entry into the report written by the officers who had driven Wardrip from Galveston back to Wichita Falls following his confession to the Kimbrew murder. During idle conversation with the officers, Wardrip had made an offhand remark that "he knew Ellen Blau."
There was, however, bad news: Blood samples taken from Wardrip after his 1986 arrest had been destroyed following his sentencing. His DNA profile was included in no law enforcement data bank.
"Find him," Macha said. "Watch him for a few days, and see what he's doing." Then he added, "And let's figure a way to get a sample of his DNA."
They agreed that the best method of securing the needed specimen without alerting Wardrip to what they were doing would be through use of the "abandoned interest" law; rather than seek a subpoena that would force him to provide a blood sample, Little would begin following him, hoping that he would toss away a cigarette butt, a soft drink bottle, or a cup that would yield enough of his saliva to be tested.
Casually dressed and driving a borrowed car, Little immediately began a routine of leaving home before dawn so he could arrive in Olney early enough to track Wardrip's routine. Daily, Little would watch as he left home, being driven to work by his wife each morning shortly before 7. The investigator was there, ready to follow them back home, when he got off work at 3:30 in the afternoon. He followed the couple to church services on Wednesday evening and watched from a safe distance as they sat in their front yard, talking with neighbors. And after five days the investigator was feeling the heavy weight of frustration. No opportunity to achieve his goal had presented itself.
On the sixth day of his surveillance, his efforts paid off. The outpost he'd chosen from which to monitor Wardrip's workday was a cinder-block washateria just across the highway from Olney Screen & Door. In an effort to blend with the in-and-out crowd arriving to wash and dry clothing, Little had even borrowed a basket of clothes his wife had left in the laundry room. By mid-morning he had washed and dried the same load several times.
Shortly before 10 a.m., he saw Wardrip's wife arrive in her green Honda and watched as Wardrip came into the parking lot to spend his morning break with her. Clinched in his teeth was a package of cheese crackers; in his hand was a pasteboard cup of coffee.
Quickly piling his laundry into a basket, Little walked outside as the Wardrips sat in the car, talking. "At one point," Little would later recall, "I thought about just walking over, reaching into the passenger window, grabbing the cup out of his hand, and running with it." Patience, however, won out.
He watched as Wardrip finally got out of the car, walked back into the shipping yard, and tossed the cup into a nearby trash barrel.
Stuffing a dip of snuff into his mouth as he ran across the highway, Little approached Wardrip. "Hey, buddy," he said, "you got a cup I can borrow?"
"A cup?" Wardrip replied.
"Yeah, a spit cup."
Wardrip nodded in the direction of the nearby barrel. "Help yourself," he said.
By late that afternoon, the elated investigator had delivered the cup to GeneScreen, a forensic laboratory in Dallas that specialized in DNA testing.
"The only way there won't be a match," he confidently told lab technician Judy Floyd, "is if I somehow picked up the wrong cup out of that barrel."
The following week he received a call that assured him he'd made no mistake. Floyd said she had performed three tests on the cup and the evidence swabs taken from the bodies of Terry Sims and Toni Gibbs. She could not, she said, exclude Faryion Wardrip as the contributor of the sperm found in the murder victims.
After a decade and a half, the time had finally come to get an arrest warrant for the man Little was convinced was responsible for the deaths of the three young women. Barry Macha, amazed that less than a month had passed since his investigator had begun work on the case, quickly agreed.
On February 13, 1999, a crisp and sunny day before he was scheduled to read Scriptures during Sunday communion services, Faryion Wardrip drove to Wichita Falls at the request of his parole officer. The purpose of the trip, he had been led to believe, was to discuss removal of the ankle monitor that had so restricted his freedom. So confident was Wardrip that he would soon be free to go where he pleased that he'd confided to several co-workers that he planned to leave on a short vacation the following week.
Instead, he was met by John Little and taken to the district attorney's office.
There, Little and Paul Smith, an investigator with the neighboring Archer County distict attorney's office who had worked the Gibbs homicide, launched into a pre-arranged interview. With DNA linking Wardrip to two of the murders, they hoped to lure him into a discussion of Ellen Blau, the case for which they had no forensic evidence.
Wardrip repeatedly insisted he had not known the victim. "Look," he told the investigators, "you know I've been to prison, you know what I did." With that he began describing the remorse he felt over the death of Tina Kimbrew. "It's a tragedy I'll never get over; a terrible accident. I'd never hurt anybody before that, not even my first wife."
It was soon obvious that he was not going to cooperate. Finally, he asked whether he was free to go. Little, disappointed that they had gotten no information linking Wardrip to the third homicide, looked at the man seated in front of him. "I'm afraid not," the investigator said. Standing, he stared silently at Wardrip for several seconds, then said, "Faryion Edward Wardrip, I have a warrant for your arrest...for the capital murder of Terry Sims and Toni Gibbs."
As the sheriff entered the room and handcuffed him, Wardrip began shaking his head. "I got nothing to hide," he said. "I didn't do this. I know one thing, though. This is going to be a big circus."
It was not until the following day, while hearing news reports of his arrest, that Wardrip learned the investigators had not told him everything. They had not mentioned having DNA evidence linking him to the crimes for which he'd been arrested.
That, the prisoner knew, changed everything. It was, indeed, going to become a "circus."
The following Tuesday morning, Glenda Wardrip sat in the jail visitation room, looking through a Plexiglas window into the tired, empty eyes of her husband. During the half hour they talked, he had not once suggested his innocence.
It was shortly before 10 a.m. when jailers escorted Wardrip from the visiting room back to his cell. The prisoner had said nothing until locked up, then, as the officers began walking away, he called out. "Tell that DA guy, John, that I want to talk to him," he said.
"And you better tell him to hurry...before I change my mind."
Since the weekend, Little had found it difficult to share in the excitement that had been vibrating through the district attorney's office. It gnawed at him that it didn't appear they would be able to tie Wardrip to the murder of Ellen Blau.
When the call came from the jail, however, his spirits lifted immediately. He contacted Archer County investigator Smith and urged him to meet him at the jail annex as quickly as possible.
The dejected man escorted into the room where the investigators waited looked nothing like the confident, self-assured person Little had earlier confronted. Wardrip was dressed in the standard-issue white jumpsuit with "Wichita County Jail" stenciled across the back; his hair was uncombed, his shoulders slumped. Several seconds passed before he lifted his head and his eyes met those of the visitor he'd summoned.
"I had a talk with my wife this morning," he said, "and we agreed that I've got to get right with God."
"You tell her what you did, Faryion?" Little asked.
"Naw, I didn't tell her. I couldn't. But she knew." With that his voice broke and tears welled in his eyes. Taking a deep breath and folding his hands, he said, "I'm ready to talk about it."
With a tape recorder and video camera chronicling the conversation, Little said, "OK, Faryion, what I'd like to do is just go back to the beginning...in your own words...and start with the events surrounding December 21 of 1984. This would be in reference to the death of Terry Sims."
Wardrip's fists clinched, then opened. He looked toward the ceiling, then at Little. While specific dates escaped him, he recalled it as a time when he was heavily involved in drugs, a time when his life had become a dysfunctional nightmare. He and his first wife fought constantly. His only escape from the hatred he felt for her was to leave the apartment and take long walks.
It had been, he said, while returning from hours of walking that he had noticed Terry Sims on the porch of the house where she was staying. He had seen several people that evening--total strangers--and had thought about lashing out at them but had managed to restrain his anger until he saw Sims.
"She was at the door," he said. "I went up and forced my way in. I slung her all over the house in a violent rage. Stripped her down. Murdered her."
Wardrip acknowledged stabbing her, but said he didn't "recall all the details." Little stared silently at Wardrip for several seconds. Nine stab wounds to the chest, slash wounds on the arms and hands, blood all over the house, and it's hard to remember?
"OK," he said, "let's move to a time approximately a month later--January 19, 1985," Little said. "Mr. Smith would like to ask you some questions about a case he's investigating."
Silent since Wardrip had entered the room, Paul Smith made no attempt at mock warmth. If John Little was understated and soft-spoken, the good cop in this three-man drama, Smith was the bull-charging, let's-cut-the-nonsense bad cop.
"We're referring to a nurse that worked at General Hospital. Toni Jean Gibbs. Do you remember that?" Smith began.
"Yeah," Wardrip replied, nodding. "Again, I was out walking. Been walking all night and somehow wound up downtown. By the time I started home, it was almost daylight. I was walking up by the hospital, and Toni saw me and asked me if I wanted a ride. I told her 'yeah.'
"When I got in the car I started seeing these images of anger and hatred and started in on her. I told her to just drive. I don't remember which direction we were going. As she was driving I grabbed her and started slinging her around. She swerved off the side of the road and stopped. I had her by her jacket and told her to turn down this little dirt road that went into a field. I was slinging her and screaming at her. Screaming as loud as I could. I finally told her to stop the car, and when she did I took off her clothes and stabbed her."
"Do you remember the weather that day?" Smith asked.
"Cold. It was really cold."
Soon, though, Wardrip's memory became selective. He was able to describe the white Camaro Toni Gibbs had been driving and what she was wearing, even the color of the jacket she'd worn, but he said he had absolutely no recollection of having a weapon with him or of what might have happened to it after he committed the crime. "Probably," he finally said, "it stayed right there."
He had, he said, begun removing her clothing while they were still in the car. "I think she got away from me," he told Smith. "She got out the door and started to run. I think that's how we got out in the field."
Smith's impatience began to show. "Did you have sex with Toni Gibbs?"
"I don't really remember. I just remember screaming at her, screaming that I hated her. I don't remember if I had sex. I just remember screaming and screaming and screaming how much I hated her, how much I hated everybody."
"You said that you knew Toni and she asked if you wanted a ride," Smith said. "How did Toni know you?"
"From the hospital," Wardrip said. "I met her when I worked there. But she never had anything to do with me. I just knew her from there. It could have been anybody. She just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. I never set my sights on anybody.
"I would just get mad and just get out and walk. I'd be in such a rage. I would just scream at the sky, scream at the trees, scream at God. Then, afterwards, I would just lay down for a while and sleep. Then I'd see it on the news, realize that something bad must have happened, and I'd trick myself into believing it wasn't me..."
Wardrip looked at Little, who decided it was again his turn. "I'd like to talk to you about another case I'm investigating," Little said. "About the disappearance and murder of Ellen Blau in September of 1985. Do you know anything about that?"
Little waited, trying not to show his anxiousness, as Wardrip paused for several seconds. Then, he almost whispered his reply:
"Yeah," he said. "Same thing. I was out walking. Just walking."
He described walking by a nearby airbase when he saw a car park in a small store's parking lot. He asked the driver what she was doing, and she said she was looking for someone. "There wasn't nobody around, so I just grabbed her and slung her up against the side of the car and pushed her in. I told her we were going to take a ride."
He described how he'd forced Blau to drive down a road on the outskirts of town, screaming at her, telling her how much he hated her. They turned down a dirt road. "I drug her out of the car, took her in a field, and stripped her clothes off. I don't believe I raped her. And I don't remember how she died. She probably broke her neck, because I sure was slinging her. I was just so mad, so angry."
It was, he insisted, never the victim he was seeing, but instead the face of his first wife. Each time, it was his wife's face he looked into as he committed the crimes.
Little leaned back in his chair and glanced over at Smith to see whether he had additional questions. Smith wearily closed his eyes and shook his head.
"Faryion," Little said, "did you kill Ellen Blau?"
"Yeah. I don't remember how..."
"Did you kill Toni Gibbs?"
"Did you kill Terry Sims?"
And so, in less than an hour, Faryion Wardrip had resolved questions that had, for 14 years, hung over the city of Wichita Falls. Finally, it was over.
Or so Little and Smith thought as they made ready to return the prisoner to the custody of the jailer.
"There's one more," Wardrip said.
With that he began yet another horror story, of the murder of a 26-year-old mother of two named Debra Taylor, as the two investigators sat in stunned silence. "It ain't here," he said. "This one's in Fort Worth. I'd left Wichita Falls and gone there, hoping I could find a job. I was staying at this Travel Lodge that was full of people selling drugs. So I just stayed there, shooting drugs. One night I went to this bar. There was this girl there, and we got friendly and started dancing. She was coming on to me, and after a while we decided to leave.
"We went out into the parking lot around back and I made my advance toward her. She said 'no' and slapped my face. When she done that, I just snapped. I slung her around, and I killed her."
For several minutes Little questioned Wardrip in an attempt to pinpoint the date of the Fort Worth homicide. Wardrip said he could remember only that after he murdered Ellen Blau he had hitchhiked to Fort Worth and while there committed the crime. (In fact, investigators would later find that Wardrip killed Taylor before he killed Blau.)
Smith and Little looked at each other, neither saying a word. Hoping to clear three homicides, they now had confessions to four.
"Will you be willing to cooperate with authorities in Fort Worth to help them with that case?" Little asked.
Wardrip shrugged, then nodded his head. "Yeah. It's all over with now. I've done what God said I should do. I've confessed to my sins."
"Were you promised anything in return for giving me this statement?" Investigator Little was cleaning up the loose ends of the interview.
"Eternal life with God is what I was promised," Wardrip answered. "I was promised that I won't burn in hell. What I've told you is the truth. It's all over. I give up. I can't go no more. You can kill me now; I don't care. I'm tired of living on this earth, tired of the pain and suffering that Satan brings to people." And then, for the first time during the interview, he broke down, slowly rubbing his clinched fists against his temples, moaning.
"Oh my God, what have I done?"
In November 1999, in a Denton courtroom where Wardrip's capital murder trial had been moved on a change of venue, the defendant surprised those awaiting the first day's testimony by ignoring the advice of his public defender, John Curry, and entering a guilty plea to the murder of Terry Sims. In doing so, he had hopscotched the proceedings directly to the sentencing phase. With stern-faced families of Wardrip's victims seated in the gallery, Barry Macha methodically presented the gruesome evidence of each of the long-ago crimes, determined that the trial would not be just about Sims but rather all five of the women whose lives had been so brutally shortened by Wardrip.
Judy Floyd, the forensic lab supervisor at GeneScreen, testified that the blood samples taken from Wardrip and the saliva from his discarded coffee cup matched the semen samples taken from the bodies of Terry Sims and Toni Gibbs. Leaving heads shaking in the courtroom, Floyd said that the frequency of such a match was an arithmetic fantasy: Only one in 3.23 quadrillion--the equal of more than 500 million Earth populations--could have left the sperm found on the victims.
After hearing just five days of testimony, the jury returned with answers to three questions that ensured a death sentence for Wardrip: Yes, it believed he had acted deliberately in causing the death of Terry Sims. Yes, it believed he represented a continuing threat to society. And, no, the jury did not believe there were any mitigating factors that would warrant that he spend his life in prison rather than be put to death.
In the days to come, Wardrip would be shuttled to courtrooms in Archer County (where he pleaded guilty to the death of Toni Gibbs in exchange for a life sentence), Tarrant County (where he admitted his guilt in the murder of Debra Taylor, receiving another life sentence), and finally, with but two days remaining in the year, back to Wichita Falls, where he received a third life sentence for the murder of Ellen Blau.
By stacking the sentences--having them run consecutively--prosecutors ensured that even should the 39-year-old murderer not be executed, he would serve a minimum of 60 years behind bars before becoming eligible for parole.
On New Year's Eve afternoon, 1999, District Attorney Barry Macha sat in his office, pondering the framed photographs of Wardrip's victims hanging on a nearby wall. "It's hard to believe," he mused, "that when this year began we still didn't even know who killed Terry Sims or Toni Gibbs or Ellen Blau. We'd never even heard of Debra Taylor. Yet within a year's time we've gone from an arrest to four convictions."
He breathed an audible sigh and slowly shook his head. "It's amazing," he said. "Absolutely amazing."
"Without DNA," John Little says, "there would never have been a case."
Catie Reid, the youngest sister of Terry Sims, disagrees. "Without John Little there would have been no case," she insists.
A few weeks after the trial she visited the investigator in his office, bringing along a fitting token of her family's appreciation. On an ordinary red brick, a reminder of another time in his life, were inscribed the words, "Our Hero, John Little."
Observer staff writer Carlton Stowers, twice winner of the Mystery Writers of America's Edgar Allan Poe Award, is at work on a book about the Wichita Falls murders. It will be published by St. Martin's Press in 2002.
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