Death Row Granny
The work is painstaking, but Bettie Beets says she likes it. Certainly it beats doing nothing.
Every morning at 7, she and three other women settle down in a big room cozily decorated with craft projects they have completed--doilies, afghans, lap quilts.
For years, Bettie made toddler-sized dolls, with painted faces and black, white, or brown skin. Buyers put their names on a year-long waiting list to get one, for $25. Now she spends six hours a day making quilts.
Bettie and her co-workers earn nothing from their labors; that goes to the Texas Department of Corrections.
At 57, Bettie is the oldest of the four women in the group. She has eight grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. Once bottle blond, her hair is now a soft gray, permed in the prison beauty shop. She wears hearing aids. But her eyes, fitted with blue contact lenses, still can see well enough to sew. She wears a white shirt, white pants, a gold ring, and a tiny gold cross on a chain. Well-groomed, pleasantly plump, and matronly, Bettie Beets looks every bit the East Texas grandma--the kind you might see shopping at Wal-Mart.
Not at all the sort of woman to murder a couple of husbands.
Inside the big room, the four women chat while they work. They've been together nine years now, and conflicts occasionally surface. Bettie says they talk through those, praying to find answers.
But they never, ever talk about why they are there.
When Bettie first arrived at the Mountain View Unit of Gatesville State Prison in October 1985, she says she was convinced she was not in a penitentiary, but in a mental institution--a shadow of her family's past. Her cell was near a treatment center, and at night there were screams and moans, floods and flames. Female inmates brought in for psychiatric care would stop up toilets or sinks and turn the water on to flood the room. One terrible night, a woman set herself on fire.
About six months after her arrival, Bettie and two other inmates were moved to a remodeled area. Each has a private cell; they share a day room. Later, after being joined by a fourth woman, they decided to give their home a new name. It was too depressing to say they lived on Death Row. Now, when their laundry is done, it arrives in a bag marked "Life Row."
"We call it that 'cause Jesus lives here," says Bettie. Every Wednesday, there's Bible study. Bettie spends much of her time reading "anything scriptural," and books about battered women.
Whatever the name, the truth is that Bettie lives in a place where death draws nearer every day.
There are more than 400 inmates on Death Row in Texas. Only four are women. All four--the members of Bettie's sewing circle--are convicted killers.
Pamela Perillo, 39, robbed and strangled a Louisiana man. Karla Faye Tucker, 35, was convicted of the pickax murder of a man in Harris County. Francis Elaine Newton, 29, was sentenced to death for the murder of her husband and two children.
Bettie Beets has not been on Death Row the longest. But her conviction nine years ago in the capital murder of Dallas Fire Department captain Jimmy Don Beets, her fifth husband, has been upheld by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals and is furthest along in its path through the federal court system.
The system follows no hard-and-fast timetable, stretching out Death Row appeals to an average of eight to 10 years. But since Texas reinstated the death penalty in 1982, executions have come more frequently. In 1994, Texas executed 14 prisoners--more than any other state in the nation. In the last 12 years, 85 inmates have been strapped to a gurney and given a lethal injection. So far, Bettie Beets has survived two dates with the executioner.
In interviews with the Dallas Observer, Bettie insists she was wrongly convicted, that she killed no one. She says her defense attorney was motivated by greed to botch her defense so that he could cash in from the sale of media rights to her story.
Appellate attorneys have filed documents contending that her lawyer failed to introduce evidence that Bettie suffered from battered wife syndrome, post-traumatic stress disorder, and organic brain damage--that she is herself a victim of a life filled with poverty, violence, and sexual abuse.
And they contend that her attorney negligently failed to challenge the most bitter fact about her case: the testimony of her own children, who described how their mother methodically planned and carried out two murders. Bettie says her son and daughter lied, putting their mother on Death Row in exchange for a prosecutor's promise to let them go free.
Bettie's lawyer now is trying to convince the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals that she deserves a new trial. If that fails, Bettie Lou Beets could become the first woman the state of Texas has ever executed.
Fishermen found the boat adrift on Cedar Creek Lake, about 60 miles southeast of Dallas, on the evening of August 6, 1983. The propeller of the green-and-white Glastron was missing, and nitroglycerin pills were spilled across the bottom of the boat.
But no one was aboard. It appeared the passenger had been working on the engine, suffered a heart attack, and in the frenzy of trying to swallow the medication, had fallen over the side and drowned.
The fishermen towed the boat to the Redwood Marina near Seven Points. On board, they found a fishing license in the name of Jimmy Don Beets, a 45-year-old Dallas fire department captain who lived at the lake on the days he wasn't commanding the No. 9 station in southeast Dallas.
Beets had lived for years on Cedar Creek Lake, site of expensive lake homes as well as more middle-class subdivisions, making it a popular getaway for Dallasites. It's where his parents had bought a mobile home when his father retired.
Jimmy Don spent his off hours puttering around the house, helping his neighbors, and hunting and fishing. Jimmy Don was aiming for retirement in 1987. That meant a comfortable pension, and the day when he could do anything he wanted with his time.
The owner of the marina, Lil Smith, called Beets' home several times. Finally, about 9 p.m., she reached a woman who identified herself as Bettie, Captain Beets' wife.
Bettie said she had been shopping in Dallas all day. When she got home, she had started working in her yard planting flowers, so she hadn't heard the phone.
Friends drove Bettie to the marina about 10 p.m. She was wearing clean jeans, and her face was carefully made up. She told Smith that her husband had gone out fishing the night before and hadn't returned home. She had notified the Henderson County Sheriff's Department at 8 that morning, she said, and filed a missing-person report.
Bettie seemed upset that her husband of one year was missing. But to Smith, whose own husband had drowned a few years before, it seemed she was holding up unusually well. There were no tears.
By then, the sun had dropped and the wind began to whip across the lake. No search for the missing Beets could be mounted until morning.
Daylight brought hundreds of volunteers, many from the fire stations of Dallas, to look for Beets' body. A fire department deputy chief set up a command post and drew a grid map of the lake. Under the coordination of the Coast Guard, people piled into boats to search the area where Jimmie Don's boat was found. The media from North Texas descended with camera crews and satellite trucks.
Jamie Beets woke up that dawn at his home in Balch Springs to find his aunt, Bettie Henderson, leaning over him. "Get up and get dressed," she said. "They think your dad has drowned."
Jamie thought it was a joke. His father--strong, fit, an outdoorsman--drown? Impossible.
Jimmy Don Beets was a brawny man. At 5-foot-11, he weighed about 235 pounds. Beets had thick black hair and arms as big as his grown son's thighs.
The fire captain was well-known and liked in the Cedar Creek area. But it had been months since Jamie, 25, had seen his dad. In fact, they hadn't spoken to each other in almost six months.
Jamie raced to Cedar Creek, arriving at the public boat ramp on Chamber Isle about 8 a.m. There were more than 100 boats on the lake. A few helicopters and small planes had joined in. A bass fishing tournament was going on; the participants had been enlisted to help. Though only a few hours into the search, the Red Cross had set up a recreational vehicle to feed the hundreds of volunteers.
The game warden and a deputy sheriff took Jamie to his father's boat and asked him to look it over. Did anything seem strange or out of place?
In shock, Jamie studied the Glastron, his father's pride and joy. Jimmy Don had traded for the 19-foot inboard-outboard. Though used, it was in perfect condition. During the good times, Jamie often had gone fishing with his father; he knew his fastidious habits. Jamie took in the scattered pills, the missing propeller, and knew something was very wrong.
His father was extremely safety-conscious. He'd taught Jamie that the first item to put in the boat before taking it out was the CB radio. But it wasn't there.
After the CB, his dad drilled him to put his billfold in the boat, so he'd have identification if necessary. There was no billfold. The wrong pair of glasses. No checkbook.
And the propeller--how could it be gone? His father needed a tool to take the propeller off, and it was still in the bottom of the tool box. Could he have had a heart attack while taking off the propeller, put the tool back, then fallen overboard?
The final straw was the nitroglycerin pills scattered on the bottom of the boat. Jimmy Don had indeed had a heart attack about five years before while pouring a concrete sidewalk for a blind neighbor. But after a year's leave of absence from the fire department, he'd been cleared to return to active duty, and hadn't taken the medication in at least two years.
Jamie was convinced that his father had not been in the boat. "Bettie knows something about this," he insisted to several firemen assisting in the search.
Calm down, they told him. "Don't let your imagination run away with you."
Someone drove Jamie to his grandparents' house a few miles away to give him time to compose himself. He returned to the dock about 5 p.m. It was muggy and hot--at least 100 degrees. Jamie watched as boats crisscrossed the area. He turned and saw his father's red and white Silverado pickup truck bouncing across the bridge. He felt a flood of relief.
But it was short-lived. The pickup stopped, and Bettie stepped out.
"Have you found anything?" Bettie asked several officials. To Jamie, she seemed nonchalant.
A friend in the Coast Guard saw Jamie's anger and hustled him into a boat to help the searchers find his dad's favorite fishing holes.
On August 8--just two days after Jimmy Don's disappearance--Jamie heard that Bettie had gone to the fire department to pick up his paycheck. Jamie visited Bill Manning, an attorney in Gun Barrel City. Manning had used his personal airplane to help search for Jimmy Don.
Jamie was adamant that his father couldn't have drowned--that Bettie had something to do with his disappearance. He asked Manning to tie up his father's assets to keep Bettie from getting them--at least until they knew what had happened.
"I thought it was a fantasy of a grieving son," the lawyer recalls. "He seemed motivated by his dislike of Bettie." Manning knew something of Jamie's troubled past--his problems with drinking, drugs, and his disputes with his father. "Don't you think your emotions are running away with you?" Manning asked.
Bill Bandy, the Henderson County district attorney, was also skeptical. He had no probable cause for a search warrant, no evidence of foul play. That seemed to agitate Jamie even more. No one--his aunt, his wife, his friends, the police, even his own attorney--took his suspicions seriously.
Bettie seemed resigned to the fact that her husband had drowned. Though his body had not been found, two days after he disappeared, Bettie went to a Seagoville funeral home, where she picked out a casket and burial plot.
"I need to touch you," the psychic told Jamie.
They were riding in a Coast Guard boat as it slowly cruised the shoreline of Cedar Creek lake. Reluctantly, Jamie extended his hand.
The short matronly woman with coal black hair closed her eyes and began gently rocking back and forth.
Jamie was edgy and skeptical, but willing to try anything. Back at the Red Cross mobile home, the grandmotherly psychic from Georgia, after stroking a framed picture of his father, had experienced a vision. "Your daddy is buried somewhere near a castle," she said softly. "He has sand on his face."
The massive search for Beets' body had been going on for more than a week, making front-page news across the state. Dallas psychic John Catchings had been brought in after the boats, planes, and helicopters failed to turn up anything. Catchings told authorities he "saw" Beets clutching his shoulder and falling into the water after a heart attack. But his powers failed to lead searchers to a body.
The Henderson County Sheriff's Depart-ment then brought in the second psychic. After she had her vision, a Coast Guard officer asked Jamie and the psychic to get in a boat to look for any structure along the shoreline resembling a castle. Evening was coming on; the hot August day was cooling off. As the boat cruised slowly, the psychic turned to Jamie.
"I need to touch you to get a better vision of your daddy," she said. "Just let me hold your hand."
Reluctantly, he complied. The psychic closed her eyes and began talking about Jamie being thrown from a horse when he was small, growing up torn between two parents, about his volatile relationship with his father.
It was all true.
Jamie felt panicked. Take him back to the shore, he demanded--"or I'm jumping out." They found no "castle" that day.
The official search was called off after 13 days. But Jamie remained convinced that something terrible had happened to his father--something that meant he would never have a chance to make his peace with Jimmy Don.
To Charlene Pullen, Jimmy Don Beets' first wife, it seemed like the fire station was his real home--and the other firefighters his real family. "He was more true to them," she says, "than he was to us."
After joining the Dallas Fire Department in 1957, Beets toiled his way from first driver to captain. One of the only times Jimmy Don ever missed his shift was on Christmas Eve in 1957, when Charlene went into labor, and he took her to the hospital. Jamie was born an hour after they arrived.
In the years after Jamie's birth, another son was born but lived only five hours; a few years after that, a daughter was stillborn, leaving Charlene deeply depressed.
Jimmy Don began drinking heavily after work. Over the years, the arguments over his drinking escalated, and one day, he simply didn't come home. The couple divorced in 1968, when Jamie was nine. "Jamie took the divorce hard," says Charlene. "He felt it was his fault."
Jamie lived with his mother until he was 12, then moved in with his dad, who in 1967 had married a robust, cheerful woman named Suzy. But as Jamie grew into a young adult, father and son frequently fought. Jimmy Don didn't like his son's hair, his recreational drug use, or Jamie's refusal to keep a job and be responsible for his own wife and two small children.
When Jamie was arrested for possession of THC while a teenager, his dad bailed him out--though only after making him sit in jail for five days. Later, Jimmy Don made sure his son's family didn't go hungry when Jamie couldn't get a job as a carpenter. But no matter how hard they tried, the two just couldn't seem to get along.
In the early '80s, it appeared to Jamie that his father was frightened, scared of growing old alone. Jimmy Don and his second wife Suzy had divorced, then remarried, then divorced again in 1981. Jimmy Don next married a woman he'd known only a few weeks; that marriage lasted less than a year.
Then, in the summer of 1982 at The Cedar Club in the lake town of Seven Points, Jimmy Don met the woman who would become his fourth wife: Bettie Lou Barker.
Bettie, a slim, attractive woman in her mid-40s, tended bar. They quickly became inseparable.
In the rough-and-tumble world of the private clubs and bars around the lake, Bettie seemed out of place. Friendly, soft-spoken, always conservatively dressed, she was not the prototypical barmaid. A hard worker, she dreamed of buying her own club one day.
The suddenness of the relationship surprised Jimmy Don's ex-wife Suzy. The two had begun dating each other again when Jimmy Don abruptly turned up with Bettie. Still, when Suzy saw them around town, always together, it seemed that Jimmy Don and Bettie were very much in love. Says Suzy: "I think she really cared for him, and he did for her."
On a weekend during the summer of 1982, Jimmy Don brought Bettie to meet his son.
He told Jamie the big news: they were planning to get married. Though Jamie didn't know it at the time, Jimmy Don would be Bettie's seventh marriage--and fifth husband.
Jamie instantly disliked Bettie. There was something about her that seemed manipulative--and hard. When they were alone, with characteristic bluntness, Jamie, then 24, told his father just what he thought.
Jimmy Don was furious. "I love her," he declared.
Not long after that exchange, on August 19, 1982, they were married at the courthouse in Kaufman County. Bettie Lou Barker became Bettie Beets.
Jimmy Don owned a three-bedroom lake house in a subdivision called Glen Oaks. By doubling up on the payments, he owned the house free and clear. It was his own little piece of heaven--the place where he planned to retire.
But even before the wedding, Jimmy Don already had moved into Bettie's place, a two-bedroom mobile home tucked away in a grove of cedar trees about 50 feet from the water in Cherokee Shores. Bettie had added a redwood deck and surrounded the place with flowers. Jimmy Don docked his boat in the rear of the lot, on an inlet to the lake.
Not long after their marriage, Jimmy Don asked Jamie to come over. His new wife thought that, to make Jamie grow up, he had to cut off the generous support he had given him over the years. Jamie and his family could live in Jimmy Don's lake house, but "the only thing I want to do with you is to see my grandchildren," he told his son.
For the rest of the year, Jamie saw little of his father. For Christmas, he took his wife and their two small children to her mother's home in Celina. Four days later, a neighbor child called them there to report that his dad's lake house, filled with all their possessions, had burned down. Jimmy Don had been on duty in Dallas when it happened.
With everything destroyed, Jamie and his wife moved in with her mother. In early 1983, Jamie met at Bettie's house with his father, who gave him $850 of the insurance settlement to replace the possessions they had lost in the fire. He was rebuilding the house with the rest. "I'd give you more, but Bettie says I need to take out everything you owe me from the past," his father told Jamie. Jamie owed him $3,000; Jimmy Don considered that debt paid.
Jamie tried to hug his father. "I love you," he told Jimmy Don. But his father pushed him away. "All I care about," he told his son, "is seeing my grandchildren."
By August 1983, Jamie and his wife had gotten back on their feet. Jamie was working in the air conditioning and heating business during the day and as a bartender at night; he'd bought a new mobile home and a new car.
He dreamed that his show of responsibility would help him to mend fences with his dad.
But he never got the chance.
Through the glass par-tition in the visitors' room of the state prison in Gatesville, Bettie Lou Beets offers an easy, slightly nervous smile.
Her voice is low and pleasant, as she earnestly presents the saga of Bettie Lou Dunevant, the "good little girl" from Newport News, Virginia.
For years, many of her childhood memories were blocked, she says, brought back only a few years ago when a lawyer assigned to her appeal came to visit. As the attorney began to ask Bettie questions, memories came trickling back. "I didn't know until a few years ago who Bettie was and what Bettie had missed and what Bettie's life could have been like if I'd had some help," she says bitterly.
Bettie was born in March 1937, in a pine cabin in North Carolina where her parents, Louise and James Dunevant, were sharecroppers on a tobacco farm. There was no electricity, no running water, no indoor plumbing, no glass in the windows. There was little to eat but salt pork and corn.
When Bettie was five, her parents moved to Newport News to work in the cotton mills. That year, Bettie contracted measles; the resulting high fever and ear infections produced profound hearing loss.
Bettie's mother was a quiet woman who kept an immaculate home, decorated with beautiful drapes and hand-made doilies. But when Bettie was about 13, her mother suffered a psychotic breakdown. Severe depression and hallucinations put her in and out of the state hospital for years, according to court records.
While her mother was hospitalized, Bettie says, she cooked, cleaned house and cared for her two younger siblings. She says her father drank heavily and hit her. "I grew up doing everything I was told to do. I learned that if you didn't, you got hurt." She says other children taunted her, telling her that her mother was crazy--and that she would end up that way too.
Louise Dunevant returned to her family when Bettie was 14. A year later, in the late spring of 1952, desperate to get away from home, Bettie dropped out of the ninth grade to marry Robert Branson, a local boy with olive skin and black wavy hair. He was 18 and worked at a zipper factory. She was 15.
Branson went to work in the shipyard. In 1956, the first of their six children, Faye, was born. But their marriage was stormy. He asked for a divorce. During a six-month separation, Bettie says, she twice attempted suicide.
The two reconciled, and had a second child, Connie. By then, they'd moved to Mesquite, and Robert found a job as a welder. Shirley, Phyllis, Robert II (Robby), and Bobby followed. There were happy times: family vacations, outings to the zoo, Easter egg hunts, Thanksgiving dinners.
But her husband, Bettie claims in court records and interviews, was mentally and physically abusive. She says he was so jealous and possessive that he didn't want her to work or leave the house, driving her to attempt suicide a third time. The marriage finally ended in December 1969, after 17 years, when Bettie filed for divorce, accusing Branson of cruel treatment. (Branson did not return phone calls.)
Affidavits filed by her children describe the divorce as a turning point in Bettie's life. Still just 32, she had few skills and only a ninth-grade education; that, combined with her hearing problem, made it difficult to find a good job. Branson fell behind on child-support payments for the six kids. "I remember after the divorce she would cry a lot and say how she loved daddy," said Connie. "She was never really happy with anybody after that.''
The family began to disintegrate. Bettie started drinking heavily, going out to clubs at night and ignoring her children. At 15, Faye married and moved out. Bettie sent Robby and Phyllis to live with their father and his new wife. Connie went to live with sister Faye. The youngest child, Bobby, stayed with his mother; Shirley moved in and out.
In 1970, Bettie married Bill Lane, a house painter. Family members portray Lane as physically abusive, beating Bettie and threatening her with guns. The two divorced only months after their marriage. But they couldn't stay apart.
On January 17, 1972, Dallas County sheriff's deputies were called to Bettie's apartment in Hutchins at 1:45 a.m. They found Lane lying face down in the yard behind the building. He was taken to Parkland Hospital in critical condition with two gunshot wounds in the back.
Bettie told investigators Lane had "run her out" of the Roundup Club on Industrial Boulevard earlier that night and threatened to come by her house and hurt her. After she went home to bed, she said, Lane began banging at the back door of her apartment, then broke the door down. That's when, Bettie said, she fetched her .22-caliber pistol from a china cabinet and shot "until she didn't see him anymore."
Lane told deputies a different story--that it was Bettie who summoned him to the apartment, asking to talk, and that when he arrived, the back door was dark. "I asked her to turn a light on, and she said that she had decided not to talk to me and to get out of here," Lane told investigators. "I started backing out the door and she stuck a gun against my back and fired one time.
"This didn't seem to faze me, but then she fired again, and it paralyzed me and I fell off the porch to the ground. I then remember her saying not to move, that if I did she would shoot again."
Bettie was charged with "assault with intention to commit murder with malice." But the charges were dropped to a misdemeanor aggravated assault a few months later when Lane signed an affidavit saying he was at fault. He paid Bettie's $100 fine and $50 court costs. The judge gave her back her pistol.
Not long after the incident, the two re-married--then divorced again, in September 1973. She packed up Shirley and Bobby and moved several times, eventually landing in Little Rock, Arkansas, where she went to work at a convenience store.
Bettie was at a country-western club in Little Rock when she met a salesman named Ronnie Threlkeld. He saw a shapely, attractive blond nursing a drink at a table, refusing all the men who asked her to dance. "She was a little blond fox," recalled Threlkeld, in a recent interview.
Threlkeld persuaded her to dance, assuring her he wasn't like all the others. That night, he went home with Bettie and stayed. She was 39; Threlkeld was 36. "She wanted you to like her," Threlkeld says.
In fact, Bettie often raged that people didn't love her enough--that her children and men were always taking advantage of her. After one argument, Bettie slashed all four tires on Threlkeld's car. Another night, she came after him in a bar with a tire iron. Recalls Threlkeld: "She was a hellcat. Nobody messed with her."
Today, Bettie accuses Threlkeld of beating and choking her; an affidavit from her son Bobby backs up her claims. Threlkeld says he did nothing more than slap her once during an argument. Yet the two lived together off and on for two years. When Bettie moved back to Dallas to be closer to her children, he followed. They were married in February 1978.
Bettie's stormy relationship with her four daughters--Faye, Connie, Phyllis and Shirley--made the marriage difficult. "The most anger I ever heard from her was about those girls," says Threlkeld. She complained that they were always getting into trouble and asking for money. But the biggest problem, says Threlkeld, was that "she seemed to think they were a threat."
Their relationship ended one night in Dallas after she accused her husband of sleeping with one of her daughters, who was living with them at the time. Threlkeld says he was having a drink when the teenage daughter appeared in the kitchen and dropped her robe--and that Bettie then walked in the room. Though he swore there was nothing going on between them, Bettie refused to believe it.
The next day, Threlkeld says, he was loading his belongings in his car when Bettie tried to run him over; he managed to dodge between two cars as his wife roared past. (Bettie insists Threlkeld tried to ram her car.) Threlkeld returned to Little Rock.
Beginning in the late '70s, it seemed to Bobby, Bettie's youngest child, that his mother was developing two different personalities. Bettie drank and gobbled diet pills, but the transformation didn't take place when she was drunk. And it was more than being in a bad mood--more like Dr. Jekyll and Mrs. Hyde. "One minute we got along real well, and the next thing you know she was different," Bobby later recalled in an affidavit. "It was like she got hateful all of a sudden."
After Threlkeld left Bettie and returned to Little Rock, she called to advise him that she had filed for divorce and was going to marry a man who was good to her--a construction worker named Doyle Wayne Barker. They tied the knot in October 1978 and moved to Cedar Creek Lake, where Bettie had bought a lot, purchased a nice mobile home, and found work as a bartender and waitress.
"Bettie would always call me when she got married," recalled her mother, Louise Dunevant, in an affidavit. "Every one of them was just what she had been looking for."
Repeating the pattern, Bettie divorced Barker in July 1980, then remarried him in July 1981; once again, she claimed her husband beat her. "I never understood how someone could remarry the very person who beat you up so bad, just months before," Mrs. Dunevant said. "It was really sad."
Faye's husband, Leon, remembered seeing his mother-in-law on several occasions with black eyes, bruises up and down her arms, and split lips. "I'd ask her what the hell happened and she'd tell me Wayne did it," Leon said in an affidavit.
Bettie threatened to leave, but never did. It was as though she were addicted to the abuse. She would deal with the problem in her own way.
One day in 1981, Leon saw Bettie after an especially bad beating: Both her eyes were black, there were choke marks on her neck, and her arms were covered with bruises. Leon and Faye took pictures. Bettie talked about pressing charges.
But it wasn't necessary. Barker dropped out of sight.
Bettie explained that after yet another beating, he had walked out, saying he was going to get some cigarettes--and never returned. He even left his new pickup truck in the driveway.
Bettie's husband had simply vanished.
At night, dreams about his father toppling into water jarred Jamie Beets awake.
Jamie Beets was obsessed. In the weeks after his father's disappearance, he couldn't work, couldn't sleep, couldn't talk about anything else. He had to find out what had happened.
Jamie was certain his stepmother, Bettie, knew something. But the sheriff's department dismissed the notion of foul play. They thought Jamie was losing touch with reality, haunted by his failure to reconcile with his dad.
A month after the empty boat was found, Jamie moved some of his belongings into his dad's lake house, which had been rebuilt after the fire. Though the house was legally Bettie's--certainly for as long as Jimmy Don was officially missing, rather than declared dead; possibly for as long as she lived--he was intent on keeping her from claiming it.
Jamie began driving back and forth from his Dallas home, trying to make it appear that he was living in the Cedar Creek house. In late October, he returned home to Dallas to find a note. His wife had left him.
Jamie and Bettie then began a guerrilla war over Jimmy Don's house. One night, he returned to Cedar Creek to find that Bettie had thrown his belongings into the yard and moved some of her things in. Jamie returned the favor and had the locks changed. She tried to sell it for $42,000; he called the title company and blocked the sale.
In January 1984, Jamie took a job at The Western Club, a giant country-and-western club near Cedar Creek Lake where big stars often played, tending bar and helping with the sound system. It was a place for lakeside gossip; Jamie hoped he could pick up some tips that might unravel the mystery of his father's disappearance.
Several times a week, he went to his attorney's office with rumors he had picked up tending bar. One day, he came in with the news that Bettie's fourth husband, Doyle Wayne Barker, had also disappeared.
Not long after that, the manager of the Western Club hired a new waitress: Bettie Beets. Jamie confronted her, telling her he knew she had something to do with his father's disappearance, that he was going to find out what really happened.
That night, Jamie was at the lakehouse when he heard someone outside. He found a four-foot stick wrapped with a gas-soaked rag in the front window of his truck, ready for someone to light it. Gun in hand, Jamie chased two men away from the truck into the woods; he lost them in a neighboring subdivision.
The next day, the manager of the Western Club, a friend of Bettie, told him he was fired.
By then, Bettie was living with a new boyfriend--Ray Bone, a handsome, muscular man with blond hair and blue eyes. Bone was on parole for manslaughter.
One day during the early summer, Jamie went to Dallas for the day. He came back to discover that his father's house had, once again, been set on fire.
The blaze had begun on the bed in the master bedroom, stoked with a pile of his father's files that had been soaked in coal oil before being lit.
State fire investigator Gil Harper, called in to investigate both blazes, summoned Jamie in July to meet with him at a local restaurant. Harper had startling news: several witnesses said they had seen Bettie Beets enter and leave the house before each of the fires began. But DA Bandy still didn't believe there was enough evidence to file charges.
Anguished and frustrated, Jamie hit bottom. He started using drugs again--"everything I could find except heroin." He couldn't hold a job for long. He began dreaming of revenge against Bettie, fantasizing about elaborate, sadistic schemes to make her suffer.
In January 1985, Jamie--completely sober, for a change--was driving home when a 78-year-old man in a Ford Pinto slammed into his car head-on. The old man was killed; Jamie suffered nothing more serious than a broken kneecap. The accident put Jamie's leg in a cast from thigh to ankle for five months. He moved in with his mother in Longview, his monomaniacal pursuit of Bettie abruptly suspended until he healed.
A year after Jimmy Don's disappearance, Bettie sold his boat for $3,250, using a forged power of attorney. Then, in March 1985, her attorney, E. Ray Andrews, persuaded a Henderson County judge to sign an order declaring Jimmy Don Beets dead--and naming Bettie as administrator of his estate.
Andrews was trying to collect fire insurance benefits on Beets' house for Bettie too, but the insurance company was balking because of the arson investigation. Finally he retained a Dallas law firm to petition the Dallas Fire and Police Pension Board to pay Bettie a widow's pension, about $790 a month, plus Beets' back pay and life insurance benefits--worth a total of about $180,000.
The board was scheduled to meet on June 13, 1985, to approve the claim.
It seemed that Jimmy Don Beets' disappearance would remain a mystery forever.
When they heard what the dirtball they'd picked up had to say, the two Henderson County investigators, Rick Rose and Mike O'Brien, raced to the department's file on the disappearance of Jimmy Don Beets.
Rose, then a patrol deputy, had participated in the search of the lake when the Dallas fire captain had disappeared. That was almost two years earlier--but there was little in the file except the missing-person reports and a note from someone who swore he'd seen Jimmy Don at an Ennis truck stop.
Now it was late April 1985, and Rose had arrested a local small-time troublemaker, who had asked for leniency in exchange for information on another crime. Rose had dealt with the man before as a confidential informant. His tips had always been reliable.
But after hearing this story, he and O'Brien insisted the man take a polygraph. Hooked up to a lie detector, the informant repeated his account.
He'd gone to a motel with a woman named Bettie Beets. Both of them were drunk, and after they had sex, she made a comment that stunned him. "We're laying up here fucking and having fun," Bettie said. "You wouldn't think it was so funny if you knew that the last son-of-a-bitch I laid up with I buried in the front yard."
The polygraph indicated he was telling the truth.
The investigators realized no one had ever investigated the case--or even really questioned Bettie. Still they needed more to get a search warrant. They located one of Bettie's daughters, Phyllis Coleman, in Dallas, and asked a Dallas homicide investigator to talk to her.
Confronted by the detective, Phyllis squawked: she had heard from her younger brother Robby that her mother had killed Jimmy Don--and buried him in the yard.
But that wasn't all. While Phyllis and Shirley were drinking one night, Shirley blurted out that their mother had killed and buried her fourth husband, Doyle Wayne Barker, as well. What's more, Phyllis told the detective, Bettie hadn't done it alone: Robby and Shirley had helped with the murders.
The Henderson County investigators spent six weeks questioning friends, neighbors, and Bettie's lover, Ray Bone. But Robby and Shirley refused to talk.
On June 8, Henderson County sheriffs had Bettie Lou Beets arrested in Mansfield with Ray Bone. Bettie was charged with two counts of murder. Her bond was set at $1 million.
After the arrest, O'Brien obtained a search warrant, then asked a deputy to fetch Bettie from her cell.
"I'm going to look for Jimmy Don's body in your yard," O'Brien told her.
"Jimmy Don drowned," Bettie told him in a sad voice.
"After that, I'm going to look for Doyle Wayne Barker's body," O'Brien said. "Do you want to go with me? You can keep me from digging up the whole yard."
Bettie's sweet, doleful manner changed. "She gave me the meanest, coldest look I've ever seen," O'Brien recalls.
"I want my lawyer," was all Bettie Beets said.
Leading a squadron of cops to Cherokee Shores, O'Brien cordoned off the street around Bettie's lot, then directed a backhoe onto the tidy yard. He ordered the backhoe operator to knock over the ornamental wishing well in front of the porch. Jimmy Don had built the brick-and-wood planter--a cube about four feet square and four feet tall--just days before his disappearance, and Bettie had filled it with peat moss and flowers.
Was this the "castle" the psychic had seen?
Even though it was almost 6 p.m., the heat was sweltering. As the backhoe retreated, the scene grew tense. O'Brien began digging through a foot of soil, peat moss, and plants.
He quickly found a blue sleeping bag--and opened it. The smell staggered him; he could see part of a skull. If his information was accurate, it was Jimmy Don Beets. His decaying body had lain only 30 feet from Bettie's front door for almost two years. He had built his own grave.
After summoning the Dallas Medical Examiner's office, O'Brien directed the backhoe to the rear of the lot. The backhoe knocked over a shed that Jimmy Don had built. An indented area was immediately visible. Three feet down, O'Brien found bits of blue canvas and green plastic.
Another sleeping bag. And another body.
"What the hell is going on?" Jamie Beets asked, after passing the crowd of police cars, TV-news vans, and helicopters surrounding Bettie's property.
A friend who owned a motorcycle had come to take Jamie to his grandparents' home near Cedar Creek Lake. The cast had just come off his leg a few weeks earlier, and Jamie had been lying low, contemplating fresh ways to ensnare his stepmother.
Two days earlier, there had been a fire at Bettie's mobile home. Fire investigators had determined that it was arson; diesel fuel had been dripped throughout the trailer. And Bettie was blaming it all on Jamie.
But now, as they pulled up to his grandparents' home, he found his entire family waiting to explain the scene he had noticed on the way over.
"Jamie, they found two bodies at Bettie Beets' house," his mother told him. "They think one of them is your daddy."
For two months, 48-year-old Bettie Lou Beets and her 26-year-old daughter, Shirley Stegner, shared adjoining cells in the Henderson County jail in Athens.
Shirley had been arrested at her home in Balch Springs the day after the bodies were found, only hours after returning from a second honeymoon. She was charged with two counts of murder. Her bail was also set at $1 million.
The media attention started a procession of the curious to Bettie's lot. "Every time we would walk by their place, my dog would run straight to that wishing well and stand there and bark," one neighbor told a reporter. "I guess he knew something we didn't."
Concerned that Bettie's third husband might also have met an untoward end, sheriff's deputies tracked down Ronald Threlkeld in Little Rock. Threlkeld was shocked, but thought back to the day his "little blond fox" had aimed her car at him. "I felt lucky to be alive," he says.
O'Brien soon discovered that Bettie had attempted to take out a $10,000 insurance policy on Jimmy Don's life in May 1983, just three months before his death. Bettie had given her daughter Faye's mailing address for the premium notices. But a relative of Jimmy Don who worked at the insurance agency, curious about the unfamiliar address and signature, had taken the policy back to the fire captain, who ordered it canceled.
Though Bettie contended that she had thought the policy form was for a credit card, the DA now felt he had a motive for the murder: Beets' insurance and pension benefits. He upgraded one charge against Bettie to capital murder.
Mother and daughter both told the grand jury they knew nothing about the deaths of the two men buried in Bettie's yard.
After years of battling a drug problem, Shirley was struggling to get her life together. She was working as a management trainee at a Mesquite Taco Bell.
One morning, her father, Robert Branson, came with his wife to speak privately to Shirley. When she returned to her cell, she began changing clothes.
"Where are you going?" Bettie asked.
"I'm going home," Shirley told her mother.
The East Texas town of Athens (pop. 10,000) is known for its annual Black-Eyed Pea Jamboree and as the place where the hamburger was invented in the 1880s.
But the October 1985 capital-murder trial of Bettie Lou Beets was the biggest event in its history.
Reporters from across the nation descended, setting up satellite trucks and interviewing everyone in sight. Neighbors told stories of a hot-tempered woman who threw hatchets and knives at a target tacked to a tree in her yard--and shot dead a neighborhood dog who had molested her poodle. Then there was her 1980 arrest for lewd conduct. O'Brien found a police report that revealed Bettie had been auditioning at a Dallas topless bar called Charlie's Angels when one of her pasties fell off. Bettie was arrested after she invited an undercover vice officer to put it back on. She pled guilty to a misdemeanor and received one year's probation.
With residents jockeying for seats in the courtroom, the trial finally got under way. E. Ray Andrews, Athens' best-known criminal attorney, was representing Bettie. Known locally as a genial rogue, Andrews was a witty, gregarious country lawyer. His cornpone approach hid an effective legal talent--at least when he wasn't drinking.
Forensics experts had identified Jimmy Don's badly decomposed body with dental records. An autopsy indicated he'd been shot twice--once in the torso and once in the back of the head--probably while in bed. Two bullets had been found in the sleeping bag. The murder weapon was a .38-caliber handgun--much like the .38 Colt Special found in Bettie's mobile home.
Jimmy Don's skull was brought into the courtroom in a box to show the wound in the back of his head. Barker had been shot in the head with a similar weapon.
But the most shocking testimony was that of Bettie's children.
After she agreed to testify against her mother, Shirley's bond had been lowered from $1 million to $5,000. She and Robby painted a picture of young adults who simultaneously loved and feared their mother.
Robby had come to live with his mother and Jimmy Don right after he turned 17, following years of separation and his arrest on a burglary charge in Corsicana. Robby and his stepfather got along well until the summer of 1983, when Bettie and Jimmy Don returned from a Virginia vacation to find that Robby had messed up the house and Jimmy Don's boat.
Nervously chewing gum, Robby told the packed courtroom how his mother had brought him into her plan. At about 9 p.m. on the night of August 5, 1983, Bettie calmly informed her son in the kitchen that she was going to murder Jimmy Don that night.
Bettie sent Robby out of the house; she didn't want him to be around when she did the deed. Robby climbed on his motorcycle and drove around the lake aimlessly, returning to his mother's place about midnight.
In the living room, he found Bettie, who quietly told him she had taken care of Jimmy Don. Robby walked to the back of the trailer, and there, near the back door, was a large shape encased in a blue sleeping bag.
Bettie asked him to help drag the body to the empty wishing-well planter. Robby and Jimmy Don had recently built it together, at Bettie's request.
They dumped the body in the planter. Bettie spent much of the rest of the evening cleaning house and doing laundry.
The next day, after a shopping trip to Dallas with Robby and Bobby, Bettie began putting flowers in the planter, which she had filled with peat moss. Then she put her cover story into place. Bettie told Robby to take Jimmy Don's boat out into the lake and set it adrift, after making it look as if Beets had drowned.
Robby drove the boat out, removed the propeller, and scattered the heart pills Bettie had given him. Then he swam back to Big Chief landing, where his mother picked him up on the bridge and drove him home.
Robby testified that he had liked Jimmy Don, but didn't go to the authorities because he cared about his mother and had to protect her.
On cross-examination, Andrews charged that Robby, not Bettie, had killed Jimmy Don, in an argument over his use of the boat--and that Bettie covered it up out of love for her son, who was on six years' probation.
"She always been good to you?" Andrews asked.
"Up until now," Robby said.
"What has she done to you now?"
"She's lying now, saying that I killed him when she killed him."
Shirley took the witness stand next. She testified that Bettie had called her to talk one evening about midnight in August 1983. Sounding upset, Bettie told Shirley she planned to kill her husband. Shirley says she was shocked. "I cared very much for Jimmy Don Beets," she testified. "He was the best stepfather that I'd ever had."
Shirley and her husband arrived at Bettie's house that night at 2 a.m. Her mother said she had "everything taken care of," that Shirley could go home.
Several weeks later, Shirley went down to the lake to see her mother. Flowers were growing in the new wishing well. Bettie explained that she and Robby had buried Jimmy Don in the planter.
Why hadn't she called the police--or warned Jimmy Don? Andrews demanded.
"I was afraid of my mother," Shirley said.
Though Andrews fought to bar any mention of Barker's death, for which Bettie was not on trial, the jury heard that she had offered her daughter a similar revelation two years before Jimmy Don's murder. In October 1981, Shirley, then 22, was sitting at a campfire outside her mother's home when Bettie explained that she was fed up with Barker. But there was a problem with them splitting up: the mobile home was in his name; if they divorced, she would have no place to live.
"She told me that she was going to kill him [Barker] because he had beat her so many times, and she couldn't stand it anymore and that she didn't want him around," Shirley testified. As mother and daughter drank White Russians around the campfire, Bettie confided that she was going to shoot Barker after he fell asleep.
A few days later, Bettie brought Bobby to Shirley's house to spend the night. The next morning, Shirley testified, "she told me that it was all over with, that she'd done what she intended to do...that after he had gone to sleep, that she took the gun and covered it with a pillow and put it to his head and fired the gun and the pillow interfered with the trigger on the gun...She thought the noise would awaken Wayne, so she hesitated for a minute and then recocked the gun and fired again."
Bettie took her daughter to the back bedroom of her mobile home. There, lying on the floor of the closet, was a large shape wrapped in plastic and covered with a blue sleeping bag.
Afraid of what would happen to her mother, Shirley volunteered to help her dispose of the body. After dark, the two women dragged Barker's body to the back yard. "I helped her bury him in the back of the trailer where the shed is," Shirley testified.
Earlier that week, Bettie had asked an acquaintance in the development to dig a hole for a barbecue pit in the rear of the lot. The two women filled the hole with dirt, and the next day, they bought some red cinder blocks and built a patio over the top of the grave. Jimmy Don Beets later moved the cinder blocks and built a storage shed on the site.
Bettie Beets took the stand in her own defense on the tenth day of the trial.
Dressed in a feminine blouse and skirt, Bettie softly explained that she had heard Jimmy Don one night, after drinking all day, argue loudly with Robby over his decision to quit a job. "They were fighting in the bedroom...yelling at each other," Bettie testified. "I had started to the bedroom and I heard a shot." She said she found Jimmy Don lying on the floor, with blood on his head and oozing out of his mouth.
"I was sitting beside Jimmy Don and Robby told me, he said, 'Mom,' he said, 'I'm sorry. I didn't mean to.'"
Bettie said she knew she had to help Robby--she had been separated from him for years when Robby lived with his father and couldn't abandon him again.
Bettie told the jury she reached up and got a bedspread and began wrapping her dead husband's body in it. "I held Jimmy's body for a few minutes and tried to tell him what I was doing and why." She and Robby put his body in the planter, Bettie testified, and the next morning she got up early to buy some peat moss.
On cross-examination, Bandy pointed out to the jury that Bettie had shed no tears on the stand. He asked her about her feelings for her husband. "I loved Jimmy Don," Bettie testified. "Nobody's ever been as good to me as he was."
Jurors deliberated for six hours into the evening of October 12 before returning at about 9 p.m. The verdict was guilty.
In the courtroom, Bettie's children began crying when they heard the verdict. Bettie collapsed and was hospitalized overnight.
The next Monday, the jury reconvened to determine her punishment. The judgment again was swift: death by lethal injection.
Since her 1985 trial, the U.S. Supreme Court has twice refused to hear Bettie Beets' appeals. Twice, she's received last-minute stays of execution. At one point, her conviction was briefly overturned.
One jurist, Texas Court of Criminal Appeals Justice Marvin Teague, accorded her mythic status in a 1989 opinion. "Ms. Beets is evidently a greedy and insensitive killer, the kind of succubus who has managed to capture the romantic imagination of Americans in such modern cinematic classics as Body Heat and Black Widow," the judge wrote.
After exhausting her appeals in the state courts, Bettie's attorneys have been making their pleas in the federal system. Contending that Andrews was ineffective, her attorneys filed an affidavit from his co-counsel, Gil Hargrave, who said Andrews did very little investigation on Bettie's case and spent every afternoon during the trial at the VFW Hall drinking five or six Wild Turkey doubles.
But they also contended that Andrews had a conflict of interest, after persuading Bettie, on the second day of her trial, to assign him all media and literary rights to her story. (In fact, there's no indication those rights ever brought the lawyer a penny.)
The appeals lawyers also claimed Andrews had a conflict because Bettie, before ever being charged, had once told her lawyer she was unsure whether she was entitled to Jimmy Don's pension and life-insurance benefits.
If she knew nothing about being eligible for money, that would scuttle the state's accusation that she had murdered Jimmy Don for profit--the basis for her death sentence. That prospect, her appeals lawyers contend, means Andrews should have declined to represent Bettie--and instead testified as a witness on her behalf.
The state rebutted the argument by noting that others had told Bettie how she might become eligible for death benefits after Jimmy Don's demise; and that Bettie had sold her husband's boat and tried to sell his house.
In 1991, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans ruled there was no conflict of interest. But various appeals points remain to be heard. It's now likely that resolving Bettie's case--either by setting aside her sentence or clearing the way for her execution--will take at least three more years.
Beets' trial attorney, Andrews, is now himself facing a prison term. After winning the post of Henderson County district attorney, he was charged last year with soliciting $300,000 to drop murder charges against a Corsicana businessman accused of killing his wife. After his indictment, Andrews checked himself into a hospital for treatment of substance abuse and gambling addiction. After negotiating a plea bargain, he awaits sentencing to a federal prison.
Following his stepmother's trial, Jamie Beets was declared his father's sole heir and received about $150,000 in benefits and property. Jamie felt vindicated after laboring for months to try to direct investigators toward Bettie.
Jamie suffered psychiatric problems for years, including nightmares about being shot in his sleep by a faceless woman lying next to him. But last year, he began to pull himself together. He is engaged to be married and has his own heating and air conditioning business; he's off drugs and alcohol and has started going to church.
Jamie was relieved when his father's skull was finally buried with the rest of his body in November 1989, four years after the trial. He lives with the dread that Bettie's appeals will result in a new trial. And he's determined to be there when--and if--Bettie is executed.
The trial was especially painful for Bettie's children--especially Robby and Shirley. "Those kids loved their mother," notes DA's investigator O'Brien. "They were very torn, very mixed up. What does a child do when his mother asks him to bury his stepfather?"
The courts have yet to deal with Bettie's contention that her behavior results from battered-wife syndrome, brain damage from abuse and a 1980 car accident, a learning disability, her hearing impairment, and, according to experts retained by her attorneys, "an abnormally low IQ."
One psychologist posits that Bettie attempted to escape the torment of her life during the 1980s by drinking alcohol and popping large quantities of diet pills, a combination that could have induced paranoia and psychosis, making her more likely to overreact to perceived threats. Is that what created the "different" Bettie that her son Bobby saw?
That might explain Barker's murder. According to her son-in-law, Leon, the day before he "disappeared," Barker had beaten Bettie unmercifully.
But Bettie was convicted of killing Beets, and there was no evidence that he ever physically abused her.
None of those who came into contact with Bettie felt she was brain-damaged or possessed far below average intelligence. In fact, she has received a GED while in prison.
In opening arguments at her trial, Bandy dismissed such defenses, calling Bettie's behavior part of a carefully calculated pecuniary scheme and branding her "cold as a well-chain."
"What kind of wife would shoot her husband as he lay sleeping in their bed?" the prosecutor demanded. "What kind of a mother would seek to pin a murder on her own child? The female of the species protects the young, above all--above her own life."
Investigator O'Brien, who is now in law school, dismisses suggestions that Bettie was some sort of feeble-minded victim. "She was not a shrinking violet," he says. "Those men were lying in bed asleep when she shot them. I think Bettie was just meaner than hell."
In the nine years since her trial, Bettie Beets' children have rarely come to see her on Death Row. The last time Bettie saw Shirley--whose testimony helped put her on Death Row--was Mother's Day 1993. Bettie says they didn't talk about her case.
Shirley has remarried and is living in Pleasant Grove; she refused to talk about her mother. Neither Robby nor Bettie's other daughters could be reached for comment. Bobby died after being struck by a car a year ago.
Today, Bettie still contends that Robby killed Jimmy Don Beets and Shirley made up the story about her murdering Barker. "Shirley blamed me for her being in jail," Bettie says. "It was all my problem. She hadn't been married long. She just wanted to go home."
How did Barker end up buried in her yard? Bettie blames her second husband, Bill Lane, who died of a heart attack in 1982. Lane killed Barker in an attempt to get her back, Bettie suggests. "A lot of things went on in my house that I didn't know about," she says.
Her children lied; everybody lied. But most of all, her attorney, Andrews, lied. "I just did what he told me to do and hung myself," she says bitterly.
Bettie still clings to hope. "I believe with all my heart that somebody's going to believe me," she says.
But if, for some reason, those appeals fail, Bettie Beets says, she's not afraid to die. "God has forgiven me for everything in my life," she says, breaking into tears. "He forgives and forgets.
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