Internet Sleuths Muddy Waters and Wreck Lives in Missy Bevers’ Murder Investigation
A still from the Creekside Church surveillance video.
Courtesy Midlothian Police Department
The killer slowly walks through the halls of the Creekside Church of Christ in Midlothian. The figure is wearing police tactical gear and holding what appears to be some sort of hammer. It’s just after 4 a.m. and the church is empty, allowing the intruder to walk through the halls seemingly without care, opening and closing doors as if he were searching for someone or something.
Approximately 30 minutes later, the killer crosses paths with Terri “Missy” Bevers.
A small-town Texas girl from Jacksboro, Bevers, 45, now lives in the slightly larger town of Red Oak, south of Dallas. She works as a fitness trainer for Camp Gladiator, a national fitness movement appearing in churches, parking lots and football fields across North Texas. She originally planned to host her fitness boot camp in the Creekside Church’s parking lot, but an April rain shower has forced her to teach her class inside.
“If it’s raining we’re still training,” she wrote on Facebook the night before her murder.
At a distance, the killer looks like a legitimate SWAT officer preparing to face protesters or capture a suspect barricaded inside a home. The church has surveillance cameras but the video doesn’t help identify the killer — the gear obscures the face and even the person’s gender. Midlothian police will later report in a search warrant that in “certain portions of the footage the suspect appears to have what has been described as a feminine sway or walk. The footage also indicates that the suspect has a distinct walk that is indicative of some type of injury which affects the right leg/foot.” The killer also appears to use a wall to remain steady. The video indicates that the killer is a little on the heavy side and stands between 5-foot-2 and 5-foot-7.
At 5 a.m., Camp Gladiator exercise students arrive at the church and discover Bevers’ body. There are multiple puncture wounds to her head and chest. A justice of the peace declares her dead shortly after police arrive. Midlothian police have not disclosed where the killer encountered Bevers inside the church but have told media that nothing has been reported taken from the church.
Police sought to question the driver of a 2010 to 2012 model Nissan Altima that appeared in surveillance footage from SWFA Outdoors, a hunting and fishing store a mile down the road from the church, in the early morning hours before Bevers' murder. Police tell local news outlets that they don’t believe the car is connected to the murder but simply wanted to speak with the driver.
Nearly a year has passed, and police investigators seem to be no closer to finding the killer. The local police have sought help from the FBI and Texas Rangers but the case remains cold. A legion of investigators, unasked, have been probing the case via Facebook groups dedicated to solving Bevers' murder: Case Crackers: Who Killed Missy Bevers, Justice for Missy Bevers, Let’s Catch Missy Bevers Killer, Missy Bevers — Unfiltered and Uncensored. The groups’ memberships range from 50 to 1,100 citizen investigators who are dissecting the case nearly every day. There, theories swirl: Love triangles gone awry, a jealous husband with an enraged father, a gas station attendant with a “checkered past.”
In efforts to help police — or snag the $50,000 reward money — amateur internet investigators following Missy Bevers’ case have analyzed search warrants and still images of the killer in makeshift tactical gear. Some dissected the outdoor store surveillance video, pointing out that the driver’s seat is pushed too far back for the killer and that the Nissan may have been flashing its headlights at someone. Police have yet to mention an accomplice. Others have gone so far as running background checks, trolling social media sites of friends and family and approaching Missy Bevers’ family and friends for information. They use acronyms to discuss and debate guilt or innocence as if they’re playing a game of Clue.
These musings have crossed the social media threshold and into the real world, wreaking havoc on people’s lives and, in some cases, wasting man-hours as police track down false leads. The police seem exasperated. “They need to remember that these are people with families,” Midlothian Assistant Police Chief Kevin Johnson tells the Observer. “Just because we’re following up on a tip and talking with someone doesn’t mean they’re guilty.”
Anytime the police speak to someone, often called a “person of interest” in the case, that person becomes a target for conjecture.
“People were sharing my address. ...” says one former person of interest who wishes to remain anonymous. “These people have no clue to who I am and [are] jumping on the bandwagon. They could gather everyone on Facebook groups into an auditorium and tell them the truth, but they don’t want the truth. They just want to crucify somebody.”
Missy Bevers via Facebook
Brandon Bevers and his father, Randy, walk out of the Midlothian police department to face TV news camera crews. Nearly two weeks have passed since the murder of Bevers’ wife at the Creekside Church of Christ, yet somehow he remains calm as he speaks to reporters who have been stalking him for quotes. Wearing casual shorts, short-sleeve collared shirts, ball caps and dark sunglasses, father and son look like a couple of guys preparing for a day at a lake.
Police investigators claim neither Bevers nor his father is suspected of killing Missy. Their alibis check out: The father was traveling in California and the son was fishing in Mississippi when the murder occurred in the early morning hours of April 18, 2016.
But that didn’t stop web sleuths from sharing a photo of Bevers’ father posing at a golf course with a still-surveillance image of the killer strolling through the halls of the Creekside Church of Christ. They’re both about the same height, same stocky build, and web sleuths pointed out that elder Bevers’ right leg and foot appeared to have an outward pronation. “In the father-in-law’s FB posts, he likes to show his legs and feet,” one sleuth wrote. “There is a scar on his right leg which could be indicative of previous surgery causing the abnormal gait” similar to the killer’s.
On the day of the news conference, Midlothian police filed a search warrant for a bloody shirt that the elder Bevers had dropped off at the dry cleaners earlier that morning, and they figured they had better give the news media an explanation before speculation of his father’s guilt ran even hotter.
At the interview in front of the Midlothian Police Department, Bevers’ father does his best to explain the bloody shirts to reporters who seemed skeptical. “The relative’s got two dogs. ... The Chihuahua and the big dog got into a fight. The big dog got the Chihuahua around the throat, OK? And when I got the big dog off of it, the Chihuahua’s laying on the ground bleeding,” he said. “I headed to the animal clinic to see if we could save it. It didn’t make it. So carrying the dog from the house to the veterinarian clinic, it was bloody.”
“The reason we’re here today is because I wasn’t really sure if the Midlothian PD were going to elaborate on the story,” his son interjects. “I wanted to make sure we get over and put this fire out pretty quick.”
“We see some flames going on here, so let’s put it out,” his father adds.
The Bevers family have been putting out fires for some time now. The intrusiveness of web sleuths led Missy’s sister-in-law Kristi Stout to write a post in “The Murder of Teri — Missy Bevers” Facebook group:
All you FB detectives out there I’m sure haven’t checked with American Airlines to verify they were on the plane headed there. Nor did any of you check with the phone companies to see that RB and VB’s phones were actually pinging in the San Diego area at the time of the murder. After all, that’s why we have the FBI and LE who confirmed that already because armchair detectives just don’t have that ability!!!
Not only that, but FBI drove to Biloxi, Mississippi to confirm with others on the fishing trip that BB was in fact there at the time of the murder, as well as verified pings from cell phone towers that he was there. For those of you who say BB hired someone to do this, again FBI has thoroughly watched and studied his accounts and have seen no large money being moved around. BB has been bugged by FBI, grilled like you would never fathom and his story has never changed. If I could sit you all down in a room with a marker board and show you what we’ve learned about this case, and how much work/people have been involved.
Brandon Bevers has young children whom the family has warned against reading about the case. “We told them to stay off Facebook,” Randy Bevers says. “Social media is a dangerous place to be.”
Some within the online forums saw people going too far within days of the murder. “It was awful in the beginning for Brandon and his parents and step-mother,” one web sleuth told the Observer. “Boundaries were crossed for sure.”
Speculation isn’t just limited to Missy Bevers’ family. One of her coworkers at Camp Gladiator found himself part of a jealous wife theory. Sleuths thought he was involved because his wife had a short, heavy build and a broken foot. He posted on Facebook: “It’s trash day. When my wife left the house to take the kids to school, my neighbor saw a person get out of their parked car and take our bags of trash, throw it in the car and drive off.”
April Sandoval has found herself in the crossfire of social media sleuths.
April Sandoval doesn’t have much time to look at social media on her phone, standing behind the counter on this Friday morning in late January 2017. Her stepfather, the store manager, will get mad at her if he catches her on the phone. She’s been working for a few months at her stepfather’s gas station on the outskirts of Midlothian, just down the road from the Creekside Church of Christ where Missy Bevers was killed nearly a year ago.
Dyed red hair pulled up, Sandoval looks dressed to work out, wearing black stretch pants, athletic running shoes and a gray sweater. But the 36-year-old single mother of two young boys hasn’t been to an exercise class since she attended a few Camp Gladiator classes in late April 2015. She probably wouldn’t have attended then if she hadn’t entered a drawing for a free Camp Gladiator exercise session at Ellis County BBQ. Missy Bevers called to tell her she’d won and encouraged her to attend.
“I never win anything,” Sandoval says. “I had a hard time losing weight from my first son and then my youngest son. Their father was very overweight. ... He was a big individual, and I was trying to set a better example for my boys.”
She attended four sessions out of the five-week exercise course. Classes were held early in the morning in the parking lot at the Midlothian campus of Navarro College. “A trainer would show you what to do,” she says. “Then show you ‘OK, do this many until the song ends.’ It was hard. A lot of them I wouldn’t do.”
Sandoval quit attending the Camp Gladiator exercise sessions because she says her mother could no longer watch her sons. She stayed long enough to pose with Bevers and the rest of the Camp Gladiator crew for a photo Sandoval later uploaded to Facebook. It was a picture that would lead social media sleuths deeper into her life after Bevers' death.
“It became this huge ordeal,” she says.
Online sleuths pegged her as the possible killer, the one dressed in the makeshift SWAT gear. They found Sandoval among Bevers' friend’s list, discovered the Camp Gladiator photo and the photo of her bruised and swollen left foot she injured on the job a few months earlier. They discussed her stint in jail for a bad check, her aborted military career (she left even before basic training) and her Pinterest page. Her political views became a talking point because she saved pins related to The Three Percenters, a self-described patriot movement that pledges resistance against the federal government to protect the Constitution.
“Three percent of the population during the war for independence against England is what stood up and fought for freedom from oppression,” Sandoval says. “Now, conservatives, mostly Republicans, are that ‘3 percent,’ Christians, military, law enforcement and the like pushing for change in our country.”
Web sleuths claimed Sandoval got insurance on a Nissan Altima similar in make and model to the one appearing in the outdoor store’s surveillance video a couple of hours before Bevers' murder. They even took pictures of the Altima parked in front of Sandoval’s duplex and at the preschool day care on her son’s graduation day. Sandoval claims it is her mother’s car and a 2013 model. “We would be a division of communist Russia before my mother ever allowed me to drive it,” she says. “Regardless of the situation. That just won’t happen.”
Sandoval sought help from the Midlothian police. Instead she was asked to come to the station. “We need to talk to you,” she recalls the detective saying. “We got a lot of phone calls and lots of messages about you.”
She met with the detective in May 2016 with her sick child in tow because, she says, she had no one to watch him. At three-months pregnant with her daughter, she also suffered from Chiari malformation, which affects her balance sometimes, and cholestasis, which causes the skin and eyes to yellow.
She answered the detective’s questions about her Pinterest and Facebook accounts, her current pregnancy, her former fiance, her plans to adopt her daughter to a family who could care for her, her attendance at Camp Gladiator and her living situation. She doesn’t recall them asking about her mother’s Altima, though she says she believes the photos of it appeared in the Facebook groups after she spoke with Midlothian police. But the detective did ask her to walk back and forth and measured her height before she left the police station.
A month later, Midlothian police officer Mark Holton sent an email to a particularly aggressive web sleuth named Tracy Aguero. “I can tell you the picture of the suspect’s eyes is not anything law enforcement put out there. The origin is unknown and is just something put out there by someone who thought it would be funny,” he wrote. “There is no photograph we have that shows the eyes of the suspect, the color or gender. So again, the information you sent me is of no value to this investigation. So I would suggest you quit targeting Sandoval. We have talked to her and cleared her.”
Aguero claims she listened to Midlothian police. She discussed the case with other web sleuths, but information didn’t always stay contained in the Facebook groups. In a post which was screenshot and spread elsewhere, she said: “I want to again be very clear that MPD told me they brought her in and questioned her and cleared her. [...] Since that time, I have not been digging like this — this was all before that date when they were seeking help from the public. [...] Disclaimer: I am not in any way saying that this person has anything to do with this case at all — whatsoever. You are free to draw your own conclusions.”
Then she listed more than a dozen signs of possible motives that included that Sandoval “looks very disturbed and sad, is notable lonely.”
Assistant Police Chief Kevin Johnson and the Midlothian Police Department are buried in social media sleuths’ tips.
Kevin Johnson doesn’t look like a small town Texas cop with a cowboy hat and a good ol’ boy attitude like in the movies. He looks young, clean cut, dressed professionally in a long-sleeved button-up dress shirt, a tie and dark slacks with a badge on his hip and a Glock 23 he describes as “not a manly gun, but a respectable choice for plain clothes.”
He started as a police dispatcher at the department and climbed his way up the ranks to assistant police chief. Since Missy Bevers’ murder in April 2016, he finds himself addressing reporters often, squelching some rumors, providing updates — though few and far between lately — or seeking the public’s help.
Johnson says while they’ve received 1,300 to 1,400 tips, a majority of them were not based in fact but speculation. Another email from Officer Holton to an unnamed sleuth appearing on social media seems to reiterate Johnson’s claim, “You stated in previous conversation that you would not bother me with irrelevant information, and I continue to get updates quite frequently that are using up workable time investigating this case. I understand you believe they are relevant. I need facts.”
Johnson doesn’t want to discuss particular situations involving social media sleuths, their evidence and the targeting of persons of interest that seems to have occurred. He also wasn’t aware of the Facebook groups that often appear dedicated to unsolved murders until Missy Bevers’ murder, nor did he know how it would bleed over into the “real” world and affect some of the people they’d interviewed in the past. Containing information from social media has been problematic for some time now, Johnson says.
He mentioned a case of an accident that occurred out in the county. A car caught on fire with the driver still inside. By the time police and emergency responders appeared on scene, word of the accident had already spread on social media. Someone recognized the photo of the vehicle and contacted the owner’s family. Johnson says he received a phone call from the victim’s mother, who asked if her son were dead. “We hadn’t even had a chance to identify the victim,” he says.
Deborah Halber, author of The Skeleton Crew, How Amateur Sleuths Are Solving America’s Coldest Cases, says a feeling of competitiveness between web sleuths can turn ugly on social media and in chat rooms, especially when their names aren’t associated to their accounts. She says law enforcement has a mixed relationship with these amateur sleuths, one that varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.
“Some detectives appreciate their efforts, and others wish that they would not get involved,” Halber says. “Law enforcement generally agrees across the board that web sleuths should not get involved in a real investigation. It’s one thing to be online and looking for clues and in that case the police welcomes the public eyes. But going further is frowned upon. It’s obviously dangerous, and they can’t advocate anybody putting themselves in danger.”
For Johnson the danger is that the rampant speculation is hurting innocent people and hampering his search for real clues. “Overall has social media hurt or helped this investigation?” Johnson says. “I don’t know how to answer that. Has the information been a distraction? Yes. Do we want to dig into every piece of information? Yes, and we will continue to. There have been a lot of comparisons — at least internally — between this case and the murder of the Kaufman County District Attorney in how that stuff came in about the killer. It was innocuous. It didn’t seem to connect at the time, and then the name re-emerged. When they dug into it, it led into another really small detail that really cracked the thing open.
“So I think that’s been our concern from the beginning,” he adds. “In those 1,300 to 1,400 tips, is there some innocuous tip that has some aspect that we missed? Unfortunately it’s impossible to know until you know.”
The Midlothian police interviewed and cleared one of Missy’s Facebook friends’ husband early in the investigation, but web sleuths weren’t aware of it since law enforcement rarely announce whom they’ve interviewed. They began to claim that this person interviewed may have had a possible motive to kill in another jealous rage theory. Police finally had to reach out to the media to reiterate that this person had been cleared. “They have no care of the truth,” the husband, who wishes not to be named, told the Observer. “They sit behind the keyboard and bash a person’s family that they don’t have no knowledge of.”
When the local news story appeared online, his son posted a link in the Justice for Missy Bevers Facebook group and wrote, “They JUST said on FOX 4 News that the ‘New POI has recently been cleared.’ #ivebeentrynatellya.”
But it didn’t change some web sleuths’ minds. In a reply to the son’s post, one sleuth wrote, “Listen y’all… just because he is here and saying his family is innocent is not going to change my (point of view). I have been torn between the TV/LV theory and the CT theory since the beginning. This doesn’t change my thoughts. Nothing was really said to change them.”
Creekside Church of Christ, where Missy Bevers was murdered early morning on April 18, 2016.
Creekside Church of Christ in Midlothian is locked up tight like a bank after hours shortly after noon on a Sunday in late January. The Sunday morning church service just ended, and people are leaving in small groups into the large parking lot and off to one of the Sunday brunch spots. They move fast, hoping to beat the rush of churchgoers from more than a dozen other churches located around the small town.
Stan Moore, a 64-year-old church elder, seems nervous to discuss the last year’s murder case. His hand trembles as he speaks. “What we have decided to do as a church is to stay out of all that,” Moore says. “The police investigators are doing their jobs. But we’re saying, let them do what they need to do. Let’s not get in their way.” Moore says the church has taken extra precautions but doesn’t want to delve into exactly what steps they’ve taken.
April Sandoval is also worried that the killer is still out there. After her Sunday morning church service at another church in Midlothian finished, she meets with other friends that she made from the Missy Bevers Facebook groups who are sending out what they call a “tweet storm” to raise awareness with media outlets and others that Bevers’ killer still hasn’t been caught.
She hadn’t heard much out of social media since the detective sent the email clearing her. In August 2016, someone sent her all the supposed evidence that had been gathered against her by social media sleuths. But the furor of what occurred had faded into memory until a couple of weeks ago.
Sandoval says she received a screenshot of an email from Aguero to a detective whose name had been blotted out. “On a similar note, I did make contact with the girl that worked with April for a time over the summer,” she wrote in the Dec. 26, 2016, email. “We messaged back and forth and she’s now downplaying the very things that, according to her, were very significant when she brought them up a few months ago. And she doesn’t seem at all willing to speak with law enforcement.”
She couldn’t figure out why Aguero was discussing her again after a detective claimed she’d been cleared. Aguero says the detective asked her for her files and claimed her new theory about the killer didn’t involve Sandoval. Police won’t verify if a detective reached out to her for her files. Sandoval says she contacted police about Aguero, and Detective Cody Moon replied in message to save everything to back up Sandoval's claim of harassment. So she sent him the screenshot of the email where her name first appeared.
This wasn’t the first time she reached out to police about social media sleuths targeting her as the possible killer on Facebook. The last detective told her, “Stay off it.” But it was hard to ignore the urge to defend herself online.
That's the reason why she says she shared Moon’s email online, to prove that she was indeed talking with police about Aguero. Moon somehow found out and responded, “Do you want my help? You called for our help, correct? Why do you think posting my email to social media is helping? That seems more like stirring the pot and adding fuel to the fire. I am more than willing to help you but will not tolerate the drama and antagonizing.”
“I will see what I can do about getting her to stop the slander,” Moon wrote. “I am not in contact with her; another investigator is. The bad thing is there isn’t much we can do about social media. People can say whatever they want about whomever they want nowadays. I would still like to meet with you so let me know a date and time when you could get child care please.
“In the meantime try to ignore it,” he added. “Don’t play into the trash talking on social media. It has put a damper on this investigation and caused headaches for us. At the end of the day I have three precious girls who have lost their mother, but the only thing everyone on social media cares about is getting their opinion out there and arguing.”
“But what about my kids?” Sandoval now asks.
She hasn’t met with Moon yet. She says she doesn’t have time to meet with him without her kids because she works until the late afternoon, then has to pick up her kids from day care. She can’t ask her parents to watch them. She offered for Moon to come by the gas station to chat, though it is hard to find privacy at a gas station when customers seem to flow in and out.
Standing in front of the Midlothian Police Department, the assistant police chief reiterated that Sandoval is not a suspect, that they don’t have a suspect. They still don’t know if the masked killer in the makeshift SWAT gear was a man or a woman. They’re simply retracing their steps in investigation, going over facts and searching for new ones to see if they can find that “innocuous piece of evidence.”
“I feel like I need to get an attorney,” Sandoval says.
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