Settling himself into the witness stand in the Dallas County courtroom, burly and bearded Johnny Bonds makes no attempt to hide his ear-to-ear grin as he catches the blank gaze of defendant Michael Lee Davis.
Technically, Bonds is present only to provide a judge with his insights into a man found guilty earlier last week of masterminding a scam that took $10 million to $15 million from elderly investors. The court was to decide if Davis' convictions for insurance fraud and money laundering should cost him $10,000 in fines and a life prison term. But Bonds, now an investigator for the Harris County District Attorney's Office, was intimately familiar with Davis -- the former Walter Waldhauser Jr. -- when the fraud schemes were far into the future for Davis.
And finally facing Davis in court was a moment Bonds had eagerly anticipated, through almost 20 years of a lengthy triple-murder investigation and its bizarre aftermath.
"Have I ever fantasized about killing him?" Bonds answered from the witness stand at one point. "No, I've dreamed of it."
The investigator began his testimony by recounting his days in July 1979 as a detective for the Houston police homicide division. He drew the random assignment to handle a triple-death case. A couple and their 14-month-old adopted son were found shot to death in their fashionable Houston home. Although no gun was found at the scene, the Harris County medical examiner's office initially ruled that Diana Wanstrath had killed her husband and her child, then committed suicide.
Bonds refused to go along with the ruling. He worked the case as a triple murder. His persistence got him crossways with his superiors, and he was transferred to internal affairs. Nevertheless, Bonds continued his investigation. In January 1981, 18 months after the deaths, that pursuit paid off. A series of tips and solid police work led him to three killers -- one of them the man now named Davis.
Davis admitted to being the middleman in a murder-for-hire scheme to collect an inheritance. He confessed that he put Diana Wanstrath's adoptive brother, Markham Duff-Smith, in touch with hit man Allen Wayne Janecka. The contract killer also had slain Duff-Smith's adoptive mother four years earlier. According to Janecka, Davis was much more than a middleman; he had held down Diana Wanstrath as Janecka shot her in the head.
The state executed Duff-Smith in 1993. Janecka remains on death row. Prosecutors had felt they needed the testimony of Davis against the two other defendants, so he was able to cut a deal for three concurrent 30-year sentences. Then the prosecution learned Davis planned to recant his statement, so he was never called to testify. With only a guilty plea, Davis never had to stand trial. So Bonds was never afforded the opportunity to express his loathing of Waldhauser in a courtroom -- that is, until last week.
In the sentencing portion of the Davis fraud trial, state District Judge Harold Entz allowed Bonds to tell in monologue fashion the story of the murders. Dallas County Assistant District Attorney Brian Flood took him through the facts and Bonds' conclusion that if not for the plea bargain, Davis was likely destined for death row. In fact, Bonds disagreed with the prosecutors' decision to cut a deal with Davis.
"I thought he should die," Bonds testified. He said he never saw Davis express any remorse for the killings.
"When it was over," said Bonds, "he came up to me and shook my hand and said that he wanted me to know that he didn't have any hard feelings -- that it was just business."
Bonds acknowledged to defense attorney Kevin Clancy that the Wanstrath case was, in part, responsible for the breakup of his first marriage. He also admitted that he has been obsessed with Davis since his release from prison in February 1990, and that, since then, he had tried to keep track of his whereabouts and actions, including the name change to Davis.
"And I'll continue to keep up with him," Bonds said, "because I'm afraid of him. I think everybody should be afraid of him."
Bonds' candid responses seemed to stun the defense team, while sending the judge and the rest of the courtroom into laughter.
Asked if he was just getting even with his testimony, Bonds replied he was glad for the opportunity. "I've waited for 20 years to do this," he answered.
His hour on the witness stand was the highlight of a session in which Harris County state District Judge Ted Poe also got in some licks on Davis. He said Davis is "basically amoral and soulless."
In 1981, Poe was the Harris County assistant district attorney who prosecuted the Wanstrath cases. Poe testified he thought the deal with Davis was necessary at the time, although he believes Davis may have been the most despicable of the three killers.
"But we had the weakest case on the sorriest person," Poe said.
Davis' most recent crimes were uncovered by investigators from the Texas Department of Insurance following a series of articles in the Dallas Observer and Houston Press, which reported on his relocation to Dallas and his new career. He became a viatical broker, one who buys life insurance policies of the terminally ill for a fraction of their full values. Then the broker sells the policies to investors who collect the full policy amount when the insured dies. In most cases, such deals are legal. However, Davis enlisted people who were HIV-positive to take out policies. They hid their disease from insurance carriers. The elderly investors who bought the policies from Davis found themselves holding an empty bag.
Judge Entz continued the punishment hearing until June 1. If Davis leads prosecutors to $4 million they believe he pocketed in the scheme, Entz said he would take that into consideration in the sentencing. Investigators say Davis may have stashed the funds in overseas accounts.
"He might give them some of it," says Bonds skeptically, "but he won't give them all of it."
On the flight to Dallas for the hearing, Poe and Bonds tell me that in the more than two decades since the Wanstrath murders, rarely does a day go by that they don't think about the dead family, especially the slain baby. Poe keeps a picture of Kevin Wanstrath on his desk. Bonds keeps one in his mind.
"Nothing ever affected me as much as seeing that baby dead in that crib with all those stuffed animals," Bonds says solemnly.
A few minutes later I remind Bonds that the investigator had asked me to tell his old nemesis hello for him. I had done just that when I surprised Davis in Dallas. Bonds laughs.
"And now I get to tell him good-bye," says Bonds, grinning at the thought. A good-bye, though, doesn't mean closure.
"The guy is a natural-born criminal, and he will never pay his debt unless he dies in prison," says the detective. "[Testifying] gives me some satisfaction. But I don't think I'll have closure until one of us dies."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Observer's biggest stories.