The Cult of Darlie
If they start throwing chairs, you'll know you're on the wrong set." With such sage advice, my 11-year-old daughter bid me adieu before I jetted off to Los Angeles on less than a day's notice to appear on the Leeza Gibbons show, the outer ring of TV talk-show hell.
On the relatively civilized, if somewhat banal, Leeza show, the topic was Darlie Routier, the blonde Rowlett mother whose two young sons were stabbed to death on the den floor where they slept by her side three years ago this June. After a five-week trial in Kerrville, a jury convicted Darlie of murdering 5-year-old Damon and sentenced her to death.
In the pantheon of gruesome, captivating Texas crime stories, of which there is no shortage, the Routier murder case certainly holds its own: A young, flashy mother claims she slept through--or just doesn't remember--an intruder's vicious attack on herself and her boys. Then, a week later, she allows a TV news crew to film her
gleefully shooting Silly String during a graveside party on what would have been her oldest son's seventh birthday. She hires one of the best-known criminal-defense attorneys in the state, who loses the case even though there is no eyewitness, confession, or clear-cut motive.
Still, it seems odd that a national television show would want to revisit a 3-year-old murder case, even one as intriguing as this. Of course, one of the peculiar features of the Routier case is how its hold on the public has seemed to grow stronger with time.
Last year the case was back in the news when wealthy Waco insurance baron Brian Pardo took up Darlie's cause. Convinced that her wounds could not have been self-inflicted and that crime-scene investigators had done sloppy work, he graciously offered to fund a new investigation of the case and subsidize her appeal.
In an attempt to rule out Darlie's ever-loyal husband, Darin, as a murder suspect, Pardo insisted he submit to a polygraph. Darin, who seems to mention the size of his wife's enormous breast implants at every opportunity, failed the exam, and Pardo leaked the results to the media. In the process, Pardo managed to alienate Darlie's family and at least one of her appeals attorneys.
Recently, the case took another unusual twist when Darlie's appeals attorneys proved that the trial transcript was hopelessly flawed. The court reporter, meanwhile, lied under oath when she claimed audiotapes of the trial did not exist. When the tapes miraculously appeared, another court reporter used them to reconstruct the trial transcript. Soon it will be up to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals to decide whether this new transcript can be legally certified or whether Darlie's conviction should be thrown out on a technicality.
Even with these legal loop-de-loops, there isn't a whole lot of new ground for the media to mine. And if there was, the Leeza show seems a rather odd forum in which to do so. But as it turns out, the latest chapter in the Routier case is as improbable and bizarre as all the rest.
The raison d'etre for the Leeza segment on Darlie--actually two hourlong segments, which aired May 4 and May 5--is a self-published book written by a Lewisville businessman who claims to have uncovered new evidence that proves Darlie is innocent. A self-published book normally isn't the kind of product that commands a lot of attention or respect, much less two hours of network television. And this is just the beginning of the media juggernaut; Extra, Inside Edition, and Dateline have also shown interest in the book.
Media Tried, Justice Denied was written by Christopher Wayne Brown, publisher of the Lewisville entertainment magazine Around our Town, which consists mainly of articles about those clubs and businesses that advertise most heavily in its pages. Researched and written in two months last summer and published in February, Brown's book revisits all the state's evidence and makes a case for another possible suspect. One erstwhile Darlie foe found the book so convincing, it changed her mind.
After sitting through the entire five-week trial, Fort Worth true-crime writer Barbara Davis spent two years researching and writing Precious Angels, a paperback released in December, which emphatically argues that Darlie is indeed guilty. After spending hours examining the evidence Brown unearthed, however, Davis recently did an about-face. She now believes so strongly that Darlie did not murder her children, she has asked Darlie and her family for their forgiveness. And she now visits Darlie regularly in prison.
So what is this shattering new evidence uncovered by Christopher Brown that made Davis turn her back on her own 322-page book? Unfortunately, Leeza Gibbons, who will never be confused with Mike Wallace, didn't get around to obtaining much of an answer to that question. True to form, the Leeza show, a hybrid of information, entertainment, and the all-important audience participation, shed far more heat than light.
During the three-hour taping, no one threw chairs, but there was plenty of screaming and yelling. Most of it came from audience members, whom Leeza kept asking at regular intervals--usually right in the middle of some important, complex point a guest was trying to make--whether they thought Darlie had killed her children. It was like a modern-day Colosseum, with the audience there to give a thumbs-up or -down. While it appeared the audience was evenly divided on whether to feed her to the lions, I later learned that members of Darlie's extended family populated the side of the audience that consistently hooted and hollered she was innocent. And you thought only boxing was fixed.
Three audience members had also been pre-selected to bone up on details of the case, by, among other things, watching a previous segment Leeza did on Darlie shortly after she was convicted. One of these women, who was flown in from Las Vegas, was selected because her cousin is a friend of the producers. Another audience participant who, it turns out, has appeared in this role on previous shows, had a godchild who attended pre-school with one of Leeza's three children. Talk about credentials. And the third woman was Lora Cain, a KRLD producer for the Charley Jones Show. Although she covered the case for radio, the audience wasn't told that.
The first segment focused on a panel of experts--a term used very loosely in the TV-talk-show world, it seems--who would revisit the Routier case. Christopher Brown would make a case for Darlie's innocence; Fort Worth criminal lawyer Bill Lane, who did analysis of the Routier trial for KXAS-Channel 5 News, would counter with reasons why she was guilty; and I was supposed to play the neutral reporter, someone who believed there were intriguing questions, inconsistencies, and discrepancies that raised reasonable doubt about Darlie's guilt.
The next segment featured Darin; Darlie's mother, Darlie Kee; and mother-in-law Sarilda Routier; plus Barbara Davis, Christopher Brown, and Bill Lane. Add to that the give-and-take with the studio audience, and it was at least a five- or six-ring circus at all times. The family complained about how unfairly people judged them without knowing the facts. Darin cried when he recounted how he and Darlie renewed their wedding vows during a prison visitation. "We had to put our hands against the glass and say I love you," he said. He told the audience he believes the incident was a rape and robbery that went awry when Darlie fought back. Then, apropos of absolutely nothing, he once again mentioned that his wife possesses 36-DDD breasts.
In this theater of the absurd, it was difficult for Brown and Davis to make their case. At one point during a break in the taping, some of the guests gently reminded Leeza that she had not asked Barbara Davis precisely what she's learned that made her do such an incredible flip-flop. But it wasn't until I got back to Dallas that I started getting some answers.
A diminutive blonde in stiletto heels, Davis wants you to know how hard it has been on her to come to the realization that she was wrong about Darlie. A former victim's advocate for 10 years with the Tarrant County District Attorney's office, widow of a Tarrant County deputy sheriff, and unabashedly pro-prosecution, Davis says she is the last person who'd be persuaded to take up the cause of a death-row inmate.
That is not to say she didn't keep an open mind during the trial. But afterward, and in the follow-up reporting she did, she was certain the state put the right person behind bars. Her book paints a vicious portrait of Darlie as a materialistic shrew, beset by crushing debts, put out by the responsibilities of raising two young boys and a baby, and longing for her wild and carefree youth. After the book came out, Sherri Wallace, one of the Dallas assistant district attorneys who tried the case, wrote Davis a note, thanking her for sticking up for them.
"I believed with a passion she was guilty and she was where she needed to be," Davis says. "I trusted the police and DA's office. Then I found out things weren't what I thought. I felt lied to. Things were hidden."
She came to this realization slowly, reluctantly, after Christopher Brown contacted her and asked her whether she'd look at the evidence he had compiled. "I thought he would just be wasting my time. But as I went through it, I got sicker and sicker. I started crying. This has been a devastating time for me."
Brown first grabbed Davis' attention when he showed her a collection of photographs police had taken of Darlie in the days following her arrest that showed her arms and wrists covered with bruises, a strong indication that Darlie had struggled with someone, perhaps an intruder. Though she sat through the entire trial, Davis had no idea just how injured Darlie was. "The only picture published to the jury was the one showing what they said was a superficial wound to her neck," she says. "If I had seen the other pictures, which show she had the hell beaten out of her, I would have listened to her story more carefully."
She was also shocked when Brown showed her the focus notes--the hour-by-hour record kept by nurses during Darlie's hospital stay. They show that Darlie was distraught over her children's deaths and not aloof and unemotional as the nurses testified under oath. "I now believe perjury was committed, that these witnesses were coached," Davis says.
The prosecution told the court that if Darlie had been cut on her neck while she was sleeping, as she'd claimed, a gold necklace she was wearing would have had nicks in it from the knife. During the trial, Assistant DA Greg Davis claimed there were no nicks in the chain, and the defense never challenged this. Brown, however, took a picture of the chain and magnified it about 800 percent. Davis says she can clearly see two nicks in the chain.
Davis says she believed the state's experts when they said a bloody fingerprint found on the door of the Routiers' utility room, through which Darlie claimed an intruder had fled, could not be identified because it was only a partial print. But a computer-enlarged picture of the print that Brown made has convinced Davis it has enough clearly identifiable characteristics to exclude known suspects, such as Darin and Darlie.
The most troubling piece of evidence to Davis, however, is a photograph of the crime scene that the state introduced. It is actually several pictures of the bloody den that are pieced together to provide a panoramic view. There is, however, a piece missing. That bothered Davis during the trial, but she simply assumed it was an angle the crime-scene photographer had forgotten to take.
But after sifting through 400 crime-scene photos, Christopher Brown found the picture that was missing. It shows the part of the den where an evidence bag is lying on the floor in a pool of blood, which means that anything put in the bag may have been contaminated by the blood.
"True, we don't know if that evidence bag was used, but the fact is, they hid it from us," Davis says. "That is an indication of a whole lot of stuff. They're trying to fool somebody."
While police investigators claimed the crime scene at the Routier home was staged, Davis now believes the investigators did some staging of their own. "My heart is broken, my faith destroyed," Davis says. Her faith in defense attorney Doug Mulder has also diminished. Much of this evidence isn't new. Mulder could have found most of it, she says, if only he'd done his homework. But Davis believes he ran out of time and money. He got the case two months before it went to trial and was paid $100,000--a pittance by capital murder trial standards.
The first thing Davis did after she had her change of heart was ask Brown whether Darlie would meet with her. Darlie agreed. "The first meeting was intense," Davis says. "I got out my apology, and the first thing Darlie says is that she forgave me before I even asked. Then she looked at me and started crying, and said, 'I didn't murder my children.'"
Davis has visited Darlie several times since then at the Lew Sterrett Justice Center, where Darlie has been housed since October while her attorneys hash out the trial transcript mess in court. "She's not the woman I thought," Davis says. "She's kind and forgiving. She's angry, but not vengeful. She just wants out. She wants to go home. She wants to touch her little boy and be with her husband."
So who is this super sleuth, Christopher Brown? And is he really onto something?
Leeza Gibbons might have taken everything Brown said at face value, but no one else should. He criticizes journalists who covered the case for being sloppy and biased, yet his book is riddled with misspellings, typographical errors, inaccuracies, and dozens of unsubstantiated facts. He claims, for instance, that one of the Dallas assistant district attorneys who prosecuted Darlie had it in for her because she reminded him of his ex-wife, who Brown claims left him for another man.
Brown also claims two intruders carried out the murders and attack in the Routier home. One of them, he says, "probably" is the son of the Rowlett police officer on the case, a young man who happens to have a long criminal history. Brown offers no other proof and says he hopes the police officer sues him so he can question him under oath during deposition.
Some of Brown's theories are absurd. He believes, and said as much on the Leeza show, that the first officer on the scene ran into the intruder on the Routiers' front lawn and let him go after the man said he was going to a neighbor's house to find help because someone had stabbed his children. How does Brown come to this conclusion? First, he says the officer testified about it in trial. Actually, the officer says he met Darin on the front lawn, pulled a gun on him, and, after Darin identified himself, walked with him back into the house.
Brown then says Darin claims he never left the house at all, something you think he would have had his defense attorney point out in the trial. Brown says he knows Darin is telling the truth because you can hear him during all of the five-and-a-half-minute 911 call Darlie made. Brown got a copy of the tape and had a friend of his at KRLD take out all the background noise. I listened to it and couldn't hear Darin at all.
While some of Brown's theories are laughable, there are others that are downright intriguing--even to the appeals attorneys on the case. In addition to the possibly identifiable bloody fingerprint on the utility-room door, there was a bloody mark on the bottom of the door that was never entered into evidence during the trial. Brown claims it could have come from the bloody pant leg or shoe of an intruder who ran into the door as he was fleeing.
Brown's book also points out something possibly amiss, or at least curious, with the police chain of custody on the evidence bag that contained the unidentified fingerprints taken from the crime scene. Officers can check out evidence as long as they sign for it and pass it along to other officers or investigators, who must also sign for it. But on one particular evidence bag, one officer's name, which is practically illegible, does not correspond to any officers in any of the departments that worked on the case. And between June and August, the officer's badge number mysteriously changes. What all of this means, if anything, isn't clear.
Unlike Barbara Davis and Darlie's family, not everyone is enamored of Christopher Brown and the freelance work he's put into this case, which he says has cost him $80,000 of his own money. Some people close to the case say Brown stole their ideas and is palming them off in order to make a quick profit. Even the people who applaud his enterprise and ingenuity worry that publishing some of these findings will hurt Darlie's appeal by alerting the state to what the defense has uncovered.
Brown is quick to ridicule and malign everyone involved in the Routier case, but when the tables are turned, he is defensive about his motives and reluctant to reveal much about himself. "The more anonymous I am, the easier it is for me to get information from people," says the man who's trying to peddle his story to every talk show and tabloid TV news show in the country.
A chubby, 35-year-old father of two, Brown is a professional dilettante, albeit an enterprising one. He says he has a background in medicine, which turns out to be the eight years he spent as a Navy corpsman--a glorified paramedic--stationed in California. After his stint in the service, he returned to Dallas, where he grew up, to take a job in marketing. He spent a few years trying to sell other people's products, then took a stab at marketing his own: a do-it-yourself winemaking kit, with which he had some modest success in local department stores. He tried to sell the product direct and contacted D magazine about taking out an ad. When he found out that a full-page, black-and-white ad would cost $10,000, he told the rep he could print his own magazine for that much money. Which is exactly what he did.
As serendipitous as it sounds, his 3-year-old entertainment magazine is what inadvertently led to his obsession with the Routier murder case. D'Lee Garza, the editor of his magazine, told him she wanted to make the publication more newsworthy. Garza's brother, who lives in Waco, suggested she contact his friend John McLemore, who was investigating numerous alleged wrongful convictions through his boss, Brian Pardo. McLemore agreed to write an article for Around our Town chronicling several cases he was working on, including the Routier case.
Brown, however, cut out all the information about Darlie before the piece was published. From what little Brown knew about the case, he thought Darlie did it. "I didn't want to give her any ink whatsoever," he says. "We're a local magazine that focuses on positive things."
McLemore and Pardo invited Brown to Waco to show him the evidence they'd collected. Brown turned them down several times, but finally relented.
Before he went, Brown read all the newspaper coverage on the trial, and by the time he was done, he was intrigued by some of the inconsistencies in the state's case. If Darlie slashed her own throat by the sink, as the state alleged, why was her blood on her pillow on the couch where she lay asleep? And how did that bloody sock get down the alley? "I love a good mystery," Brown says.
In Waco, Pardo and McLemore showed him more perplexing pieces of the puzzle: the bloody fingerprint they believed was identifiable, pictures of Darlie's badly bruised arms. Brown was impressed and even shared some theories of his own. What he didn't tell them was that he was planning to try and prove them himself.
Brown wasted no time getting to work. It was the middle of the night by the time he left Waco. But instead of heading home to Lewisville, he decided to swing by Rowlett. He wanted to test one of his theories about the errant sock that police had found in the alley, 75 yards from the Routiers' house. He wondered whether an intruder had used it to keep from leaving fingerprints, then absently placed it on top of his car when he reached for his keys to make a fast getaway. Brown pulled into the alley behind the Routiers' home. He placed a sock on the roof of the car and then floored it; he did this several times, and each time, the sock landed in almost the same place police had found the original one.
Brown says everyone was talking about helping Darlie, but from what he could tell, no one was really doing anything to prove who else might have committed the murders. So he decided to take matters into his own hands, especially after it became clear to him that Pardo suspected that Darin had something to do with the boys' deaths. Brown vehemently disagrees with that theory and accuses Pardo of being as wrongheaded as the police.
One of the things Brown did was blow up a picture of the bloody fingerprint on the utility-room door--the one that's supposedly unidentifiable--and show it to some forensic experts, who assured him it was clear enough to be used to rule out suspects. He claims a Plano police officer, who helped Rowlett police on the Routier murder investigation, told him that he had compared the print with Darlie's and Darin's and that it didn't match. Rowlett police, however, allegedly told the officer not to compare the print with anyone else's. Brown says that when he called the officer back a week later to get him to repeat on tape what he had said, the officer changed his story.
Brown also went to the trouble of comparing the print with the fingerprints of the person Pardo and the Routier family long suspected could have been the so-called intruder--the criminal son of the Rowlett police officer.
Brown's book says the prints didn't match. But Brown now hints he may have just said that to appease the appeals attorneys, who are not pleased about his going public with his information.
The McLemore-Pardo camp accuses Brown of stealing its ideas, trying to profit from them, and undermining Darlie's appeal in the process. "We don't need some wannabe Sherlock Holmes tipping off the other side, which is what this guy is doing," McLemore says. "I feel sick I ever talked to him."
Stephen Cooper, one of Darlie's appeals attorneys, is amused by the revolving cast of weird characters his case keeps attracting. It would be downright entertaining if it didn't take away so much time from what he needs to be doing--researching and writing the appellate brief. The transcript fiasco alone has delayed the whole process by more than a year. And every time someone contacts Darlie's family claiming he has the evidence that will free her, Cooper has to listen and calm them down.
A bit of a character himself, Cooper doesn't know what to make of the Barbara Davis turnabout. "I'm thinking double agent," Cooper says. "You have to understand, Hitler had a higher standing with Darlie's family than Barbara Davis when her book came out. Now I hear she's changing her position and visiting my client on a regular basis. It's like re-electing Richard Nixon. Yeah, maybe he can change, but why risk it?"
As for Brown, Cooper calls him a "goofy fuck." Yet he says there is some validity to his book, which Cooper has skimmed. "I've been living with this stuff for a long time, so it is hard for me to divine what's new and what isn't, but there was nothing in it that was surprising to me. Many of the arguments and counter-arguments are part of the trial. His evaluation of the case is better than the new evidence issues. And he needed a good editor. Hell, he could have used a half-assed editor."
Cooper has purposely kept Brown at arm's length. "The family values him," he says. "He's not wishy-washy about anything. But he's jumped the gun on about a million things. I told him to his face that it is awfully cruel to tell the family that you know who the killer is, and you just need one more piece of evidence, and then it doesn't pan out. Lawyers, the professionals, don't go to their clients and say they have the key to jail unless they can deliver it."
One piece of new evidence Brown claims to have uncovered is boot prints around the bodies of both boys, which he says bolsters the intruder theory. A crime-scene analyst testified at trial that he found boot prints in the den and matched them to boots worn by a paramedic. Brown counters that his investigation showed that all the paramedics were wearing sneakers, and the shoe prints he found--by enlarging the crime-scene photos--are definitely from boots.
Cooper isn't particularly impressed. "He's not a forensics guy," he says. "This is all fanciful. But if we get a new trial, will I look at it again with a forensics expert? You bet. There were a lot of stones left unturned in this case."
"I'm not telling you," Cooper snaps. "I would like some of this to be a surprise. I'll tell you this: From my observation, the crime scene was a total mess, and it's unclear to me what is real and what isn't."
People close to the case claim new fingerprint evidence will be one of the surprises in the appeal. In addition, the original defense lawyers had sent some of the evidence to be tested by a lab in Minnesota, but the defense never got it back because it ran out of money. With funds from Pardo, the test results have been obtained and reportedly are promising.
Brown says he's saving his "best evidence" for a second book. "I have a message to get out," he says. "I'm trying to convince as many people as I can that Darlie didn't do this, and neither did Darin. Judges are sensitive to public opinion."
I'm not sure I buy his reasoning. Nor am I sure that appearing on the Leeza show, or Extra or Inside Edition, accomplishes anything except raising Brown's profile and endearing him to Darlie and her family. They are, no doubt, frustrated by how slow the appeals process is, and they may have confused having some oddball plead their case on television with making real progress. (This same oddball, by the way, says he's retained all the movie rights to the story.)
About the only thing I am sure of when it comes to Darlie Routier is that the case will get stranger before it is ever resolved.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Dallas, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.