Burden of proof

The young bricklayer peered out the window into the gray January morning, sipped from his coffee cup, and resigned himself to an idle weekend. No construction crews, he knew, would brave the bitter temperatures and frozen roads to work. The previous night's blizzard, which left a 12-inch blanket of snow, had been the first of 1985, signaling to those who called North Texas home that their world would stand still until the thaw. He turned his thoughts to spending time indoors with his wife and newborn son. While they slept, he poured himself more coffee and turned on the television.

Minutes later he was in the bedroom, gently shaking his wife. "You aren't going to believe what's happened," he told her.

A solemn-faced newscaster had reported that a young nurse who worked the night shift at the local hospital had been reported missing. Even before her name was mentioned, the bricklayer recognized the woman in the photograph that appeared on the TV screen. Her name was Toni Gibbs, and she and his wife had once been members of the same college sorority. He remembered being invited to a party at the woman's house, and though he'd not known his hostess well, he'd liked her.

And now there was clear concern that something horrible might have happened. She had not reported for work and was not at the apartment where she'd been living since she and her husband had divorced. "This doesn't sound good," the young man told his wife.

It marked the first time in his life that a person he knew was the focus of such ominous attention, and it made him uncomfortable. He felt a sudden need to do something.

By mid-morning, as the sun broke through, it was announced that the local police were organizing search parties in a parking lot at Midwestern University. Anyone willing to help was urged to report. The bricklayer immediately telephoned his brother. For the remainder of the day they walked side by side with somber strangers, across frozen fields near Gibbs' apartment, along the muddy shoreline of the lake, up and down alleys, and through deserted parking lots. They found nothing.

When the woman's abandoned car was discovered two days later, little doubt remained that something unthinkable had happened. But, as days turned into weeks, the immediacy of the disappearance waned. Reporters rarely mentioned her name, the volunteer search parties no longer gathered, and the bricklayer returned to his job.

Then, one mid-February evening when he returned home, his wife met him at the door, her face ashen. "They found her," she said.

Earlier in the day, an electrician checking a faulty transformer had discovered Toni Gibbs' nude body lying in a scrub-brush field less than two miles from their suburban home.

News of the death hit his wife hard, but he thought the story would end for him there. Little did he know how the discovery would change his life, how involved he would one day become in the case. He had no idea that the murder of Toni Gibbs would take him on a journey marked by high-tech investigation, old-fashioned sleuthing, and horrific discovery throughout North Texas. He was unaware that he would become a major character in a story line that resembled something from Law & Order more than it did real life. How could he know? He was just a bricklayer.

Toni Gibbs' death was part of a long nightmare that began in the bone-chilling winter of 1984, just a few days before Christmas, and stretched into the dog days of late summer of '85, spreading a palatable fear among the 100,000 residents of Wichita Falls. During an 18-month span, three women--a college student and part-time hospital worker, the nurse, and a waitress--had been stabbed, strangled, and in two cases raped, their bodies left in the most unlikely places.

The first victim had been 20-year-old Terry Sims, a pretty Midwestern student who also worked as a technical assistant at the Bethania Regional Health Care Center. Her body had been found lying in her own blood on the bathroom floor in the home of a female co-worker with whom she had planned to spend the night. She had been bound with an electrical cord, stabbed repeatedly, and sexually assaulted.

In January, Toni Gibbs, the Wichita General nurse, had disappeared and died. She, too, had been stabbed and raped.

And in October, the nude and decomposed body of 21-year-old Ellen Blau, a Midwestern student and waitress who had moved to Texas from Connecticut, was discovered by a county employee mowing alongside a rural road.

While whispered concerns that a serial killer might be on the loose swept through Wichita Falls, officials from three law enforcement agencies--the Wichita Falls Police Department, which had jurisdiction over the Sims homicide; the Wichita County Sheriff's Department, which was in charge of the Blau case; and the Archer County Sheriff's Department, which was investigating the Gibbs murder--quickly developed different suspects in each death. Surprisingly, no link of the three murders was made. Instead, investigators focused on a suitor whose advances to Terry Sims had repeatedly been rebuffed, co-workers of Blau's who had acted suspicious from the day she had disappeared from the parking lot of a convenience store, and a 24-year-old employee at a nightclub that Gibbs had frequented.

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Carlton Stowers
Contact: Carlton Stowers