Longform

Burden of proof

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In time, in fact, a troubled young bartender's assistant named Danny Laughlin would be indicted and tried in Archer County for the Gibbs murder. He had talked of a romantic interest in the nurse, seemed to know facts about her disappearance that were not public knowledge, and, according to an eye witness, was seen walking his dog in the field where Gibbs was killed only days before her body was discovered.

A jury eventually voted 11-1 for acquittal, but for many who had followed the case there remained a strong belief that Laughlin had only managed to beat the system; that he had, in fact, gotten away with murder. That cloud of suspicion followed him long after he'd taken leave of Wichita Falls, even beyond a day in 1993 when he died in an automobile accident.

It wasn't until 1996 that advancement in forensic technology allowed the testing of a small sample of DNA that had been taken from Gibbs' body a decade earlier and stored away in the Texas Department of Safety laboratory. Matching it against a blood sample taken from the suspect while he was in custody, the results finally proved that Laughlin--who had long insisted his only knowledge of the case had come from watching news reports and having read portions of a case file inadvertently left in a police station interrogation room where he awaited an interview--had not been the person who sexually assaulted the nurse, or who killed her.

Officially, the Gibbs murder investigation was re-opened. In reality, it only gathered dust, awaiting some new lead few expected would ever come.

Grieving and angered families of the victims aside, the memories of Sims, Gibbs, and Blau grew faint. Yet the murders continued to haunt longtime Wichita County District Attorney Barry Macha, who had been sworn into office 10 days after the first killing. Privately, he found himself troubled that his career might one day end with three of the most high-profile cases of his tenure still unsolved.

It was with that in mind that Macha summoned a relatively new investigator, John Little, into his office in the final week of 1998 and handed him three timeworn files, asking that he read through them. "See if you can find anything that's been overlooked," the district attorney instructed.

Macha made no mention of it at the time, but in the years that had passed since the crimes occurred, he had often taken solitary drives past key sites that had been visited during earlier investigations--the house where Terry Sims had been murdered, the street where Toni Gibbs' abandoned car was discovered, an apartment where Ellen Blau had briefly lived. They were all in a relatively confined area. Privately, he had long suspected that the person or persons responsible for the murders had some connection to that section of the city.

In time, his investigator, the former bricklayer, would agree.

John Little was a lifelong resident of Wichita Falls. He had begun his career in law enforcement later than most, joining the District Attorney's investigative team in 1993 at age 30. His first choice for a new career had been service with the Wichita Falls Police Department, but after completing the rigors of police academy training, he failed an eye exam. So he had approached Macha about becoming an investigator. When offered the position, Little immediately accepted, leaving behind all thoughts of being a cop and bidding his old livelihood good-bye. His days as a bricklayer had come to an end.

It was after the New Year when Little sat at his dining-room table, the files spread in front of him, comparing them, setting to memory the names that appeared in each of the reports. It was only after he had reread the file on the Ellen Blau case several times that a name suddenly jumped out at him. In an interview with a female co-worker with whom Blau had been living, a man who lived in a downstairs apartment was mentioned. His name was Faryion Wardrip, and he had "given me the creeps," Blau's friend, Janie Ball, had told a sheriff's deputy. It was indicated in the report that she and her husband had both warned Blau that if she ever saw Wardrip in the yard or hallway she should simply ignore him.

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Carlton Stowers
Contact: Carlton Stowers