Longform

Defending Darlie

Page 4 of 17

The girls were nude, with their hands tied behind their backs. They had been sexually assaulted and stabbed repeatedly, and their throats were slashed. Franks, who was Montgomery's boyfriend, had also been stabbed repeatedly. He was found fully clothed and wearing sunglasses.

One of the most gruesome and shocking murders in Central Texas, it would inspire an award-winning book, Careless Whispers, by Dallas journalist Carlton Stowers, who lionized the lawman who brought Spence to justice, and a made-for-TV movie. The murders bedeviled the Waco police for months. Hundreds of leads poured into police headquarters, and the investigation spawned more than 400 pages of reports. But after 10 weeks, the police still didn't have enough to make an arrest.

Bragging he could solve the murders in a week, cocky narcotics officer Truman Simons asked Waco Police Chief Larry Scott to assign him to the case. Although Scott would later admit in a deposition that he had misgivings about Simons' tendency to form a theory about a case and ignore any evidence that would disprove it, the chief let him have a crack at it.

Simons quickly zeroed in on a Jordanian convenience-store owner named Muneer Deeb, who had reportedly told a witness he was glad Kenneth Franks was dead. Franks had mercilessly taunted the foreigner every time he came by his store to see his friend Gayle Kelley. Kelley worked for Deeb, and the store owner admittedly had a crush on her.

Simons met with Kelley and told her Deeb was a suspect in the murders. Later that night, Kelley called Simons at home to say Deeb had admitted being responsible for the murders. Known for making outrageous comments for shock value, Deeb also told Kelley he was kidding.

Simons arrested Deeb and charged him with the triple homicide. After Deeb passed a three-hour polygraph examination, Chief Scott ordered Simons to release him. Taunted by his fellow officers, Simons resigned from the police department and joined the McLennan County Sheriff's Department as a night jailer, where he continued to pursue the investigation. This was a step down for the 17-year police-department veteran, but there was an upside. The job put Simons in direct, unsupervised contact with inmates. Before long, he was capitalizing on these inmates' eagerness to share information on the murders--truthful or not--in exchange for special treatment.

Simons was sure Deeb masterminded the murders and worked out an elaborate theory that Deeb had hired someone to kill Kelley, but that the killer mistook Jill Montgomery for Kelley.

Simons came to this conclusion after he learned that the convenience-store operator had taken out a $20,000 accidental injury policy on Kelley, who named him as the beneficiary. Simons' murder-for-hire theory had several flaws, however. Deeb paid for similar policies on another employee, plus one for himself and his partner. These policies were cheaper than workman's compensation, Muneer recently explained to the Dallas Observer. And the insurance policy did not pay in the case of murder or suicide, according to Deeb's insurance agent. Besides, Deeb did not need the money--his father was a well-compensated executive with IBM in Saudi Arabia.

Simons held firm to his theory. Now all he had to do was prove it and find the people who actually carried out the murders.

Shortly after he went to work at the jail, Simons thought he had found his culprits. In September 1982, David Wayne Spence and Gilbert Melendez were arrested and jailed for assaulting a young kid with a knife.

Simons thought Spence and Melendez fit the profile of the lake murderers, though neither their names nor descriptions of them and their vehicles ever came up during the previous investigation.

Carlton Stowers, who researched his book for two years, says, "David Spence was pure evil." Pardo insists Spence was not the monster he was portrayed to be. "He was a thug and certainly not the kind of guy you would want to be dating your daughter," Pardo says. "But he was not a killer." He was no angel either. He abused alcohol and had a previous conviction for holding up a Fort Worth convenience store with a hatchet.

Still, there was precious little physical evidence linking Spence and Gilbert Melendez, and Melendez's brother, Tony, whom Simons also suspected, to the Lake Waco murders. Strands of hair, including pubic hair that likely came from the killers, were found on the victims. But an FBI analysis determined that none of the hairs came from Spence or the Melendez brothers.

And there was another problem: In order for Simon's murder-for-hire/mistaken-identity theory to fit Spence, he would have had to mistake Jill Montgomery for Gail Kelley. Although the two women resembled one another, Spence was familiar with what Kelley looked like. He and Kelley had spent time together at Deeb's store, because Spence's girlfriend worked there too.

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Ann Zimmerman