Ron Williamson was well aware of the Haraway case. He had the best seat in the house-a bed in the Pontotoc County jail. After serving ten months of his three-year sentence, he was paroled back to Ada and placed under house arrest, a rather loose arrangement that severely restricted his movements. Not surprisingly, it didn't work. Ron was unmedicated and unable to keep track of time and dates or anything else.
In November, while living at home, he was charged with "willfully and wrongfully, having been sentenced to confinement with the Department of Corrections for the crime of Uttering a Forged Instrument, and while on house arrest status did escape from such status and confinement by leaving his house during a time not consented to by the D.O.C."
Ron's version was that he walked down the street to buy a pack of cigarettes and returned home thirty minutes later than expected. He was arrested, jailed, and four days later charged with the felony of escape from a penal institution. He made a pauper's oath and requested court-appointed counsel.
The jail was buzzing with the Haraway matter. Tommy Ward and Karl Fontenot were already there. The inmates, with absolutely nothing to do, talked and talked. Ward and Fontenot had center stage because their crime was the most recent and certainly the most sensational. Tommy described the dream confession and the tactics used by Smith, Rogers, and Featherstone. The detectives were well known to his audience.
Tommy insisted over and over that he had nothing to do with Denice Haraway, that the real killers were out there laughing at the two stupid boys who confessed and the cops who tricked them into it.
Without the body of Denice Haraway, Bill Peterson had an enormous legal challenge. His case consisted of the two taped confessions, with absolutely no physical evidence as a foundation. Indeed, the truth contradicted virtually everything on the tapes, and the confessions clearly contradicted each other. Peterson had the two sketches of the suspects, but even they were problematic. Arguably, one favored Tommy Ward, but no one had suggested that the other drawing even remotely resembled Karl Fontenot. Thanksgiving came and went with no body. Then Christmas. In January 1985, Bill Peterson convinced a judge that there was sufficient evidence that Denice Haraway was dead. During a preliminary hearing, the confessions were played to a packed courtroom. The reaction was generally one of shock, though many noted the glaring discrepancies between Ward's account and Fontenot's. Nevertheless, it was time for a trial, with or without a dead body.
But the legal wrangling went on and on. Two judges recused themselves. The search lost steam and was finally called off a year after Denice disappeared. Most of Ada was convinced Ward and Fontenot were guilty-why else would they confess? But there was also speculation about the lack of evidence. Why was it taking so long for a trial? In April 1985, a year after the disappearance of Denice Haraway, the Ada Evening News ran a story by Dorothy Hogue about the town's frustration with the pace of the investigations. "Unsolved, Violent Crimes Haunt Ada " was the headline, and Hogue summarized both. On Har-away, she wrote: "Although authorities have searched many local areas, both before and after the arrests of Ward and Fontenot, no trace of Har-away has ever been found. However, Detective Dennis Smith said he is convinced the case is solved." The alleged confessions were not mentioned.
On the Carter case, Hogue wrote: "Evidence found at the murder scene and evidence concerning the suspect were sent to the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation laboratory less than two years ago and the police said they are still waiting for results." The backlog at the OSBI was noted. Dennis Smith said, "The police have narrowed their focus to one suspect in the case but no one has ever been arrested in connection with the crime."
In February 1985, Ron was in court on the escape charge. His court-appointed lawyer was David Morris, a man who knew the Williamson family well. Ron entered a plea of guilty to the escape charge and received a two-year sentence, most of which would be suspended if Ron (1) completed some mental health counseling, (2) stayed out of trouble, (3) stayed in Pontotoc County, and (4) refrained from using alcohol.
A few months later he was arrested for public drunkenness in Pot-tawatomie County. Bill Peterson filed a motion to revoke his suspended sentence and to require him to serve the remainder of his sentence. David Morris was again appointed by the court to represent him. A revocation hearing was held on July 26 before the special district judge John David Miller; or at least it was attempted. Ron, unmedicated, wouldn't shut up. He argued with Morris, Judge Miller, and the deputies, and he became so disruptive that the hearing was postponed.
Three days later they tried again. Judge Miller asked the jailers and deputies to warn Ron about his behavior, but he entered the courtroom yelling and cursing. The judge warned him repeatedly, and he repeatedly rebuked the judge. He demanded a new lawyer, but when the judge asked for a reason, he had none.
His conduct was repulsive, but even in the midst of the turmoil it was obvious that he needed help. At times he seemed connected to what was happening, then a moment later his rantings were incoherent. He was angry, bitter, and lashing out at the world. After several warnings, Judge Miller ordered him back to the jail, and the hearing was postponed again. The next day David Morris filed a motion requesting a hearing into Ron's mental competency. He also filed a motion to withdraw as counsel. In his twisted world, Ron saw himself as perfectly normal. He was insulted by the fact that his lawyer would question his mental stability, so he stopped speaking to him. Morris was fed up.
The motion for a competency hearing was granted. The motion to withdraw was denied. Two weeks later the hearing was initiated, and quickly called off. Ron was even crazier than before. Judge Miller ordered a psychiatric evaluation.
Early in 1985, Juanita Williamson was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, and it progressed rapidly. For two and a half years she had lived with the constant rumors that her son killed Debbie Carter, and she wanted to settle the issue before she passed away.
Juanita was fastidious about paperwork. She had kept a detailed daily journal for decades. Her business records were perfect; give her a minute, and she could tell any customer the dates of her last five appointments. She threw away nothing-paid bills, canceled checks, receipts, her children's report cards, and other mementos.
She had checked her diary a hundred times and knew that on the night of December 7, 1982, Ron had been at home with her. She had shared this with the police on more than one occasion. Their theory was that he could easily have sneaked out of the house, darted through a back alley, committed the crime, then returned home. Forget motive. Forget Glen Gore's lies about seeing Ron at the Coachlight that night harassing Debbie Carter. Minor points; the cops had their man.
But the cops also knew that Juanita Williamson was highly respected. She was devout in her Christian faith and well known throughout the Pentecostal churches. She had hundreds of customers at her beauty shop and treated them all like close friends. If Juanita took the witness stand and said Ronnie was at home on the night of the murder, the jury would believe her. Maybe her son was having problems, but he'd certainly been raised better.
Now Juanita remembered something else. In 1982, videocassette rentals were becoming popular. A store down the street had discovered the business. On December 7, Juanita rented a VCR unit and five of her favorite movies, which she and Ron watched until early the next morning. He was there at home that night, in the den, on the sofa, having a wonderful time watching old movies with his mother. And Juanita had the rental receipt.
David Morris had always tended to the light legal matters Juanita needed. He admired her greatly, and as a favor he occasionally represented Ron in some of his escapades, though he was far from an ideal client. Morris listened to her story, looked at the receipt, and had no doubt she was telling the truth. He was also relieved, because he, like most folks in town, had heard the constant rumors about Ron's involvement in the Carter murder. Most of Morris's work was criminal defense, and he had little respect for the Ada police. But he knew them, and he arranged a meeting with Dennis Smith and Juanita. He even drove her down to the police station and sat with her while she explained things to Dennis Smith. The detective listened carefully, studied the rental record, and asked her if she would video a statement. Certainly. David Morris watched through a window as Juanita was placed in a chair, faced the camera, and answered Smith's questions. Driving home, she was relieved and certain that she had laid the matter to rest.
If the video camera was loaded with a tape, it was never seen. If Detective Smith made a report of the interview, it was never produced in the legal proceedings that followed. Sitting in jail, killing days and weeks, Ron worried about his mother. By August, she was dying in the hospital, and he was not allowed to see her.
That month, by court order, he was examined again by Dr. Charles Amos, who planned to administer some tests. During the first one, though, he noted that Ron was simply marking "True" for all the answers. When Amos quizzed him, he replied, "What's more important, this test or my mother?" The evaluation was called off, but Amos did note, "It should be pointed out that this examiner's interview with Mr. Williamson shows a marked deterioration of emotional function since our last encounter in 1982."
Ron begged the police to allow him to see his mother before she died. Annette pleaded, too. Over the years, she had become acquainted with the officers at the jail. When she took Ronnie cookies and brownies, she took enough for all the inmates and all the jailers. She even cooked entire meals for them in the jail's kitchen.
The hospital was not far away, she reasoned. It was a small town; everybody knew Ron and his family. He was unlikely to somehow get a weapon and hurt people. Finally a deal was made and Ron was led out ofjail after midnight, handcuffed and chained, surrounded by heavily armed deputies, and driven to the hospital, where he was placed in a wheelchair and rolled down the hallway.
Juanita had been clear that she did not want to see her son in handcuffs. Annette had begged the police to comply, and they had reluctantly agreed. But somewhere along the way the agreement was forgotten. The cuffs and leg chains were not removed. Ron pleaded with the cops-just remove the handcuffs for a few minutes while he saw his mother for the last time. It couldn't be done. He was told to remain seated in the wheelchair.
Ron asked for a blanket to hide the handcuffs and shackles. The cops hesitated-could be a security risk-then relented. They wheeled him into Juanita's room and insisted that Annette and Renee leave. They asked to stay so the family could be together one last time. Too risky, the cops said. Go wait in the hall.
Ron told his mother how much he loved her, how sorry he was for the mess he'd made of his life, sorry for all the disappointments. He cried and begged her to forgive him, and of course she did. He quoted some Scripture. Intimacy, though, was somewhat difficult because the cops stayed in the room, hovering over Ron so he couldn't jump out a window or harm someone.
The farewell was brief. The cops cut it off after a few minutes, saying they had to get back to the jail. Annette and Renee could hear their brother crying as they rolled him away.
Juanita died on August 31, 1985. Initially, the police declined the family's request to allow Ron to attend the funeral. They relented only after Annette's husband offered to pay two former deputies, two of his cousins, to help guard Ron throughout the service.
For dramatic effect, the police treated his presence at the funeral as a major security event. They insisted that everyone be seated first, before the criminal could enter. And they refused to unshackle him. Such precautions were obviously needed for a felon who forged a $300 check.
The sanctuary was packed. The open casket was in place in front of the altar so that everyone could see Juanita's gaunt profile. The rear doors opened, and her son was escorted down the aisle by his guards. His ankles were chained together, as were his wrists, with both chains secured to a belly chain around his waist. As he shuffled along in half steps, the clinking and rattling of the hardware frayed whatever nerves were left in the crowd. When he saw his mother in the open casket, Ron began sobbing and saying, "I'm sorry, Mother. I'm so sorry." The sobbing turned to wailing as he neared the casket. They settled him into his seat, guards on both sides, chains clattering with every move. He was nervous, upset, manic, and unable to be still and quiet. Ron sat in the First Pentecostal Holiness Church, in the sanctuary where he had worshipped as a boy, where Annette still played the organ every Sunday morning, where his mother had seldom missed a meeting, and wept as he stared at her withered face.
A lunch was served in the church's fellowship hall after the service. Ron shuffled over to it, guards within striking distance. He'd been living off jail food for almost a year, and the potluck spread before him was a feast. Annette asked the cop in charge to remove his handcuffs so he could eat. The request was refused. She quietly pleaded. No, came the answer.
Family and friends watched with pity as his sisters, Annette and Re-nee, took turns feeding him.
At the grave site, after some Scripture and a prayer, the mourners filed past Annette, Renee, and Ron and offered their condolences and kind thoughts. There were polite hugs and warm embraces, but not from Ron. Unable to lift his arms, he was forced to respond with awkward pecks on the cheeks for the women and clumsy, chain-rattling handshakes for the men. It was September, still very hot, and sweat rolled down his forehead and dripped onto his cheeks. He was unable to wipe his face, so Annette and Renee did it for him.
Dr. Charles Amos submitted to the court a report in which he stated that Ron Williamson was a mentally ill person as defined by Oklahoma law, that he could not appreciate the nature of the charges against him, that he could not assist his attorney in his defense, and that he could attain mental competency only after undergoing treatment. He also stated that if Ron was released without treatment, he would pose a danger to himself and others. Judge Miller adopted the findings of Dr. Amos and entered an order that declared Ron mentally incompetent. He was transported to Eastern State Hospital in Vinita for further evaluation and treatment. There he was seen by Dr. R. D. Garcia, who prescribed Dalmane and Restoril for insomnia, Mellaril for hallucinations and delusions, and Thorazine for schizophrenia, hyperactivity, combativeness, and the hyper-energy phase of manic depression. The drugs were adjusted over a few days, and Ron settled down and began improving.
After a couple of weeks, Dr. Garcia concluded: "He is a sociopath and has a history of alcohol abuse. He must continue to take Thorazine, lOOmg, four times a day. He is not an escape risk."
This was somewhat ironic since the prison sentence being revoked was for an escape. Answering written questions from the court, Dr. Garcia said: "(1) He is a person able to appreciate the nature of the charges against him, and (2)... is able to consult with his lawyer and rationally assist in the preparation of his defense, and (3)... is no longer mentally ill, and (4)... even if he is released without treatment, therapy, or training he probably would not pose a significant threat to the life or safety of himself or others, not unless he becomes more sociopathic and may be considered potentially dangerous, especially when drinking heavily."
Ron was returned to Ada, where his revocation process was to be resumed. However, instead of holding a post-examination inquiry into his competency, Judge Miller simply accepted Dr. Garcia's findings at face value. Ron, mentally incompetent by court order, was never adjudicated to be competent. Based on Dr. Garcia's conclusions, the suspended sentence was revoked, and Ron was sent back to prison for the remainder of his two-year term. When he left Eastern State, he was given a two-week supply of Thorazine.
In September, Tommy Ward and Karl Fontenot were put on trial in Ada. Their lawyers had argued strenuously to have their cases separated and, more important, to get them out of Pontotoc County. Denice Har-away was still missing and still talked about, and hundreds of locals had helped look for her. Her father-in-law was a local dentist who was greatly respected. Ward and Fontenot had been in jail for eleven months. Their confessions had been hot topics in the coffee shops and beauty parlors since October, when first reported in the newspaper.
How could the defendants expect to draw an impartial jury? Notorious trials are moved every day to other venues. The motions to change venue were denied. The other pretrial war was over the confessions. Attorneys for Ward and Fontenot attacked the statements, and especially the methods used by Detectives Smith and Rogers to obtain them. The tales told by the boys were clearly not true; not a shred of physical evidence backed up anything they said.
Peterson fought back with a vengeance. Without the tapes, he had no case whatsoever. After lengthy and heated arguments, the judge ruled that the confessions could be seen by the jury.
The state called fifty-one witnesses, few of whom said anything substantive. Many were friends of Denice Haraway, put on the stand to help prove she was in fact missing and presumed dead. The trial had only one surprise. A career criminal by the name of Terri Holland was called as a witness. She told the jury that she was in the county jail back in October when Karl Fontenot was brought in. The two talked occasionally, and he admitted to her that he, Tommy Ward, and Odell Tits-worth had kidnapped, raped, and killed the girl.
Fontenot denied ever meeting the woman.
Terri Holland wasn't the only jailhouse snitch to testify. A petty criminal named Leonard Martin was also behind bars. The prosecution hauled him over, and at trial, he told the jury that he once overheard Karl in his cell talking to himself and saying, "I knew we'd get caught. I knew we'd get caught."
Such was the quality of the state's evidence-proof offered to persuade a jury of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
With no physical evidence, the taped confessions were beyond crucial, but they were filled with discrepancies and obvious lies. The prosecution was forced into the bizarre position of admitting Ward and Fontenot were lying while asking the jurors to believe them anyway.
Please disregard all that stuff about Titsworth, because he wasn't really involved.
Please overlook such trifling matters as the burned house with the dead body, because the house had been torched ten months earlier.
Monitors were rolled in. The lights were dimmed. The tapes were played. The grisly details emerged, and Ward and Fontenot were headed for death row.
In his closing argument, his first in a murder case, Assistant D.A. Chris Ross aimed for high drama. In graphic narrative, he recalled the gory details from the tapes-the stab wounds, the blood and guts, the brutal raping and knifing of such a pretty girl, then the horrible burning of her body.
The jurors were sufficiently angered. After brief deliberations, they returned with guilty verdicts and death penalties.
The truth, though, was that the body was not stabbed and it was not burned, regardless of what Ward and Fontenot said in their bogus confessions and regardless of what Bill Peterson and Chris Ross told the jury. Denice Haraway was killed by a single gunshot wound to the head. Her remains were found the following January by a hunter deep in the woods near the settlement of Gerty, in Hughes County, twenty-seven miles from Ada and far from any place that had been searched.
The true cause of death should have convinced everyone involved that Ward and Fontenot had indeed dreamed up their ridiculous tales and had been coerced into confessing. It did not.
The true cause of death should have prompted the authorities to admit they were wrong and begin searching for the real murderer. It did not.
After the trial, but before the body was found, Tommy Ward was waiting to be transferred to death row at McAlester, a prison fifty-five miles east of Ada. Still stunned by the events that had led him to now face death by lethal injection, he was frightened, confused, and depressed. One year earlier he had been a typical Ada twenty-something looking for a good job and a good party and a cute girl.
The real killers are out there, he kept thinking, laughing at us. Laughing at the cops. He wondered if they, the killers, had been brazen enough to watch his trial. Why not? They were safe.
One day he had visitors-two Ada cops. They were his friends now, his buddies, very concerned about what would happen to him once he got to McAlester. They were thoughtful, quiet, and measured with their words-no threats, yelling, or cursing, no promises of death by injection. They really wanted to find the body of Denice Haraway; thus, they offered a deal. If Tommy would tell them where she was buried, they would lobby hard over at Peterson's office and get the death sentence reduced to life. They claimed to have this authority, but did not. The case was far beyond their control.
Tommy didn't know where the body was. He repeated what he had been saying for almost a year-he had nothing to do with the crime. Now facing death, Tommy Ward still could not give the cops what they wanted.
Not long after the arrests of Ward and Fontenot, their story came to the attention of a respected New York journalist, Robert Mayer, then living in the Southwest. He heard the story from the woman he was dating; her brother was married to one of Tommy Ward's sisters.
Mayer was intrigued by the dream confession and the havoc it was creating. Why, he wondered, would anyone confess to a terrible crime, but fill the confession with lies? He went to Ada and began investigating the story. Throughout the prolonged pretrial process, then during the trial itself, Mayer diligently researched the town, its people, the crime, the police, the prosecutors, and especially Ward and Fontenot.
Ada watched him closely. It was rare to have a real writer in their midst, probing, watching, about to write God knows what. Over time, Mayer gained the trust of most of the players. He interviewed Bill Peterson at length. He sat through meetings with the defense attorneys. He spent hours with the cops. During one meeting, Dennis Smith talked about the pressure of having two unsolved murders in such a small town. He pulled out a photo of Debbie Carter and showed it to Mayer. "We know Ron Williamson killed her," Smith said. "We just can't prove it yet."
When Mayer began the project, he believed that there was an even chance the boys were guilty. But he was soon appalled by the actions of Smith and Rogers, and by the legal proceedings against Ward and Fontenot. There was no evidence other than the confessions, and, as shocking as they were, they were so full of contradictions that they could not be believed.
Nonetheless, Mayer strove to present a balanced picture of the crime and the trial. His book, The Dreams of Ada, was published by Viking in April 1987 and was greatly anticipated by the town.
The reaction was swift but predictable. Some people discounted the book because of the author's friendliness with the Ward family. Others were convinced the boys were guilty because they confessed, and nothing could ever change their opinions.
There was also a widespread belief that the police and the prosecutors had botched the case, sent the wrong men to prison, and left the real killers out there.
Stung by the criticism-it's rare for a small-town prosecutor to have a book written about one of his cases, and a very unflattering one at that- Bill Peterson roared into action in the Debbie Carter matter. He had something to prove.
The investigation was stale-the poor girl had been dead for more than four years-but it was time to nail someone.
Peterson and the police had believed for years that the killer was Ron Williamson.
Perhaps Dennis Fritz was involved, maybe not, but they knew Williamson was in Carter's apartment that night. They had no evidence, just gut feelings.
Ron was out of prison and back in Ada. When his mother died in August 1985, he was in jail awaiting a competency hearing and staring at two more years in prison. Annette and Renee reluctantly sold the small house where they had grown up. When Ron was paroled from prison in October 1986, he had no place to live. He moved in with Annette and her husband and son, and for a few days tried hard to fit in. But his old habits returned-the late-night meals he prepared with great noise, the allnight television routine, at full volume, the smoking and drinking, and the daylong naps on the sofa. After a month or so, with nerves frayed and her family on edge, Annette had to ask him to leave. The two years in prison had done nothing to improve his mental health. He had moved in and out of various state hospitals, with different doctors trying different combinations of drugs. Often there were no medications at all. He would survive for a while in the general prison population, then someone would notice his bizarre behavior, and off he'd go to another mental unit.
Upon his release, the Department of Corrections made an appointment for Ron to see a social worker at Mental Health Services in Ada. On October 15, he met Norma Walker, who noted that he was taking lithium, Navane, and Artane. She found him to be pleasant, controlled, and a little strange, "sometimes staring without saying anything for as long as a minute at a time." He planned to go to a Bible college and maybe become a minister. Or he might start his own construction company. Big plans, a bit grandiose, thought Walker. Two weeks later, still medicated, he kept his appointment and appeared to be doing fine. He skipped the next two, and when he showed up on December 9, he demanded to see Dr. Marie Snow. He had stopped taking his meds because he'd met a girl who didn't believe in them. Dr. Snow tried to convince him to start taking his pills, but he said that God had told him to give up the booze and all drugs.
He missed appointments on December 18 and January 14. On February 16, Annette called Norma Walker and said his behavior could not be controlled. She described him as "psychotic" and said he had mentioned killing himself with a handgun. The next day he came in, very nervous but somewhat reasonable. He demanded a change in medication. Three days later Walker received a call from McCall's Chapel. Ron was making a scene-yelling and demanding a job. She advised them to treat him with caution and call the police if necessary. That afternoon Annette and her husband brought him in to meet with Walker. They were distraught and desperate for help.
Walker observed Ron to be unmedicated, confused, disoriented, delusional, detached from reality, and completely unable to take care of his own food and shelter. She doubted he could survive on his own even with proper medication. The solution was "long-term institutionaliza-tion for his diminished mental capacities and unmanageable behavior."
The three left with no plan, and no meds. Ron drifted around Ada and eventually disappeared. Gary Simmons was at his home in Chick-asha one night, chatting with two friends, when the doorbell rang. He answered it, and his brother-in-law rushed in and collapsed on the living room floor. "I need help," Ron said over and over. "I'm crazy and I need help." Unshaven, filthy, his hair thick and matted, he was disoriented and not sure where he was. "I can't take it anymore," he said.
Gary 's guests did not know Ron and were shocked by his appearance and desperation. One left, and the other hung around. Ron became quiet, then lethargic. Gary promised Ron he would find help in some way, and they eventually got him in a car. The first stop was the nearest hospital, where they were referred to the local mental health center. From there, they were sent to Central State Hospital in Norman. As they were driving, Ron became almost catatonic. He did manage to say that he was starving. Gary knew a ribs place famous for its large servings, but when they stopped in the parking lot, Ron asked,
"Where are we?"
"We're getting something to eat," Gary replied. Ron swore he wasn't hungry, so they drove away, headed for Norman. "Why did we stop back there?" Ron asked.
"Because you said you were hungry."
"I did not." Ron was irritated by Gary 's actions.
A few miles closer to Norman, Ron again said he was very hungry. Gary saw a McDonald's and stopped. "What are we doing here?" Ron asked.
"We're getting something to eat," Gary replied. "Why?"
"Because you said you were hungry."
"I'm not hungry. Could we just please hurry on to the hospital." They left McDonald's and finally arrived in Norman, at which time Ron announced he was hungry. Gary patiently found another McDonald's, and Ron, not surprisingly, asked why they were stopping.
The last stop before the hospital was for gas at a Vickers station on Main Street. Gary returned to the car with two large candy bars, which Ron grabbed and devoured in seconds. Gary and his friend were startled at how quickly he consumed them.
At Central State, Ron was drifting in and out of whatever stupor he was in. The first doctor became frustrated when he wouldn't cooperate, and as soon as he left the room, Gary chastised his brother-in-law.
Ron responded by standing and facing a blank wall, flexing his arms into a goofy bodybuilder pose, and becoming rigid for several long minutes. Gary tried to speak to him, but he was gone. Ten minutes passed, and Ron didn't flinch. He stared at the ceiling without making a sound or moving a muscle. Twenty minutes passed, and Gary was ready to bolt. After thirty very long minutes, Ron snapped out of it but still would not speak to Gary.
Fortunately, the staff soon arrived and took Ron to his room. He told a doctor, "I just wanted to come here because I needed a place to go to at this time." He was given lithium, for depression, and Navane, an antipsychotic drug used to treat schizophrenia. Once he was stabilized, he checked himself out, against the advice of his doctors, and within a few days was back in Ada.
Gary 's next road trip with his brother-in-law was to Dallas, to a Christian mission program for ex-cons and addicts. Gary 's pastor had met Ron and wanted to help. Quietly, the pastor confided to Gary, "Ron's lights are on, but no one's home."
They checked into the facility in Dallas. When Ron was situated, Gary said good-bye. In doing so, he slipped Ron $50 in cash, a violation of the rules, though neither knew it. Gary returned to Oklahoma, and so did Ron. Within hours of checking in, he had used the cash to purchase a bus ticket back to Ada and arrived not long after Gary. His next admission to Central State was not voluntary. On March 21, nine days after being discharged, Ron attempted suicide by swallowing twenty Navane pills. His reason, given to a nurse, was that he was depressed because he could not find a job. He was stabilized and placed on proper medication, which he stopped taking after the third day. His doctors concluded that he was a danger to himself and others and recommended a twenty-eight-day treatment at Central State. On March 24, he was discharged. Back in Ada, Ron found a room behind a small house on Twelfth Street, on the west side of town. He had no kitchen and no plumbing. To shower, when he bathed, he used a water hose behind the house. Annette took him food and tried to care for him. During one visit she noticed his wrists were bleeding. He'd cut them with a razor, he said, so that he could suffer like all the others who'd suffered so much because of him. He wanted to die and be with his parents, the two people he'd hurt so much. She begged him to go see a doctor, but he refused. He also refused to get help at the mental services office, where he'd been so many times.
He was completely off his medications.
The old man who owned the house was kind to Ron. Rent was cheap, often free. In the garage there was an ancient lawn mower with one wheel missing. Ron pushed it up and down the streets of Ada, mowing lawns for $5 and giving the money to his landlord. On April 4, the Ada police received a call from a residence on the west block of Tenth Street. The home owner informed the patrolman that he had to leave town and he feared for the safety of his family because Ron Williamson had been roaming through the neighborhood at all hours of the night. Evidently, the home owner knew Ron and was watching carefully. He told the cop that Ron had made four trips to the Circle K convenience store and two or three to Love's convenience store, all in one night. The policeman was sympathetic-everyone knew Ron was acting weird-but there was no law against walking the streets after midnight. He promised to patrol the area. On April 10, at three in the morning, the police received a call from a clerk at the Circle K. Ron Williamson had been in several times, acting really strange. While Officer Jeff Smith was making his report, the suspect showed up again. Smith asked "Ronnie" to leave, which he did.
An hour later Ron walked to the jail and rang the buzzer and announced that he wanted to confess several crimes that he had committed in his past. He was given a form for a voluntary statement and began writing. He admitted to stealing a purse four years earlier at the Coach-light, stealing a gun from a home, touching two girls on their private parts, and hitting and almost raping a girl up at Asher. But he abandoned his confession and left the jail. Officer Rick Carson followed and caught up with him a few blocks away. Ron tried to explain what he was doing at that hour, but was very confused. He finally said he was out looking for mowing jobs. Carson suggested that Ron go home, and that perhaps the mowing jobs might be easier to find during daylight hours.
On April 13, Ron went to the mental health clinic and frightened the workers. One of them described him as "drooling." He demanded to see Dr. Snow and started down a hallway to her office. When told she wasn't in, he left without incident. Three days later, The Dreams of Ada was published.
As much as the police wanted to pin the Carter murder on Ron Williamson, they simply lacked sufficient proof. By the late spring of 1987, they had little more evidence than they'd had in the summer of 1983. The hair analysis from the OSBI had finally been completed, two years after the murder. Some of the samples taken from Ron and Dennis were "microscopically consistent" with some of the hairs found at the murder scene, but hair comparisons were wildly unreliable.
The prosecution had one significant obstacle-the bloody palm print on the small section of Sheetrock cut from the wall in Debbie Carter's bedroom. Early in 1983 Jerry Peters of the OSBI had examined the print carefully and concluded that it was not from Dennis Fritz or Ron Williamson. Nor did it match Debbie Carter. It was a print left by the killer. But what if Jerry Peters had been wrong, or perhaps in a hurry, or maybe he had just overlooked something? If the print actually belonged to Debbie Carter, then Fritz and Williamson could not be excluded as suspects.
Peterson seized upon the idea of exhuming her body and examining the palm prints again. With luck, her hands were not too badly decomposed, and a new set of prints just might, if examined perhaps from a different angle, reveal information that could greatly assist the prosecution and finally bring the murderers to justice.
Peggy Stillwell received a call from Dennis Smith. He asked her to come to the police station, but refused to give a reason. She thought, as always, that perhaps there had been a break in the case. When she arrived, Bill Peterson was sitting behind the desk with a sheet of paper in front of him. He explained that they wanted to exhume Debbie's body and he needed her signature to approve it. Charlie Carter had already stopped by and signed off.
Peggy was horrified. The idea of disturbing her daughter was shocking. She said no, but Peterson was prepared for it. He pressed on, asking Peggy if she wanted the murder solved. Of course, but wasn't there some other way? No. If she wanted to find Debbie's killer and bring him to justice, she had to agree to the exhumation. After a few minutes, Peggy scribbled her signature, hurried away from the police department, and drove to the home of her sister Glenna Lucas.
She told Glenna about the meeting with Bill Peterson and the plans to dig up the body. She was actually excited by now, anxious to see her daughter again. "I'll get to touch her and hold her again," she kept saying.
Glenna did not share her enthusiasm and wasn't convinced such a reunion was healthy. And she had doubts about the people running the investigation. In the four and a half years since the murder, she had been forced to chat with Bill Peterson several times about the case.
Peggy was not stable. She had never accepted the fact that Debbie was dead. Glenna had repeatedly asked Peterson and the police to filter any news from the investigation through herself or another family member. Peggy could not handle sudden developments and needed her family's protection.
Glenna immediately called Bill Peterson and demanded to know what he was planning. He explained that the exhumation was necessary if the family wanted Ron Williamson and Dennis Fritz brought to trial for the murder. The bloody palm print stood in the way, and if it actually belonged to Debbie, then he and the police could move with urgency against Fritz and Williamson.
Glenna was confused. How did Peterson know the outcome of the reprinting if the body had yet to be exhumed? How could he be so sure that the exhumation would incriminate Fritz and Williamson?
Peggy was obsessed with seeing her daughter again. At one point she said to Glenna, "I've forgotten what her voice sounded like." Glenna was promised by Bill Peterson that the exhumation would be done quickly and be completed before anyone knew it. Peggy was at her station at Brockway Glass when a co-worker walked by and asked her what was happening over at Rosedale Cemetery, near Debbie's grave site. She left the factory, raced across town, but found only an empty grave. Her daughter had been removed.
The first set of palm prints had been taken by OSBI agent Jerry Peters on December 9, 1982, during the autopsy. At that time, the hands had been perfect, and Peters had no doubt that he had taken a full and thorough set of prints. When he issued his report three months later, he'd been certain in his findings that the bloody print from the Sheet-rock was not left by Fritz, Williamson, or the victim.
Now, though, four and a half years later, with the murder unsolved and the authorities looking for a break, he suddenly had doubts about his earlier work. Three days after the exhumation, he issued a revised report in which he concluded that the bloody print matched Debbie Carter's palm. For the first and only time in his twenty-four-year career, Jerry Peters changed his mind.
The report was exactly what Bill Peterson needed. Armed with the proof that the bloody print did not belong to some unknown killer but had been left by Debbie as she struggled for her life, he was free to go after his prime suspects. And it was important to alert the townsfolk- the potential jurors.
While the authorities claimed that the exhumation and its details were confidential, Peterson chatted with the Ada Evening News anyway. "What we found confirmed our suspicions. We were checking some evidence," he was quoted as saying. What, exactly, was found? Peterson wouldn't confirm the details, but a "source" was willing to tell all. The source said, "The body was exhumed so the woman's palm prints could be made and compared with a bloody palm print found on her apartment wall."
The source went on: "Elimination of the possibility that the bloody palm print was someone other than the victim was crucial to the investigation. "
"I do feel better about the case," Peterson said.
He obtained warrants for the arrests of Ron Williamson and Dennis Fritz.
On Friday morning, May 8, Kick Carson saw Ron pushing the lawn mower with three wheels along a street on the west side of town. The two talked for a moment. Ron, with long hair, no shirt, ragged jeans, and sneakers, looked as rough as always. He wanted to get a job with the city, and Rick promised to stop by and pick up an application. Ron said he would wait at home that night.
Carson then informed his lieutenant that he knew their suspect would in fact be hanging around his apartment on West Twelfth later in the evening. The arrest was planned, and Rick asked to be involved. If Ron turned violent, Rick wanted to make sure no one got hurt. Instead, four other policemen were sent, including Detective Mike Baskin.
Ron was taken into custody without incident. He was wearing the same jeans and sneakers and was still shirtless. At the jail, Mike Baskin read him his Miranda rights and asked if he would like to talk. Sure, why not. Detective James Fox joined the interview. Ron repeatedly said he had never met Debbie Carter, had never been in her apartment, and to the best of his knowledge had never seen her. He never wavered, in spite of some yelling and bullying from the cops, who said over and over that they knew Ron was guilty.
Ron was placed in the county jail. At least a month had passed since he had taken any medications.
Dennis Fritz was living with his mother and an aunt in Kansas City, keeping busy by painting houses. He'd left Ada a few months earlier. His friendship with Ron Williamson was a distant memory. He hadn't talked to a detective in four years and had almost forgotten about the Carter murder.
Late on the evening of May 8, he was watching television by himself. He had worked all day and was still wearing his dirty painters' whites. The night was warm, the windows were open. The phone rang, and an unidentified female voice asked, "Is Dennis Fritz there?"
"I'm Dennis Fritz," he answered, and she hung up. Perhaps it was a wrong number, or perhaps his ex-wife was up to something. He settled back in front of the television. His mother and aunt were already asleep in the rear of the house. It was almost 11:30. Fifteen minutes later he heard a series of car doors slam nearby. He got up, barefoot, and was walking to the front door when he saw a small army of combat-ready troops, dressed in black and heavily armed, moving across the lawn. What the hell? he thought. For a split second he considered calling the police.
The doorbell rang, and when he opened the door, two plainclothes cops grabbed him, pulled him outside, and demanded to know, "Are you Dennis Fritz?"
"Yes, I am."
"Then you're under arrest for first-degree murder," one growled while the other slapped on the handcuffs.
"What murder are you talking about?" Dennis asked, then had a quick thought: How many Dennis Fritzes are there in Kansas City? Surely they've got the wrong one. His aunt appeared at the door, saw the SWAT team advancing on Dennis, submachine guns aimed and ready, and became hysterical. His mother ran from her bedroom as the police entered the house to "secure" it, though, when questioned, they were unclear as to whom and what they wished to secure. Dennis did not own a firearm. There were no other known or suspected murderers on the premises, but the SWAT boys had their procedures.
Just as Dennis was convinced he was about to be gunned down at the front door, he glanced up and saw a white Stetson hat moving his way. Two nightmares from his past were approaching on the driveway. Dennis Smith and Gary Rogers happily joined the fracas, with "shit-eating grins" from ear to ear. Oh, that murder, Dennis thought. In their finest hour, the two small-town cowboys had conned the Kansas City Fugitive Apprehension Unit into conducting the dramatic but senseless raid.
"Can I get my shoes?" Dennis asked, and the cops reluctantly agreed.
Fritz was placed in the backseat of a police car, where he was joined by an ecstatic Dennis Smith. One of the K.C. detectives did the driving. As they left, Fritz looked at the heavily armed SWAT boys and thought, How stupid. Any part-time deputy could've made the arrest at the local grocery store. As stunned as he was by the arrest, he had to chuckle as he noticed how dejected the K.C. police looked. His last image was of his mother, standing in the front door, with her hands over her mouth.
They took him to a small interrogation room at a police station in Kansas City. Smith and Rogers went through the Miranda warnings, then announced that they intended to get a confession. Dennis kept thinking of Ward and Fontenot and was determined to give them nothing. Smith became the nice guy, his pal who really wanted to help. Rogers was instantly abusive-cursing, threatening, poking Dennis in the chest repeatedly.
Four years had passed since their last session. In June 1983, after Fritz had "severely flunked" the second polygraph, Smith, Rogers, and Featherstone had kept him in the basement of the Ada Police Department for three hours and badgered him. They got nothing then, and they were getting nothing now.
Rogers was furious. The cops had known for years that Fritz and Williamson raped and murdered Debbie Carter, and now the crime had been solved. All they needed was a confession. "I have nothing to confess," Fritz said over and over. What evidence do you have? Show me the evidence.
One of Rogers 's favorite lines was, "You're insulting my intelligence." And each time Fritz was tempted to say, "What intelligence?" But he did not want to get slapped.
After two hours of abuse, Fritz finally said, "All right, I'll confess." The cops were relieved; since they had no proof, they were about to crack the case with a confession. Smith hustled out to find a tape recorder. Rogers quickly arranged his notepad and pens. Let's have it.
When they were all set, Fritz looked directly at the tape recorder and said, "Here's the truth. I did not kill Debbie Carter and know nothing about her murder."
Smith and Rogers went ballistic-more threats, more verbal abuse. Fritz was rattled and frightened, but he held firm. He maintained his innocence, and they finally called off the interrogation. He refused extradition to Oklahoma and waited in jail for the process to run its course.
Later that day, Saturday, Ron was led from the jail to the police station for another interview. Smith and Rogers, back from their thrilling arrest of Fritz, were waiting. Their goal was to make him talk.
The interrogation had been planned since the day before the arrest. The Dreams ofAda had just been published, and there was criticism of the methods of Smith and Rogers.
They decided that Smith, who lived in Ada, should be replaced by Rusty Featherstone, who lived in Oklahoma City. They also decided not to use video.
Dennis Smith was in the building but stayed away from the interview room. After leading the investigation for over four years, and believing for much of that time that Williamson was guilty, he nonetheless avoided the crucial interrogation.
The Ada Police Department was well stocked with audio and video equipment, and it was frequently used. Interrogations, and especially confessions, were almost always recorded on tape. The police were quite aware of the powerful impact of showing a confession to a jury. Ask Ward and Fontenot. Ron's second polygraph four years earlier had been taped by Featherstone at the Ada Police Department.
When confessions were not recorded on video, they were often taken by audio. The police had plenty of tape recorders.
And when neither audio nor video was used, the suspect was usually asked to write, if he could in fact read and write, his own version of what happened. If the suspect happened to be illiterate, then a detective would write the statement, read it back to the defendant, and ask him to sign it.
None of these methods were used on May 9. Williamson, who was quite literate and had a much wider vocabulary than either of his two interrogators, watched as Featherstone took notes. He said he understood his Miranda rights and agreed to talk. The police version reads as follows:
WILLIAMSON said, "Okay, December the 8th, 1982, I was hanging out at the Coachlight frequently and I was there one night looking at a girl, a pretty girl, and thought I should follow her home."
WILLIAMSON paused, then acted as if he wished to say something that started with the letter F, but then paused again. Then he continued, "Thought what if something bad would happen that night, and followed her home."
WILLIAMSON then paused and talked about when he stole a stereo. WILLIAMSON then said, "I was with DENNIS, and we went to the Holiday Inn, and told a girl that we had a bar in our car, and got her and she jumped."
WILLIAMSON talked in sporadic phrases and Agent ROGERS asked WILLIAMSON to concentrate and get back to talking about the DEBBIE CARTER case.
WILLIAMSON said, "Okay, I had a dream about killing DEBBIE, was on her, had a cord around her neck, stabbed her, frequently, pulled the rope tight around her neck."
WILLIAMSON said, "I am worried about what this will do to my family," and then he said, "My mother is dead now."
Agent ROGERS asked WILLIAMSON if he and DENNIS were there that night and WILLIAMSON answered "yes." Agent FEATHERSTONE asked WILLIAMSON, "Did you go there with the intention to kill her?" WILLIAMSON responded, "Probably." Agent FEATHERSTONE asked, "Why?" WILLIAMSON responded, "She made me mad."
Agent FEATHERSTONE asked, "How do you mean? Mean to you? A bitch?"
WILLIAMSON responded, "No."
WILLIAMSON paused briefly then said, "Oh my God you can't expect me to confess, I've got my family, I've got my nephew to protect. My sister, it will tear her up. It can't hurt my mother now since she is dead. It's been on my mind since it happened."
At about 1938 hours, WILLIAMSON said, "If you're going to try me on this, I want TANNER in Tulsa. No, I want DAVID MORRIS." The mention of a lawyer spooked the detectives, and they stopped the confession. They called David Morris, who instructed them to stop interrogating Ron immediately. The statement was not signed by Ron. It was never shown to him.
Armed with another dream confession, the case was coming together nicely for the cops and prosecutors. They had learned with Ward and Fontenot that a lack of physical evidence should not get in the way of an urgent prosecution. The fact that Debbie Carter was not stabbed was of little consequence. Juries will convict if they can be adequately shocked.
If one dream confession could nail Williamson, then another could put him away. A few days later, a jailer named John Christian stopped by Ron's cell. He and Ron had grown up in the same neighborhood. The Christian household was full of boys, one the same age as Ron, and he was often included in lunch and dinner. They played baseball together in the streets and the leagues and attended Byng Junior High.
Untreated and unmedicated, Ron was far from a model inmate. The Pontotoc County jail is a windowless concrete bunker, for some reason built on the west side of the courthouse lawn. The ceilings are low, the atmosphere cramped and claustrophobic, and when someone screams, everyone hears it. Ron screamed often. When he wasn't yelling, he was singing, crying, wailing, complaining, or either protesting his innocence or ranting on about Debbie Carter. He was placed in one of the two solitary cells, as far away from the crowded bullpen as possible, but the jail was so small that Ron could disrupt it from anywhere.
Only John Christian could settle him down, and the other inmates came to appreciate the changing of the guard. When Christian arrived, he immediately went to Ron's cell and calmed him. They would talk about the old days, growing up, playing ball, friends they had known back then. They talked about the Carter case and how unfair it was for Ron to be charged. For eight hours Ron was quiet. His solitary cell was a rat hole, but he managed to sleep and read. Before Christian punched out, he checked on Ron, who was usually pacing, smoking, getting himself psyched up to begin the racket as soon as the new guard arrived.
Late in the evening of May 22, Ron was awake and knew Christian was at the front desk. Ron called him back and wanted to talk about the murder. He had a copy of The Dreams ofAda and said he might have a dream confession of his own. According to Christian, Ron said, "Now just imagine this, I dreamed this is what took place. Just imagine that I was living in Tulsa, and I'd been drinking and taking quaaludes all day, and I drove to Buzzy's Club (Coachlight Club), and just imagine that I drank some more and got a bit drunker. Just suppose that I ended up at Debbie Carter's door and knocked on the door and she said just a minute I'm on the phone. Just imagine I busted the door in and I raped and killed her."
Williamson then said, "Don't you think if I was the person that killed her, that I would have gotten some money from my friends and left town?"
Christian thought little of the conversation, but did repeat it to a fellow officer. It was repeated again and again, and finally made it to Gary Rogers. The detective saw an opportunity for additional evidence against their killer. Two months later, he asked Christian to repeat what Ron had told him. Rogers typed up a report, added quotation marks where he thought appropriate, and the police and prosecutor then had their second dream confession. Not a single word was included to reflect Ron's many denials of involvement in the crime.
As usual, the facts were not important. Ron was not living in Tulsa at the time of the murder. He possessed neither a vehicle nor a driver's license.