Anatomy of Murder

A murder case has many layers: the victim, the crime, and the investigation. To truly understand it, you need to dissect each piece of a tragic puzzle. Join Anna-Sigga Nicolazzi and Scott Weinberger every Wednesday for an insider’s perspective, as they reveal to you the Anatomy of Murder.

The Desert of Death

The Desert of Death

Wed, 04 Nov 2020 08:00

When young women started to disappear in El Paso, TX, one mother put the community in motion to stop a serial killer before he struck again.

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If you're looking for a new show unlike anything you've ever heard before, check out audio Chuck's latest series killed. Each episode of killed covers a story that you may have never read because it was killed before it got published. I'm Justine Harman, who some of you may know from my show OC swingers, and I'm here to bring these dead stories back to life binge killed right now to get the full story. I can imagine how hard it is not to ever know. What happened to your child? If no one else is going to help you, you just have to pick it up and be the person that does it for yourself. I'm Scott Weinberger's, investigative journalist and former deputy sheriff. Clasie, former New York City homicide prosecutor and host of Investigation, Discovery's true conviction. And this is anatomy of murder. And we're going to El Paso, TX today and El Paso, those of you who don't know, we probably know it's in Texas, but it's way West and it's SW, it actually shares a border with Mexico. And the reason that we are going to be in El Paso, at least virtually is because of what happened there. I spoke with Marcia Fulton. Marcia Fulton is the mother of a young girl who went missing in El Paso, TX. I was really reminded, speaking to her, that this woman, in addition to that loss, the criminal justice system itself, really caused her such additional knots. You know, in the ropes of this woman's pain. And certainly for me, having had my career within that system, it's really hard for me to hear, although I totally get it. And so I really hope, Scott. That in talking about the case today that one of the things that we can do is shed some insight into some of that, some of the reasons for it and also some of the issues that we too see, you know, anything as so many of the homicides that we cover, especially involving teens, begin with some sort of unexplained disappearance, right? And unfortunately, sometimes the situation is misjudged by law enforcement and the results will it take us where we are with today's story? So let's start at the beginning happier times. Marsha Fulton, as she described she was the mother of two young girls, Sunday and Desiree. They spent most of their lives in El Paso, TX. Marsha was divorced at that point and she moved in with her parents. She worked long hours and her parents volunteered to help out with the girls. It was really important to Marsha that her kids not be latchkey kids and that her mom, their grandmother, had dinner on the table for those girls every single night. These girls were 60 months apart. Desiree, who she called Desi. As her youngest, well, Desiree was something special. She came home one day and she asked me, she says. What does the word gullible mean? And I said, well, it means that, you know, you believe things that people tell you. And she says, oh, OK. She says, well, I was good at most gullible today in school. How about that? She was gullible, but she was gullible because she just saw. Everybody's as good. It's that special relationship that Desi and her mom shared, I think is so important to this story. To a different drummer, OK? And I didn't know how correct I was until one day I'm driving down the road and she's walking down the sidewalk. She don't see me and she's dancing as she's walking down the sidewalk. There was no iPod written, there was no the music was in her head and she was just dancing through that music that that only she heard. That speaks volumes to me about this free spirit, strong young woman who really doesn't care what other people think. But there's an innocence about her. You know, she believes the best in people until they prove her wrong, which unfortunately may well have fed into what happened. The last day of school, which is when she disappeared, June 2nd, 1987. Well, what morning she woke me up. She said mom wake up because I got to go get film for my camera. And I said casually, can we do this tomorrow? Because now no base, last day of school, I want to take pictures. So finally we got the film. Driving home, I get right to our street where we're going to turn. So she gets that, starts walking and turns around. Wage goodbye, it says. Love you, mom. And I says I love you too. I'll see you tonight. Well, those were the last words we said to each other and I thank God every bit that that were in the last words were I told her I loved her. And she said, I love you too. Desiree and her friends left school that day with plans for a party that night, but she wanted to stay out. You know, this is their last day of school, but she is the type of young woman that she did it responsibly. She actually called her grandmother to say, I know my curfew is at 8:00 PM, but can I stay up till 10? So my mom thought about it. That's OK. So you have to be at the door by 10:00 o'clock. And they said, OK, I can do that no problem. So when I got home that night, it was 2:00 AM my mother, she met me at the door. Which was not usual, and she said this is not home yet. I said what somebody who does that, someone who is responsible enough to ask permission to stay out two extra hours is not likely the kind of person who would just not show up at the time she scheduled to. Have you ever heard the saying? Oh God, I just felt like somebody walked over my grave. That's just feeling I got. And at that moment, I just knew I was never gonna see her again. She was last seen at the local Circle K convenience store. She was with her friend and they got separated. Her friend walked home one way and Desi would have to go the other way, and she did, and that's the last sighting anyone had in her. So I called the police immediately. So they sent two officers over and I said look, she is missing. And they looked at me in the eye and said Ohh Mrs Wheatley, no, look, we have had it up to here with missing kids tonight. It's the last day of school, you know, they're all missing. And I said no, you don't understand. I said this child would not go away quietly so that she was going to run away. She would leave me alone during mom. I'm running away. Don't look for me at this person's health. He's so intense with like 10 foot letters. And I said no, I know her. She does not run away, but they would not listen to what I was telling them. I mean, I have to step in as the former uniformed officer. Many shows and movies publicize that there is a 24 to 48 hour waiting period to report somebody missing. That does not exist within law enforcement. The real issue is the information that the officers are presented with. You take so many things into consideration, obviously the age of the person who's reported missing and the history of them leaving home without permission before. So it goes back to what I said at the top. I mean, it's really about what? They do with that information. And how many of these cases really turn out to just be somebody who comes home at 2:00 o'clock in the morning because they just stayed out past their curfew or how many of them really go the opposite direction and become a crime? And with that too, I mean, we do have to talk about, it's about the numbers and resources. If officers are chasing down every person that's reported not showing up home, well, they're unavailable to go to other things. And so, you know, where is the right mix and which is going to be the one they really need to. Focus on their attention to the other ones that are going to turn out OK. And so I do get that very difficult thing that they have to do of trying to order them and where their attention needs to be for the safety of that person in the community. But sometimes, unfortunately, they get it very wrong. That's what they left I got in my car, I started driving the neighborhood, I started driving all the way around NE El Paso looking, hoping to find her. Our founder never found her. I mean, she had the helpless feeling on two sides, not being able to locate her daughter and not feeling that law enforcement was doing enough to aid her in finding her. So I'm waiting. For someone to call me. So I call them. I said, look, I put in a missing persons report on my daughter's two days ago. So they put me in touch with the juvenile department. I would go into one office, to another office, to another office. I go to the DA's office. One time I went in there and the lady said, well, she's not in right now. OK, I'll wait for one dollar one days office, she sat on his desk. I'm just a mother that needs to know what happened to her child. I mean, I pursued this. So one of Marsha's biggest complaints was that the information about her daughter being missing was shuffled between a few different departments within the El Paso Police Department, from one detective to another, talking to another person. And that level of frustration, I could feel it. Police officers in uniform are a lot like firefighters. They're going from call to call, putting fires out, handling situations as they come up, and then if anything needs follow up. It's back at the DE Bureau or the Detectives Bureau for them to do the legwork, but that's the reality of the system and that's how the system works. Most occasions it works perfectly well. On some occasions it goes perfectly wrong. I could not even breathe for her during this time. Because I was too busy trying to tell these people you need to find her. And then one day Marsha gets a tip, a call. Someone spotted Desiree. One time we had a call from actually the El Paso Airport and said, you know, there's a girl here with a another family that looks just like. Your daughter. And they're ready to board a flight in about an hour. Hi everyone, Ashley Flowers here and I have exciting news to share. My debut novel all good people here is officially out now. Our fans are blowing up our social talking about it. You do not want to be left out and the worst thing that could happen is for someone else to spoil it for you because there are some wild twists in this book. If you love true crime content, mysteries, and a grown up Nancy Drew style detective work then I have a good feeling you won't be able to put this book down. So what are you waiting for? Grab your copy of all good people here now, wherever books are sold. So Marcia gets this tip, this call that someone has actually seen her daughter and that she's at an airport and she's about to board a plane. So, and we all know, of course what Marsha does. She gets into her car and she beelines it down there as quickly as she can. We were running both ways until we found the guy and she pointed her out to me and I literally I ran up to her and took her by her shoulder. She turned around from. It was not her. You know, that's one of the unfortunate parts of publicizing. You know, someone who's missing is that people believe. They recognize them and it gives, unfortunately, sometimes false hope. Other times it leads to great endings where they actually do find someone who's missing. Now she's just back to searching for her missing child. Marshall wasn't the only mother who was searching for her daughter. On June 5th, there was a article in the El Pastor Times. That there was a girl named Karen Baker. But been missing for the last few days. Marsha reached out to the missing girl's mother to see if there was any connection. These disappearances were in the same town. In fact, they're in only a few miles of each other. And Marshall was convinced that there was a connection. You and Karen Baker and Desiree, they're different young women. Karen was 20 years old. She already had three young kids. But there was an interesting connection. And that is that Karen Baker's mom. And Marsha both worked at Rockwell International, which is for those of you that don't know an aerospace manufacturing plant. So, you know, certainly from law enforcement perspective, they're looking at anything, are these isolated or are they not? And for the parents, they just want to know where and who and why and they're grasping at straws to see if they can figure something out. You know, it was a really big company. Rockwell has more than 1000 employees, I think at that location and I think that really didn't lend much to the the theory of a connection. In fact, they didn't even know each other at work, so when I found out she was missing, I called her. And we talked for a long time, and then we discovered there's also people missing before them. There were at least 8 missing young women and girls that disappeared in a time span from February to August of that year. And they were all from NE to El Paso. Not too far away from each other. That's not a coincidence. And the police kept saying, well, we can't do this, we can't connect the dots to take all of these girls are related. There's eight young women missing in a span of, you know, every month. It is between February and August. I mean, how much of that speaks to you is unfortunately just a statistic. Things happen in big cities versus maybe there's some sort of a pattern or connection here. I mean, to me it's like a boulder in a small sandbox. I mean, there's no way that you as a member of law enforcement that you can't stop up and say this is a usual occurrence that happens all the time. It doesn't. And when you look at some of the ages of the missing girls, 13152019171424 those ages, you know, they could be a couple of years on either side of that, but it's the circumstances a of the disappearance unexplained. And it's the area of where they're, you know, missing from some of. It's only within a five mile radius. Hello, McFly. I mean, that's just you have to look at that and say it spells out task force to me. It spells out separate investigation, call out the troops. I mean, that's an easy one for me. That's a layup. So we held a protest, a lot of us, and we held signs going, where are our children? And they had us on TV and they had us in the paper. And I'm hoping that that would just keep the public aware that this is still happening. And more publicity on their case. I had Karen Baker's mom, Mary, call me. And she asked. She was crying. And this was in September. And she says, had the police called you and I said no. Why? She said, well, they found Karen buried in the desert. A utility worker out in the desert finds what he described to El Paso detectives as finding human remains and actually was a leg protruding, as terrible as that that sounds, but a leg protruding out from the dirt. And they didn't just find one young woman, they found two. And the second young woman they found only 100 yards away from the first, none other than Karen Baker. And both these young women died of strangulation. And I can only imagine the conversations that were going on back at El Paso Police Department on that day when they found these two girls about what Marsha was saying all along, that this was not a runaway. Because now these two bodies, they're found September 4th, 1987. So we're just talking with a couple of months. And like you said, Scott, it went from these young girls are missing and we know there's something wrong to now it is clear they have got a serial killer on their hands. Scott, you know your reporters had. I'm sure you're out there. The second disinformation is found, but your law enforcement hat is even more interesting to me for this one. Where do you go as far as the investigation to all these other missing girls? We have two victims. How many other victims are we looking for? Bring out the canine dogs to determine if more victims can be found in the same area. Because if a bad guy is going to bury a body in the desert, it's likely there are other bodies out in within the same area. So you really need to do everything you can to expand that search and determine. Are there more victims buried out here in the desert? A cadaver dog could help answer that question. And, you know, we're talking Texas and we all know that expression. Everything's bigger in Texas. Well, that's the desert too. And going back to Marsha, it was five months. It was until October. She is waiting 0 answers about her daughter until she gets a very surprising call. And she was really surprised at what she heard on the other end that they wanted a fresh start, a brand new investigation. And there was a reason why. October 20th, 1987, I did a phone call, police said. We want to start over, so if you could come back down here and if you have a brush that might have like. Says his hair. That we can do DNA on or something and bring your daughter, your oldest daughter, with you. I'm going. OK, well, when you were starting over, this is great. Unfortunately, when I hear that and we know that's not for anything good. Hours before the meeting with Marsha, detectives did find a body in the same area of the desert after hikers had called them, telling them that they found another set of remains. At that point, the body already had serious decomposition, and investigators needed to know more information to make a positive ID. Means handy. We went downtown to the police station. And they had the clothes laid out with an open window, you know, and there's now there's going to be an odor. So we started looking. One thing I saw that told me. For sure. Was the socks because Desi had a way of wearing her socks where she turned socks all the way down so that there was a roll at the ankle and the socks were already were rolled down at the ankle? And then my oldest daughter, of course she recognized the bra. She said. Yeah, that's my bra. I gave her hand me downs, of course. Thing about Desi, you know how the skull has like you know it's sewn together at different points instead of having just the three. Pieces. She had four. And that's what the X-ray showed, because the skull they found had the exact same configuration. You know, making death notifications to families are difficult enough, but having them have to come to the Emmys office and identify remains takes it to a whole other level. And Sunday go home, I'm like three blocks from our house, sitting at a traffic light, and I wake up. Thinking. How the hell they did this for her? My mind must have been racing so bad I had no idea I was on complete pilot control. And the way she describes driving home and calling her then husband, who she describes as her rock walking in the door. And that is when she lets herself collapse into his arms. And her daughter Sunday and husband, the three of them. They are each other's literal strength and that, again, is something we all should not look away from because it's what so many people unfortunately have to go through in cases like this and it speaks to that, the incredible pain that is going on within her as she is driving this investigation forward. When I kissed her casket, I told her I will find. The people or persons who did this and I will bring them to justice. That was a promise I made to her. Now was game time. Who was the suspect? How are these cases connected? Who was responsible for these multiple murders? This is a serial killer. This is a predator. You know. You got a big job on your hands here, guys. Big job. A town must have been gripped in fear because the killer was still on the loose and everybody wanted answers. The family wanted answers. I'm sure detectives wanted answers, but the media is going to. Be all over this story to try to obviously bring to light any issues that may have come up during this investigation. But another factor occurs when you get this kind of media coverage is people call in and people give tips. One of them caught their attention right away, a call from a young woman. She was a sex worker. She said that one of her John's that she was with had actually taken her out to a desert right near that gravesite that she had just heard about on the news, and that he pulled out a knife and he had threatened her before she had been able to get away and she fled on foot. Now another sex worker. Some weeks before had come in and said she had been raped and that she had been left out in the desert also, and she described someone very similar, and they both described the person with multiple tattoos that were very distinctive and she told them who it was. His name was David Wood, and one of the sex workers had said that he came out and told her his name, but he called himself Skeeter, a nickname. He had a history of violence against women. When he was 19, he was arrested for the attempted rape of a 12 year old girl. He pled guilty in court, took a reduced charge for indecency to a minor, and only spent three years in prison and he was paroled in 1980. But four months later, after he got out, he raped another 13 year old stranger and her 19 year old friend. So that second case he went to prison for 20 years was that term on each charge, but he was paroled again in January. This time 1987, so we know now we have a sexual offender who likes young girls. And where did he move to? He moved him with his father to northeast El Paso. The very next month, the girls began to disappear. We didn't know there was a sex offender released in our midst, like three blocks from my house. That's when I first found out he could be the one. And at first all they charged him with the rape of a prostitute. And they're gauging 50 years and I've had a priest tell me. You don't get this year for ****** a nun mean that number itself. So March 1988, Wood goes away for 50 years. Not too many rape cases, no matter how brutal, end up with a sentence of 50 years. I think there were behind the scenes starting to connect the dots between wood and the other missing girls, and I believe they were sending a message for sure that this was not over. Kiss. He cared. And then there was a detective Guerrero. Those two were the ones who were the real go getters to find out what was happening. All of a sudden she now has a new investigator. And is the investigator signed to all these missing girls because they know they've got a serial killer on their hands. They certainly suspect it. And now they start to put the pieces together, some of which they had before and some which they're reconnecting or connecting. And you really start to get that picture of Desiree's last night. They do know that at 9:30 on the night of a disappearance, 1/2 hour before she was supposed to be home, she was at a Circle K which was less than a few blocks from her home. A witness came forward. David Wood was in the store. And when they left, he followed them out. Well, when you saw him split up, he he went to Desi. He said, hey, you want a ride home? And it wasn't like he was a stranger because he always hung around. At the park, coming right down the street from us. And so she goes, sure, because her other girlfriend turned around to say goodbye one more time and saw her getting into his truck. And that was the last time anyone saw. So now all the dominoes are starting to fall, 1 by 1 by 1. This is all making sense, and it leads them to that place that had taken them so long to get to before that. But witnesses also testified they saw Woods riding a motorcycle with Karen Baker several months before she died. So we're now connecting him to a second case, a second visual ID of putting our suspect together with our victims. And we said that there was more girls that went missing. 6 bodies were ultimately recovered within a three quarter of a mile radius, all within close proximity to each other in that NE section of the El Paso Desert. They were buried on what's called the electric line because there's a lot of electric poles that go right. Down there and it's a dirt St His father, however, worked for the electric company and used to take him out there when he was doing jobs, so he knew that that was a pretty desolated area. So another threat of this investigation unfolds through a jailhouse snitch, someone who was housed with Woods at the very time he was serving his time in jail for a sexual assault. Randy Wells, the cellmate, said that Woods told him he was responsible for these murders, that he would lure each girl into his pickup truck and offer them drugs, drive them out to the desert, tie them to his truck, and then dig a grave. And then a second person will come forward with a similar story, and interestingly. Neither of these guys wanted anything. Now, we know, Scott, that jailhouse informants almost always do it because they want to help themselves. And many of them, they're not credible, but some of them are. And for those, they normally give that information in an effort to help themselves. But neither of these guys asked for a thing. You know, even within prison, there's a hierarchy of what's acceptable and what's not. And sexual assault, sexual predators and killing girls, young women is a big nono, even amongst the prison class. And they said they found this guy. So despicable that they would do anything they can to help, which included testify at his trial. Scott was actually, I was talking to you earlier that you reminded me about a really interesting piece of evidence they had with respect to her case. When they went through the 1st assault in the desert with the first victim, she described the event itself. Once they got to the location, he forced her out of the vehicle at knife point and he carried a large orange blanket to the scene of where the rape occurred. And after the rape he was startled by something in the desert. He jumped up, grabbed this orange blanket and fled in his vehicle and eventually the victim being left out in the desert after being violently raped. The victim was able to flag down a passing car and get to safety. Fibers from that orange blanket were found where Desiree was unearthed in the desert. And the pieces are all just falling perfectly into place. And after he was arrested in connection with six of the eight young women that went missing in July of 1990, an El Paso County grand jury indicted Woods for the murder of six young women. But let's go sideways for a moment, Scott, because I'm always fascinated by the psychology of people like this. And not because I care about him. I don't. But I always wonder, is there anything you can do before they commit these crimes to stop someone like him? With this, like, there's this really interesting FBI report that was done in the early 2000s. It talks about the psychology of serial killers, and it says that they all have three things in common. And picking their victims, because we all know they have different types and everything else, but three things are always in common and that you start to look at availability, vulnerability and desirability. And it's really an interesting way to look at it that when you look about the availability, which talks about the circumstances or lifestyle, well, let's look here, you had the Desiree who was. End of the anomaly, a girl just leaving a middle school party. But you also had people like sex workers and women that were out angry, you know, like after having a fight that the circumstances of that night led to them making easy targets, their vulnerability. You know, a person who, a young woman that's walking alone, as opposed to maybe with a huge dog, is much more vulnerable. And then you have that desirability factor. You know, what is it that made these women? Presumably if he committed these crimes and at that point? Was just indicted. And that's really subjective, but it's a really interesting thing because, Scott, I mean, we talk about these serial killers and the only thing we know about them is that they have an insatiable appetite to kill. And their motive is just that, whatever pleasure that they gain from the killing. But I always wonder if you peel back that onion a bit, is there any way that they can be found out before it gets to this level? And I don't have an answer, nor do I. I think it's a great question, and and I think it's. Finding innocence and taking that innocence away, as they've often do when they take random victims off the street just for their own pleasure. And I hate to try to put my my mind in their mind and see, because it's such a twisted position to be in. There is psychology about that. I just think it's pure evil. There are tremendous challenges ahead for this trial. All of the press coverage, and you know as better than anybody in it, comes into the courtroom. How that affects the decision of venue? Does it make a difference that a case like this gets so much press coverage? Can a defendant who deserves a fair trial get a fair trial in this town based on that coverage? How do you go about determining that and assiga? Well, it's up to the judge to ask the jurors, you know. Have you heard about this case, which is OK because they're going to have heard about high profile cases. But more importantly, can you be fair? Because everybody, no matter what they're accused of doing, deserves a fair trial. And if they start to feel that they're just isn't going to be that level of fairness because of the impact on this community, they move it and that's exactly what they did here. They moved this trial from El Paso to Dallas and we think about that. Remember it's Texas and that was a difference of 642 miles. I was there. Every single. Day. And she talks about her rock, the man who became her husband. That man actually sold his house so Marsha could have the money to stay in a hotel in Dallas every night of that trial. And that speaks to me of the dedication not only of her, but that incredible support she had behind her. So long, sitting outside the courtroom. OK, I had people from the courthouse coming up and asking me are you the bailiff? Like the first pretrial, I'll sit there front row center. I always do front row center through from have to look at me one way or the other and they walk him in, turns around and looks at me and he blows me a kiss. And the reporter, did he just blow you a kiss? I said. I don't give a damn what he just did. I want to listen to what he did do. Marcia got her opportunity, her day in court for justice for Desi. Along with five other families. On November 10th, 1992, Woods was convicted of serial murder and he was sentenced to death. There's a story of what a juror said to Marsha after the case. The jury told Robert. They said the first time through this whole trial. We saw her smile. I smile. Because justice prevail. To her, the significance was she could look at that man who was just convicted and say you're never going to be able to do this to anybody again. Now that conviction came in 1992. That same year, David Wood was sentenced to death. He was supposed to die by lethal injection sometime later that year, but it didn't happen. It was stayed. And you know what? 33 years later, he still sits on death row. Their appeal process is still going on and she talks about it. And having had these cases that, you know, I tried them sometimes decades ago, and I know the appeals that are still going on for all different reasons. And she says, you know what? I understand the court system. I believe that I got justice that verdict. I understand why these appeals are still going on. But do they not remember about the victim? Don't we get justice too? And how is this justice for us that 33 years later, everyone thinking about that person who we know committed the crime? But I can't ever sit down and grieve my daughter because I still need to keep fighting to make sure that this man is held accountable because of the evidence they proved in that courtroom. You know, I still haven't had the chance to grieve for desert. Our system, you know, for all its problems, anyone that knows me knows is I'm a big believer in it, that overall it works well. Overall the men and women that are in all these professions are doing it for the best reasons. But someone that is often left roadside and all of this is the family of the victim and they really kind of get lost in all of it and forgotten while the rest of the court proceedings go on. I am fighting to prevent that man. From killing young girls. That's my goal. I will never. Give up on desert. Another incredible thing that I learned about Marsha is that she helped the process change in El Paso to the way missing children would be no longer labeled as runaways, and what that means is they wouldn't be treated differently by the system. But now this one woman, in her quest to get answers for all the mothers and families out there for these girls, they were no longer going to be able to check a box whether it was a runaway or not. Missing is missing and it requires it deserved an investigation. They have to investigate it as a missing person. I don't care what age. And that is one thing I am proud of. Things are taken a lot more seriously today than they were ten years ago and obviously 20 or 30 years ago. And I do believe it is saving lives. And while we talked about Desiree's case primarily today. There are many young women that went missing at that same time in El Paso, but let's not just call them by victims. Let's use their names. Marjorie Knox, who was 14 years old, missing that February. Melissa Lawn is 13, missing in March. Desiree Wheatley, you know, in June. Karen Baker, 20 years old. Cheryl Vasquez, 19, went missing in June. Later the next month, Angela Frausto, 17, Maria Cascio, the first body found she was only 24. And Don Smith, a young, 14 years old, went missing later that same month in August. All victims. All unnecessary. Taken in the hands of someone who I still feel is just pure evil. TuneIn next Wednesday, when we'll dissect another new case on anatomy of murder. Anatomy of Murder is an audio Chuck original, A Weinberger media and forseti media production summit. David is executive producer.