VIDEOS: KFC Murders, 30 Years Later: Memories of horrific murders linger as 3rd suspect still wanted

Published on Monday, 23 September 2013 08:49 - Written by

                   
                   
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Kenneth Dean, kdean@tylerpaper.com

KILGORE — A warm breeze stirred trees along a fence while the September sun beat down on Rusk County District Attorney’s Office investigator William Brown as he walked a property earlier this month on Walker King Road.

Three decades ago, it was a day like this one when Brown was here, investigating the killing of five people kidnapped from a Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet about 10 miles away during a robbery.

“Four were right about here,” Brown, 64, recalled as he took in the scene. “All of the heads pointing to the north. ... They were all faced-down and facing that way.”

The body of the fifth victim was left 50 yards away.

The victims were David Maxwell, 20, Mary Tyler, 37, Monte Landers, 20, Joey Johnson, 20, and Opie Hughes, 39. All were shot at least twice, while Johnson was shot three times.

Other than a few new homes, little has changed here since Sept. 24, 1982, which marked the start of a long, grueling murder case for Brown and other investigators from multiple agencies.

No memorial marks the spot, but those whom the grisly case touched have not forgotten the location where the five victims were left after being kidnapped the night before and killed execution-style. They were shot in the back of their heads.

During the next two decades, the case was marked by clashes between law enforcement agencies, accusations of incompetence and inadequate investigative work, charges filed and dropped, and no convictions. Finally, in 2005, two men were indicted in the killings.

Romeo Pinkerton in 2007 avoided a possible death sentence by pleading guilty to five counts of murder. He was given five life sentences. A year later, Darnell Hartsfield was found guilty of five counts of capital murder and given five life sentences.

Today, both men maintain their innocence, and investigators continue to search for a third killer whose identity remains unknown.

 

THE KILLINGS

Mary Tyler, Opie Hughes and Joey Johnson were on duty at the Kentucky Fried Chicken in Kilgore on the night of Sept. 23, 1983. David Maxwell, an employee who was off-duty, and Monte Landers were there to visit Johnson.

Mary Tyler’s daughter, Kim, stopped by about 11 p.m. and found the restaurant’s door open and blood on the floor. Police began searching for five missing people.

Their bodies were found the next day by an oilfield worker on a brush-covered oil field lease off Walker King Road in Rusk County.

Within days, squabbling between peace officers from Rusk and Gregg counties resulted in the Department of Public Safety appointing Texas Rangers Capt. G.W. Brooks, of Dallas, to oversee the investigation.

Two cousins from Tyler, Romeo Pinkerton and Darnell Hartsfield, along with another man became suspects just weeks after the killings, but jail records at the time falsely indicated the men might have been incarcerated.

Though hundreds of tips poured in, more than a decade went by before a Rusk County grand jury began meeting to weigh an indictment.

In April 1995, the grand jury charged James Earl Mankins Jr., the son of a Texas representative, with five counts of capital murder.

The case against Mankins, who had a troubled past, and his wife, Deborah, who also became a suspect, hung on a fingernail found on a victim’s clothing.

After multiple requests from U.S. senators, congressmen, the governor and state attorney general, the U.S. Armed Forces Institute of Pathology joined the case.

Mankins and his wife were cleared in late 1995 after DNA tests showed the nail belonged to one of the victims.

“The case became too focused on James Mankins Jr.,” Danny Pirtle , the Kilgore police detective who investigated the robbery and abduction aspects of the case, said in a recent interview.

 

DNA EVIDENCE

Little progress was made during the next six years. The Rusk County Sheriff’s Office hired George Kinney, a former FBI agent, to review cold leads.

But it wasn’t until 2001 that Garland-based forensic scientist Lorna Beasley, working for the Texas Department of Public Safety, retested evidence and plugged the results into the Combined DNA Data Indexing System, or CODIS. CODIS indexes the DNA of violent offenders in all but a handful of states.

The results pointed to Romeo Pinkerton and Darnell Hartsfield, two men whose names came up early in the investigation.

Two years later, Texas Attorney General prosecutor Lisa Tanner, who had experience with cold cases, jumped into the investigation.

“When I first got the case, I didn’t think there was any way in the world we would get anywhere with it,” Ms. Tanner, a former Future Farmer of America member who raised pigs and dreamed of becoming a veterinarian, said during a recent interview in her Austin office.

But Ms. Tanner, Attorney General’s Office investigator Missy Wolfe and others dug into the case, and the dividends came quickly.

But there were obstacles: a broken chain of evidence custody linking Hartsfield and Pinkerton to the killings, 10 rolls of ruined film shot inside the Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant and gravely ill witnesses.

Investigators also learned that based on fresh DNA testing on clothing that had been in storage since the start, Opie Hughes had been sexually assaulted. The evidence pointed to a third killer, whose identity remains unknown.

Ms. Tanner and her team from Austin, working with Rusk County District Attorney Michael Jimmerson, who would co-chair the prosecution, began holding special investigative grand juries.

That led in 2003 to the conviction of Hartsfield for aggravated perjury.

During subsequent grand jury hearings, investigators used ways to subtly obtain DNA from potential suspects and witnesses. Those who came in to testify were offered items such as gum and drinks, which were collected and tested for DNA evidence after they were discarded. Even envelopes sent through the mail were tested.

Ms. Tanner recalled one of the more humorous DNA acquisitions.

“He told us he wasn’t going to give us his blanket blank DNA,” she said. “And then he was so adamant about it, he wrote us a letter saying, ‘I’m not giving you my DNA, and you can’t make me give you my DNA,’ and then, of course, he licked the envelope and sent it to us.”

 

THE TRIALS

In 2005, more than two decades after the killings, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott announced the indictments of Pinkerton and Hartsfield on five capital murder counts apiece.

Ms. Tanner said it was learned that Pinkerton, while jailed, confessed to two cell mates that he killed five people in 1983.

His trial began in October 2007 in New Boston, but two weeks later, facing the death penalty, he pled guilty to the five charges and received five life prison sentences from State District Judge Clay Gossett Jr.

In a 2008 prison interview, Pinkerton said he was innocent and only pled guilty to escape the death penalty.

Hartsfield went on trial in Bryan in September 2008 and was found guilty of five counts of capital murder. Like Pinkerton, he was given five life sentences.

For Ms. Tanner, the end of the prosecutions brought relief.

“I was pretty torn up inside and didn’t sleep a lot,” she said of how she felt during the trials. “I thought if I messed this up, then these families would never see justice.”

Ms. Tanner said the case was a large part of her career and is often asked about it.

“It’s the biggest case in my life, the longest I’ve ever worked on, and it in many ways, has been there almost my entire career,” she said. “KFC is my baby and will always be my case.”

Meanwhile, Hartsfield and Pinkerton since their convictions have maintained their innocence and filed multiple requests for new DNA testing. They claim that investigators planted evidence.

But Brown and Pirtle acknowledged that although mistakes were made during the investigation, no one planted evidence.

 

BROKEN SILENCE

Some family members of the victims recently broke their long silence on the case and shared how the murders affected them.

Lana Dunkerley, David Maxwell’s young widow, sat in her Houston office and talked about the past 30 years and how hard Maxwell’s death was on her.

Mrs. Dunkerley, 48, said she moved from Kilgore to escape what she perceived as constant scrutiny.

“I just felt like everyone was like: ‘That’s the girl who was married to that KFC victim,’” she said.

Upon learning Hartsfield was housed only 20 minutes from her office, Mrs. Dunkerley said that underscores how she can’t fully escape the killings of Sept. 23, 1983.

She said the stress from losing her husband, compounded by the years of the investigation dragging on, caused her second marriage to crumble. She is on her third marriage, which she said has its ups and downs, but she doesn’t feel the weight of the case like she once did.

“I suffered because I couldn’t let go for all of those years,” she said, almost crying. “I could change my hair or something else, but I wasn’t changing what was inside.”

White Oak resident Kersti Nicholson, 47, said the murder of her older brother, Monte Landers, changed their mother, although she remained strong for her children.

Ms. Nicholson recalled how her mother cried on the night she learned her son had been killed.

“I had to lay in bed with her, and she cried, and not just cry,” she said. “She’s like wailing like I’ve never heard anyone cry before, and she said, ‘I can’t believe I laid here in bed asleep as my child was being murdered out in the woods.”

From his prison cell, Hartsfield during a recent interview also broke his silence and proclaimed his innocence.

“I might’ve had crimes that I did do. You know what I’m saying? But no one ever got hurt,” Hartsfield said while sitting in a visitation area at the Darrington Unit in Rosharon, south of Houston. “I would never kill those people, and from Day 1, I have stated my innocence, and I’m still stating my innocence, you know what I’m saying?”

 

LINGERING MYSTERY

After Hartsfield’s trial, Mrs. Dunkerley said goodbye to her husband by placing a single rose on his grave, telling him she was proud of him, and she was sorry for what had happened.

“I wanted to live again,” she said.

Referring to the killers, she said, “I forgave them. I’m not angry anymore. I just want to know what happened.”

Ms. Nicholson said she also would like to know what happened on the night of the murders.

Pirtle and Brown are certain the murders were a robbery gone wrong.

“These two guys were in the KFC, and they overheard Mary Tyler’s daughter mistakenly say the deposit for the next morning was $15,000 instead of $1,500, and that was a lot of money in 1983,” Pirtle said. “I don’t know if they intended on killing them when they took them from the restaurant or not, but that’s what happened.”

Brown said he believes the right men are behind bars, and he hopes the third will be caught in his lifetime.

“Thirty years is a long time, so that person could be dead, and if that is the case, then we may never know, unless someone with knowledge of the crime gives us information,” Brown said. “We might have to exhume a body, but if we get information pointing to a specific person, then we will do whatever it takes to see if they are the person being sought.”

Pirtle said the case continues to permeate his thoughts.

“It has been in my life since it happened and continues to be,” he said. “I think about it every day, and I lie awake some nights with it on my mind. It has been a big part of my life, and though I am retired now, I still want the third person.”

 

TIMELINE:

Sept. 23, 1983

Working at the Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant in Kilgore are Mary Tyler, 37, Opie Hughes, 39, and Joey Johnson, 20. David Maxwell, 20, an off-duty employee, and Monte Landers, 20, are visiting Johnson. At about 11 p.m., Mrs. Tyler’s daughter, Kim, arrives. A door is open and blood is on the floor. Police begin searching for the missing.

Sept. 24, 1983

An oil field worker arriving about 9 a.m. at a well in Rusk County finds the five victims. Each had been shot in back of the head.

Sept. 28, 1983

DPS appoints Texas Ranger Capt. G.W. Burks of Dallas to oversee the investigation after law officers in Rusk and Gregg counties complain that coordination is breaking down.

March 7, 1995

A Rusk County grand jury begins hearing KFC testimony.

April 27, 1995

The grand jury indicts James Earl Mankins Jr. on five counts of capital murder. Investigators say a fingernail recovered from the clothing of one of the victims matches a torn nail on Mankins’ hand.

Nov. 13, 1995

A judge drops capital murder charges against Mankins after DNA testing establishes the fingernail was not his.

Feb. 22, 2002

Rusk County Sheriff James Stroud says blood samples from a possible suspect will be compared to crime-scene evidence.

Sept. 8, 2003

A new grand jury in Rusk County begins hearing KFC evidence.

Jan. 29, 2004

Grand jury members are released after spending five months hearing testimony in the KFC case.

Sept. 9, 2004

Police officers search for a witness scheduled to appear before another grand jury hearing KFC evidence. Kyle Freeman said the woman is a person of interest who failed to appear before the panel.

Nov. 10, 2004

A Rusk County grand jury indicts Darnell Hartsfield on aggravated perjury charges for allegedly lying about being in the KFC restaurant.

July 30, 2005

Romeo Pinkerton is arrested in Tyler on charges of burglarizing Griffin Elementary School, and evading arrest/detention.

Oct. 9, 2005

Several lawmen familiar with the case tell the Tyler newspaper they believe there is enough evidence to solve the case.

Oct. 26, 2005

A jury finds Darnell Hartsfield guilty of aggravated perjury for lying to a grand jury investigating the KFC case. He had said he was not in the restaurant. DNA evidence indicated he had been there.

Nov. 17, 2005

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott announces that a grand jury has indicted Darnell Hartsfield and Romeo Pinkerton each on five counts of capital murder.

June 12, 2006

Romeo Pinkerton convicted of burglarizing Griffin Elementary.

Aug. 6, 2007

Jury selection begins in the capital murder case against Romeo Pinkerton.

Oct. 15, 2007

Opening arguments begin in New Boston in the capital murder case against Pinkerton.

Oct. 29, 2007

Romeo Pinkerton pleads guilty to five counts of murder, avoiding the death penalty of a capital murder conviction. He is given five life sentences.

Sept. 9, 2008

Jury selection in the case against Darnell Hartsfield begins in Bryan.

Oct. 1, 2008

Darnell Hartsfield found guilty of five counts of capital murder and is given five life sentences.

Oct. 22, 2009

Darnell Hartsfield files an appeal in the conviction.

Feb.5, 2010

Darnell Hartsfield’s conviction in the capital murder cases is upheld by the Sixth Court of Appeals.

Sept. 7, 2012

Romeo Pinkerton and Darnell Hartsfield’s request for new DNA testing in the case was denied by 4th District Judge Clay Gossett Jr.

Present

Authorities continue the search for the third killer in the case. The killer’s name remains unknown. DNA taken from one of the victim’s pants points to a third killer.