By Sean Pendergast
By Sean Pendergast
By Sean Pendergast
By Jeff Balke
By Richard Connelly
By Jeff Balke
By Casey Michel
By Craig Hlavaty
It was cold that Sunday, the day after Christmas 1993; too cold for the two volunteer firemen to wade into the small pond in a secluded part of Montgomery County and retrieve the body of the white man floating amid the water lilies. Instead, they used a small boat and a rope to pull the corpse to the copper-colored dirt bank.
The firemen, along with two sheriff's deputies, were called to the scene by the mother of 35-year-old Thomas Minnich. Minnich, his mother and grandparents all lived in three separate trailer homes on the pine-tree-thick property surrounding the pond.
As the rescue team worked to recover the body, Minnich gave deputies a grim explanation. Earlier that afternoon, accompanied by his brother-in-law and his young niece, he had been down at the pond shooting his Thompson Contender .22 caliber rifle at what he thought was a turtle. His mixed-breed fetching dog began thrashing about in the water, which began turning red. It was then -- and only then -- he told the deputies, that he realized the turtle's shell was actually the top and back of a man's head.
The firemen pulled the body onto the bank. A bit of blood oozed from the dead man's head and onto the wet ground. He was clad in a red shirt and blue jeans. Green water lily vines were tangled around his legs, his arms outstretched and rigid. A black jacket, with one sleeve turned inside-out, which had been floating near the body, was also recovered, and a pair of deck shoes were later found on the property.
The driver's license in the victim's wallet identified him as 29-year-old Paul Beauchamp, who had lived just a few miles away in a more residential area of the county.
Because Montgomery County does not have a medical examiner, Beauchamp's body was taken to the Harris County morgue, in Houston, where an autopsy was performed the next day. His death was ruled an accidental drowning, and the Montgomery County Sheriff's Office prepared to close the case.
But Beauchamp's family, especially his father, refused to accept the idea that Paul simply got drunk, walked into the pond and drowned -- and that later, someone just happened to mistake his head for a turtle and use it for target practice. For the past four and a half years, the now 69-year-old Alfred Beauchamp has been consumed with his effort to prove that, instead of drowning, his son was murdered. And, at least on one level, Alfred Beauchamp has been successful.
In February 1997, more than three years after Paul Beauchamp's body was recovered, a team of four pathologists, led by Harris County Chief Medical Examiner Joye Carter, overturned the findings of the original autopsy by issuing a report stating that Beauchamp died from two gunshot wounds to his head, and ruling his death a homicide. Nevertheless, 18 months later, the Montgomery County Sheriff's Office still refuses to reopen the case, leaving the Beauchamp family bitter and frustrated. But the Beauchamps are not the only ones who have had to deal with the attitude of indifference sometimes displayed by the Montgomery County Sheriff's Office in its homicide investigations.
Over the past couple of decades, dozens of suspicious deaths have gone unsolved in the rural county that borders the city of Houston and Harris County. For example:
*In June 1997, the charred bodies of 17-year-old Sarah Cleary and 19-year-old Misty Morgan were found in a burned-out car in a wooded area north of Conroe. Despite almost monthly rumors of impending indictments, nearly 14 months after the double homicide no charges have been filed.
*Last September, the partial remains of an adult male were discovered in some woods just a few miles from the pond where Paul Beauchamp's body was found floating. Sheriff's deputies violated protocol by moving the remains before calling the justice of the peace -- in this case, Edie Connelly -- to the scene. An analysis of the skull by the Human Skeletal Identification Laboratory in San Marcos revealed that the victim had been shot in the head.
*That same month, emergency personnel were called to a trailer home on Winchester Road, on the outskirts of Conroe, where 30-year-old Kelly Koch, a Montgomery College art student, had apparently drowned in her own bathtub. Koch was transported to Memorial Hospital in Conroe, where she was pronounced dead. Traces of morphine and codeine were found in her system. Koch's common-law husband, Charles Turner, told sheriff's investigators -- who didn't take a written statement from the man until several days later -- that he found Koch in a sitting position, face down in the tub.
"That's a real hard position to be in," says one skeptic. "Usually, you would slip backwards or fall to one side. It's kind of hard to fall forward from a sitting position if your feet are in front of you."
"Justice in this county is a hundred years behind the times," says Alfred Beauchamp. "You've got murders here like Paul's, and each and every one of them is horrendous. It's something the criminal justice system should really be ashamed of."
Perhaps it is. Earlier this month, the Texas Attorney General's Office finally notified Montgomery County officials that it plans to conduct its own investigation into the death of Paul Beauchamp.
A ten-year employee of The Woodlands-based Mitchell Energy Corporation, Paul Beauchamp was obviously a dependable man, but he also had a darker side.
The eldest of three children, Paul lived in a two-story log cabin on his parents' shady six-acre tract of land in Spring, a stone's throw from their comfortable one-story brick house. The geographic proximity apparently failed to translate into closeness on a personal level. Following Paul's death, friends and co-workers told investigators that his relationship with his father was strained. Friends also revealed that, after battling a drinking problem, Paul had been on the wagon for about five years. However, within the four to five months before his death, they said, Paul had started drinking again -- something he concealed from his parents. Additionally, both his friends and family admitted that Paul was dating a married woman.
On the last day of his life, Paul ate an early dinner at his parents' home around noon on Christmas Day. His mother and father say he appeared in good spirits but was suffering from a deep chest cold. They deny any friction with their son, but admit that he kept a lot of things to himself.
After finishing the holiday meal around 1 o'clock, Paul spent an hour or so working on a relative's car. Concerned that his son wasn't feeling well, his father suggested he lie down and sleep on the couch. But Paul said he didn't have time -- that he had to pick someone up around 3 o'clock before going over to watch a football game at a friend's house, where he stayed until about 8:15 that evening.
When Paul got back home, he called his father to ask if he had let his dog, Cleo, into the cabin. Thinking nothing about it at the time, the elder Beauchamp told his son that, no, he had not let the dog inside. He also gave Paul a message that one of his Mitchell Energy co-workers, Bryan Wilson, had called to invite Paul to a late dinner at his home a few miles from the Beauchamps' property. It was the last time Alfred Beauchamp would ever talk with his son.
"I hated to lose that boy," says the father.
Although Paul was still not feeling well, he decided to accept his friend's invitation.
In a videotaped interview a couple of months after Paul's death, Bryan Wilson told Detective Frank Hidalgo of the Montgomery County Sheriff's Office that Paul arrived at the party around 10:30. He was wearing a white, button-down-collar, oxford-cloth shirt, sneakers and jeans. According to Wilson -- and in contradiction to his parents' recollection -- Paul seemed depressed. He complained that his parents hadn't given him anything for Christmas and his girlfriend did not appreciate the expensive purse he gave her.
Before Paul left the party around 12:45 a.m, Wilson recalled that, along with a meal of prime rib, turkey and all the trimmings, his guest consumed no more than two or three glasses of wine and a couple of shots of schnapps. That contradicted his original statement to investigators that Paul drank four or five glasses of wine and several shots of schnapps. Either way, the amount of alcohol Paul reportedly consumed at the party was not enough to cause the blood alcohol level in a man his size -- five foot eight inches, 220 pounds -- to skyrocket to more than two and a half times the legal limit by the time he left for home around 12:45 a.m., approximately one hour before his death.
Wilson also told the detective that he suggested to Paul that he stay overnight in the guest room. But Paul still felt ill and said that all he wanted to do was go home and get into his own bed. Twelve hours later, Paul was dead, floating in the middle of a pond with two gunshot wounds to the back of his head. Instead of the white shirt he wore to the party, he had on a red one. And instead of sneakers, investigators found a pair of Paul's deck shoes nearby.
According to the Montgomery County Sheriff's Office's incident report, just before 2 p.m. on December 26, 1993, Deputy Todd G. Lehn and his partner, Corporal Heather Drennan, were dispatched to a call about a possible dead body in a pond off Riley Fuzzel Road. No land-speed records were broken by the two officers, who arrived at the crime scene 32 minutes later. By that time, two other deputies had already secured the location. Detective Frank Hidalgo arrived a short time later.
Two hours after authorities were first notified, two volunteer firemen in a boat finally reached Paul's body -- 43 feet from shore. Paul's body was in an upright position, just below the surface of the water. Once back on the bank, rescue workers placed Paul on a plastic tarp and loaded him into the back of a Greenlawn Funeral Home hearse.
Hidalgo and several deputies then made the three-mile drive to the home of Paul's parents. Hidalgo informed the couple their son had apparently drowned, and that his body had been discovered by someone who thought he was shooting at a turtle. From the beginning, it was a story that Alfred Beauchamp had a hard time believing.
"That was just too much for me to swallow," says Alfred Beauchamp, a short, barrel-chested man with a deep, coarse voice as testament to years of chain-smoking. A former merchant marine, he is overbearing at times, frequently interrupting his wife, Glennie, or anyone who tries to speak, with his own extended thoughts and observations.
Over the next few months, law-enforcement officials saw a lot of Alfred Beauchamp, and neither his demeanor nor his frequent questions about his son's death were well received. He made repeated calls to the sheriff's office and the district attorney, and had rancorous meetings with both. He went through two private investigators and one attorney. Four and a half years later, he has yet to receive answers that satisfy him.
"Nobody wanted to give me any information, and I've been treated like a criminal," says Alfred. "I have basically had to investigate this case by myself -- and I don't have a badge."
Since Paul's death, Alfred has done little other than search for the truth. He transformed a small bedroom in his house into a command post jammed full of stacks of documents and transcripts, and hours of videotaped interviews that he is convinced support his contention that his son was murdered. It's a collection of information -- some of it intriguing, some of it convoluted.
But initially, aside from the fact that he viewed Minnich's claim as stretching the boundaries of credibility, Alfred had little to support his suspicions. That changed as soon as he went to the Montgomery County Criminal Justice Center's car storage lot in Conroe to reclaim Paul's small 1986 Mazda pickup, found in a ditch about 500 feet from Paul's body. Alfred inspected the vehicle and noticed a large dent just above the right rear bumper, which he did not believe had been there Christmas Day. Paul Beauchamp was very particular about his truck, says the elder man, and if it had been damaged, the rest of the family would have heard about it.
He checked with the county's crime scene investigator who, Alfred says, confirmed that the dent was already there when the vehicle was towed to the storage lot. Alfred then remembered that Paul had been videotaping his own young niece on Christmas Day. Perhaps the tape would include a shot of the truck.
Sure enough, a review of the tape clearly showed the back of Paul's truck -- sans dent. Alfred's suspicions grew. He thought about how Paul had found Cleo, the dog, inside his cabin. How had she gotten in, and was there a connection? Had someone gone to the cabin looking for Paul? Was it his imagination, or had Paul seemed sort of nervous lately? His mind raced with possibilities real and imaginary. One thing Alfred says he did not imagine, however, was a commotion in front of his house the evening of Paul's death.
Christmas night, Alfred had fallen asleep on the couch in his living room, which faces the street, when he was awakened by what sounded like a car crash, followed by men's voices coming from the street -- about 30 yards from his front door.
"I heard one of them saying, 'Here he is over here -- I found him, I hit him,' " says Alfred. "Then another voice said, 'Why are you hitting me? I haven't done anything.' And then someone else said, 'I told you I'd get your goddamn ass for talking about me.' And then they took off."
Alfred failed to call the police, he says, because there were teenagers in the neighborhood who were always "raising hell," and he didn't want to get them in trouble. Only later did it occur to him that Paul might have been involved.
Alfred also remembered a disturbing conversation he had with Paul a couple of months earlier. Alfred had been working in his large yard and was walking back toward his house when Paul stopped him and said he needed to talk. Paul claimed he had recently been approached -- by whom, Alfred can't recall -- about doing some sort of undercover narcotics work for the Montgomery County Sheriff's Office. Paul wanted to know what his father thought of the idea. Alfred's reply was emphatic.
"I told him I didn't think he should have anything to do with it all," says Alfred. "I told him that they would turn on him like a chow dog, and to stay away from it. He said okay, and I never thought any more of it." That is, until a half-dozen members of the Montgomery County Sheriff's Office turned up at his front door the day after Christmas to announce that his son's body had been found.
State law mandates that any time there is a report of a suspicious death in a county without a medical examiner, a justice of the peace must be called to the scene to make a ruling about the cause and manner of death.
In Texas, justice of the peace is an elected post that can be held by a plumber or a used car salesman; there is no requirement that a JP have a law-enforcement background. But Edie Connelly is no law-enforcement wannabe. Before she was first elected as justice of the peace for Montgomery County's Precinct 3 in 1987, Connelly had spent ten years as a peace officer -- the last nine as a detective with the sex crimes division of the Montgomery County Sheriff's Office.
Paul Beauchamp's body was discovered in Connelly's jurisdiction in southern Montgomery County, and it was her responsibility to go to the pond and investigate the scene. When she arrived, the corpse was still in the water. Almost immediately, she doubted that this was simply an accidental drowning.
One of the first things that bothered Connelly was Minnich's story about shooting at turtles -- something she found just short of fantastic. But it was the physical evidence that Connelly found even more troubling.
When the rescue team reached Paul's body, it was in an upright position. Connelly thought that odd, since most drowning victims float face down. Additionally, the body was stiff, and rigor mortis had already set in. Yet, she noted, there was swelling and bruising around the gunshot wounds to the back of the victim's head.
"You're usually not going to have swelling if the body had been dead that long," says Connelly, noting that hemorrhaging is caused by the pumping of blood. If Paul had been dead long enough for rigor mortis to begin to set in -- anywhere from one to seven hours, depending on the conditions -- his heart had obviously ceased to pump blood through his veins by the time Minnich claims to have mistaken him for a turtle. Nor, she adds, would the gunshot wounds have produced much blood, because lividity would have caused the blood in Paul's body to pool in his lower extremities, not his head. At that point, Connelly also believed that Detective Hidalgo shared her misgivings about Minnich's story.
"I left the scene with the impression that this was a homicide investigation," says Connelly. But by the next day, Connelly realized her reading of the sheriff's department's take on the case had been wrong. (Hidalgo, who now works for the Atlanta office of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, refused to comment, saying it would not be proper.)
In his autopsy report, Dr. Vladimir Parungao, a Harris County assistant medical examiner, noted that Beauchamp did have some water in his lungs and a blood alcohol level of 0.26 percent, and downplayed the significance of the bruising and swelling around the two gunshot wounds.
But despite his official ruling of death by accidental drowning, even Parungao was less than certain of his own diagnosis. According to the sheriff's office's report, Parungao was concerned about the hemorrhaging around one of the bullet wounds, and he urged detectives to have Minnich take a lie-detector test in order to eliminate the possibility of foul play.
That same day, Minnich voluntarily submitted to a polygraph examination. Kelly Hendricks of Hendricks Polygraph, Inc. administered the test. The examination and accompanying bull session, which were also videotaped, resembled a conversation between the backwoods sitcom character Gomer Pyle and his auto mechanic cousin, Goober, from Mayberry, RFD, with Minnich telling Hendricks how he liked to make guys with car problems look stupid in front of their girlfriends and wives.
At the time of the interview, Minnich worked as a mechanic at an Exxon station in the county. A skinny guy, with a thick drawl and backwoods demeanor, Minnich is the nephew of the late Weldon Locke, a former commissioner of Montgomery County. Locke died in May 1986 when he stepped in front of an oncoming cement truck on Interstate 45 -- the same day he was scheduled to be arraigned on charges that he stole more than $220,000 from the county in a bogus invoice scheme. The medical examiner later ruled his death a suicide.
While hooking Minnich up to the truth machine, the examiner asked if Minnich had ever taken a lie-detector test. Minnich answered that, yes, he had -- back when he was 16 years old and authorities suspected him of starting the fire that burned down his grandmother's house. Instead of saying that he had passed the test or that he was innocent, Minnich added proudly that he had "walked." Similarly, when the examiner zeroed in on the events of December 26, 1993, Minnich displayed some intriguing body language while giving his response.
During the question-and-answer session, with Minnich wired for any irregular heartbeat or sudden breath that might spike the chart and indicate a fabricated response, Minnich was asked if, before he fired the shots, he knew that there was a dead man in the pond.
"No, sir," Minnich replied, while nodding his head up and down in an affirmative fashion.
Nevertheless, at the conclusion of the session, Hendricks informed Minnich that he had passed the test.
"Well, Tom," said Hendricks, "that's about as pretty a set of truthful charts as I've seen in a long time."
And, in the opinion of JP Edie Connelly, at that point the sheriff's office simply decided to follow the path of least resistance.
"They had the polygraph and they had [the autopsy report]," says Connelly, "and I found myself as the only one believing that this wasn't a drowning."
The Paul Beauchamp case was not the first time Edie Connelly had found herself butting heads with the Montgomery County Sheriff's Office.
In 1993, Connelly -- the first female detective to serve with the Montgomery County Sheriff's Office -- appeared as a plaintiff's witness in a $2 million dollar federal sexual-harassment lawsuit that had been filed by a woman who claimed she had been raped by Deputy Anthony Klonaris. Connelly testified that, while serving as a deputy with the sheriff's department, she was regularly hit on or discriminated against by her superiors and fellow deputies because of her gender.
At the end of the two-week trial, the jury ordered Klonaris to pay his victim $830,000 in damages. The jury did not find the county liable. However, the panel did issue a written statement advising the sheriff's department to "clean up its act."
Indeed, over the years, Montgomery County has developed a reputation as a place where law-enforcement officials carry out their own brand of law and order, and where justice is sometimes executed with a knowing wink and a nod. No case better exemplifies that attitude than does that of Clarence Brandley, who spent nearly ten years on death row for the rape and strangulation of 16-year-old Cheryl Fergeson at Conroe High School in Montgomery County. In January 1990, a state court overturned Brandley's conviction. Specially appointed to review the Brandley case, retired Judge Perry Pickett declared that he had never come across "a more shocking scenario of the effects of racial prejudice, perjured testimony, witness intimidation, the investigation the outcome of which was predetermined, and public officials who, for whatever motives, lost sight of what is right and just."
Conroe police -- not the Montgomery County Sheriff's Office -- investigated the Brandley case. But it was the Montgomery County District Attorney's Office -- and a Montgomery County jury -- that convicted him.
When Williams was elected as sheriff five years ago, he promised change. Williams had attended the sexual-harassment trial that year, and he pledged to clean up the image of the office. But according to members of a Montgomery County grand jury, Williams had contributed to the mess.
Before his election as sheriff, Williams served as head of the narcotics task force for the Montgomery County Sheriff's Office. On September 27, 1993, 12 members of a Montgomery County grand jury sent a letter criticizing the performance of the task force to Judge Lee Alworth. In the letter, the grand jurors accused the task force of a "lack of professionalism." The jurors also accused the task force of having "no firmly established guidelines to provide appropriate safeguards regarding the handling of funds and narcotics."
"We feel that the Narcotics Task Force," wrote the grand jury, "will continue to perform with questionable effectiveness if significantly constructive policy and procedure changes are not implemented immediately. Otherwise our recommendation is to disband the Narcotics Task Force as it now exists."
More recently, however, the Montgomery County Sheriff's Office has been under fire for giving homicide investigations short shrift.
In 1978, Janice Sager's father and one of her brothers were shot to death in an altercation at the Sundown Lounge in Porter, in east Montgomery County.
"I was very dumb and ignorant in how the system operated," says Sager. "I assumed that if somebody commits this type of crime, they're going to be punished." Instead, for several years, she found herself on the losing end of what she calls "the Montgomery County runaround."
Sager says no one with the Montgomery County law-enforcement machine ever bothered to let her know how the case was proceeding or how it was finally resolved. Several years later, she decided to find out for herself. After getting some instructions from a private investigator, Sager went to the district clerk's office and started searching the files for records of the investigation. All she could find was a charge against the shooter for unlawfully carrying a weapon and an 18-month probated sentence.
"It was very, very frustrating," says Sager, "and I became very angry at this system of official apathy, and it made me question how they were handling other unsolved homicides. But who are you going to turn to? What you have here in Montgomery County is basically a network of bubbas."
What Sager did was create her own watchdog organization. In 1993, Sager announced the formation of Texans For Equal Justice, and she began compiling a list of unsolved homicides in Montgomery County, with a population of approximately 200,000. Two years ago, Sager published her findings, which showed that, since 1978, 37 homicides had gone unsolved. She says that total is now at 44, but admits it would be unfair to expect the sheriff's office to solve all of them.
"But you have to set priorities," says Sager, "and solving murders ought to be a priority."
The Texas Department of Public Safety reports that between 1993 and 1997, the Montgomery County Sheriff's Office cleared 33 of 43 homicides. However, at the time of Sager's report, Sheriff Guy Williams did not dispute Sager's findings, telling the Houston Chronicle simply that "when you don't have new leads in old cases, you're kind of at a standstill."
On the other hand, if you don't look for them, leads can be hard to come by.
As a cigarette-smoke haze hovers in the room, Alfred Beauchamp sits behind his desk and ponders information and possible scenarios that may reveal how his son was killed. A few days after Paul's death, while searching for clues in Paul's cabin, Alfred found a hand-drawn map of an area, including a pond, resembling the Minnich property. Instead of driving there by mistake, getting stuck in a ditch and then stumbling into the water in a drunken stupor, maybe Paul took the undercover assignment. Maybe he saw something he shouldn't have. Maybe someone forced him to consume a large amount of alcohol in a short amount of time to make his death look like an accident. There were also rumors that the first deputies on the scene initially thought the body in the pond was that of an undercover narcotics officer. Maybe someone mistook Paul for the officer and killed the wrong guy. Alfred Beauchamp has stacks of paper to support each theory -- and more.
But, unlike Alfred, Edie Connelly sees no grand or evil conspiracies within the sheriff's office to cover up Paul's death or any other homicide in Montgomery County. Instead, she believes it has more to do with a lack of ability or ambition, or both. As an example, she points out that it was several days before investigators from the sheriff's office bothered to take a written statement from Charles Turner in the bathtub death of his wife, Kelly Koch.
"I had hoped for a more collaborative effort," says Connelly. "Instead, they were very defensive. But I have some deep concerns about these cases. And to sign a death certificate, I have to be convinced [about the cause of death]. And if that means I disagree, then I disagree."
Ironically, it was Connelly who initially signed off on Paul Beauchamp's death as being an accidental drowning.
"I never believed that the guy died from a drowning," admits Connelly. "To this day, I have regrets that I signed that first death certificate that way."
Nevertheless, going against her better judgment, Connelly signed the paper. The Beauchamps continued to rail at her and other law-enforcement officials. But in February 1994, two months after Paul's death, an attorney from Mitchell Energy informed the JP that Paul's death benefits could not be paid to the Beauchamps unless and until the death certificate was signed.
Since the sheriff's office had long since closed its investigation into Paul's death, on February 9, Connelly wrote a letter to his father giving him until March 1 to bring her evidence that Paul was murdered. Five days later she received a letter from Alfred indicating that he still had questions, but little else. On February 24, Connelly met with the Beauchamps in her office.
"I felt he and his wife needed closure," says Connelly, who signed off on the accidental drowning theory four days later. "But, as it turns out, they just couldn't let it lie." Amazingly, almost three years after the death of Paul Beauchamp, the combination of Connelly's behind-the-scenes efforts and the Beauchamps' refusal to go away finally got the investigation moving again -- albeit very slowly.
In September 1996, Connelly received a visit from Glennie Beauchamp, a quiet woman who gives the impression of having a lot going on below the surface. Two years and nine months after her son's death, Glennie was still troubled.
Connelly, who has three children of her own, was moved by her talk with Glennie Beauchamp, who also informed the JP that she and her husband had asked the new chief medical examiner of Harris County to take another look at Paul's death. But Dr. Joye Carter, who took over as head of the Harris County Medical Examiner's Office in August 1996, told the Beauchamps that she needed a reason to step in, and suggested that Connelly hold a public inquest into Paul Beauchamp's death.
Under Texas law, in counties without a medical examiner, a justice of the peace can convene an inquest in cases in which the cause of a person's death is uncertain. But an inquest is a tool that is seldom used by justices of the peace and, although she initially agreed to do it, Connelly was reluctant. Then, she came up with a better idea -- and one that removed her from the spotlight. Instead of an inquest, Connelly suggested to Carter that an exhumation of Paul Beauchamp's body and a second autopsy was the way to go. Carter agreed, and Connelly ordered Paul Beauchamp's remains unearthed.
On November 18 at 9:40 a.m., Carter began the reinspection of the almost three-year-old corpse. She was assisted by Dr. Sparks Veasey, a Galveston pathologist; Dr. Eduardo Bellas, a former assistant Harris County medical examiner who had recently retired after serving one year as interim chief of the office; and Dr. Vladimir Parungao, the assistant Harris County medical examiner who had performed the original autopsy on Paul.
The examination focused on the two gunshot wounds in Paul's head and the hemorrhaging of the soft tissue around those wounds.Three months later, the pathologists released their findings. Three of the four doctors -- Carter, Veasey and Bellas -- agreed that Paul Beauchamp died as the result of gunshot wounds, and that his death was a homicide. Only Parungao dissented, standing by his initial determination of accidental death by drowning. However, Parungao noted that he had had his own doubts during the first autopsy, and that he now believed that the "circumstances are questionable between homicide and accident."
As for Minnich's account of the shooting, the medical examiners seemed puzzled.
"The story of the alleged perpetrator has some merit," wrote Carter in her report. "The circumstances presented about the shooting appeared to be fantastic but were in the realm of medical possibility."
Additionally, all the doctors agreed that the investigation into Paul's death had been severely flawed. They accused the sheriff's office of misplacing evidence, of not testing Minnich's rifle or Paul's clothes, and of not conducting "a true physical examination of the pond."
Sheriff Williams vehemently disputed the accusations, telling the Chronicle he was unaware of any missing evidence.
"I know that we did a ballistic test on the weapon, and it was inconclusive, just like the test the Department of Public Safety did on it," said the sheriff, who also maintained the pond was thoroughly searched.
And despite the new ruling of homicide, Williams indicated that he had no intention of reopening the investigation into the death of Paul Beauchamp. The sentiments of Williams and his investigators were perhaps best summed up by a statement made by Detective Frank Hidalgo -- the sheriff's office's lead investigator in the case -- during his videotaped interview of Beauchamp's co-worker, Bryan Wilson, two months after Paul's death.
"He's dead, and the Beauchamps will never, never have the answers they want," Hidalgo told Wilson, adding that, "the medical examiner's report speaks for itself."
After the report was changed, the Beauchamps couldn't agree more. Unfortunately for them, almost a year and a half later, all they have to show for their efforts is a piece of paper that says their son's death was a homicide and, except for Edie Connelly, no evidence of anyone who cares. But that could soon change.
In May of last year, Alfred Beauchamp received a letter from Assistant State Attorney General Mac Cobb. In the letter, Cobb informed Alfred that Montgomery County Justice of the Peace Edie Connelly had requested the assistance of the attorney general's office in the investigation of Paul's death.
"The available file material has been reviewed by attorneys and investigators in this office," wrote Cobb, "and plans for additional interviews and examination of the physical evidence are now being made." However, Cobb warned, "the methods we must use in reviewing a case such as this take time."
According to Connelly, it was her understanding the state probe into Paul's death was to have begun by the end of last October. But the fall and winter came and went, and the promised investigation by the office of Attorney General Dan Morales failed to materialize. Connelly began to fear that the AG's interest in the case was nothing more than lip service. On April 7, 1998, Connelly sent a letter to Cobb inquiring if the attorney general's office was genuinely interested in the Beauchamp case.
"When we last spoke, I understood that you would be coming to Montgomery County shortly after the first of the year," wrote the JP. "Do you know if the Attorney General's Office still has interest in this case?"
Two months passed and Connelly heard nothing. However, in June, three investigators from the attorney general's office met with three of the four pathologists who performed the second autopsy of Paul Beauchamp. According to one of the participants, who asked not to be identified, the attorney general's representatives entered the meeting seemingly prepared to explain why they could find no reason to spend time investigating the Beauchamp case. Three and a half hours later, they had changed their minds. A source in the attorney general's office recently confirmed to the Press that a state probe of Beauchamp's death is imminent.
This past March, with the investigation of his son's death at a standstill, Alfred Beauchamp arranged a brief meeting with Congressman Kevin Brady, whose district includes Montgomery County. Afterward, Alfred, a clearly physically exhausted and emotionally spent man, sent Brady an impassioned follow-up letter.
"I have explored every avenue open to me under the local and state level to have my son Paul's murder properly investigated and the killer brought to justice, but I have been unsuccessful in that endeavor," wrote Beauchamp. "Paul's voice literally cries out from the grave, saying, 'Who will speak for me, who will give me justice?' "
Contact Steve McVicker at steve_mcvicker@ houstonpress.com.
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