Hard Time

The evidence points away from Roy Criner's guilt in a savage crime. But the state still has what counts most -- a conviction.

The attorney also shot more than a few holes in the testimony of the state's three star witnesses: Ringo, Hooker and Pitts. Not only did he spotlight the inconsistencies between them, he showed that their stories had changed over time. Perhaps not surprisingly, the later versions dovetailed with the crime significantly better than the originals.

For example, in his initial statements to police and when he appeared before a grand jury a few weeks after the crime, Pitts testified that Criner had been unable to describe the hitchhiker because the incident occurred well after dark. But in a written statement taken two months later and again in trial testimony, Pitts claimed Criner had tagged her as a blond. Grilled on the shifting particulars, the witness insisted that both stories were somehow true, though he acknowledged that his memory of events had faded with time.

The conflict didn't faze Walker. "Deanna was blond," he told the jury, emphasizing one of his central points. "[Criner] said he picked up a blond girl."

Though Hocker moved aggressively to impeach the testimony of the prosecution's witnesses, he brought little to the table himself. Son Cross, the elderly caretaker of a hunting camp on the same property as the logging operation, told the jury that he remembered Pitts and Richard Criner leaving the site that afternoon; Roy Criner, however, never left, or Cross would have seen him. Walker parried by casting doubt on Cross's ability to remember a particular Saturday four years earlier.

Besides Cross, however, the defense offered nothing to support the contention that Criner had never left the logging area. No one contacted Pitts or Cross prior to trial. Hocker hired a private investigator, Jim Cooper, who retraced the route and concluded that Criner simply didn't have enough time to do everything the state alleged even if he'd somehow planned the crime in advance. But Cooper never took the stand.

Morrow, who is still associated with Hocker and spoke on his behalf, says that if the defense seemed to take a minimalist approach, they had good reason -- the state had failed to prove its case, they thought, and introducing additional elements might have only confused the jury. "We didn't believe the evidence was sufficient [to convict] as a matter of law," he says.

Unfortunately for Criner, the jury disagreed. On May 1, 1990, he was sent to prison for 99 years.

Jeff Pitts doesn't look like one of the richest men in Montgomery County. Aside from a huge state-of-the-art television console and other electronic gadgets in his living room, his modest brick ranch house looks like any country home: chickens scrabbling in the yard, dogs and several kids underfoot. Pitts himself works long hands-on hours at his job, sometimes seven days a week. He sports a number of scars accumulated in logging mishaps over the years and enjoys telling the story of driving to the hospital one afternoon clutching his severed finger, which was sewn back on his hand.

In addition to a profitable logging business, Pitts and his family own vast tracts of prime county real estate, dating back several generations, that are worth millions. Among their holdings is a 15,000-acre stretch of woods adjoining the San Jacinto River north of Kingwood, crisscrossed by rough logging roads and dotted with sand and gravel operations. In the heart of the tract is a hunting camp consisting of a couple of primitive buildings; the family leases hunting rights on the property during the season.

Pitts bounces a four-wheel-drive pickup along a rutted path past the camp to the edge of the land, close to the river. Though the turf is bone dry from the summer drought, the drive from the nearest blacktop still takes more than half an hour. He stops at a pleasant spot near some power lines -- the very place, he says, where he and the Criner brothers were clear-cutting the day Deanna Ogg was murdered.

At the time, Pitts remembers, conditions in the area were quite different. Heavy rains combined with the relentless churning and grinding of heavy 18-wheelers had left parts of the route virtually impassable. "This road is probably 80 percent better than it was," Pitts says.

With the practiced ease of someone who has told the same tale dozens of times, Pitts recounts the events of Saturday, September 27. The three men started work felling trees in mid-morning. The day progressed, Pitts says, pretty much as described during the trial -- a hydraulic hose on a bulldozer ruptured, and he and Richard Criner headed off to buy a replacement, returning three or four hours later. When they got back, Roy was there.

Pitts immediately noticed something different -- instead of several dozen trees scattered helter-skelter on the ground, as they'd been when he left, a fresh pile of neatly stacked logs sat ready to be loaded on trucks and hauled away. While waiting for his boss to return with the new hose, Criner had apparently used a type of heavy tractor known as a skidder to move and bunch the logs.

Given the conditions of the roads, and given that the large mound would have taken several hours to construct, Pitts says it's absurd to think Criner could have had enough time to go home and shower, let alone abduct, rape, murder and dump a human being. "I've been doing this my whole life, and there's no possible way I could have put that much timber up and gone in and done something like that," he says. "You don't just put a damn big pile together and run out and murder somebody. You just can't do it."

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