By Chris Lane
By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
The railroad is the reason for the existence of this quiet Piney Woods community of 1,938. It has spurred the economy and lured new residents, and on a fall night in 1998, it brought death.
In time Leafie Mason and her hometown would become a part of the violent legacy of a sadistic serial killer whom the media would elevate to Ted Bundy stature: Angel Maturino Resendiz, the 41-year-old freight-hopping drifter who last week was convicted of murder in the robbery, rape and slaying of 39-year-old Houston physician Claudia Benton. Before being apprehended, he had vented his homicidal rage in other cities in Texas, Illinois and Kentucky between August 1997 and June of last year, leaving nine dead. And though it would take months to prove it, he also had left his bloody mark on little Hughes Springs.
On the afternoon of October 2, 1998, Randy Kennedy, the town's 42-year-old police chief, received a call from a woman concerned about the well-being of 87-year-old Mason, whom she was to have given a ride to visit her sister at a nearby nursing home. There had been no response when she knocked at the door. It immediately troubled her, she would later tell the chief, since Mason, well known for punctuality and impatience with those who lacked it, was always ready and waiting for her daily arrival.
Kennedy hurriedly made the short drive to the West First Street address that had been so long familiar to him. As a boy he had mowed Leafie Mason's yard in the summers. "She was always very nice to me," he would later recall. "She would bring me a glass of iced tea or lemonade when I was working. She had a reputation for being pretty demanding and outspoken, but I liked her."
In the idiom of rural Texas, the spinster Mason was something of a local character.
Entering the house where Mason had lived alone since the departure of a lifelong mentally disabled sister to the nursing home, Kennedy encountered a scene unlike anything he'd seen since becoming police chief four years before.
In the back bedroom he found the bludgeoned, bloody body of Mason covered with a blanket and lying on the floor near her bed. She had been struck in the head repeatedly by an antique flatiron, a "weapon of convenience," as Kennedy would write in his report. A nearby back window, he noticed, was open.
News of the manner in which Mason died spread a wave of terror through the community 150 miles east of Dallas. Aside from a domestic homicide seven years earlier, no one could remember another murder occurring in Hughes Springs. A homicide-scene investigator from neighboring Mount Pleasant quickly suggested it was the work of someone who had known Leafie Mason. A resident. A neighbor.
"It was frightening to think it might have been done by someone we lived with, someone walking among us," remembers Betty Traylor, administrator of the nursing home where Mason's sister resides.
Leafie Mason's violent death occurred long before the world had ever heard the name Angel Maturino Resendiz, long before news magazines would make him the subject of cover stories and paperback books would detail his aimless death travels.
When Kennedy's investigation of the crime reached a quick dead end, he compiled a narrative of the event and submitted it to the Texas Department of Safety's Crime Bulletin, a monthly publication distributed to others in law enforcement. "It was shortly after it was published," Kennedy says, "that I was contacted by Sergeant Ken Macha of West University Police, who was investigating the Benton murder. He told me of the similarities in our cases.
"That was the first time I heard the name Resendiz."
Unknown to Kennedy, there was a growing belief in the law enforcement community that the Mexican national, who made frequent visits to the United States, had committed murders from the Rio Grande to Illinois. In each case Macha told him about, the similarities were chilling: Each of the murders had occurred near a railroad track; the killer had entered the homes of his victims through a window; he had used a "weapon of opportunity"; the assaults had all escalated to "overkill"; and finally, each victim's body had been covered when authorities found it.
Authorities, Kennedy was told, had a name and fingerprints, a manhunt was ongoing, and rewards were being offered nationwide. Yet all the Hughes Springs police chief had was a palm print lifted from Mason's open window and a growing belief that his initial gut feeling -- that his murder case involved a drifter, not someone local -- had been on target. He could only wait until Resendiz was captured and a palm print taken to compare with the one Kennedy kept locked away in his evidence drawer.