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By Craig Malisow
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By Angelica Leicht
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By Sean Pendergast
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From the porch of her red brick home in Hughes Springs, poet Leafie Mason could stand watch over the energy that kept alive the small town she called home. Just beyond West First Street, yards away, runs the railroad track, a pathway for Kansas City Southern trains that hurry westward daily from Shreveport toward Dallas and back again. Farther in the distance is a boxcar storage area and what was once one of this region's most active switching stations.
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.
It was not until late July of last year that Kennedy would finally get the opportunity to make that comparison and prove that the infamous Resendiz was, indeed, the man who entered Mason's home and murdered her. In time, Resendiz confessed to the crime. By then, however, the media was focused on activities in the big cities: El Paso, where Texas Rangers took Resendiz into custody, and Houston, where he would be jailed to await trial. Leafie Mason and Hughes Springs fell through the cracks, an afterthought in one of the most highly publicized crime stories in recent years.
Not until the punishment phase of the recently completed Benton trial, in fact, was Mason's name even mentioned.
Now, Cass County District Attorney Randall Lee says he has made no final decision about trying Resendiz for Mason's murder, but it sounds doubtful. "We'll wait and see how the appeals process [on Resendiz's death sentence] goes," he says. "Frankly, I doubt there will be any problem with the verdict in the Houston case. Some of the best prosecutors in the country were trying it.
"And I understand the D.A. in Kentucky [where two University of Kentucky students were attacked] has said he definitely wants to try the guy. Even if we should decide to move forward, we're pretty far down the waiting list."
To fund a capital murder trial, Lee adds, would almost certainly require a tax increase. "I think," he says, "that folks here feel that justice was served by the conviction in Houston."
Still, whether she ever gets her day in court or not, Leafie Mason is remembered in Hughes Springs.
With the exception of a couple of years in her twenties when she worked as a secretary in Dallas, Mason lived her entire life there. Her father was a well-known deputy sheriff who was killed in a 1919 train accident. Her mother died several years later, leaving Leafie and her two sisters to live alone. Following the death of her older sister, it eventually became impossible for Mason to properly care for her mentally disabled younger sister, and Mason placed her in a nursing home.
"Her sister was her life," Traylor says. "Every day, promptly at two in the afternoon, she came here to visit Berdie. She'd always cooked something for her and would sit and talk with her and sing her songs that were popular back in the '40s. And she would always stop by my office to leave a recipe or bring me a copy of the latest poem she had written."
Time was, in fact, when she was quite well known as a local poet. Written under the pen name Piney Woods Pete, her verse was regularly published in the neighboring Daingerfield Bee.
"She was a strong-willed person but also very thoughtful," says friend Jenny McKinney. "She was always coming by with a jar of jelly or a pie she'd baked. I miss her, and to this day I feel guilty about what happened to her. I'd been busy back then and hadn't called to check on her for a couple of days. I'll always regret that."
People here, then, would rather remember her in life than revisit her death in a lengthy and expensive trial. As Chief Kennedy says, "You can only kill the guy once."
"I think people here are just glad it's over," Traylor says. "I was pleased when I heard that Resendiz received the death penalty, happy that the jury didn't buy that insanity defense he was trying to use."
For Kennedy, now returned to the routine work of a small-town police chief, only one regret remains. "I wanted to ask him why he picked our little town," he says, "but the only time I got to speak to him he wouldn't even make eye contact, wouldn't say anything."