The Devil You Say

Was Jeffery Prible the cold-blooded murderer of an entire family? Or the gullible target of an opportunistic jailhouse informant?

He'd never had an armed showdown with a club owner over the paving work debt -- Prible, like most other contractors would do, had simply filed a mechanic's lien to attempt to collect. Certainly he'd never been in any elite marine unit involved in top-secret missions. And the money cited by Beckcom -- he said Prible told of blowing $100,000 on a Vegas trip with a stripper and Herrera owing him $250,000 -- stretched beyond the limits of credibility.

So untruths and embellishments, whether by Prible or Beckcom or both, speckled the statement. Authorities knew that but chose to accept the accounts of the killings as true. The information was right about the state's theory on the murder weapon; the .38-caliber Taurus couldn't have killed the couple. Prible knew that because his family had documentation that he'd sold the gun much earlier to Christine Bartola, a friend who had been threatened repeatedly by a stalker. But he'd also explained the situation to other inmates in arguing his innocence.

The causes of death, positions and conditions of the bodies and other information in Beckcom's account were also in the sheriff's probable cause statement and were part of Prible's conversations with others.

Prosecutors taunted Prible about his looks at the trial.
Prosecutors taunted Prible about his looks at the trial.
Beckcom (left rear) admitted arranging a Thanksgiving photo with Prible and their mothers to show he was his confidant.
Beckcom (left rear) admitted arranging a Thanksgiving photo with Prible and their mothers to show he was his confidant.

Beckcom told of how Prible came to consider him the closest of friends, although the statement conveniently omitted much of the background about that.

Sandra Prible went to visit her son in Beaumont almost every week, and says she was met by a gracious Beckcom and his family, who also pressed her for information about Prible's case. Beckcom conceded that he gave her a coupon for a Thanksgiving photograph of the families together, to bolster his claims to authorities that he was Prible's confidant.

The mother still blames herself for falling for who she thought were friends concerned and supportive about her son. "Stupid me," she says. "I wanted them to know that my son was innocent. They tried to do the same things to me that they are trying to do to Jeff," she said.

Her instincts eventually emerged, when Prible excitedly reported that Beckcom had talked about having money sent to her home to help hire a top-notch defense attorney. And his prison pal wanted her to ship him proposals for a paving business that the two inmates had discussed launching when released.

Sandra Prible said no. "You don't have any business messing with anybody in there," she told him. "Of course, my son said, 'You know you aren't supposed to judge them.' "

It was too late to matter. Confiding in Beckcom was a huge mistake -- "everybody in prison knew that, including Jeffery," fellow inmate Fuller said. "I've never known [Beckcom] to tell the truth. He's very resourceful."

Kelly Siegler, arguably the premier prosecutor for Harris County, came out blazing louder than her burnt-orange blazer during opening statements in Prible's trial in late October:

"What kind of man would take out a whole family? That kind of person's a bad motherfucker -- and I'm a bad motherfucker!"

She stood over the seated Prible and quoted from the alleged confession. Siegler taunted the defendant, at times shouting close to his face as she outlined the state's case. Beckcom wasn't spared, either.

"I'm going to stand here and tell you today that he is a vile, disgusting person," Siegler said. "He's gonna make you sick to your stomach, and that's how you should feel."

But she also encouraged the panel to trust Beckcom, that he would have to tell the truth if he was going to get his payback. It might come in a reduced sentence -- "or he might not get a day," she said.

Facing off with her was Terry Gaiser, a defense attorney who had handled some of the county's most notorious cases in a three-decade career. The soft-spoken, deliberate lawyer was a sharp contrast to the rapid-fire Siegler. Gaiser was equally repelled by the crime -- especially as a father of two children who resembled two of the young victims.

He and co-counsel Kurt Wentz also had a star witness of sorts for their side. Christina Gurrusquieta, 15, had been a neighbor of the Pribles. Herrera, on his trips to the Prible house, had cussed neighborhood kids when they'd hit his car with their kickball. So she knew his voice, and recognized it on the night of the killings. The girl had gotten up to use the bathroom and heard Herrera chatting with Prible in Prible's driveway, while he was dropping him off.

Although she was somewhat uncertain of the exact time, her testimony corroborated Prible's account of an uneventful ride home with Herrera. That would have significantly narrowed the window of opportunity for Prible to somehow return to the Herrera house and commit the killings, then slip back undetected.

Gaiser was also appalled by what he saw as an absence of hard evidence against his client. The perpetuator of this crime would likely have left some kind of solid clues behind: shell casings, fingerprints, a murder weapon, bloodstains on himself, singed hair, the odor of smoke from the intense flash fire, or even traces of himself on the victims or remnants of the murder scene on his clothing.

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