Killing Fields North? Montgomery County Detective Looks Anew Into '80s Cases of Five Slain Women
All of the victims were young women from blue-collar backgrounds, and all were found dumped along major roadways. "That's more [bodies] than there was prior to that and even since then," Detective Thomas Duroy of the Cold Case Squad tells Hair Balls.
The proximity of the bodies to major roadways and other evidence, such as a fire caused by a traffic flare and a pencil from a truck stop, suggests to Duroy that a truck driver might have killed some or all of these women.
To Duroy, that's a more compelling theory than the one that prevails now: namely, that these killings were the work of Henry Lee Lucas, the notorious serial confessor. In 1983, Lucas claimed to have killed four of these women along with almost 600 other people nationwide. These cases have been closed until Duroy started looking back into them.
Duroy has good reason to reopen the cases. Virtually all of Lucas's claims have since been proven false. The detective thinks it is highly unlikely that Lucas committed any of the murders in his jurisdiction. Infact, Duroy says he is unaware of a single murder anywhere to which Lucas is implicated by forensic evidence, as opposed to his own confessions.
Meanwhile, hundreds of murders Lucas accepted guilt for are going unpunished, but not all. As Duroy points out, DNA testing has been key. "If you Google his name and 'DNA' you'll see that people have been convicted all over the nation on DNA evidence in cases he confessed to," Duroy says, and adds that through DNA testing he was able to categorically rule out Lucas as the perpetrator of one of the murders he claimed to have committed.
So if Lucas didn't kill these women, who did?
Barbara Gale Whitten, a 22-year-old black female, was found in July of 1980 in the woods just off FM 159, east of Roman Forest Boulevard in New Caney. There was a roadside fire, and a witness reported seeing two white men drive away from the blaze in a souped-up blue Chevy Nova -- a Starsky and Hutch-looking ride with big tires, racing stripes and dual exhaust. Firemen discovered Whitten's body while they were extinguishing the blaze, and homicide detectives found drag marks leading to where Whitten's body was found and two holes dug in the ground -- possible grave sites, it was speculated. Some scraps of bloody clothing were also found but have since been lost.
Lucas confessed to this murder, though Duroy says there is no evidence linking him to the crime. As for the two guys in the Nova -- one with shoulder-length blonde hair and wearing a baby blue western dress-style shirt, and the other with a medium-dark complexion, and bushy hair and thick sideburns -- Duroy stresses they are not necessarily suspects. Duroy says that like the witness, they might have been investigating the fire. "We have a good description of those guys, but we can't say 'Okay, these are the guys responsible for this.'"
Gloria Ann Stephan was found in October of 1982, in Magnolia's "Gravel Pit" off Alford Road and FM 1488. A man refilling his deer feeder with corn found her lying on her back, dressed in blue jeans and a white short-sleeve Western-style blouse. She had been stabbed and strangled with a ligature, and investigators think her body was found only a few hours after it was dumped. Stephen was last seen alive at a convenience store in the Cloverleaf section of east Houston at noon on the day she vanished, and her blue station wagon was found in Kerrville at 1 a.m. the following day. "The car may have been driven there by her killer, or someone else might have found it by the side of the road," Duroy says.
Laura Marie Purchase was found on March 17, 1983, near the intersection of I-45 and League Line Road. A patrolling deputy responding to a roadside fire in an area where 18-wheelers were known to lay-by found Laura Purchase's nude body. She had been raped, beaten, strangled, and then set on fire. On her stomach there was an oil cap from an SAE 15W-40 oil container. "Probably used as an accelerant," Duroy says. A souvenir pen from a 76 Truck Stop was also found near the body.
There was no match in the FBI's CODIS database for a sperm sample taken from the corpse; however, it did rule out both Lucas (who had confessed to this murder too) and his running buddy Otis Toole.
Duroy would like to talk to a man named Howard or Howie with whom Purchase was living at the time of her death. Purchase's family said that the guy played in a local band called Malibu, and Duroy says that Purchase and Howard/Howie might have been living in a motel on the North Freeway. Howard/Howie apparently had a funny way of responding to Purchase's disappearance, Duroy says.
"What's interesting to us is we can't find a record of him trying to report her missing," he says.
Two other bodies -- those of 16-year-old Laura Jean Donez and a Jane Doe in her early 20s -- were found a month apart in the spring of 1983. There is relatively little to go on in these cases.
Donez vanished en route from her home in the Heights area to a hamburger joint three blocks away. Three days later an oilfield worker was walking down a logging road north of the town of Montgomery and saw some smoke. Not far from the fire, which was later found to have been caused by a road flare, he found Donez's partially clothed body.
The Jane Doe was found beaten to death and severely decomposed behind a 76 Truck Stop on the Eastex Freeway in New Caney.
"I think with the fires, the major roadways where the bodies were left, the flare, the truck-stop connection to some of these, I just think we'd be remiss in not at least looking to see if they are connected," Duroy says. "You just can't ignore the trucker angle. You even have a body found right behind a truck-stop. That's where truckers back up, park, sleep, whatever, and if that was the case [with the Jane Doe] apparently somebody just pulled her from their rig and took her in the woods and left."
Duroy stresses that he doesn't want people to rule out potential suspects in any of these cases because the thinks the cases could be the work of a single killer. "I don't want people dismissing potential suspects because they read something that says 'Police say these cases are all linked.' I don't want them hesitating to call on one case because they think that we believe that one guy did them all. We're not saying that; they may or may not be linked, but one of the avenues of investigation is to look at them as if they could be."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Houston Press' biggest stories.