In the trial of Clint Shelton, lead prosecutor Toby Shook unveiled a mind-numbing 138 pieces of evidence and presented nearly three dozen witnesses in seven days of testimony. But in the end, there was one simple reason why he was able to convince a jury to convict Shelton of murdering Michael Hierro and permanently disfiguring his wife, Marisa, with a shotgun on the night of December 20, 1999.
The reason is Rowlett police officer J.B. Rutherford had to take a pee.
Rutherford was among the battalion of officers who secured the bloody murder scene outside the Hierros' home on the night of December 20. The house is located in a subdivision that was still under construction at the time and thus was dotted with blue portable toilets leased by construction crews.
When nature called that night, Rutherford headed for the toilet located on the lot behind the Hierros' house. Rutherford pulled open the door and struck a cop's equivalent of gold: There, floating in a pool of blue-tinted water, were two white latex gloves and a pair of nylon pantyhose. The pantyhose had been converted into a mask. More important, they contained several hairs that DNA testing would later prove to be Shelton's.
At the trial's conclusion, the mask stood alone as the only indisputable physical evidence that put Clint Shelton at the scene. But its real value came long before the trial ever began. During their investigation, Rowlett police used the mask to back Shelton into a corner, where he rashly changed his initial claim -- stupidly put in writing -- that he was home at the time of the murder and didn't know where the Hierros lived.
Faced with inescapable DNA evidence, Shelton cooked up a new story about how he had dressed up "commando style" and staked out the Hierro home several times before the murder. He said he was trying to verify that the couple lived there so he could serve Marisa Hierro with a subpoena in his divorce case. He admitted he dumped the mask and gloves in that toilet on the night prior to the murder.
At trial, Shook methodically dismantled Shelton's story, countering each claim with an opposing fact. By the time Shelton took the stand and lamely claimed his innocence, Shook had him beaten by his own lies.
When the jurors filed into Dallas County District Judge John Nelms's court on Wednesday, November 15, their eyes uniformly cast down, their verdict was loud and clear: Shelton was guilty of first-degree murder and second-degree aggravated assault. The next day they sentenced him to life in prison.
But the verdict did not bring closure to a case that has rocked the Dallas legal community. Instead, it only added fuel to a burning question that police and prosecutors have not answered: Will they ever arrest attorney and former Houstonian Catherine Mehaffey Shelton, Clint's estranged wife and suspected co-conspirator, whose alleged participation in the murder was a central part of their case against Clint?
Jurors bought the prosecution's theory that Clint and Catherine committed the murder together. As part of the theory, which centers on Marisa Hierro's "ear witness" testimony, Shook argued that Catherine decided to kill Marisa after Marisa left her law practice in March 1999, taking with her a lucrative, if unethical, business that exploited illegal immigrants.
While the trial erased all doubt about Clint's role as the shooter, it revealed a major hole in the police investigation, which after nearly a year of speculation explains why Catherine is at large: The police have no physical evidence linking her to the case.
Unless officers uncover something new, there remains only one person who could corroborate Marisa's story and tie Catherine to the murder. That person, of course, is Clint Shelton.
Clint, 43, will not be eligible for parole until he is 73 years old, but in the coming weeks he could slip through one last loophole. Clint could file a motion for a new trial, and should he choose to cooperate, prosecutors could agree to the motion and allow Clint to plead guilty at a second trial in exchange for some lighter punishment.
Shook, who says he never offered Clint any deals in exchange for testimony against Catherine, agrees that the scenario is very possible. But he quickly adds, "I don't think that's going to happen in this case."
In August Clint's first attorney filed a motion to withdraw as his counsel, citing "a conflict regarding trial strategy." That fueled persistent courthouse rumors that Catherine, a criminal defense lawyer who regularly visited Clint in jail, drove off that court-appointed lawyer because she wanted to control the direction of Clint's defense.
John Young, Clint's trial attorney, counters that by saying he accepted the Shelton family's request to represent Clint on one condition. "I took this case with the explicit agreement that I don't lawyer by committee," Young says. "There ain't going to be any finger-pointing over how we're going to do it."
Through her own attorney, Randy Taylor, Catherine continues to maintain her innocence, pointing to records that she says prove she was on the phone with her late mother at the time of the attack. Catherine's mother, who testified to a Dallas County grand jury before she died, did in fact telephone the Shelton home that night. Still, the records leave open the very remote possibility that someone besides Catherine answered or that the call was forwarded to a cell phone.
As time begins its slow, tedious assault on Clint, Taylor says he doesn't believe the jury's verdict alone will have any impact on Catherine if or when she is ever brought to trial. In the meantime, he says, there is just one course of action he can take on behalf of his notorious client.
"I'm gonna hunker down like I'm in a foxhole with a .30-caliber machine gun, and I'm gonna wait," Taylor says. "If the enemy comes, we're gonna have a war."
From the first day of the trial, it was clear that an absent Catherine Shelton was its star attraction. Houston police had named her the "black widow" after one of her estranged lovers, anesthesiologist George Tedesco, was found beaten to death in his Houston garage in 1979. As that murder, which is still unsolved, was being investigated a year later, Shelton wounded ex-boyfriend Gary Taylor, a Houston Post reporter (see "Love Hurts," by Rose Farley and George Flynn, January 13). She was convicted of aggravated assault in the Taylor shooting, had her law license suspended, and relocated to the Dallas area.
In opening arguments at the recent Dallas trial, prosecutor Shook coolly told jurors that Clint was Catherine's executioner. Marisa didn't see their masked faces, Shook told the jury, but she heard their familiar voices: "Shoot her, shoot her," Catherine ordered Clint after he fatally shot Michael and nearly blew off Marisa's left arm. Lying face down over a manhole, Marisa pretended she was dead as she heard Clint respond, "I did. She's dead."
Police investigating the scene outside the Hierros' house recovered an untraceable shotgun that had been sawed off at the stock and barrel. Officer Rutherford testified about finding the gloves and mask in the toilet bowl of the porta-potty. Defense attorney Young asked him why he had gone there.
"I needed to use the restroom," Rutherford said, eliciting laughter.
Shook, detecting Young's attempt at suggesting the crime scene was haphazardly investigated, fired off a final question.
"You didn't sit on that information?"
"No, sir," Rutherford replied.
The evidence that ranks second only to the nylon mask in terms of significance is a four-page document that Clint wrote days after the attack. In it, he detailed his whereabouts at the time of the murder and on the following day. Police discovered the letter on December 29, when they executed a search warrant at the Sheltons' Copper Canyon home.
He wrote that he returned home at 8:15 p.m., right at the time of the murder, and noticed that estranged wife Catherine was talking on the telephone. He slept in his own room, and the next morning they drove out to check a trap set to snare their missing cat. Catherine, angry that they never found the cat, left alone in the car, so Clint had to walk home, where he took his own Ford Explorer into downtown Dallas.
This is a story the Sheltons have told before (see "Line of Defense," by Eric Celeste, April 13). The problem is, Clint wrote the account not knowing that undercover officer Mark Hardman had staked out his house hours before he and Catherine woke up that morning. Hardman reported that at about 7:45 a.m., a couple matching the Sheltons' description left in her Cadillac and went downtown -- not out to any cat traps. Clint picked up his Ford Explorer from a parking lot near Catherine's law office and pulled away.
Clint later changed his story, saying he'd secretly gone to her law office the previous night to search for evidence that she was having an affair with a private investigator. When his car wouldn't start, he had to take a cab back home that evening, he said.
Still later, he offered the story about going to the Hierro home several times, the last on December 19 -- the night before the murder. He wore gloves and a commando-style mask while on his mission to serve the subpoena. Clint said that after several hours he didn't see Marisa, so he left his gloves and disguise inside the toilet bowl and went to his house.
That story didn't impress police. They discovered that the toilet was vacuumed on the day of the murder, meaning he must have left the gloves and mask there that night.
In 1998 Marisa, now 33, and husband Michael were fighting his first criminal charge, a robbery case that grew out of a shoplifting incident. The Hierros saw Catherine's legal ad in TV Guide and called her for an appointment.
Marisa says Catherine promised to get Michael's case dismissed for $40,000. She brought in the required $1,000 down payment, then accepted an offer from Catherine to work off the debt by becoming her "office organizer." Marisa does not speak Spanish, but helped Catherine expand her business into a thriving immigration law practice.
The two became good friends, although Michael was increasingly unhappy with Catherine because his case dragged on. When he finally received eight years' probation in a plea bargain last spring, Marisa told Catherine she wanted to quit her job. Catherine was furious, Marisa said, even more so when Marisa confronted her about allegations that she stole money from a residential construction firm Catherine had started.
Marisa set up her own immigration legal service and started publishing a Spanish-language newspaper called Gente 2000, which she used as an advertising vehicle to bring in clients. Attorney Young attacked Marisa's testimony on several fronts, pointing out that she wasn't even a lawyer and that her business left many illegal immigrant clients complaining that she took thousands of dollars without delivering promised services.
However, Marisa testified that Catherine asked her to come back to the firm and Marisa refused. Marisa said she told her she was going to call Bill Parker, the private investigator with whom Catherine had an affair, and tell him about Catherine's plan to move into his Copper Canyon neighborhood.
"She said I wouldn't live to see Christmas," Marisa said.
On November 16 the jury returned with the maximum term of life in prison against Clint.
Marisa says she is amazed that Catherine is still on the loose. Now Marisa is living under "protection" and waiting for the day that Catherine is behind bars.
"I will have no rest until they arrest Catherine, because she was there that night. No rest," Marisa says. She pauses for a moment, then adds a final thought. "The biggest mistake they made was not killing me that night."
Marisa did not pass up the opportunity in court to make a victim's impact statement after Clint got the life prison term. In that statement, she calls Clint a monster. She tells him she will be at his parole hearing 30 years from now to argue that he should not be set free. Finally, she tells him what some people have been speculating about for months.
"Catherine," she says, "has thrown you away."
Whether that's true remains to be answered.
Perhaps it never will 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.