The Killer Next Door
For eight years, whenever Danny Billingsley saw a cream-colored van, he'd think of Dana Sanchez. Then he'd run the license plates, each time hoping the driver would turn out to be her killer.
Her murder in 1995 was the type of case that haunted even a seasoned homicide investigator like him: Just 16 years old, Sanchez had been sexually assaulted and strangled, the noose cinched with a toothbrush.
Even worse, in the three years before, two other young Hispanic females on the north side of town had been similarly assaulted and strangled. The second was only nine years old.
The killings haunted investigators. "The innocence of those girls, and knowing we were dealing with a sexual predator -- it's just different," says Billingsley, a Harris County sheriff's lieutenant. "Every day I'd think about those girls. Every day it was on my brain."
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Sanchez had disappeared almost 11 months after the nine-year-old's murder. A week passed before a man called KPRC-TV with directions to the field where her body lay.
Then he added something that police had suspected but had hoped wasn't true:
A serial killer is on the loose.
Police were convinced that the anonymous tipster was the killer himself: hungry for attention, eager to display his handiwork, daring them to catch him.
The cops and deputies formed a task force, desperate to stop him. Only when leads fizzled and the killer failed to strike did the task force disband and its detectives take on other cases.
But they never really moved on. Billingsley thought about the killer every time he went to the post office on West Cavalcade -- Sanchez had lived just across the street. Or whenever he saw a van that matched the one spotted at the crime scene.
Sometimes they'd talk about him, Billingsley says. Why had he thrust himself into the limelight, and then stopped? "Did he die?" "Is he in prison for something for else?" "Has he moved away?"
Only after they caught him did they realize it was none of the three. In the eight years after Sanchez's death, he'd gotten married and divorced, fallen in love again and started a business.
Anthony "Tony" Shore had crossed paths with law enforcement numerous times. He'd been in a squad car at least once, in criminal court and at the police station. But no one ever really noticed the friendly dark-haired guy with the pierced chin.
And that's how it had always been for Shore. Even as a child, he seemed driven by two impulses: to seek attention and to molest females. He went from grabbing and groping to killing. He cruised high schools. Molested his own daughters. Tried to pick up a hooker. Then, after a few murders, he called the TV station to give police an added push.
Everyone who might have stopped him, from relatives to social workers to prosecutors, seemed to be looking the other way. Even the people who detected his odd behavior failed to put the pieces together. And as Houston police detectives worked tirelessly to catch the killer, their own DNA lab failed to test the evidence that could connect Shore to the crimes.
In the end, it was left to science to nab him. When Shore confessed last fall, it was to more crimes than investigators had suspected: the murders of four women, the violent rape of a fifth. But by then, it was too late.
When it comes to serial killers, Tony Shore is more Ted Bundy than Jeffrey Dahmer. His hairline has started to recede, but he is still good-looking, with dark puppy-dog eyes and a neat goatee. He has long been fastidious; even as a child, he hated to get dirty. His sisters used to tease him for folding his socks over a hanger, for insisting on silk underwear, for instructing them on the importance of eating their sandwiches in a straight line, teeth marks precise as a row of type.
Shore was born in South Dakota. His father, Rob, was stationed at an air force base there; his mother, Deanna, had been honorably discharged after getting pregnant with Tony.
After Rob's discharge, the Shores relocated to California -- the first of nine moves the family would make before Tony started high school, crisscrossing from California to Florida, then finally landing in Houston. "When I'd get a better job offer, I'd move," Rob Shore says. Since he was "in computers before there were computers," as he puts it, there was no shortage of offers.
Tony was well behaved and hypercompetitive, his mother says; he always had to be the best. His family marveled at his ability to play any instrument, from piano to trombone to guitar. He won mention in the Sacramento Bee for his recital of a Bach musette when he was just five years old.
But he was terrible at sports, and not much better with his peers. Unlike his younger sisters, Gina and Laurel, he had trouble adjusting to new schools. "He cried easily," his mother says. "And he was arrogant. He liked to use big words. He'd raise his hand and say, 'I need to defecate.' "
He seemed to require abnormal amounts of attention. "He'd make straight A's, but he wasn't content to make them," she says. "He wanted acknowledgement for them." The one teacher he remembered as an adult was the one who'd disliked him. "He liked to get praise."
It didn't sit well with classmates. "He was beat up a lot," says Gina. "It was humiliating. And some of these were bad beatings. He didn't handle it real well."
Even at an early age, he behaved strangely around girls. Gina recalls that when they biked around the neighborhood together, Tony would pick out houses of girls he wanted to harass. He'd send Gina to knock on the door and ask for the little girl. When she came out, Tony would grab her and try to fondle her.
"They were really upset," Gina says. Finally, a woman who answered the door turned out to be one of Gina's teachers. "That was the last time I knocked on any doors."
Her brother's high jinks only escalated. When he was 13 and living near Orlando, Tony told his sister that he and his buddies had beaten up a bum in a swampy area behind the Publix grocery store. "I think we killed the guy," she recalls him saying. "I think we killed the guy."
He seemed agitated, but he never cried.
He told her not to mention it again; he certainly never did. She was his little sister and his friend. She listened, then tried to forget.
Rob Shore finally settled in Houston in the mid-'70s, but his family still had one more difficult move ahead. In 1976, when Tony was 14 and attending Clear Creek High School, his parents got divorced. Deanna returned to her native California with the three kids.
Rob didn't fight her for custody. "I figured she'd be a better single mother than I'd be a single father," he says.
Although they differ on details, Deanna and Rob say the marriage ended when Rob, who hadn't hit Deanna before, beat her up. He says he told her he was leaving and she shattered a beer stein over his head. "When someone hits me in the back of my head with a beer mug, I respond very badly," he says.
Tony often tried to buffer his mother during his parents' arguments, Deanna recalls, inserting himself between the couple. That caused Tony to face his father's wrath -- and his belt, she says. (Rob claims no memory of that.)
Tony was hardly sad to see the couple divorce. "He said, 'Good, we're rid of him,' " Deanna says. " He was 14 and he wanted to take over!"
Deanna wouldn't allow it. "I told him what the rules were," she says. When Tony borrowed her car one night while she was sleeping, she called the cops.
Back in Sacramento, she was going to school and working two or three jobs, including a long stint as a waitress at Denny's. Often, she'd come home, make dinner and head out to work again. She remembers Tony as a great help, but she wasn't home enough to monitor his activities.
He'd found new ways to get attention. He joined a jazz band and starred in theatrical productions. He told his family that, while hiking one day, he'd almost died in an avalanche. There, he said, he'd seen the face of God -- an epiphany that briefly compelled him to criticize family members for smoking or cursing. "You never knew how much he was dramatizing it," Deanna says.
He'd grown into a handsome kid, a clotheshorse who enjoyed sporting the tight pants and gold chains of the '70s. His mother thought he looked like Pernell Roberts, who played Adam on Gunsmoke and later starred as the titular Trapper John, M.D. He told his mom that he signed up for ballet classes to meet girls; he always seemed to have a girlfriend.
His aggression toward females continued. Gina remembers cruising bus stations and high schools with him. He'd ask girls if they wanted a ride home, then pointedly remind his sister that she had somewhere else to be.
She's convinced he then molested the girls. "I know that kind of makes me guilty by association, but I helped him," she says.
They'd talk about it sometimes. "To him this was no big deal," Gina says. "This is what all the guys were doing."
After dropping out of community college, Tony returned to Texas, took a job working for Southwestern Bell and got married. He was 21. In three years, he and his wife, who was also named Gina, had two daughters.
Even then, he was on the prowl, his sister Gina says. He still cruised the high schools, even though he'd grown much older than the girls he was trying to seduce, even though he was married.
At 24 years of age, police say, Shore became a killer.
Fifteen-year-old Laurie Lee Tremblay left her house at 6:30 a.m. to catch a Metro bus to her school for troubled kids in Montrose. An hour later, her body was found behind a Ninfa's restaurant three miles from her apartment complex. She had been strangled.
The murder puzzled investigators, says Houston Police Sergeant John Swaim. Tremblay hadn't been robbed or sexually assaulted. While she had only enough money for a one-way bus fare, he says, "the people who caught that bus had never heard anything about her catching a ride, ever." The police got tips, but none mentioned a telephone installer named Tony Shore.
Some of Shore's relatives, however, began to suspect that he had taken a wrong turn in life. "He was halfway slurry to me," says Ogoretta Worley, his mother-in-law. "I thought he was messing with dope. He always looked at me suspicious, like I was looking through him."
His sister Gina came to visit soon after earning her bachelor's degree in psychology, a few years after Tremblay's murder. She became convinced her brother was molesting his older daughter, who was then about five years old. He insisted on bathing her himself, kissing her on the lips, ignoring typical father-daughter boundaries, Gina says.
When Gina complained to her mother, Deanna Shore was unconvinced. She told her to call Children's Protective Services if she was concerned.
Gina says she did call, but she never heard back.
Deanna visited soon after and didn't notice signs of abuse. But one thing seemed odd: There was no food anywhere in the house. She also noticed that Tony and his wife's bedroom was off-limits to their kids. "It felt very strange to me. But every woman has the right to run her own house. I wouldn't interfere."
(Tony's then-wife Gina, who has since remarried, declined comment.)
Police say that Tony killed his next victim in 1992. She was 21-year-old Maria Del Carmen Estrada, a slightly built Mexican immigrant with long dark hair. As with his first victim, she left home at 6:30 a.m., planning to walk to work. Four hours later, they found her body in a Dairy Queen drive-through, less than a mile from her residence. Nude from the waist down, she, too, had been strangled.
Police never connected the two killings, Swaim says. Despite the similar time of day and method, almost six years had passed. Unlike Tremblay, Estrada was sexually assaulted and her purse taken.
And when an intruder raped a 14-year-old girl in her home a year later, police didn't connect that either.
One year after that, in August 1994, nine-year-old Diana Rebollar left her house around noon to buy sugar for her mother. Police found her body behind a vacant building 12 hours later. She'd been beaten, sexually assaulted and strangled.
Rebollar was the same age as Shore's younger daughter.
Despite the murders, Shore appeared to be a successful, friendly guy. He enjoyed chatting up strangers on the job and mixed easily with both musicians and the blue-collar guys at the bar.
After installing telephones at Ernie's on Banks, he initiated Tuesday-night blues jams at that bar. Regulars called him Telephone Tony. When bartender Ramiro Gonzalez needed a phone line in his new apartment, Shore did the job himself. "That was kind of the guy he was," Gonzalez says. "He'd help you out."
Even Shore's wife didn't seem to realize what she was dealing with. In April 1993, the same year he allegedly raped the 14-year-old, he and Gina separated. Gina agreed to pay him $75 a week in child support, and he got custody of their daughters, according to records.
Deanna says that Tony's ex-wife began making late-night calls to her, telling her in slurred words that Deanna really knew nothing about her son.
Deanna reasoned she was just bitter. "Honey," she remembers telling her, "you're drunk." For Tony Shore's mother, the truth still hadn't registered.
One hot July night 11 months after Rebollar's death, 16-year-old Dana Sanchez phoned her boyfriend to say she was hitchhiking to his house. Then she disappeared.
Shore had never bothered to hide his victims' bodies, but the field where he dumped Sanchez was apparently just too remote. Police didn't find her body until a week had passed, and only then because a mysterious caller warned the television station of a serial killer and gave directions to her remains.
Police and sheriff's investigators assembled a task force almost immediately, says Lieutenant Billingsley. Still, they kept it quiet.
"We joked about it, because the understanding given to us by the people above us was that we don't want to call this a task force, or a serial murderer. We don't want to panic people," Billingsley says. "It was a non-task-force task force."
In official statements, the department played down links among the murders. But the detectives on the case were convinced they had a serial killer. "We worked and worked and worked," Sergeant Swaim says. "We looked at everybody: sex offenders and parolees and boyfriends. We looked at their schools."
Despite his increasingly odd behavior, investigators never had any real reason to look at Shore. His sister Gina says she'd previously reported him to Children's Protective Services, but there is no indication CPS acted on her complaint. Naturally, he never showed up on a list of sex offenders in the area.
And even when the Houston police picked him up, seven months after Sanchez's murder, he stayed cool.
There was no sleuthing in the misdemeanor arrest: An undercover cop posing as a prostitute randomly offered Shore sex for a fee, according to the police report, and he accepted. Court records show he got three months' unsupervised probation and a $122 fine.
Around that time, Shore's sister Gina visited once more. Again, she was horrified by her brother's behavior: When Tony went out for the evening, he dead-bolted the door, locking his two young daughters inside. Then he and his friends invited Gina and her companion to do drugs with them.
Instead, her friend called CPS to report Tony for child endangerment, Gina says. He even sent a certified letter to follow up. But he never heard anything.
Agency spokeswoman Estella Olguin says CPS has no way to verify, or dispute, Gina's account. She says that if no charges are filed, records of an investigation are destroyed after three years.
But if the agency had spent any time following up on that complaint, Gina says, they should have noticed problems. Tony's house had no electricity, she says, and he'd boarded up the windows.
Rob Shore was living in Clear Lake Shores, not far from his son in Houston, but their relationship had grown chilly. When the two bumped into each other at the Westheimer Art Festival one spring, Tony didn't have much to say. Rob's wife, Rose, thought he was on drugs.
He seemed to drop by his father's house only when he had a new girlfriend to show off. When Tony was 33, that girlfriend was Amy Lynch, an 18-year-old high school student. Friends say he'd worked on her family's telephone line and arranged an introduction after noticing her picture.
The appeal of such a younger woman was evident. Rose Shore remembers Tony visiting them that Easter with his daughters and girlfriend. Amy eagerly blurted out that Tony had told them all what to wear, from their dresses to their socks and shoes.
"He was in control at that point," Rose says. "They had to do what he said. They were dressed well, but it was definitely a red flag."
Two years after Tony and Amy got together, in the spring of 1997, Tony called his mother in California and told her he was getting married. He asked if he could send his daughters for a long visit during the honeymoon. When Deanna demurred, his charm abruptly turned into a threat: "If you don't see them now, you never will."
"It was not a good time for me," Deanna Shore says. "But I said okay."
When they arrived, Deanna knew something was wrong. The girls, now 12 and 13, were silent. They stuck close together -- "like Oscars," Deanna says. And though it was nearly 100 degrees in Sacramento, they insisted on wearing layers of clothing.
Frustrated, Deanna sent the younger girl to visit Gina, Tony's sister, in Washington State. Deanna was convinced they'd been molested. "I said, 'I'm not going to ask, but if we split them up, they may volunteer it.' "
In Washington, the truth came out. Gina had been complaining about a situation at work: "Do you ever feel like something is totally unjustified?"
Shore's daughter turned ashen. "How do you know about that?" she gasped.
The girl explained: One night, when Tony's girlfriend was in the hospital, he'd raped her. "I know he's been doing it to [my sister] for years and years," she told her aunt. "I was supposed to mind my own business."
Gina called her mother. And her mother called police.
According to their case file, the girls told California authorities about the abuse and their father's drug use. Sometimes, they said, he even drugged them. Their medical exams showed evidence of trauma. Tony Shore was charged with aggravated sexual assault.
Ivy Chambers, a supervisor with Children's Protective Services, told Deanna they'd gotten numerous complaints about her son over the years. (Chambers did not respond to requests for comment.) They'd never been able to prove anything.
Deanna called her son.
"He denied it flatly," she says. At first, she says, she "didn't know who to believe." He was angry at her for calling the police. Listening to him, Deanna Shore felt chilled. "He still used the same tone, but I had the feeling I was talking to a stranger."
It took only a few months for defense attorney Bill R. Gifford to hammer out a deal with the district attorney's office. Shore agreed to plead guilty to two counts of indecency with a child. The offense can net five years to life, but Tony got no prison time, just a $500 fine and eight years of probation.
There were conditions: He'd have to register as a sex offender, meet regularly with a probation officer and do community service. But under the deferred adjudication program, he'd have no record of a conviction if he made it through probation without a problem, says Denise Oncken, chief of the D.A.'s child abuse division.
Serious sex offenders like Shore are required to register with authorities in person every 90 days. Initially, he'd also have to meet with his probation officer every 15 days.
But his wings were hardly clipped: He was barred from being within 100 yards of a school or day care, but the judge made a special exception to allow him to keep living on East 18th Street -- in a house that overlooks the playground at Field Elementary School. He was also exempted from the rule that barred him from contacting his daughters, according to court records.
Such a light sentence isn't exactly normal, "but it's not outside the norm, either," Oncken admits. When prosecutors have a weak case, she says, their only choice may be to take what they can get.
Assistant District Attorney Terese Buess didn't work on Shore's molestation case. But she explains that prosecution can be difficult with out-of-state victims. "Some of these kids are really damaged. To throw them in with a new prosecutor, when they haven't got a chance to talk or meet, it's not a good bet."
Still, Deanna Shore says she would have done anything to cooperate, but the prosecutors didn't seem to care. She learned of the plea bargain only when she called to check on the status of the case. "They told me they didn't want the girls to feel guilt. I said, 'Why should they? They are children. They don't feel guilty.' "
The girls were terrified that Tony would come for them, she says. "I was furious. I'm still furious."
Only Tony Shore seemed to think he'd gotten a tough sentence. Though he was hiding four murders, he filed a motion to withdraw his plea just weeks after accepting it.
Attorney Gifford argued in the motion that Shore had learned of the stringent requirements for registered sex offenders only 15 minutes before his plea. And while he agreed to the deal because he thought it would allow him to keep his job, he'd been fired from Southwestern Bell, the attorney stated.
The judge denied the motion, and an appeals court later upheld the sentence.
The authorities seemed intent on moving on. Shore's sister Gina had filed an affidavit telling how he cruised high schools and groped women. "I think there were a lot more girls he molested," she says. "A lot more."
No one contacted her. And though urine tests during Tony Shore's first year of probation twice revealed cocaine, he was never sent to jail.
Tony Shore's arrest as a serial killer came as more denouement than climax. Years had passed since the task force disbanded. To all but their shell-shocked relatives and a few devoted police officers, the victims had been forgotten.
His molestation conviction required Shore to give Houston police a DNA sample in 1998. He'd complained about the terms of his deal in his appeal, including court-ordered therapy. Curiously, when it came to providing the DNA, he testified, "I don't have a problem with that."
The DNA, however, was a perfect match to that left by Maria Del Carmen Estrada's killer in 1992.
But the cops didn't realize that when they obtained Shore's sample in 1998. There is sometimes a few years' delay before samples can be entered into law enforcement databases, Sergeant Swaim says. But police didn't realize they had a hit until October 2003 -- five years later.
The reason: During the time of Estrada's murder, the police department had serious problems with its crime lab, problems that didn't become public until almost a decade later. The department shuttered the lab in December 2002 after an independent audit found that analysts had been poorly trained, lab conditions were inadequate and the subsequent results were shaky at best.
In the aftermath of the audit, police decided to send samples from a few high-profile murder victims -- Estrada was among them -- to an independent lab in Dallas for testing, Swaim says. Swaim refuses to say why the evidence hadn't been tested sooner. He referred questions to Captain Richard Holland, his supervisor. Holland says he can't discuss the evidence or the reason it wasn't tested, but says "advances in technology since these murders occurred" were the key to the DNA match by the Dallas lab. He won't speculate on whether the department would have ordered the new tests if not for the DNA lab's problems.
Regardless, the test results surprised detectives. Anthony Allen Shore, on probation for molesting his daughters, was a match. This was the same guy that social workers apparently let off the hook so many times -- and the same guy the court had allowed to live next door to an elementary school. He was also the same guy who stopped in at the police station every three months to confirm his address.
The detectives rushed out to the quiet brick house off Uvalde Drive where Shore had moved about a year earlier. His second wife had left him, filing for divorce just two days after she moved out, according to court records. She would later tell the Houston Chronicle that she bolted after waking up to find his hands around her neck.
But she never filed charges, and Shore seemed to have straightened out his life. He was living with a new girlfriend, whom he called his wife, and her three teenage kids. He had purchased a wrecker and gone into the towing business. When he returned to Ernie's bar one night, he handed out business cards with his phone number and the moniker "Texas T. Shore."
"To say I was shocked was putting it mildly," says his girlfriend, Lynda, who asked that her full name not be used. "Pretty much everything he had told me was not true. And to have 12 to 15 homicide detectives at your house one night--" She stops. Then she says, "I never would have guessed anything like that."
Investigators believe Shore probably expected to be discovered. "He was waiting for that hammer to fall, and it fell," Swaim says.
Shore admitted to the killings during an interrogation by Swaim. Then he added, "Now I'm going to tell you something you don't know," and confessed to Tremblay's murder, as well as the rape of the teenager in 1993.
In every case, he assured police he had a justification. He'd been dating Tremblay, he said, and had to strangle her when she promised to tell his wife. He later told family members that one of the victims had been in his daughter's school; another had heard his band play.
Swaim is convinced the story is crap. "They tell you just enough, but not enough to make themselves look bad," he says. "My idea was, he was giving himself an out: 'I'm not as bad as you think. We had a relationship.' He has an explanation for everything. But it's not going to wash."
Investigators differ on whether Shore committed more murders in the five years after giving his DNA sample. Officers "looked at all the cases of unsolved females that fit his MO," Swaim says, but he believes the last killing was Sanchez in 1995.
Swaim knows Shore had a habit of picking up women and making his move. But he doesn't believe he killed them: "There would be bodies strewn all over the place. My friends say, 'You're crazy! You're telling me this guy didn't do any other stuff for so many years?' But maybe we do have all he did."
Billingsley concedes that "a majority of investigators" think there are more victims. But, if so, why wouldn't Shore admit to them? "We can only kill him so many times," Billingsley says. "Why not admit to all of them?"
Billingsley believes Shore wants to be the center of attention. After all, he says, he called to report Sanchez's body nine years ago. He seems to enjoy the questioning. "He's got this attention now, and he can keep us hanging."
Tony Shore is scheduled for trial in November on capital murder charges, but even his family doesn't contend he is innocent. His own father won't argue that he deserves mercy.
Sitting in his Southwestern-themed kitchen in Clear Lake Shores, Rob Shore says he believes in the death penalty; he doesn't think his son deserves an exemption. "Fair is fair, and right is right," Rob says simply.
Tony has twice written him long letters from jail, full of explanations. Tony claims his mother molested him as a child -- Deanna even underwent hypnosis to see if that could be true, but came up with nothing to support the claim.
Rob doesn't believe such allegations, either, nor does he write back.
He and his wife, Rose, have an easy rapport from 20 years of marriage. Even when he talks about beating up his first wife, they seem at ease. "I'm not a violent person," he says.
"Only when you get mad," she teases him.
"I haven't beaten you up yet," he says. They smile at each other.
It's raining, and Rob excuses himself to move one of the cars to higher ground. When he's gone, Rose wonders how Tony could have turned into a cold-blooded killer. "He wanted his father's attention more than anything," she offers. "But his dad didn't know that. He was mad at his dad most of the time, and his dad didn't even know it."
When Rob returns, she changes the subject.
Deanna Shore was 57 when she started as a mother again. Her granddaughters initially had no clothes or beds or shoes. Despite his promises, Tony never sent child support.
Raising the girls was also emotionally difficult. The older daughter couldn't sleep unless her 130-pound dog was in the room; she also developed a habit of igniting her stuffed animals. The younger one had nightmares about her dad. "They were not the kind of children that grandparents long for," Deanna says dryly.
As for her son, "There's a part of me that loves him, and always will. That loves the child he was If the other part existed then, I didn't see it. But he was also every woman's nightmare."
Deanna and her daughter Gina flew to Houston in March to visit Tony. Rob drove them to the Harris County Jail, but when they went in, he sat in the car and waited.
The visitors' room is a cacophony of girlfriends and husbands shouting into speakers, struggling to be heard by prisoners on the other side of the glass. But even cuffed, even in a bright orange jumpsuit, Tony Shore was completely unself-conscious. He said he was working on a book of memoirs; he claimed he was right with God.
"He was just as friendly as if he was having tea with us," Deanna marvels.
He didn't deny anything, but he didn't admit the murders, either. "I know I'm forgiven," he said.
What about the parents of the murdered girls, Deanna asked him. How could they forgive him? He told her they had a right to feel that way.
They left without any real answers.
Tony has continued to write. His mother and sister read his letters, but they don't really believe anything he says. Deanna's therapist warned her that the letters were classically sociopathic: He praises her, then asks for something. Or he plays the guilt card. "He blames it all on cocaine," she says.
In letters to his sister Gina, Tony seems to be reveling in his notoriety: He asks for copies of any newspaper stories she can find about his case.
He doesn't talk about guilt. He never says he's sorry. "Most of what he writes about," she says, "is his book."
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