An Open But Shut Case

It was cold that Sunday, the day after Christmas 1993; too cold for the two volunteer firemen to wade into the small pond in a secluded part of Montgomery County and retrieve the body of the white man floating amid the water lilies. Instead, they used a small boat and a rope to pull the corpse to the copper-colored dirt bank.

The firemen, along with two sheriff's deputies, were called to the scene by the mother of 35-year-old Thomas Minnich. Minnich, his mother and grandparents all lived in three separate trailer homes on the pine-tree-thick property surrounding the pond.

As the rescue team worked to recover the body, Minnich gave deputies a grim explanation. Earlier that afternoon, accompanied by his brother-in-law and his young niece, he had been down at the pond shooting his Thompson Contender .22 caliber rifle at what he thought was a turtle. His mixed-breed fetching dog began thrashing about in the water, which began turning red. It was then -- and only then -- he told the deputies, that he realized the turtle's shell was actually the top and back of a man's head.

The firemen pulled the body onto the bank. A bit of blood oozed from the dead man's head and onto the wet ground. He was clad in a red shirt and blue jeans. Green water lily vines were tangled around his legs, his arms outstretched and rigid. A black jacket, with one sleeve turned inside-out, which had been floating near the body, was also recovered, and a pair of deck shoes were later found on the property.

The driver's license in the victim's wallet identified him as 29-year-old Paul Beauchamp, who had lived just a few miles away in a more residential area of the county.

Because Montgomery County does not have a medical examiner, Beauchamp's body was taken to the Harris County morgue, in Houston, where an autopsy was performed the next day. His death was ruled an accidental drowning, and the Montgomery County Sheriff's Office prepared to close the case.

But Beauchamp's family, especially his father, refused to accept the idea that Paul simply got drunk, walked into the pond and drowned -- and that later, someone just happened to mistake his head for a turtle and use it for target practice. For the past four and a half years, the now 69-year-old Alfred Beauchamp has been consumed with his effort to prove that, instead of drowning, his son was murdered. And, at least on one level, Alfred Beauchamp has been successful.

In February 1997, more than three years after Paul Beauchamp's body was recovered, a team of four pathologists, led by Harris County Chief Medical Examiner Joye Carter, overturned the findings of the original autopsy by issuing a report stating that Beauchamp died from two gunshot wounds to his head, and ruling his death a homicide. Nevertheless, 18 months later, the Montgomery County Sheriff's Office still refuses to reopen the case, leaving the Beauchamp family bitter and frustrated. But the Beauchamps are not the only ones who have had to deal with the attitude of indifference sometimes displayed by the Montgomery County Sheriff's Office in its homicide investigations.

Over the past couple of decades, dozens of suspicious deaths have gone unsolved in the rural county that borders the city of Houston and Harris County. For example:

*In June 1997, the charred bodies of 17-year-old Sarah Cleary and 19-year-old Misty Morgan were found in a burned-out car in a wooded area north of Conroe. Despite almost monthly rumors of impending indictments, nearly 14 months after the double homicide no charges have been filed.

*Last September, the partial remains of an adult male were discovered in some woods just a few miles from the pond where Paul Beauchamp's body was found floating. Sheriff's deputies violated protocol by moving the remains before calling the justice of the peace -- in this case, Edie Connelly -- to the scene. An analysis of the skull by the Human Skeletal Identification Laboratory in San Marcos revealed that the victim had been shot in the head.

*That same month, emergency personnel were called to a trailer home on Winchester Road, on the outskirts of Conroe, where 30-year-old Kelly Koch, a Montgomery College art student, had apparently drowned in her own bathtub. Koch was transported to Memorial Hospital in Conroe, where she was pronounced dead. Traces of morphine and codeine were found in her system. Koch's common-law husband, Charles Turner, told sheriff's investigators -- who didn't take a written statement from the man until several days later -- that he found Koch in a sitting position, face down in the tub.

"That's a real hard position to be in," says one skeptic. "Usually, you would slip backwards or fall to one side. It's kind of hard to fall forward from a sitting position if your feet are in front of you."

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Steve McVicker