The Devil You Say

Neighbors rushed through the rancid odor of fire and death to a modest brick home in north Houston and banged on the door, feeling its heat with their hands.

Burglar bars shielded the front windows from easy access. Would-be rescuers finally gained entry, only to be driven back by heavy smoke and soot, which had turned the garage pool table from green to gray and transformed tiny foosball game figures into relics of Pompeii.

Gregory Francisco, who lived nearby on Lakebrook Street, saw the partially burned body of a shirtless man in khaki shorts. His shouts for the man to get up went unheeded, and he realized why when paramedics arrived. They halted their efforts to roll him over when the movement began peeling part of the dead man's burned face away.

In the living area was a lifeless woman, clad in only a T-shirt melted to her skin. She rested facedown on a love seat, her black hair charred into a steel-wool clump.

Both had been killed execution-style by bullets just below the base of the skull. Those were almost instant deaths. The intense flash fire, set by gasoline and paint solvents, sent a more random assassin of heavy smoke moving through the house.

Soot-laced clouds consumed some furnishings and drifted down the hallway, past the molten mass of a smoke detector and carefully hung portraits of little girls decked out in their Sunday finest.

The thick haze surged into the bedrooms, dipping past the shelves of teddy bears beyond the Spice World poster. It gripped the seven-year-old girl in the red Rockets nightshirt on the bed, then shooed the other seven-year-old onto the floor. She looked as if she'd collapsed trying to reach her wooden rocking horse to ride to safety.

In the adjoining bedroom, the smoke settled over the 22-month-old toddler, who fell from her bed to the floor. Rescuers peered into the face of a child who looked as if she'd mischievously used her mother's mascara to draw a cartoonish handlebar moustache across her soft cheeks. Instead, it was only the curling line of dried, soot-blackened mucus that flowed from her nostrils as she took her final gasps.

On that April 24, 1999, morning, the smoke would clear in minutes. But it would take more than three years to track through a case that wound through bank lobbies and across double lives, warped notions of the American dream, street-smart convicts ready to exploit a bizarre investigation and new doubts about the justice system's reliance on jailhouse informants.

He was never much in school, but four days before Christmas in 1990, Ronald Jeffery Prible Jr. enlisted in the U.S. Marines and set out to become one of the few, the proud. His mother, Sandra Prible, told of how he'd been impressed by the spit-and-shine recruiters who visited Eisenhower High School, from which he'd graduated months earlier.

Prible passed basic training at California's Camp Pendleton, earned his specialty in machine-gunning and had one assignment in the postwar Persian Gulf. He collected a good conduct medal and an honorable discharge, but -- like his earlier years -- his military days were marked by mediocrity.

He left the service to fight his ex-wife, Melonie Garrison, for custody of Ronald Jeffery III, or "Little Jeff," who is now ten years old. As late as last year, court records reflected the instability of his former spouse. An affidavit by Sandra Prible says the woman showed up famished and muttering that her mother had put a curse on Little Jeff.

She saw an empty Cheetos bag in the trash can and said it was a sign of the devil, says Prible's mother, who fed her former daughter-in-law and found her the Bible she'd asked for.

In 1995, Jeffery Prible went to a friend's house for pizza and rented movies and met 18-year-old Dawn Hughlett, who became his second wife. That dissolved in bitterness -- she says he threatened suicide and once head-butted her after she complained about his dropping his trousers during a contest at the club Tampico Bay. Hughlett left him after a two-year relationship, taking their infant daughter with her.

More female companions would be attracted to Prible, although he was hardly handsome. His deep-set, dark eyes and arching brows and lips could freeze into a grim, near-scowling expression. He'd had childhood difficulties paying attention, and his speech could be high-volume and rapid-fire. But Prible also showed a sharp wit coupled with a somewhat naive but gregarious attitude toward friends or strangers.

He thought of continuing a military-type life by becoming a sheriff's deputy; that application was rejected because of bad credit. Prible had worked at World Gym and tried to make it as a small paving contractor, hustling driveway jobs or a few larger contracts for parking lots. He'd had some equipment seized in a tax dispute with the government -- he and his father even armed themselves for a confrontation with an ex-business associate over finances.

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George Flynn
Contact: George Flynn