Metropolis: Wednesday, May 8, 2003
The DNA That Wasn’t There

The Walker case goes back on the inactive list.


The Fort Worth Police Department’s renewed focus on hundreds of unsolved murders, according to information provided to the city council, has thus far resulted in 601 cases being reviewed and prioritized, 66 cases being assigned to detectives, and 20 cases being solved.

Still, confusion, suspicion, and doubt continue to swirl among observers. Among the doubters is retired police detective John Terrell.

Police appeared to have given up long ago on solving the 1974 murder of 16-year-old Carla Walker, despite Terrell’s longstanding claim that the murder was the work of a local man already serving time in prison for an unrelated rape (“Murder & Obsession,” April 25, 2002). William Ted Wilhoit, a habitual burglar and convicted rapist, was paroled from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice in January after serving more than 22 years in prison. He is currently living in Corpus Christi.

Years ago, Wilhoit hinted to Terrell that he had been responsible for Walker’s abduction and murder. The Western Hills High School student was kidnapped in February 1974, injected with morphine, raped, and strangled to death. Her body was found two days later in a south Fort Worth culvert.

Terrell has accused police of bungling the Walker investigation, losing evidence, and closing the case to cover up an embarrassing chapter in the department’s history — the arrest and conviction of an innocent man to cover up the actions of corrupt police officers.

Janelle Kirby was living in a garage apartment near Texas Christian University when a young, short, neatly dressed man asked to use her telephone on June 11, 1974. After she invited him inside, he pointed a pistol at her and produced a pair of thumb cuffs. Kirby put up a struggle, and the man shot her five times in the head and ran. Kirby crawled to a neighbor’s house for help.

She recovered, and police showed her many mug-shot lineups. She noticed that one man’s photo seemed to always be among the choices, and she would later identify the man, Fort Worth resident Kenneth Leslie Miller, as her attacker. Miller was a young Vietnam veteran and mechanic who liked motorcycles, women, booze, and marijuana. He had accused Fort Worth police officers of violating his civil rights by beating him and injuring his spleen. Two narcotics officers were suspended, and a hearing was scheduled. After Kirby named Miller as her attacker, police waited a month — until the day of the police officers’ hearing — to arrest him. Some police officers, including Terrell, felt that the arrest’s timing and the fact that Miller had no history of attacking women indicated a frame-up by Fort Worth police attempting to protect their own.

Miller fled Fort Worth and spent years on the lam before being recaptured. Fort Worth attorney Leonard Schilling, a former Fort Worth police sergeant who headed a task force that pursued Miller, became convinced that Miller had been framed. Wilhoit would eventually confess to raping and shooting Kirby but was never prosecuted because police had granted him immunity for his testimony.

Schilling, too, now considers Wilhoit the “number one suspect” in Walker’s murder.

Through the years, Terrell has relied on inside contacts and former co-workers for information on the Walker case. He has been told that physical evidence for DNA testing was no longer available. “Four different times I’ve inquired about it, and I’ve got four different answers — the DNA evidence was lost, destroyed, used up, and contaminated,” he said.

Last summer, Terrell heard that the Texas Department of Public Safety was initiating a statewide cold-case unit headed by a group of Texas Rangers, called the DPS Unsolved Crimes Investigation Team. Terrell referred the Walker case to them. The Rangers said they would pursue it, but Terrell feared that police would prevent the state officers from getting involved.

In July, Fort Worth police Sgt. J.D. Thornton, who heads the homicide unit, said he would not block the Rangers but doubted they would make headway on Walker’s murder. “Every avenue that can be explored, has been,” he said. “That includes the physical evidence.”

Sure enough, the Rangers passed up the case — Thornton told them it was being reviewed internally. The Rangers team was created to help police agencies that seek their assistance and is hesitant to step on the toes of local authorities. So the Rangers backed off, and Thornton assigned the case to Detective S.J. Waters. Terrell characterized the police’s reopening of the case as a “smokescreen” to prevent an outside agency from becoming involved.

In December, less than six months after Thornton had said that every avenue had been explored, he told Fort Worth Weekly that new DNA testing was being done. Meanwhile, Wilhoit was released from prison.

Terrell sent a letter to Waters on Jan. 27, offering information about Walker’s murder. Waters never responded. Homicide detectives view him as an agitator and resent his interest in the case, Terrell said, but “a good detective should follow up on every lead they get, regardless.”

Last week, Thornton said the testing had been completed to no avail. “We did some more DNA testing that came up negative on some of the existing names we had as possible suspects,” he said. “We received the results of those, and they said they were negative as far as any matches.”

Thornton declined to say what kind of bodily evidence was tested or which suspects it came from.

Terrell doubts that any testing occurred. “I continue to believe that Fort Worth police don’t have any evidence to check,” he said. “Why don’t they just come out and say that the evidence is messed up or contaminated or lost, or that they can no longer do it? Why won’t they say what the evidence is? The case is almost 30 years old.”

Thornton disputed Terrell’s claims, but said he doesn’t view the retired detective as a crackpot or agitator. “That’s not my opinion of him,” he said. “I knew him when he was here, and he worked in burglary the same time I did. He has never contacted me about this case. Any correspondence he has done, if it’s been with Waters and if he is not satisfied with what’s being done, he should talk to me. I don’t view him as anyone other than somebody trying to give information about a case, and if the information is credible and valid, we will look into it.”

Terrell said Fort Worth police have snubbed him for years. In situations where other police agencies have listened to Terrell, good things have happened. In 1978, Wilhoit, released on probation after being convicted of burglary, moved to Abilene. Terrell called police there, warned them that Wilhoit had been involved in several violent crimes, and sent a photo. A short time later, an Abilene housewife was raped. Police, using Terrell’s tip, connected Wilhoit to the crime. That earned him 40 years in prison.

Wilhoit was paroled in 1992 after serving time for the Abilene rape. He moved to Corpus Christi, where, on March 25, 1995, police discovered him breaking into a window of a home where a single woman lived. He admitted to burglary, his parole was revoked, and he was returned to prison.

Terrell is in contact with Corpus Christi police and probation officers again, warning them that he believes Wilhoit will be unable to resist the demons that drive him. “He’ll strike again,” Terrell said.

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