Metropolis: Wednesday, July 18, 2002
Heating Up Cold Cases

A newly formed Texas Ranger unit may take on the Carla Walker murder.


A murder that haunted and bewildered Fort Worth in the 1970s has taken a twist and landed in the hands of a newly formed detail of the Texas Rangers. However, in order to make headway on the case, Rangers need cooperation from Fort Worth police, who seem to have lost interest years ago.

Fort Worth in 1974 retained a small-town feel despite 300,000 residents, who were stunned when a sweet teenage girl was kidnapped, injected with morphine, raped, then strangled and dumped in a muddy culvert. The city’s shock took awhile to subside, especially when police failed to find the murderer.

Retired cop John Terrell thinks he knows the killer, and he shared his beliefs with Fort Worth Weekly (“Murder & Obsession,” April 23, 2002). He slammed Fort Worth police for bungling the investigation and wondered whether they have lost crucial evidence that — with modern DNA testing — might connect former Fort Worth resident William Ted Wilhoit to the crime. Police homicide investigators have refused to share case information with him, even after Terrell, a retired burglary detective, offered to investigate the case on his own time.

A victims’ group whose members have lost friends and family to murder became so disenchanted with Fort Worth police that they paid $500 for statistical research to document hundreds of unsolved murders in the past two decades and another $1,800 to publish a page-and-a-quarter ad in the June 27 Weekly, listing the victims’ names and criticizing a city that has allowed such a large number of murders to go unsolved.

Fort Worth police analysis showed smaller, but still staggering, numbers: 500 of the city’s 2,075 murders in the past 20 years are unsolved — 500 people whose lives were snuffed out, their murderers never found. Yet, the numbers are better than statewide statistics. More than 23,300 murders were reported in Texas from 1987 to 1998, Department of Public Safety records show. Texas law enforcement agencies solved 16,562. That means 6,738, or 29 percent, were never solved.

Those statewide numbers prompted the creation of an elite team of Texas Rangers to assist overburdened law enforcement agencies in cracking such tough cases. The DPS Unsolved Crimes Investigation Team, also called the Cold Case Unit, comprises a commander, four officers, and a criminal profiler. The team was formed in March and quickly helped solve a year-old murder in Eagle Pass. Another investigation led to a recent arrest in connection with a decade-old murder in Seguin. That’s two cases solved out of five that the team has assisted on thus far.

Another 22 cases are set for review by the team, including Carla Walker’s case. However, the Rangers said they probably won’t pursue the case unless Fort Worth police are willing to share information. “We’d rather be invited — our only goal is to provide assistance,” said Lt. Gary De Los Santos, who heads the Rangers unit. “It’s all-around good business to work with someone rather than taking over. It’s better to work together rather than second-guessing somebody.”

Fort Worth police have shared little information with Terrell, Carla Walker’s relatives, or news media during the past two decades, despite evidence that points to investigative lapses. De Los Santos’ unit will be diplomatic and “cross that road when we get to it” should the Rangers get a chilly reception from a law enforcement agency, he said. “We’re not there to make anybody look bad.”

The Rangers are expected to review the Walker case in the next six to eight weeks to determine whether they want to get involved. Most of the 27 cases submitted for the team’s review so far have come from police departments seeking help. The Walker case was submitted by Terrell, who is excited despite the possibility of another dead-end. After 28 years, any movement in the case is cause for celebration, he said. “This is rewarding that the Rangers got it on their desk and are considering it,” he said.

Terrell’s a realist, though, and he wouldn’t be surprised if the Rangers lose interest. “They won’t get a nod of approval from the Fort Worth Police Department,” he said. “That department will do everything they can to wash it off. I don’t have any reservations about the qualifications of anyone on the Texas Rangers. But they have to get along with everybody. I’m afraid the police department will downplay this, and the Rangers will push it aside.”

Fort Worth homicide detectives would probably not oppose Rangers participation, said police Sgt. J.D. Thornton, who confirmed that the Walker investigation stalled years ago and gets little attention these days. “Providing they do contact us, we would consider exchanging information with them about the case if we believe it would be beneficial to the case,” he said. “It depends on what leads they want to pursue. Some leads have been pursued all they can be. If they want to get a different slant on it, we normally will cooperate and provide information to any police agency, and I don’t think this would be any different.”

Thornton disputes Terrell’s assertions that police bungled the case. “I’m not going to discuss what we’ve done on it, but every avenue that can be explored has been,” he said. “That includes the physical evidence.”

Department of Public Safety spokesperson Tela Mange said the team’s purpose is justice. “We don’t always go where we’re not wanted, but that doesn’t mean we won’t go,” she said.

The Rangers team was created by legislation in 2001. “The driving force has been victims’ groups,” De Los Santos said. “They’re the ones who pursued their legislators to create some sort of team to work these cases.”

Victims’ groups and legislators are less worried than the Rangers about stepping on local law enforcement agencies’ toes.

Rep. Helen Giddings, the Dallas Democrat who authored the bill that created the cold-case unit, said it was envisioned as a resource for police agencies. “Iquite frankly did not foresee a situation where citizens on their own would be calling upon the Rangers to investigate a cold case,” she said, but added that the legislature might consider changing the law to expressly allow that.

Even if the Rangers decide to pursue the case, they might not launch a full investigation for months, and perhaps not until next year, because cases are reviewed in order of submittal. “I can’t tell you when we’re going to get started,” De Los Santos said.

Meanwhile, the man who Terrell believes is responsible for Walker’s murder is serving time in a south Texas prison on an unrelated rape charge. He is scheduled for release in January.

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