Murder and Obsession Part 2
By Jeff Prince
As he climbed in, Wilhoit’s first words stunned the officers.
“Well, I was wondering when you were going to come after me for Carla Walker,” he said.
“That really did get our attention real quick,” Britt told Fort Worth Weekly recently. “I took it to mean he was probably involved. We got to thinking about the description of the suspect in that, and he fit pretty well. It sure did open up some new pages. We didn’t say anything else to him about it until we got him downtown and had his full Miranda warning.”
A search warrant allowed them to pick through Wilhoit’s home, and they found stolen guns. In a police interrogation room, Terrell first began to question the young man about the burglaries. Eventually the detective moved the conversation toward religion. Wilhoit talked openly about his religious beliefs and even expressed disapproval of Terrell’s frequent and casual use of curse words. Terrell told him that Carla Walker was also a Church of Christ member. The burglar began to cry. Terrell pushed gently onward. Wilhoit was “too good a Christian” to live with Carla’s murder on his mind, he said, and he should talk about what had happened. Wilhoit sighed, Terrell remembered, and the young man said in a quiet voice, “I guess I might as well.”
Wilhoit began to crumble. “He broke down and started crying, and I thought he was going to confess right then,” Britt said. “He said he couldn’t handle it anymore. I thought, we got it made and he’s going to ’fess up. About that time there was some banging on the door.”
A federal agent entered and said he wanted to discuss the stolen savings bonds, which were taken from a post office, making it a federal offense. By the time Terrell ushered the agent out of the room and returned to Wilhoit, the moment was lost. Terrell and Britt were flabbergasted. “That broke everything, and we never got Wilhoit back to that point again,” Britt said. “I will always believe that he was involved. With his reactions that day we showed up with the arrest warrant, I just really believe he was the perpetrator in that offense.”
The knock still haunts Terrell. He refers to it often when talking about Walker’s case. “If the Secret Service guy hadn’t knocked on the door, it would all be over with,” he said.
Carla Walker’s case had initially been assigned to well-respected homicide detective Claude Davis, and then later reassigned to detective George Hudson. Terrell paid Hudson a visit after Wilhoit’s near-confession. They reviewed the Walker case file and looked at other rapes and murders that might involve Wilhoit. The next day, Terrell, Britt, and Hudson searched Wilhoit’s home, looking for jewelry missing from Walker’s body. Terrell found paperwork for numerous pawned guns, including a .22-caliber Ruger that had been stolen about two weeks prior to Walker’s murder. It was probably the same type of weapon used during the Carla Walker kidnapping; the clip police found at the scene had dropped from the same kind of gun, possibly saving McCoy’s life.
Also found among the stolen items were several pairs of women’s panties. “What have we got here?” Terrell said as he sorted through some stolen goods that Wilhoit kept in a large bag. “Those belong to my wife,” Wilhoit said. At that moment, his wife walked into the room, overheard her husband, and denied that the panties were hers.
The church-going Wilhoit had a young wife, a baby daughter, and dreams of becoming a minister, yet he was driven to steal and rape. Terrell was confused by the alternate personalities. “If Ted Bundy ever had a clone, it was Wilhoit,” he said. “Strangely, I liked the son-of-a-bitch. He’s quiet, respectful, he doesn’t cuss, he is well-spoken, and very cooperative as far as the burglaries.”
Terrell filed burglary charges in 1975; Wilhoit’s probation was revoked and he was sent to prison. Months passed. Terrell worked other burglary cases and left Hudson to investigate Walker’s murder. Terrell became concerned, however, after he heard through the grapevine that Wilhoit wasn’t considered a suspect. In early 1976, Terrell drove to the bowling alley where Walker was abducted. He talked to patrons, including a woman who was bowling the night Walker was snatched. The witness recalled being unnerved by a man with intense eyes who kept staring at her as she bowled. Her description mirrored that of Wilhoit, Terrell said.
Terrell later went to the witness’s home and asked her to turn her back to him while he spread out mug-shot photos of seven men. He told her to turn around, and she immediately pointed to Wilhoit’s picture. The witness was named in the original police report, but she told Terrell that no detectives had ever questioned her.
Terrell relayed the information to Hudson but felt his effort was unappreciated. Police departments can be cliquish, and homicide detectives typically view themselves as the elite. Retired detective Leonard Schilling, who would later assist in the Walker case, described Hudson as a good detective and honest cop but one who had his own ideas about the case and resented Terrell’s intrusions. “He didn’t want to listen to John Terrell,” Schilling said. “That’s like a podiatrist trying to tell a heart surgeon how to do that valve.”
Still, Hudson, Terrell, and a polygraph operator drove to the Coffield Unit near Palestine and asked Wilhoit to take a lie-detector test regarding Walker’s murder. Wilhoit agreed and failed the test, Terrell said. Afterward, Terrell urged him to confess to Walker’s murder. But Wilhoit’s personality had changed during his time in prison. He was hardened, and Terrell recalled that the convict coldly replied, “That won’t work; you almost got me the last time. I’ve learned a few things since I’ve been in here.”
Wilhoit told the officers he’d failed the test because he had used a weapon to hurt somebody in a similar crime, which probably skewed the test results — and that he wasn’t worried because police would never be able to prosecute him for that offense. From that point on, he said, he would cooperate with the detectives regarding burglaries, but he no longer wanted to discuss Walker.
Wilhoit’s new cryptic confession sounded to the detectives like a reference to an attack on Janelle Kirby, who had been shot five times in the head on June 11, 1974, but survived. She was living in a garage apartment near TCU when a young, short, neatly dressed man came to her door and asked to use her telephone. After she invited him inside, he pointed a pistol at her and produced a pair of thumb cuffs. Kirby refused to be cuffed, they struggled, and the man shot her and ran. Kirby crawled to a neighbor’s house for help.
Police showed her many mug-shot lineups in the coming weeks, and she noticed that one man’s photo seemed always to be among the choices. 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 weed. He had recently accused two Fort Worth police officers of violating his civil rights by beating him, injuring his spleen. Two narcotics officers were suspended, and an internal investigation ensued. After Kirby named Miller as her attacker, police waited a month — until the day of the hearing on the beating — 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.
Terrell kept up with newspaper accounts of the Kirby case and plied fellow officers for information. He said the original physical description provided by Kirby matched Wilhoit more closely than it did Miller. Also, Kirby’s apartment was adjacent to the Church of Christ that Wilhoit attended, and a witness described seeing a vehicle that resembled Wilhoit’s car.
Jennifer D. read the newspaper accounts of Kirby’s assault and thought of Wilhoit. She called a homicide detective, who said, “What a coinky-dink, I’m looking at a picture of William Ted Wilhoit right now.” She later learned from Terrell that Wilhoit was not questioned about Kirby’s assault, and police instead pursued Miller. “I think they had an agenda,” she said recently. “They railroaded the other guy.”
Terrell talked to Miller, who told him, “Terrell, I’ve done a lot of things but I didn’t shoot that girl.” Miller was convicted, but skipped bond and became a fugitive for 12 years.
Wilhoit was the adopted son of two respected public school teachers, and seemed to have a sweet disposition. Despite his neat appearance and interest in the church, however, he began getting in trouble in his teens. In 1970, the 17-year-old was arrested on a stolen motorcycle. Later that year, he stole guns and ammunition from a Fort Worth pawnshop owner and was arrested in Missouri for unlawfully carrying a weapon. Numerous burglaries, but only two convictions, would follow. He periodically worked as a house painter, fry cook, dishwasher, and bus driver, but favored thievery. During burglaries and, later, assaults, he used no disguises and often focused on people who lived near him and would be more likely to identify him.
Terrell, Jennifer, and others believe Wilhoit wanted to be caught. “In my heart, I always felt like he wanted help,” Jennifer D. said. “He was so obvious in what he did. He was practically saying, ‘Catch me.’ ”
In 1978, Wilhoit was paroled from state prison. Terrell learned from prison officials that Wilhoit was living in Abilene and attending Abilene Christian College. Fearful that Wilhoit would again attack women, the detective called the Abilene Police Department and asked a lieutenant if there had been any unsolved rapes or murders. The lieutenant said no. Terrell described his suspicions about Wilhoit and sent a letter to Abilene police describing Wilhoit’s criminal activity and possible involvement in rapes and murders. Terrell included Wilhoit’s mug shot.
About the same time, Terrell was hearing about advances in DNA testing and began to inquire about Walker’s semen-stained dress and the pubic hair found on her body, and asking whether they had been compared with Wilhoit’s samples. He heard different stories, including that the evidence was lost, contaminated, used up in testing, or destroyed. He still doesn’t know the truth. The Fort Worth Police Department didn’t answer his questions then, and the current administration ignores him now, he said. “Believe me, they hate my guts because I keep this shit stirred up,” he said. “If the damn police department would jump on this, it could be solved.”
Neither Police Chief Ralph Mendoza, department spokesman Lt. Duane Paul, nor homicide Sgt. J.D. Thornton returned any of nine calls from Fort Worth Weekly for this article.
In September 1978, a man carrying an antique pistol raped homemaker Debra Hankins at her Abilene residence. Abilene police recalled Terrell’s letter and showed Hankins the mug shot. She identified Wilhoit as her attacker. Police arrested Wilhoit at the church on the college campus. He was convicted and sentenced to 40 years in prison.
More years passed; Terrell worked burglary cases but kept his ears tuned to information about the Carla Walker case. Detective Leonard Schilling, meanwhile, was keeping an eye out for fugitive Kenneth Miller.
Schilling had made catching Miller a priority, even listing the fugitive as the city’s most-wanted criminal. He found it odd, though, that his supervisors didn’t appear interested in finding Miller. “When he ran off, nobody seemed to care,” he said recently. “When I put him on the Top 10 list, they laughed at me. Nobody seemed interested in catching Miller except me. Then I got that fateful phone call.”
In 1986, the fugitive Miller was arrested in Las Vegas and returned to Fort Worth. Schilling, his partner Detective Danny LaRue, and others were celebrating at the now-defunct Albatross club on Jacksboro Highway when Schilling received a phone call from a former narcotics officer who told him Miller didn’t shoot Kirby. To find the truth, the caller said, Schilling needed to talk to Terrell.
Schilling and LaRue went to visit Terrell, who outlined his suspicions about Wilhoit’s role in shooting Kirby. “Boy, when I pulled that case, I got cold chills because he matched perfectly,” said Schilling, who retired from the police department in 1987 and is currently a Fort Worth attorney. “And how they could get Miller and overlook this guy is unreal. Something was dead up the creek.” Wilhoit, not Miller, fit Kirby’s original description of her attacker, Schilling said.
Wilhoit was brought to Fort Worth for questioning and given immunity in exchange for information. He confessed to shooting Kirby. Miller was freed, and Wilhoit was returned to prison.
Paroled again in 1992, Wilhoit moved to Corpus Christi to live with his wife and his teen-age daughter, who had been born while he was in prison. On March 25, 1995, he was seen breaking into a house where a single woman lived. He admitted to burglary, his parole was revoked, and he was returned to prison. In January, he is expected to complete his prison sentence for Hankins’ rape and go free.
Terrell retired in 1985, but he has continued to write letters to prison and parole officials and talk to police about his suspicions. His dark, short hair and carefully trimmed mustache from his police days have grown long and white in retirement. He eats little, usually a single meal a day, and rarely leaves his home. He has groceries delivered but will make forays to the liquor store for 1.75-liter bottles of W.L. Weller. He works around his house or in his tool shed during the morning, but by early afternoon he relaxes with his menthol cigarettes and cocktails. This is when his thoughts turn to Wilhoit, Walker, and the police’s refusal to show him Walker’s file or allow him to help with the investigation. “At this point I wouldn’t put anything past the police department,” he said. “Nobody likes to admit they screwed up.” He’s talkative, but publicity-shy. He bristles when a camera is pointed his direction — he wants justice, he said, not credit.
The Walkers eventually buried their grief in order to survive. “We had to go on to be a family,” Doris Walker said. “You don’t ever forget, but you learn to live with it.” She agrees that Terrell makes a convincing case but is unsure whether a jury would agree. She knows that the current police administration is not interested in pursuing it further. “I don’t have a feeling that it’s ever going to be solved,” she said. “There won’t be closure whether it’s solved or not.”
Regardless, she is a Terrell fan. “If it had not been for John, nobody would remember,” Doris Walker said. “He’s given many, many hours and a lot of money. There are not many people who would take their retirement time and spend it working on Carla’s case.”
Jennifer D. agrees. “John Terrell is a hero, somebody who sets out to make a difference and does. There’s not enough people like him in the world,” she said.
There is no questioning Terrell’s conviction about Wilhoit’s guilt. Former co-workers’ opinions vary. Many express an affinity and respect for Terrell, describing him as a likeable but independent cuss intent on doing things his own way. Some say quietly and off the record that the retired cop is so consumed with Wilhoit that he’s lost objectivity. “I’m surprised Terrell hasn’t got Wilhoit involved in the Kennedy assassination,” a former detective said.
Others remember Davis, Hudson, and other homicide detectives as hard-working cops who would have checked out Wilhoit and busted him if evidence showed he was involved. They see Terrell as having his heart in the right place but perhaps being unfamiliar with the details surrounding the Walker investigation. “I know John, and I’m not critical of him, and I could be proven wrong, but my personal opinion is it was not a situation he should have been involved in,” said Thompson, the police officer who found Walker’s body and is now a chief forensic death investigator with the Tarrant County Medical Examiner’s Office. “The investigation was being handled by the people who should have been handling it. (George Hudson) is one hell of an investigator, a good guy, and took this case to heart and worked diligently on it even after he left the police department.”
Hudson could not be reached for comment.
Former Tarrant County Sheriff Jim Minter, now a Fort Worth attorney, worked with Hudson on the Walker case and said DNA evidence could probably link someone to her death. But he doubts Wilhoit murdered her. “If there was any evidence, I think you’d find people jumping up and down to do this,” he said. “But there has to be proof. There’s law you have to follow. If the information is not there, sometimes you just can’t do anything with it, as much as the officers working the case would love to do it. I’ve never seen so much effort put forth on a case.”
Jerry Blaisdell worked with the Fort Worth Police Department for 24 years before leaving in 1989 to become Weatherford police chief. He worked with Hudson on the Walker investigation and said the energy spent on the case was immense. “We re-ran leads and re-interviewed people and developed some other stuff on that,” he said. “When I was there, George [and others] were running down every piece of information that anyone would send in. We turned over every rock we could turn over.”
Schilling and LaRue assisted Hudson in the Walker investigation in the early 1980s. They said Hudson was a good cop and consumed with the Walker case, just like Terrell, and had taken to carrying the case file in his car trunk. Schilling and LaRue, however, disagree on Terrell’s accusations.
LaRue, who retired from police work and became a private detective, said Wilhoit didn’t match the description of the Walker assailant, and the attack didn’t match Wilhoit’s method of operation. “That sure breaks his pattern on what he’s admitted to and been convicted of,” LaRue said. “Wilhoit talks his way into single women’s houses, not abducting her from a parking lot after pistol-whipping her boyfriend. I’m not eliminating him, but there is no evidence to support it. There is not anything close to take him to a grand jury to support his guilt on Carla Walker.”
Still, LaRue said he considers Wilhoit a threat to society. “I don’t know if he’s been rehabilitated any due to his confinement,” he said.
LaRue’s former partner, Schilling, sees things differently and calls Wilhoit “suspect No. 1 in the Carla Walker case and possibly some other killings.” Semen or other evidence might connect Wilhoit, he said. “They should reopen the Carla Walker case,” he said. “Wilhoit had this MO where he would ejaculate on their stomach after he raped them. I understand they have some semen samples still.”
Schilling recalled hearing about Terrell’s claims and dismissing them. “Terrell had been screaming for years, and nobody would listen to him,” he said. “When I was a young detective, he was like the little boy who cried wolf. That’s how the upper echelon viewed him. Nobody really took him seriously.” Schilling eventually became a believer, however. He says his inability to pin Walker’s murder on Wilhoit was his biggest disappointment in law enforcement. He said he told former Fort Worth Police Chief Thomas Windham, who has since died, that Wilhoit killed Walker, but Windham reassigned him. “I kind of got frustrated with the whole thing and quit and went to law school,” he said.
DNA tests, if possible, should be done to clear the matter, he said. Meanwhile, Wilhoit’s pending prison release is only nine months away, and Schilling is worried that other innocent women could be harmed. “William Ted Wilhoit is the most dangerous man in the state of Texas if you are a female,” he said. “I think he is as dangerous as Ted Bundy.”
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