Feature: Wednesday, April 25, 2002
Murder and Obsession Part 1

Carla Walker’s death won’t be a closed case to John Terrell until a Bible-quoting rapist

By Jeff Prince

tired cop smokes cigarettes at a small table in his tidy South Fort Worth house and ponders an old case. His kids are grown. His wife passed away years ago. His three old dogs protect the yard but occasionally come inside for an ear scratch.

Terrell was a burglary detective; he became involved in only one murder investigation, but that was enough. That’s usually what he thinks about when he sits in the kitchen in the evenings, smoking and sipping whiskey and scratching his dogs’ ears.

Carla Walker’s murder case won’t let go. Terrell became involved in it because of a burglar and rapist named William Ted Wilhoit. Carla died in 1974, and for most of the years since, Terrell has been convinced that Wilhoit killed her. He has powerful reasons, not the least of them Wilhoit’s own words. “I was wondering when you were going to come after me for Carla Walker,” Wilhoit once told Terrell and his partner.

Terrell has plugged away at the case for years, trying to interest two generations of police officials in his theory. His tenaciousness has gotten him good and bad marks with other cops and those associated with Wilhoit. Some former co-workers say Terrell is seeing shadows and ghosts where none exist. But some victims and family members think him a saint. His perseverance helped put Wilhoit in prison twice, but Terrell has never been able to convince authorities that Wilhoit was Carla Walker’s killer. And, in a few months, Wilhoit, now 48, is due to get out of prison again. He declined to be interviewed for this story.

Skeptics don’t bother Terrell, 72, although he admits relishing the thought of proving them wrong. He wants justice for Carla Walker and closure for Doris Walker. Most of all, he wants Wilhoit to stay in prison.

Terrell suspects Wilhoit might return to this area. The career criminal’s parents lived for years in Fort Worth, Wilhoit’s stomping grounds, until both died in the past two years. They also owned property near Granbury. Maybe Wilhoit will come, maybe not. Regardless, the retired detective is convinced that Wilhoit, wherever he goes, will succumb once again to demons that trigger an urge to attack women. So Terrell sits and ponders documents and checks facts he has gathered over the years, trying to figure a way to make a case against the well-mannered, soft-spoken, spiritual burglar who came so close, Terrell is convinced, to confessing everything 25 years ago.

It would all have been so easy, if not for a knock on the door.

Terrell grew up in South Texas, in a family of lawmen. His father, Henry Terrell, was a cattle inspector and commissioned law enforcement officer working in the Rio Grande Valley. Several relatives were police officers, and an uncle kept an assortment of crime and detective magazines lying around. Terrell soaked up the tabloid stories and pictures and developed a romantic view of police work. He worked at oil field supply businesses after graduating from Mission High School in 1949, and then moved to Fort Worth in 1959 to work on cars. His fascination with law enforcement prompted him to become a reserve police officer in Lake Worth in 1958, and later to join the Benbrook Police Department. He was told to work speed traps, but he wanted to patrol. “One day I put the machine up and started patrolling,” he said. The police chief reprimanded him, and Terrell quit and returned to working on cars.

His career with the Fort Worth Police Department began in 1961. He patrolled streets and worked with the crime-scene unit until becoming a burglary detective in 1972. He developed a reputation for doing things his own way, which rankled supervisors and probably hindered his career advancement. “I did things a little different than a lot of them,” he said. “I didn’t put down the brass but I didn’t kiss their ass either.” He never advanced beyond the burglary unit.

Prisoners got a fair shake with Terrell, who offered reckless trust at times. He said he could clear more crimes by treating suspects with decency. While transporting a prisoner one night, he came upon a car wreck. Terrell investigated the scene and gave the prisoner a flashlight to direct traffic. Another time, he allowed a prisoner who had been cleared of suspicion to leave jail without the lengthy process of being discharged. A jailer complained that the suspect had not completed necessary forms, including giving a thumbprint, so Terrell stuck a thumb into an inkpad and put his own thumbprint on the form. He gave personal attention and sometimes money to people if he felt they were honestly trying to straighten out their lives. A heroin addict who was rehabilitated 20 years ago with Terrell’s help still calls him to say hello on occasion.

Terrell and his wife, Frances, adopted and raised two children. Frances Terrell died in 1994, and Terrell lives alone with three slow-moving dogs ranging in age from 17 to 20. His wife supported his effort to solve Walker’s murder, even after police officers started calling him “a nutcase,” he said.

“She never questioned the money I spent or the time I put into it,” he said. “She was all for it.”

Terrell was working burglary cases in the mid-1970s when a string of abductions, rapes, and murders of women occurred in Fort Worth. Becky Martin, a Tarrant County Junior College student, was apparently nabbed from the college parking lot on Feb. 27, 1973, and later found in a culvert near White Settlement. Carla Walker was taken from a bowling alley parking lot on Feb. 17, 1974, and found in a culvert three days later. On Dec. 23, 1974, three girls disappeared from a department store parking lot and were never found.

The widely reported cases were somewhat out of character for 1970s Fort Worth, which retained something of a small-town character even though its population had topped 300,000. Terrell read the newspaper stories and talked to fellow officers about the cases, but didn’t try to assist in the investigations. He had a full burglary caseload. It was one of those cases that led him to Wilhoit.

Someone stole a credit card from a Fort Worth house in 1974 and used it to buy $1,000 worth of furniture at a retail store. The large purchase spurred the store manager to jot down the man’s license plate number. That led Terrell to a young man with sandy hair and piercing eyes named William Ted Wilhoit. A background check showed Wilhoit had been arrested on several unrelated crimes, including an attempted rape charge that had not yet gone to trial.

Terrell called Wilhoit and arranged to meet at the police station. They developed a rapport on the phone, and Wilhoit arrived with the stolen credit card in hand. “I didn’t treat him like a scumbag,” Terrell said. “I told him, ‘You’re caught, so come on in, and I won’t be too rough on you.’ ” Before Terrell arrested him, they stopped to drink coffee near City Hall. While they talked over a cup of joe, Terrell asked about the attempted rape charge. “He implied that it was him, but he said it wasn’t like the newspapers said it was,” Terrell recalled. The rape victim was a college student living near Texas Christian University. The rape occurred Aug. 27, 1973 — Wilhoit’s 20th birthday.

Wilhoit received a five-year probated sentence for the burglaries. But he was acquitted of attempted rape of the college student — “attempted” because he technically did not complete the act, spewing semen on the woman’s chest.

Wilhoit had gone to the young woman’s apartment under the guise of welcoming her to the neighborhood. Then, she testified, he pulled a knife, tied her feet and hands, and threatened to kill her. The 10-woman, two-man jury doubted her story. Some of the women questioned why she had invited a stranger inside her house and why she showed no signs of injury. The trial was six months after the attack, and her minor injuries had healed. Police hadn’t photographed her scrapes and bruises. “They didn’t take pictures of the marks on my arms and neck,” she said recently. “Pictures would have made a difference to at least show I wasn’t a willing participant.”

She asked to be identified only as Jennifer D. for this story, because she still fears Wilhoit might track her down if and when he is released from prison. She has put the attack and trial behind her, for the most part, but the resentment quickly bubbled to the surface when she started talking about it. She said police didn’t pursue her case, and the judge remarked after the acquittal, “After all, it wasn’t that bad.”

Jennifer has talked many times with Terrell over the years and believes in his theory of the Carla Walker case. “It’s a twisty-turny tale, and it just keeps going on for some people,” she said.

“I was pretty naïve at the time, and what happened to me happened because I was naïve,” she said. “I’m not naïve anymore. To most of them, it wasn’t any worse than a fender-bender. The only one who was really harmed was me.” After a pause, she added: “And the women who came after me.”

Carla Walker was an outgoing, athletic, and popular student at Western Hills High School. She and her boyfriend, Rodney McCoy, went to a Valentine’s Day dance at the high school on Feb. 17, 1974 — a Saturday night — and, afterward, met friends at a popular drive-through restaurant not far from her parents’ South Fort Worth home. At about midnight, Walker said she needed to use the restroom, and McCoy drove her to a nearby bowling alley. McCoy walked her into the building and waited for her. They were getting into the car when someone jerked open the passenger door and grabbed Walker. McCoy said he struggled with the attacker but was hit over the head and knocked unconscious, although he remembered the man saying, “I’m going to kill you.” Police later found a clip for a .22-caliber Ruger semi-automatic pistol lying in the parking lot and speculated that it had fallen from the kidnapper’s pistol.

McCoy awoke with blood streaming down his face and drove to his girlfriend’s house, where Doris Walker had been watching the clock. It was after midnight, time for Carla to be getting home. “That’s when Rodney came and started banging on the door,” she said. “He had been hit on the head.” Her husband, now deceased, went looking for Carla, while Doris Walker called an ambulance for McCoy and rode with him to the hospital.

Doris Walker expected Carla to come home soon and wondered if the kidnapping was a joke. “So many things happened so fast, you sort of get in a daze,” she said.

Three days later, Fort Worth police Officers Steve Noonkester and Darrell Thompson were searching along county roads, looking for Walker’s body. The day was chilly, and they took turns getting out to look in culverts. It was Thompson’s turn when the patrol car stopped beside a farm-road culvert near Benbrook Lake. “I looked over the edge and, sure enough, she was in there in a light blue dress,” he said. “It was evident that she was dead due to some discoloration you could see. I walked back to the car, and I was standing outside in the roadway. I said, ‘Steve, she’s under this bridge.’ ”

Noonkester thought his partner was joking. “Get your ass in the car, and let’s go,” he told him. Then he saw Thompson’s face and realized his partner was serious. They drove to a nearby phone booth to call homicide detectives. “We didn’t want to announce it over the radio, because we knew the press was also scanning those radios,” Thompson said. “We didn’t need a crowd out there.”

Some of the facts surrounding Carla’s case made Terrell think of Wilhoit, who was out on probation for burglary. The bowling alley from which the teen-ager had been taken was near Wilhoit’s home. The medical examiner said she had apparently been drugged with morphine, raped, and kept alive for about two days before being strangled. Terrell approached homicide detective Claude Davis and told him he should check out Wilhoit as a suspect. Later, he asked another homicide detective if Wilhoit had been questioned about Walker, and the detective claimed Wilhoit had passed a lie-detector test. The detective lied, Terrell said, and Wilhoit was not questioned about Walker’s murder until Terrell and his partner, Joe Britt, arrested him for burglary more than a year later.

A policeman’s career is invariably marked by ifs. If the homicide detectives had paid attention to Terrell. If the jurors had believed Jennifer. “If he had been convicted” of her rape, Jennifer said, “the next one — Ruth — might have had a better investigation.”

Or what happened to Ruth Duncan might not have happened at all. The longtime employee of Buddie’s supermarket on Camp Bowie Boulevard was abducted from the store’s parking lot on July 25, 1974. Duncan told police her attacker pushed his way into her car, threatened her with a knife, and then drove toward Benbrook. He was small in stature, with sandy hair combed forward and then flipped back, soft-spoken, neatly dressed, in his 20s, with intense eyes. Duncan tried to convince him to take her back. “I’m old enough to be your grandmother,” she told him. “That doesn’t matter,” he replied. He took Texas 377 to a spot near the area where Carla Walker’s body had been found several months earlier. During the ride, he told her he had killed two girls and dumped their bodies in culverts, she said.

For reasons that Duncan can’t explain, her pleadings seemed to sway her kidnapper. He drove back to Fort Worth, but pulled over and raped her along the way. “He came to a climax and yanked it out and went all over my clothing, mostly on my underwear,” she said. The man then drove to a parking lot next door to Buddie’s and told Duncan to get out but to leave her purse. She kicked the purse out of the car as she got out, and he sped away. Police found the car abandoned nearby.

Duncan, now 74, recalled that police showed her several photos, and she picked one that seemed to match her attacker. The police officer told her that the man in the photo had recently died in a car crash. She later went to the police department and viewed a line-up, but none of the men resembled her attacker. That was the last she heard from police.

John Terrell, though, had learned about the specifics of Ruth Duncan’s case and was struck by some similarities to what had happened to Jennifer D.

Duncan recently sat on her living room couch and looked for the first time at Wilhoit’s 1974 mug shot. Was this the man who raped her almost 28 years ago? “It looks similar,” she said. “That’s the way he combed his hair.” But she couldn’t be sure. The sky was dark that night, and so many years had passed. “It could have been him,” she said.

It was March 1975, and William Wilhoit was back on John Terrell’s radar. He had pawned several stolen items, including guns. At about the same time, a bank officer called police to say a man had tried to cash two $500 savings bonds that had been reported stolen. The suspect matched Wilhoit’s description. When Terrell and Britt drove to his house, Wilhoit was standing in his yard. Terrell rolled down the car window and asked him to get in the back seat.

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