BIG COUNTRY, Texas (BigCountryHomepage.com) – While the telling of true crime stories continue to trend, the Big Country is no stranger to true crime itself. If you have a case of morbid curiosity, take a look at these 13 true crime cases in and around Abilene.
By chronological order, here are the true crime stories of the Big Country:
1. James Creel and the 1971 rape-murder of Abilene 10-year-old; Tona Worthington
The account of Creel’s crime is sourced from prior KTAB/KRBC reports and Justia US Law
10-year-old Tona Worthington was a beloved daughter, sister and friend when she was abducted while walking home from Reagan Elementary School on Monday, March 15, 1971.
Tona’s body was found in North Taylor County, stuffed in a culvert. She had been raped and strangled to death, according to her autopsy report.
During trial that October, multiple witnesses testified to seeing the distinctive vehicle of James Creel. The vehicle was a red Volvo sedan with decals along the exterior, he also had his German shepard dog with him.
Creel was positively identified as a person of interest when several little girls and one little boy said he tried luring them into his car, using callings like ‘hey, baby.’ He was also identified through Dyess Air Force Base by matching a description for having a vasectomy and a certain blood type.
Due to Abilene media coverage, Creel’s trial was moved from Taylor County to Eastland County.
In October 1971, a jury found 32-year-old James Creel guilty of the rape-murder of Tona Worthington. He became a prisoner in May 1973, serving life in prison, to which he carried out.
At the age of 83 in March 2022, Creel passed while in-custody after battling a long-term illness.
When Creel did pass, Betty Worthington, Tona’s mother, said she’d spent the better part of the last 50 years dedicated to keeping him in prison.
“He can’t ever hurt anybody else,” Worthington said in relief.
There is a Facebook page called Friends of Tona Worthington, dedicated to working towards justice for Tona since 2014.
2. William Kitchens and the 1986 rape-murder of Abilene’s Patricia Webb
The account of Kitchens’ crime is sourced from Murderpedia.Org and Office of the Clark County, Indiana Prosecuting Attorney, Jeremy Mull.
23-year-old William “Red” Kitchens was sentenced to death just a little more than three months after he confessed to killing 25-year-old Patricia Webb.
On Friday, May 17, 1986, Webb was out with friends from work when she met Kitchens at an Abilene bar. She drove Webb back to his motel without intention to cheat on her husband, James, an Abilene Firefighter. There, Kitchens raped his victim then drove her out to the woods just outside of town.
Kitchens dragged Webb out of her car by her hair and throat. He severely beat her, strangled her then shot her in her eye with a .22 caliber revolver.
After abandoning his victim’s body, Kitchens stole her money and car, and headed back to his hometown in Oklahoma.
Blanchard, Oklahoma police initially pursued Kitchens for speeding through a stop light. He crashed Webb’s car in a ditch and ran away on foot. Police discovered Patricia Webb’s identifying documents in the car and went to his parents’ home to arrest Kitchens.
After his arrest, Kitchens admitted to his crimes against Webb. It was also discovered that he had a previous conviction for Assault and Battery with a Dangerous Weapon, for which he served eight months of a two-year sentence – before his release in 1983.
While on death row in 1994, Kitchens reportedly attempted to make a jailbreak by escaping his cell with two old saw blades. He then hit a guard over the head with a piece of pipe before being subdued.
In May of 2000, nearly 14 years to the day that Kitchens raped, kidnapped, beat, killed 25-year-old Patricia Webb and stole her car, he was executed.
In death chambers, 37-year-old Kitchens apologized to Webb’s family. Addressing her widower, he said; “At the bar, even in the hotel room, she made it clear she was not going to fool around.”
Kitchens also prayed to God that He may forgive him of his sins. After his prayer, he turned to his supporters to apologize and tell them that he loved them.
For the year of 2000, Kitchens was the 14th murderer executed in Texas.
3. James Clayton and the 1987 Taylor, Jones Counties murder of Hawley Elementary School teacher Lori Barrett
The account of Clayton’s crime is sourced from Murderpedia.Org and Office of the Clark County, Indiana Prosecuting Attorney, Jeremy Mull.
21-year-old James Clayton was sentenced to death more than a year after the body of 27-year-old Lori Barrett was found in Jones County.
At 27 years old, Barrett taught at Hawley Elementary School during the day and at night, she worked at Dillard’s in the Mall of Abilene. She was last seen alive leaving her night job on the evening of Thursday, September 17, 1987.
Barrett was reported missing by her school’s superintendent, Cecil Davis, after he couldn’t find her at home.
Police went to check on her at home, but noted that the home seemed to be in normal condition – barring a bathroom window cracked open and a glass in the sink. More unsettling details included pry marks outside the window and her car was missing. That vehicle was later reported wrecked and abandoned at Abilene Christian University.
Barrett’s family eventually hired a private investigator to help find her. That investigator questioned an acquaintance of James Clayton, who said he’d seen him driving Barrett’s car the day she disappeared. This acquaintance recalled Clayton saying he borrowed the vehicle from someone named Lori.
Clayton, living just about half-a-block away from Barrett, was questioned by police and admitted to driving her car without permission. He was arrested for Unlawful Use of a Motor Vehicle.
Outside Clayton’s apartment, in a dumpster, Barrett’s sister reported a number of findings including; Barrett’s car’s license plate, her mail and the belt she was wearing when she went missing. With a search warrant, police found an insurance card belonging to Barrett.
Come Tuesday, September 29, nearly two weeks after Barrett was last seen, a body was found in Jones County. The body was wrapped in a blanket, fastened with black electrical wire. The victim’s hands and feet were bound by a telephone wire, and the body was found ‘in a state of advanced decomposition’ due to the West Texas heat. Nearby, a Remington Peters .243 caliber cartridge case was also discovered.
A coroner noted two ‘through-and-through’ gunshot wound’s to the victim’s head and neck. Tie markings on her neck and a gag in her mouth were also observed.
The body was only identified as Lori Barrett through dental records. Her cause of death was officially labeled as homicidal violence.
Police obtained a second warrant to search Clayton’s home, wherein a Winchester .243 caliber rifle and ammunition was found. That firearm was later assigned to be the murder weapon.
Clayton told police he stole the rifle from a former roommate’s home about a week before Barrett’s murder. He allegedly burgled homes often and considered himself to be good at it.
People close to Clayton said the young man had become increasingly agitated in the days prior to Barrett’s disappearance because his girlfriend was breaking up with him. It was reported that he wanted to kill her, her parents and the family dog. With a military background, a friend said Clayton told them he was trained to kill and, “killing was the only way he could vent his anger.”
Barrett’s neighbors recalled hearing screams around 10:00 the night she disappeared, even through sounds of a rainstorm.
It was later revealed that Barrett surprised Clayton while he was robbing her apartment near Abilene Christian university.
Although arrested four days before Barrett’s body was found, Clayton was finally indicted by Taylor County on December 10, 1987 on charges for these crimes, committed about three months earlier:
Although the suspect pleaded not guilty, a jury found him guilty of three counts of Capital Murder the following November. He was given a death sentence the next week during his punishment hearing.
Between January 1993 and April 2000, Clayton attempted to appeal his sentence in some form or another at least 10 times.
Leading up to his execution, Clayton continued to insist that he was innocent.
Clayton was executed by way of lethal injection in May of 2000 at 33 years old. He was the 18th murderer executed in Texas that year.
4. Ricky McGinn and the serial rape-murders of multiple young girls including 1993 Brown County ax murder of stepdaughter; 12-year-old Stephanie Flanary
The account of McGinn’s crime is sourced from Murderpedia.Org and Office of the Clark County, Indiana Prosecuting Attorney, Jeremy Mull.
38-year-old Ricky McGinn was sentenced to death more than two years after his step-daughter’s body was found in Brown County, raped and beaten to death.
12-year-old Stephanie Flanary was left in the care of her stepfather, Ricky McGinn, 36, on Saturday, May 22, 1993 at their Brown County home when her mother left for a trip to Arlington. She was reported missing by her stepfather around 9:30 that night.
McGinn allegedly told police that he and his stepdaughter had spent the day working on his pickup truck, fishing and drinking beer. He said Stephanie got sick from drinking so much and went to sleep. Then, he told a story of her waking up and going on a walk, but never returning.
Stephanie’s body was found three days later in a culvert near the McGinn home.
Medical examiners quickly discovered that Stephanie had died of multiple head injuries and a fractured skull after being beaten in the head with the blunt side of an ax. They were also able to determine that the 12-year-old had been sexually assaulted.
Police searched McGinn’s property and discovered blood in his vehicle which matched Stephanie’s type – but he maintained that the blood found belonged to fish. An ax, later determined to be the murder weapon, was also found in a pickup truck on his property.
During his trial for the rape-murder of his stepdaughter in August 1986, evidence was produced that he had threatened another female with a knife and raped her. The age of this victim was not disclosed.
More evidence revealed that McGinn assaulted an Abilene Christian University sophomore in April 1985 when she refused his advances.
His own biological daughter testified that he sexually assaulted her in 1987 when she was younger than five years old. She said he threatened to kill her and her mother if she ever told anyone.
Ricky McGinn was found guilty in his crimes against his stepdaughter in June of 1995 and was sentenced to death.
McGinn was later connected to the 1992 kidnap and rape-murder of 19-year-old Christi Jo Egger from Bangs. However, he was never tried for killing her because he was already on death row by that time.
What’s more, McGinn was also suspected of the rape-murder of 12-year-old Sherri Newman, also of Brown County.
The FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigations) defines a serial murder as: The unlawful killing of two or more victims by the same offender(s), in separate events.
Originally scheduled to be executed in June of 2000, McGinn narrowly escaped that fate by less than 20 minutes when, at the time, Texas Governor George W. Bush granted an emergency stay of execution so that DNA could be reexamined with newer technology.
DNA results positively matched McGinn to his crimes.
Despite those positive test results, McGinn insisted that he was innocent. In a death-row interview, he said he had his things packed and he was ready to go home.
“I still want the world to know I’m not guilty. I don’t care what the tests show… I didn’t kill my little girl. I did not have sex with her, I did not rape her. I want the world to know that… Somebody else put that [the evidence] there.”
Ricky McGinn was executed by way of lethal injection in September 2000. He was the 33rd murderer executed in Texas that year.
5. Bernie Tiede and the 1996 murder of elderly companion Marjorie Nugent
The account of Tiede’s crime is sourced from Texas Monthly and The Texas Tribune.
In the summer of 1997, close to a year after 81-year-old Marjorie Nugent (née Midyette) was killed, Bernhardt “Bernie” Tiede II, 39, was arrested. He was known in his East Texas community of Carthage as a near saint.
What is his tie to the Big Country, though?
Born in Tyler, Texas, Tiede, his father and his sister moved to Abilene after the passing of his mother in 1973. He was a Cooper High School Class of 1976 graduate and took up an after school job at a local funeral home.
In an interview, his sister described young Bernie as popular and said he enjoyed his after school job; “For kicks he’d sneak the hearse on Fridays out of the funeral home and drive a bunch of us around Abilene.”
The unidentified sister continued on to explain that she thought her brother was meant to take care of others, which is why the funeral business was a dream for him. He later left Abilene to pursue those education and career opportunities.
Tiede settled in Carthage, Texas as Assistant Funeral Director at Hawthorn Funeral Home. Townspeople recalled that he seemed uninterested in women his own age and was especially attentive to grieving widows. But he didn’t take too much interest in any of them until the husband of the wealthiest woman in town passed away.
In March 1990, when Tiede was 32, he attended to the funeral of Rod Nugent. Rod’s widow, 75-year-old Marjorie Nugent was worth between $5-10 million.
Although Nugent was known around town to be particularly prickly, she and Tiede became fast friends. She gave him gifts, made him an authorized signer on her bank accounts and took him away on all sorts of luxury vacations.
Over the course of their six-year relationship, Nugent allegedly became more demanding of Tiede’s time. At some point, she hired Tiede as her Business Manager/ Escort and he quit working at the funeral home.
With an advance from his employer, Tiede purchased a two-bedroom home about a mile from the Nugent estate. He also managed to buy at least two small airplanes.
Townspeople recalled Tiede as something of a Robin Hood figure, taking from the rich (Nugent) and giving to the poor (people of Carthage).
Around Thanksgiving time 1996, 38-year-old Tiede began to tell people close to him that he suspected 81-year-old Nugent may have dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. He continued to tell others around town that she had fallen ill and just wasn’t accepting visitors. Due to her irritable reputation, her disappearance went largely unnoticed.
It wasn’t until July 1997 that an anonymous Carthage woman told the Panola County Sheriff’s Office she was worried she hadn’t seen Nugent around in a while. Deputies also couldn’t make contact with the elderly woman and so they put in a call to her son, Rod Jr., in Amarillo.
Nugent’s son and granddaughter made their way to her home to look for her. Eventually, a gut-sinking discovery was made by her granddaughter.
In the kitchen freezer, beneath a few layers of frozen foods, Marjorie Nugent’s body was found wrapped in a white sheet. The entire freezer was taken to Dallas for autopsy.
Known as Nugent’s companion, police were on the hunt for Tiede. When he was located, he was on his way to take a team of Carthage Little Leaguers and their parents out to dinner on his – or rather, Marjorie’s – dime.
During questioning in August 1997, police said Tiede calmly admitted to shooting her on November 19, 1996 with the gun she had him use to shoot armadillos in her garden. He said he killed her because she had become ‘very hateful and possessive.’ He was then arrested.
No sooner than his arrest, a group of women who believed in Tiede’s innocence began to raise money to pay his $1.5 million bond. District Attorney Danny Buck just as quickly filed additional charges on Tiede for stealing from Nugent, raising the bond to $2.7 million.
“Bernie is a con man and an accomplished actor,” Danny Buck told Texas Monthly writer, Skip Hollandsworth. “He duped a really nice, trusting town. He’s evil.”
Per an account from his sister, Tiede said they were just on their way to lunch and run some errands that Tuesday, when he suddenly picked up the .22 rifle in the garage and fired four shots to Nugent’s back. He then dragged her body through the kitchen and stuffed her in the freezer, where she would remain for nine months. Next, he took a garden hose to the blood in the garage and went about his life without Nugent. It was revealed in court that Tiede had stolen around $1 million from Nugent, not including the salary and extras she knowingly gave him.
During his trial, prosecution argued that Tiede had become accustomed to the lavish lifestyle Nugent provided. Meanwhile, Tiede’s defense said the blame was on Bernie’s uncle for allegedly sexually abusing him at a young age. It was argued that the crime was committed during a dissociative state.
A jury convicted Bernhardt “Bernie” Tiede II of first-degree murder in 1999 at the age of 41 for killing Marjorie Nugent, sentencing him to 50 years in prison.
Reportedly a model prisoner, come May 2014, Tiede was released. He moved to Austin and lived the life of a free man for just shy of two years. He was resentenced to 99 years in prison in April 2016. He is once again eligible for parole in August 2029.
Tiede’s case was highly publicized and an article from the Texas Monthly even inspired the 2011 movie Bernie; starring Jack Black, Shirley MacLaine and Matthew McConaughey.
6. Arthur Goodman Jr. and the 1999 mass murder & multi-day manhunt
The account of Goodman’s crime is sourced from Murderpedia.
19-year-old Arthur Goodman was charged with killing his girlfriend and three of her friends on Sunday, March 28, 1999.
The lives taken include his ex-girlfriend Sandi Witt, 20; Erica Arispe, 21; Naomi Martinez, 23; and Pennie Estrada, 21, who was six months pregnant.
The women were said to be each shot at least once in the head.
It was rumored that motive behind the mass murder was because Witt would not help Goodman cover up another crime.
After killing the four women, a three-day manhunt for Goodman ensued.
He was eventually found in Fort Worth, wielding a .40-caliber handgun before he was shot and killed by officers.
Between 1997 and 1998, according to records from the Taylor County Sheriff’s Office, Goodman had been arrested multiple times. Some crimes were of smaller offenses like Disorderly Conduct and Possession of Marijuana, but his last stay in jail was for Aggravated Assault, Resisting Arrest and Theft. He was released January 1999, not quite three months before the mass murder.
7. Paris Lee Bennett and the 2007 murder of little sister; 4-year-old Ella
The account of Bennett’s crime is sourced from prior KTAB/KRBC articles and How Now, Butterfly?: A Memoir Of Murder, Survival, and Transformation
On Sunday, February 4, 2007, 13-year-old Paris Bennett, as his mother was at work, somehow convinced the babysitter to leave. Shortly after, he stabbed his four-year-old sister Ella to death.
Transcript from the 9-1-1 call:
Paris – I- I accidentally killed somebody.
Operator – You think you killed somebody?
Paris – No, I know I did. My sister.
Operator – Okay, where’s your sister now?
Paris – She’s in the bed.
Operator – Is she breathing?
Paris – No. I’ve looke (gasping, crying). I feel so messed up.”
Operator – Is she bleeding anywhere?
Paris – Yeah, she’s bleeding all over the bed… Because I stabbed her.
Operator – Okay. What did you stab her with?
Paris – A knife.
Operator – Where did you stab her?
Paris – Lots of places.
“I love my son. I hate my son… I am scared of my own son,” Charity Lee, Paris’ mother, wrote in her memoir about the events surrounding the death of her daughter and the arrest of her son.
In the book, Lee vulnerably looks back on past mistakes that could have led to her son’s turn. Was it because she relapsed towards cocaine and meth when Paris was 10, causing him to step up for the family of three for a while? Or was it surface-level reasons; like being angry with Ella because she told their mom on Paris for sneaking out one night and his mom making him apologize to the sitter for sneaking out, or could it have been because his mom had recently scolded him for spending his allowance irresponsibly?
In any matter, it was revealed that sometime after the sitter left for the night, Paris watched an amount of ‘very disturbing, violent pornography’ just before going into the other room to murder his little sister. He first hit Ella, then attempted to strangle her. Detectives said he stabbed the four-year-old 17 times.
After some difficulties with Ella’s absent father, Lee said the funeral home fixed her up to the best of their abilities. She wrote a heart wrenching record of tracing over, with her fingers, each stab wound on her little girl’s body – carefully applied by her eldest child. She then said she had Ella cremated and would sleep with her urn.
Lee recorded that as soon after Ella was killed that she could speak with Paris, he told his mom a story of hallucinating that Ella was some sort of demon. He then said he phoned a friend before calling 9-1-1.
While in juvenile detention, Lee said she had a psychologist evaluate Paris, and they came back with virtually nothing.
Two months after the murder, police allegedly finally told Lee they found sperm on the mattress and upon Ella’s body. Dutifully visiting her son in jail most every day, Lee said she confronted Paris about the allegation.
“I believe he’s a sick, twisted monster of a boy,” Lee wrote.
Paris admitted to searching for snuff films that night, according to Lee, in a way to punish her; so that the mother would get angry.
“I believe he killed his sister in a rage to hurt me,” Lee chronicled. “I believe he experienced sexual gratification from the act of murder… I believe he deserves to rot in jail.”
Can a once sweet baby be nurtured into a cold-blooded killer? Lee said Paris was that sweet baby boy; affectionate and smart. He didn’t display any signs of mental distress growing up, no signs that could point to him being ‘evil.’
To that same accord, Lee also looked back to a time when Paris may have been out of control. At 12-years-old Lee and her mother had to wrestle a kitchen knife out of Paris’ hand. He cried, she consoled him and took him to psychiatric hospital for a week.
Paris stayed in juvenile detention for some five years after murdering his little sister. At 18 years old, Bennett spent days in an Abilene courtroom to find out whether or not he’d be taken to the adult prison system the next year.
In 2012, Bennett was, indeed, sentenced to spend 40 years in an adult Texas prison on a Capital Murder conviction. He is now housed at the Ferguson Unit Texas State Prison in Madison County.
Bennett has an expected release date of February 4, 2047, and will be eligible for parole in February 2027.
As far as rebuilding her life without Paris and Ella, Charity Lee now has another little boy. She’s worked with the San Antonio Police Department and also continues to work with the Ella Foundation, a group she founded in effort to fight for victims’ and prisoners’ rights.
8. Renata Monet and the 2010 murder-suicide of Abilene pastor; Rev. Karen Johnson
The account of Monet’s crime is sourced from prior KTAB/KRBC articles, the Dallas Voice and the Texas Obituary Project
On Friday, January 22, 2010, one year after a transgendered woman became Renata Monet, she killed Abilene’s Reverend Karen Johnson, then killed herself.
As accounts go, 61-year-old Monet was transitioning from male to female and a year earlier had legally changed her name to Renata Monet. She attended Abilene’s Unity Church of Christianity, where she met Rev. Johnson, also 61.
The reverend went to Monet’s home for one-on-one counseling that day, but when nobody had heard from either women, some other church members made their way to Monet’s home the next morning to check on them.
Police said Rev. Johnson had been stabbed to death and Monet committed suicide by hanging.
Monet allegedly had a history of mental illness and had been planning the attack for quite some time.
9. Shawn Adkins and the 2010 murder of his girlfriend’s daughter; 13-year-old Hailey Dunn
The account of Adkins’ crime is sourced from prior KTAB/KRBC articles
It was Christmastime 2010 when Colorado City’s 13-year-old Hailey Dunn went missing. Three springs would come along before her body would be found and although her mother’s boyfriend remained a prime suspect in her disappearance and death, Shawn Adkins wouldn’t be arrested for more than a decade.
Autopsy reports suggested that Hailey was killed December 26, 2010, by being hit in her head with an unknown blunt object. She was reported missing the following day.
More than two years would pass and the billboards with Hailey’s photo plastered along I-20 throughout Texas would fade, before Hailey’s remains would be found near Lake JB Thomas in March 2013.
It wasn’t until June 2021 that Shawn Adkins was finally arrested, accused of intentionally hiding a human corpse with intent to hide evidence in an investigation. Police said he’d remained a prime suspect in Hailey’s disappearance and later, death. However, there just wasn’t enough evidence.
At the time, Adkins was the live-in boyfriend of Hailey’s mother, Billie.
Billie had also been arrested in 2011, accused of lying about Adkins’ whereabouts.
Today, Adkins remains in the Mitchell County Jail on a $2 million bond. He has still not gone to trial, but there is a tentative date set for April 11, 2023.
10. Phillip & Violetta Walter and the 2015 Callahan County murder of Abilene Police Officer Don Allen
The account of the Walters’ crime is sourced from prior KTAB/KRBC articles and Allen’s obituary
Officer Don Allen, 27, with the Abilene Police Department (APD) was many things. He was a son, an uncle, a fiancé, and a policeman. His family described him as having a loving heart and called him a great marksman.
After finishing the West Central Texas Law Enforcement Academy, Ofc. Allen went on to work with the Cisco Police Department, where he met his fiancée. In the summer of 2012, he started his work with APD. He was to be married on July 18, 2016, but he never lived to see that day.
On Monday, August 31, 2015, Ofc. Allen would be killed by married couple, Phillip, 28, and Violetta, 29, Walter. Autopsy ruled his official cause of death to be accidental erotic asphyxiation.
Police found their brother in blue killed in his home. Ofc. Allen was found face down on the floor, partially clothed, bound at his hands and feet with a telephone cord and had underwear wrapped around his neck.
During Ofc. Allen’s death investigation, it was discovered that he put out a craigslist ad in the personal section, soliciting sex. Soon after, he began exchanging emails with the Walters.
That Monday evening, through no sign of struggle, Ofc. Allen was believed to have allowed the couple into his Clyde home, but it seemed everyone was on separate pages.
During his murder trial, it was revealed that Mrs. Walter kicked Ofc. Allen in the groin, then put a knee in his back, pulled out a belt and choked him. It was Mr. Walter who caused Ofc. Allen to take his final breath as he killed him with a choke hold.
After killing the APD officer and running away, the couple first stole some of Ofc. Allen’s belongings and deleted their email exchange. They were later seen via security camera, selling some of those stolen goods.
The Walters were arrested at their Clyde home three days later, on Thursday, September 3. Police said they were in the process of moving when they were arrested, and the smoking gun was finding Ofc. Allen’s APD badge inside the home.
Phillip and Violetta Walter were arrested on the charges of Murder, Robbery and Theft of a Firearm. They remained in jail through their trial in October 2016.
A Callahan County jury found the couple guilty of murder, sentenced to 40 years in prison for killing Officer Don Allen.
Why did they prey on an Abilene police officer? It’s widely speculated because of money.
During their trial, text messages between the couple implied that Mrs. Walter was encouraging her husband to rob Ofc. Allen. One text included; “You better do this or you’ll lose your family and kids.”
Today, Phillip Walter is an inmate of a Texas men’s prison, the Connally Unit, in Karnes County. He is eligible for parole in September 2035 and has a projected release date coming in 2055.
Similarly, Violetta Walter is an inmate of a Texas women’s prison, the Hobby Unit, in Falls County. She is eligible for parole in May 2036 and has a projected release date coming in 2056.
This case inspired an episode of Killer Couples – season 11, episode 6. Former KTAB News Anchor/ Reporter, Stacie Lopez was also interviewed in the feature.
11. Amber Craker and the 2016 murder of her newborn baby girl
The account of Craker’s crime is sourced from prior KTAB/KRBC articles
On Saturday, January 18, 2016, an unbelievably heinous crime was committed in South Abilene. 18-year-old Amber Craker, who went to Cooper High School, gave birth to a baby girl then almost immediately killed her.
Through an autopsy and murder trials, it was discovered that Craker gave birth to her baby girl, then slit the baby’s throat and stabbed her at least three times.
Two or three hours after giving birth, Craker’s parents took her to a local hospital because of excessive bleeding. Medical personnel testified that it was obvious the teenager had just given birth, but there was no baby to be found. A doctor who treated her told a Taylor County jury that Craker consistently said, “I’m not here for a baby, I’m here for bleeding.”
It was an alarming statement, so police were quickly involved. With a search warrant, APD searched Craker’s home – which the lead investigator noted to be filthy. Investigators first believed the infant’s remains might be found in the home’s drainage system, but only birth tissue was found.
Craker was arrested that same day.
During trial, Craker went through multiple stories as to what happened that day. At first, she allegedly denied ever giving birth and said she was bleeding because she cut herself shaving. Later, she said she was alone while giving birth and accidentally killed the baby while cutting the umbilical cord.
A forensic examiner said the crime scene, Craker’s home, was riddled with blood throughout the house – a substantial amount in her bedroom. Evidence booked included pliers, a bloody knife and scissors, and an oddly heavy trash can.
Inside that trash can, the remains of Craker’s newborn daughter were found. Umbilical cord intact.
Although she insisted that she was alone at the time, Craker’s then boyfriend, 22-year-old Damian Cate, said he held the baby for at least 20 minutes after she was born. It was later revealed that as he held the newborn, Craker cut her throat.
After five days of trial in April 2018, Cate was found not guilty in the murder of the baby girl.
Because of the shocking act of this case and a lack of support from her family, the Abilene Police Department ‘adopted’ the newborn. Officers named her Ashley and arranged a proper burial for her in February 2016.
A casket was donated by Elliott-Hamil Funeral Home, the headstone by Grace Monument and responding officers got together to pay for Baby Ashley’s burial plot.
Also in February 2016, an Abilene child advocacy group called KEPT hosted a candlelight vigil and memorial service for Baby Ashley at Abilene Christian University.
In October 2017, nearly a year after killing her child minutes after her birth, 19-year-old Amber Craker was convicted of Capital Murder and Tampering with Evidence.
Craker is now lodged at a Texas women’s prison, the Murray Unit, in Gatesville. She was sentenced to life without parole. While Craker is now 25 years old, Baby Ashley would have been almost seven years old.
12. Luke Sweetser and the 2016 murder of his brother-in-law; Abilene realtor Tom Niblo
The account of Sweetser’s crime is sourced from prior KTAB/KRBC articles
Tom Niblo, 54, was known about town as a respected realtor, but he was more than that to the people close to him. To them, he was a beloved son, cherished father, friend, and husband.
Niblo grew up in Abilene, having graduated from Cooper High School in 1980 and later, McMurry University. He and his widow, Cheryl, were married for 31 years. Together, they had two daughters.
On the morning of Monday, December 12, 2016, police found Tom Niblo not quite dead, lying in a pool of his own blood in his bed. He had been shot eight times. Next to him was an unharmed dog by his side.
Throughout this moderately publicized case, which KTAB/KRBC and BigCountryHomepage.com carried out extensive coverage, it was widely speculated that, like most murders on a statistical basis, the motive for Niblo’s killing was money.
During trial in August, Cheryl took the stand to give her account of the morning her husband was killed.
Cheryl reportedly woke up late for work and ran straight to her bathroom. She then heard multiple gunshots and hid within the bathroom. When she heard the doorknob to the bathroom door rattling, she escaped the house through an exterior door in the bathroom. From there, she hopped the fence to her neighbor’s house, but they weren’t home. Next, she ran across South 14th Street and found someone walking. The person was later identified to be a friend of hers, and they called 9-1-1 to report the crime.
The widowed woman was asked about a possible motive, including her marriage to Tom. Cheryl assured the jury that her relationship with her husband was good and solid but did offer that they had a particularly rough patch about three years earlier.
Cheryl told the jury she gave her husband an ultimatum, saying she’d leave him if he didn’t stop drinking. Tom was apparently battling additional addictions. He went to rehab, and Cheryl said he’d been healing nicely.
Cheryl Niblo was cleared of involvement in her husband’s death.
During the initial investigation, police contacted Niblo’s loved ones- including his sister and her husband; Luke Sweetser and Ellouise Campbell (née Niblo, and previously Sweetser).
Sweetser was located at ATEMS High School, where his son attended, but refused to speak without a lawyer present.
Although no DNA evidence was found at the Niblo crime scene to connect Sweetser to his murder, Niblo’s brother-in-law quickly became a prime suspect to investigators with the Abilene Police Department.
Sweetser’s phone had been powered off from 7:00 p.m. on December 11 until about 9:00 a.m. the next morning, hours after Niblo was killed. That morning, according to cell phone data, there were three outgoing and five incoming calls between Sweetser and his wife – along with a few texts and two voicemails in the early morning hours. However, family said shutting his phone off overnight wasn’t an uncommon thing for him to do.
What was uncommon, though, was that Sweetser was late to work that morning. He had just started working at Blue Cross Blue Shield a month earlier, and a coworker said he was always on time, if not early to work every day. The day of the murder, Sweetser was hours late for his shift, spoke with a supervisor and quickly left thereafter.
Sweetser was arrested two days after the death of his brother-in-law on a charge for Theft of a Firearm. He was released a month later.
It was revealed that Ellouise and Luke were reportedly having some financial issues, and Tom and his sister were nearly estranged at the time he died.
The Niblo family had an LLC. Tom’s mother, Evelyn and his sister had smaller stocks in the LLC. After the passing of her father, family representatives said Ellouise began to ask a lot of questions about the LLC.
Ellouise admitted to putting in the work to have herself and her mother named as signers on the family’s checking account ahead of Tom’s death, but as head of the LLC after his father’s passing, he wasn’t receptive to the idea.
About a month before Niblo’s death, Ellouise said she drafted documents to gain more control, and a heated argument between she and her brother ensued.
Due to an excessive amount of electronic evidence, the FBI was called in to help APD process through it all. One piece of alarming evidence included journal entries which read, “there are worse things than being a killer,” and “I can shut off my empathy and kill.”
A murder weapon was never discovered at the Niblo crime scene. However, a teenager managed to find the actual smoking gun while playing at a creek near his grandparents’ home in 2018. Sweetser was rearrested in September 2020 for Murder.
Luke Sweetser was found guilty of killing his brother-in-law, Tom Niblo after seven days of trial in August 2022. Jurors took 12 hours over the course of two days to deliberate.
Ahead of his sentencing, Sweetser took the witness stand. Prosecutors asked him what he thought should happen to someone who committed such a horrible murder. To which Sweester replied, “I feel like you’re trying to trap me… I think we need to love and forgive,” he later bartered.
Sweetser was also asked what was going through his mind when Tom was killed. To the many questions thrown at him, Sweetser merely replied, “I can’t imagine.”
Criminal defense attorney for Sweetser, Lynne Ingalsbee, said he respected the jury’s decision but had to disagree. He also alluded to no one party being at total fault.
“Both families were rather dysfunctional, and probably, that’s what lead to this event,” Ingalsbee explained.
Luke Sweetser was sentenced to life in prison. He is eligible for parole in September 2050. At the time of this article’s publishing, he was held at the J. Middleton transfer facility in Abilene.
13. Inmate Dillion Compton and the 2016 murder of Abilene correctional officer; Marianne Johnson
The account of Compton’s crime is sourced from prior KTAB/KRBC articles
55-year-old correctional officer Marianne ‘Mari’ Johnson lived her life dedicated to others. Beyond her call of duty, Mari was a daughter, sister, mother and grandmother.
On early Saturday morning, July 16, 2016, while working at the French Robertson Unit in Abilene, a trusted inmate, 21-year-old Dillion Compton, was accused of killing Ofc. Johnson.
Compton was a convicted of a 2010 Aggravated Sexual Assault of a Child out of Dallas County in 2011. He was sentenced to serve 25 years.
While on kitchen duty, Ofc. Johnson entered a storage area to get supplies, where she ran into Compton. He was said to be one of the most trusted offenders at the facility, so he had a little extra freedom – giving him access to the kitchen area.
Ofc. Johnson was soon found dead. Her body was discovered in the storage area of the kitchen, handcuffed to a pole.
In an initial release from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, it was reported that Ofc. Johnson was found unresponsive and later pronounced dead at Hendrick Medical Center.
Medical examiners who performed Ofc. Johnson’s autopsy said there were obvious signs of struggle on her body. She had bruises and scratches, her throat was crushed, her pants pulled down and breasts exposed. Compton’s DNA was discovered under her fingernails.
Additional reports suggested that Compton and Ofc. Johnson had been having a sexual relationship for six months prior to her murder.
During the October 2018 trial, defense attorneys argued that on night of Ofc. Johnson’s murder, she and Compton were having consensual sex in the storage room. But when they head someone coming, Johnson may have reacted rashly and that’s what may have led to Compton killing her.
Initially, Compton denied ever being involved in the crime. He insisted he barely knew or interacted with Ofc. Johnson, let alone having a relationship with her.
Another inmate testified that he kept watch as the two paired off multiple times.
After more than a week of trying Compton for Ofc. Johnson’s death, he was found guilty. A jury sentenced him to the death penalty in November 2018.
Compton is now housed at a Texas men’s prison, the Polunsky Unit in Polk County. He joined the more than 200 inmates on Texas’ death row in 2018, but that number is now at 199. There, he awaits death by lethal injection. A date of execution has not been scheduled.
In November 1981, the body of a 77-year-old Mary Eula Sears of Abilene was found, horrifically murdered and hidden away in a closet in her own home. A 26-year-old man, Wayne East, who had done yard work for Sears, was found guilty of her murder. East remains in a Texas men’s prison, serving a life sentence. Learn more about Sears and East here.
In October 1979, the body of a 23-year-old woman – later discovered to be from Abilene – was found near Georgetown, Texas. Her death was highly suspicious and for a long time, she was known only as ‘Orange Socks.’ It would take 40 years before her identity would be confirmed as Debra Jackson. Police believe she may have gone to a school in Abilene. Her killer has never been found.
While those are the 13 most notable true crime stories of the Big Country, there are still more in the area – many of which just do not have a lot of information, much like the cold Debra Jackson case.
Be sure to follow along with BigCountryHomepage.com for more local and local crime news, as well as more web exclusives.