Texas, The Plains States

A Truth Best Forgotten? The I-45/Texas Killing Field Murders in Galveston and Houston

I-45 Murders Galveston

On June 12th, 1971 a crew painting the Pelican Island Bridge over the Galveston Ship Channel on the industrial north end of Galveston Island noticed something floating in the water. It was the nude body of a light-skinned African-American girl who had died of strangulation. The laces of her Roman sandals had been torn off the soles and used to bind her wrists and ankles. Her underwear had been stuffed into her mouth. Her name was Brenda Jones. She was fourteen years old.

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Vanished

Collette Wilson

Collette Wilson

Five days earlier Claire Wilson, a middle-class mother of nine, arrived at the intersection of Highway 6 and County Road 99 in Alvin, Texas, forty miles northwest of Galveston. She had come to pick up her daughter who was supposed to be dropped off at this location by her instructor after band practice. But her daughter wasn’t there. Instead, Claire Wilson noticed a man parked along the shoulder in a beat up car. She wondered if he was having mechanical problems. She didn’t stop to ask. She presumed her daughter had gone to a friend’s house and hurried there to pick her up. But thirteen year old Colette Wilson was not at her friend’s house. She had vanished.

 

1971

Run off from Addicks Reservoir

Runoff from Addicks Reservoir where the bodies of of Wilson and Gonzalez were found.

Five months later on November 25th, 1971 investigators searching Addicks Reservoir, west of Houston and just north of I-10, found a human skeleton. On the skeleton’s finger was a ring with the word PEACE. The ring belonged to Collette Wilson. The next day her tearful father identified her body.

But investigators hadn’t been at Addicks Reservoir on a lark. They were there because two days earlier a man using a metal detector had stumbled across the body of a different girl, nineteen-year-old Gloria Gonzalez, who had disappeared from a Kroger parking lot in Houston two months earlier.

Gloria Gonzalez

Gloria Gonzalez

That made a total of five girls murdered between Houston and Galveston in the summer and fall of 1971. That’s right, five, not three, because between the time the body of Brenda Jones and the bodies of Wilson and Gonzalez were discovered, two more bodies had been found floating in Turner Bayou near Texas City. They were nude from the waists up. Their wrists and ankles were bound and they had been shot.

 

Seven

Flat coastal plain Texas

Most of the fifty miles between Houston and Galveston is a flat coastal plain woven through with bayous.

Most of the fifty miles between Houston and Galveston is flat coastal plain. Fingerlike bayous weave through grassy marshland and act as conduits to carry off rainwater during heavy downpours. In the early 1970’s much of the area was undeveloped, dotted with oil storage tanks and well heads to service the burgeoning oil industry. To dump a body in a bayou was a strategic choice. For one thing, it was unlikely to be immediately discovered. For another, it might be carried off in the next downpour and washed out into Galveston Bay.

Debbie Ackerman

Debbie Ackerman

The two bodies discovered in Turner Bayou belonged to Debbie Ackerman and Maria Johnson, two footloose fifteen-year-olds with a cavalier attitude unique to the 1970’s. They were undiscriminating in their choice of acquaintances, they stayed out late, played hooky, and hitchhiked. They were last seen getting into a white van outside of Galveston’s Port Holiday Mall. Two days later their bodies were found.

Maria Johnson

Maria Johnson

The year 1972 started out just as 1971 had ended. In January two more bodies turned up, these on the banks of an overflow ditch near Taylor Bayou, east of I-45, thirty miles north of Galveston. They were identified as Sharon Shaw and Rhonda Renee Johnson, two fourteen-year-olds whose friends believed they had run away to California.

That brought the death toll to seven. Local law enforcement was at a loss. They had never seen such carnage. And they weren’t working well together.

 

Making it Right

Webster, TX

Webster sits midway between Houston and Galveston off I-45

The towns and cities where the girls’ bodies were found were spread across three counties. Each county had its own sheriff’s department, and each municipality had its own police department. Collectively, this cluster of law enforcement agencies didn’t have the experience or resources to deal with a serial slaughter of this magnitude, but that didn’t stop them from trying. They chased false leads, hoarded information and got in each other’s way. As public panic mounted, they floundered. One man was particularly aggrieved by this incompetence and set about making it right.

Rhonda Renee Johnson

Rhonda Renee Johnson

Webster city councilman Roy Johnson was the grandfather of Rhonda Renee Johnson, one of the victims. He reportedly used his influence to get much of the Webster Police Department fired and replaced. The man chosen as the new police chief was a former traffic cop named Donald Ray Morris. He understood his mandate. Find the killer. He went right to work.

At a gas station near Johnson Space Center in Webster, TX a young man named Michael Lloyd Self worked pumping gas. He was known locally as Slow Mike and thought to be developmentally disabled. Self was something of a law enforcement hanger-on, frequenting the police station and befriending the cops. When Donald Ray Morris took charge in Webster, Michael Lloyd Self was deemed a nuisance and chased off. But Morris needed a killer. When he looked at Self’s file, he liked what he saw. Michael Lloyd Self had been accused of being a Peeping Tom and had received psychiatric treatment for his behavior. That was enough for Chief Morris.

 

The First Confession

Michael Lloyd Self

Michael Lloyd Self

Morris hauled Self into the police station and interrogated him. What happened next would be recounted in depositions by other police officers who were present. The new police chief demanded a confession. He shouted at Self, threatened him with a billy club, and, according to Self, struck him with it. Terrified and deprived of counsel, Self caved. He went from denying any involvement at all to signing a full confession to the murders of seven teenage girls.

But there was a problem. Self’s confession didn’t match the physical evidence collected by the various police departments. So, Morris hauled him back into the interrogation room and browbeat him into signing a second confession, one that more closely resembled the facts.

The wheels of justice turned swiftly for Micheal Lloyd Self. The jury deliberated for just thirteen hours before sentencing him to life in prison. Donald Ray Morris had done his job. The killer had been apprehended and convicted. From Galveston to Houston the anguished parents of teenage girls breathed a sigh of relief.

But even as the alleged killer sat in prison awaiting sentencing, another body turned up, a fresh kill, a murder that had occurred just two days prior, a murder that Michael Lloyd Self could not possibly have committed. Sheriff Morris’s stock began to drop. Soon it would plummet.

 

A Miscarriage of Justice, Part 1

Houston Police Museum

Houston Police Museum, one of eight police museums in the state of Texas.

In September of 1975 in the tiny town of Caddo, TX the State Bank was robbed. The robbers were chased and apprehended. Among the robbers was former Webster police chief Donald Ray Morris. As it turned out, Morris had been the mastermind of a string of robberies that had taken place over the course of two years. During the time Morris was coercing a confession out of Michael Lloyd Self he was also robbing banks. The former police chief was tried and convicted. In the meantime, two more young girls had gone missing. Yet none of this did anything to exonerate Michael Lloyd Self.

The Texas Court of Appeals.

The Texas Court of Appeals. The motto translates as “Let Justice be Done”

Texas, perhaps more than any other state, applauds police justice. The state is home to eight different police museums where the heroic deeds of police officers are enshrined. Texas loves a story where the good guys always prevail. The messy case of police chief Morris muddied that narrative. To free Michael Lloyd Self for being coerced into a false confession would only muddy it further. Incredibly, Self’s appeal was rejected. Twenty-two years later his parole was denied. In all that time not a single shred of evidence was produced to tie him to the crimes other than his confession.

In 2000, perhaps in part to correct this gross miscarriage of justice, a Texas appeals court ruled that, henceforth, a confession alone would not be enough to convict a man for murder; there would also have to be corroborating evidence. But for Michael Lloyd Self it was too late. He died in prison in 2000, the same year the ruling was passed down. Meanwhile, the murders went on.

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Eleven

Suzie Bowers

Suzie Bowers

In April 1976 the bodies of two teenage girls were discovered by a roughneck working an oil field outside of Alvin, TX. In May 1977 twelve-year-old Suzie Bowers went missing in Galveston. Two years later in 1979 her skeleton was found by two boys riding dirt bikes near Addicks Reservoir. By decade’s end, eleven girls had been murdered between Houston and Galveston, an area defined by low lying marshland and numerous bayous, an area bisected by Interstate 45, which gave the murders their name, the I-45 Murders. Yet other than Michael Lloyd Self, law enforcement was without a suspect.

The 1970’s produced a bumper crop of serial killers. The decade gave us John Wayne Gacy, the Golden State Killer, Son of Sam, and the Hillside Strangler to name a few. Two of seventies’ most prolific serial killers, Ted Bundy and Henry Lee Lucas, briefly came under suspicion in the I-45 murders, but were dismissed. It took another twenty-six years, until 2006, for law enforcement to discover the probable killer, someone they had had in custody since 1993, a man named Edward Harold Bell.

 

The Surf Shop      

Galveston Beach

In the 1970’s Galveston beach attracted plenty of young girls and beach bums.

By all accounts Ed Bell was a good kid, an eagle scout and an excellent student. His high school classmates remembered him as friendly and bright. He had a buoyant personality. He was popular with girls, and he dated a lot. In college he majored in physical education and biology, and his grades were exemplary. After college, he married and had three children. Ed Bell looked like an American success story. But somewhere along the line something went haywire in Edward Harold Bell.

In 1966, five years after college, Bell was arrested for exposing himself to young girls. He was ordered into treatment and released. Three years later in 1969 he did it again. Shortly thereafter, he and his wife divorced. Ed brokered a deal to avoid prison by enrolling in the University of Texas Medical Branch’s psychiatric program located at Galveston, the home of beaches, bikinis and Galveston Pier, an amusement park that attracted young girls. He remained institutionalized there for three months before being released. But he didn’t leave town. He liked Galveston.

Former location of Doug's Dive & Surf Shop in Galveston

Former location of Doug’s Dive & Surf Shop in Galveston

By 1970 Bell had remarried and gone into business with a friend. He had become co-owner of Doug’s Dive & Surf Shop. The business was a hangout for local beach bums and the girls they attracted. In fact, several of the victims were known to hang around there, most notably Debbie Ackerman and Maria Johnson. But the police never made the connection between the girls, the surf shop, and the perverse track record of Edward Harold Bell. Had they done so they would’ve found some other interesting connections.

 

Connections

Edward Harold Bell

Edward Harold Bell

Debbie Ackerman and Maria Johnson were last seen getting into a white van. Ed Bell owned a white van. He also owned a red mobile home, which he kept on a lot near Humble Camp Road. Humble Camp Road leads directly to Turner Bayou where Debbie Ackerman and Maria Johnson’s bodies were found. Bell also owned land in the area where the last two bodies turned up. Then there was the timing.

Ed Bell arrived in Galveston in late 1970. The body of Brenda Jones was found nine months later under the Pelican Island Bridge. For the entire time the murders were occurring Ed Bell lived in and around the Galveston area. Then in 1979 the last body was found, a skeleton that had decomposed over the course of many months. After that, the killings stopped. At roughly the same time Ed Bell disappeared.

In August 1978 Bell skipped town ahead of a pre-trial hearing for his involvement in the murder of a good Samaritan who had tried to detain him after catching him masturbating in front of some prepubescent girls. He remained on the lam for fourteen years. When he was finally captured, it wasn’t the police who brought him to justice, but a television show.

 

The Second Confession

Ed Bell after being extradited from Panama in 1992

Ed Bell after being extradited from Panama in 1992

In December of 1992 the case of Ed Bell was featured on an episode of America’s Most Wanted. Viewers watching the show in Panama City, Panama recognized their neighbor. Ed Bell was arrested and extradited to the US for trial. He was tried and convicted for the murder of the good Samaritan. He was sentenced to seventy years in prison.

Five years later in January of 1998 Ed Bell sat down and wrote a letter to the Galveston district attorney. In it he confessed to the murders of all eleven girls. So, what did the district attorney do with this explosive confession?

Nothing.

 

A Miscarriage of Justice, Part Two

Turner Bayou

Turner Bayou

The problem was the law. Under the ruling by the Texas state court of appeals after the injustice inflicted on Michael Lloyd Self a confession alone was not enough to convict a suspect of murder; there had to corroborating evidence, and the Galveston district attorney’s office didn’t have any — or at least it didn’t have any it wanted to pursue.

There was the white van and the piece of land near Turner Bayou, which provided only circumstantial evidence, but it could’ve been the starting point for a thoroughgoing investigation. It boggles the mind that Bell’s former wife and his colleagues at the surf shop weren’t interviewed. But twenty years after the murders maybe law enforcement considered the whole ugly episode best forgotten, a closed chapter — except it wasn’t.

In 1983, four years after the I-45 Murders, the cycle of slaughter started again, and would continue into the 1990’s.

 

The Pay Phone

Heidi Villareal-Fye

Heidi Villareal-Fye

In October 1983 twenty-five-year-old Heide Villareal-Fye left home to hitchhike to the residence of her friend. She was last seen making a phone call from a pay phone outside a convenience store at the busy intersection of Hobbs Road and West Main Street just off I-45 in League City. Six months later her skeletonized remains were discovered in an oil field five miles south of the convenience store where she had made the call. She had been beaten to death.

Laura Miller

Laura Miller

In late summer 1984 sixteen-year-old Laura Miller, newly arrived in League City with her parents, also wanted to make a phone call. The phone was not yet connected in their new home, so Laura asked her parents to drop her at the convenience store to make the call. A year and a half later her badly decomposed body was found in the same oil field south of the store.

Former location of the pay phone at the convenience store on Hobbs and West Main

Former location of the pay phone

The oil field, a brush-covered marsh dotted with slender pines, belonged to Humble Oil. A narrow road had been cut through it to service a single well. It was off the beaten path. Months could go by when no one would appear. On the afternoon when Laura Miller’s body was found, the body of a second young woman was discovered close by. She was approximately five-foot-six and weighed 140 pounds. The coroner judged her to be in her mid-to-late twenties. No one turned up to identify her. She was entered into the records as Jane Doe. That made three young women murdered and dumped in the same field. There would be one more.

 

Twenty-Four: The I-45/Texas Killing Field Murders

Texas Killing Fields

The area known as the Texas Killing Fields. The bodies of four young women were found here.

In September 1991 a couple on horseback took a shortcut through the oil field and made a grisly discovery. A badly decomposed body lay propped up under a tree. It was found less than 300 hundred feet from where the other bodies had been found. Again, the victim was a young woman who had been beaten to death. Again, she went unidentified. She became known as Janet Doe. Years later in 2019 DNA testing identified the victims. The first was Audrey Cook a housewife from Galveston. The second was Donna Prudhomme a street walker from Nassau Bay.

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Memorial for Laura Miller at the spot where her body was found

Memorial for Laura Miller at the spot where her body was found

Today a small makeshift memorial marks the spot where Audrey Cook’s body was found. Just a few steps away a second memorial indicates the location of Heidi Villareal-Fye’s body. A little beyond them, a third memorial is placed where Laura Miller’s body was discovered. The former oil field where all this happened has come to be known as the Texas Killing Fields, but the name has been used to identify a series of murders that went far beyond the four victims found here.

Throughout the 1980’s and 90’s a total of thirteen young women were murdered or vanished along the I-45 corridor in the area between Houston and Galveston. Taken together with the eleven teenage girls killed in the 1970’s, that’s a total of twenty-four young women who came to violent ends in this region. But why here?

A Potent Mixture

Roughnecks on a drilling rig

Roughnecks on a drilling rig. The area attracted healthy young men looking for temporary jobs, an invitation to drifters.

The area between Houston and Galveston is highly industrialized. In the thirty years between 1969 and 1999 thousands of itinerant workers poured into the area to work in the burgeoning oil industry. Most of those workers were healthy young men seeking temporary employment in gritty jobs that paid well but didn’t last long. It was an invitation to drifters.

Galveston beach

Galveston Island. The beach attracted teenage girls.

At the same time the beaches along the Gulf Coast attracted vacationers, young families, many with teenage girls who showed up for the summer in bikinis and sunglasses, frolicked in the surf, lay in the sun, and went home. This potent mixture of rootless drifters and tempting young teenage girls may have been the catalyst that set off the I-45/Texas Killing Field Murders. But at the end of the day the killings were perpetrated by individuals, heartless murderers, perhaps as many as five of them, maybe more.

 

The Killers

Mark Roland Stallings

Mark Roland Stallings

In addition to Ed Bell, who was likely responsible for the eleven murders in the 1970’s, there was Mark Roland Stallings, an itinerant laborer who confessed to killing Donna Prudhomme and dumping her body in the Killing Fields. Stallings also told authorities he was responsible for other murders in the Galveston area but turned cagey when asked to provide specifics. In any case, there’s good reason to believe his choice of the Killing Fields as the dumping ground for the fourth victim was no coincidence. Stallings is likely the slayers of all four victims found in the Killing Fields. He is currently serving life in prison.

William Lewis Reece

William Lewis Reece

William Lewis Reece was an itinerant ranch worker who had violated his parole after serving time in an Oklahoma prison for forcible oral sodomy, abduction and rape. He turned up in Houston in 1997 driving a bulldozer at a housing project near the home of one of the victims. After two failed abduction attempts, Reece was tracked down and arrested. Suspected in at least two of the Texas Killing Field/I-45 murders, Reece denied any involvement. He is currently serving a sixty year sentence for aggravated kidnapping.

 

Guilt and Conviction

John Robert King and Gerald Pieter Zwarst

John Robert King and Gerald Pieter Zwarst

In June 1987 a drunk, distraught man phoned 9-11 saying he was suicidal. He was John Robert King a twenty-nine-year-old unemployed laborer. The thing that was eating at him was the guilt he felt for his part in the brutal rape and murder of a young woman. Under questioning, King told investigators he and a drinking buddy named Gerald Pieter Zwarst forced the victim, Shelley Sikes, off the road, then abducted, raped and murdered her. Their excuse? They were drunk and high on PCP. Both men were convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison. They have both since died.

Kevin Edison Smith

Kevin Edison Smith

Kevin Edison Smith was a pipe welder from Texas City, TX. He lived a transient life drifting from one job to the next. In spring of 1996 he was back in Texas City where he abducted and killed fourteen-year-old Krystal Jean Baker, a distant relative of Norma Jean Baker, AKA Marilyn Monroe. Smith, who denied committing the murder, was convicted on the basis of DNA evidence. He was the only one of the I-45/Texas Killing Field murderers to be convicted on the basis of evidence gathered by law enforcement. For what it’s worth, Smith was also the only one of the murderers who was African-American.

 

A Truth Best Forgotten?

Sunset over Galveston

Sunset over Galveston

Since the turn of the century the murders of young women between Houston and Galveston have subsided. The region is much more developed now. The finger-like bayous that weave through the area run between housing developments and gated communities. Shopping malls and chain restaurants have taken the place of the oil fields.

But the brush-covered former oil field called the Killing Fields remains, inconspicuous behind the Magnolia Creek Baptist Church. To go there and see the handmade memorials erected by the grief stricken parents of the slain girls is to remember the carnage that was. Twenty-four young women struck dead in their youth, one after the other, with little help from law enforcement.

In Texas they like a story where the good guys always prevail in the end. Maybe that’s why no one wants to remember the I-45/Texas Killing Field murders. Today, few Texans have ever heard of them. And may be that’s for the best. To remember the senseless loss of life and the ineptitude of law enforcement is to live in a world that’s unsettling. Better to cling to the myth. It helps you to sleep better at night.

 

Previous Stop on the Odyssey:  St Francesville, LA
Next Stop on the Odyssey: South Padre Island, TX

 

My American Odyssey Route Map

My American Odyssey Route Map

 

 

Sources

Albert Salazar v The State of Texas, Texas Court of Criminal Appeals – Corpus Christi, 2000, TXCourts.gov, acquired 2 November 2021, Website

Casey, Katherine. Deliver Us: Three Decades of Murder and Redemption in the Infamous
I-45/Texas Killing Field Murders
, Harper, 2015 Website

Galehouse, Maggie. “True Life Horror Story: Author examines three decades of murder along I-45 and the Texas Killing Fields,” Houston Chronicle, 17 March 2017 Website

Leicht, Angelica. “Houston’s Creepiest Unsolved Murder Mysteries,” Houston Press, 31 October 2014, Website

Powell, Nick. “League City police determine identities of 2 women found in the Texas Killing Fields,” Chron.com, 11 April 2019, Website

 

Image credits

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Galveston pier beneath pink clouds, Van Williams

Collette Wilson, news.com.au

Runoff from Addicks Reservoir, Malcolm Logan

Gloria Gonzalez, news.com.au

Flat coastal plain with bayous and industry, Malcolm Logan

Gloria Gonzalez, news.com.au

Maria Johnson, news.com.au

Webster, TX on a map, WebsterTexas.com

Rhonda Renee Johnson, Public domain

Michael Lloyd Self, Twitter/Kathryn Casey

Houston Police Museum, BraveArchitecture.com

Texas Court of Appeals, TexasCourts.gov

Suzie Bowers, Aftonbladet

Galveston beach with umbrellas, Malcolm Logan

Former location of Doug’s Dive & Surf Shop, Malcolm Logan

Edward Harold Bell, Unsolved Mysteries

Ed Bell after being extradited, Unsolved Mysteries Fandom

Turner Bayou, Malcolm Logan

Heidi Villareal-Fye, news.com.au

Laura Miller, Texas Equusearch

Former location of the pay phone, Malcolm Logan

Texas Killing Fields, Malcolm Logan

Memorial for Laura Miller, Malcolm Logan

Roughnecks on a drilling rig, Public domain

Galveston Beach, Jennifer Reynolds, Galveston County Daily News

Mark Roland Stallings, KAGSTV

William Lewis Reece, Aftonbladet

King and Zwast, Shattered Hope documentary

Kevin Edison Bell, MyLifeofCrime

Sunset over Galveston, Malcolm Logan

 

 

 

 

 

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