WARNING – THIS IS A SERIOUS POST
If I think about Waco for any amount of time, dark memories come flooding back, especially about the murder of three teenagers at Lake Waco.
The first time I ever felt the presence of evil, I was snooping around Koehne Park, wondering if there really was a crime story there or not.
Two 17-year-old girls (Raylene Rice and Jill Montgomery) and an 18-year-old boy (Kenneth Franks) had going missing at the lake, but that wasn’t unheard of during summer. Raging teen hormones and mind-altering drugs had that effect in the eighties.
But somehow this one felt different. It felt creepy. I’m reminded of that feeling as I look at the wire photo below that was printed in the July 16, 1982 Dallas Times Herald.
The caption says, “Police detective examines Raylene Rice’s car found at Koehne Park”.
That’s not quite right. The photo shows a Waco police reporter — me at age 26 — looking into the car.
I had driven out to Lake Waco after hearing on the police scanner that Raylene’s car had been found. It wasn’t necessarily a story at that point but, you know, ANYTHING to get you OUT of the newsroom.
Obviously, I was no detective, despite the photo caption. But nothing about Raylene’s Pinto hinted of danger — no signs of forced entry, nothing hidden in the seat cracks, no blood.
But something was odd. Creepy. It made the hair on the back of my neck stand up, which was unusual, because I’ve never been one for premonitions.
It gets creepier
It got creepier when I received a late-night call from Kenneth Franks’ dad.
He sounded slightly drunk and emotionally washed out. It was a long, slow, weird, rambling conversation, mainly about him thinking that something really bad had happened to his son and the girls.
The conversation left me with a very uneasy feeling, unlike anything I’d ever felt before. Something cold and unnerving. A feeling that lingered and prompted me to have a long conversation with my editor.
We decided not to publish a story about the call — after all, what could it say other than a distraught father had called the paper and rambled about his missing son? We also decided not to pass on the information to police, though I did write up comprehensive notes about the phone call, just in case.
In the following days, we all waited for a break in the case — for the kids to turn up “one way or another”. But there was no a break.
At least until the Booze Cruise.
The Tribune-Herald’s motley crew of 20-something reporters was about to booze it up on the Brazos Queen paddle wheel boat.
I’d missed previous Booze Cruises — being the newest reporter, I had to work the crappiest late night hours. And I was really looking forward to the night out.
I was literally about to step aboard the Brazos Queen when I was summoned over to the ticket office to take a phone call. (This was well before cell phones, if you can imagine).
3 Dead Bodies
“You better come on in. They’ve just found the bodies of the kids,” said the somber city editor.
I borrowed a car and literally flew back to the newsroom, high on deadline adrenaline, with nary a thought about the human tragedy. Occupational hazard.
Our newest Baylor University journalism graduate was at the crime scene where the tortured and abused bodies had been discovered — Kenneth fully clothed and wearing sunglasses; Jill and Raylene nude and bound. It was beyond awful.
Despite the carnage and frenzy at the scene, the newbie reporter phoned in the facts. Unfortunately, our stressed-out city editor was making a hash of it.
I probably wasn’t helping much, reading over his shoulder, pointing out errors and suggesting countless edits even though the deadline for the first edition was only minutes away.
In exasperation, the city editor finally agreed that I should do a quick rewrite. This freed him to leap out of his chair, pace around the newsroom and comb his thinning white hair — which is how he normally reacted to daily newsroom dramas. And this was no normal daily newsroom drama.
In 10 minutes or so, I’d rewritten the story, weaving in background from my previous stories and adding some unpublished information. By deadline, it was done, and adrenaline was dripping from my fingers.
I went outside for a deep breath and a smoke, then started calling sources before drafting a much longer P.I. (Page 1) story, plus smaller sidebars, for the next day’s main edition.
Days passed and the presses continued to roll. Almost everyone at the paper was put onto the triple-murder — covering every angle that anyone could think up. It was enormously exciting for young hacks, but nightmarish for Ken, Jill and Raylene’s friends and family, and even a lawman or two.
It was that horrific.
Everyone just knew the crime would be solved quickly, even by the “cracker jack” Waco Police Department. There is always a high clearance rate for murders, largely because killers can’t seem to shut up about their crimes.
Still, days turned into weeks, and weeks turned into months. The initial flood of stories started to dry up to a trickle. After all, how many times can you write: “Police had no new clues Tuesday on the tragic triple murder at Lake Waco and said no arrests were imminent…”?
Finally, arrests were made in September, but by then I was about to head to Singapore for a three-year adventure, so someone else would have to cover the ongoing story.
Remember, this was 1982, and way before the internet, so I had to follow the subsequent trial via news clippings mailed to me by a friend in Texas and, later, by reading Carlton Stowers’ book Careless Whispers.
That book hit me hard. So hard that I bought a copy for my beautiful, bullet-proof, teenage niece. I wanted her to be afraid — to get it through her thick, stubborn head that the hounds of hell could devour young girls and boys who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. I’m thankful to Carlton that his book did indeed scare my niece.
While part of me would like to re-read the book to refresh faded memories — especially of the relentless, heroic efforts of Texas lawman Truman Simons who broke the case — I simply cannot. I cannot force myself to revisit what I know was pure evil.
May the Lord have mercy on the souls of those poor kids and their families.
Carlton Stowers’ chilling book Careless Whispers can be found here.
These grisly Lake Waco Murders even have their own website.
A long print backgrounder can be found here.
And, oddly, on the very day that I am writing this, comes a story from Waco about new DNA testing that the only surviving murderer hopes will exonerate him.
And now in March 2014, Texas Monthly has done a five-part-series that makes me wonder about a lot of things…
Why I quit being a reporter. Click HERE for the inside story.