Freaky Friday: The Curse of Johnny Frank Garrett

 “I’d like to thank my family for loving me and taking care of me. And the rest of the world can kiss my everloving ass, because I’m innocent.”

Welcome to Freaky Friday here on Lawyers & Liquor, where we crack open the crypt doors to discuss the supernatural, paranormal, unsettling, unbelievable, or just plain morbid aspects and stories from the practice of law. I’m you obese crypt keeper, the BOOzy Barrister, and we’re about to take another midnight stroll through the darkness to discuss this month’s macabre tale of an allegedly innocent man that went to his execution defiant…and took with him pretty much every lawyer, judge, and spectre of the legal system that sentenced him.

So without further ado, huddle in around the campfire as we spin out the tale of the Curse of Johnny Frank Garrett.

The Crime

It’s Halloween, 1981 in Texas and Sister Tadea Benz, a 76 year old nun in Amarillo’s northeast section of town, was dead. She was not only dead, in the bed of the convent where she had lived a pious life dedicated to her  her community, but viciously and brutally dead.  In her room at the St. Francis Convent, Sister Tadea had been strangled, violently stabbed and, before life left her, repeatedly violated by an attacker who was, at the time, unknown to the police.

The nuns who found her the next morning, nude and on the floor of her room, assumed at first she had died in a fall from her bed. They didn’t contact the police, instead wrapping her body in a sheet. It wasn’t, contemporary news reports stated, until they later noticed a broken window in Sister Tadea’s room that they even contacted the police regarding the matter…and even then they were slow to talk about the dead, elderly nun, with the case becoming a murder investigation only when the police investigating a break in overheard the sisters talking and decided to look at the body itself to find the extent of the injuries.

This…wasn’t the first death in that area of Amarillo though, and not the first of an elderly woman who lived alone. Just a few months earlier another woman had been beaten, raped, mutilated and strangled to death.  And in the spring of 1981, 10 other elderly women had been beaten and raped in the same area. In fact, the same night that Sister Tadea was murdered, a woman just a few blocks west of the convent had been raped and beaten into a coma hours before Sister Tadea had been killed.  Obviously, there was something rotten in Amarillo.

The police tried to solve the case, but had no luck. One suspect was cleared by blood testing, the other Halloween victim emerged from her coma but couldn’t remember anything of the crime, and public outrage began to build.

And that’s when a psychic allegedly called into the newspaper. “Bubbles” was her name, and Bubbles reported that she had seen the killer in a dream. The killer, according to Bubbles the Psychic, was a teenage male living near the convent. Bubbles had tracked down the killer and found his house. Bubbles led the police right to him. And thus 17 year old Johnny Frank Garrett was arrested for the rape and murder of Sister Tadea Benz.

Procedural Missteps

There were allegations that the confession Garrett gave was coerced and written by the police, and Garrett refused to sign it. He was housed with a convicted murderer. Evidence, such as semen sample from the body, were thrown out prior to trial. Witnesses placed Garrett away from the convent at the time of the murder, although Garrett would admit to occasionally sneaking into the convent at times to pilfer from Jesus’s Wives.

I imagine Jesus was a pretty pissed off husband about the thefts, though, because Garrett was convicted of the murder of Sister Tadea and, at the age of 18, sentenced to death.  As one is in Texas. And, despite still having evidence from all of those other cases, the DA never tried to make a case against Garrett for them.  In fact, 22 years after Garrett was convicted, in 2004, DNA from those other murders were conclusively linked to another person already in jail in New Mexico who, in 1980 and 1981, had stalked the streets of Amarillo.

This all sounds great for a spooky story, huh? But, you know, here’s the Fifth Circuit’s summary of the evidence presented against Garrett, just for the record:

The evidence against the accused was overwhelming. Garrett was seen running from the direction of the convent on the night of the murder. Prints found on the handle and blade of the kitchen knife recovered from under the victim’s bed and prints from the bed headboard matched Garrett’s. Pubic hairs recovered from the scene were determined to have the same individual characteristics as Garrett’s. The steak knife found in the driveway of the convent was of the same manufacture, design and make, and had the same degree of use as another steak knife recovered from Garrett’s residence.

. . .

On rebuttal Sister Bernice Noggler testified that, contrary to Garrett’s testimony, the front door of the convent is ordinarily locked and no one could enter the cafeteria around the noon hour without being noticed. She also denied that any of the chests in the convent were locked or that any valuables had been reported missing. She also denied that Sister Benz ever had a cross hanging above her headboard. The state also presented rebuttal witnesses who lived near Garrett’s mother. One neighbor testified that Garrett was seen prowling around an elderly woman’s home in the neighborhood on the night of the murder. The second neighbor testified that Garrett came to his house at approximately 11:00 the same evening.

Garrett v. Lynaugh, 842 F.2d 113 (5th cir.  1988).

In short, it isn’t like they just snatched up Garrett and tossed him in the chair (I know, Texas had lethal injection in 1982, but “the chair” sounds a hell of a lot more intimidating than “strapped him to the table with the needles).  There was evidence of his guilt as well as indications of his innocence. But there was, from a read of the information, enough to create the inference of reasonable doubt…and given the later developments, enough to raise genuine questions as to whether Garrett belonged in jail or if he was sentenced for another’s crime.

The Last Words

According to legend, and at least one Hollywood film, Garrett’s last words were those at the top of the article here, inviting the world to kiss his ass as he went to his death proclaiming his innocence. But, in some versions he has an interesting addition to those words. That addition indicates that he had written a letter to those who had a hand in the conviction of an innocent man, and that they would be receiving gifts from him. Gifts in the form of a curse on everyone that was involved in the conviction of an innocent man and his execution at the hands of the state.

And, after his execution, things certainly did seem to happen, with some online sources gathering the victims of Garrett’s curse as follows:

  1. Juror Novella Summner fell down a flight of stairs and died a few days later of complications.
  2. Juror Nathan Shackelford’s daughter died form an accidental gunshot wound to the head. His sister was run over and killed by a drunk driver.
  3. Garrett’s trial lawyer Bill Kolius died of pancreatic cancer.
  4. Garrett’s first appellate lawyer Bruce Sadler and post-conviction trial Judge Sam Kaiser contracted the same form of leukemia. Kaiser died after initially being cured. His healthy bone marrow (collected in case of recurrence) inexplicably disappeared from the hospital.
  5. Jimmy Don Boydston contracted leukemia and died.
  6. Officer Walt Yerger also died of leukemia.
  7. NBC Reporter Cathy Jones died in an airplane crash in Oklahoma while covering a story.
  8. Medical Examiner Ralph Erdemann was convicted of numerous felonies for falsifying autopsy reports. His medical license was revoked and he was sent to prison. His wife died of pancreatic cancer.
  9. Eugene “Heavy Duty” Patterson was found dead in his vehicle. A cause of death was never determined.
  10. Watley, a jailhouse snitch who testified against Garrett for a reduced sentence, committed suicide.
  11. Carol Moore, Garrett’s school teacher who testified against him at trial, also committed suicide.
  12. District Attorney Danny Hill also committed suicide. His daughter hung herself a few years later.
  13. One of Garrett’s many appellate attorneys, Jeff Blackburn lost his wife when she committed suicide. His son was accidentally locked inside a hot car in Houston and is permanently brain damaged.
  14. Ann Richards contracted cancer twice and finally succumbed to esophageal cancer.

Certainly, vengeance from beyond the grave for Johnny Frank Garrett, right? The cold hand of justice reaching from the shroud to take those who had played a part in the death of an allegedly innocent man? I mean, the curse of Johnny Frank Garrett was some serious shit, right?  right?

Here’s the Rub.

Remember that I said there was a Hollywood movie made about this? Yeah. There was, and it was low budget, and it played up the whole curse angle. Which is interesting because…the only place any reference to a curse exists is in the movie and in the promotional material for the movie. The last words of Johnny Frank Garrett, as reported by first-hand observers immediately following his execution, including reporters, contained no reference to any letter that cursed anyone.

And sure, the people listed above, including District Attorney Danny Hill, may have died…but they didn’t die of weird causes. Some suicides, mostly be jailed prisoners and a District Attorney with reported mental health issues.  Cancer and Leukemia, not exactly uncommon occurrences. A juror who fell. All normal deaths.

Add into this the fact that Garrett was no innocent wilting flower put upon by the justice system. He was a regular in the juvenile system, and had admitted to stealing things from the nunnery. He had even admitted to stealing things from there the same day as the death. His own alibi was full of holes, and witnesses were able to rebut almost everything he said in his defense. His only witnesses were his mom and sister, and let me tell you, those are two people that tend to have a reason to not let you see the inside of a jail cell.

I mean, in the end, the story is less “Deathly Curse of Innocent Man” and more “People die, and some people brutally murder others.”

So the last words of Johnny Frank Garrett weren’t likely a curse.

 

But that’s not a fun story.