Fort Worth man emerges as suspect in 36-year-old cold case

07/19/2014 5:37 PM

07/21/2014 5:09 PM

Thirty-one years after the unsolved slaying of Lecia McGee, a key figure emerged.

A Marlboro cigarette butt.

For three decades, various detectives had tackled the case of McGee, a 17-year-old Southwest High School student who never came home one cold January evening in 1978 and was later found dead inside her trunk, brutally stabbed with her throat slit.

But a break would not come until 2009, after Fort Worth police Detective Jose Hernandez requested tests on several items from the 1978 cold case, hoping modern science might finally yield a suspect’s DNA profile.

In June that year, Hernandez got word that a cigarette butt from McGee’s right rear door ashtray had revealed a promising lead — a major DNA profile of an unidentified woman and a minor DNA profile of an unidentified male.

The woman’s profile — DNA samples from McGee’s siblings would later reveal — belonged to the young victim.

The identity of the mystery man would be revealed three months later when police were notified that a database of convicted offenders’ DNA profiles had matched the DNA profile to that of an inmate.

Robin Carter, who lived two streets down from the McGees and had been briefly questioned by police two months after her slaying, was now the prime suspect in the case.

‘You need to go find her’

On Jan. 22, 1978, McGee was not the least bit interested in spending the afternoon at the coin laundry with her older sister, sorting, washing and folding clothes.

The teen had made plans that Sunday afternoon to hang out — eat some pizza and watch a movie — at the home of former neighbors Cathy and Jim Whaley, who had moved 4 miles away.

“She was upset with my mom, saying, ‘I don’t want to go,’ ” recalled her sister, Lori Hurst. “I said, ‘You don’t have to go with me. I got this.’ ”

McGee, a tomboy who worked at University Car Wash, drove away in her pride and joy — a 1968 Chevrolet Impala that her mother, Helen McGee, had bought her. Hurst said Lecia McGee babied that car and had even spent that morning detailing it, despite the cold and wet weather.

Hurst, who was having trouble with her own car, had planned to borrow her sister’s Chevy to take her friend home. But when she arrived home about 1 a.m. neither McGee nor her car was there.

It was cold and growing late.

“My mom said she’s not here yet,” Hurst said. “ ‘You need to go find her.’ ”

Hurst and her friend drove to the Whaleys but learned that McGee had left the house between midnight and 12:30 a.m. to head home.

As a light snow fell, they drove the routes Hurst thought her sister might take, fully expecting to find McGee’s car broken down on the side of a road. But after a few hours of searching, they found nothing and returned home.

Concern turned to fear and, at 5:30 a.m., McGee’s mom called police.

“My mom is freaked out completely,” Hurst said. “When my mom got scared, I got scared. Lecia was a good girl. She would be home when she was supposed to be home. I kept going, ‘Something is wrong with the car, something is wrong with the car.’ ”

‘Something was wrong’

Later that morning, as Hurst left for work at M.L. Leddy’s, the search for McGee intensified.

Dennis Sowell, McGee’s cousin, and his wife joined other family members and friends who had gone scouring south Fort Worth for McGee and her car, communicating with one another via citizens band radios.

Late that afternoon, after several hours of searching, the Sowells were headed home when the CB squawked with word that one of the searchers had found McGee’s car parked off the Southwest Loop 820 access road at Lubbock Avenue. An area resident would later tell Fort Worth police that he had noticed the car, its right rear tire flat, parked there when he left for work at 7:30 a.m.

The Sowells drove to the location, but with police already swarming the scene, Sowell said he and his wife could not touch or look inside the car.

“We knew something was wrong because we could see the blood on the back bumper,” he remembered.

Inside, McGee’s dark green jacket and blue scarf lay across the back seat. Blood staining the front seat and a broken back arm rest hinted of a violent struggle. The car keys and two billfolds belonging to McGee were found tossed nearby.

At McGee’s house, police told the family that her body had been found in the trunk.

Sowell volunteered to pick up Hurst, who had gone to work that day at M.L. Leddy’s. He said nothing about McGee’s death.

But on entering her house, Hurst knew.

“I knew she was dead when I walked in because I looked at my mom,” Hurst recalled.

Helen McGee, whose husband had died 10 years earlier because of a blood clot, stood dazed in the kitchen.

“She was just kind of leaned against the refrigerator and started crying when she looked at me,” Hurst said.

An autopsy would later determine that Lecia McGee had been stabbed seven times in the chest and abdomen, and her throat was cut. She had not been sexually assaulted, but the autopsy also showed that she had been grabbed from behind and fought back, suffering several defense wounds on both hands. Police said it was possible that the assailant was waiting in the back seat of the car when she left the Whaleys.

Another woman atttacked

That next morning, Robin Carter, 16, stood before state District Judge Scott Moore in a juvenile courtroom.

On Dec. 3, 1977, a 24-year-old seminary student had stopped at a gas station near Interstate 20 and Crowley Road for gas and to cool off her overheating Chevrolet Nova, when Carter took it upon himself to help the woman.

He asked her where she was headed.

“He said I need a ride,” the woman recalled in a recent interview. She asked not to be identified out of concern for her safety.

She obliged but had not driven far when Carter suddenly wrapped a rag around her neck, ordering her to keep driving, she said.

“I was thinking I have got to get where there are people,” the woman said. “I just kind of put my other hand up on the rag so he couldn’t tighten it up around my neck.”

She remembers turning off Crowley Road onto Westcreek Drive, quickly veering into a Dairy Queen parking lot. She frantically honked her horn to get people’s attention.

“I had grabbed the rag and was trying to get out of the car,” she said. “I was hanging out of the car basically. I could remember my whole upper body was just so sore. He slid over, put it in reverse and was going backward, then he floorboarded it and I just went flying across the parking lot and he took off.”

An off-duty investigator with the Tarrant County district attorney’s office, who lived nearby and heard the commotion, hopped in his car, chased after Carter and notified Fort Worth police.

With police in pursuit, Carter wrecked the car off Townsend Drive on the grounds of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary — where the victim was a student — and was arrested after a short foot-chase.

“I remember going to the juvenile center and picking him out of a lineup,” the woman said.

On Dec. 16, Carter was adjudicated on a charge of unauthorized use of motor vehicle and was released until sentencing to the custody of his parents, Betty and George Carter.

On the morning of Jan. 24, as family mourned Lecia McGee’s death, Carter was sentenced to probation.

His victim in the case said she never knew her attacker’s name or the disposition of the case and can only imagine what his intentions had been.

“I had no idea, probably rape or something,” she said. “It took a long time to get over the fear.”

Refuses to take polygraph

As McGee’s case became news across North Texas, a security guard at the seminary called police, wondering whether the teen arrested on campus in December might be connected to the slaying of McGee.

In March, intrigued by the similarities, homicide Detective R.L. Mullins visited Carter’s residence on Cameron Street for a chat with Carter but found only his parents at home. He told the parents that because of similarities between McGee’s case and the other, he wanted Carter to take a polygraph test.

George Carter, who a few years later would become a reserve officer for the Fort Worth Police Department, told the detective that after getting arrested in December, his son didn’t leave the house unless he was accompanied by one of his parents. On the night of McGee’s disappearance, George Carter told police, the family planned to have Sunday dinner at a relative’s house but stayed home because of the bad weather.

He said he and his son stayed up playing cards together until about midnight or shortly after, and he assumed that his son went to bed.

Robin Carter arrived home while Mullins was there. The detective asked if he would take a polygraph test. He said yes, then changed his mind.

“Robin said he hadn’t done anything and didn’t think he should have to take it and wanted to know what would happen if he didn’t,” according to notes written by Mullins. “I told him nothing but also told him to talk it over with his family and I’d check back next week to see how he felt about it.”

There’s no mention in the case file that police ever returned.

Aggravated robbery conviction

While the suspicions against Carter went nowhere, his run-ins with the law continued.

Convictions for possession of marijuana, driving while intoxicated and burglary of a vehicle soon speckled his record.

In 1987, Carter engaged in a five-hour drug-fueled crime spree in Benbrook and Fort Worth that included stealing a bike from a child at gunpoint, carjacking several people and breaking into several cars and a business.

It ended after one of his robbery victims shot him. Fort Worth police followed the trail of blood and found Carter hiding in a clothes closet in a Fairmount neighborhood apartment.

Carter was charged with attempted capital murder, burglary, theft and six cases of aggravated robbery.

Through a deal with prosecutors, Carter pleaded guilty in January 1988 to the aggravated robbery cases in exchange for a 20-year prison term and dismissal of the attempted capital murder, burglary and theft charges.

He served just over seven years behind bars before being released on mandatory supervision Feb. 13, 1995.

Four months later, he crossed paths with Melanie Gable of Colleyville, who was out for a power walk.

‘Awww, does it hurt?’

Gable remembers passing the awkwardly parked red pickup, making brief eye contact with the stranger behind the wheel.

“He was very creepy,” she said. “I kept walking but I could feel him staring at me and I looked back and I was right. It was a very sick stare. It creeped me out so I glanced down at his license plate.”

Gable continued on her walk, repeating the license plate number in her head to commit it to memory in case she later heard of any trouble in the neighborhood involving the truck or the man. When the pickup drove past her a few minutes later, Gable chastised herself for being paranoid.

What she didn’t know was that the driver she believed was now gone had circled the neighborhood and was coming after her.

“I just hear somebody driving fast so I stepped out of the street to get out of whomever’s way. When I turned around, he had driven up the curb — up the grass — to smash into me,” Gable recalled.

Gables’ legs were instantly broken as the truck’s bumper slammed into them, propelling her onto the truck’s hood.

“They said I rode like 20 feet, I guess, until he hit the brakes and then I went flying,” Gable said. “… When I hit the concrete like a rag doll, my head slammed back on the concrete and it grazed the back of my head open. I didn’t feel any of this. He gets out of his truck and walks around and he has a smile and I thought it was a smile of caring.”

“Awww, does it hurt?” the man asked, staring down at Gable.

“Then I realized he was a sicko,” Gable said.

Not realizing she also had a broken arm, a crushed vertebra and a lacerated liver, Gable tried to pick herself up.

Carter grabbed her. Gable fought back.

“We fought in the street. I screamed and screamed and screamed and nobody was coming. It felt like forever,” Gable said.

The man dragged Gable to his truck, opened his door and tried to push her in.

“When he tried to stuff me in the truck, he said: ‘I’m not leaving you here. You’re my evidence.’ ”

“I had my chest across the chair and my bone was sticking out of my arm and that’s what made me wake up because I think I was about to pass out,” Gable said. “That’s what made me snap into reality of this is really happening.”

With no more strength to fight, Gable said, she screamed out, “God help me now” and saw neighborhood residents, mostly women, running toward her.

Actually, police would later tell her, only one neighbor heard the collision and came outside to investigate, which was enough to scare Carter away.

“They said; ‘We see it all the time in our profession. You screamed to God and he sent you angels,’ ” Gable said.

‘Will you ever forgive me?’

Carter was arrested two days later at a Colleyville construction site after detectives traced the pickup used in the attack to his brother.

Gable would undergo five surgeries, spending several months in and out of a wheelchair.

“I remember [Tarrant County prosecutor]) Alan Levy came to my house and he said, ‘Why do you think he did this?’ ” Gable said. “I said I think he just saw me happy and healthy on a beautiful day and I was feeling good. … I said I think he just wanted to squash that or wipe that out. The DA said: ‘Ah honey, no. He had a very specific purpose with you.’ ”

“Now I understand how clueless I was,” she said.

Less than 10 months later, in April 1996, just before jury selection was to begin in his trial, Carter unexpectedly pleaded guilty to aggravated assault with a deadly weapon.

At the sentencing hearing, Carter, then 35, asked to address the Gables.

“He stood up and he said, very repeatedly, almost like rambling, he said: ‘I know I have a drinking problem. I know I have a drug problem. I’m not a bad person. I don’t mean to do bad things to people. I know some day you’ll walk again,’ ” Gable said. “… Then he said, ‘Will you ever forgive me?’ ”

After the judge sentenced Carter to 50 years in prison, a bailiff wheeled Gable to the front of the courtroom so she could respond to her attacker.

“I will make sure you always remain locked up, but I forgive you,” Gable said. “You’ve proven you can’t live outside of prison so you must remain behind bars.”

‘They’re looking for justice’

As Carter served his sentence for the assault of Gable, his blood would be drawn so his DNA profile could be entered into Combined DNA Index System, a national database that was proving to be a powerful tool in breathing new life into cold cases.

One such case involved Lecia McGee.

In June 2009, during the 13th year of his 50-year sentence, after police Detective Hernandez requested DNA tests on some of the evidence in McGee’s case, Carter emerged as a suspect.

Armed with a search warrant, cold case Detectives Manny Reyes and Tom O’Brien traveled to the Allred prison unit in Wichita Falls in November 2009 to obtain Carter’s DNA for confirmation tests and what they hoped would be a confession.

But Carter denied involvement in McGee’s murder and they left with only the buccal swab from inside Carter’s cheek.

More tests confirmed the DNA match, linking Carter to the crime scene, but murder charges have never been filed.

Hurst, initially optimistic when she learned of the DNA link, is now frustrated.

“We just want somebody held accountable,” Hurst said. “This can’t be the perfect murder that everybody gets away with. It just can’t be. … When they said it was his DNA, we were like going, ‘Somebody finally!” We now know, but there’s nothing. He’s not going to be held accountable for it, according to the DA.”

Reyes, now retired, points the blame at the Tarrant County district attorney’s office, which he accuses of sitting on the case despite Carter’s indicating that he was willing to take a plea deal in the slaying.

“That family has gone through so much for so long,” Reyes said. “They’re looking for justice and our Tarrant County DA’s office, at this time, has not produced.”

Prosecutor Kevin Rousseau said Reyes handed over an incomplete case, wrought with holes that required further investigation. He said that even with the DNA link, the evidence against Carter is weak and that even a grand jury, when presented with the entirety of the case, recommended that no action be taken against him.

“It’s just not, in my opinion, strong enough evidence to go forward with a murder case because it’s not indisputable,” Rousseau said.

A father’s anguish

George Carter, 80, vividly recalls Reyes visiting him in 2010 to tell him about the DNA link between the 1978 slaying and his son.

“He looked right at me and he said, ‘George, do you think Robin is capable of doing something like that?’ ” Carter said. “I told him if you’d asked me that years ago, I’d say no. Absolutely not. But after he ran over that girl and things happened the way they did, I don’t know.”

George Carter worked almost 30 years in law enforcement, beginning as a reserve officer in 1982 with the Fort Worth police and later as a reserve deputy with the Tarrant County Precinct 4 constable’s office. He said he tried to be a disciplinarian to his four sons but drugs proved the downfall of all.

“I can’t tell you how much every day of my life that I’ve worried about them,” George Carter said. “Every day.”

One son, Tony Carter, died of a drug overdose in 1988 while in prison. Another, Michael Carter, is serving life in prison after his ninth DWI conviction, in 2012. His oldest, Pat Carter, had run-ins with the law and was left severely brain-damaged in 1991 after a hit-and-run wreck and now lives in a nursing home.

“I can tell you what drugs do to a human being. Drugs is what killed them. Crucified them,” George Carter said.

George Carter recalled for the detective how his oldest son, Pat, once mentioned that he had seen Robin Carter in possession of a bloody knife. George, who said he and his sons frequently hunted, dismissed it as nothing.

“I didn’t think anything about it really,” George Carter said. “I certainly never thought my little boy was capable of doing something like that. I’m not convinced now.”

‘I didn’t kill her’

Reyes, convinced Carter killed McGee, returned to the prison in September 2010 and interviewed Carter again.

According to a transcript of that interview, Reyes began the three-hour conversation by easing into small chat about allergies and Carter’s family before showing the inmate a Family Circle article about the attack on Gable.

Carter told Reyes that he was drunk the day he struck Gable. He said he accidentally hit her while reaching for a beer bottle that had rolled between his feet and didn’t even know what he’d hit until after he stopped.

“I tried to pick that woman up and help that woman. She blew up on me and I dropped her back down. I was as scared as she was,” the transcript says.

When conversation turned to his one-day crime spree, Carter insisted he wasn’t trying to hurt anybody, saying he was drunk and messed up on meth.

But Carter offered no excuses, just flat-out denials, when talk turned to Lecia McGee.

“I didn’t have nothing to do with that,” he said.

Carter told Reyes that he had seen McGee around because they lived a couple of blocks apart.

When Reyes told Carter that his DNA was found on a cigarette butt in a back-seat ashtray of McGee’s recently detailed car, Carter seemed incredulous.

“I can’t think of any way my … my DNA could be on that … cigarette cause I never, ever have been around that girl. I didn’t kill her. I never socialized with her. I never talked to her before in my life. … I’m not going to cop out to something I didn’t do. I’m not going to do it. I did not have anything to do with that girl.”

But the conversation took an awkward shift when Reyes mentioned that Carter was just a “16-year-old kid” when McGee was killed.

“”I thought ya’ll said I was 17,” Carter remarked.

Soon, Carter was asking Reyes if the state could try a 16-year-old at that time as an adult and how the juvenile process worked.

“Anyway, like I said, I know you’ve got a good strong case there of my DNA,” he told Reyes. “As far as me being the actual killer, I’m sure a DA can paint a pretty picture with that too. I ain’t got no doubts on that. But I can’t sit here and tell you I killed that lady and I didn’t; you know, I can’t do that.”

Reyes responded: “What can you tell me? All you’re telling me is what you can’t.”

“All I can tell you is that I …it looks like I have some more serious trouble,” Carter said.

Carter eventually told Reyes that he’d be willing to take a plea deal as long as the sentence ran concurrently, was less than his current prison sentence, and he was allowed to stay in the same prison.

“I’m not saying I did that … but if that will bring closure to them, we ain’t got much other route to go except blow it wide open,” Carter said.

George Carter said he and his son have talked only briefly about McGee’s case.

“I said, ‘Robin, a detective came out to my house and talked about this girl that got killed in ’78,’ ” George Carter said. “He said: ‘Daddy, I didn’t do nothing. I didn’t.’ ”

He said his son didn’t mention that he’d told Reyes he was willing to take a plea bargain in the case.

“Why would you take a plea if you didn’t do it?” George Carter wondered aloud.

‘No, it’s not enough’

Reyes took Carter’s plea bargain offer to Rousseau, confident that the case would soon be resolved.

“He was willing to take a plea. He was willing to take 30 years, plead guilty for that because he knew it would run concurrently with what he had and he could still get out hopefully on parole after he did his 25 more to go,” Reyes said. “He was smart enough to do that.”

To Reyes, the cigarette butt placing Carter in McGee’s recently detailed car, his insistence that he didn’t socialize with her and was never in her car — and his sudden willingness to take a plea deal — all spelled guilt.

“There is a lot of circumstantial evidence but when you put all the circumstantial evidence together, it works,” Reyes said. “… I could see that the public would probably not go for the death penalty with what we have. However the public would say: ‘Yes he did it. Yes, he deserves something.’ ”

But when he received the case, Rousseau saw things quite differently.

The DNA link was not strong in terms of ratios. And there were too many alternative explanations for how a cigarette with both Carter’s and McGee’s saliva could have ended up in the car.

“It could have been there for weeks. It could have been put there that very night but I have absolutely no way of proving that. That cigarette in the back seat is the entire case. Period,” Rousseau said.

And Carter’s willingness to take a plea, Rousseau said, falls far short of a confession.

“He doesn’t even come close to admitting it. In fact, he denies it,” Rousseau said. “It’s quite clear his willingness to plead guilty includes a denial that he did it. ... It’s an offer to make it go away. It’s not an offer to say he did it.”

Rousseau said he won’t enter into a plea with a defendant just to close a case.

“I don’t do that because we have significant doubts whether he’s the guy,” Rousseau said. “I think he is the most likely suspect, but there are significant doubts about whether or not he’s the person who actually did this crime. We’re not in the business of putting murder convictions on people simply for convenience. Yes, it might be helpful for the family but we have an obligation to do justice. Sometimes that means saying no. We just don’t have the evidence here to say that this is the guy.”

‘Look at his history’

Reyes said prosecutors will never receive the confession they long for from Carter, pointing out that in his interview with Carter, the inmate never fully accepted responsibility for his other crimes, including the aggravated assault for which he now sits in prison.

“Look at his history. Ever since he was a juvenile, he’s never come out and said: ‘I’m guilty of this. This is exactly what I did and forgive me.’ He’s never been this way. You’ve got to know his past in order to know his present,” Reyes said.

Rousseau said he has made several attempts to find more evidence linking Carter to the crime.

He had Hurst bring him the two rings McGee was wearing the night of her death in what turned out to be futile hopes that they might still yield evidence of her killer.

In the last couple of months, DA investigator David Whisenhunt reinvestigated the case, interviewing witnesses again and some who had not been interviewed.

And in a last ditch-effort, officials have sought DNA tests on other items from the car, including bloody seat covers.

The most promising evidence — the clothing that McGee was wearing when killed — was destroyed in 1988 when employees in the Police Department property room apparently merged the contents of two boxes and disposed of the clothing.

“Regardless of whether they’re to be blamed for it or not, it’s happened,” Rousseau said, “and if there was any items that you were likely to get DNA from to tie the assailant to her … it’s going to be from her clothing because she was undoubtedly killed inside the car and she was moved to the trunk of the car.”

‘Let the 12 people decide’

Reyes said he believes that prosecutors should just file the case with juvenile services and let another prosecutor seek to get Carter certified and take him to trial.

“It’s a very good, strong case. It’s beyond strong when you really look at it,” Reyes insists. “Once you put it together for people to see — the jurors to see — there’s no doubt they will come back with a guilty verdict on this.

“Let the 12 people decide, not one person,” he added.

But without additional evidence or a confession, Rousseau isn’t budging.

“The reason that Robin Carter looks like the killer, the actual person who did this crime, is because of what we know about him outside the case. Because of what he had done a month or two earlier and because what he did in years later,” Rousseau said. “None of that would be admissible as evidence in a trial. Not any of it. The entirety of the case would be the cigarette in the back seat of that car.”

Carter will be eligible for parole in June 2020. Hurst said she’ll continue to fight to see that he stays behind bars by pushing for justice in her sister’s case.

“They keep saying he’s going to die in prison. Well no, he won’t,” Hurst said. “He can get out. If they could guarantee me he would never see the light of day, never breathe another breath of fresh air, I might deal with it.

But he could get out.”

Deanna Boyd, 817-390-7655

Twitter: @deannaboyd

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