Obituary: W.T. Rufner gained notoriety during the Cullen Davis trials

08/15/2014 6:43 PM

08/15/2014 6:44 PM

W.T. Rufner, who played a small role in Fort Worth’s most infamous murder case, will be remembered mostly for a photograph — of him wearing nothing but a Christmas stocking over his genitals.

Also in the photo was a scantily clad Priscilla Davis, Mr. Rufner’s one-time, short-term girlfriend and a principal character in the drama.

After the trials of Davis’ ex-husband, Cullen Davis, Mr. Rufner disappeared from the spotlight. In and out of trouble over drugs, theft and assault, he left prison in 2003 only to learn that he had prostate cancer.

Mr. Rufner died Thursday night at an adult group home in Springtown. He was 75.

In the mid-1970s, after Priscilla Davis filed for divorce from Cullen Davis, Mr. Rufner lived briefly at the Davis mansion off South Hulen Street. But he had moved out by Aug. 3, 1976, when “a man in black” started shooting, killing former TCU basketball player Stan Farr and Andrea Wilborn, Priscilla’s daughter by a previous marriage. The gunman also wounded Priscilla and shot Bubba Gavrel in the spine, leaving him crippled.

The survivors identified the gunman as Cullen Davis. At his trials — he was never convicted — Mr. Rufner was called to testify as defense lawyers tried to attack Priscilla Davis’ lifestyle.

“I recognize the face’

Mr. Rufner wasn’t a conventional witness.

In a 1977 Star-Telegram story, Mr. Rufner said that Cullen Davis’s attorney, Richard “Racehorse” Haynes, tried to make him a “whipping boy.”

Haynes’s defense strategy was to shift the spotlight from his client onto the colorful Priscilla and her circle, Jack Strickland, then and now a Tarrant County prosecutor, said Friday.

A jury in Amarillo wasn’t supposed to see the photo for which Mr. Rufner became infamous, but they got a glimpse of it when Haynes had it printed on nearly transparent paper.

At one point, Priscilla Davis was asked if she recognized the photo of Mr. Rufner.

“I recognize the face. I don’t recognize the sock,” she replied.

Later, at an elevator outside the courtroom, Mr. Rufner approached Haynes and from a paper bag, pulled a T-shirt imprinted with the infamous photo and the words “Sock it to ’em W.T.”

He announced that he was selling the shirts for $100 each.

“W.T. was an original, I’ll tell you that,” Strickland said. “In spite of his goofy public persona, he was not a stupid man. He realized the significance of what was going on.”

Strickland was a prosecutor on Cullen Davis’ two solicitation-of-capital-murder trials (In addition to a murder trial, Davis was accused of trying to hire a hitman to kill the judge in his divorce trial). Strickland recalled a joke that Mr. Rufner pulled on Haynes during a Houston trial.

Mr. Rufner was known for enjoying alcoholic beverages at lunch, and Strickland, who had called him as a witness, was worried that he would imbibe too much.

“At a quarter to one, W.T. showed up, he was slurring his words and stumbling around, and Richard Haynes was watching everything,” Strickland said.

But when Haynes started questioning him, “W.T. smiles and just gives good, concise and accurate testimony,” Strickland said. “It was just an act to screw with Richard.”

According to Dec. 13, 1978, Star-Telegram article about the Houston trial, Mr. Rufner became agitated at having to wait to testify. Wearing a belt buckle that said “I bring joy to women,” Mr. Rufner started sparring with Judge Wallace Moore.

At one point, Moore admonished him, saying, “This is not Fort Worth” as Mr. Rufner rambled on.

Mike Cochran, a former Star-Telegram and Associated Press reporter who wrote the authoritative book on the trials, Texas vs. Davis, said Mr. Rufner was a minor character whom Haynes tried to suggest was far more sinister.

“I think the main thing is the defense wanted to portray him as a hothead and that he could have potentially been someone who had wanted to harm Priscilla,” Cochran said.

But, that line of defense “never got serious enough to convince a jury he was possibly involved,” Cochran said.

Drugs, drinking, motorcycles

Mr. Rufner never really got over Cullen Davis, according to his daughter, Deborah Rufner of Granbury.

“He blamed Cullen Davis for everything bad in his life, but he was just an alcoholic and drug addict.” Deborah Rufner said. “He thought Cullen Davis was out to get him.”

In a 10-year anniversary Star-Telegram story about the slayings, Mr. Rufner scoffed that Cullen Davis said he was devoting his life to God.

“Now that Cullen and God are together, I’m beginning to wonder about God,” Mr. Rufner said.

From the 1970s through the ’90s, Mr. Rufner was charged in a series of drug and theft cases. In 1999, his probation for an aggravated assault conviction was revoked, and he was sentenced to four years in prison.

His daughter believes prostate cancer developed while he was in prison, but wasn’t diagnosed or treated until he was released in 2003, she said.

“He had been trying to kill himself his whole life with the drugs and the drinking and racing motorcycles — all of that,” Deborah Rufner said.

As a child, Deborah Rufner said, she spent “many nights” at the Davis mansion when she was with her father.

“It was a constant party,” she said. “And Andrea, that little girl that killed, she was a beautiful child.”

As Mr. Rufner’s health declined in recent years, he could no longer take care of himself.

He was first sent to a Glen Rose nursing home but eventually ended up at an adult group home in Springtown where he died. His daughter said she had had no contact with him since the group home took away his cellphone. She was notified of his death Thursday night by the Tarrant County medical examiner’s office. The cause of death has not been determined.

No services are planned.

Deborah Rufner said she would have her father’s remains cremated and his ashes spread “at undisclosed location.”

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