As getting around became more difficult in recent years, Don Keaton, 82, and a longtime friend with his own medical issues made an agreement to check on each other.
Both promised to talk by phone at 7:30 every morning.
“Their deal was ‘If I don’t answer, something is wrong. You come by and check on me,’ ” said the Rev. Carol West, pastor of the Celebration Community Church, where both men are members.
So when the friend’s phone call the morning of July 27 went unanswered by both Keaton and his longtime partner, James Bowling, the friend kept his word and drove to the men’s house in the 2900 block of Cortez Drive.
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“He found police cars everywhere and an ambulance and called me,” West said. “That’s how we found out.”
Keaton had called 911 about 2:30 that morning, reporting that an intruder had broken in.
Officers found him screaming for help — beaten and covered in blood and drain cleaner — and Bowling facedown and unresponsive on the kitchen floor.
Bowling, who had been beaten and strangled, was pronounced dead at the scene.
Miguel Angel Hernandez, 29, a registered sex offender, was charged Aug. 1 with capital murder in the case. He remained in the Tarrant County Jail on Thursday with bail set at $500,000.
An arrest warrant affidavit, obtained Thursday by the Star-Telegram, says Hernandez confessed to investigators that he broke into the home and fought with two “elderly men.”
He told homicide Detective K.C. Sullivan that he had confronted Bowling in the kitchen, where he beat and strangled him. He said he didn’t realize that another person was in the home until Keaton confronted him.
“Hernandez again said that he beat the second male [Keaton], then poured what he thought was acid on him to make sure he was dead,” the affidavit says.
Keaton, however, survived.
‘Quickly overpowered him’
Almost two weeks after the attack, he remains hospitalized and, according to West, has regained at least some vision.
“He is improving. I’ve seen him,” West said. “His mind is very clear. He’s talking. He’s looking at the future and what he’s going to do and how he’s going to get along.”
West said Keaton is aware that his partner is dead and has memories of a lot of the attack.
“He said he didn’t know anybody could hit that hard,” she said.
When investigators interviewed him in the emergency room the morning of the attack, Keaton’s face and head were covered with a black substance later identified as drain cleaner. His eyes were swollen shut, according to the affidavit.
He told police that he had been asleep when he heard a noise inside his home. He said that Bowling went to investigate the noise and that sounds of a fight soon followed.
Keaton called 911 to report the break-in, then went to help Bowling.
“Keaton said that intruder quickly overpowered him and began to beat him in the hallway of the residence,” Sullivan wrote in the affidavit. “Keaton said the intruder then poured some type of liquid on him that caused an immediate burning upon contact with his skin.”
Suspect ‘covered in blood’
Officers arriving at the home heard Keaton’s screams for help inside and what sounded like someone jumping over the back fence.
Officer C. McAnulty was assisting on the call when he saw a suspicious silver Dodge pickup parked around the corner from the crime scene, a few houses from where the attack occurred. When he noticed a man sitting inside, McAnulty requested backup.
“Officers asked the male to exit the vehicle and noticed he was completely naked and covered in blood,” the affidavit says.
The man, later identified as Hernandez, was detained on a parole violation warrant and was taken to John Peter Smith Hospital for treatment.
In the victims’ back yard, police found Hernandez’s clothes — a pink shirt, black shoes and bluejeans with his pickup keys in a pocket.
In the house, officers found evidence of a violent struggle.
A partly empty bottle of drain cleaner was in the hallway. The master bedroom had been ransacked, items removed from dresser drawers and dumped on the floor. Bloodstained money littered the floor, and more was found in and outside of Hernandez’s pickup.
“It appeared as though the suspect was looking for items to steal,” Sullivan wrote in the affidavit.
‘Trying to protect Don’
West said the deadly attack “rattled our congregation.”
“They were wonderful. They were just good. If you were to say this is going to happen to somebody in the church, I would never expect it happening to these two,” West said. “They’re just homebodies. They love working in their yard. They love doing arts and crafts. They’re just good, good guys. They have a lot of old, longtime friends.”
Bowling, a custodian for the White Settlement school district, previously sang with the church choir and served as an usher, making people feel at home, West said.
“He was always laughing,” West said. “He was always telling a joke. Very lighthearted, easygoing, never met a stranger.”
Keaton, who couldn’t stand or sit for long times because of knee troubles, helped wherever he could, including folding church bulletins.
“They were both always doing something for other people,” West said. “They would take care of people’s animals for them. They were very loved in our congregation.”
Now, until Keaton is well enough to return home, church members are caring for his house and dog, a dachshund mix. The dog left the home in the chaos and was later found at a shelter.
West said she knows Bowling put up a tremendous fight.
“I think not only was he fighting for his life, I think he was trying to protect Don,” she said.
“I always thought Don would go first and James would be left behind,” West said. “That’s certainly not what happened. But if anybody can bounce back despite all this, it would be Don. He’s a strong, strong man.”