Jon Farr admits there was a moment, as the garage door came rattling down, when he thought spending the night in the home of his father’s alleged killer might not be such a good idea.
Farr drove down from Kansas City in March to meet with Cullen Davis, believed by many to be the infamous “man in black” responsible for gunning down four people at his Fort Worth mansion 40 years ago. Four people were shot and two were killed, a 12-year-old girl and Farr’s dad, former TCU basketball player Stan Farr.
“I came into the garage, bag in hand, and as the garage door came down the thought did cross my mind that ‘Jon, you’ve had some crazy ideas .... this may be one of the dumbest things [you’ve done] in your life,’” Farr recalls. “If he did shoot my dad and commit the crime ... he could shoot me in my sleep.”
But Farr is a man on a mission. While the 43-year-old software engineer still holds a $1.8 million judgment against Davis, Farr says he came to town to look the former millionaire in the eye and tell him that he forgave him years ago and that he’s there for Davis if he wants to get anything off his chest.
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He has written a book and is developing a ministry where he hopes to use what he learned from his own experience to help others deal with similar trauma.
“For many, justice is when I see the other person suffer the way I have suffered; I want him to hurt the way I hurt,” Farr says. “My message is that it doesn’t work. It has never worked. It just keeps the person in perpetual torment.”
Now 82, but still showing a semblance of the dapper playboy he was in his 40s when he was a wealthy oilman, Davis says he agreed to meet with Farr to tell him face-to-face that he will never pay the judgment. Not just because he doesn’t have the money, he said, but for the simple reason that he didn’t kill his father.
If he did shoot my dad and commit the crime ... he could shoot me in my sleep,
Jon Farr, the son of Stan Farr
A born-again Christian like Farr, Davis says he’s read the Bible cover to cover 97 times. He says he agreed to talk — and has allowed one of their meetings to be taped — because he wants to help Farr in his ministry. Otherwise, Davis says he seldom thinks about the murders and doesn’t worry about his legacy.
“There’s nothing left to think. I thought about it a hundred times. There is no sense to keep thinking about it. It’s ancient history as far as I’m concerned,” Davis says. Now retired, he spends his days managing the foundation established by his father, Ken W. Davis.
The unlikely relationship between Farr and Davis is the latest chapter in a celebrated court case that continues to fascinate and frustrate people four decades later. Long before O.J. Simpson and the bloody glove, there was Cullen Davis, who at the time was the richest man in the United States to stand trial for murder.
One former prosecutor said the case had everything: Murder, sex and chicken fried steak. The case has had a life of its own, including the revelation 15 years ago that Davis paid off one of the prosecution’s investigators and the 2004 death chamber confession of another man for the murders.
Karen Westring, Farr’s mother, admits being anxious about her son dealing with Davis, especially spending the night at his house. But she says so many things about this case are odd, adding “truth is stranger than fiction.”
“I was a little bit nervous, to tell you the truth. But he is a grown man,” Westring said. “There are not a lot of people who would do that.”
Not everyone in Farr’s family is crazy about his outreach to Davis. His aunt, Lynda Arnold, better known as the former dude ranch owner Texas Lil, thinks her nephew is misguided. It is OK to forgive Davis; that doesn’t mean you have to sleep in his house.
“I don’t understand the whys and the wherefores of all this. I don’t understand why he is talking to the man,” says Arnold, who is convinced Davis gunned down her brother. “I think he should stay away from him.”
There’s nothing left to think. I thought about it a hundred times. There is no sense to keep thinking about it. It’s ancient history as far as I'm concerned,
Cullen Davis, talking about the mansion murders
Prosecutors who took Davis to trial multiple times — not only for murder but for solicitation of murder, accusing Davis of hiring a hit man to kill his ex-wife and their divorce judge — suggest that Farr may be like other crime victims trying to cope and move on with their lives.
“If you’re the close family member of a murder victim, you are still living with that and you have to figure out some way to deal with that and that kind of forgiveness is one way that families of victims do that,” says Marvin Collins, a former Tarrant County District attorney helped prosecute Davis.
When asked if he could forgive Davis, Collins simply says: No.
“I don’t have that kind of forgiveness in me...Not when it’s a crime that bad,” he says.
Glittering home on a hill
The Aug. 2, 1976 shootings at the Davis mansion are now part of Texas lore. At least four books, a TV miniseries starring Heather Locklear and an investigation on the A&E Entertainment channel have revisited the crime and trials. Another national news show will update the story again this fall.
“It is one of those things that has fascinated Fort Worth for a long time and it made a lot of news because it had something in it for everybody,” says former Tarrant County District Attorney Joe Shannon, who was a prosecutor on the case. “It never dies. People still ask me about it 40 years later.”
Part of it was the elaborate setting. The Davis mansion was a $6 million modern wonder built near South Hulen Street in southwest Fort Worth. Described as a “glittering, trapezoidal monument to money and architectural originality,” it sat on a remote hilltop where the occupants could look down on everyone else.
“At night, it glowed like a garish ghost ship surrounded by a sea of darkness,” Mike Cochran wrote in his 1989 book, And Deliver Us from Evil. Before their marriage crumbled, Davis and his flashy, bawdy wife Priscilla, lived in the home and were part of Fort Worth’s party circuit.
It also made the mansion the perfect place for a murder.
According to court testimony, a man dressed in black broke into the home. The first one to die was Andrea Wilborn, Priscilla Davis’ 12-year-old daughter from a previous marriage. Shot once in the chest, she was dragged or chased into the basement where she bled to death in the utility room.
Priscilla Davis, by then locked in a bitter divorce with her husband, arrived home later with her 6-foot-10 live-in boyfriend, Stan Farr. They confronted the killer in the house. Shot in the chest, as she lay wounded, she saw Farr get gunned down. Priscilla Davis fled the house when the killer stepped outside to confront another couple.
Beverly Bass and Gus “Bubba” Gavrel were coming home from a date. (The mansion, after Cullen Davis moved out, became party central for Priscilla Davis. It also became a bone of contention in the divorce.) The gunman shot Gavrel, a wound that partially paralyzed him. Bass fled the scene, using the darkness as cover.
Priscilla Davis, Bass and Gavrel identified Davis as the man in black. Davis, who has always professed his innocence and said he was at the movies, was later arrested at the home of his girlfriend, and eventual wife, Karen Master.
Cullen Davis was charged with Wilborn’s murder. The first trial in Fort Worth was aborted because of jury misconduct, so the case was moved to Amarillo. Davis hired the folksy Richard “Racehorse” Haynes of Houston to lead a defense team that included Dallas criminal defense attorney Steve Sumner, among others.
The defense team questioned what happened at the mansion and suggested that there may have been another motive and that Stan Farr, not Priscilla Davis, was the real target. They questioned the morality of Priscilla Davis and the activities at the house. It was also suggested that Priscilla Davis, Bass and Gavrel conspired to name her estranged husband as the shooter.
What the jurors saw in Amarillo “carried the day” and led them to logically conclude that there was reasonable doubt, Sumner says. Davis has been quoted saying he spent millions paying for his defense, including the admission 15 years ago of making payments to Morris Howeth, a DA’s investigator.
It’s my greatest failing as a prosecutor to not have put him (Davis) in the penitentiary,
former prosecutor Jack Strickland
Shannon still steadfastly believes Davis is guilty and says the Davis defense team “threw a bunch of skunks into the jury box” along with the character assassination of Priscilla Davis. He and other prosecutors reject that idea that the killings were drug related or that Stan Farr was the target.
“I felt comfortable with the evidence we had and there hasn’t been anything to change my mind,” he says.
A year later, Davis was successfully defended in a murder-for-hire case in which he was accused of hiring a hitman to kill Priscilla Davis and the judge presiding over their divorce case. After a five-month trial in Houston, Davis was acquitted. Prosecutors then dropped all pending charges against him.
The case took on another bizarre twist in 2004 when Billy Frank Vickers, moments before he was executed, said he was involved in a dozen slayings including the mansion murders. “One I would like to clear up is Cullen Davis — where he was charged with shooting his wife.” While Haynes asked for an investigation, prosecutors dismissed Vickers as someone who wanted to “monkey with the system” one last time.
Former prosecutor Jack Strickland said Vickers’ name never came up. He adds that anyone who thinks they didn’t “turn over every stone” during their investigations of the murders is wrong. Strickland describes Davis as a “sociopath.” Asked today if he would prosecute Davis again, he says he would do it.
“It’s my greatest failing as a prosecutor to not have put him in the penitentiary,” Strickland says.
Letting the anger go
Only 3 years old at the time of the murders, Farr doesn’t remember his father although he resembles him — a former collegiate basketball player, Jon stands 6 foot 7.
Raised mostly in the Kansas City area where his mother, Karen, has family, Farr says it was tough growing up without his dad, as someone with an “infamous” past that he was not proud of. He fantasized on how to get revenge.
“You want to avenge the death of your father. It is a common scenario,” Farr says. “I just wanted my dad back. I was frustrated by the idea of someone taking my dad from me. It was the anger and the despair that sidetracked me for a long time.”
His mother, who Farr says struggled financially to raise him and his sister, Heather, filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Davis in 1988. Eventually Davis, who by then had filed for personal bankruptcy because of the failed oil market and his costly trials, settled in 1990, agreeing to pay $125,000 to each child.
Two years later, living briefly in Texas with his father’s family, the bill from Davis was still unpaid. So Farr came up with the idea of allowing Davis to pay all or part of his debt by agreeing to help him find prospective customers for a startup company he was involved in.
It would be the first time Farr and Davis would meet.
“All I wanted from him is what he owed me for what he had done. That restitution, that justice, would make my life better,” Farr says. “In my 19-year-old head” this all made sense.
When they met at an attorney’s office in Dallas, the young entrepreneur says he didn’t know how he would react to meeting the alleged “man in black.” But instead of feeling anger, Farr says he suddenly felt a “strange sense of peace come over him” as he sat across the table from him.
What went through his mind next “blew me away,” Farr writes in his book. He said instead of focusing on feelings of revenge, he thought about sin, forgiveness and looking at Davis through the eyes of God’s love.
“I had that realization that God’s love was big enough to cover the sin of Cullen Davis,” Farr says.
Farr returned to Missouri and became a born again Christian, doing missionary work at a Baptist church in Blue Springs and counseling those dealing with traumatic situations, using the Bible as his guide. While not a professional psychologist, Farr has been training to become a biblical counselor.
Farr says he forgave Davis and let his anger go.
While his business deal with Davis collapsed and they stopped talking — the judgment stayed intact, reaching $1.8 million this year including interest — Davis was never far from his mind.
“I always said if I had the opportunity again to meet him one more time, I would offer to show him the path to get free and get out of the life of torment,” Farr says.
That opportunity came in March, when Farr and Davis talked again, and Farr ended up spending the night.
Talking to God
The Talk started at the Saltgrass Steak House on Texas 114 in Grapevine.
Farr, who recently moved to the San Francisco area, was still living near Kansas City, called Davis and asked to meet after a Tarrant County judge had revived the judgment, something Farr must do every 10 years to keep the claim alive. Cullen said to “come ahead.”
The restaurant had just opened and was pretty empty; Davis was sitting on a bench waiting for him when he arrived. While their first meeting years ago was “surreal,” Farr says he was ready for this one. He was not anxious or nervous and his heart was not beating fast.
“I was at peace and prepared and ready for a conversation. It was something I felt I had been training for,” Farr says.
I had that realization that God’s love was big enough to cover the sin of Cullen Davis,
Farr hasn’t examined any of the court records or talked to anyone else involved, but says it is only possible that Davis killed his father if he was capable of killing Wilborn. If Davis says he liked the girl too much to ever harm her, then he doesn’t think Davis did it. If Davis’ relationship with her was rocky, he may be the killer.
But Farr says his goal was not to solve the crimes, but to forgive Davis.
“He said, ‘You’re a Christian and I’m a Christian and I’m going to forgive you,’” Davis says. “And I said ‘Well, you don’t need to forgive me. I didn’t shoot your father ....’”
Davis says he already knows plenty about forgiveness. He says he told Farr that, after he became a born-again Christian years ago, God spoke to him. Davis says God told him to get up one morning and go into the room where he prays and to “forgive everybody.”
Davis admits at at the time he had a “long list of people I loved to hate.”
“I went in there and spent one and a half hour just naming everybody that came to mind that I had some time in my life something against ... just naming them,” Davis says.
“The next morning, God woke me up again and said, ‘I want you to go in there and do it again.’ I did, another hour and a half.,” Davis says. “The next morning, He woke me up and said, ‘I want you to go and do it again.’ I did. And the next morning and the next morning.”
Davis said he did that for a year. “I forgave everybody, no matter what the situation, even if they were still doing it to me.”
Farr says during their conversation Davis was brought to tears, although Davis doesn’t remember that. Davis was moved enough to ask Farr over to his house to meet his wife. There, Farr witnessed to Karen Davis and their conversation continued. After eating out together, Davis asked Farr to stay over.
Farr hesitated, saying he thought staying in Davis’ home was like being Daniel in the lion’s den. Davis could kill him and say Farr broke in. But Farr was committed to his mission to bring peace to himself and Davis.
“I wanted him to know I wasn’t afraid. That I was free and the love I had inside me was big enough to conquer anything he could throw at me, even if it meant shooting me,” Farr says.
The next morning, after “not the most comfortable night’s sleep,” Farr prayed with Davis at the garage door then drove back to Kansas City. Davis sent him a small check to support his ministry. Later, Davis would agree to repeat their conversation for a national television news program reviewing the murders.
Farr has written an unpublished, 143-page manuscript called Breaking Free: From the Cycle of Fear, Hurt and Pain. It is partially a work book that relies on Biblical passages, and Farr’s experiences, to help people cope.
Since he finds Farr to “be a nice guy” Davis says he is going along with his efforts.
“It’s okay between the two of us. His motive now is to use it as a ministry thing for him and the public and to spread the Gospel. That’s his motive. ... Well, I have no problem with it,” Davis says. “I have even offered to support his ministry a little bit.”
Davis agrees that supporting an enterprise run by a man who possibly believes he killed his father is odd. Why do business with someone who thinks you may be a killer?
“I don’t know. It’s just something in my makeup,” Davis says jokingly. “I’ll keep trying to convince him I didn’t do it, but that is all I can do.”
For Farr, the only option is to move on. Standing down the street from Davis’ Colleyville home before their second conversation, Farr seemed calm.
“For me, I can talk about the murders, I can talk about Cullen Davis. I can be in his presence and be totally free, be totally at peace.”
This article contains material from Star-Telegram archives.