1-14-11: Victims' families distressed by delay of Cleve Foster's execution

Assured by officials that convicted killer Cleve Foster had exhausted his appeals, Terry and Pam Urnosky made the long drive from their home in Lubbock to Huntsville, hoping to close one chapter in a decade-long nightmare.

Instead, Terry Urnosky said, their anguish multiplied when the U.S. Supreme Court late Tuesday afternoon delayed Foster's execution at the last minute.

A few days before Christmas in 2001, the Urnoskys' 22-year-old daughter, Rachel, was found raped and shot to death in her Fort Worth apartment. Foster, a former Army recruiter, was one of two men charged, and on Tuesday the victim's parents were preparing to witness his execution for killing another woman.

Instead, a call came from Washington at about 6 p.m. and halted the proceedings just as Foster was finishing what would have been his last meal.

"It leaves you speechless. You can't breathe," Terry Urnosky said Thursday from his office in Lubbock, where he is a marriage and family therapist.

"It's like -- if you've ever played football -- getting hit in the stomach with a helmet in the gut. Your wind is all out of you. You're just in that total shock. ...

"We were expecting closure. But unfortunately, we're reliving all the thoughts, the trials, the evidence. Everything we've been through since this started. The nightmare continues."

On Friday, Supreme Court justices were scheduled to discuss Foster's appeal, which included an argument that he did not have adequate legal counsel in part of the appellate process. Another ruling in Foster's case is expected from the court by Tuesday. Justices could lift the stay and allow Foster's execution to proceed or order further legal proceedings.

Foster and one of his recruits, Sheldon Ward, were convicted and sentenced to death in the slaying of Sudanese immigrant Mary Pal. She was found raped and shot to death about two months after Rachel Urnosky's death. Foster and Ward were seen following Pal from a Fort Worth bar the night before her death. DNA from both men was found on Pal's body, and she had been shot in the head with Ward's gun.

Ballistics also showed that Ward's gun had been used to kill Urnosky, a popular Texas Tech graduate who was engaged to be married and had recently moved to Fort Worth for a job in retail.

"She was awesome," her father said this week.

Foster and Ward were charged with but never prosecuted in connection with her death, but evidence from her case was presented in the capital murder trials of both defendants. Foster has long maintained that Ward, who died in prison last year from a brain tumor, acted alone in Pal's death.

Terry Urnosky said that on Tuesday, he and his wife and an aunt and uncle of Pal were led into a prison building through tight security and briefed about what to expect during Foster's execution.

"They point out to you where he's staying," Urnosky said. "They point out to you where you would be going. They describe where the death chamber is. 'You're going to be 4 feet from him. Stay on the right side of the window. ... He can make eye contact with you. If you can't handle it, go back.' They take you through this time and time again, what to expect. This thing is building to a crescendo."

Foster's execution was set for 6 p.m. Tuesday. Instead, about 6:10, a warden told the victims' families that the proceedings had been halted. Pam Urnosky and Pal's aunt broke into tears and embraced.

"It's like our hearts just dropped to the floor," Terry Urnosky said. "The thing that hurts so much is the unfairness of it. They gave my daughter no stay of execution. In this particular case, when justice is carried out, it will be a vindication of my daughter's life. We just hope justice will be served quickly."

Tim Madigan, 817-390-7544