Moms

Fort Worth dad still seeks answers in son's death

FORT WORTH -- Bill Rogers taped plastic sheets over the blood spatter on his father's lower kitchen cabinets, to preserve evidence of his son's violent death.

For more than a year after his loss, when Rogers got his morning coffee or washed his hands in the sink, his body brushed against the plastic draping. No one could touch or disturb those wood panels, he said, except a law enforcement agency wanting to help him get answers.

The father has appointed himself the de facto chief investigator of his son's death, because, he says, authorities have failed to do the job.

It's common for Rogers to spend day after day listening to 911 recordings of the last moments of his son's life and to stare at morbid photographs of the young man's lifeless body on the autopsy table. The pictures show the swollen face, the crimson gunshot wound, the eyelids and brows discolored by blood loss.

"No father should have to look at these pictures," Rogers said.

Stored in his computer are records with questions he has pressed to police, doctors and the young men who were with his son when he died. Rogers pores over the records, trying to make sense of the 19-year-old's death.

Police couldn't solve the case to his satisfaction, and Rogers won't be at peace until he does.

William Rogers was sitting at the kitchen table when he was shot in the head with his grandfather's snub-nosed .38-caliber revolver, police say. Sitting at the same table were two friends: a childhood playmate with a record of violence and a runaway who neighbors said depended on the Rogers family for a place to stay and some food.

Based on statements from the two other teenagers and their families, detectives say Rogers shot himself. The three teenagers -- one Anglo, one black, one Hispanic -- had been smoking dope and playing Russian roulette with the gun, according to Fort Worth authorities.

William emptied the gun and dry-fired it multiple times, police said. Then, the family was told, police believe he put a bullet in the gun, put the gun to his head and pulled the trigger.

The afternoon it happened, Bill Rogers, a carpenter by trade and a former martial arts champ, was at a family birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese's in Grand Prairie with his father, Ernest Rogers, now 77.

An agitated neighbor telephoned, worried that the elder Rogers, who has a heart condition, had been stricken.

"Is your dad OK?" the neighbor asked.

"Yes," Bill Rogers told her. "Dad is here with me."

"There's ambulances and firetrucks at your house," she told Rogers.

"Oh, heck ..." he said. "William is there."

When Rogers arrived, his son's two friends were sitting on the porch. A police officer approached Rogers and told him that William had been shot and was at Texas Health Harris Methodist Hospital. The officer told a shaken Rogers that he was in no shape to drive there. So he had his elderly father, who lost an eye in a carpentry accident, drive them around the corner. Then they switched seats and headed to the hospital.

Bill Rogers found his son on a gurney, head wrapped in bandages, paper sacks on his hands. William had been playing with a gun and had shot himself, Rogers recalled a doctor telling him.

Rogers took his son's arm, and a nurse cut through the sacks.

"Immediately, I kiss his hands, and rubbing [them] against my cheek, I couldn't smell no gunpowder," he said. "That's by God's grace. Soon as I kissed his hand, I don't smell no gunpowder. Yes, his right hand. I sat there and held his hand."

That was the pivotal moment when an alarm went off in Bill Rogers' head that he hasn't been able to shut off. If his son had shot himself, the smell of gunpowder would be still on his hands, the father said. Why didn't the hands smell like gunpowder?

Almost two years later, a litany of such questions continues to torment him: Why didn't police return to the crime scene? Where is the gun? Why no ballistics tests?

Is it because they saw only a neighborhood sagging with poverty and violence?

Long gone are the days when Rogers' body was muscular and healthy as a martial arts champion. Today his jeans sag on his small frame, and emphysema makes him unable to work. He is a frail-looking recovering alcoholic who appears much older than his 48 years. But alcohol is no longer the fixation.

To know the truth of his son's death is Rogers' all-consuming obsession.

"He can't move past this," said Gordon Lyons, a 32-year-old nephew. "He feels like he has to solve it. He has to have some kind of closure. It's tearing him up, and it's killing everyone I know to watch it happen."

Tragedy and mystery

Before midnight that September night, doctors told Bill Rogers that his son was brain-dead.

The next several hours were a blur as he made trips to the house and back to collect his son's belongings and try to re-enact the shooting.

He arrived in the dead of night at the family's 900-square-foot north-side house. If William had pulled the trigger in the kitchen, Rogers thought, blood would be on the table, the chair, the cabinets.

But the table and cupboards were clean, as was the chair where William was supposedly sitting. Blood spatter was on cabinets under the sink and on the baseboards.

Rogers found a blood trail in the back yard, near his father's power saw by the picnic table. It went from an extension cord for the saw to the kitchen.

More blood was on a cinder block that serves as a makeshift step to the kitchen.

Rogers went into the bathroom. Not a trace of blood. The counter had been scrubbed. Who did that? He doesn't know.

He stood in the kitchen, on a chair, so he could sniff the air near the ceiling. The smell of gunpowder would have stayed in the house if a gun had been shot in the kitchen, he believed.

"Dad," he asked his father. "Do you smell any gunpowder?"

Nothing.

By 4 a.m., Rogers had no strength left, so he asked his sister to go back to the hospital to get William's clothes. She was told they were on their way to the Tarrant County medical examiner's office, where the body would be autopsied. He would have to wait for them.

Nine days later, funeral director Larry Biggers opened William's casket and unzipped the body bag so that the father could see his son one last time before the burial.

Rogers took a magnifying glass to the funeral home. He said the wound had no powder burns, no "blow back." His Internet research indicated that those would be present on a wound created by holding a gun close to one's head and pulling the trigger. He saw no tattooing, no scorching, no blackening, no stellate tearing, no muzzle imprint and no bruising. He said he found a round wound with an abrasion ring a little thicker than a pencil lead.

Certainly the medical examiner would note the same clean wound, he thought.

But when the Sept. 22, 2008, autopsy report was released, the family was aghast.

The medical examiner had ruled the death a suicide.

The medical examiner had found a 2-centimeter muzzle imprint surrounding William's head wound, and soot and powder within the wound track. The wound was above William's right ear, moving right to left, slightly front to rear and slightly upward.

"God in heaven knows that is not what [we] had seen," Bill Rogers said, weeping.

And the death certificate was wrong. It said William died in Argyle.

A furor of unanswered questions pounded Rogers' brain.

Certainly the paramedics who treated William would remember the large blood smear on the door. Once he was on the gurney, how could the blood have gotten there?

Certainly police would have traced the blood droplets in the back yard. Where did the blood on the extension cord come from? How did it get there?

Certainly the 911 tapes would tell police everything they needed to know: William didn't kill himself.

Rogers saw another scenario. His son is shot in the back yard, shedding his first drops of blood by the picnic table. A rolled-up cable near the power saw had a spot, bright red like the first time he bled. Then, the father says, William staggers to the porch, hits his head on the door and falls to his knees, collapsing in front of the kitchen sink.

One of the other teens, he and relatives believed, fired the gun, and the other was too scared to tell.

Police didn't do their job, Rogers believed, because they had pegged William as a gang member and saw his death as inconsequential.

Otherwise, why wouldn't they have fingerprinted the gun, which William's grandfather had kept under his mattress for protection. Why hadn't the gun been returned to the family? Why didn't police examine the bullet, the shell casing, the lead?

And why had his son's clothing been thrown out? Were there telltale signs in the bluejeans, yellow T-shirt, black socks, black tennis shoes and brown belt?

Troubled backgrounds

It was a lousy day.

That's about the only thing that Bill Rogers and others who had a role the day of the tragedy can agree on. Hearing witnesses and neighbors tell what happened, it would seem as though the story had a different victim, had affected a different family.

Neighbors paint a sad picture of the three young men in the kitchen that day: high school dropouts, always idle and eager to plot terrible acts. By their mid- to late teens, two of the three, including William Rogers, had fathered children.

All three had grown up together. Carlos Camara, who, his mother said, wept for days after William's death, had lived next door to William's grandfather for 15 years.

David Howard, who wrapped towels around his friend as he lay bleeding on the kitchen floor, had moved in with William. "They were so close," said William's girlfriend, Brandy Seely, now 22.

Police records show that their north-side block was a draw for drug dealers, vandals and thieves. Windows in the tiny Rogers home had been shattered countless times. The elder Rogers kept his pistol under his mattress for fear of being attacked.

Camara sold pot and cocaine from his parents' home, police records show. He broke in through the back door and stole his stepfather and mother's rental plasma TV. He would take his mother's truck without permission. More than once, he chased his stepfather in the yard with a hatchet or a pickax, wanting a "fight." In March, Camara was sent to jail on a residential-burglary charge.

"I feel as if I have failed as a mother," said Maria Luevano, Camara's mother. "But I'm glad he's in jail. There, he can't get into any more trouble. He is safe there."

But Luevano is certain that her son didn't kill William. And Howard says that William's death was an accident and that the three never talked of Russian roulette.

That Saturday afternoon, the three young men were in the elderly Rogers' tiny kitchen, moping and bored, Howard said. He said he was reading a muscle car magazine; Camara was talking on the phone with a girlfriend.

William had tried to sell blood plasma that morning and was turned away because his blood pressure was too high, Howard said. Camara's mother said it was customary to sell plasma to buy drugs.

William muttered something about having a bad day, how unmotivated he was, how bored he was, Camara has told his mother.

Then William appeared with his grandfather's gun. He emptied it, sat down as the other two were distracted with the phone and the magazine, and dry-fired it multiple times, pointing it at the refrigerator, Howard said. Camara, still on the phone, took the gun and dry-fired it in the air. Then he gave it back to William, Howard said.

Suddenly, Howard said, he heard a shot and smelled gunpowder. He looked up and saw a puzzled look on his friend's face and watched him collapse.

Out of the corner of his eye, Camara has told his mother, he had seen William pull the trigger.

After paramedics arrived, Camara called his mother at work and told her that his friend had shot himself, she said.

Struggling to understand

Like William's father, other relatives and friends said they were shocked and perplexed that William's death could be an accident, much less a suicide.

"We're a Southern, Texas family," said Lyons, William's cousin. "Every child in this family has known and respected guns since we were very small children. We were taught to shoot and how to take care of them."

James Davison, 49, a U.S. Martial Arts Hall of Famer and one of Rogers' lifetime friends, also doubts the official explanation. "They're trying to rule it a suicide, but nothing is adding up to a suicide. No way he would have killed himself. He loved life too much."

"Ten feet tall and bulletproof" was how William described himself, said Seely, his girlfriend. "Nothing could hurt him. Nothing could touch him. He was invincible. That's why it shocked me the most."

Suicide? "No, not him. Anybody else I would have believed, but not him. He was careful. He ran his mouth, but he was still careful about the things that he did."

He would dance around and sing, "I'm real young. You will remember me," she recalled.

But relatives grieved and moved on, while Rogers became more ensnared by his distress.

Spinning details around in his mind, he visited police and the medical examiner; he contacted Texas Rangers; he interviewed paramedics. He filed open-records requests and demanded more forensic analysis and more interviews.

He repeatedly implored police to go back to the house and look at the evidence he had shrouded in plastic.

"I want to know how and why and who," he says. "I have spent nearly two years in this case looking for the truth. ... I'm not there."

Authorities told him that no more work was necessary. The medical examiner's report, they said, confirmed the death as a suicide.

The medical examiner's office told the family that it threw out his son's clothes because it didn't have room to store them.

Police did not say why they would not return the gun to the family but said there is no policy on it. That "depends on the circumstances," said Sgt. Pedro Criado, a police spokesman.

They also told Rogers that both witnesses were tested for gunpowder residue. Only one small particle on a hand of one of the teens was found, records show.

Still, at Rogers' insistence, police agreed to bring Camara in for more questioning.

He passed a lie detector test and has been cleared, police said.

"William's mother, his father, his grandfather -- they don't want to accept the truth," Luevano said. "They want to find a guilty party, and they won't have peace until they do."

Authorities are confident in their investigation, based on crime scene photographs and witness testimony, police Lt. Chris Beckrich said.

"Unless new information comes forth, it's closed at this time," Beckrich said of the case.

For Rogers, it may never be.

Fathers whose children die violently often become, in a way, a long arm of the law, said Dr. Frank Ochberg, a Michigan psychiatrist who specializes in post-traumatic stress disorder and cases similar to Rogers'.

"When you are the family member of somebody who has died unnaturally, it's very common to be obsessed with the manner of death and to leave no stone unturned in trying very, very hard to understand it all and to track down all the pieces," Ochberg said.

Dr. Edward K. Rynearson, a Seattle psychiatrist whose expertise is treating families whose loved ones died violently, said that part of the parents' agony is not having been able to rescue their child or say goodbye.

For almost two years, Rogers has guarded a laptop computer that stores the stashed files of interviews with police, MedStar, the medical examiner and others.

It is typical for his wife, Chris, or other relatives to randomly walk in and catch him on the computer, listening to evidence to try to pry loose clues in interviews or in the panicked, staccato voice of David Howard receiving instructions from a 911 operator.

"My homeboy was ... playing with his grandpa's gun," he tells the operator.

"Was it a real gun?" the operator asks.

"Yes, ma'am."

"Sir ... I need you to talk to me ... are you with him now?"

"Yes. ... He's still breathing ma'am ... he's not lifting himself up. He shot himself in the head, ma'am. He's trying to breathe but choking on his blood."

Rogers stops the recording when a 4-year-old with large eyes and flaxen hair appears in the kitchen and opens the refrigerator door so wide that the hinges squeak.

"Better simmer down now, little lady," she is told by her great-grandfather, who is shuffling her into the living room. "Hey, listen to me."

Rogers is sitting in the chair where police say his son collapsed, listening to the last moments of her daddy's life. The plastic over the cabinets is gone, he says, because police won't listen and most likely aren't coming back. The tapes may hold the answers he is seeking, he said.

"I've been back over that a hundred times," he says. "But I know one thing. William didn't kill himself. There's no way."

YAMIL BERARD, 817-390-7705

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