For more than three decades, police say, Terry Lee Woodson kept to his story.
He told Mansfield police that he and his nephew, 5-year-old Anthony “Burt” Woodson had been watching a western on TV in the early hours of Aug. 29, 1981, when he got hungry and decided to drive to 7-Eleven for something to eat.
He took Burt with him, but left the boy in the car at the store because he’d crawled into the back seat, presumably to sleep.
It was only after returning home that he noticed Burt was no longer in the car.
But over a year-long series of interviews with Mansfield police, a Texas Ranger and a Department of Justice agent who had begun reexamining the cold case, Woodson’s story changed.
By the second interview, in October 2017, Woodson said that his then-wife, Della Woodson, had caused the child’s death by beating the boy with an extension cord, according to an arrest warrant affidavit obtained by the Star-Telegram.
He said he dumped his nephew’s body on the side of a dirt road between Mansfield and Midlothian off Highway 287.
By the fifth interview, in March, Woodson admitted he’d also beaten Burt with an extension cord from the living room lamp after his wife told him that he needed to do something to get the boy under control.
“Terry stated, ‘She started it and I finished it,’” Mansfield Detective Sgt. Tom Hewitt wrote in the affidavit.
Burt did not fight back during the beating, which occurred either on Aug. 27 or Aug. 28, Woodson told police. When it was done, U-shaped marks from the extension cord marked the boy’s back and blood seeped through his shirt, Woodson told police
They covered the boy with a blanket, then left him in his room.
“Terry advised that he did not get (Burt) any medical attention after the severe beating,” the affidavit states. “Terry further stated that he believed (Burt) would have lived if he had provided emergency care for him.”
Woodson, now 64, was charged last week with murder in Burt’s death.
After the boy died, Woodson told investigators, he disposed of Burt’s body, then drove to the convenience store “to set up the missing person/kidnapping alibi,” the affidavit states.
After confessing to the murder, he directed investigators to an area off Lakeview Road, where he said he had placed his nephew’s body in heavy brush.
Authorities have searched for any remains of the boy but have so far found none.
Experts, including anthropologists from the University of North Texas Center for Human Identification, have told police the remains would have been dragged off and scattered by animals and likely may never be recovered.
A sister’s disbelief
Until his arrest on Aug. 16, Woodson has been living with his sister, Merlene Murkledove, in Fort Worth.
Murkledove said she had taken in her brother, who has severe diabetes and undergoes dialysis, after their mother’s death in late 2016.
“My mom asked me to take care of him,” Murkledove said. “She suffered for a while because she didn’t want to leave him because he was sick and he didn’t have nowhere to go.”
Murkledove said she doesn’t believe her brother harmed Burt.
“Terry is not that type of man. He’s not. Not to hurt no kids,” Murkledove said.
Nor, she said, does she believe her nephew is even dead “until they show a body to me.”
Murkledove said family members have long suspected Burt was with another relative.
After the boy’s parents had divorced in 1978, the boy’s paternal grandmother had been raising Burt until her deteriorating eyesight prompted her to give Burt to Terry and Della Woodson.
Burt had been living with his aunt and uncle for less than a year when he disappeared.
Extensive searches by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and Office of the Inspector General found no evidence that Burt is alive, the affidavit states.
The affidavits states a polygraph that Woodson voluntarily took in September 1981 also noted “multiple signs of deception” when he was asked pointed questioned about Burt’s disappearance.
Della Woodson also took a polygraph but the results are unknown, the affidavit states.
After Burt’s death, the Woodsons later divorced. Della Woodson had since died, Murkledove said.
“He wants everything to be over”
Murkledove said police began “hounding” her brother about a year ago.
“They were questioning him over and over. He’s real sick with diabetes. Every time they come, he gets sick,” she said.
On Aug. 16, she returned home to find no sign of her brother.
“I came back, and I was looking for him. He never leaves without calling me,” she said.
She found him at the Tarrant County Jail.
“I asked him what happened. He said they came, wanting to question him. He said he didn’t feel good,” Murkledove said.
Murkledove said her brother told her that officers picked him up, telling him they wanted him to accompany them to Mansfield so he could point out what field he’d buried Burt in.
Sick from recent dialysis treatment, Woodson said her brother simply gave up — not because he’s guilty but because he’d had enough.
“He said, ‘I’m so sick of this here. Y’all can just charge me with whatever y’all want. I’m tired. I’m dealing with my sickness and I’m just tired,’” Murkledove said her brother told her.
“He gave in because he’s sick and tired. He’s just tired. He wants everything to be over.”
Two childhood friends’ recollections
A previous childhood friend of Burt’s who lived near the Woodsons’ trailer told Sgt. Hewitt that both Woodson and his wife had been abusive to Burt up until his disappearance.
“He advised that he saw Terry hit (Burt) on numerous occasions with all kinds of things to include a lamp and the lamp extension cord,” Hewitt wrote in the affidavit.
The man and another childhood friend who police have since interviewed told investigators they last heard Burt getting beaten on the night of Aug. 27, 1981, when the child was home alone with Della and Terry Woodson.
”They heard the yelling and recognized the voices, and they heard the sound of the extension cord hitting (Burt),” the affidavit states. “They heard (Burt) screaming and crying.”
The next morning, they asked Della Woodson about Burt.
“They were told that he was in trouble and they would not be seeing him,” the affidavit states. “They stated they never saw him again.”
Walt Cleveland, Woodson’s court-appointed attorney, says he’s eager to learn how the interviews were obtained and why the two childhood friends - whose claims police allege corroborate Woodson’s statement - only surfaced now.
“Usually if a child is being abused that severely, it doesn’t stay secret for very long,” Cleveland said. “Somebody could have picked up the phone, called CPS, called the police department. There might have been rumors about it back then. In my experience, these things don’t happen in a vacuum. Why is this the first we’ve heard about it, when this poor child disappeared?”
Cleveland said he tried to see Woodson on Tuesday but was told Woodson was undergoing dialysis.
“I’ve, obviously, got a lot of questions for him, too,” Cleveland said.