Thirty-seven years ago, when alone with her younger sister’s body at a funeral home in Crowley, Jan Tunnell Webster made a vow.
Before her, 21-year-old Cheryl Tunnell Springfield lay in a light blue-cloth covered casket — the color chosen by their mom because she thought it made her youngest daughter look warm.
A blue and white turtle sweater concealed the imprint left by the iron cord that had still been wrapped and knotted around Springfield’s neck when she was found Christmas morning by her ex-husband.
Webster can still remember how tape — used to cover the incision made during her sister’s autopsy — was visible through her sister’s sweater as she reached in and covered Springfield’s hand with her own.
“I just remember promising her, I will find who did this to you,” Webster recalled. “If it takes until my last dying breath, I will find out who did this.”
It is a promise that, almost four decades later, Webster is still working to fulfill. A month does not go by when she does not touch bases with the Fort Worth police cold case unit.
And with each new detective that comes through the unit, there is always one name she is sure to bring up.
Barry Dean Kelly.
The case is the subject of the Star-Telegram’s latest podcast series, Out of the Cold.
That Christmas in 1980 had already been shaping up to be different.
A few months earlier, Cheryl and Scott Springfield’s divorce had been finalized.
Cheryl Springfield had moved in with her ex-husband’s younger sister, Cindy Springfield, in the house on Whittier Street that her ex-husband and Cindy Springfield had grown up in. Scott and Cindy Springfield’s parents still owned the house in south Fort Worth but had vacated it after their own breakup.
Because it would be their toddler son’s first Christmas without his parents together, the couple had made plans for Scott to come over about 6 a.m. Christmas morning. That way he’d be there when 2-year-old Scott Alan awoke and could watch the boy open gifts.
They had finalized their plans in a brief phone call shortly after midnight on Christmas morning.
Hours later, lugging a Big Wheel he’d bought for his son, Scott walked the roughly five blocks to his ex-wife’s. He had a key — it was his parent’s house after all — and turned it in the lock.
He can’t be sure the door was even locked when he turned the key.
Opening the door, Scott heard cries from his son carrying down the hallway from the room he shared with his mother. In the home’s cluttered living room, he saw what appeared to be a naked sleeping woman feet from the Christmas tree.
“Who’s the drunk girl laying on the floor?” he says he wondered.
He assumed it was one of the two teen girls who had recently moved in with his sister and Cheryl. He walked on, down the hallway, where he found little Scott Alan sitting up, crying in bed but no sign of his ex-wife.
His gut told him something was wrong.
He returned to the living room and confirmed what he feared was true. It was Cheryl lying in the living room and there was a reason she hadn’t responded to their young son’s cries.
“I got close enough to her to realize there was something wrapped around her throat. I know I touched it and then I thought ... ‘don’t touch nothing,’ ” Scott Springfield said.
‘He was kind of obnoxious’
Detectives would investigate a number of potential suspects, taking a special interest in Kelly, a former boyfriend of Cindy Springfield, Scott’s sister.
Kelly had been released from prison five months earlier for a string of burglaries.
Since his release, he’d started calling Cindy again, who was now living with Cheryl, her former sister-in-law.
“I can’t remember them ever meeting,” Cindy said in a recent interview. “...They just didn’t get along at all over the phone. He was kind of obnoxious. If I wasn’t there, he’d keep calling.”
After Cheryl’s murder, Scott was among those who began to wonder if Kelly could be involved.
“Have you ever met somebody you just know there’s nothing good about them?” Scott asked. “There’s nothing honest about them. If you have anything to do with him, it’s not going to turn out good? That’s just what I got from him.”
Cindy didn’t believe it. After all, Kelly would never hurt someone who meant so much to her.
“My mind was, Barry wouldn’t do this to me,” Cindy said. “He just wouldn’t.”
Through the years, police investigated Kelly.
“There were things done attempting to either include or exclude Kelly being a suspect in the offense,” said Jeremy Rhoden, a homicide detective. “Everything that’s been done thus far, doesn't do that — doesn’t include or exclude Kelly.”
A month after Cheryl’s death, however, Kelly would be jailed for a bizarre crime spree.
Old Star-Telegram clips tell the tale of how Kelly broke into a North Richland Hills home, stole three purses and kidnapped at knife-point a 21-year-old Indianapolis woman who had been visiting relatives at the home.
In the backyard of a house down the street, Kelly pushed the woman down but ended up running off after being spooked by the woman’s screams and a car motor in the distance.
He was arrested two days later but escaped during questioning after grabbing an ashtray from a table and smashing it into the head of a detective.
Two days after that, he’d be arrested again, this time in Cedar Hill where he was involved in a wreck on a motorcycle that he’d allegedly stolen.
Kelly would go away to prison again. After being paroled in November 1986, Cindy was among the first people he would find.
In February 1987, the two would marry, a marriage that dissolved after 10 months.
Cindy says Kelly never hit her but his behavior “was always just a little scary.”
There was the time, she says, he tattooed his initials “B.K.” on her hand — a sort of branding she didn’t want.
“There was nothing I could do about it,” Cindy said. “It was at gunpoint; the gun was right there.”
The final straw, she says, is when he gave her Hepatitis. She left him but says he kept trying to see her, eventually kidnapping her outside a store on Seminary Drive in October 1987, and terrorizing her for hours.
Police would arrest Kelly the next day and charge him with aggravated kidnapping.
63-year-old woman murdered
He’d still be in jail when Fort Worth police would accuse him in a different crime — the murder of a 63-year-old widow named Melva Teems.
Teems was last seen on the evening of Oct. 5, 1987, at the northwest Fort Worth home she shared with her daughter, Mary Copeland.
Copeland was headed out that evening to a lounge. Teems, who was going on a church trip the next day, was preparing to take her routine evening walk.
When Copeland returned to the home in the 2000 block of Castleberry Cut-Off Road shortly after midnight, her mother and her mother’s pickup were gone.
Inside the normally tidy house, things were askew. Teems’ bed was messy; the mattress pushed off-center. A drawer, which usually held Teems’ .22-caliber handgun, was open and the gun gone. Teems’ purse, where she usually kept her wedding rings, was also missing.
Teems’ pickup would later be found behind the old Panther Hall on the city’s east side.
A week and a half later, on Oct. 17, 1987, Fort Worth officers found Teems’ body near a dry creek bed off a dirt road northwest of Interstate 35W and North Loop 820.
A strip of material, evidently ripped from her own T-shirt, was still knotted around her neck. It was the same kind of knot that had been tied in the iron cord used to strangle Springfield almost seven years earlier.
As with Cheryl’s case, Kelly had a connection to Teems.
He had met and began dating Copeland in December 1986. Though their relationship ended that next February — when Kelly married Cindy — Copeland would later testify that Kelly had begun calling her again that summer.
She’d even introduced him to her mother, who lent Kelly money to buy gas and get his car radiator fixed.
Suspicion quickly started pointing to Kelly in Teems’ death.
Multiple prostitutes familiar with Kelly told police they’d seen him driving a truck — later identified as Teems’ pickup — around the time of the woman’s disappearance. One said Kelly showed her some rings he claimed to have gotten from an old lady and remarked that the truck would soon be “hot.”
A tire shop owner would also tell investigators that Kelly had sold him a set of wedding rings — later identified as Teems’ — for $450 in cash.
But the strongest link would come after police sought to have Kelly’s DNA compared to that from a semen stain found on Teems’ bedspread. It would be the first time in Tarrant County that investigators had used DNA in a criminal investigation.
“He was definitely a suspect, we just didn’t have enough to make a murder case on him until the DNA came through which, back then, was kind of a miracle for us,” said Sgt. Paul Kratz, then-supervisor of the homicide unit. “It was like wow, first case with DNA. It was pretty awesome.”
In a 1988 trial, Kelly was found guilty of Teems’ murder and sentenced to life in prison.
In the years since the trial, Cindy says she came to grips with the possibility that Kelly might have killer her former sister-in-law, too. It is a realization, she says, that brings with it tremendous guilt.
“I brought him into our lives,” she explained.
‘I never knew or met Cheryl’
Earlier this year, Kelly reached out to Fort Worth police from prison, claiming he had information that could solve Cheryl’s murder.
Rhoden and Detective J.W. Galloway went to see him but came back empty-handed.
“It quickly became obvious that he was trying to elicit things that he wanted from the prison system,” Rhoden said. “He wanted to live in a certain place and do certain things and he was trying to offer up information to get those things that he desired and wound up telling me nothing.”
The Star-Telegram has reached out to Kelly, who is now being held in the Montford Unit in Lubbock.
He has written back twice, even sending a Christmas card.
He vehemently denies killing Teems. He writes he wouldn’t share information with police about Cheryl Springfield’s case because of what he calls their “threatening behavior” toward him.
“Would you trust and talk to anyone whose behavior reveals they mean you no good?” he wrote. “Truth be, I want the truth to come out in both Melva Teems and Cheryl’s case but Melva Teems is a more personal issue because I knew her, whereas I never knew or met Cheryl.”
And yet, he still did not reveal what he claims to know.
He calls family members’ suspicions that he killed Cheryl “nonsense.”
If he would have killed anyone, he writes, it would have been Cindy, his ex-wife.
“Wasn’t it three days after the murder of Ms. Teems that I kidnapped my wife?” he writes. “Therefore if I was capable of murder, you can bet I would of murdered my ex-wife as well — so why didn’t I?”
Kelly’s denials do nothing to change Webster’s mind. Of course he’s going to deny it, she says; he’s gotten away with it for 37 years.
“I am not surprised by his response. Most murderers won't admit their crime,” Webster said. “ I could say I did not have a cheeseburger last night but I know I did.”
So she’ll keep calling cold case detectives. And she’ll keep bringing up Kelly’s name.
“Because I won’t let it go. I won’t. I can’t,” Webster says. “I promised her.”