When the news came that their youngest daughter had been stabbed, Dean and John McLaughlin felt trapped some 1,200 miles away in Florida.
Dana McLaughlin Bowman, 29, was in the hospital, John McLaughlin had been told when reached at a business conference.
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He and his wife got a flight home, but the journey proved excruciatingly long.
“We couldn’t wait to get off the plane. Just get us there and let us get off,” Dean McLaughlin recalled. “When we got there, we didn’t want to get off. We both just stood there. We were afraid to get off.”
They were eventually met by John McLaughlin’s business partner.
“I said, ‘Glen, is she OK?’ And he said, ‘No.’”
Dana had been pronounced dead at 3:10 p.m. the afternoon of March 12, 1984.
Thirty-four years later, Dana’s killer has never been caught. Her case is the focus of the latest episode of the Star-Telegram’s Out of the Cold podcast.
“I kept saying, why couldn’t I have stayed home?,” Dean McLaughlin said. “John could have gone to Florida without me. Then we would have had Dana.”
Dana was a talented seamstress who’d hand-sewn her first dress at age 5 and saved money to buy her own sewing machine by age 10.
“I wish I had pictures of her sewing,” said Dean McLaughlin, who remembers watching Dana as she sat on the floor trying out her new machine. “I don’t remember what she was sewing on that day when she got her machine, but she sat down and she had one knee up under her chin and the other one on the pedal, and she just worked. She loved sewing.”
McLaughlin keeps her daughter’s first hand-sewn dress — red with tiny yellow flowers — and the pattern she used tucked inside a hope chest in her bedroom. The dress had almost been thrown away by a young Dana after her older sister, Lynda, made a joke about it.
“She got it all made and then Linda said something sarcastic to her. That did it. She wadded it up and put it in the trash can,” McLaughlin said. “I said, ‘Oh no! That is priceless!”
McLaughlin has other mementos, too.
A Valentine’s Day card her daughter gave her parents a month before her murder, thanking them “for being my friends and the best parents in the whole world.” Her daughter’s old business card. A yellow envelope filled with the jewelry Dana wore when she was killed — two gold rings, a heart pendant and chain and diamond stud earrings.
On McLaughlin’s bed, is a heart-shaped pillow that Dana had sewn for her not long before her death. On it, she stitched, “I love you Mom.”
McLaughlin said she tries not to dwell on how her daughter died, but rather how her daughter lived.
“I’ve been grateful that I had her for those years,” she said. “But it sure would be nice to have her now.”
‘I’m dying. Hurry! Help!’
On the morning of her death, Dana had been working alone at Bazer and Reese, a small shop at 2261 College Ave. that specialized in custom-made slipcovers, cushions and pillows.. Noah Bazer, the elderly man who owned the store, had left the shop about 9:45 a.m. to take his wife to a doctor’s appointment.
He would later tell police that he felt sure Dana had locked the door behind him as she was prone to do, especially since filing for divorce and seeking a restraining order from her estranged husband two months earlier.
At about 11:15 a.m., Dana made a call for help.
“I need some help. I’m dying. Hurry! Help! Help!” she struggled to tell a fire department dispatcher.
When emergency crews arrived, Dana was still conscious but bleeding profusely. She’d tell a firefighter that a “white man kept stabbing me over and over” before being rushed to John Peter Smith Hospital, where she died in surgery.
An autopsy noted eight distinctive incised and stab wounds to her face, neck and chest., one of which had punctured her left lung. Police identified the murder weapon as one of the shop’s screwdrivers, which was left at the scene.
Paul Kratz, the homicide detective assigned to the case, said from early on the case proved challenging. Police quickly determined that Dana’s purse, keys and green Oldsmobile that had been parked along the curb outside the shop were missing.
“We never found any witnesses. We had a general description of the car but because her parents were out of town, we couldn’t get a license number quickly,” Kratz said. “It was a perfect storm of everything that could go wrong. We were looking for a green large car, but that’s all we had.”
The car was found the next afternoon abandoned with a flat tire in east Fort Worth, 3.9 miles from the shop.
Suspicion quickly fell on Bowman’s estranged husband but Robert Bowman was in jail at the time, charged with assaulting one of Dana’s friends two months earlier.
“He was pretty upset. I spoke with him several times, got him out of jail, actually polygraphed him to just to try to see if he may have had anything to do with it, knew anything about it,” Kratz said. “I was pretty firm in my belief that he did not have anything to do with it.”
The motive behind the killing was unclear. Dana was not sexually assaulted and it was unknown if the killer simply took Dana’s purse and car as an afterthought.
Kratz believes that a bus stop outside the shop may have figured prominently in the case.
“My theory has always been that the suspect was probably outside, possibly sitting on that bus bench, saw her go to her car, and then followed her inside and attacked her,” Kratz said. “Whether it was for purposes of a sexual assault or a robbery or both, I don’t know.”
Age of innocence gone
Dana’s best friend, Marty Smith, dressed Dana and did her make-up for her funeral. She picked an orchid dress they had bought together in Dallas. It was Dana’s favorite.
Smith wrapped the pearls she’d worn at her own wedding around Dana’s neck and tried to conceal the stab wounds with make-up.
“I just wanted to be with her because by the time I got to the hospital the day she was murdered, she was gone,” said Smith, who still gets emotional when talking about Dana.
She said life forever changed after Dana’s murder.
“The age of innocence disappeared. Your belief that if you live right, you do good things, bad people will be taken care of, they’ll be found out, they’ll be punished. And you suddenly realize that it’s just not all that black and white.”
Kratz, the detective, was later promoted to sergeant and served for years as supervisor of the homicide unit. He kept Dana’s case file close.
“I kept it in my desk drawer where I could have easy access and flipped through it occasionally just to see if there’s something you missed,” he said.
Through the years, he made sure evidence in the case was reexamined with new technology — an effort that other investigators have continued after Kratz retired from the department in 2009.
Dean McLaughlin, Dana’s mother, joined a support group and saw a counselor to help her with the grief that overwhelmed her. While many marriages crumble under the stress of a murdered child, McLaughlin said she and John helped each other survive.
“As the years went on, I could talk about it, and I didn’t cry as much. And we said we shed enough tears already,” McLaughlin said. “But we looked over our shoulders for years. ... John had a weapon by the front door. He had his gun by the front door. He said I couldn’t … prevent Dana’s death but I’m sure not going to sit still and wait for another one. And Lynda, when she’d come to Fort Worth, we didn’t want her out of our sight.”
In the end, it would be cancer that took Dana’s sister Lynda in 2002 and her father, a year later. Both are buried next to Dana at Shannon Rose Hill Memorial Park in Fort Worth.
McLaughlin said she knows Kratz, and the investigators who worked on the case in the years since, have done all they can to find her daughter’s killer.
“If they find somebody, I want them to, but I would be sad at the time that John is not here because we’ve shared so much,” McLaughlin said. “But people say, ‘Oh, he already knows. He’s gone, but he knows.’ ”
If you have information about who killed Dana Bowman, please call the Fort Worth police cold case unit at 817-392-4307.