The 1976 murder case looked, on the face of it, grisly but simple.
Almost the entire Wayne Joplin family was massacred at home, including a 6-year-old boy still in his bed. The survivor, oldest sibling Greg Joplin, told police he came home and shot an intruder, who turned out to be neighbor Terry Trice, 17. Joplin told police he believed Trice killed his family that night.
But there were lingering questions, gaps in the narrative, indications of a bungled investigation.
Blue Mound Police Chief Barry Hinkle knew there was more to the story. He and Detective Clifton Kirby reopened the faded case files in 2011.
What they found was nothing like Greg Joplin’s story.
Police said they believe Joplin, who died of heart disease in 2005, was involved in the killings. And incredibly, after 39 years, a person of interest has emerged.
“There has to be justice for that little boy,” Hinkle said in a recent interview, noting that Kevin Joplin, 6, was the last family member killed on the night of Feb. 23, 1976. “The pressure we have now is time. Witnesses are dying, and our person of interest is in bad health.”
Greg Joplin’s story
Wayne Joplin, 42, lived in the unassuming three-bedroom home at 1717 Glenn Drive in Blue Mound with his wife, Faye, 41 and sons Greg 20, Brian, 17 and Kevin.
In a 1976 interview with the Star-Telegram, Greg Joplin gave this account of what happened that night:
He and his parents had fought the night of the murders. He left about 7:30 p.m. and went to the home of his aunt, Alice Leet, just a few blocks away. He stayed for a while.
“I went home and turned my key in the door,” he said. “When I opened the door, I saw my mother by the door. I just knew she was hurt bad … I heard someone moving around. It seems like I said, ‘Who is it?’ or something like that.”
Joplin said that he had been target shooting a few days before the killing and had left his .22 rifle behind the front door, along with his field jacket and ammunition.
“I put a round in it and I saw someone cross my line of vision and he had a rifle, too. I stepped toward him a couple of steps and said, ‘Freeze!’ When he didn’t, I shot him,” Joplin told the Star-Telegram. Though the house was dark, the shot hit the intruder in the head, killing him instantly.
“I guess you could call it a lucky shot. He fell. I dropped my rifle. I walked to an end table and turned on a light,” he said. “I went to a phone by the light and I saw Dad there. There was blood all over the hall.”
Joplin was taken to a hospital shortly after the shooting for shock. He said it was there that he learned the identity of the intruder.
“I couldn’t believe it. Terry used to be over all the time,” he said.
Burglary was first mentioned as a motive. “The only thing I could think of that has any real value were the guns themselves,” Joplin said.
The police account of the killing differs slightly and sheds a little more light on what happened that night.
For example, Martha Boyles, who lived across the street from the Joplins, visited with Faye Joplin in the home that evening. She later told police that she did not see a .22-caliber rifle behind the front door at 8:30 p.m. as she left.
The police timeline indicates that Joplin left his aunt’s home at 10:45 p.m. He told police he drove around for a while before he went home.
At 10:45 p.m., several residents on Glenn Drive reported hearing three consecutive loud “bangs.”
Marie Rodriguez, of Fort Worth, who lived in Blue Mound at the time, told police that at 10:50 p.m. she saw Trice leave his house and get into a light-colored vehicle. She said she recognized Joplin as the driver. The car drove away with its headlights off, she told police.
At 11:15 and 11:25 p.m., neighbors noted that the lights in the home were on and one resident heard the back door slam loudly.
At 11:40 p.m., according to the police timeline, Joplin arrived home. Within seconds, he called the Blue Mound police department and said, “I just came in and found my whole family shot. I need an officer quick.”
Blue Mound Police Chief Gary Erwin, who was out on patrol that night, responded.
Erwin reported that Joplin burst out the front door and told him that his family was dead.
When Erwin entered the home, he first saw Faye Joplin, dressed only in a green nightgown, near the front door as if she were reaching for it. Then he found Wayne Joplin, dressed in a T-shirt and boxer shorts, on his back in the hallway near the living room. He appeared to have lifted his left arm to defend himself.
As he continued to the back of the house, the police chief saw the body of a young man, later identified as Trice, who had a .303 rifle in his hand.
In a southeast bedroom, Erwin found Brian Joplin on his back in bed with a cover pulled up. He had been shot through the left eye.
In the last bedroom, Erwin found Kevin, in a Mickey Mouse night shirt, dead on his bed. It appeared that he was trying to get out of bed when he was shot to death.
All died of bullet wounds to the head.
Weeks later and for years afterward, the investigation was described as bungled and incompetent. One problem was Erwin’s handling of the rifle found on Trice.
Erwin later explained that he removed the rifle and a pistol because he believed Trice was still alive.
Reports indicated that several people with no official interest in the case were permitted into the house before crime scene experts got there. And no one determined whether Trice’s hands bore metallic traces that would have shown whether he fired the rifle.
Initially, Joplin agreed to take a polygraph, but he later changed his mind.
A Tarrant County grand jury eventually considered the case, but no one was charged.
Joplin went on with his life.
He received more than $25,000 in life insurance, as well as the family home and vehicles.
He was married in September 1976, seven months after the murder.
But a series of questions was left hanging. Among them:
▪ Why did Joplin report to dispatch that his family was dead, but later tell the police chief he never went to the back of the house?
▪ How did Joplin reach for an unloaded rifle, grab a bullet from his field jacket, load the single-shot weapon and shoot Trice, all in the dark? And there was a discrepancy. A witness said Greg Joplin told him that he had grabbed the rifle from the trunk of his car.
▪ Why would Trice have Joplin’s rifle?
“He was scared of guns,” said Rodriguez, who knew Trice in 1976. “He was a quiet, frightened boy. He was afraid of guns because his father had committed suicide by shooting himself.”
▪ Why was Trice wearing a coat that belonged to one of the Joplins’ neighbors?
▪ Trice’s mother told police that he was barefoot when he left his home, but wearing a size 11 shoe when he was found in the Joplin home. He wore a size 9.
▪ Why was there a 45-minute gap from the time Joplin said he left his aunt’s home until he walked into his house? The homes were less than 10 minutes apart.
The break in the case came when Kirby and Hinkle found a 1978 letter in the investigation files, from a jail inmate to his wife, that said he had information on the murders. Detectives knew of the letter in 1978, but there are no reports indicating the tip was investigated.
The inmate’s letter noted that while he was in the Tarrant County Jail in 1978 he had talked to another inmate who said he was involved in the killings. The second inmate claimed that he had talked to Greg Joplin three times in 1976 about killing the family.
Hinkle and Kirby tracked down the inmate who wrote the letter and interviewed the 64-year-old man in Fort Worth last year. Through their investigation, police identified the second inmate, who was released from jail years ago.
Hinkle interviewed the 71-year-old man in Johnson County a few months ago, and called him a person of interest in the case. The police chief declined to comment on any details of the interview.
The person of interest in the case did not return telephone calls from the Star-Telegram.
“At this point, we have an ongoing investigation,” Hinkle said. “We believe someone is still out there who knows something about this case.”
Hinkle said they will continue to follow any leads that emerge.
Police said that Joplin’s relatives have been “less than cooperative” in the last few months.
“I don’t believe he had anything to do with killing his family,” said Clara Gordon of Fort Worth, Joplin’s cousin. She was at his aunt’s home with him the night his family was killed.
Rodriguez said she has always had doubts about Joplin’s story.
“I never believed [Terry Trice] killed that family. I believe to this day that an innocent boy was killed for no reason,” she said. “It has been an unbelievable case.”
This report includes information from the Star-Telegram archives.