Three and a half blocks.
That’s all that separated 18-year-old Teresa Branch and her parent’s Arlington home when her car broke down on the evening of April 19, 1986.
It marked the third time that day that Teresa’s Pontiac Sunbird had stalled as she and her friend, Lisa Freeman, tried to make their way back home to Wise County, where Teresa lived with her grandparents.
The first time, Teresa had called her father from a pay phone. He picked up the teens and worked on the car that afternoon. The second time, a Good Samaritan stopped and gave the teens a jump.
But now, stalled in an apartment complex parking lot with night approaching and no pay phone in sight, Teresa took off her wrist watch and handed it to Freeman.
“She says, ‘I’ll be back in 20 minutes. My house is just a few blocks away. I’m going to run to the house. I’ll be right back,” Freeman recalls.
Twenty, 30, then 40 minutes pass. Freeman went from angry to panicked.
She found a pay phone and called Teresa’s father, Kenneth Branch, only to learn that Teresa never made it home.
“That was not like her,” Freeman said. “She would not have done that to me. Something had happened.”
Later that night, teens cruising in the neighborhood spotted Teresa’s body in the parking lot of the Harmony Baptist Church. She’d been raped and shot, a brazen and horrific murder that 32 years later remains unsolved.
“You never expect that that’s what’s going to happen. That that could be the outcome,” said Freeman, who still cries recalling the moment that an officer broke the news to her that her friend was dead. “I remember it like it was yesterday. I don’t know that I will ever forget it.”
The case is the latest focus of the Star-Telegram’s “Out of the Cold” podcast series.
A brazen attack
In the more than three decades that have passed since Teresa’s murder, Arlington investigators have tried a myriad of ways to identify a suspect — from Crime Stopper re-enactments to last year’s release of a composite predicting what her killer might have looked like based on genetic traits from the DNA he left behind.
The analysis determined Teresa’s killer was likely of Middle Eastern ancestry, light brown or fair-skinned in complexion with brown or hazel eyes and black hair. Though the composite generated new tips, it has not led to an arrest.
“At the end of the day, we still don’t know who killed Teresa Branch,” said homicide Detective Caleb Blank.
What police do know is that Teresa only made it to the 2400 block of Avonhill Drive, just a block southwest of the apartment complex that she’d left on foot, before she was attacked.
Head trauma found during her autopsy indicates she was struck in the head and, Blank says, likely rendered unconscious.
“There is a witness who was returning home from running an errand,” Blank said. “... As he’s driving down Avon Hill going south from Arkansas, he sees what he believes to be a mannequin.”
The mannequin, in the front yard of a home, appeared to have a blond wig and was dressed in a blue sweatshirt and white sweatpants.
“He thought, well, it’s kids. There’s probably just somebody pulling a prank,” Blank said.
But as the man continued driving, he also noticed a northbound car pulled over near the mannequin.
In his rear view mirror, he saw someone get out of the car, described as a dull yellow or gold four-door sedan, possibly a 1966 to 1970 Pontiac Catalina.
What he witnessed nagged at him. So he turned around in time to see one man, possibly two, picking up the mannequin and placing it in their car. They drove off, disappearing out of sight after turning east on Arkansas Lane.
“It’s not until later that he realizes after seeing the news that what he saw was probably Teresa,” Blank said.
Blank believes that the driver whipped into the Harmony Baptist Church parking lot immediately after turning onto Arkansas Lane, driving past the church and around to the hidden southeast corner of the parking lot.
“They may have seen the witness turn back around. I think that’s why they picked that. It was dark, it was easily secluded, and they were trying to get out of possibly being identified by that other car,” he said.
It was in the parking lot that investigators believe Teresa was raped and shot once — just below the heart — with a large-caliber gun.
A devastating aftermath
Teresa’s brutal murder — and not knowing who was responsible for it — was debilitating to Teresa’s family and friends.
Her mother, Mercedes Branch, suffered a mental breakdown and was hospitalized.
“She was afraid that whoever did this to Teresa is coming after one of us, all of us, her,” recalled Claudio Branch, Teresa’s older brother.
To try to help, Kenneth Branch, already battling with his own mental illness, took his wife to Lake Whitney for the July Fourth weekend.
“I think his intentions were best but we’ve got a patient trying to help a patient here and my mother was in no condition to have somebody like my father be responsible for her,” Claudio Branch said. “They’re both dealing with a horrible, horrible tragedy and my mother took too much medicine and overdosed.”
With the death of his daughter and wife in a three-month span, Kenneth Branch went off the deep end. He stopped taking his medication, disappeared for stretches of time, and bounced in and out of jail for crimes like check kiting. He died in 2016 after being struck by a SUV in Fort Worth.
Freeman, Lisa’s friend, would torture herself for years wondering if Teresa would still be alive if she’d only demanded on going with her that night. But Teresa was afraid that someone would steal the clothes and belongings she had packed for the trip to her grandparents, and had insisted that Freeman stay behind.
“You think to yourself, ‘Well I wanted to go with her. If I’d went with her, it wouldn’t have happened.’ And that’s possible. If I had went with her, she (wouldn’t) have been alone. It may not have ever happened,” Freeman said. “Then there’s the flip side of the story. ... It could have been both of us.”
Even after that night, Freeman worried that her own life was in danger. She grew paranoid when driving alone that someone was following her. She’d later take taekwondo classes so she could defend herself.
“All kinds of things go through your mind. ... You don’t know whether or not whoever did it knows who you are and wants to come finish you off, too, because they don’t know whether or not you saw something or know something,” she said.
A hope for justice
Tim Maxwell had dated Teresa for a couple of years and had even made plans to hang out with her on the day she was murdered.
She had called him earlier that day to tell him she’d be delayed returning to Wise County because of her car troubles.
Unable to reach her again by pay phone, he eventually went to his parent’s house to wait for her there and fell asleep on the couch. A call the next morning from Teresa’s uncle would bring his family the news of why Teresa never came back.
“I can remember my Daddy going, ‘Who? You’ve got to be kidding me!” Maxwell said.
Maxwell says Teresa had been the love of his life. She had an adventurous streak like his own and they’d loved to spend time together splashing around in a creek, sipping wine coolers while listening to the radio, or riding the countryside on ATVs.
“She was just a lot of fun to be around. She was outgoing. She never said no to anything,” Maxwell said.
But because he’d been dating her and was to see her on the day of her murder, police questioned him and even wanted him to take a lie detector test. He sought his father’s advice.
“They think I got something to do with it, Daddy,” Maxwell remembers telling his father,
His dad quickly retained his son an attorney, who informed investigators his client would not be talked to again unless he was present. He never consented to a polygraph.
“Hell no. Why would I agree?,” he said. “Why would I want to go down there and bait them on? I had nothing to do with it.”
When tracked down years later, Maxwell voluntarily provided investigators a DNA sample that cleared him as a suspect, Blank confirms.
But his grief and the suspicion still held by some that he’d been involved was too much for Maxwell. He moved from his hometown, taking with him a white teddy bear that Teresa had owned and a gold nugget promise ring that Teresa had given him.
He said he never imagined, 32 years later, he’d still not know who killed his former girlfriend.
“I have hope. I’ve always got hope. The truth will come out. It always does,” he said. “You might carry the lie with you your whole life, but you’re going to tell somebody something sometime or another. You can’t carry it to your grave.”
Claudio Branch said he, too, still has hope that one day an arrest will be made.
“This person has already skated for 32 years, breathing air that they probably shouldn’t have been breathing,” Claudio Branch said. “It’s not going to make me happy. I’m not going to rejoice and jump up and down or anything like that.”
“It will just feel like what is supposed to happen happens. Bad guy gets caught, bad guy gets punished.”