[Deathpenalty]death penalty news-----TEXAS
rhalperi at mail.smu.edu
Mon Nov 21 16:34:16 CST 2005
CANTU CASE: DEATH AND DOUBT----Executed man's co-defendant says years of
guilt have led him to try to clear his friend's name; Silence vow blamed
for ultimate penalty
They were 2 teenagers who shared a deadly pact of silence: One grew up in
prison tortured by a secret that might have stopped his friend's
execution, and the other went to his death without revealing what he knew.
Ruben Cantu and David Garza's teenage bond was forged in the unforgiving
streets on the south side of San Antonio, where the only rule they learned
to respect was never to snitch.
When they were both arrested in 1985 for a neighborhood murder-robbery,
Cantu, 17 at the time of the crime, insisted he was innocent and was
condemned to die. Garza, 15, admitted guilt only to robbery - but not the
murder - and got a deal.
Now, Garza has broken a 20-year silence with a surprising story that would
appear to clear Cantu and implicate another man. Garza says he was with
another neighborhood teen on Nov. 8, 1984, when they broke into a home,
shot and killed one man, and seriously wounded another.
"Ruben Cantu had nothing to do with the murder, attempted murder and
robbery of the 2 men at 605 Briggs Street. I should know," Garza wrote in
a sworn statement obtained by the Houston Chronicle.
If his words are true, they provide some of the first evidence ever that
the state of Texas wrongfully executed a man, who at the time of his crime
was a juvenile.
Garza, currently serving a prison term at the Stiles Unit in Beaumont for
an unrelated burglary, argues that his attempt to clear Cantu's name comes
from a conscience long troubled by the betrayal of a best friend. Not once
- from the murder trial to the day Cantu was executed - did Garza ever
disclose who was with him inside the house on the night of the killing.
Garza said Cantu also knew the truth about who had done the killing
because Garza confided in him two weeks after the murder. Still, Cantu was
unwilling to betray friends even to save his own life, Garza said.
Even if Garza is lying, the Chronicle found other problems with Cantu's
conviction, a case that was built almost entirely on the account of a lone
That eyewitness, Juan Moreno, was a 19-year-old illegal immigrant when,
along with his friend, he was shot at least nine times during the Briggs
Street robbery. Moreno survived; his friend did not.
Now, Moreno, the accuser and key witness, has joined Garza, the accused
accomplice, in telling the Chronicle that Cantu was never at the murder
"They put the blame on the wrong person," Moreno said. Cantu "was
innocent. I am sure."
Both men insist they have no reason to lie.
Weaknesses in the system
Garza has immunity from further prosecution in the robbery-murder case
based on his 1985 plea deal. However, he said he is taking a personal risk
because as a member of the Mexican Mafia prison gang, he also has pledged
to uphold a code of silence.
"I've never snitched on nobody in my life," Garza said. "You've got a
17-year-old who went to his grave for something he didn't do. I don't get
anything out of it. I can't get Ruben back. His mom lost a son."
The judge in Cantu's 1985 trial, Roy Barrera Jr., said he's shocked that
no defense attorney ever re-interviewed Moreno or compelled Garza to
testify during the eight years that Cantu's case moved through the appeals
process as he sat on death row.
In a recent interview with the Chronicle, Barrera said the case
underscores weaknesses in the system, especially in the "riskiest cases,"
which rely heavily on eyewitness identification. "People do lie under
oath, and people do get convicted on the basis of lies," Barrera said.
"This case, like thousands of other cases in the system across the
country, cry for a thorough examination of the process."
Still, Barrera said he found it suspicious that Garza would speak out now
despite having had "the responsibility and the opportunity and every
reason for the number of years that his best friend stayed on death row."
"In my opinion, he failed to do it because what he told you is not true,"
said Barrera, who is now a defense attorney. He did it "because he has
nothing better to do and he wants to put everybody on a guilt trip."
A month before Cantu's execution, Garza, who was incarcerated, did try to
help Cantu, according to a 12-year-old letter obtained by the Chronicle.
"This case with Ruben is real messed up," he wrote to Cantu's attorney.
"Hope to hear from you real soon ... "
A different teen?
Cantu's former attorney, Nancy Barohn, said Cantu claimed innocence, but
never told her Garza had information that could help him. And Garza's
last-minute letter offered no details, she said.
Yet Barohn, who represented Cantu for 5 years without pay, said she always
believed the case against him was "dirty."
"I found the whole thing to be hideous - just vile," she said. "It's one
of the worst experiences in my life." Knowing now that there were
witnesses who might have helped her attempt to exonerate him only makes it
worse, she said.
Ruben Cantu's father, Fidencio, who still lives in a tiny, rundown house
near the murder scene, said the revelation comes too late to matter, but
affirms what he has always believed about his son's death: "I think his
friends killed him."
Garza said he considered Cantu his best friend. Both struggled in school
at South San Antonio High and spent their time on the streets. They bonded
in some of the roughest teenage rites: hunting, playing video games, doing
drugs, joining a gang and stealing cars.
"Me and him would just do everything together. We were like bread and
butter," Garza said.
But on the day of the murder, Garza said, another neighborhood teen went
with him to commit robbery.
The other teen was once questioned as a suspect, but he denied any
involvement. Interviewed by the Chronicle, that man, now 37, says he does
not remember what he was doing the day of the murder, but insists he
didn't kill anyone.
The Chronicle is not naming him because he has never been charged in
connection with the crime.
The night of the slaying
This is Garza's account.
Garza said he first went to Cantu's house at 9:30 that night to see what
he was doing, but Cantu's father told him he was gone.
Instead, Garza hooked up with another friend of Cantu's, also 17, whom he
knew slightly. He said the 2 talked about robbing 2 Mexicans who were
sleeping that night in a house under construction on Briggs Street. Garza
said they believed the men were drug dealers. "The idea was to knock the
guys out and take their money," Garza said.
The pair brought a .22-caliber rifle and a nightstick. Just before
midnight, Garza opened a window in the house and they crawled through.
Then both boys snuck into the front room where the two men were asleep on
mattresses on the floor.
Garza hit one of the men with his nightstick and both woke up. But after
they got a wallet from the older one, Pedro Gomez, he began to fight back,
reaching for a gun under one of the mattresses. "That's when the shooting
started," Garza said. Garza said he watched the older boy shoot Gomez, 25,
in the head and keep on firing.
Then the shooter turned his rifle on Juan Moreno, fired nine more rounds,
then picked up the .38-caliber revolver and fired more shots. "He just
went crazy," Garza said.
As they fled, Garza said he figured both men had died. But then he said he
saw Moreno staggering out of the house behind them, bloody but alive.
"This guy didn't want to die. God wasn't ready for him," Garza said.
The two ran away, covered in blood, and returned to their separate houses
to change. Garza said he threw his clothes in the trash. He said he
doesn't know what happened to the rifle, which was never recovered.
Picked up for questioning
Quickly, police investigators focused on neighborhood teens, but Garza
said he was shocked when police targeted Cantu, who had been away the day
of the murder.
Within weeks, Cantu, Garza and the other teen were all separately picked
up for questioning. Cantu and Garza refused to talk. But the other teen
told police details about the murder that he claimed to know because Cantu
had confessed only to him, according to police reports from 1984 and 1985.
He later claimed he spoke only after officers pushed him and threatened to
charge him with capital murder, according to a sworn statement and an
Despite that damaging statement, none of the 3 boys was arrested. For
nearly 3 months, the investigation stalled.
Then Cantu shot an off-duty police officer at a neighborhood bar on March
Detectives quickly arrested Cantu and reopened the murder investigation.
Though the surviving victim, Moreno, had previously refused twice to
identify Cantu, police finally obtained an identification and statement
from him. Cantu was charged with capital murder. Within days, Moreno
identified Garza, too.
Right before his arrest, Garza, then 15, was questioned alone without a
parent and initially said he "had been there at the scene but stayed
outside" and "saw Ruben come running out of the house," a detective wrote.
Garza said the account is fabricated: He admits he told police that he
waited outside during the robbery, but says he never named Cantu or anyone
else. A San Antonio Police Department spokesman refused to allow the
detective involved to comment.
But when prosecutors brought the case to trial, neither Garza nor the
other teen was called to testify against Cantu. The state's capital murder
case rested on the word of Moreno, a sympathetic and youthful witness who
had barely survived his wounds.
'Running all my life'
Cantu, by then 18, was condemned to death; David Garza went to adult
prison, initially for 6 years. The other teen moved out of state.
The 3rd boy, who was an elementary school friend of Cantu's, recently
moved back to San Antonio. He has always denied he had anything to do with
the robbery and murder. His only criminal record appears to be a single
misdemeanor domestic assault conviction.
But when the Chronicle located him 2 decades later, he said that he
remains afraid to talk about the crime and fears retribution from Cantu's
older brothers, both of whom are in prison.
"I've been running all my life. ... I can't stay in one place," he said.
He has spent his adult life moving from place to place because he said
Cantu's older brothers have repeatedly threatened him.
Not convinced it was Cantu
And though he still insists Cantu confessed to him, he also told the
Chronicle that he was never convinced of Cantu's guilt.
"I don't think he did do it," he said.
A month before Cantu's execution in August 1993, Garza wrote directly to
attorney Barohn, a former Missouri public defender who had never handled a
capital case before she took on Cantu's appeals.
"That witness could not have identify Ruben nor I," Garza wrote. "The cops
told him it was us. Ruben was not even around."
Barohn remembers that over the years Cantu himself also had repeatedly
suggested that she go and visit Garza, whom he called his "alleged fall
partner" in one letter.
But Barohn said Garza didn't seem willing to tell the truth. His letter
implied he was not ready at the time to admit to his own role in the
murder, though he had already pleaded guilty to robbery. Barohn had no
money to pay an investigator to go see Garza and she was worried about
meeting myriad deadlines for appeals and a petition for clemency to go
As the date approached, Cantu and Barohn both took hope when Cantu's final
appeal stalled for a while at the U.S. Supreme Court.
Briefly, Cantu's case had become intertwined with the highly-publicized
case of Houston's Gary Graham, also accused of murder at the age of 17.
Graham, like Cantu, had also been convicted on eyewitness identification.
His appeal, like Cantu's, attacked the reliability of such evidence,
especially an identification made after a few seconds of contact during a
The Graham case also attacked the constitutionality of executing a
juvenile - an argument that failed at the time.
With support from civil rights groups and movie stars, Graham received
legal breaks that extended his life until 2000, when he was finally
Cantu did not get that kind of time or attention.
As the execution date neared, Garza waited for Cantu's lawyer to visit
with increasing anxiety. Garza said at that point he had realized that the
only way to save Cantu was to tell her everything. But that was something
he said he could not trust to a letter.
The only person Garza said he had ever previously confided in was Cantu
himself. Garza said Cantu knew who really was involved, but was unwilling
to betray friends.
"Me and Ruben (Cantu) had this oath that we would not snitch each other
out. It was the honor that we had," explained Garza.
Another friend, Eloy Gonzales described Cantu this way: "He wouldn't rat
on nobody. He wouldn't rat on his worst enemy. You were always told you
don't rat on your friends. But for that. He should have ratted on
Even on the last day of his life, Cantu held out hope that he would be
saved some other way: alibi witnesses would come forward or the courts
would accept a legal argument about his youth or about flaws in the
eyewitness identification, his mother and his lawyer said.
"He would tell you: `I can't be executed because I'm innocent.'" Garza
Before the end came on August 24, 1993, Garza said he sent his friend one
final letter - a homemade goodbye card that said: "I'll see you on the
other side. I wish it would have been different."
(source: Houston Chronicle)
Death-row bomber maintains innocence -- Thanksgiving bombing remains a
The condemned man sends her letters that she refuses to read.
Dear Susan, says one, I am in no way whatsoever connected to the murder of
your loved ones.
Susan Blount does not buy this. She believes that the man who writes her
will someday meet the endless suffering that he richly deserves.
Mrs. Blount is 60 now, a large woman not in the best of health. She talks
about retribution as she stands at Lot Eight of the Hilltop Mobile Home
Park, in suburban-sprawl scrublands northwest of Fort Worth.
Here, on Thanksgiving Day 1985, someone killed her nephew, her daughter
and her husband. They were ordinary people slaughtered anonymously.
To this day, no one has been able to say why.
The crime against the Blounts was both instant and relentless. Those who
survived have learned how pain and sorrow can claw through the decades.
Mysteries deepen, suspicions linger, and nightmares won't abate.
20 years after it happened, Mrs. Blount has driven her blue Chevy Impala
more than 2,000 miles to be here, and she is sorry she came. Because as
she moves unsteadily on the crumbling pavement, she can still hear her
dying family's cries.
"You don't recover from it," she says. She means not just the grief but
also what trails it: fear, fury, disbelief, despair, recriminations and,
finally, at best, a ragged coming to terms.
Over the years, questions mount: In an East Texas prison, a man lingers on
the brink of execution for these murders. At least 2 crucial witnesses who
put him there have since changed their stories.
I have been screaming, proclaiming my innocence, he types from his cell,
but it has fallen on deaf ears.
He has only the slimmest chance of avoiding the state needle. So he writes
Mrs. Blount: I realize I am the last person on Earth you want to hear
from, but I am begging you to please contact me.
She will have none of it. "He's going to pay in the next life," Mrs.
Blount says. "He's going to be tormented terribly. He's going to live in
darkness and suffer greatly. I don't know what the Heavenly Father has
planned for him. I just know it's going to be worse than anyone can do to
him here." This thought brings her some comfort.
Like waves of others, the Blounts came to North Texas seeking a fresh
start and a respite from tough times. They had driven from the Seattle
area in July 1985, 4 of them in a 7-year-old, rust-colored Ford Fairmont
station wagon without air conditioning. Their clothes, dishes, blankets
and assorted personal effects bounced behind them in a jampacked U-Haul
Joe Blount, 44, did most of the driving. He was a big guy - 6-2 and 200
pounds - who liked to watch John Wayne Westerns on TV. An amiable man and
a skilled mechanic, he had trouble holding a steady job. He drank too much
Robert Blount was 13 at the time of the bombing. Angela Blount, 15, and
her 13-year-old brother, Robert, rode in the back seat. She was the happy,
talkative one, with long brown hair and light freckles. He was quiet and
withdrawn, slow to warm to others. His sister was his best friend.
Susan Blount - devout Mormon, precise, strict with her kids - sat in the
front passenger seat, watching the flat landscape fly by, not certain at
all about this move to Texas. The marriage had its rough spots. She and
her husband were trying to patch it together after a yearlong separation.
The Blounts rented a trailer at the Hilltop Mobile Home Park, just up
Jacksboro Highway from Lake Worth. They had no furniture, so they slept on
the floor in their bedrolls. Mr. Blount got work at a nearby auto
"He said, 'I've finally found a home. I want to work for these guys
forever,' " Mrs. Blount recalls now. "This was the most wonderful sound I
had ever heard."
She desired only one thing, she says: "I just wanted life to be stable."
Thanksgiving Day dinner, she hoped, would help create some of that
stability. One of the guests was Mr. Blount's brother, Carl "Ray" Blount,
whom Mrs. Blount strongly disliked. "Ray had been a sore spot in the
marriage for a long time," she says.
But he was family, she says, so she vowed to make the best of it for the
Another Thanksgiving guest was Ray's long-estranged son, Michael Columbus,
an 18-year-old studying airplane mechanics in Tulsa, Okla. He was
dark-eyed and handsome and wanted to be a pilot.
His mother had worried about him making the trip to North Texas. Mrs.
Blount promised her that nothing bad would happen.
The Blounts had managed to rent some furniture but still didn't have
enough for a big gathering, so Joe Blount borrowed some chairs from the
transmission shop waiting room. They ate turkey and dressing off plates
balanced on their knees.
The day passed pleasantly. Ray Blount and his son even had a
reconciliation. Mr. Columbus was so pleased about it that after dinner, he
called his mother from a pay phone to tell her how happy he was.
Ray Blount left to go home about 5 p.m. Around 9 p.m., Mrs. Blount went to
her bedroom and lay down for a nap.
Robert, Angela and Mr. Columbus piled into the station wagon, and Joe
Blount drove them to a convenience store about half a mile away. They
bought candy, and he got beer.
While they were gone, Mrs. Blount heard a knock at the front door. "I got
up and looked out the window and saw no one," she says. It was the last
act of her normal life.
After about 20 minutes, the rest of the family returned. On the top step
of the trailer, just outside the front door, they found a black leather
briefcase. It hadn't been there when they left.
Angela said it might have jewels in it. Robert thought that maybe someone
had left some money sitting on the stairs.
They brought it inside. The three teenagers bubbled with excitement. Not
Joe, who had been around long enough to know that you didn't just come
home one night and find a treasure chest on your porch. But he went along
with the fun.
Angela sat on the couch and placed the briefcase on her lap. With both
hands, she tripped the latches. What happened next took milliseconds.
As she opened the lid, she sprang a Victor mousetrap hidden in the
briefcase. That completed a connection to two 9-volt Radio Shack
The battery current traveled through wires to a model rocket igniter,
which set off a model rocket motor. That ignited smokeless powder - of the
kind taken from shotgun shells - packed inside two 8-inch lengths of
capped galvanized pipe.
Pressure built within the pipe until it blew apart - hot shrapnel flying
at 2,000 feet per second, about twice as fast as the bullet from a
handgun. The same blast simultaneously ignited a small jar of gasoline in
the briefcase, creating a fireball.
One neighbor said it sounded like a cannon.
It was, a government explosives expert would later testify, an "extremely
violent weapon designed to kill human beings." And it worked to
The noise startled Mrs. Blount from her sleep in the back bedroom. She
thought it was another B-52 making a low approach for nearby Carswell Air
Force Base. Sometimes they roared overhead all night long.
She opened the bedroom door and was met with smoke. She walked down the
hallway, the floor so hot it burned her feet. She heard screaming. She
peered toward the living room. "I could see Joe's body," she recalls now.
"It was lying on the floor in front of the TV, burning."
The heat drove her back. She escaped through the trailer's back door.
The night was bitterly cold. She struggled to the front yard in her
underwear and found neighbors watching in horror as fire consumed the
"I begged them to go inside and help," Mrs. Blount says. No one could do
At a neighbor's house, Mrs. Blount phoned her other daughter, Sheri
Godwin, in Washington. "Everybody's dead," she said into the phone. "Joe
and Angela and Robert and Michael. They're all dead."
She wasn't entirely correct. Fire crews arrived, and an officer directed
Mrs. Blount to an ambulance. There, she found Robert lying on a stretcher.
His hair was burned off, his flesh scorched, his clothes and shoes melted
to his skin. But he was alive.
Why, investigators wanted to know, would someone bomb a family? The first
place they searched for answers was the family itself.
Federal agents pored over Joe Blount's background. Their conclusion, a
memo reported: "He made no enemies and was considered to be more or less
His brother, who had been at the Thanksgiving dinner, was another story.
"Carl Blount is considered no good, a narcotic user, a cheat and a liar,"
said one investigative report by the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco,
Firearms and Explosives. "Many people who knew him have stated that they
thought the device was meant for him."
Agents scoured Carl Blount's past. They found plenty of unseemly behavior
but nothing that would link him to the bombing.
Detectives also took a hard look at Mrs. Blount. "Every time I turned
around, they were pointing fingers at me," she says. "I had every kind of
question thrown at me. Had I made the bomb? Did I help anyone make the
bomb? They always taped everything I said to see if I changed my story."
A sheriff's detective asked her whether she had life insurance policies on
her daughter and husband.
"I said, yes, I had," Mrs. Blount recalls. "He looks at me with a look
that says, 'I have you dead to rights, lady.' He says, 'How much was this
policy?' He just knows, 'Now we've got the murderer.'"
The policy on her husband was for $2,000, and for her daughter, $1,000. "I
told him it won't even pay to bury them," she says.
Investigators traced the family's phone calls in the days before the
bombing. The records showed calls to friends and relatives but little
The Fort Worth office of the ATF sent a query to the agency's Seattle
office: "Does any evidence exist regarding possible extramarital affairs
on the part of Susan Maureen Blount?"
The Seattle office wrote back: "No known evidence exists in the Seattle
area of any indiscretions."
Still, Mrs. Blount believed that she remained the prime suspect.
"Every night, I thought, 'They're going to take you in and lock you up.' I
thought, 'What is your defense going to be?' I thought, 'I have no
defense. I have no defense whatsoever.'"
Only after she passed a polygraph did the investigative pressure seem to
ease. That left her with grief and fear to manage.
"Robert was the sole purpose of me keeping on," she says.
Mrs. Blount and her son moved into an apartment in Azle.
They put their beds next to each other's. "We were afraid of every sound,"
she recalls. Robert, still recovering from skin grafts for his burns, had
They were sure that the bomber, whoever he was, would come back to finish
the job. If a car followed her for more than 2 blocks, Mrs. Blount pulled
over and let it pass, then made a U-turn.
That Christmas, less than a month after the bombing, she and Robert came
home to find a box outside their front door. Just like the briefcase, they
thought. They phoned the police.
It was fudge from church.
Detectives also considered another theory about the bomb: that it had been
intended for someone other than the Blounts.
Maybe the killer simply got the wrong address. Maybe the bomber was really
after Wayland Tim Tortella, who lived 2 trailers down.
Though he worked as a jeweler, Mr. Tortella, 29, also operated a thriving
methamphetamine business from home. He sold automatic weapons to drug
dealers. And he was having an affair with a married woman.
Because of that, Mr. Tortella later testified, he believed the bomb was
meant for him. Much later, he would write in a letter: "For 14 years I've
felt that it was my fault that thoughs [sic] 3 people died. There is a
possibility that if I wasn't doing what I was doing back then they would
still be alive."
It might have looked intriguing to investigators, but it went nowhere.
Federal and state agents could not establish a solid motive. Nor could
they find a promising suspect in the assortment of felons, bomb makers,
misfits, Satanists and narcotics peddlers whom they interviewed.
They raided, for example, the Bowie, Texas, residence of man with a
history of trading in explosives. They found grenades, gunpowder and
electronic devices used in bomb making. "Among these items was a roll of
gray and white seven-strand copper wire, similar to that used in the
construction of the device used in the Blount bombing," an ATF report
But agents could find no connection between the man and the Blounts. He
was dismissed as a suspect after he passed a polygraph.
One neighbor of the Blounts, an admitted drug dealer named Darrin Ervin,
appeared on the detectives' radar early on. ATF agents picked him up at a
biker bar in Lake Worth less than a month after the bombing. Mr. Ervin,
then 22, had rented a trailer at Lot Two of Hilltop - 6 spaces from the
Blounts where he sold methamphetamine.
What's more, he had had a fight with his wife the afternoon of the Blount
bombing and had fled the scene. "She done knocked the windshield out of my
truck," Mr. Ervin recalls now.
That's when he decided to leave, he says, but not without his guns. "I
grabbed a couple of pistols and a box of bullets when I left. I dropped
the bullets, and they went all over," he says.
"So there's bullets all over the yard. The front door of my trailer was
wide open. You look in the house, and it's ransacked. No wonder they
wanted to talk to me."
Agents took him to the ATF office in downtown Fort Worth and showed him
crime-scene photos of the burned corpses.
"They were hard-asses at first. They really thought I had something to do
with it," he says. "They told me they didn't care if I did it or not, they
needed to arrest somebody."
He was released, he says, after passing a polygraph.
If he wasn't the killer, had his drug business made him a bombing target?
"I can't see why," says Mr. Ervin, who is now in prison for theft. "I did
have a connection that I was doing business with in Arkansas. But the last
time I seen him, he gave me a sack of dope. I didn't owe him any money."
Perhaps the most promising suspect, at least for a while, was 15-year-old
Mikey Huff of Azle, who had been a classmate of Angela's. There were
rumors that Angela had angered him by spurning his advances. Friends said
he was a violent hothead who boasted of worshipping Satan. He was a
burglar and an LSD user.
Anonymous callers told agents that Mr. Huff had bragged of making and
detonating the bomb. His stepfather had found pieces of a pipe bomb in his
bedroom. The stepfather also said that two Victor mousetraps the same
kind as the one that triggered the Blount bomb had been stolen from his
But once again, investigators could not make a case. "After an extensive
interview," an ATF investigative memo says, agents "concluded Huff was not
involved in the bombing."
The trail went cold.
11 years passed. Susan and Robert Blount left Texas for the Pacific
Northwest, believing that the murders would never be solved.
Federal authorities weren't admitting it in public, but their private
reports showed that the case was, for all practical purposes, dead. Each
quarterly ATF memo on the Blount bombing said the same thing: "No further
progress has been made in this investigation."
In 1996, officials decided to make another try at what was one of the
biggest unsolved bombings in the country. A task force of federal, state
and local authorities was assembled.
They structured a classic cold-case investigation in which every piece of
evidence was examined as if for the 1st time.
"I thought it would go nowhere," says Mike Parrish, a Tarrant County
prosecutor assigned to the task force. "Most of these cold cases do."
A $25,000 reward offer triggered some tipsters. Many of them told
investigators to take another look at Mr. Huff.
Task force members questioned him repeatedly. He denied any role in the
bombing, he says, but they didn't seem to believe him.
"It was looking pretty bad there at the end," Mr. Huff says now. "They
told me I needed to be spending a lot of time with my kids because I
wouldn't be seeing them for a while."
In 1997, the ATF, saying Mr. Huff had "emerged as a primary suspect,"
tapped his phone. The FBI's criminal profiling experts were asked to
assemble a "personality assessment" of Mr. Huff.
A grand jury heard testimony from his friends that came close to
"I just considered him a psycho," one woman told the grand jury. "He said
he had a friend that knew how to make homemade bombs. ... He said, 'It
blew the [Blount] house up.'"
Despite a lengthy investigation, the grand jury never indicted Mr. Huff,
who today lives in North Texas with his wife and children and has "a
regular 9-to-5 job just like everybody else."
But back in 1985, says Mr. Parrish, the prosecutor, Mr. Huff "just wanted
to be a badass. He was doing his best to strike a James Dean pose."
That didn't make him a bomber, though, and once again the investigation
While the Blounts prayed for a miracle, the task force hoped for a lucky
They got it when a prison inmate nobody had ever heard of, a thief and a
con man named Michael Roy Toney, started running his mouth - the biggest
mistake of his life.
Many women loved Michael Roy Toney, and he brutally beat them in return.
He pummeled a pregnant girlfriend because her new hairstyle, a perm,
displeased him. Angered by the screams of one woman - she shrieked as he
hit her - he tried to suffocate her with a pillow. He punched his wife for
watching a TV show that featured too many good-looking men.
>From his lost childhood to the wreckage of his adult years, Mr. Toney's
life was one of waste and cruelty. This he admits.
"Anybody can crucify me on my record," he says.
Mr. Toney, 39, now finds himself at the end of the line: death row in
Texas. He was convicted of using a briefcase bomb in 1985 to murder Joe
Blount, Angela Blount and Michael Columbus.
"I'm not a bomber," he insists from behind the thick protective glass in a
prison visiting room. He has an unlined face and neatly combed brown hair.
He is small and trim. His prison whites cover the swastika tattoo on his
Is he lying? He has done so many times before. A psychiatric evaluation,
in fact, found him to be a pathological liar.
But if he is not truthful about the Blount case, he's not alone. 2
witnesses crucial to his conviction now admit they lied as well.
One of them has changed his story many times. Another says he implicated
Mr. Toney simply to save his own life.
Despite an extensive investigation, prosecutors never found any connection
between Mr. Toney and the victims of the bombing. They found not one piece
of physical evidence. No one saw Mr. Toney deliver a bomb.
Mr. Toney says deception sent him to death row. Certainly coincidence and
stupidity played a central role, too. The string of battered women didn't
help him much, either.
Especially bad for him was his wife, now ex-wife, whom he beat repeatedly.
Mike Parrish, the Tarrant County assistant district attorney who
prosecuted Mr. Toney, smiles at the mention of her.
"Exes," he says, "they never forget a mean thing you've done."
The Blount bombing, northwest of Fort Worth, had stymied investigators for
11 years when a special Blount Task Force was formed in 1996. Composed of
federal, state and local agents, the force labored for more than a year
without bringing charges against anyone.
The cold case seemed destined to remain so. But in 1997, a break came out
of the blue.
An inmate in the Parker County Jail informed police that Mr. Toney "told
me he blew some people up ... by putting a briefcase on the front porch of
a trailer house."
Initially, this information failed to excite prosecutor Parrish, who had
been assigned to the task force. It looked like another entry in a long
line of Blount bombing suspects who didn't pan out.
"I said, you know, 'Whoop-de-do, we got another guy," he recalls now. "I
said, 'Who the hell is this Toney?'"
Mr. Toney learned as a child to be violent, and it stayed with him the
rest of his life.
He grew up in Cottonwood, Calif., a small town about 80 miles south of
Mount Shasta. His father deserted the family early on, and his mother hit
the local taverns.
Relatives recall Mr. Toney as a pre-teen wandering the streets of the town
with his younger brother, begging for food. Other times they would sleep
in their mother's car outside the bars where she drank.
She brought home a succession of men who beat her sons. Young Michael
escaped by bedding down in a shed.
One of his mother's boyfriends made him sit in a lawn chair and duct-taped
his wrists to the armrests, Mr. Toney recalls. Then the man sprayed
lighter fluid on the boy's hands and lit them.
"I must have been 9 or 10 at that time," he says. "It didn't burn but a
second before he put it out with a towel, but it still hurt like hell. He
went back and forth on my hands, lighting them and putting it out. The
whole time I was screaming and trying to get out of the chair, and he was
laughing like the devil."
When he was 15, Mr. Toney says, another of his mother's boyfriends
attacked him with a fishing gaff, gouging a huge hole in his hip. It was
time to get away, he decided. He quit school before 10th grade and left
California for Texas.
Eventually, Mr. Toney settled in the Hurst-Euless-Bedford area, working
construction and living in a series of apartments with a revolving cast of
women. He was handsome, the women say now, and the sex was great.
But the slightest provocation would send him into violent rages. Tammy
Reil says he played Russian roulette with her. She was terrified, she
says, but he - like his mother's boyfriend with the lighter fluid - was
Once, she says, he beat her for eating chicken with her fingers. Another
time, she recalls, he broke a bone in her chin and shoved her mother
"I loved him for whatever sick reason; I don't know why," she says.
Mr. Toney left her for the woman he later married. Kim Toney, 38, lives
now in Wisconsin.
"He beat me with chairs and busted my nose," she says. "He broke my foot.
... He was jumping on me with boots."
They had a daughter. He spent the food and diaper money on other women,
Ms. Toney says. She finally left him, she says, when she found a welt in
the shape of his hand on the back of their daughter, then a toddler. They
"Once you've experienced Michael Toney, you can't trust anybody," she
says. "His life was crime and deceit and manipulation."
>From 1989 through 1997, he was in and out of jail and prison for burglary
and theft. He had 9 felony convictions in all, one of which was for injury
to a child.
Mr. Toney fancied himself a jailhouse scam artist, helping others to
concoct schemes for special privileges or early release. For example, he
showed one inmate how to fake a suicide attempt by hanging. It got the
inmate out of jail, he says.
In June 1997, Mr. Toney - in jail awaiting a hearing on burglary charges -
chatted with Charles "Jack" Ferris in the Parker County lockup in
Mr. Ferris, now 52, had been jailed for driving with a suspended license.
He and Mr. Toney got to talking about the Blount bombing. They talked in
Mr. Ferris won his release from jail by telling Parker County authorities
that Mr. Toney had confessed the murders to him.
"I did my best to make the story seem impressive," Mr. Ferris later said
in an affidavit.
It was impressive enough to launch the task force investigation into Mr.
Toney. The trail eventually led them to his ex-wife. Initially, questions
about a bombing made no sense to her.
"She told us, 'Michael killing people in a bombing? You're nuts,'" recalls
But Ms. Toney decided to do some research.
"I'm not dumb - I ran for the library," she says. She looked up newspaper
accounts of the Blount bombing. It was then, she says, that she knew she
had been there that night.
"When I realized what took place," she says, "it's almost like death to
Ms. Toney called federal agents and told her story. Her ex-husband was
soon under indictment for capital murder.
"God," she says, "has a way of getting even."
Within months, however, Mr. Ferris recanted his account of the jailhouse
confession. He and Mr. Toney had come up with a story about the Blount
bombing, he said, as a ruse to get Mr. Ferris out of jail.
"Toney and I," Mr. Ferris told investigators, "made up the entire thing."
The trial started in May 1999 in Fort Worth.
Susan Blount testified, telling her story of escaping from her burning
trailer out the back door. Her son, Robert Blount, told of finding the
briefcase on the front porch, and of his 15-year-old sister taking it
"Angela flipped the latches and it exploded, and that's the last I
remember," Mr. Blount testified.
The blast killed his father, sister and cousin and blew him out the front
"There isn't a day that goes by," Mr. Blount said in court, "that I don't
think about that day."
For Mr. Toney, some of the most damaging testimony came from his ex-wife,
his best friend and another cellmate.
Ms. Toney said that on Thanksgiving night 1985, she went with Mr. Toney
and the best friend, Chris Meeks, to the parking lot of a propane supply
shop on Jacksboro Highway near Lake Worth. The propane shop was adjacent
to the Hilltop Mobile Home Park, where the Blounts lived.
Mr. Toney got out of his truck, took a brown briefcase from the truck bed
and disappeared into the darkness, Ms. Toney said. Several minutes later,
she said, he returned without the briefcase.
They then went to a nature center a few miles away, she said, where they
stayed for several hours. While there, she said, Mr. Toney shot a beaver
with a rifle.
Mr. Meeks also testified that the three of them were near the trailer park
that night and generally matched Ms. Toney's account about Mr. Toney
disappearing with the briefcase.
He also said Mr. Toney had shown him a bomb in the briefcase several days
Finis Blankenship, a cellmate, testified that Mr. Toney told him he was to
be paid $5,000 for the murders. Mr. Blankenship said Mr. Toney told him
that they were part of a drug-related hit but that he had put the
explosives on the wrong doorstep.
Mr. Toney took the stand and described himself as the victim of a
conspiracy. He had learned details of the Blount bombing in prison, he
said, from an inmate named Bennie Joe Toole. Mr. Toole, of Azle, had at
one time been a suspect but had passed a polygraph. (Mr. Toole confirmed
As for his former best friend and his ex-wife, Mr. Toney testified, "I
believe Chris is lying, and I believe Kim is mistaken."
Many of Mr. Toney's former girlfriends also testified, telling of savage
beatings at his hands. Ms. Reil, the girlfriend who said Mr. Toney tried
to suffocate her, said she wanted him to die.
The jury agreed, convicting him of capital murder and sentencing him to
Television shows to the contrary, no criminal trial answers every question
and solves every mystery. The Toney case has its share of puzzles,
contradictions and repudiations.
Prosecutors say Ms. Toney was the most important witness. "The person the
jury really had to buy to make the case was Kim Toney," prosecutor Parrish
Ms. Toney has since remarried, though she still sometimes uses her former
name. Now studying to be an accountant, she says she stands completely by
her trial testimony.
"If I had any doubt in my mind, I would have contacted somebody," she
says. "You hate the thought that he [Mr. Toney] is going to die. I don't
wish death upon anybody. But I can't change what he did. He has to pay for
what he did."
Ms. Toney, an Army veteran, served in the 1991 Persian Gulf War. She says
exposure to toxic chemicals in Kuwait caused her to suffer memory loss.
"Your long-term memory is very good," she says, "but your short-term
memory is bad."
Mr. Meeks provided important corroboration of some of her testimony. But
his and Ms. Toney's accounts of Thanksgiving night differed markedly. Ms.
Toney had said they went to the nature center after Mr. Toney delivered
the briefcase, but Mr. Meeks testified that they actually had gone to the
center several days before.
Even prosecutors acknowledge that Mr. Meeks was not much of a witness, in
large part because of drinking.
"His Budweiser intake was 18 to 24 cans a day," Mr. Parrish says.
Perhaps most important, Mr. Meeks has now changed his story for the 4th
He originally told investigators he knew nothing about the bombing. Then,
after failing a polygraph, he implicated Mr. Toney.
In 2001, after a visit from an investigator working for Mr. Toney's
appeal, he signed an affidavit recanting his trial testimony. "My
testimony about the events that happened on Thanksgiving Day, 1985, may
not have happened on that day," the affidavit said. He added that "to my
knowledge," Mr. Toney's briefcase "never had any bombing material inside."
Mr. Meeks, 38, lives in the New Mexico desert south of Roswell. He has
resisted all attempts by supporters of Mr. Toney to talk more about the
But he said in a recent interview with The Dallas Morning News that he has
changed his account once again. "What I told in my testimony is what
happened," he says.
The affidavit he signed for the private detective in 2001 was false, he
says. "I told him whatever he wanted to hear."
The reason, Mr. Meeks says: He was in prison at the time on a
drunken-driving conviction - his 5th - and if other prisoners learned that
he had testified against someone, his life would be in danger.
Finally, there is former cellmate Blankenship's story regarding the $5,000
contract hit. It came in the 2nd phase of the trial, in which the jury had
to decide whether Mr. Toney deserved to be executed.
Prosecutor Parrish said Mr. Blankenship's testimony was crucial to the
death penalty because it showed jurors the motive for the crime.
"If they don't know the motive, that bothers them like hell," Mr. Parrish
says. "I thought that [testimony] removed any potential residual doubt
that anyone might have."
Mr. Blankenship, a convicted robber, had a long history of criminal
involvement and of acting as a police informant. A Dallas fire marshal
wrote of him in a 1967 testimonial letter: "Due to his helping us, he has
had an attempted castration on him by 4 men. He has had three sticks of
dynamite put in his car and had been shot at."
When he met Mr. Toney in jail, Mr. Blankenship was facing two counts of
indecency with a child and habitual-criminal charges. He believed that if
he went to prison, he would die there. So in exchange for having those
charges against him dropped, Mr. Blankenship says, he agreed to testify
against Mr. Toney.
Prosecutor Parrish denies that he made any such deal. If he had, he says,
"the jury would have thrown rocks at me."
Nonetheless, Mr. Blankenship told his story about Mr. Toney to the court.
The charges against him were later reduced to misdemeanor assault.
Prosecutors say that was unrelated to his testimony in this case.
Mr. Blankenship now says this about his story implicating Mr. Toney: "It
was a lie."
At 73, he lives in a shabby three-room house north of the Fort Worth
Stockyards. Skinny chickens peck the dirt out front. On the walls of his
living room hang framed photos of Roy Rogers and Hopalong Cassidy.
He uses a walker to move around. He is missing most of his teeth. He
"I've had a stroke and a heart attack," he says. "If I go back to prison,
I'll die there."
He takes out a black leather-bound Bible and opens it to his favorite
verse, Luke 11:52: Woe unto you, lawyers.
The lawyers had him in a corner, Mr. Blankenship says, and he had no
choice but to fabricate a story about Mr. Toney.
"I'm an old man," he says. "I'd hate to see an innocent man die. Am I
wrong? Am I wrong?"
He begins to sob, the tears dropping into the open Bible in his lap.
"I only done it because I was scared I was gonna die," he says. "I can't
tell you the things you will do if you think you're going to die."
(parts 1 and 2 of a 3 part series)
Judge expected to run for Dallas DA----Cunningham to quit bench, may seek
State District Judge Vickers Cunningham will announce today that he is
stepping down from the bench, and sources close to him said that he will
seek the Republican nomination for Dallas County district attorney.
Judge Cunningham confirmed that he would resign, effective Dec. 5, and is
"seriously considering other opportunities for elective office." He
declined to say what position he would seek, but two political
consultants, a state senator and a former district judge said he had
informed them during the weekend of his intention to run for district
"From all that I have seen and heard, he is very well qualified to be the
district attorney in Dallas County," said state Sen. Florence Shapiro,
R-Plano. "He's honest, he has integrity and he's fair."
The announcement would make Judge Cunningham the first Republican
contender to replace Bill Hill, the two-term district attorney who
surprised political scene insiders this month when he said he would not
Dallas lawyer Dan Hagood, who was the special prosecutor investigating the
fake drug scandal, has also been named as a potential GOP contender. The
Democratic candidates are lawyers B.D. Howard Jr., Larry Jarrett and Craig
Filing date approaches
If Judge Cunningham were to announce a plan to run for district attorney,
he would have to resign his judicial seat immediately, according to the
Texas Code of Judicial Conduct. The first day to file for a spot on the
primary ballot is Dec. 3.
Judge Cunningham, 43, has presided over the 283rd Judicial District Court
since October 2001 and was a county criminal judge for six years before
He is perhaps best known for presiding over the death penalty trials of
the prison escapees who shot and killed an Irving police officer on
Christmas Eve 2000. In those cases, the six surviving suspects were
sentenced to death.
Judge Cunningham said he hopes he is remembered as a tough-but-fair judge
who ran his court efficiently and found innovative alternatives to typical
In October, he ordered a woman involved in a robbery in which the victim
was fatally beaten to keep a photograph of the victim prominently
displayed in her home for 10 years. In May, he sentenced a drunken driver
to spend 180 days in jail spread over the Christmas holidays and the
birthday of the 10-year-old boy he killed.
"If there's one thing I want people to remember from my time on the bench
it's that I care about the victims and I show that with my judgments," he
Defense attorney Larry Baraka was a district judge when Judge Cunningham
was a Dallas County prosecutor in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
He praised Judge Cunningham for sharing information with defense attorneys
and working on plea agreements to avert costly trials in some cases.
"I think Vic would change the culture of the district attorney by ending
some of the confrontational aspects. ... He'd create an environment where
the lawyers are more inclined to work with each other," said Mr. Baraka,
who said he had considered running for district attorney until he heard
that his friend Judge Cunningham was running.
While being a judge for so many years provides experience, it can also
work against a candidate, said Matthew Wilson, an associate political
science professor at Southern Methodist University.
"That also gives your opponents a lot of material to attack you on," he
said. "An opponent can cherry-pick that for particular decisions that will
make you look soft on crime."
Dr. Wilson said Judge Cunningham would also have to overcome an
increasingly partisan climate, in which Democrats won the sheriff's race
and several judge seats in 2004.
Former Democratic Party chairwoman Susan Hays said Republican hopefuls are
already months behind Democratic counterparts with slightly more than
three months until the primary election.
"Now that Hill's stepped down, any of the Republican candidates have a lot
of ground to make up," she said.
Mr. Jarrett said he has already done a great deal of fundraising, hired a
large campaign staff and settled on his platform.
"We believe whoever the Republicans select, they're going to be at a
disadvantage," he said.
(source for both: Dallas Morning News)
Fort Worth among 10 safest cities, book says
Yet another reason to stay west of the Trinity River.
Fort Worth is ninth on the list of the 10 safest cities with populations
of 500,000 or more, according to a survey released Monday by a publishing
company that ranks cities based on crime statistics.
Dallas is fifth among the 10 most dangerous cities with populations of
more than 500,000, Morgan Quitno Press reported.
The company, based in Lawrence, Kan., publishes "City Crime Rankings," an
annual reference book using crime data compiled from cities and the FBI.
(source: Fort Worth Star-Telegram)
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