This is the story of Austin’s coldest case, a 25-year-old murder that was prosecuted by the Travis County DA’s office with no DNA, no fingerprints, no eyewitnesses, and a lot of faded memories.
In the early hours on October 13, 1985, Natalie Anontetti, 38, returned from a night out on Sixth Street in Austin and found her roommate, Susan Otten, awake. They chatted for a few minutes, then Natalie ran upstairs and changed into blue jogging shorts and a pink T-shirt. She told Susan that she was going to take a brief walk outside by the apartment complex’s pool. Susan remembers telling her to be careful.
After about 10 minutes, Natalie came back into the apartment and found Susan watching television. Natalie lay down on the couch and started to doze, so after a few minutes Susan turned off the TV and prepared to go to bed. Before she went upstairs, she walked over to the front door and pushed it to make sure it was shut. She asked Natalie if she’d locked it and got a grunt in return, which she took to mean “yes.” Susan didn’t check.
Two hours later, Susan got up and went downstairs to fetch a glass of water. As she later told police in a sworn statement, she saw Natalie sleeping peacefully on the couch and made sure not to wake her.
At 5:15 a.m., barely 45 minutes later, Susan woke again. As she told police in her statement: “I heard moaning and some thumping noises from downstairs. I also heard a door shut. I thought this was strange because I still heard someone down there (the moaning noise) even after the door shut.”
Susan went to investigate and, to her horror, saw Natalie sitting on the couch, covered in blood from an injury to the top of her head; the blood ran down her face and drenched her clothes. Susan rushed over and found Natalie trying to speak but unable to do so. Susan grabbed the phone and dialed 911, calling for the police and an ambulance. In a panic, she ran upstairs and woke Johnny Goudie, Natalie’s 16-year-old son and Susan’s boyfriend, bringing him down to his bloodied and incoherent mother.
Johnny pleaded for her to explain what was going on and who had done this. She couldn’t tell him, but the boy recognized something that he would later describe to police in a simple sentence: “I can’t say for sure, but judging from the look in my mother’s eyes she knew what had happened to her.” (We later thought she might have been asleep when she was attacked, which is why it’s possible she might not have known what had happened to her.)
Her ability to speak destroyed, Natalie nonetheless got up from the couch and started moving about the apartment, ignoring her son’s pleas to remain still. She went into the bathroom first, taking tissues and wiping her nose and lips, smearing blood around the room in the process. Then she walked to the stairs and started up. Johnny went with her, staying right by her side, until Natalie reached her bedroom. There, she sat on the bed, quiet for a minute before reaching out and opening one of her drawers. She took out a purple nightgown, then stood and went into her bathroom. Johnny tried to stop her but Natalie wanted to change and closed the door on him, seemingly oblivious to her wounds and to the trail of blood she was leaving, knowing only that she didn’t want her son to watch her change clothes. Johnny, terrified and confused, didn’t want to push on the door to fight his battered mother, so instead he ran downstairs and told Susan to go up and be with her while he waited outside for the ambulance.
At some point during this confusion, Susan called Dennis Davis, whom she would later describe to police as a mutual friend. In fact, Susan worked for him at his recording studio, Studio D, and Natalie and Davis had recently ended a romantic relationship. Importantly, Susan did not include in her statement where he was when she called—at his studio a mile away or at his home in Onion Creek, more than 10 miles away. It was a detail she would forget forever.
Outside, as Johnny waited for the ambulance, a neighbor named Donn Chelli approached him, asked what was happening, invited him into his apartment, and offered Johnny a soda, which seemed bizarre to Johnny even amidst the insanity around him. Around the time the ambulance arrived, roughly 10 minutes after Susan’s call and after Johnny had left Chelli’s apartment, Chelli himself called 911 and reported seeing a 6-foot-tall, burly man looking in people’s windows. The man, he told police, was carrying a child’s baseball bat and was wearing a T-shirt bearing the name of a local band, The Lotions. Around this time, too, Dennis Davis showed up but by all accounts never went inside the apartment where Natalie was treated, instead staying outside until after she was loaded into the ambulance.
Johnny rode with her to the hospital, but the only thing she managed to say was something about her feet, which Johnny took to mean that the straps on the gurney were too tight. At the hospital, just before she was wheeled into the emergency room, Johnny asked his mother for a kiss. She seemed to understand, and they kissed for the very last time.
Natalie lapsed into a coma moments after they arrived at Brackenridge Hospital and remained in that state for two weeks before life support was removed. Her sisters were by her side, but Johnny was unable to bear that last moment and wasn’t in the room.
The initial investigation
Detective Eddie Balagia was put in charge of the case. With no signs of a break-in, nothing stolen, and no evidence of sexual assault, the crime scene pointed to someone with a grudge, but there were no obvious candidates. Dennis Davis, Natalie’s former boyfriend, gave a statement but appeared to have been eliminated early on because of his eagerness to help the investigation and, more importantly, because he didn’t match the description of the man Chelli saw. Put simply, Natalie did not seem to have a single enemy in the world and was adored by everyone who ever met her. Complicating matters, Balagia and the other five homicide detectives that were in the unit back then were pulled every which way that weekend as the city suffered four murders in as many days.
They thought they had a break when, a month later, the neighbor, Donn Chelli, again dialed 911. He said he’d just seen the man wearing the Lotions shirt from the night of Natalie’s assault, so police rushed to Barton Hills and found Gerald Kruz. A transient and drunk, Kruz was never a serious suspect in Natalie’s death and was soon eliminated from the investigation.
In early 1986 police latched onto their first real suspect. John Martin “Marty” Odem had been caught after breaking into a girl’s apartment and raping her. Odem lived in the same apartment complex as Natalie, and when detectives probed his personal life they found out that maybe he’d encountered her once, that most certainly he had a temper, and that he even owned a small baseball bat. When shown his photo, Chelli said Odem “looked like” his mystery Lotions man, but he couldn’t be sure.
Detectives pushed Odem hard, and while he confessed immediately to the rape of the other woman in Natalie’s apartment complex, he consistently denied hurting Natalie. And police were never able to link him either to the crime scene or, definitively, to Natalie herself. In 1986, Odem was sent to prison for the rape, and four years later, in November 1990, Detective Balagia succumbed to cancer. The case went cold.
The cold case heats up
In 2006, the Austin Homicide tip line received an anonymous call. The caller, a woman, directed police to look into the case again and to look specifically at Dennis Davis, Natalie’s ex-boyfriend. The woman said she’d been burdened by something that Davis had said to her, crying and sobbing, in March of 1991: that he’d “sinned against God and man.”
Cold Case Detective Tom Walsh had been assigned to Natalie’s case and he picked up the reins. He began from scratch, interviewing as many of the original witnesses as possible. He also called the tipster back and discovered that she was Davis’s own wife, Becky. Estranged when she’d made the call, she was now back with Davis and pretty quickly stopped cooperating with the investigation.
Walsh looked into Davis’s initial statement given the day after the attack. In it, Davis accounted for his whereabouts on Friday night and also Saturday night: He was with a new girlfriend, Amparo Garcia-Crow. He’d spent the night with her at his place and had gotten up to rush over to Natalie’s when Susan called, leaving Amparo to find her own way home. Walsh realized that this alibi was never checked back in 1985.
So Walsh called and then met with Garcia-Crow and found her to be eloquent and articulate and a very active writer, musician, and busy member of Austin’s arts community. Not surprisingly, she didn’t remember that night. But, she said, back then she kept detailed diaries and would have had one for that time period—should she see if she could find it?
Sure enough, in her attic, she found the diary covering that month, and a quick perusal showed that Davis wasn’t with her. Not only was he not mentioned (in fact there were no entries for that weekend), but she also had written on October 14, in a rather distracted way, that Davis’s friend Natalie had been assaulted. She even remembered the call from Davis telling her about it, but in her diary she didn’t tie it to any event such as Davis getting up early and leaving her stranded at his house. That would have been a huge deal, she told Walsh, both the attack and being left like that, and absolutely would have made it into her journal. And, just as importantly, looking back at the diary, she remembered spending that weekend with an ex-boyfriend, a “honeymoon” period rekindling their relationship. She did not see Davis, let alone spend the night with him. Of that she was 100-percent sure.
Walsh talked to other witnesses, too, including Davis’s best friend, Jimmy Rose. Rose said he’d seen Davis have a screaming fight with Natalie on Sixth Street, just hours before she was assaulted, an argument that never made it into Davis’s own statement. And the detective talked another former girlfriend of Davis’s, Gelinda Squires (now Mudgett). Gelinda had dated Davis for several years in the late 1980s, and she dropped a bombshell on Walsh: Davis had flat-out admitted to her that he’d killed Natalie. Just as he’d broken down in tears with his now-wife, Becky Davis, he’d done the same with Gelinda, but this time expressly naming Natalie Antonetti. As if that weren’t enough, Gelinda said he’d also assaulted her after their break-up, with a bat, as she lay sleeping. The similarity with Natalie’s attack was obvious and chilling.
Eventually Walsh went to interview Davis himself. With prosecutor Darla Davis (no relation to Dennis) and fellow cold case detective Steve Meaux, he traveled to Pennsylvania where Davis was serving a short sentence for DWI. The meeting was recorded and lasted almost six hours. Walsh began by making sure there was plenty of food and drinks, bringing in pizza and sodas while they chatted about music and books. They wanted to take his temperature at the start of the interview, make him comfortable, and lower his guard.
When they got down to business, Davis said a number of things that would damage him at trial. First, he denied ever owning a small baseball bat, acting like the question was ridiculous. He was equally adamant about being with Garcia-Crow that night, sticking to that purported alibi throughout. He wavered on his argument with Natalie, first denying it had happened, then finally admitting it may have happened on the day she was killed. He also acknowledged writing a note and leaving it at her door, a note that said: “Natalie—you can go to hell and take Doug [her male friend] with you. … If you don’t have the brains & the self-respect to see thru [sic] his bullshit then ‘fuck you.’” It was signed “D. D.” He agreed, too, that he used to go into “rages” when he was younger.
Tellingly, while Davis never admitted to Walsh that he’d killed Natalie, at the end of the interview he said, “You have everything you need: the jealous boyfriend, the rages, the note, the busted alibi …” We did have all of that, he was right, but we had a lot more as he’d find out at the trial.
Davis was indicted by a grand jury for murder on June 30, 2009. Darla Davis presented the case, and Gelinda Mudgett, Davis’s ex-girlfriend, testified.
I went looking for this case. Not this actual case, but any cold case. They have always fascinated me and as a fairly new prosecutor (about one year on the job), I wanted to help out on one, so I let it be known I was available for hire, so to speak.
My bosses seemed happy to let me run with it, which I took as a sign of great trust, until I looked at the evidence and wondered (for a moment!) if I’d been horn-swoggled. A 25-year-old case with no biological evidence or eyewitnesses was never going to be easy, but despite my concerns, those further up the chain were immensely helpful and supportive from start to finish.
One of the first things I did was meet Johnny Goudie, the victim’s son. A musician in several local bands, he looks the part: tousled hair, shades, and a laidback attitude befitting Austin. He was also one of the most cooperative, intelligent, and active victims I’ve worked with. His family, too—Natalie’s sisters from Houston and Johnny’s cousins—showed up to hearings. The support he had was tremendous, and while it might have put more pressure to win the case, it really didn’t—Natalie’s family trusted that we were doing the right thing, the right way, and that justice would follow. And even though the case took almost two years to get to trial, Johnny never showed his frustration, partly because I did my best to explain why the case was taking so long.
Two tricky witnesses
The main reason for the delay was Donn Chelli, Natalie’s neighbor way back when.
Neither the defense nor the Austin Police Department (APD) detectives were able to contact him. They tracked him to Nevada and then to Los Angeles, but his physical address was a P.O. box in a strip mall. We even asked the L.A. district attorney’s office to help find him but they, too, drew a blank. He became known as “the Chelli problem.”
Our position was that he was unreliable as a witness and probably made up the story about seeing a peeping Tom the night of Natalie’s attack. We came to this conclusion based on the fact that he’d supposedly seen the mystery peeper in the Lotions shirt at about 4:30 a.m. but had not called 911 for over an hour. And during that time, he’d collared Johnny and no doubt gotten details about what happened to Natalie from him. It was my first thought, and Walsh agreed, that Chelli had made up the story of the burly man looking into people’s windows to get himself into the investigation. Certain things about Chelli’s past (instances of delusional behavior and false reports over a period of 30 years) made that approach perfectly reasonable. But the real problem was that the defense was desperate to get his testimony into evidence because the man he had described simply didn’t fit Davis’s description.
Eventually, the defense asked Judge Mike Lynch to allow the statement itself to be read into evidence, based on both parties’ inability to bring Chelli to court and on simple fairness grounds. Judge Lynch did so, acknowledging the unusual nature of the ruling and with the understanding that he was open to our concerns about rebutting Chelli’s testimony.
Interestingly, a few months prior to trial, Chelli sent me a fax. In it, he reiterated his original statement and mentioned several health concerns that prevented him from coming to Austin. While the fax didn’t contain a physical address, it did include his phone number. Over the next few weeks my second chair and court chief, Efrain De La Fuente, and I had numerous phone conversations with him. During those talks Chelli changed several parts of his statement, saying he’d never seen Johnny, let alone spoken to him, and telling us that the mystery Lotions man wasn’t 6 feet tall, as his statement said, but 6-foot-3. Our pleas were not enough to convince him to come to trial, however, and he never revealed his actual whereabouts so that we could subpoena him.
Other than the Chelli problem, the main pretrial issue was Becky Davis’s assertion of the spousal privilege. Despite making the call that started the reinvestigation, Ms. Davis was now back with her husband and supporting him fully. Importantly, she never retracted her statement that Dennis had said he’d “sinned against God and man,” but rather she was now claiming they were common-law married at the time the statement was made back in 1991.
In March of this year, Judge Lynch presided over a hearing on this issue. Becky Davis confirmed that her husband had made that statement in March of 1991, a few months after they met. They’d traveled together and represented they were married, she said, and furthermore she’d been to the hospital earlier that year and told the doctors they were married. On cross-examination I asked how many times she’d been to the hospital in 1991, and she said once. She also assured the court that if we could somehow go back in time and find her admittance paperwork, it would show she was married and that Dennis Davis was listed as her emergency contact.
At that point, I pulled out a copy of the document (business records affidavit attached) and asked her to read those relevant details to the court: that she’d said she was single and listed her father in Arizona as the emergency contact. A couple of weeks later the judge ruled that she could not invoke the spousal privilege to avoid testifying.
The trial began on Monday, April 11. We picked the jury in the afternoon, and the focus of voir dire was simple: This was a cold case, so I wanted to know if anyone would hold the State to a standard higher than beyond a reasonable doubt. I’d expected DNA to come up, of course, but a couple of people said DNA was an absolute must for a conviction in any cold case—even if the victim and killer knew each other and even if we could show a video of the actual killing! When even the judge was unable to rehabilitate them, these folks were struck for cause.
On Tuesday we began with opening statements. I wanted to tell the story to the jurors, to let them see that Dennis Davis was the only possible killer and that he’d made a series of mistakes (I called them “breadcrumbs” he’d left behind) that led police to his door: the false alibi, lies in his interview, and admissions to two women. As French author Albert Camus put it, “A guilty conscience needs to confess.”
We then started the evidence by setting the scene. Johnny testified first, talking about his close relationship with his mother, Natalie, and what it was like finding her battered and bloody. We admitted 60 photos of the crime scene through Johnny, an ordeal he managed brilliantly. Susan Otten, Natalie’s roommate, testified next, reinforcing the horror of that scene. We ran into a problem with Susan, though, one we’d come across throughout this case: She couldn’t remember a thing. Her memory was so poor it triggered Texas Rule of Evidence 803(5), the recorded recollection exception to the hearsay rule, which allowed her to read her statement into evidence. Through her we also played the 911 tape from 1985; crackly and hard to hear, it was nevertheless an effective way to take jurors back in time.
We then put on the crime scene artist to show a sketch of the apartment and a blood spatter expert to explain how the killer might not be covered in blood. His testimony was that because of the likely implement (a small baseball bat) and where Natalie was hit, any spatter would have been away from the assailant. We also called Dr. Robert Bayardo, the original medical examiner, who testified that a baseball bat could have been the murder weapon.
Our intention the next day was to connect Davis to the crime scene. We began with Detective Tom Walsh, who explained how the cold case unit works, how cases are assigned, and how detectives go about looking into such old cases. We then admitted a redacted copy of his videotaped interview with Davis. We’d worked with the judge and defense counsel to edit it, and the hour-long video contained clips from both the State and the defense. The jurors were glued to the big television, and I paused the tape occasionally to emphasize with Walsh certain of Davis’s admissions: that he never owned a bat, he used to go into rages, he left the note, and he was jealous of Natalie’s friendship with another man.
We then put on Jimmy Rose, Davis’s best friend from the 1980s, who told jurors he’d seen Davis arguing with Natalie the night of the assault. On the stand he wavered, saying he now couldn’t recall whether it was Friday or Saturday night. But he didn’t waver when he confirmed that Davis had owned a small baseball bat.
Amparo Garcia-Crowe came next, and I entered her diary into evidence using (for the first and last time, I expect!) the “ancient documents” exception to the hearsay rule. She was a powerful witness as she was positive Davis wasn’t with her that night—absolutely 100-percent sure.
The last witness of the day lived in the same apartment complex and suffered the same memory problems as Susan but managed to testify that she’d seen an old Chevrolet Malibu parked diagonally in the lot outside the building where Natalie was attacked about an hour before the assault. She never got a license plate number and couldn’t remember the car’s color or the year, but in the interview with Walsh, Davis had admitted owning a Malibu in the mid-’80s.
Thursday was the big day. We began with Becky Davis, who confirmed again the statement her husband had once made, though she tried to link it somehow to the death of his mother. She also told a story about Davis getting angry in their yard at home and swinging an axe-type implement over his head—in her words, not trying to hit her with it, just “aiming” at her. This reaffirmed one element of our theme: that when he didn’t get his way, Davis flew into violent rages. Becky Davis couldn’t provide any rational alternative explanation for her husband’s statement, and she had, after all, initially linked it to Natalie’s death. It was powerful evidence.
Next was our “star” witness, Davis’s former fiancée, Gelinda Mudgett. Now married to a police officer in Arkansas, Mudgett is a successful realtor and member of the chamber of commerce, and she looked like a professional woman who was not excited about testifying and still pretty angry at some of the things Davis had done to her in the late 1980s. Most of those things, such as assaulting her at a party and threatening to blow her up with a hand grenade, were inadmissible, of course. Even so, mostly in response to the defense lawyer’s questions, bits and pieces came out, and she was always adamant that yes, Dennis Davis had lain on the front porch of their house, sobbing and confessing to her that he’d killed Natalie Antonetti.
As the trial progressed, our hopes for a guilty verdict rose: The witnesses were doing great and a coherent picture of a violent and dangerous Dennis Davis was emerging.
The defense began with a couple of witnesses who testified that in their opinions, Gelinda was not a truthful person. None of the defense’s character witnesses had seen her for 20 years and all were friends of Davis, so we didn’t dwell too long on cross-examining them.
Next defense counsel read into evidence Donn Chelli’s statement. They also read in a stipulation regarding some of the changes he’d made to his statement in his conversations with us. Hearsay testimony all of it, but done to ensure that Davis received the fairest trial possible. The defense also put on its investigator, who produced title records for the Chevy Malibu Davis had owned, showing he’d registered it in 1987, two years after the assault.
Dennis Davis did not testify.
We called three witnesses in rebuttal. One was possibly a first for prosecutors, at least in our office: a professor of neurology, Chuck Weaver, who testified about issues relating to eyewitness identification. Because the judge had decided to allow Chelli’s statement in, Efrain and I thought we should address his testimony. It was clear Chelli was all over the place on some specifics, but he’d always been clear that the perpetrator was carrying a bat and wore a Lotions t-shirt. We realized, in something of a eureka moment, that Chelli probably had seen someone lurking around the apartment that morning: Dennis Davis.
This line of thinking crystallized when I decided to check on the details of Gerald Kruz, arrested back in 1985, the homeless man Chelli had said was a match for the mystery Lotions man. Sure enough, when I got his booking records I saw he was 5-foot-8 inches tall, the same height as the defendant. Weaver testified that in high-stress situations, in the dark, and where a person sees someone with a bat and a T-shirt they recognize, peripheral descriptors, such as height, weight, hair color, and hair length, are going to be less than reliable.
We then put on the police officer who’d arrested Kruz to prove up the details of his height and weight. And finally, I called a smartly dressed tech executive, Dale Hopkins, who, 25 years before, had been the founding member of one of the first-ever Christian heavy metal bands, a group who dressed like the members of KISS and had songs called, for example, “Crush the Head of Satan.” He was a powerful witness, too, in negating the 1987 car registration document: He said he’d traded his Chevy Malibu to Davis in exchange for studio time on an EP. I introduced the EP, dated 1986, into evidence. My witness explained that if the EP had come out in March of that year, which he’d double checked, then they would have been recording throughout the latter half of 1985, putting the car in Davis’s possession in about May of 1985, months before the assault. This contradicted Davis’s assertion that he’d not owned the car before 1987, even though that was when he registered it.
In closing arguments, Efrain took the jurors back to the crime scene: no burglary, he said, no signs of a break-in, and no evidence of any sexual assault. Not even any defensive wounds on Natalie’s hands or arms and no injuries other than to her head. Whoever had done this knew Natalie and was powerfully angry with her. In a rage.
The defense, quite properly, reminded jurors how old the case was and how memories can’t be trusted over so many years. They emphasized the high burden of guilt and reminded jurors of the lack of physical evidence tying Davis to the scene.
When I stood to speak, I had one aim: to have the jurors convict Davis on his own words. I went through his statement, pointing out the lies and the omissions. I reminded them of his videotaped interview and urged them to look at it again, to take in his admissions of jealousy, rages, and the nasty note he left for Natalie. And then I, too, took them back to the crime scene and argued that no one in the world had a reason to hurt Natalie. No one except Dennis Davis. “This case is about jealousy. It’s about rage, and it’s about holding Dennis Davis accountable for the murder of Natalie Antonetti. And,” I finished, “it’s about time.”
The jury was out for about three and a half hours before returning a verdict of guilty late on Friday afternoon.
We held the punishment hearing the following Monday, and I put on just two witnesses: Johnny and his aunt, Natalie’s sister, Olga. They talked about her life, what she’d meant to them, and how much they missed her. Because 1985 parole law applied (one-third, as opposed to one-half) I asked for a high sentence, 60 years. The defense had asked that he be given a glimmer of hope that he might get out and see his family again, though I reminded the judge he’d just had 25 years of freedom that he didn’t deserve, 25 years of being with family that he’d denied Natalie. Davis stood impassive as Judge Lynch sentenced him to 36 years in prison.
This was, without doubt, the most challenging case I’d ever taken on, and I suspect it will remain at the top of the list. For that reason alone I was delighted with the result but even more important was the reaction of Natalie’s family. This tight-knit group had come to all the hearings, stayed in constant contact, and sat through every moment of trial. Johnny, who’d remained stolid during his testimony, hugged me tearfully at the end.
He told me a story a week later that showed how much healing had occurred since the trial. After Natalie’s death, her father (Johnny’s grandfather) had stopped wearing colorful ties, instead opting for somber black ties in honor of his lost daughter every day for 25 years. But at a family gathering after the conviction, one of his other daughters gasped: The old man had put on a tie that was a soft shade of red.