Missing person vs. murder victim

2009

Tarrant County prosecutors tried a defendant for murdering Glenda Gail Furch, whose body was never found. Here’s how they investigated her disappearance, determined that she had been killed, and convicted the man responsible.

 

Glenda Gail Furch was a creature of habit. A hard-working mother of two, she worked the same shift at the same General Motors plant for nearly 28 years. She was a dependable employee involved in the local labor union who enjoyed talking with her colleagues about work conditions and pay. She lived in the same apartment complex in Fort Worth for over 20 years. She took her grandson to school every day and had lunch with her family after church on Sundays. Even when she couldn’t attend the church where she had been a member for over 50 years, she personally tithed each week. She talked to her 89-year-old father, Johnnie, who had recently been diagnosed and treated for cancer, every day.

These consistent patterns came to an abrupt halt the last weekend of September 2007. On the 27th, Gail returned to work at GM after a short union strike, enthusiastic about some new changes and eager to get back in the swing of things. According to her time card, she clocked out of the plant just after midnight on Friday. At about 12:24 that morning she bought gas at a convenience store close to her house. That purchase would be her last known act.

Gone missing

Gail’s daughter LaTisha Furch was home with her son that Friday and didn’t talk to her mother. She tried several times to get in touch with her Saturday but thought she might just be resting after her late shift or out shopping. Unable to reach her mom by Sunday, LaTisha became concerned and went to her apartment to check on her. As she went inside, things seemed relatively normal and not out of place. She continued to call and leave messages with no answer. By Monday, LaTisha’s curiosity turned to concern. She went back to her mother’s apartment and made her way through the rooms as she talked on the phone to a friend. As LaTisha got closer to her mother’s bedroom, she was struck by an overwhelming smell of bleach. Her concern turned to fear when she saw a large bleach stain on the carpet of her mother’s bedroom and noticed the comforter and top sheet of her mother’s bed were missing. She called police.

As soon as Crime Scene Investigator Ernie Pate from the Fort Worth Police Department walked inside, he realized he was standing in a crime scene. He and his team meticulously combed the entire apartment and made some striking discoveries. Gail’s car, purse, and keys were missing. As Pate dusted the surfaces he noted that the house was what he described as “chillingly” clean. There was not a fingerprint to be found, which is very unusual for a home. He also noticed the large bleach stain and recent vacuum marks on the carpet. Further investigation revealed that the vacuum cleaner was missing and all of the trash cans in the house had been removed. Someone had obviously taken the time to clean up whatever they had done to Ms. Furch.

Detectives Sarah Jane Waters and Brent Johnson arrived at the scene shortly thereafter. As they canvassed the area for possible witnesses, one bit of information led them to look in the large dumpster right outside the apartment. A man walking through the apartment complex told the detectives he had seen a man putting items into the dumpster, but he could not remember exactly when he saw him and could not give a very clear description of the person. In one of the least glamorous acts of her career, Crime Scene Investigator Nelwyn Russell climbed into the dumpster and began combing through what seemed like month’s worth of trash. What she discovered came to be a key to solving the case. Among the random piles of trash from the apartment complex were five trash bags filled with items that matched other things in Ms. Furch’s home, plus empty containers of cleaners, empty soda cans, used rolls of duct tape, and electrical wires that had obviously been cut and tied in what appeared to be ligatures. Police officers were convinced something horrible had happened. Now they had to find Ms. Furch and her assailant.

Detectives Waters and Johnson embarked on a dual investigation. Where could Gail Furch be, and who was the main suspect in her disappearance? Comparing their task to finding the proverbial needle in a haystack would be an understatement. They began talking to the people she knew to ascertain who might want to harm her. They found that Gail didn’t date a lot, and the men she did date had nothing but kind things to say about her. Gail did not go out much and spent most of her time with the same group of people. When those close to her had no answers, detectives cast the net even wider. They looked at other employees at General Motors and investigated registered sex offenders. They went through Gail’s recent calls on her cell and home phones. Many people confirmed what detectives were quick to discover: Gail was a caring person who stayed in touch with friends and didn’t engage in questionable activities. No one had seen or heard from Gail since that Thursday night when she last worked. Without any leads or a suspect, everyone continued to focus on finding her. The local news ran stories and pictures hoping that someone had seen her or her car. The family passed out fliers and a reward was offered for information. Search dogs were called in and the area around her apartment was scoured.

Stumbling upon a suspect

As family members and law enforcement officials continued to search for Gail, a chain of seemingly unconnected events drew Rodney Owens closer into detectives’ field of vision. Owens had been discharged from the army after he was convicted of aggravated assault at a general court martial. His longtime girlfriend and mother of his son, Nekishia Baldwin, had recently ended their relationship, and Owens did not deal well with people telling him no or interfering with what he wanted. After their breakup, Owens confronted Nekishia in mid-September by trying to run her off the road. A week later, Owens was driving another car (stolen, it turned out), when he saw Nekishia’s new boyfriend, Reggie Lucien, whom Owens followed for nearly 20 minutes before finally losing patience and knocking Reggie’s car across three lanes of traffic into a grocery store parking lot. Owens would stop at nothing to find Nekishia and Reggie and threaten them; they were both convinced he had the potential to hurt or even kill them. The next time Nekishia was aware of Owens following and harassing her was Tuesday, October 2, almost a week after Gail Furch went missing. Nekishia and her friend Kirsten Parker went to the neighborhood Wal-Mart, where they both worked, to pick up a paycheck. Once Nekishia went inside, Kirsten saw Owens driving a Mazda Millenia, which police later discovered was owned by Gail Furch. The women called police, but by the time they arrived, Owens was gone.

In the early morning hours of Wednesday, October 3, the Dallas Fire Department was called to an abandoned car wash on the southeast side of town. They arrived to find a Mazda Millenia engulfed in flames. Arson investigators determined the fire was intentionally started and towed the car to the city impound lot for further investigation. The car had no plates so auto theft investigators located the VIN, which told them the car belonged to Glenda Gail Furch.

Less than 24 hours later, within a mile and a half of the car wash, Jessie Crawford drove to her local church for some donated groceries. As she sat in her car in front of the church, a man pointed a gun in her face and demanded the keys to her car. She described him to Dallas police and noted he was wearing a light-colored hoodie sweatshirt. The gunman left in her silver Ford Focus. Approximately one hour later, Reggie Lucien was standing outside of his house in Arlington when Owens drove up and threatened that he better leave Nekishia alone. During this altercation Owens brandished a gun and fired two shots toward Lucien as he was driving away. Lucien later told police that Owens was driving a silver Ford Focus that morning.

On Sunday, October 28, Officer William Snow was on patrol, training a rookie officer; as part of his regular routine he ran the license plates of cars in the area to see if any came back as stolen. Officer Snow happened to run the plate of a silver Ford Focus parked outside a convenience store. As he was doing so, Owens came out of the store, walked to the back of the car, appeared to place something in the trunk, then got behind the wheel. As soon as the plates came back as stolen from Jessie Crawford in Dallas, Officer Snow attempted to stop Owens, who started the car and took off without turning on his lights. Thus began a high-speed pursuit throughout Fort Worth and Forest Hill involving many officers and a police helicopter. Owens’ reckless disregard for others was captured on a police video in vivid detail. The pursuit ended when Owens attempted to take the exit ramp onto I -35 North at 75 miles per hour. He lost control of the car, which flipped and landed on its side on a bridge. As officers approached the car, Owens started to run down the bridge and at one point tried to jump off the side. Police eventually apprehended him.

Because the car was stolen out of Dallas, Fort Worth officers contacted the detective in charge of the car-jacking case and told him the Ford Focus was at the Fort Worth impound lot. Dallas Detective Douglas Jones opened the trunk and found many items, including computer equipment, a microwave, and a backpack. As a former military man himself, Dallas Detective Jones recognized the items he saw in the backpack. It contained clean underwear, a camouflage jacket with Owens’ name printed on the front, a toothbrush, non-perishable food, a birth certificate, and a Social Security card. Owens was a man on the move. What troubled Detective Jones most were cut phone cords tied together into ligatures, duct tape, and rubber surgical gloves. During trial Detective Jones referred to these items as Owens’ rape kit. Additionally a handgun was found with the backpack.

Detective Jones contacted Sergent John Ost, the officer who arrested Owens after he wrecked the car on the bridge. Ost had a hunch that led to detectives tying all of the pieces of the puzzle together; he was the supervising officer over the Woodhaven area, which included Gail Furch’s apartment. He remembered seeing a report of an additional burglary on Saturday, September 27 in the same complex where Gail lived. The items missing from that burglary matched the computer and microwave found in the silver Ford Focus Owens was driving. Additionally, Ost, who was familiar with some of the details of Gail’s case, began to inquire about the proximity of the car wash where Furch’s car was burned to the church where the Ford Focus was carjacked. He suggested Jones talk to the homicide detectives working the Furch case about the additional information. Jones took a photo lineup to Jessie Crawford, who tentatively identified Owens as the person who carjacked her.

With a suspect in custody, the next step was comparing Owens DNA with the DNA found on the items collected in the dumpster outside of Gail’s apartment. Testing revealed that each of the five trash bags in the dumpster contained at least one item linked to Gail and one item linked to Owens by DNA, fingerprints, or both. For example, one bag contained a Diet Dr Pepper can with Owens’ DNA around the rim, a blue bath mat matching other textiles in Gail’s bathroom with Owens’ semen on it, a soap dispenser matching other items in Gail’s bathroom, a camera with film depicting Gail and her family, and a necklace identified as Gail’s. Another bag had a Coca-Cola can with Owens’ DNA on the rim and mail addressed to Gail Furch. The next sack contained a maroon towel that matched towels in Furch’s apartment with Owens’ DNA and what was shown to be Gail’s DNA. (Without a known sample, the DNA was determined to be Gail’s through testing her daughters). The last bag had a Red Bull can with Owens’ DNA, a receipt for gas purchased the night Gail was last seen at work, and a roll of duct tape with Owens’ fingerprint (it was an unusual brand, which matched duct tape in the backpack in the Ford Focus).

Armed with the connection of Owens’ DNA to Gail’s property, witnesses seeing Owens in Gail’s car, Gail’s car being burned within a mile and a half and 24 hours of where Owens carjacked Jessie Crawford, and Owens’ high-speed flight from the police, there was enough to indict Rodney Owens for the murder of Glenda Gail Furch. We still did not have a body, though.

Preparing for trial

Getting past the grand jury was one thing. Convincing 12 citizens beyond a reasonable doubt was a whole different ballgame.

A key objective during voir dire was measuring the panel’s attitude about convicting someone of murder without a body. What type of evidence would the jurors require to deflect any reasonable doubt that Gail was actually dead without knowing how or when the murder occurred? Surprisingly, the panel was quick to get past the issue of believing a person is dead even without a body. The timing could not have been better for the State. The week before trial, reports surfaced that millionaire pilot and explorer Steve Fossett’s wallet and other belongings had been found by a hiker not far from where his plane went missing. One member of the venire was quick to point out that Fossett had actually been pronounced legally dead months before this discovery. He explained that Fossett’s lifestyle and connection to family and friends left little doubt that he was dead—if he were alive, someone would have seen or heard from him. The same potential juror who offered the Fossett example worked for the Federal Aviation Administration and was the eventual foreperson of the jury.

After getting over the initial hurdle of not having a body, the panel struggled with the idea that a person could be charged with committing murder by a “manner and means unknown to the grand jury.” TV crime dramas once again played into the minds of otherwise trusting citizens. The panel wanted DNA, a large amount of blood, a confession, or some type of evidence to clearly show that the death was intentional, but their concern did not rise to the level of being excusable for cause. The majority of the panel seemed satisfied with the idea that a person could be dead even in the absence of a body, but potential jurors wanted more evidence to show that the death occurred by the defendant’s intentional actions. In fact, few potential jurors were struck on any of the guilt-innocence issues. The trouble arose when they began to consider the full range of punishment in a case they were now assuming would not include a body as proof. Several jurors had problems considering life in prison when they would not know how the victim was killed. We also had several on the panel who had personally dealt with a murder in their family and could not consider the minimum of five years, an issue not uncommon to any murder case.

Legally, we felt confident about going forward with the case because we were supported by caselaw. In the infamous case of killer Kenneth McDuff, the defendant was tried and sentenced to death without a body. There were many distinctions between McDuff’s case and ours, the biggest being the eyewitness testimony of McDuff’s co-defendant, which narrowed down the manner and means of the death and gave evidence of additional felonies, thus allowing McDuff to be tried for capital murder. In our case against Rodney Owens, we were forced to rely on physical evidence with no explanation for the manner and means of death. Part of the physical evidence was Owens’ semen on Gail’s bathmat found in the dumpster indicating a possible sexual assault and potential motive for killing her, but the DNA evidence alone was not enough to determine if the semen was left as a result of sexual assault. We could not prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Ms. Furch didn’t consent to any type of sexual encounter or if the semen was left on the bathmat after Ms. Furch had been murdered. The risk of including an additional charge or increasing the charge to capital murder was too great. We found some limited support when a jailhouse informant contacted the Tarrant County DA’s office with some information that he claimed Owens told him while they were incarcerated together in the county jail. Detective Sarah Jane Waters met with the informant at the Beto Unit of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice and obtained a statement from him. He gave information about the murder that was not released to the public and matched the evidence police had gathered. Owens knew Gail’s hours at the plant, that she lived alone, that he believed she would let him in the door because she had seen him around the apartment complex, and that he had used bleach to clean up the scene after he killed her. The informant had already pleaded guilty to his offense and agreed to testify without any benefit from the DA’s office; he asked only to be moved to a unit closer to his ailing mother, which eased any fears that he might be making up the information for preferential treatment. Like many prosecutors, we would much rather have solid DNA and fingerprint evidence than eyewitness accounts that could change over time, so we were confident that the DNA and fingerprint evidence would prove far stronger than eyewitness testimony. Equally powerful would be how Gail’s very regular activities came to a halt.

The trial

During trial we were grateful to have the assistance of our in-house technology specialist, Rhona Wedderien. She organized the volumes of photographs of the items taken from the trash bags in the dumpster and the multiple locations important to the case into a chronological slideshow that help the jury follow along. Additionally she prepared large maps that depicted the distance from the car wash where Owens dumped Gail’s car to the church where he carjacked Jessie Crawford; a second aerial map showed the apartment complex where Gail lived with pointers to her apartment, Owens’ mother’s nearby apartment where he stayed from time to time, the apartment from which the items in the trunk of the Ford Focus were stolen, and the convenience store where Officer Snow began his pursuit of Owens. Along with the maps, Rhona crafted large boards with photographs of the items that came out of each trash bag. The boards made it clear to the jury that it was more than mere coincidence that Owens’ DNA was connected to Gail’s belongings. We also used a timeline during opening and closing arguments to specifically show the dates and times of key events.

The jury began deliberating on Wednesday afternoon and took a break for the evening. Jurors came back in a little over three hours Thursday morning with a guilty verdict. During punishment the jury got the full picture of the timeline and how Owens’ escapades with Nekisha Baldwin and Reggie Lucien tied him even more directly to the crime spree and showed how little regard he has for human life. One difficulty was in presenting perhaps the most offensive aspect of this murder: How could we emphasize to the jury that not only was Owens cold enough to kill, but he was also callous enough not to tell where he had hidden Gail’s body? Would the jury fully appreciate how much this family longed to know where Gail was and how Owens was choosing not to give them that peace of mind?

Within two hours of closing arguments, the jury answered by assessing a life sentence. Speaking with several members of the jury after the verdict, we found out they never had a problem believing Owens was guilty of the murder. They had their verdict Wednesday night but wanted to sleep on their decision, realizing the effect it would have on not only Gail’s family but on Rodney Owens as well. Once they were privy to his true character through additional punishment testimony from Baldwin, Lucien, and others, it was clear that this man was a danger to anyone who got in the way of what he wanted. When defense counsel asked Nekisha Baldwin if she thought he could be saved or changed, she quickly responded, “No, he will never change.”

We made is clear through Owens’ attorney that we would welcome any further information on the whereabouts of Gail’s body, but we haven’t gotten anything from Owens.     While Glenda Gail Furch’s family may spend the rest of their lives wondering what ultimately happened to her, they have found some peace in knowing Rodney Owens will spend the rest of his life paying for taking her away from them. ✤