Trial starting this week in 24-year-old mass murder case


Last Update: Jul 31, 2007 1:17 PM

HENDERSON, Texas (AP) - Retired truck driver Joel McKinley remembers coming home from work that Saturday morning but unable to get to his place out in the country because dozens of police cars and ambulances lined the narrow and normally deserted Rusk County Road 231.

"We don't get that much traffic out here over six months," recalled McKinley, 70.

Some 500 yards from his home northwest of Henderson, along a grass and gravel oil lease road like countless others that crisscross the legendary East Texas Oilfield - at one time the world's largest - a worker checking a well had made a horrific discovery.

Five bodies. Three men and two women. All shot to death.

"I remember it very well," McKinley said of the day 24 years ago next month. "It shook everybody up."

This week, the first of two men charged with what became known as "The Kentucky Fried Chicken Murders" is set to go on trial. The slayings remained unsolved for more than two decades, making the case among the state's oldest unsolved mass murders.

Four of the victims were in a cluster not far from a huge pecan tree and just off a slight bend in the oilfield road, really more a path, that leads to the production site. The fifth body - a woman - was nearer to the county road. It appeared she had tried to flee.

The five were reported missing the previous night - Sept. 23, 1983 - from a Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant in Kilgore, 15 miles to the north.

Romeo Pinkerton, 49, of nearby Tyler, with a long burglary history, faces a possible death sentence if convicted of the five counts of capital murder.

Jury selection was scheduled to start Wednesday in New Boston, 90 miles north of Henderson, where the trial was moved because of publicity here.

"It is, perhaps, the most notorious crime in northeast Texas, if not Texas as a whole," prosecutors told State District Judge J. Clay Gossett in their request to move the trial. "A fair and impartial trial cannot safely and speedily be had in Rusk County, Texas."

Gossett has set aside up to 12 weeks for the trial.

Pinkerton's cousin and alleged partner, Darnell Hartsfield, 46, also from Tyler, faces the same charges when he goes to trial likely next year.

Pinkerton and Hartsfield are accused of entering the KFC on the main north-south route through Kilgore, where classic oilfield derricks still line a downtown street of the 1930s boomtown equally famous as home of the high-stepping Kilgore College Rangerettes drill team.

It was about 10 p.m. and they planned to rob the place, prosecutors allege. About an hour later, the daughter of assistant manager Mary Tyler arrived to pick her up from work, but Tyler wasn't there. Neither were her three co-workers: Opie Ann Hughes, 39; and Joey Johnson and David Maxwell, both 20. Also missing was Monte Landers, 19, who was at the KFC that night to see his Kilgore College fraternity brothers Johnson and Maxwell.

Investigators found blood on the floor and a cash register tape showing about $2,000 had been in the cash box.

In Rusk County the next morning, authorities determined the five victims had been shot in the head from behind. Maxwell, Johnson, Landers and Tyler were lined up. It appeared Hughes, found about 50 yards away, was the one who tried to escape.

A bloodstain on the box containing the cash tape, tested in 2001 using newly developed DNA technology, put Hartsfield at the scene.

He'd been in a Texas prison since 1995 on a 40-year sentence for delivery of a controlled substance and engaging in organized criminal activity. Hartsfield told a grand jury in 2003 he wasn't at the restaurant, but with the new DNA results, plus earlier witness accounts that put him there that night, prosecutors charged him with perjury. A jury convicted him and he was sentenced to life in prison because of his criminal record, which also includes aggravated robbery, engaging in organized crime, burglary and reckless endangerment.

Two weeks later, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott announced capital murder indictments against Hartsfield and Pinkerton, who also was linked to the scene by DNA. The convicted burglar, paroled at least five times over the years, was arrested in Tyler on a warrant for yet another parole violation.

Prison records show Hartsfield was arrested in Smith County for aggravated robbery three days after the KFC slayings. He was paroled in 1992, had the parole revoked, was released two years later and returned to prison in 1995.

Pinkerton, whose birth records list his first name as Ronnie, first went to prison in 1981 for a Smith County burglary. He told investigators he was in prison at the time of the slayings, but records show he was paroled two days before the murders.

All parties in the case have been barred from discussing it under a gag order.

Prosecutors, led by Lisa Tanner, an assistant attorney general who was lead prosecutor in the Hartsfield perjury case, initially had 609 names on their witness list, but more recently trimmed it to 128. Gossett sent summonses to 350 prospective jurors in Bowie County, in far northeast Texas.

After they fill out questionnaires and get a brief introduction to the case Wednesday, jurors are to undergo individual questioning starting next week.

Jurors will be deciding a case where prosecutors turned over to defense lawyers 127 CDs of material. One of those is a DVD that holds the equivalent of more than 30,000 pages of documents.

Pinkerton and Hartsfield weren't the first to be charged in the case.

In April 1995, James Earl "Jimmy" Mankins Jr., a Kilgore man convicted of federal drug trafficking charges, was indicted for capital murder after a torn fingernail believed to be his was found on the body of one of the victims. Subsequent DNA tests exonerated him and the charges were dropped.

Mankins' name may surface during trial, and prosecutors have asked any information about him be reviewed first outside the presence of the jury.

Even if Pinkerton is convicted, his execution ultimately may be in doubt because defense lawyers say there's evidence in his past of mental retardation, which under a U.S. Supreme Court ruling would bar him from lethal injection.

Pinkerton's attorneys, David Griffith of Gilmer and Jeff Haas of Tyler, wanted a separate jury trial before murder case was tried to determine if Pinkerton was retarded. Tanner opposed the request.

"It would be hard to argue that the capital murders for which the defendant is charged did not require forethought, planning and complex execution of purpose," she said in her arguments. "Moreover, the defendant's statements to law enforcement and others about the murders for which he has been charged go directly to the question of whether he can hide facts and/or lie effectively in his own interests."

Gossett ruled the question could be addressed after punishment phase testimony if Pinkerton is convicted.

Defense lawyers also were challenging use of photos of Pinkerton selected by witnesses who identified him, as well as the legality of Pinkerton's statements to authorities before a grand jury indicted him for capital murder.

Griffith contended prosecutors knew Pinkerton is mentally retarded because he was classified as such by state prison officials, and that there was no evidence to show he understood his rights when he waived them before speaking with authorities who questioned him.

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