A long-dormant Houston case is cracked

Katherine McDaniel

Assistant District ­Attorney in Harris ­County

The chilling story of a “black widow” in Houston

In the early morning hours of April 22, 1987, the sheriff’s department was called to an upper-middle-class home in northwest Harris County. Neighbors called police after Norma Jean Clark woke them in the middle of the night claiming an intruder had shot her husband, Ed.

    When police arrived at the two-story home in a wooded, small neighborhood, they found the front door open with no signs of forced entry. Just inside the master bedroom, Ed Clark lay dead. The only signs of distress in the bedroom were the gunshots and resulting blood spatter—Mr. Clark had clearly been killed in his sleep. He was face-down with the covers up to his neck, a gunshot wound to the back of his head and another through the sheets into his back. Ed’s own handgun, a .38 revolver, had been used to kill him, and it lay on the dresser near his lifeless body.

    A search of the exterior of the house showed no signs of entry at the back door or through any windows. There were no indications of a struggle, and nothing was taken from the home. The alarm either had not been set that night or had been turned off. Ed’s friends and family reported that he was a stickler for the alarm, and they all found it out of the ordinary that the alarm would be off. Ed’s son, Edmund, even said that as a teenager, he had been caught sneaking out because even the windows had a sensor that would sound an alert when opened. This meant it was highly unlikely that there had been an intruder: If there had been, Ed would have heard the door sensor at a minimum, and the sheets would have been disturbed from his waking up.

     John and Judy Manack were neighbors and friends of the Clarks. John and Ed worked together in the construction business, and Judy and Norma frequently socialized. In fact, the Manacks called police when Norma Jean woke them early that morning. Norma told them she had been asleep upstairs when she heard “something” downstairs followed by a gunshot. She said she was sleeping alone in the upstairs bedroom with a bad cough because she had not wanted to wake Ed. She added that when she heard the gunshot, she went downstairs, past her marital bed, through the house, and out the garage, then ran through the woods to the Manacks’ house. She had not checked on Ed to see if he was OK.

    Judy Manack remembered several odd bits of behavior that night: For example, after running through the dense woods, Norma didn’t have any dirt or debris on her nightgown or her feet. And Norma went back home to get a change of clothes and returned holding her nightgown, which she asked Judy to wash for her. Judy had placed the nightgown on top of the washing machine and called police. She didn’t want to believe her friend had killed Ed, but she also didn’t want to destroy evidence. Reflecting on that day and Norma’s strange behavior, Judy noted, “Norma’s first concern did not seem to be that Ed was dead.”

    It was soon discovered that the Clarks’ marriage was in shambles at the time of Ed’s death. His friends and coworkers said that Ed was planning to leave Norma. Ed’s ex-wife, Linda, provided helpful insight into the background of Ed’s life. She and Ed had two children, and Ed worked in the construction business. As a site superintendent, he met Norma on a work site, where she was the trash truck driver. Ed left his family for her, and they were married. As time went on, the marriage began to falter, and there were rumors of Ed having an affair with someone at work; he was also moving money into bank accounts bearing only his name. Norma told her friends she wasn’t about to be on the losing end of another divorce. She had clearly come from humble beginnings. She told Judy and some of her other friends that she had been left penniless in the dissolution of her first marriage. She was bitter and resolute not to be poor again. On the night of his death, Ed’s bags were packed for a business trip to Miami. He had gone to a coworker’s house that night for drinks and expressed his intention to go home to tell Norma the marriage was over and demand that she move out while he was out of town.

    On the morning Ed’s body was found, while Norma was at the Manacks’, she called Dr. George Aubert, the chiropractor for whom she worked. She called with two specific requests: She asked for Dr. Aubert to help her get admitted to a hospital, and she asked for $10,000. Norma was trying to get the money for a defense lawyer, and she knew that after Ed’s death, their bank accounts would be frozen. Dr. Aubert corroborated that Norma had been ill with a bad cough—so ill, in fact, that she had stayed home from work for a few days before the murder. That morning, Norma said she “needed” to be admitted to the hospital because the police wanted to test her hands for gunshot residue. Dr. Aubert encouraged her to cooperate, saying that of course she hadn’t been shooting a gun—she had been bedridden for the last several days. But Norma said she had indeed been shooting in the backyard. At that, Dr. Aubert was puzzled. He was even more puzzled when she asked for money.

Always a suspect

From the beginning, Norma was a suspect. No signs of forced entry, no signs of burglary, a marriage on the rocks—all circumstances that led police to Norma. Without Dr. Aubert’s help, she got herself admitted to the hospital with bronchitis. She refused to give a formal statement to police.

    Back in 1986, Detective Anthony Rossi of the homicide division had secured Norma’s nightgown and had sent it to the Texas Department of Public Safety to test for gunshot residue and to determine if there were blood on it. He had also sent the sheets and bedspread for analysis. Detective Rossi presented his investigation to the district attorney’s office, and Norma was brought to the grand jury, as were her two teenage children, but Norma refused to testify. The grand jury had not been presented with charges, merely the investigation of the murder. It is hard to know why Norma was not charged back in 1987—the evidence was circumstantial but strong. The prosecutors back then made the decision to wait and see if the evidence improved.

    After that, Norma moved to Tennessee. Over time, there was a fight over Ed’s estate. Norma wanted to receive half and for Ed’s two children to each get a quarter, but Linda, Ed’s ex-wife, fought for the children’s fair share. The estate settled with one-third for Norma and one-third each for Ed’s two children. Linda long suspected that Norma had killed Ed for the money.

    With the passage of years, Detective Rossi retired, and the investigation went dormant.

    In 2009, a captain in the sheriff’s office, J.D. Satcher, remembered the case, and as he was planning to retire, he asked David Rossi (no relation to the homicide detective Rossi) of the Crime Scene Unit if he would examine the evidence. Over the years, Deputy David Rossi had developed an expertise in blood-stain pattern analysis. He pulled the nightgown Norma had been wearing the night of Ed’s murder, only to find that the cuffs on the sleeves were missing. He used a high-resolution microscope to examine the garment and found more than 50 potential microscopic blood spots. Significantly, these spots were consistent with impact spatter, which occurs when a projectile hits an object, such as a human head, and the blood “blows back” in a fine mist in a distinct, identifiable pattern. While the blood-stain pattern is affected by many things such as distance and whether there are any intermediary targets, its presence on the nightgown, when Norma said she’d been in another part of the house during the shooting, contradicted her statements to police. Deputy Rossi contacted the Harris County Sheriff’s Office Cold Case Unit, and the case was reopened.

An old case gets a new look

In 2010, I was assigned to our office’s Major Offenders Division, with a focus on large narcotics cases, gang cases, and cold-case homicides. I met with the sheriff’s Cold Case Unit detectives Dean Holtke and Eric Clegg to discuss Rossi’s findings and develop a plan for the case. Sgt. Holtke and Sgt. Clegg re-interviewed many of the participants from 1987—the Clarks’ coworkers, neighbors, the chiropractor, and Ed’s family. In each of those interviews, people said basically the same thing: that everyone had known Norma had killed her husband.

    Because of the age of the case and the age and fragility of the evidence, we had to proceed with extra care. We knew the nightgown had been tested in 1987. What we did not know is which chemicals had been put on the polyester nightgown back then or the potential degradation of what we thought was blood spatter due to those chemicals, time, and heat. We took the nightgown to the Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences, where Katie Welch, the assistant director of the lab, performed some testing on the spots. In 1987, there was only a presumptive test for blood, and the science of bloodstain pattern analysis, much less the technology of high-resolution microscopes, was not well-developed. In the last 25 years, many changes in the ability to test for the presence of blood had evolved.

    Katie took a look at the nightgown and did a cutting on one of the spots we believed could be blood. She used the Hematrace test, which is a confirmatory test for upper primate blood. The first spot tested from the nightgown turned up a positive result. Another spot yielded inconclusive results, and the case came to a standstill again. The Hematrace test consumed the entire spot each time the test was performed, so conducting additional tests was problematic. Similarly, any DNA testing would consume the individual spots. We made the decision not to have any DNA analysis done; if the spots yielded Ed’s DNA, it would neither help nor hurt the case—of course a husband’s DNA on his wife’s nightgown would be expected. The blood findings seemed much more important to the case. With a singular positive result for the presence of blood, we were prepared to go forward.

    Sgts. Holtke and Clegg traveled to Tennessee to attempt a non-custodial interview of Norma. Sgt. Holtke was equipped with a button recording device. Norma spoke with the detectives and claimed that she had always wanted to help find her husband’s killer. Apart from her attempt to find out what the detectives knew, the detectives learned nothing new. None of us expected she would admit to killing Ed in cold blood, but we wanted to afford her one more opportunity to give a statement.

    Much of what she said during this recent interview contradicted what she’d said in the days after the murder. Norma said on the night of the shooting, she had been sleeping on the second floor and was coming downstairs even though she “didn’t hear anything” until she was partway down. She said that the front door (at the base of the stairs) was wide open but that she had gone past it, through the house, and out the back door. She said she’d run through the woods to the Manacks’ house, rather than to the next-door neighbors because of their vicious dog. (We found out later she had often fed and tended to that dog.) She disavowed knowing Judy Manack very well and stated that her marriage was good. We knew that Ed was planning on leaving her, and he had told Norma so the night he was killed. We knew, too, that Norma and Judy had been great friends—so great, in fact, that Judy was listed as Norma’s “emergency contact” during her bogus hospital stay.

    Norma told Sgt. Holtke that she “didn’t feel like” she was a suspect and made contradictory statements about the gunshot residue test, first saying she didn’t know there was one and then saying no one had asked her to take it. Judy Manack had told us about a conversation she had with Norma the morning Ed died, where Judy talked to Norma about gunshot residue and noted that it would be easy for the police to exclude her as a suspect if she underwent the test.  Detective Rossi said he had asked her to take the test but she had refused back at the house. The reality was, of course, that with the disposable nature of gunshot residue particles, it is very possible nothing would have been recovered from her hands. What was important was her reaction and avoidance of the test. When they asked her about shooting the gun in the backyard (as she’d told Judy and Dr. Aubert way back when), Norma said she had not fired a gun. With discrepancies in her story identified, the detectives contacted me, and we prepared an arrest warrant.

    After Norma was arrested and brought back to Houston, we began to prepare for trial. I had the privilege of handling this case with Assistant District Attorney Donna Logan, who was there that first day for arraignment and for every step after. While Deputy Rossi’s opinions regarding the presence of the impact spatter were valuable, we wanted those findings to be peer-reviewed. We contacted Officer Chris Duncan of the Houston Police Department, an expert in crime-scene reconstruction, and asked if he would look at the nightgown. In addition to his blood spatter expertise, Officer Duncan holds a specialty in forensic photography, which, unbeknownst to us at the time, proved to be key to the investigation.

    We met with the professionals at the Institute of Forensic Sciences again, this time with a request to perform Hematrace on the sheets where Ed was shot. The idea was that if those sheets, which clearly had a large amount of blood on them, did not show a positive Hematrace result, we would know that the inconclusive results on the nightgown were likely due to the passage of time in non-climate controlled storage. If the sheets yielded a positive result, we would have to do additional research to determine what chemicals had been put on the nightgown in 1986. The Hematrace test on the sheets was negative, which was consistent with our theory that the passage of time and storage had caused the hemoglobin to become undetectable. If the bloody sheets were not positive for blood, we could better understand how the nightgown had yielded only one positive result on the impact spatter: simple destruction of evidence.

    We also asked that Dr. Bill Davis, an expert in the field of gunshot residue, examine the nightgown for any particles that might have remained on it. Dr. Davis explained to us that the particles of lead, barium, and antimony (all present in gunshot residue) were disposable, meaning the particles could fall off the gown in repeatedly transferring and packaging it. Dr. Davis was able to locate two particles, which, by his office’s standards, meant it had to be classified as “inconclusive.” However, Dr. Davis was confidant that the presence of this combination of elements would have come only from gunshot residue, and he testified accordingly. He also explained that the Atomic Absorption and Gryce tests used in 1987 would contribute to the loss of particles, as would any handling or agitation of the fabric.

    The defense retained the services of Tom Bevel, a nationally recognized expert on blood stain analysis and crime scene reconstruction. We made accommodations for Bevel to examine the evidence in person and made the evidence available should the defense seek to perform any additional analyses. (They didn’t).

    We went to trial 26 years, almost to the day, after Norma shot Ed to death.

Blood findings

As the day of trial approached, we had all of the evidence pulled from the property room. We looked through the boxes and found the fitted sheet, top sheet, and nightgown. There had been a bedspread on top of the sheets that had been logged into evidence in 1987, and Detective Rossi had submitted it to DPS that same year. The bedspread had been missing since then. As I reviewed Bevel’s report in preparation for cross-examination, I noticed something surprising: He documented having examined that missing bedspread, in fact using it as an important part of his analysis that there was no impact spatter on Norma’s nightgown. In reality, however, he had viewed only a 1987 photograph of the bedspread to draw this overreaching conclusion.

    We tried the case in front of Judge Marc Carter. The defense was multi-layered and quite challenging. Neal Davis, lead defense counsel, had been a police officer for quite some time and is an accomplished lawyer. He was extremely professional and knowledgeable in all the areas of forensic analysis and police investigation. Two lawyers, a jury consultant, and at least one intern assisted him. They challenged us at every juncture. Their defense was clearly that an intruder had killed Ed, but how that actually played out morphed during the days of trial.

    At trial, many of the crime-scene officers came to watch Tom Bevel, who had literally written the book on blood-stain pattern analysis. He initially stood by his finding of examining the bedspread, and when confronted with its absence, eventually conceded that he had not seen the actual bedspread, but rather a photo. He asserted that viewing a 26-year-old, 3×5-inch photo was sufficient for his conclusion that there was no impact spatter. It was here that Officer Duncan’s expertise in forensic photography, in addition to crime scene reconstruction, became so important. Officer Duncan explained to the jury that the quality of such an old photo would never be sufficient, in his opinion, to find definitively, as Bevel had, that there was no blood on the bedspread. This was a huge blow to the defense. It had premised a large part of its theory on Bevel’s findings and the State’s “less-qualified” experts being wrong. The defense theory was that there was not enough evidence to file charges in 1987, and if they proved there was no impact spatter on the nightgown, they asserted there was no new evidence, and hence, no case.  Bevel was exposed for his erroneous conclusions and shoddy work, and the defense amped up its rabbit trails.  

Whodunnit?

The defense contended that Ed had lots of enemies. For example, there had been a few instances of vandalism to the house and at least one where Ed had been hit on the head while resting on the couch some months prior to his death. But when these incidents happened, Norma’s disgruntled son was suspected of committing these crimes; he was eventually kicked out of the house. Still, that didn’t stop the defense from insinuating that maybe this angry stepson had killed Ed. The defense waited to make these allegations about the stepson during cross of the State’s witnesses. The defense theory appeared to be that Norma was not the killer and that lots of other people might have done it.

    We had learned through our investigation in 2010 that Ed had been constructing an apartment complex in Miami back in 1986 and that he had fired a plumber due to a drug problem. The defense deemed the plumber “the true assailant.” We were able to track down Billy Salyers, the plumber, and called him as a witness. When he took the stand, the jury saw a somewhat goofy, kind old man who admitted he’d had a drug problem back then but that he had worked for Ed after they patched things up in 1986. Billy and his wife remembered finding out about Ed’s death while they were in Miami around the time their baby was born—the timing and these details made it improbable that he could have been the murderer.

    The next suspect devised by the defense was Billy’s “assistant,” Michael Todaro, a man described by a friend of Norma’s as a “scary-looking Asian.” In 2010, homicide ran an ATF check on the gun used to kill Ed and found that the original purchaser in the 1970s was Mr. Todaro. Todaro had long ago moved to another country, but we were able to track down a DWI booking photo of him from the early 1990s. In the picture, he was naked. And laughing. The truth was that Todaro had no connection to the case other than that he was the original purchaser of Ed’s gun. In Texas, there is no database of registered guns as there is with cars. The gun likely changed hands several times through legal sales before Ed bought it at a gun show or from a private seller. The defense created the image of the “scary-looking Asian” as a rabbit trail, but Todaro had no part in the lives of any of these parties—neither Billy Salyers, nor anyone in the Clark family or among Ed’s co-workers had seen or heard of him before. One of Norma’s life-long friends tried to say she had seen him at the house before, but her overdramatic testimony did not hold up on cross. 

    Next, the defense contemplated calling Norma’s original lawyer from 1987. After much discussion regarding whether his testimony would then vitiate the attorney-client privilege, the defense decided not to call him. And after much discussion with her lawyers, Norma did not testify. 

Closing

Finally, after two weeks of testimony, we argued. Donna and I walked the jury through all the circumstances surrounding Ed’s death and why everything pointed to Norma. We talked about the impossibility of Norma’s running through the woods without a scratch and about there being no evidence of an intruder. We pointed to the fact that nothing was taken from the house and that Ed had been killed in his sleep with his own gun. Norma knew Ed was going to leave her, and she was not about to stand for mistreatment. She had grown accustomed to their fancy lifestyle and was not going to let it go easily. The morning when she appeared at the Manacks’, she was the picture of a victim: vomiting from fear, in a daze, and crying. But we pointed out that as the hours wore on, even her closest friends doubted her status as victim and suspected her as the shooter. Imagine the mistrust her good friend Judy Manack must have felt when, on the same day her husband was found shot to death, Norma asked Judy to wash her nightgown. Imagine the confusion Dr. Aubert felt when Norma told him she had shot a gun shortly before Ed’s death. Each friend of Norma’s and Ed’s consistently walked away thinking something was not right with her behavior. 

    In the end, it was the forensic evidence that proved beyond a reasonable doubt that Norma had shot and killed Ed. Her web of lies could not withstand the blood spatter on her nightgown. No one—not Norma herself, nor her friends, nor her experts could explain why, if Norma had been upstairs in the other room when Ed was shot, how or why she would have blood on the front of her nightgown. Impact spatter, consistent with a close gunshot wound, was the only explanation, just as we argued Ed had suffered at Norma’s hand.

    Norma Jean Clark was found guilty after less than a day of deliberations. We had no other criminal acts to talk about in punishment. The defense talked about the defendant’s health problems, her advanced age of 65, and how Ed was “sort of a jerk” who seemingly had it coming. Ed’s family testified about growing up without their father and without a grandfather. This Texas “black widow” who went free for 26 years ultimately got snared in her own twisted web of lies: A jury sentenced her to 25 years in prison.

    In the end, justice was served thanks to the persistence of a team committed to the truth. This case went forward because Sgts. Holtke and Clegg cared enough to revive it and because of dedicated professionals such as assistant DA Donna Logan; Colleen Jordan, the assistant director of the Victim and Witness Division; DA Investigator Dennis Field, and the rest of the people who cared enough to bring justice to Ed’s family.