Criminal Law
January-February 2010

Digging deep for punishment evidence

What seemed like a case of aggravated sexual assault turned into the trial of a serial killer, thanks to dogged investigation into a criminal’s dark past.

James Haugh

Assistant Criminal ­District ­Attorney in Galveston County

I didn’t know what kind of offender Thomas Viser was when I first looked at his file. I knew that he’d been charged with aggravated sexual assault against a woman he had been dating in 2005. The offense was pretty awful by itself, but I had no idea what kind of monster Viser was until much later.

I was given Viser’s file as part of my job as the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) Prosecutor with the Galveston County District Attorney’s Office, a position funded partially by a federal grant under VAWA. The case file described an aggravated sexual assault in which Viser, in February 2005, assaulted his then-girlfriend, Wendolyn, at knifepoint. The offense occurred in Wendolyn’s home in Galveston County, and the defendant used a kitchen knife as his weapon of choice. Viser and Wendolyn had been dating for a few months. In her mind, the relationship was not serious, but Viser definitely thought it was and had even asked her to marry him several times. Wendolyn had always declined.

On the night in question, she had had enough of Viser’s obsessing over her. She became upset with him for looking at some of her personal mail and told him to leave the house. Viser became enraged. He refused to leave and began to chase her, flipping over a table and grabbing her. When she fought back, hitting him with a phone, Viser grabbed a kitchen steak knife and held it over his head, about to stab her. Wendolyn dropped the phone and stopped fighting—she didn’t want to die. Over the next several hours, the defendant forced Wendolyn to perform several sexual acts with him at knifepoint, occasionally holding the knife to her neck and saying that he would slice her throat. Afterward, he told her he was sorry and pleaded with her to not call the police. Wendolyn told him she wouldn’t, but later, when she was alone with her adult daughter, Wendolyn broke down in tears and told her everything. The daughter convinced her to report the crime.

Viser delayed a charge by repeatedly telling the detective that he’d come in to give a statement but never showing up. This went on for 10 months. It took even more time for the lab to complete the DNA analysis and conclude that the DNA on all the gathered evidence was Viser’s. There are, of course, more details about this offense and the trial, but this article isn’t really about the crime or the trial in chief—his guilt was obvious. It’s about punishment.

When I first got the file on Viser, his criminal history was unclear. The TCIC/NCIC printout showed that he had been convicted way back in 1986 for involuntary manslaughter in Harris County and sentenced to 20 years in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ). The history also showed an arrest in 1980 for manslaughter, with a note indicating that he’d gone to the Mississippi Department of Corrections, but there was no disposition or disposition date. I had no idea what any of this meant, if these two offenses were related, or even whether he had been convicted of the manslaughter in Mississippi or possibly some lesser offense. So I began to look into these two priors.

Gathering the records

I first requested a pen packet from TDCJ, but of course pen packets don’t really say too much. The judgment was interesting in that it read that the involuntary manslaughter in Harris County was reduced from murder.

I then called the Mississippi Department of Corrections to see if I could get a pen packet on the offense from 1980. I was advised that the crime was so old that any paperwork on it was kept at Parchman Penitentiary, so I faxed Parchman a request. It took a while for them to find the file on Viser because they had to go into the archived records, which were in boxes. The ladies from Parchman who helped me were very nice and got the information to me as requested. The Mississippi pen packet showed that Thomas Viser was convicted of manslaughter, as reduced from murder, in 1980, and sentenced to 20 years in the Mississippi Department of Corrections. So I had my second enhancement, making this defendant habitual, facing 25 to 99 years or life. And both of these offenses had been reduced from an original offense of murder. I filed and served a notice of enhancement, listing both offenses.

But wait a minute:  How did Viser get 20 years in prison in 1980 in Mississippi for manslaughter and then commit another manslaughter six years later in Houston and get another 20 years?

I called TDCJ and found out it has a Time Section, which keeps track of how long offenders stay in TDCJ custody, when they are paroled, how long they are on parole—that kind of thing. Authorities there told me on the phone that Viser was released from TDCJ confinement on October 21, 2003. That meant that he’d been out of prison only a year and a half when he sexually assaulted my victim in February 2005! This was pretty shocking and damning for the defendant, but it wasn’t the biggest bombshell. I asked the Time Section to prepare a certified document showing Viser’s dates of incarceration and release and send it to me.

The bombshell

Around this time I also requested a copy of all records regarding Viser from the TDCJ Board of Pardons and Parole in Austin. I was originally just trying to find out who Viser’s parole officer was, but I also wanted to find out why Viser was paroled and whether any specifics about the offenses were in these records. The results blew me away.

The parole records contained details about both prior offenses. They showed, among other things, that in 1980 Thomas Viser caught his wife, Sandra Viser, cheating on him. The next day he bought a handgun, went to her workplace (a school in Mississippi), and shot her to death outside the school. This crime was the Mississippi manslaughter reduced from murder. Then, in 1986, while on parole for the manslaughter conviction, Thomas Viser killed his wife, Ineta Viser, by stabbing her in the neck with a kitchen knife. The facts in that case read that the victim was a drug addict and intoxicated and that when Viser told her to leave, she threatened him with a knife. He then grabbed another knife and “acted on impulse and stabbed her, striking her in the neck, killing her almost instantly.” The parole records stated that Viser was tried in the Harris County case for murder, but after the jury deadlocked, he pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter in exchange for a 20-year sentence.

So his two prior victims were his wives. On top of all that, in 1999, while on parole for the Harris County killing, Viser assaulted another woman—once again, his wife (whom I won’t name here)—at the VA Medical Center Hospital, the same place where he had met Wendolyn. This assault was not serious, but it was enough to revoke Viser’s Texas parole. He went to prison for the next four years until he was paroled again in 2003. Records show that his parole officer feared that Viser would kill again. (I don’t know why, given his violent history, that he was paroled again, except that he apparently had no disciplinary problems in prison.)

These parole records were unbelievably helpful to me in prosecuting Thomas Viser. With them, I knew with whom I was dealing. It was around this time that I began to construct a timeline to help put in perspective the crime I was prosecuting in relation to Viser’s other crimes. As I put the timeline together using the pen packets, parole records, prior convictions, and TDCJ’s Time Section record, I began to realize something:  The more I thought about it, the more I knew that Wendolyn hadn’t just been a victim of aggravated sexual assault, as horrible as that was. She was almost the victim of a serial killer.

Before going to trial, I requested some help from the Harris County District Attorney’s Office, and investigator Don Cohn there provided me with everything the office had from Viser’s 1986 case, including the defendant’s written statement, certified copies of the indictment, other pleadings from the court file, photographs of the victim from the crime scene, and a newspaper article from the Houston Chronicle in 1986. Again, this information was extremely helpful. As I read Viser’s statement, I wanted a way to present it to the jury, so I contacted the Houston Police Department and got in touch with the retired officer who took that statement. (He even testified in court for us.)

I also contacted others from Viser’s past who ended up not testifying. I spoke with Viser’s wife from the 1999 assault that led to his parole revocation and one of his former parole officers. I also attempted to contact Ineta Viser’s family members who were named in the Houston Police Department offense reports, but I was unable to track them down.

At some point before trial, I also requested copies of the judgment and indictment regarding the Mississippi conviction from the Pike County District Clerk’s Office in Magnolia, Mississippi. I even made a trip to the public library to look up and get good copies of a couple of articles regarding the Houston case that I had found on the local newspaper’s online archives.


We began the trial on September 28. After the jury found Viser guilty of the aggravated sexual assault, we began the punishment phase. We re-called Wendolyn, who testified about how this crime has affected her and her view of men in general. We introduced certified copies of pen packets, judgments, and indictments from both prior cases, publishing portions of them to the jury by reading them aloud. I wanted them to hear the allegations in both indictments and that the victims were both women and both had the last name Viser. Retired Houston PD officer Thomas Murray testified, allowing us to introduce Viser’s written statement in the Harris County killing of Ineta Viser.

At about that point, I could begin to see the effect this evidence was having on the jury. I had Officer Murray read Viser’s 1986 statement in which he described how Viser killed his wife Ineta Viser, with a kitchen knife, how he then went to a bar and got drunk, and how he left her body in his apartment for a week before telling his parents and then the police what he’d done. I could see members of the jury in complete shock as Officer Murray read the statement, and one juror lowered her head completely and covered her face with her hand. She wasn’t asleep, she just couldn’t look.

Of course, not everything I had gathered was admissible or was admitted at punishment, but a lot of it was. Enough of it was. In the end, we made the jury aware of who Viser’s other victims were and what kind of offender they were deciding punishment on.

Closing and sentencing

I split my closing statement with Assistant DA Reese Campbell, who was a huge help and sat second chair during the trial. Our closings really gelled. Reese told the jury that the victim didn’t know and couldn’t know what Viser was. When she met him, he wasn’t wearing a sign around his neck or a tattoo on his forehead that said, “I kill women.” She didn’t meet the real Thomas Viser until that night in February 2005. Reese had talked about deterrence in jury selection, but at closing he didn’t want to talk about deterring others. He asked the jury to deter one person, Thomas Viser. He asked them to do what Mississippi failed to do, to stop him from ever hurting another woman. After Reese finished, the defense argued that Viser was not that bad a guy, specifically saying that he wasn’t a “serial child molester” or “serial rapist.”

In the second half of our closing, I presented the jury with a timeline I had specially prepared for punishment (see it in the orange box below), limiting it to the details of the evidence that was admitted. I specifically asked them to note the time periods that Viser was in prison and not in prison and his age when he committed each of these offenses. In response to the defense argument, I told the jury what Viser really was:  He was a serial killer. What is the definition of a serial killer? An offender who kills someone, a period of time passes, and then he kills again. And, I argued, Thomas Viser would have killed Wendolyn if she hadn’t done just what he wanted her to do that day. If she hadn’t submitted to him, if she had kept fighting, I argued, she would be dead. She would be Thomas Viser’s third murder victim. I stressed that Thomas Viser, now 62 years old, is not going to change. Why, I asked, was he out there, walking around, so that he could do this to Wendolyn after all he’d already done? I didn’t know. But I told the jury that if he ever gets out of prison, Thomas Viser will kill again. He almost killed Wendolyn, and when the next woman gets him angry, he will kill her. This is who he is, and it will not change.

The jury retired. They had taken almost four hours to find Viser guilty of aggravated sexual assault, but they took a mere seven minutes to decide that his sentence should be 99 years in prison.

Victim Impact Statement

Anyone who’s ever seen a victim impact statement knows how emotional they can be and how virtually anything can happen. Wendolyn told us she wanted to give a victim impact statement. She had been through a lot in this trial, and I was glad she wanted to do this as well.

It’s important to note that I had not told Wendolyn about Viser’s criminal history before the trial. I didn’t want to influence her testimony or have her blurt out something in the guilt phase about what he’d done in the past. Because she didn’t already know, I told her I would tell her about his prior convictions after the trial. She had heard that he had gone to prison for possibly killing someone, but she had convinced herself that it was probably an intoxication manslaughter where he’d been drunk and killed another driver or something like that. She found out about the true nature of his priors by listening to closing arguments in punishment. And apparently she memorized the other victims’ names.

Though I don’t have the transcript of the trial, I wrote down Wendolyn’s victim impact statement word-for-word right after she said it. It was definitely the shortest and most memorable victim impact statement I’ve ever heard and maybe will ever hear. According to my notes, she said: “The only thing I have to say is, on behalf of Ineta Viser and Sandra Viser and me:  Sayonara, butthole! And I hope you rot there!”

Thomas Viser timeline

8/28/47    Defendant Thomas Viser is born.

2/15/80    At age 32, the defendant kills Sandra (Williams) Viser in Mississippi.

4/4/80      The defendant is convicted of manslaughter for killing Sandra Viser in Mississippi and sentenced to 20 years in the Mississippi Department of Corrections.

2/21/80 to 2/4/85     Viser is incarcerated for five years, then paroled by the Mississippi Department of Corrections.

4/22/86    At age 38, the defendant kills wife Ineta (Baker) Viser in Texas.

10/10/86    The defendant is convicted of involuntary manslaughter for killing Ineta Viser and is sentenced to 20 years in TDCJ.

4/26/86 to 10/22/92    The defendant is imprisoned in Texas, then paroled.

10/23/92 to 3/14/97    Viser’s Mississippi parole is revoked, and he is imprisoned in Mississippi.

3/14/97    The defendant is discharged from the Mississippi Department of Corrections, his sentence completed.

10/21/99    At age 51, the defendant’s parole in Texas is revoked for assaulting his wife.

8/25/99 to 10/21/03     The defendant is incarcerated in TDCJ for parole violation.

10/21/03    The defendant is released on parole from Texas incarceration.

2/5/05     At age 57, the defendant sexually assaults Wendolyn.

5/8/08 to 8/8/09    The defendant is incarcerated in Texas awaiting trial.

8/2009    Viser is tried and convicted for aggravated sexual assault.

From 1980 to 2009, a 29-year period, Thomas Viser spent a total of 21 years and five months incarcerated. That’s 74 percent of the time.