Criminal prosecution, as any assistant district attorney will tell you, is often a grueling, thankless job. We work long hours for relatively low pay and rarely receive accolades or public acknowledgment. But at the same time there are important cases in the career of a prosecutor that speak to the resolve and purpose at the core of our beings. These are the moments when you remember why you wanted to prosecute in the first place.
For us, one of those moments was September 21, 2012. It was on that day that a Tarrant County jury found Ryland Shane Absalon guilty of the capital murder of Ginger Hayden.
It was a long time coming—28 years. Ginger was murdered in 1984, and it had taken nearly three decades of police investigation and perseverance to catch her killer. In doing so, law enforcement was able to finally give some measure of closure to Ginger’s mother, Sharon Hayden, who had carried the torch for her daughter through the long years after the police investigation had gone cold, fighting her own deteriorating health and advancing age. She wanted to stay alive long enough to see Ginger’s murderer brought to justice.
The investigation lasted so long that it became part of the local lore of Fort Worth. It spanned entire careers at the Fort Worth Police Department (FWPD) and Tarrant County Criminal District Attorney’s Office. It brought together two different generations of police officers, prosecutors, and forensic technologies. Investigators and support personnel would come into the investigation, work on it for years, then retire and be replaced with another, who would pick up where his predecessors had left off. This went on for decades. Meanwhile, forensic technologies were catching up and would ultimately break the case open.
The death of Ginger Hayden
The sad tale of Ginger’s murder began with the anguished screams of her mother upon finding her daughter’s body and ended 28 years later with her mother’s cries of relief upon hearing a jury’s guilty verdict at Absalon’s trial. On September 5, 1984, Sharon Hayden lived in a modest two-bedroom apartment in southwest Fort Worth with her daughter, Ginger. Ginger was 18 years old, having just graduated from Arlington Heights High School three months earlier. Ginger was, by any measure, a very beautiful young lady with her whole life ahead of her. She was very close to her mother and worked a part-time job to help her pay their bills. Ginger was excited about her plans to fulfill her dream of becoming a physical therapist. September 5 was supposed to be Ginger’s first day of college at the nearby University of Texas at Arlington.
Sharon worked a very late shift at the post office the night before and had returned home to the apartment around 2:00 a.m. When she entered the apartment, nothing seemed amiss. Sharon went to the bathroom to clean up for bed and noticed a small puddle of water on the floor near the bathtub. The puddle had a red tint to it. In her weariness, Sharon simply assumed Ginger had made the mess while dyeing clothes. Sharon laid a bath towel over the water puddle and walked down the hall. She peeked through Ginger’s cracked bedroom door and thought she could see Ginger in bed in the dark room. Sharon headed to bed and went to sleep.
The next morning, around 6:00 a.m., Sharon awoke to the sound of Ginger’s alarm clock ringing in her bedroom. After yelling several times for Ginger to turn it off, Sharon finally got out of bed and stumbled wearily into her daughter’s room. What Sharon discovered in Ginger’s bedroom was so surreal that her first sleepy thought was that Ginger was somehow playing a prank on her. Ginger’s bedroom was a horror of blood. It was everywhere—on the bed sheets, carpet, nightstand, walls, closet doors—and it was on Ginger. Ginger was, from head to toe, covered in blood and stab wounds.
Sharon found her daughter laying face down on the floor next to her bed, semi-nude and in an odd kneeling position. In a daze, Sharon hesitantly touched Ginger’s body and felt that she was cold. Ginger was dead and, for the first time, Sharon realized that she had lost her precious daughter. Sharon staggered out of the bedroom that was now a crime scene, literally having to hold herself up against the wall. She finally got to the phone and called the operator (there was not yet a 911 phone system in existence). “My baby’s dead,” she hysterically told the operator. Then her screams rent the morning air, waking her neighbors and eventually bringing the police. Her daughter, who was supposed to have gone to her first college class that morning, instead left the apartment in a body bag.
The discovery of Ginger’s lifeless body set in motion a massive criminal investigation by the Fort Worth Police Department. Police officers swarmed to the apartment and secured the crime scene, which was so gruesome even seasoned officers were left in shock. Officers immediately canvassed the apartment complex to see if any of the neighbors had any knowledge of the murder and interviewed Sharon about Ginger’s last night alive. It was from Sharon that they learned that Ginger had been dating a local boy named Jeff Green. The officers immediately went to Jeff’s nearby house and, finding him asleep, woke him up and interviewed him. They then took him to the police station.
Meanwhile, the task of forensically processing the bloody crime scene began slowly. Crime scene officers methodically photographed Ginger’s body and the surrounding scene, then set about collecting samples of the extensive bloodstains and trace evidence. In 1984, DNA technology was still unheard of in Fort Worth. At that time, forensic protocols focused on collecting evidence for serology and hair or fiber comparison. Officers found a wood-handled kitchen knife on the bedroom floor by Ginger’s feet. The knife, which belonged to a set in the kitchen, was bloody and bent, the wood handle broken. An inspection of the glass patio door in Ginger’s room revealed it was unlocked.
In the bathroom, officers found the bath towel Sharon had set down on the water puddle. They also discovered two bloody socks on the countertop near the basin. The socks were later identified as belonging to Ginger. The officers immediately suspected, in light of the bloody scene in Ginger’s room, that the killer used the bathroom to clean up after the murder. They also suspected the killer had used the socks as makeshift gloves to avoid leaving fingerprints on the murder weapon.
The socks were later forensically examined at the Fort Worth Crime Lab. Lab technicians discovered the socks contained a small wood splinter that eventually was matched perfectly to the broken handle of the kitchen knife. This confirmed the officers’ suspicion about the socks being used as gloves was correct. Additionally, lab technicians found a mysterious pubic hair on the bloody socks; there was, however, no evidence that Ginger had been sexually assaulted. The pubic hair, along with the blood stains on the bath towel, were preserved for future testing, although at the time no one knew just how far into the future that testing would be.
Back at the police station, Jeff Green was shocked to hear that Ginger had been killed and quickly told the officers everything he knew about her. Jeff said he began a whirlwind romance with Ginger the previous summer, having met her at a pool party at her apartment complex. That was also how Jeff met another young person who lived in the complex. His name was Ryland “Shane” Absalon.
Jeff told police that, over the course of the previous summer, he had also become very good friends with Shane, who lived with his father directly above Ginger’s apartment. All three of them spent the summer hanging out together at the swimming pool, bars, and Ginger’s apartment. Jeff described Shane as a quiet young man, a loner with no girlfriend.
Regarding the night before, Jeff told the officers that he spent Labor Day hanging out with Ginger and Shane. Ginger had to work the afternoon shift at her job, so he and Shane hung out together during that time. Later that evening, Jeff left Shane and picked up Ginger from work. He and Ginger had then returned to her apartment, where they had sex and made plans for their future together. Jeff and Ginger had just found out that Ginger was pregnant and they were trying to decide what to do. After spending several hours together, Ginger dropped Jeff off at his father’s house around 11:30 p.m. That was the last time Jeff saw her alive.
Detectives immediately contacted Shane and his father. Shane’s father said he woke up that morning to the sound of Sharon’s screams in the apartment complex. He found Shane awake in the living room and noticed that the front of Shane’s T-shirt had a large reddish stain on it. Shane claimed he spilled strawberry soda on his shirt. The officers asked to see the shirt, but neither Shane nor his father could find it, and Shane had no explanation for where it went. During their search, the officers themselves failed to find the shirt but did collect a pair of Shane’s shoes that had a small bloodstain on them.
The detectives suspected Shane was somehow involved in the murder but could not find enough evidence to link him to it. There were no witnesses at the apartment complex other than a neighbor who vaguely remembered seeing a young man knock on Ginger’s patio door the night before. Shane’s father claimed to have no knowledge about events of the night before, as he had been drinking heavily after working a late shift at his job. Shane also claimed to have no knowledge, but he refused to take a polygraph when asked by the police.
Detectives interviewed and re-interviewed dozens of witnesses in the days following Ginger’s murder, but no leads were found. As the investigation dragged out, the list of interviews soared as the police department toiled to break the case open.
To compound matters, the Fort Worth community was already in the grips of near-hysteria. The Fort Worth Star-Telegram newspaper asserted in news reports that there was a possibility that a serial killer was at work in the city. A FWPD task force had been created due to a number of unsolved murders of young women; the Star-Telegram jumped to the conclusion that one man was responsible for the crimes. The task force was working furiously to solve those cases and, when the detectives on Ginger’s case hit a wall, the task force took over. Despite their efforts, no new leads were uncovered.
The forgotten case
More than two decades passed. The responsibility for the investigation changed hands over and over as detectives retired or were reassigned. Importantly, the available forensic technologies finally improved to the point where DNA could be used to identify unknown biological samples. Fort Worth police created a Cold Case Unit, specifically tasked with using new DNA technology to review old, unsolved cases. Federal grant money financed the expensive testing. In early 2009, the Cold Case Unit dusted off the Ginger Hayden murder file and began reviewing it with a mind toward DNA analysis. Dozens of items from the physical evidence were analyzed for DNA and compared to other samples.
At first, no real progress was made. The DNA samples from Ginger’s body matched to Jeff Green, as expected since they had had sexual intercourse the night of her death. However, in late 2009, an important breakthrough finally occurred. Lab technicians determined that DNA from one of the blood stains on the bath towel (the one Sharon laid down on top of the water puddle in the bathroom) matched DNA from Shane’s leather deck shoes that were collected in 1984. Moreover, the unknown person’s DNA also matched the DNA from the mysterious pubic hair that was recovered from the bloody socks on the bathroom counter.
Based on this new information, the Cold Case Unit detectives decided to get a DNA sample from Shane Absalon and compare it to the unknown sample that matched the blood stains and pubic hair. One of the detectives got a search warrant and tracked Absalon down to his home in Arizona. Absalon refused to voluntarily give a sample, so the warrant was executed. The buccal swab was taken and transported back to Fort Worth for analysis.
Several months later, the Cold Case Unit detectives were notified that Absalon’s DNA matched the unknown sample. Now, for the first time in 26 years, they had definitive proof that Absalon was physically connected to the crime scene of Ginger’s murder. They immediately obtained an arrest warrant for him for capital murder-sexual assault. However, the case was ultimately indicted as capital murder-burglary with intent to commit aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, as there was no evidence that Ginger had been sexually assaulted. Absalon was arrested outside his home in Sierra Vista, Arizona, on August 29, 2010, and transported back to Fort Worth.
All that remained was to formally file the capital murder case with the district attorney’s office; however, the detectives were in for a surprise. When the local Fort Worth media broke the news of Absalon’s arrest, the detectives received a phone call from a man named Shawn Garrett.
Incredibly, Garrett saw the news report of Absalon’s arrest and instantly recognized him as someone with whom he had attended drug rehab in 1985. The reason Garrett remembered Absalon so well was because Absalon had made a stunning confession to him about stabbing a female friend to death, a revelation that he and other people in the rehab facility had kept secret for decades.
4,500 pages in the file
Shane Absalon’s case was assigned to Judge Everett Young’s district court. Absalon refused to admit any guilt, and we all knew that we were going to have, to put it mildly, a hard time preparing the case for trial. It was going to require a herculean effort to dig through a police file that contained almost 4,500 pages of documents and a potential witness list with more than 450 names.
Originally, the entire case file was packed into nine different binders seemingly organized only by the chronological order in which they were filled. By scanning and digitizing the contents of each binder, we were able to Bates-stamp an original copy and preserve it for defense discovery before beginning the first of many attempts to reorder the file logically. Using Adobe Acrobat, we were able to combine the files into a single PDF, organize them with digital bookmarks, and run them through the software’s text recognition feature to make all 4,500 pages searchable by keywords or phrases. Digitizing the file and making it searchable allowed each prosecutor on the trial team to personalize his or her own copy by highlighting the reports and statements most pertinent and adding annotations to assist. During pre-trial interviews, this feature also allowed us to search the file for any reference to a particular witness and stitch the pages together, providing a physical copy for review and retention.
Once we’d solved the problem of figuring out what was in the file, there was the additional problem of discovery for the defense. Absalon was represented by Gary Udashen and Katherine Borras of Sorrels, Udashen, and Anton, a top-tier criminal defense law firm in Dallas. While Tarrant County has an electronic case filing system (ECFS), which permits most discovery to be done online, each of the estimated 4,500 pages had to be checked and double-checked against the files already uploaded into the system, in addition to providing copies of evidence in formats not accessible via ECFS, such as audio statements, photographs, and crime-scene diagrams. The prosecution and defense sat side-by-side at a conference table for months on end, confirming that nothing was inadvertently left out. Here is where the original, Bates-stamped copy of the file became particularly useful. Throughout the year of trial preparation, the defense was able to call our office and reference any page number to confirm discovery, pinpoint a specific issue, or lodge objection.
In addition to the time spent poring over the file, we spent hours on the road. Jim Ford, the Tarrant County District Attorney’s investigator assigned to this case, barely got out of his car or off the phone from June through September. The witnesses, not surprisingly, were spread out all over the state. Some had moved away and some had retired. Others had even died in the years since the investigation started. To make matters even more frustrating, even if we were lucky enough to actually locate a witness, the memories usually had faded down to just a bare recollection.
No one ever saw Jim eat lunch in those months, just peanuts at his desk. He was absolutely indefatigable in his efforts. He located witnesses (some of them last seen in the 1980s), drove out to their homes, served them, and then spent a huge amount of time talking to them, calming fears, and making travel arrangements. No investigator could have done a better job.
The case was set for trial the week of September 17, 2012. The first two witnesses, retired Fort Worth Officers J.L. Henderson and B. R. Patterson, described the crime scene to the jury as they found it. Henderson, the first responding officer, testified he spent the rest of his career trying to forget the horror he saw in Ginger’s bedroom. Patterson was the crime scene officer. We painstakingly reconstructed for the jury the crime scene work performed in 1984, bringing in box after box of evidentiary items. The packaging of physical evidence was so old that it practically disintegrated in our hands. Also presented to the jury were the two folding closet doors removed by the officers from Ginger’s closet. We wanted the jury to see the rust-colored blood stains still visible on the fronts of the doors and how it was possible to actually see through the doors’ slats.
The photos in the case were taken in 1984, of course, but were placed on a CD and published in the courtroom on a projector screen. The color in the photos from the original notebooks was faded, and while gory, they were not as shockingly bloody as the ones obtained from the photo negatives by our trial technology specialist, Rhona Wedderien. Once these copies were published, they were vivid and many times larger than their original size. They gave the jury a good idea of what that scene looked like to Sharon Hayden and the police officers who arrived at the scene. Glancing at the jurors, we could see many of them were weeping.
We next presented a parade of forensic technicians, some young and some old, who testified to the years of forensic examinations conducted on the physical evidence. The jury heard about the wood fragment from the knife handle found in the bloody socks, along with Absalon’s pubic hair. They also heard about the DNA connection between Absalon and the bloodstain on the bathroom floor.
Dr. Marc Krouse of the Tarrant County Medical Examiner’s Office testified that he performed the autopsy on Ginger’s body in 1984. He testified the victim had 57 different cut or stab wounds. Four of these wounds were sufficient by themselves to cause Ginger’s death, and the rest contributed to her death, which was actually by exsanguination, or blood loss. We used Poser by SmithMicro Software to create a 3D image of the victim and her wounds (see the diagram on the opposite page). Each of these wounds was identified by number, which was hyperlinked to a corresponding photo of the injury. Dr. Krouse’s testimony, therefore, flowed seamlessly as he both described and showed the jury the injuries and their consequences for the victim.
The second half of the case focused on the testimony of Shawn Garrett and several other people who attended a drug rehab, called Straight Inc., with Absalon in 1985. Garrett was a reluctant witness for the State, despite the fact that he had initiated contact with FWPD. Garrett hesitantly entered the courtroom and sat down in the witness chair. Under direct examination, he spoke slowly and quietly as he recounted to the jury his friendship with Absalon in 1985.
Absalon had been court-ordered into the Straight Inc. program as a condition of probation for an offense out of Tarrant County. Garrett testified that the defendant was temporarily living with him, even sleeping in the same room, while they both attended the program. Garrett testified that, over the course of about two weeks, Absalon confided about a murder he had committed. He said that as Absalon opened up more and more, he revealed more details about the crime.
By this point in Garrett’s testimony, the courtroom was absolutely quiet. All eyes were on Garrett as he slowly told the jury about Absalon’s confession to him. Absalon told him that he had a female friend who lived in the apartment beneath his. He had romantic feelings for this woman, but she did not feel the same about him. He said that this woman, in rejecting him, had embarrassed and angered him. He decided to kill her. Absalon said he entered into the woman’s apartment through a large glass window and retrieved a knife from the kitchen. He then went into the woman’s room and hid inside her closet, where he waited several hours for her to return.
Absalon told Garrett that eventually the woman did return, and he described watching her through the closet door as she got ready for bed and fell asleep. He then exited the closet and stood over her, watching her. Finally, he began to stab her. Absalon told him that he stabbed her repeatedly until he thought she was dead. She moaned at that point, so he continued to stab her. He counted how many times he did so, telling Garrett that it was “50-something times.” When she was dead, he left the room and cleaned up in the bathroom. Absalon said he left the apartment and threw some of his clothing away.
Two other people, Stephanie Knight and Michelle Valencia, confirmed Garrett’s recollection by testifying that the defendant admitted in a counseling session at Straight Inc. that he had stabbed a girl to death.
The explanation of all three witnesses for not reporting the confession earlier was uniform: The Straight Inc. program continually stressed that the statements made in treatment were confidential and could not be repeated to anyone. Most of the people who testified for the State were teenagers at the time they were in the program, and they believed implicitly that they were not supposed to reveal information about the killing. Eventually, however, they saw the news coverage of Absalon’s arrest and came forward when they realized the victim’s mother had been waiting all that time for justice.
The defense in this case was two-fold. First, they contested that the DNA evidence was significant, namely, that the reddish-brown substance from the towel on the floor was blood. They insisted this substance could have been DNA from a non-blood source, including skin cells. This tied in to their observation that the defendant was a friend of the victim and therefore could have left DNA in the bathroom for totally innocent reasons.
They attacked the defendant’s confessions at Straight Inc. by claiming they were coerced and bullied out of him by the rehab staff. They posited that Absalon would have said anything to get out of the first level of the program, which was the most unpleasant and the most physically strict. They acknowledged that he said the words that the State was attributing to him but denied their veracity.
Our rebuttal to these defenses was comprised largely of common-sense arguments. For example, the presence or absence of blood on the floor was less significant than the multiple sources of Absalon’s DNA on items clearly used in or related to the cleaning-up process. In addition, we pointed out that none of the other people in the Straight Inc. program seemed compelled to admit to things they did not do, such as capital murder. Most of them discussed sexual peccadilloes or substance abuse-related problems.
The most extensive rebuttal, however, actually came in final argument. Trial technology specialist Rhona Wedderien prepared a visual aid designed to point out the connection between the details Shawn Garrett gave about the defendant’s confession, and how it was corroborated by the crime scene photos and physical evidence. In fact, this visual aid, with the touch of a button, directly connected 27 of the defendant’s various statements with photos and the names of witnesses who testified to them. It was an amazing use of technology that enabled us to orally and visually connect the crime scene to the confession. As Jim Hudson said in his final argument, “Are the defense attorneys saying that the defendant stole the detectives’ case file? Because that is the only way someone who didn’t commit the crime could know all these details.”
The defendant did not testify in this case. However, during the entire trial he had been giving the prosecutors bizarre, exaggerated grins whenever one of us was doing something in front of the jury. It was impossible for us to truly tell what he was thinking, but the expression on his face said, “Catch me if you can.”
The jury deliberated three hours before returning a verdict. Sharon Hayden, sitting in the courtroom in her wheelchair, was leaning against her husband with her eyes closed. The defendant came out of the holdover with a big grin on his face, like he had just won the lottery. Then the judge read the verdict of “guilty” to count one. We peeked at the defendant when the verdict came back. His face was crumpled, and the bizarre smile was gone. Because the death penalty was waived, Absalon was immediately sentenced to life in prison. However, given the law at the time of the offense, he will be eligible for parole when he has served 20 years of his sentence.
Sharon was taken to the back immediately after the verdict. Everyone with her stood and watched as 28 years of waiting for justice streamed down her face in tears. “I am so haaaaappyyyyy!” came out as a long cry, half words and half sob. After about an hour she finally regained composure enough to speak to some reporters waiting outside the courtroom doors. She declined to give an allocution personally, however, stating that she had nothing to say to the defendant. A family friend instead read some written remarks.
The wait for justice can be long and agonizing for the families of homicide victims. Some never get the justice that they crave, or what they get is insufficient to help them heal. Sometimes, however, justice is served in such a way that the healing process for crime victims’ families can begin. When it happens, it is a good day for justice.
We would like to extend our heartfelt thanks to the Fort Worth Police Department, the task force, and all of the individuals, public and private, who contributed to making this day happen for Sharon Hayden and the citizens of Tarrant County. We at the Tarrant County District Attorney’s Office felt privileged to be a part of that process.