November-December 2013

Lukewarm justice

Michael A. Sheppard

District Attorney in DeWitt County

A cold case in Cuero becomes the subject of a reality TV show investigating old cases in small towns across the country.

On January 6, 2001, at 5:15 in the afternoon—just 20 minutes before she was due to leave her abusive boyfriend and return to Arkansas with her two children—Pam Shelly was shot one time in the head in the bathroom that she shared with her boyfriend, Ronnie Hendrick.
    The case was written off initially as a suicide, but 12 years later on September 10, 2013, Hendrick pled guilty to murder and went to the pen for 22 years. This is the story of what happened between those two dates and how that cold case, with the assistance of Hollywood, was cracked. It is also the story of how difficult it became to pick a jury and try the case (because Hollywood apparently didn’t care about that part).
    The day Pam was shot, she was 800 miles from her home and family in Arkansas. She and her two children, Kayla, age 12, and Dustin, 9, were living with her boyfriend, Ronnie Hendrick. They lived out on rural property in DeWitt County just a mile from Ronnie’s mother and stepfather. Ronnie had moved Pam down from Arkansas the previous August, and she had been in Texas only about five months.
    Pam’s “suicide attempt” was called in to 911 by Ronnie’s stepfather. When police arrived, EMS units were pulling away with a still-breathing Pam in the back and Ronnie in the cab of the ambulance, directing EMS personnel to the hospital. The home Pam shared with Ronnie was in the middle of nowhere, and EMS had come from Yorktown. They needed help finding the shortest route to Cuero, which was about 20 minutes away, and Ronnie graciously volunteered to direct the driver so that when sheriff’s deputies arrived, Ronnie was nowhere to be found. They could not speak with him or perform a gunshot residue test.
    Twelve years later, the first responders all remember that they must have arrived at the scene believing that the shooting was self-inflicted because they did not recall the adrenaline that would have been associated with responding to a shooting of unknown origin. The recordings that would have told us exactly how this shooting was dispatched were, of course, long gone by the time we started preparing for trial. Officers took photos and found a gun (a 32-caliber revolver) and holster on the bathroom counter—consistent with suicide. A slug and bloodstains were found on the floor.
    Looking back, it is remarkable to me to realize the impact that the initial arrival on scene can have on officers. In this case, Hendrick’s family—his mother, stepfather, and two brothers—were the only adults present when officers arrived. Twelve-year-old Kayla and 9-year-old Dustin were ignored, and all officers heard was Ronnie’s side of the story. There was no one at that scene looking out for Pam.
    Hendrick’s family filled officers’ ears with stories of how Pam was suicidal—she loved Ronnie but had to return to Arkansas because her daughter was unhappy, and this pushed her over the edge. They told officers that Pam had a family history of suicide and that her sister had killed herself. All of this was untrue, but officers had no way of knowing that without further investigation. The family blamed young Kayla for Pam’s attempted suicide, claiming that she was a difficult child.
    In preparing for trial 12 years later, the State had established a timeline that would have shown, through circumstantial evidence and the earlier statements of Hendrick’s family, that there was a delay of over an hour from the time Pam was shot until when EMS was called—ample time to get stories straight, arrange a crime scene, and the like. Officers did not know that at the time.
    Pam was life-flighted to San Antonio. Officers took a statement from Hendrick later that night in which he claimed he was outside when he heard the shot and he ran in and found Pam on the floor of the bathroom. He claimed that she was depressed about leaving and returning to Arkansas, but she had to go or she would lose her children. This later proved to be a lie; Pam was in no danger of losing her children. Apparently Hendrick had not thought about the obvious inconsistency between Pam leaving him because she didn’t want to lose her children and her killing herself, thereby insuring that she would never see them again. Unfortunately, no one else seized on that inconsistency at the time either.
    Pam died in San Antonio, and an autopsy was done. The medical examiner was provided the slanted information from the scene about Pam being a troubled and unhappy soul and her boyfriend’s claim that it was a suicide. The ME also observed that the gunshot was a contact wound to the right temple area traveling front to back, down to up and right to left—a classic suicide wound. The autopsy finding was that Pam’s death was a suicide.       
    Officers were not entirely through with Ronnie Hendrick even after the ME report. They wanted him to take a polygraph, and he agreed. The test was set up on at least two separate occasions, and both times Ronnie failed to show. Soon, within weeks of Pam’s death, Hendrick was nowhere to be found.
    The case languished. Pam had no local friends or family to dispute the suicide theory or to push law enforcement to pursue the case.

Enter Carl Bowen
In 2008, seven years after the shooting, Carl Bowen was a newly minted investigator for DeWitt County Sheriff Jody Zavesky. Jody had not been sheriff back in 2001, but Carl had been on the force back then, and though it hadn’t been his case, he knew about it. It bugged Carl that Hendrick had not been polygraphed and that he had disappeared after Pam’s shooting. Carl had harbored doubts about Ronnie’s stories all these years, and now he was in a position to do something about it. Carl approached Sheriff Zavesky about opening the cold case. To the sheriff’s great credit he consented to re-opening it in spite of the fact that the department had a large number of pending active cases. Carl and Jody deserve tremendous praise for taking on the burden of a cold case motivated purely by their own internal desire to see justice done. There was no political pressure on them, just the nagging feeling that something was not right.
    Opportunity dropped in Carl’s lap in the summer of 2008 when Ronnie Hendrick arrived at the DeWitt County Jail. Hendrick was charged with domestic abuse, beating up a woman that he was living with. Carl also soon discovered where he had been during the years since Pam’s “suicide”: He had gone to South Dakota and gotten himself thrown into the penitentiary there for felony DWI. Alarms went off in Carl’s head as he realized that Hendrick was a serial abuser of alcohol and women and he had gotten as far from DeWitt County as he could immediately after Pam’s death.
    Carl approached Ronnie in his cell and got him to agree to a polygraph. Hendrick did so with predictable results: The test indicated deception, and he asserted his right to counsel when the polygrapher sought to question him after the examination. After the polygraph, he admitted to four different witnesses that he had lied to officers originally. He still denied killing Pam, but now he claimed that he was in the room with her when she killed herself, a significant change from his earlier story of having been outside.
    In addition to Ronnie’s change of story, Carl spoke with a number of witnesses in Arkansas, including Pam’s children, Kayla and Dustin, and uncovered a lot of circumstantial evidence that would help in disproving suicide.

Bringing the case to me
I am the elected district attorney for the 24th Judicial District, which includes DeWitt, Goliad, and Refugio Counties. The summer of 2008 was the first time I became acquainted with the shooting of Pam Shelley. I was the district attorney back in 2001 when she died, but I did not recall ever hearing about the case as nothing was brought to our office at that time. Pam was a newcomer to our county and she was living in a lonely and rural area at the time of her death. Her children were attending school in the neighboring community of Yorktown, she had not been in DeWitt County long enough to have made many friends, and she had no family here. I had vague recollections of having heard about the “suicide,” but I could not recall specifics.
    Carl brought the case to me in 2008, and I was very impressed with his zeal and desire to get to the bottom of the case. Nevertheless, I rejected it. After reviewing it with a couple of my senior assistants, we did not believe that it was a makeable case, especially in view of the medical examiner’s report and the fact that the wound was a contact wound and so consistent with classic suicide.

“Cold Justice” comes in
The case would have probably died on the vine had Carl Bowen not come to me in 2012 with an odd proposal. He said that he had seen a solicitation of some sort in which television producers were looking for cold cases and promising to help solve them for a new TV show. He told me that he wanted to contact them regarding the Pam Shelley shooting, and he asked for my blessing before he did so.
    I distinctly recall my thinking at the time. I didn’t believe that the involvement of Hollywood types would help the case, but I could not think of any reason not to agree to it. If they failed to uncover any additional evidence, then no harm done. If they found something new, then great. We all believed in our hearts that Ronnie had killed Pam so there was no reason not to turn over every stone possible to prove it.
    As for the prospect of any of this ultimately appearing on television, I didn’t think that there was any real chance of that happening. Although I am far from an expert on the production of TV shows, I know that countless pilots are filmed but never see the light of day. I never in a million years expected that this case would follow the course that it did and that in 12 months’ time I would be watching myself on television analyzing the evidence the week before I was scheduled to pick a jury in the very same case.
    Carl contacted “Cold Justice,” and they jumped right in. The show, whose first season is now airing on TNT, was just an idea at the time but apparently it was a good one. The premise is that former Harris County ADA Kelly Siegler and a former crime scene investigator from Las Vegas, Yolanda McClary, come in and help under-staffed and under-budgeted law enforcement agencies work cold cases. I knew of Kelly Siegler by reputation as a tough, smart, aggressive, and talented prosecutor who had successfully prosecuted scores of high-profile crimes in Harris County. I was happy to have her input and pick her brain for ideas as to how to make this case.
    Carl assured me that it was not the intent of the show to take over the trial of criminal cases; rather, Kelly and Yolanda simply developed evidence and left it to the locals to take any resulting case through the justice system.
    “Cold Justice” had set aside a week in June for filming and working, and I started to get a bit uneasy. What if it did get on TV? What if they tried to make us look like rubes? What if the result is embarrassing for the locals? I am no public relations expert, but I have dealt with the press enough to know that stories are manipulated to make them interesting and the truth can sometimes be blurred. Would Hollywood think it more interesting to paint a small sheriff’s office and DA’s office as right out of Mayberry, with all of us sitting around and scratching our heads while slick, big-city experts arrive to save the day? In the end I realized that Carl was right: We had to shelve our pride in the interest of justice and give this thing a chance to succeed or fail because larger issues were at stake—namely, bringing Pam Shelley’s murderer to justice.
    The folks from the show arrived and got to work. I was only peripherally involved at the time, but I realized later that part of Kelly Siegler’s reputation was built on a foundation of hard work. She and the rest of the team interviewed witnesses, went to the crime scene, and worked ceaselessly during the time they were here. They provided the sheriff’s office with access to the latest and greatest high-tech scientific evidence with a stunningly quick turnaround rate. For example, the gun was sent off to be evaluated for touch DNA which, I’m told, could tell us the DNA profile of anyone who’d handled the gun. They sent the slug to ballistics to match it to the weapon, and they sent off a bloody T-shirt from the laundry hamper off to be DNA-tested. They also did computer modeling of the scene of the shooting. It is amazing that all of this evidence was still available for testing. I don’t know how long the DeWitt sheriff’s office intended to hold on to the evidence taken from the scene, but clearly there were nagging doubts about the case that kept anyone from getting rid of the evidence.
    They were filming all the while. I watched out my window as they took footage of Carl walking from his patrol car into the sheriff’s office. I couldn’t help but think that Carl had cleaned up particularly well for his week in the limelight: every hair in place, pressed uniform, and a jaunty step.
    Unfortunately, all of the scientific evidence resulted in a dead end. There was no touch DNA on the gun, and the DNA on the shirt was Pam’s, which we suspected all along and it really did not help. The computer modeling was interesting but far from significant, and the slug did come back to the revolver, but that had never really been an issue.
    They ran down Pam’s medical history and determined that contrary to stories told by Hendrick’s family, Pam had no history of depression and had not been treated for any mental illness. Pam had seizures and was on medication for that, but even withholding the seizure medication would not typically result in depression, so that was helpful information.
    Kelly, talented prosecutor that she is, did a great job of boiling down all the evidence. She drew up a list of evidence that supported the theory of suicide and evidence that supported the theory of murder. As they worked through the week, the team ticked off “evidence” supporting suicide that they had successfully disproved: for example, that Pam was on anti-depressants, that there had been a number of suicides in her family, and so forth—they were all debunked. They also made a list of items supporting murder, including a number of serious assaults Hendrick committed against other women before and after Pam’s death. During one such act he nearly killed an earlier partner in an assault that was eerily similar to the circumstances leading up to Pam’s death.
    Johnny Bonds, a talented interviewer formerly with the Houston Police Department and Harris County DA’s Office, came down and took a number of statements including one from the defendant who was incarcerated (again) at the time.
    After about a week, their work was done.

My turn in front
of the camera
At the end of the show’s time in Cuero, it was my turn to be in the spotlight. They wanted to film Carl and Kelly bringing the case to me. They hoped to capture me accepting the case for presentation to the grand jury, although I knew that there was slim chance that I would make that decision quickly.
    Now I really got uneasy. Don’t get me wrong: I’m a politician—I’m not camera-shy. Having someone film me in the performance of my sworn duty, however, was a new experience and I was nervous about it. I’ve never been a fan of reality TV and I’m proud to say that other than the first episode of “Cold Justice,” I really don’t watch it. OK, the occasional episode of “Pawn Stars” with my dad, “Dog the Bounty Hunter” with my crazy daughters, and sometimes I sit mesmerized by “Swamp People” just trying to figure out what they are saying. I can’t stand the Kardashians, but with a teenage daughter their show has been on the television in my home countless times in spite of my stern admonition that it would turn my daughter’s brain to mush.
    Before the cameras came into my office, I wondered what would be expected of me. Would they want to script the scene? Would they suggest that I say something in particular? Would they like for me to throw files and scream and shout and go all “Hell’s Kitchen” (another show I do not watch) on Carl and Kelly? Not that I ever would have, but I was curious. I got a haircut, put on my go-to meeting suit, and waited for Carl, Kelly, and the cameras.
    My instructions from the show’s producers were simple: Treat this meeting just as if the cameras were not there. That was it. I’ve done enough intake that it was fairly easy to ignore the cameras as I listened to their explanation of the case. Carl and Kelly did a good job of presenting the case to me. I pretty much forgot about the cameras except I probably tried a bit harder than I typically would have to avoid bad jokes, bad posture, stupid questions, and the like. And I probably looked a bit more pensive than I would typically look but otherwise, what they showed on the show is pretty much the way I intake serious cases.
    I was interested in weaknesses, not strengths, and one of the most glaring weaknesses in their theory was that the gunshot was a contact wound. The problem, of course, with contact wounds is that it is hard to get a gun barrel up against the temple of an unwilling victim. You can get close, but their natural reaction (to pull away) makes contact difficult. Carl and Kelly shared their theory about that and it seemed plausible. They hypothesized that Ronnie crept up on Pam while she was in the bathroom looking in the mirror. If she turned just before the gun made contact, her wound would be consistent with that scenario. Later, after learning the details of how Hendrick had abused other women in his life, I developed my own theory about it, which was that he did not sneak up on Pam and shoot her but that he tried to take control of the situation by frightening her and he held the gun up against her head while he tried to convince her not to leave. If a victim is frightened enough, it is perfectly plausible that she will hold still and not fight, hoping that the danger will soon pass. In this case Hendrick chose to shoot.
    Those of you who watched the show no doubt noticed that I did not say that I was accepting or rejecting the case on camera. I wanted to take my time. Anti-climactic and lame drama, maybe, but more in line with my duty to do justice than just blurting out a decision, even as exciting as that might have been.
    What finally sold me on taking the case is something viewers did not see on the program. It involved even more work by Carl Bowen, and it finally tipped me over the edge. A few weeks after filming, Carl found Pam’s ex-husband, Jessie, who was incarcerated in a Texas prison. Jessie told Carl that he had spoken with Pam and Hendrick the day that she was scheduled to come home (the very day she was shot). Pam and Jessie were going to get back together. Jessie was Kayla’s dad, and the family was going to be reunited. According to Jessie, Hendrick grabbed the phone from Pam and told Jessie that the only way Pam would be coming back to Arkansas was in a pine box. Shocking evidence, indeed—Hendrick’s threat to kill Pam on the very day she died. We polygraphed Jessie and he passed with flying colors, and I agreed to take the case to a grand jury. 
    The only explanation I can come up with for Jessie not telling us about any of this before is that his run-ins with the law had institutionalized him to a point that he did not trust the police, nor did he believe in reaching out to law enforcement.

Indictment, trial,
and TNT
We indicted Ronnie Hendrick in November 2012. His trial date was set for early September 2013. He cooled his heels in the pen for a revoked probation while waiting for trial.
    In mid-summer Carl called me with some troubling news. “Cold Justice” was going to run the show on Pam Shelley’s murder as its premiere episode on September 3—just six days before we were scheduled to try Hendrick. We had a special setting and were bringing in witnesses from all over; virtually every witness was coming in from out of town. And I could not try the case earlier, at least not as effectively as I could in September. Carl agreed to call his contacts at “Cold Justice,” confident that they would agree to run a different episode as the premiere. All we needed was two weeks. If they could wait on broadcasting that particular episode for just two weeks, they might even be able to report that Hendrick had been convicted and sentenced—a very satisfying ending.
    In late summer Carl called and said that he had some bad news. TNT was going to run the show on Pam as its first episode, and they refused to re-schedule the date. I was beyond frustrated. It was now going to be difficult if not impossible to pick a jury. I still held out some hope, though, and told Carl not to lose faith. “It’s on at 9:00 p.m. on a Tuesday on TNT,” I told him. “How many people are going to watch that? Probably not many.”
    Boy, was I wrong. I thought that as long as the local media didn’t run stories telling folks that Cuero was going to be on a national show, we would probably be OK. But I realized real trouble was brewing in late July and early August when people started telling me that they saw me, or someone who looked a lot like me, on television. I had not seen the promos but apparently, the show was being heavily promoted on more than one channel. It did not mention Cuero or DeWitt County but the ads clearly showed Carl and me, and people started to notice.
    A week and a half before trial our local paper ran a story about the murder trial. That was no big deal—standard operating procedure—but the reporter wrote extensively about “Cold Justice” and the fact that the show would be aired September 3. I was sick. At this point we had hundreds of man-hours invested in the case, witnesses coming from all over the place, and the very real prospect that we were not going to seat a jury. The defense attorney called me, agitated about all the press, and made it clear he would seek a change of venue. All I could do was say I understood the position he was in.
    On the day of trial, Judge Skipper Koetter made what I think was a wise decision. He qualified the jury and then asked the veniremen to hold up their hands if they had seen the show. Fully one-third of the panel raised their hands.
    One last hope: If the show didn’t cause them to form an opinion as to guilt or innocence, I might still get a jury. No such luck. As the predominantly female group of TNT watchers came one by one to the bench, they were sent one by one out of the courtroom when they admitted that they thought Hendrick was guilty. (Interestingly, one man came up and said he had made up his mind and he didn’t think the defendant did it. Make of that what you will, fellow voir dirists.)    A mistrial was declared. We were probably going to have to change venue. The question was where do we go? “Cold Justice” is a national show. The judge reset the case to June 2014 to be tried again in Cuero with the vague understanding that venue might be changed in the meantime. The hope was that by June the shock value of the show would have worn off and we could maybe pick a jury.
    In the meantime I spoke with Hendrick’s attorney. When I realized we were not going to get a jury, I made this pitch to him: “OK, we can’t get a jury today, but we will get one someday and the jury is going to hear everything that was on ‘Cold Justice’ plus about 50 percent more. Every person who saw ‘Cold Justice’ (except for the one guy) thinks Ronnie did it. A jury is going to think the same thing. I realize that there was no defense attorney on the show, but the facts are the facts and there is only so much that can be done with them.” Ultimately Hendrick pled to murder and 22 years in the pen. He did this the day after the mistrial.
    Twenty-two years is not enough time for the brutal murder of Pam Shelley. DeWitt County is a tough law-and-order county. If a jury had convicted him here, Hendrick would in all probability have gotten life or 99 years. Nevertheless, Pam’s family was OK with the deal; they all understood that picking a jury any time soon was going to be difficult. I think it was the right thing to do, all things considered.   

Prosecutors now contact me from time to time about “Cold Justice” and my thoughts about working with the show. I must say everyone I met was professional, courteous, and immensely helpful. I thought that they were fair in their portrayals of the locals, and they treated us respectfully. My Mayberry fears were unfounded.
    I had tremendous respect for Kelly Siegler based on her reputation before I met her, and meeting her and seeing her in action reinforced that feeling. She is a good person and a damn good lawyer.
    Personally, I believe that Carl Bowen cracked the Pam Shelley case with good old-fashioned hard work, but having the expert eyes of the “Cold Justice” professionals look at the case was truly helpful. Everything about the experience was positive—except for the most important part.
    When we needed the show’s producers to do something that would have insured that justice was done, to delay this particular episode’s broadcast—both for Pam Shelley and for Ronnie Hendrick—they said no. When the rubber met the road, when we were down to the licklog, when it was time to fish or cut bait, when they needed to put their money where their mouth was, they didn’t care if Hendrick was tried or not. “Justice” was out the window and “cold” was all that remained.
    I believe that the folks on the ground, so to speak—Kelly, Yolanda, Johnny, et al—are hard-charging professionals who really care about justice and really want to help. Clearly, as the decision process moves upstream to those who are deciding programming, that mindset changes dramatically. The refusal of the Powers That Be to do what they could to insure that Ronnie Hendrick (and Pam) got a fair trial speaks volumes about what a prosecutor will be up against once the decision-making process gets in the hands of the higher-ups.
    My advice? Tread with caution and get assurances in writing if you decide to use the “Cold Justice” team. If your case makes the show, you need to give serious consideration to how you are going to pick a jury and who will be left on your panel.