Criminal Law
July-August 2022

‘Remember Wendy and Jenny’

By Derek Estep
Chief Felony Prosecutor,  and
Julie Renken
District Attorney, Washington County

Johnnie McKissack shot his roommate Bill Parker on January 17, 2021, and Bill subsequently died. Sounds simple enough.

            Except Bill died a year after being shot, 200 miles away from where he was shot, of causes unrelated to being shot, less than two months before trial.

            Needless to say, we were not prepared for the death notification from our Texas Ranger: We had no depositions, no pre-trial conferences, and no video-recorded statements from the deceased victim. A fairly routine aggravated assault case turned into a “how well do you know your hearsay exceptions” contest, a change of direction a month before trial, and the chance for one of the defendant’s long-ago victims to finally tell her story to a jury.

The crime

The facts of the case were not overly complicated. The victim, Bill, and the defendant, Johnnie McKissack, lived together as roommates after McKissack’s on-again, off-again girlfriend, Wendy Adamek, moved out. One night, Wendy stayed over so that she could finish getting her belongings. Bill drank through the evening and into the next morning, and he was without question intoxicated at the time of this offense, which was prompted by what we can describe only as “childish picking” or possibly a game of “I’m not touching you.”[1] Wendy said she saw McKissack holding a gun and waving it at Bill, but she wasn’t watching them nonstop. She heard two quick shots, and she turned around to see Bill on the floor holding his hip and bleeding. McKissack handed Bill’s cell phone to him and told him to blame someone else. Wendy ran for her car, McKissack got in, and off they went. A few days later Wendy was contacted by law enforcement and gave McKissack up. He was arrested at a hotel several counties away.

            Bill survived the shooting. He was able to call 911 and all but listed the elements of the crime to the dispatcher: “My roommate shot me in the hip … name is Johnnie McKissack … he left with his girlfriend … I’ll just lay here and bleed out … no, I don’t have a weapon, he shot me. …” He didn’t sign off with “against the peace and dignity of the State,” but the recording provided powerful evidence. He was taken to the emergency room, but due to his injuries he was flown to another hospital and ultimately had his hip replaced. Many hours after the attack, a sober (albeit medicated) Bill gave law enforcement and medical personnel multiple versions of what happened. However, he was consistent in what mattered: Johnnie McKissack shot him.

            From preparing the indictment to preparing for trial, Julie Renken, one of the co-authors of this article, focused on how best to prepare Bill to testify. Obviously, Bill was not the most sympathetic of victims given the facts of the case, but like all victims, his story deserved to be heard. Bill moved to Abilene shortly after recovering from surgery because he was terrified of McKissack. Julie and our victim assistance coordinator, Amanda Horak, kept in touch by phone to make sure we understood his story and to keep Bill engaged and ready to testify. Amanda and Julie had a trip to Abilene planned to meet prior to trial, but Bill had become harder to get a hold of. We lost touch with him completely in August 2021.

Hitting a snag

In November 2021 we were contacted by a detective from the Abilene Police Department (APD). She explained that she was working a missing person case on Bill, and she had heard he was a victim in our case. His family out of state had contacted APD because he hadn’t checked in like he normally did. In January we received word that Bill had been found deceased. During one of the winter’s extremely cold weekends, he had frozen to death in a tent.

            We had not had contact with him since August, and we had already started contingency plans because we knew he was missing. But no one wants to try an assault case without a live victim testifying.

            After Bill died, we had to pivot and figure out which of his statements could and should be admitted without his presence in the courtroom. It required brushing up on non-hearsay and admissible hearsay, including availability. Luckily, there was ample corroborative evidence to support Bill’s 911 call, which was crucial because it explained almost the entire crime. Bill told the troopers and paramedics who arrived on scene the same story. They described finding him in a chair bleeding from a gunshot wound, as he told the dispatcher.  There was a puddle of blood on the floor in front of the chair, as if a person bleeding was sitting there. Officers on scene located two complete rounds and fragments of another in places consistent with Bill’s description of where he was when McKissack shot him. 

Wendy’s story

Wendy, McKissack’s former girlfriend, originally told law enforcement a story that didn’t make sense and mitigated McKissack’s involvement—she lied to them. Later in her statement, she finally broke down and told the truth. Unsurprisingly, the same thing happened at her pre-trial interview. In both instances she described the two men standing in front of their recliners, McKissack shooting Bill in the hip, and Bill laying on the floor bleeding by the chair. One strange detail Wendy recalled was that they left so fast she grabbed only two of her dogs because the third wouldn’t come out of hiding. When officers arrived, they found a dog but had no idea where it came from.

            In addition to initially helping and lying for McKissack, we knew Wendy drank heavily with him and had not fully “left” him romantically. We knew she possessed many of the same traits that jurors often find unsympathetic in victims: substance abuse, going back to her abuser, making excuses for the abuse, and so on. After meeting with her, we could tell she would come off gruff, and she was still trying to cover for McKissack, even lying for him in the beginning.

            Without Bill, we had to rely heavily on Wendy’s testimony and the physical evidence that corroborated her statement. With over a year having passed since the shooting, we had some concerns about tracking her down—but those concerns were quickly set aside. She told us immediately, “I knew this day was coming. I’ll be there with bells on.” Wendy was rough around the edges but on the right path. After seeing McKissack shoot Bill, she was terrified. She helped McKissack escape by leaving him in another county and never looking back. After telling law enforcement a few low-quality lies, she ratted out the man who just shot his roommate for being an annoying drunk.

            It’s never a good idea to think of a trial as a “sure thing” or an “easy case,” but we always felt good about our evidence. And given what we were learning about McKissack’s past, punishment would be our time to turn it up to 11.

Finding Jenny

Neither Wendy nor Bill was particularly sympathetic as victims. Assault is assault is assault, but we know the importance of having a connection with the jury. And we were concerned about Wendy.

            We knew McKissack had a past. Because the file was still in our basement, we knew that in Washington County in 1998 he shot his girlfriend, Jenny. At that time, we believed he was on parole from California for killing his uncle, possibly as a juvenile. We didn’t really have any details—we heard that McKissack shot him—but there was some suggestion that he burned him. We managed to find a 1978 burglary probation order from California in the old file, but nothing on a homicide. If you’ve ever looked at a criminal history from California, you know how hard it can be to understand. If you’ve tried to call anyone in California government since March 2020, you know that they aren’t answering the phone. Without McKissack on the stand, that was a dead end.

            But there was Jenny—if we could find her.

            She has a common first and last name, Fisher, and no record in our system since 1999. Our investigator, Brian Taylor, is a retired Texas Ranger with a knack for finding people, so as he says, we “put the horse to the plow.” As expected, he tracked her down. No one is entirely sure how Brian does this;[2] we just give him a name and sometimes after only a few hours he’ll be the person’s new best friend. For Jenny, he had a name, date of birth, and a 20-year-old connection to Brenham. He compiled a list of possible numbers and quickly got an answer.

            When Derek Estep, the other co-author of this article, first spoke with Jenny, she said she knew what the call was about as soon as she saw “Washington County” on her cell phone. She agreed to come to Brenham and meet with us. Surprisingly, she was ready to testify about the shooting from the start—for the very first time. According to the file, she didn’t testify at McKissack’s 1999 trial because she could not be located. Jenny told us her probation officer had put her in a rehab in Dallas to get away from McKissack. Regardless, she had never sat in the witness chair to tell her tragic story.

Jenny’s story

In 1998, McKissack and Jenny were living together. They met at her job, and after a few months she and her kids moved in with him. It didn’t take long for McKissack to go from charm to abuse. Jenny had never been in trouble in her life until meeting McKissack. During her time with him, she began abusing alcohol and cocaine. Her kids told their father what was going on, so he came to move them out. He left with the children in tow—at the barrel of McKissack’s pistol. McKissack told Jenny, “No one else would ever have you,” and quickly cut her off from her family and friends. She described him taking “my sense of self.” He punched her in the mouth, pushing her teeth through her lip. He broke beer bottles on her head. One night he threw a knife at her, stabbing her in the back. But for Jenny, staying felt safer than leaving.

            One night in November 1998, they stayed out very late drinking and continued with some friends when they got home. McKissack, at one point, pulled a pistol and shot at the dog because it was barking. Early in the morning McKissack and Jenny got into an argument, and Jenny left with one of the other girls to go get cigarettes. McKissack walked out with his lunchbox to go to work, but he stopped at the passenger side of the truck Jenny was driving. He reached in his lunchbox, pulled out the pistol, and fired multiple rounds through the window at Jenny. One went through the back of her shoulder, out the front, and through her wrist. Another ricocheted off the door panel and grazed her leg. He put the gun back in his lunchbox, got in his car, and rode to work with a friend. Jenny was taken to the hospital where she told the staff she didn’t know who shot her. Of course no one believed her, and the friend who drove her there quickly cleared it up, even giving a statement to police. This was the hold McKissack had on her, that she would lie to protect him even after he shot her.

            McKissack was arrested later that same day, never posted bail, and was sentenced by a jury to 19 years in prison.[3] With him eventually gone, Jenny tried to kick her habits but couldn’t. She was haunted by the abuse and his words that no one else would have her. For years she bounced around, picking up typical cases for criminal trespass, burglary of vending machines, and drug possession.

            Then in 2008, while facing a joint cocaine possession case with her then-boyfriend, she had enough. She met a neighbor who asked her out, and Jenny’s life was saved. Jenny never touched coke again. She got married. She became a certified nursing assistant. She reunited with her family and children. When we contacted her, she was taking a break from work because both the elderly woman she was caring for and her father, who lived with her family, had just passed away. She told us many times that God had put her in this position at this time for a reason, and she wanted to help.

Confronting McKissack

During hours of trial preparation interviews, Wendy confided in Julie what we expected: years of emotional and physical abuse from McKissack. McKissack had come across as charming and charismatic—until he wasn’t. When the abuse turned physical, it was too late: He had already isolated her from family and friends. He would assault her and then go stay with another woman (whom he was also abusing) until he apologized and Wendy would take him back.

            We wondered if McKissack knew that we’d found either of his victims or if they would show up to trial. Our courtroom is set up like a church, with pews on either side of an awkwardly long center aisle. As the two women made their way down that aisle as each was called to testify (Wendy at guilt and punishment, Jenny at punishment only), McKissack did his best to stare holes right through them.

            Neither woman truly caved to McKissack’s attempts at intimidation. He may have mitigated some of the damage Wendy could have done, but it was a pyrrhic victory—the jury had borne witness to his actions as well. What was on full display was his true character as a bully with no regard for human life. He was as cold and uncaring sitting at counsel table as he was in 1998 when he casually left for work after shooting Jenny, and as he was 25 years later when he casually tossed Bill a phone and left him in a pool of blood.

Plot twist

The defense claimed self-defense at trial. Bill was drunk and had been pestering McKissack all night. Wendy described it as Bill “swatting” at McKissack but never actually hitting him. She explained that she was watching them the whole time but was looking away during portions of their argument. However, she never mentioned a knife and said that Bill was unarmed. Bill was clear on the 911 call that he wasn’t armed, and officers located no weapons at the scene. But at the hospital, emergency room staff found a pocket knife in Bill’s pocket. In the thousands of pages of medical records, we missed the inventory and got caught flat-footed by the self-defense claim. The proposed theory was that Bill had a knife and was getting physical with McKissack. McKissack was older and smaller than Bill, so he grabbed his gun to shoo Bill out and Bill came at him before he could raise it any higher than Bill’s hip. (Insert self-defense instruction here.)

            It took almost four hours for a jury to convict Johnnie McKissack for shooting Bill. We later found out from a juror that there was one person on the jury who was buying into the self-defense, which was the reason deliberations took so long.

The punishment trial

Derek told the jury during opening of the punishment trial, “Johnnie McKissack is the least important person we’re going to talk about today. You can forget his name after today. But remember Jenny and Wendy.” We didn’t want jurors to focus on the defendant anymore because you never know which Sunday School teacher, jail house minister, or drinking buddy will show up as a character witness. We wanted the jury thinking about Jenny and Wendy because their stories are so tragic.

            Jenny was a star on the stand. We had her go first because we knew her story would put Wendy’s gruff, angry exterior in context. (We feared Wendy would become emotional and she would ramble, and indeed she did.) If the jury could only hear from Jenny how McKissack was in 1998, they’d surely sympathize more with what Wendy went through in 2020. Jenny described the relationship and all the gruesome details to the jury. Her voice broke only once or twice, and she pushed on. The jury heard all about the drugs and booze and about the new life she’s living now. Jenny was strong even when talking about the events leading up to her being shot. To us, the saddest, most powerful part of her testimony was that days before being shot, she had bought McKissack the bullets.

            Then it was Wendy’s turn. As she sat in the witness chair, she frequently moved back to change the line of sight so that McKissack couldn’t see her. He moved his chair to match. In retrospect we should have noticed a dangerous man on trial for his life suddenly moving around and possibly addressed it with the witnesses. But we assume the jury noticed because their position looks right at the defendant. Externally, Wendy was loaded for bear and ready to fight. But that façade didn’t last once she began talking about her experiences to the jury. She vacillated from anger and wanting to point at McKissack, to waving dismissively and answering questions with a frustrated “never mind.” 

            Additionally, we tracked down a couple of other misdemeanor family violence convictions. The victim in one of them was the same “other woman” Wendy had testified about. 

            Closing the punishment trial, Julie implored the jury to “be the ‘they’ who took a stand for Johnnie McKissack’s string of victims.” It took only half an hour for them to do so, sentencing McKissack to life in prison, with a $10,000 fine just to send a message.

Two women on the same path

Undoubtedly, there are some scholarly lessons to be learned here from dealing with victims who up and die before trial, as well as working with reluctant victims. It is also no great surprise that we’re happy about the life sentence for Johnnie McKissack. What truly struck us about the case was Jenny and Wendy: two women assaulted by the same man and abused in the same ways, both on the same road to peace and renewal—just at very different points. Wendy was still angry and raw. She was still processing the trauma. Before testifying, she told us, “I kinda feel sorry for him; he doesn’t have anybody.” To an outsider such a statement sounds absurd, but not us. For Wendy, despite the abuse and having a new boyfriend, the connection was still there.

            Jenny, on the other hand, was 20 years removed from the trauma. She had actually worked with other women in similar situations by telling her story, and she still regularly attends counseling. She had cast aside that dark sliver of her past and spent almost 15 years making a bright, new life. There was still pain and sadness in her as she talked, but it was mostly for the lost time with her family. She hugged us all and thanked us for the opportunity to finally tell her story in court.

            These two women required different approaches from us, different tones of voice, and different support. Jenny testified for herself, and Wendy testified for “the next one”—a future victim. To say no two victims are the same is obvious; to see it play out like this was eye-opening.

            When they first crossed paths in our office, their strange sense of camaraderie was palpable. They had both told us they had no idea how they had gotten mixed up with someone like McKissack. There was certainly some trepidation between them initially, given the nature of their common bond, but the meeting impressed upon both of them that “you are not alone.” At the end of the trial, they swapped some stories including multiple versions of “Oh, he did that to you? He did this to me.” It wasn’t one-upmanship—it was empathy. Wendy ultimately told Jenny that she was her hero and that meeting her was “the best thing to come out of all of this. I had started to believe you didn’t exist.” McKissack had started to convince Wendy the entire 1998 shooting was a lie and never happened.[4]

            Jenny and Wendy both left knowing what we all hope comes from a trial like this, what we all say in closing, what we all write in press releases: Johnnie McKissack’s trail of victims stopped because someone came forward with the bravery to say “No more.”


[1]  For those unfamiliar, this game involves waving one’s hands as closely as possible to the other’s face without making contact while saying, “I’m not touching you.” Typically, the game stems from one person’s assertion, “Don’t touch me.”

[2]  Our investigator Brian Taylor is the stuff of legend. He’ll call the operator at a hospital asking for records, and someone will deliver them that the afternoon. He once successfully served a subpoena in Antigua and got records back. Frankly, we weren’t surprised at all when he came in with a sticky note with Jenny’s phone number and email.

[3]  At that time, the Penal Code did not contemplate the succinctly titled first-degree felony we have now, aggravated assault with a deadly weapon causing serious bodily injury against a family or household member. Consequently, the jury was left with the standard punishment range of two to 20 years. Judging by the contents of the old file, we could not locate any paperwork regarding a homicide in California.

[4]  The very definition of gaslighting, which means (according to Merriam-Webster Dictionary) “psychological manipulation of a person usually over an extended period of time that causes the victim to question the validity of their own … perception of reality.”