September-October 2011

Unraveling a web of lies

How prosecutors convicted a serial domestic abuser of murder—despite his girlfriend’s false confession to the crime

Staley Heatly

District Attorney in Wilbarger, Foard, and Hardeman Counties

On July 4, 2009, just before midnight, Kristina Earnest and Tommy Castro rushed into the emergency room at Wilbarger General Hospital with the limp body of 5-year-old Kati Earnest. Emergency room personnel did everything they could to help little Kati but it was too late.

    Kati’s body was covered in bruises from front to back and head to toe. Castro and Earnest claimed that they had found her face down in the bathtub. As for the bruises on Kati’s body, they were from playing belly-busters at the pool and from being beaten up by other young kids at the park. None of what they said made any sense to the shocked nurses and doctors.

    The next day the Vernon Police Department received the autopsy results from Tarrant County. The results confirmed everyone’s suspicions: Kati had died of blunt force trauma.

    With autopsy results in hand, Vernon Police Department detectives called the couple back in for interviews. After she was confronted with the results of the autopsy, Kristina Earnest quickly confessed in a flat, emotionless monotone to having killed her own child. She was so cooperative with investigators that she even went back to the apartment with DA Investigator Jeff Case and Vernon Police Detective Mickey Allen to show them just how she had committed the crime. She was arrested by the Vernon Police Department and charged with capital murder. We were convinced, however, that there was much more to the story.

The boyfriend

After her arrest, we turned our focus to her boyfriend, Tommy Castro. A quick check revealed prior family violence convictions from the 1990s in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. In addition, just two months before Kati’s death, he had been placed on probation for aggravated assault with a deadly weapon in another jurisdiction. The victim was a woman named Shyla Frausto. And just two days before Kati’s death, on July 2, Castro was convicted of having violated a protective order against Frausto.

    Within a few days of Kati’s death we were in contact with Shyla Frausto and Castro’s ex-wife, Melissa Castro. Melissa had been with Castro from 1992 to 1995 while Shyla had dated him between 2007 and 2009. The similarity between the two women’s experiences was startling. Both gave detailed accounts of the incredible brutality and abuse that they suffered at Castro’s hands.

    Castro’s history spoke for itself. We were not foreclosing the possibility that Earnest had something to do with the crime, but everything was pointing to Castro as the perpetrator.

    Castro was not shy with the police. Whenever they requested the opportunity to meet with him, he came. He talked and talked but almost never answered a question. When it came to the crime, he always claimed that he didn’t know what happened because he was “out of it” and “heavily medicated” because he was suffering from kidney stones. Initially, Castro praised his girlfriend for being a wonderful mother and “wife.” He feigned surprise at her confession and intimated that it must have been coerced by police. He was less generous with the deceased little girl. He described Kati Earnest at various times as being “gluttonous,” “hard-headed,” “disrespectful,” and “a liar.”

The truth comes out

After Castro was arrested, we allowed him to exchange mail with Kristina. The letters showed Castro’s absolute control over her. He quoted biblical Scripture freely and encouraged her to give her problems to God. He constantly assured her that he loved her and encouraged her to stay strong but most importantly to keep her mouth shut. After a couple of weeks we cut off all communication between them. Within a couple of days Kristina passed a note to a jailer asking to speak to a detective. The truth finally came out.

    She confirmed our suspicions that she had been abused by Castro and confessed to the crime because she was scared of what he might do to her and her remaining living children, a 3-year-old named Haleigh (who was living with her father and did not move to Vernon) and 20-month-old J.W. Bell.

The background

Kristina Earnest was only 21 years old when she met 41-year-old Tommy Castro in Amarillo. In January 2009, Kristina lost her mother to cancer. She was hopeless and depressed. Enter Tommy Castro. The unemployed itinerant defense contractor offered her the opportunity to stay home with her kids while he worked and took care of the family.

    Initially, Castro was respectful and caring. He told Kristina that he was a religious man and he spent a lot of time reading the bible and praying with her. Castro had Kristina quit her job and at the end of May, they moved to Vernon with her children, 5-year old Kati and 20-month old J.W.

    They spent their first night in Vernon at a motel. The first time Castro beat Kristina occurred shortly after check-in. He began berating her for supposedly wanting to have sex with some workmen that were outside the hotel. She tried to gather her things and leave when Castro struck her the first time. He grabbed her by the throat, held her up against the wall, and told her that she was not going anywhere. He took her cell phone and removed the cord from the phone in the room. Castro told her that he would put her to sleep and that she would never see her little “rats” again if she tried to leave him.

    A couple of hours later, Castro apologized for his behavior. He told Kristina he had lost it because of her inappropriate behavior. He told her that she could leave and go back to Amarillo as soon as the marks on her face were healed. Unfortunately, Kristina’s marks never healed. They were always replaced by new, fresh bruises.

    A couple of days later, the couple signed a lease on a three-bedroom apartment at a complex on the outskirts of town. Kristina hoped that Castro would keep his word and that the violence was over. After the initial incident, Castro had been contrite and even sweet. Unfortunately, the acts of family violence never ceased and the honeymoon periods between acts of violence got shorter and shorter. She and her children lived in constant fear of Castro.

    He had strict rules in the household for both Kristina and her children. He limited their food intake to one measured serving per meal while he could eat all he wanted. When Castro left the apartment, which was rare, he placed a piece of tape on the outside of the door to make sure that the door was not opened while he was gone. If the tape was broken, Kristina got a beating. He also routinely inspected her genitals to see if she had been having sex with the neighbors.

    Castro didn’t start hitting the kids until June. If he thought the children were disobedient, he would hit them. He would hit them on the behind with his hand and smack them across the head. His favorite method of punishing Kati was to spank her with a wooden boat that she had made in Sunday school class. It was a flat piece of wood about 8 inches inches long with a tapered point. He also made Kati lie on the ground and do flutter kicks when she didn’t behave. With Castro, you hadn’t been appropriately punished unless and until you cried. On the other hand, if you cried you were weak and had to be punished more.

The murder

On July 4, 2009, Castro and Kristina woke up late. Castro took out the trash and stopped by the parking lot to check on his pride and joy, a 2009 Mazda RX-8. When he returned to the apartment, he accused Kati of urinating in his car. At first Kati denied that she had urinated in Castro’s car but after some prodding she admitted that she had.

    Lying was one of Tommy Castro’s pet peeves and the Mazda sports car was his baby. To punish the child, Castro struck her numerous times on the bottom with her wooden boat. When he didn’t get the reaction that he wanted, he had her lean back against the bed with her hands behind her back and her stomach exposed. He took the boat and slammed it against her stomach over and over. She whimpered but would not cry. He did it again three more times and she finally let out a cry. Castro still wasn’t satisfied. He made Kati lay down on her back on the floor and he smashed his fist against her stomach two times. Then he stood up and he stepped on her abdomen with his full weight and walked over to the other side of her. Castro then turned around and stepped on her abdomen again back over to the other side. At that point, Kati’s death was imminent. Castro had transected her duodenum and caused severe damage to other internal organs.

    Kati complained about her stomach all day. Earnest pleaded with Castro to take her to the hospital on multiple occasions. At around 11:00 p.m., Kati started throwing up. Castro picked her up and took her into the bathtub to contain the vomit. He turned on the water to try and clean the vomit off Kati. Earnest got into the bathtub and held on to Kati’s head while she was sick. Just after 11:30 p.m., Kati looked into her mother’s eyes and took her last breath. Castro and Earnest rushed Kati to the hospital, but she was dead on arrival.

    On the way to the hospital, Castro told Earnest what she was going to say to the doctors and nurses. She complied. He had been beating her for weeks and she felt like he was completely in control and that she had no choice but to do what he demanded. When the police called Castro and Earnest in for an interview, Castro told her she would confess to the crime or something bad would happen to her other two remaining children. She believed him and did as she was told. Only after the pair had been separated for weeks in jail did Earnest gather the courage to tell the truth.

A history of violence

Considering Tommy Castro’s violent past, Kristina Earnest’s version of events made perfect sense. In addition to finding Shyla Frausto and Melissa Castro, my investigator Jeff Case had tracked down six other women he had abused starting in 1992 all the way up to the day Kati died. They lived all over Texas, and we even found a woman in Indiana whom Castro had beaten while he was doing contract work there.

    These women all suffered numerous, brutal beatings at Castro’s hands. Almost all of these women dated him for a year or more. They stayed with him out of a mix of fear, hope, and love, but mainly fear.

    We believed Earnest’s story and thought that she would be a credible witness, but we also knew that we would not be allowed to call these other women in the guilt phase of the trial unless the defendant somehow opened the door. If the jury couldn’t hear from these women, they wouldn’t know Tommy Castro’s true nature and we would be relying solely on the word of a woman who had previously confessed to the crime. Because of that, our focus at trial was to provide evidence that corroborated Earnest’s claim of domestic violence.

Testimony from State’s witnesses

The first six witnesses we called were nurses and CPS personnel who observed Castro and Earnest at the emergency room. The nurses testified that Earnest was distraught and sobbing uncontrollably at the death of her daughter; she stood by the bed holding Kati’s hand, stroking her hair, and pleading with her to come back. Castro, on the other hand, was barking orders at the nurses and doctors telling them that they should continue their lifesaving efforts. He showed no emotion and never shed a tear throughout the night. As one nurse said, “He had the only dry eyes in the ER that night.”

    Castro was also clinging tightly to little J.W. Bell. The nurses tried to take the child from him but he refused. Castro was wearing a ball cap when they came into the ER, but after they arrived he placed the cap on little J.W.’s head. J.W. kept trying to take if off but Castro would not let him. When the nurses finally got J.W. away from Castro, they took off his ball cap and noticed a large laceration on the top of his head. They also noted that he had bruises all over his face and the rest of his body. CPS workers took photos of those bruises, and they were introduced at trial. The nurses also observed bruises on Kristina Earnest’s body. She had a black eye, a split lip, and bruises on her arms and legs.

    The only person that did not have any bruises was Tommy Castro.

    CPS investigator Tina Burkhart described how Kristina was silent, whimpering and looking down at her feet the entire morning. When Burkhart asked her a question, Kristina would look over at Castro before answering. He sat in the chair next to her, leaning over so that his knees were touching hers. He had a stern look on his face. Burkhart explained how Castro controlled the conversation and intimidated both her and his girlfriend.

    We also called several people from the apartment complex. The neighbors stated that they rarely saw Kristina outside of the apartment, and when they did she walked with her head down and refused to make eye contact. The apartment manager, April Maldonado, testified that she had seen her leave the apartment on only a couple of occasions, and she never saw the children outside. When Kristina was outside, Castro was always leading her around. He kept a firm grip on her arm with both of his hands. Kristina always stared at the ground and never said a word unless Castro gave her permission. Maldonado also witnessed Castro leave the apartment complex with Kristina in his Mazda. When he did so, Castro would unlock the passenger side door with his key chain, place Kristina in the car, lock the doors again, walk over to the driver’s side, unlock the door and get in. He was in complete control of her every movement.

    After we called these third-party witnesses to set the scene, we put Dr. Judith Beechler on the stand as an expert witness on family violence. Dr. Beechler, a professor of counseling at Midwestern State University, has worked with battered women for over 20 years. She testified at length about the cycle of violence and the power and control wheel. Her testimony was critical and provided the jury with invaluable insight into the mindset of a battered woman. At the conclusion of her testimony, we knew that the jury would be ready to hear from Kristina Earnest.

    Kristina’s testimony was powerful and believable on the heels of the doctor’s previous testimony. She spoke of how Castro rapidly isolated her from her family and even convinced her that her family was no good for her. He limited her financial capacity by making her quit her job so that she would have to rely on him for support. When they moved to Vernon, Kristina had to leave her car in Amarillo at his parents’ house so that she would not have her own transportation. And when they got to Vernon and the domestic violence started, he took her cell phone away and completely eliminated her contact with anyone outside the home. Through isolation, physical violence, and manipulation through religion, Kristina became completely submissive to Castro.

    After Kati’s death Castro kept Kristina sedated on a steady dose of prescription anti-anxiety medication. Castro had gotten a 90-pill prescription of Clonazepam filled on July 2 in Amarillo that called for one pill per day. When he was arrested on July 10, 2009, the bottle of Clonazepam was empty. This helped explain Earnest’s flat, monotone confession.

    We also called Tommy Castro’s father, Fran Castro, to the stand. Castro frequently called his father from jail, and he always communicated in Spanish. Fortunately, I speak Spanish. Frank was a very reluctant witness but he eventually admitted that his son had told him that he wanted to marry Kristina and that she did not kill her daughter. This was in stark contrast to the trial strategy of blaming Kristina for Kati’s death. He also told his father that he was “not going to tell the truth about what happened” in court and that the only person he would tell was a priest. He also begged his father to talk to Kristina and to tell her to keep her mouth shut. Castro said that he “needed Kristina.”

Another door is opened

The defense’s trial strategy was that Kristina Earnest had committed the murder. However, when defense attorneys cross-examined her, they did not attack her accusations of domestic violence. That foreclosed the possibility of us introducing the testimony of the prior victims of family violence. The defense, however, through its opening statement and vigorous cross-examination, opened another door by placing the identity of the perpetrator of the crime at issue.

    As a result of the defense strategy, we were able to call Shyla Frausto, Castro’s ex-girlfriend, as a witness. Frausto dated Castro for about 18 months between 2007 and 2009. Her testimony was powerful and if the jury had any doubts about Castro, they were erased by the time she was finished. Frausto was beaten in much the same way as Kristina. He booby-trapped the door so she could not leave the house and he inspected her genitals whenever he returned home to see if she had had sex with other men. More significantly, however, her 10-year-old son was beaten in much the same way as Kati.

    Frausto testified that Castro would beat her son with a flat piece of wood, about the same size and shape as the wooden boat that was used on Kati. She also testified that Castro would step on her son’s abdomen and side and walk from one side of him to the other while stepping on him—exactly how Kati was killed. Finally, the medical examiner, Dr. Marc Krouse, had told the jury that Kati had deep bruising on one side of her neck. The doctor noted that this type of bruising was consistent with having been strangled in a head lock. Frausto testified that Castro would often put her son in a head lock as well. The similarities amounted to a signature: beating children with wood, strangling them in a head lock, and stepping on their abdomens.

Castro takes the stand

There was no doubt that Castro would testify. In his own mind, he knew that he was the smartest person in the room and that he could set the record straight with the jury. Castro was on the stand for seven hours, six of them on direct. Nancy Nemer with the Attorney General’s Office assisted me in the trial, and she did an excellent cross-examination of the defendant. She methodically picked apart Castro’s new version of events: that Kristina was a terrible mother who had attempted to drown Kati a couple of days before her death. Nemer used details from his numerous prior statements to carefully and methodically unravel his story, showing how outlandish it was, and proving him a liar.  She even got him to admit on the stand that he had been an “animal” with his previous girlfriends. It was a wonderful case of death by a thousand tiny cuts. She never got angry or frustrated at Castro’s failure to answer her questions directly. She was persistent and polite, and by the end of her cross, Castro lost whatever tiny bit of credibility he may have had with the jury.

The verdict

The jury deliberated for almost three hours before returning a verdict of guilty to the lesser-included offense of felony murder. (Considering the obstacles we faced with Kristina’s false confession, I had decided not to seek the death penalty.) While I was a little disappointed that we did not get an automatic life sentence with a capital conviction, I was very happy that we had the opportunity to put on a punishment case. Several women had the chance to empower themselves by facing a man who had caused them such enormous pain.

    The stories from the previous victims were heart-wrenching and mirrored Kristina Earnest’s testimony. They were beaten, imprisoned, sexually assaulted, and traumatized. They all did whatever Castro said. The woman from Indiana testified that one time Castro told her he was going to strangle her to death. She testified that she picked up a kitchen knife and stabbed herself in the arm hoping that it would make him stop. It worked but she suffered permanent tendon and nerve damage to her arm. As Castro drove her to the hospital he told her exactly what explanation to give when they got to the ER. She did just as she was told.

    By the time the punishment phase was over, the jurors were leaning over, staring at Castro and shaking their heads. The pronouncement of the sentence was just a formality. In less than 10 minutes the jury came back with a verdict of life in prison and a $10,000 fine.

    After the verdict, a crowd of prior victims and their families gathered in my office crying, hugging each other, and smiling. These women had lived in terror for years, afraid that Castro would reappear at any time to terrorize them again. There was an enormous sense of relief and satisfaction that justice had finally been served, not just for Kati Earnest, but for all of them.