KELLY WILSON RUMORS
FLY AROUND ET
By: MARK COLLETTE, Staff Writer
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STILL A MYSTERY: Kelly Wilson is shown as she looked at age 17 (left) and in a
GILMER - From a Gilmer video store to an audience of millions, Kelly Wilson became famous - for all the wrong reasons.
The investigation into the 17-year-old's 1992 disappearance (she would be 29 now) turned into a "circus sideshow," in the words of one state official.
Investigators working on little but hearsay created a mythology about a satanic cult, leading to what some describe as a modern witch hunt.
They indicted a whole family and even a police investigator, destroying his law enforcement career, straining his marriage and prompting death threats. They backed down only when fed-up community leaders asked the state for help.
The Texas attorney general, finding no evidence any of the charges were true, instead uncovered suggestions that the whole cult theory was the product of coercion by overzealous investigators - even to the point that they physically restrained children to elicit allegations of satanic activity.
The attorney general dismissed scores of indictments and effectively sent the case back to its beginning: a pretty teenager's empty car, keys missing, tire flat, going nowhere.
Shane Phelps says it was hardest on the parents.
"All the while these things were going on, the search for their daughter got forgotten about," says Phelps, who was chief special prosecutor for the attorney general when the state intervened. "Our chances would have been much better had all that not happened."
Now, rumors are again swirling across East Texas, fueled by a confluence of unrelated events, most of which have nothing to do with Ms. Wilson. Investigators say the rumors are all false.
What spiraled years ago into a "sideshow" is again humming with voices, with no ringmaster but the collective curiosity of a public captivated by gossip and a maddeningly unsolved case rife with dead ends.
Take, for example, the Kaufman Street yard in Gilmer, excavated this month to no avail.
Police and the FBI dug on the advice of a tipster who knew at least some details of the case not known to the public, but whose tip uncovered nothing but the public's willingness to indulge in speculation as fleeting as a death row vision.
"I had one guy write me from death row that he had a dream: He knows where she is, and if he can get a stay of execution, he'll tell me," says an incredulous Jon Warren, the new lead investigator on the case for the Gilmer Police Department.
No one knows - or at most, very few people know - whether Ms. Wilson has spoken in 12 years.
But that hasn't stopped anyone from hearing her.
Ms. Wilson's voice comes in spates, sometimes without any clear explanation, other than that those who have been enraptured in her story have their ears piqued, ready to call Warren at any hint of a whisper.
But in just the past few months, a series of events has bolstered those whispers to a steady din.
First, Chris Denton, Ms. Wilson's boyfriend at the time of her disappearance, died of cancer, not long after he thought he had it beaten, according to Warren. Denton had been thoroughly questioned early in the investigation. People said he had a bad temper.
The phone lines lit up: Denton had made a deathbed confession. Not true, Warren says.
Then an anonymous tip mailed to police in January prompted three months of research and finally led officials to dig up the yard. Some people say the letter came from Denton. No proof, Warren says.
"I still have a problem with the motivation behind the letter," he says. "I can't determine that. Maybe someone was mad at the person who lives there. But that person didn't live there back then," when Ms. Wilson disappeared.
Last week, police arrested Joe Henry, the owner of Northeast Texas Video on Gilmer's downtown square, who now runs Joe's Place, a hamburger joint. He was the last to see Ms. Wilson, when she got in her car after work. The deposit she usually took to the bank after work made it there that night.
Henry was arraigned on a charge of possession of child pornography and released on bond, in a case connected to Tony Roy Elardo, also of Gilmer. Elardo was sentenced last week to 20 years in prison on each of 32 child pornography charges.
Though it might fit with all the hullabaloo about rituals and child abuse, police emphasize there is no evidence linking Henry to Ms. Wilson's disappearance.
Finally, on Friday, "Dateline NBC" for the second time aired a two-hour special about Ms. Wilson, titled "A Touch of Evil," this time with updates about Denton and Henry, and an interview with Warren.
"They said they got such good ratings from the previous show that they should do a follow-up," Warren says.
Much of the show plays right into the din of whispers, and the piqued ears of East Texas.
"Was it about lust, drugs, or something even more sinister?" teases a narrator, as blue and red flames and flashes of devil masks dance in the background.
But anyone who watched until the end saw the people who initiated the cult stories recant everything they said - even the boy whose accusations destroyed Sgt. James Brown's career.
Phelps, the investigator for the attorney general, recalls why he was called in: Community leaders worried about "the laughingstock that the community was being made of across the country," with tabloid television news crews traipsing through the woods with cameras in the middle of the night; with frenzied citizens picketing the state Capitol, warning of a vicious satanic threat: "Today Gilmer, Tomorrow Your Town!" one poster screamed.
On Friday, a national audience of millions got to see it all over again.
Throughout the show, Sgt. Brown looked somber, beleaguered, even a little haggard - not surprising, given that his 12-year ride isn't over.
On a return trip to Gilmer with an NBC news crew, Brown still gets the sideways glances. He still wears the label: "killer cop." Even Ms. Wilson's mother, who has remarried, still thinks Brown is connected to her daughter's disappearance. She was one of the ones picketing at the state Capitol.
Brown's misery began in 1993, when the Upshur County district attorney recused himself from the Wilson case, and Scott Lyford was appointed to prosecute.
At the same time, local Child Protective Services caseworkers Ann Goar and Debbie Minshew had been investigating child molestation allegations against the family of Loretta and Wendell Kerr.
The cases crossed paths when one of the supposed abuse victims, a child, began to tell of satanic rituals.
Lyford, according to a case summary by a federal appeals court judge, hired private occult investigators Brooks Fleig and Steve Baggs.
Phelps says the group, which became known as the "Lyford Team," first met each other at a conference on abuse connected to cult rituals.
He says it's possible one of the children in the Kerr case had actually been threatened by an adult trying to scare him with "Halloween masks or something like that."
When the child described it to the Lyford Team, Phelps says, "they thought 'Oh my God,' and they just went off the deep end."
In 1994, eight people, including Brown, were charged with aggravated sexual assault, aggravated kidnapping and capital murder in what had become the story of Ms. Wilson's rape, torture and murder, part of a grisly pattern of ritual sacrifice in the woods of Upshur County. In all, nearly 50 indictments were handed up against 10 people.
Phelps says there was never any physical evidence.
"One of the main statements that stood out in my mind," Warren recalls, "was that (Lyford) made a statement that the fact that there's no evidence against those people proves that they are expert satanists."
In 1995, Phelps was called in. He immediately fired the Lyford Team and got the state to dismiss all of the murder and kidnapping charges, and 45 of 48 child abuse indictments.
He says it was a "bunker mentality" that drew Brown to the center of suspicion. State officials were told by the Lyford Team that "you can't trust anybody."
"If you challenged these people or you questioned any of what they were saying as not being gospel, then you were suspect," says Andy Tindel, a local attorney who represented Brown.
When Brown found nothing to corroborate the Lyford Team's findings, nothing to bolster the "gospel," he became the center of suspicion.
Brown would later sue the Lyford Team for malicious prosecution and false arrest, seeking reparations for the accusations that ruined his career and caused him to leave Gilmer after receiving death threats.
In a 2001 ruling, U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Patrick Higginbotham would find that investigators had used a "holding technique" while asking the Kerr children suggestive questions.
But the court ruled against Brown, saying the Lyford Team had acted on behalf of the state and was therefore entitled to "qualified immunity."
In 1995, Phelps went out of his way to clear Brown, even to an extreme law officers rarely take: He publicly announced Brown's innocence in the face of prosecutors with "inexperience, overzealousness, and a desire to be the people who broke this thing wide open, make national news, that sort of thing."
They did make national news. All the while, Phelps says, a group of parents was asking:
"Why aren't we looking for my daughter?"
Warren can name five pieces of information, or tips, that have led him to "exert more time and energy because there is a possibility there is some validity to it."
Asked whether he believes Ms. Wilson could be alive, he offers a less-than-encouraging reply:
"If you want to go with any possible scenario, technically she could be hiding somewhere this whole time and still be alive in, you know, Hawaii. There's never been any evidence that she's not alive, except the fact that she's been missing for 12 years."
He says it's "not an ice-cold case that no one ever thinks about," but he tells Ms. Wilson's family "not to get their hopes up," especially when rumors swirl.
But is there ever really anything of Ms. Wilson in the din of whispers?
"It depends on what you call substantial," Warren says. "Nothing has led us to find anything. But you have to look into everything that comes in" - he hesitates, then adds, "To some degree. There's not a lot of time to spend on people that call in, or write in, that say they've had a vision, and they think she's buried under the Pizza Hut."
Or that Sgt. James Brown, now working for the state prison system, put her there.
Phelps says there are still people in Gilmer who believe that, "and that just shocks me to my core."
Mark Collette covers Southern Smith and Upshur counties. He can be reached at 903.596.6303. e-mail: email@example.com