They found her naked body 36 years ago now, her head sunk into a bathtub full of black water, hands tied behind her with a tank top. It was 1987, and in a God-fearing town like Stephenville, seventy miles southwest of Fort Worth, what had been done to Susan Woods was unimaginable, something you might expect in a fetid corner of Los Angeles or New York City.
She had been a quiet, shy woman, five foot seven, with lustrous brown hair cascading past her shoulders and an easy smile that friends didn’t see as much as they once had. Susan was thirty years old and living alone that summer, left by a biker-ish husband who had fled the state, waiting for her divorce to go through. She was a local girl, a little lonely, a little sad, trying hard to put her life back in order. When she missed her shift at the sandpaper factory two days running, a supervisor called her father, Joe Atkins.
Atkins knew immediately that something was wrong. Susan would never miss work without telling someone. He drove to the tiny white bungalow she rented near downtown, around the corner from Central Elementary. The house was dark, the night air quiet but for the rhythmic shrieking of cicadas. On the porch, in the gloom, Atkins found that the door was unlocked. He was the one who found her, in the bath off the rear bedroom. It was something no parent should ever have to see. He called the police on the living room phone and waited in the yard until they drove up.
When a sergeant named Donnie Hensley arrived around nine, he hadn’t been told the victim’s identity. He was surprised to see Atkins, whom he knew as a volunteer at the municipal golf course.
“Joe, what are you doing here?” he asked.
“Donnie, they killed her,” Atkins said.
“Killed who, Joe?”
“They killed my daughter.”
Hensley didn’t press. He could tell Atkins was suffering from something like shock. The two men huddled and said a prayer before Hensley urged Atkins to go on home. His family needed to be told. At one point, Susan’s best friend, Cindy Hallmark, happened to drive up with her boyfriend. Neighbors could hear her screams two blocks away.
Inside, other officers were already pacing the house, taking photographs and studying the scene. Susan, the medical examiner would later confirm, had been raped and sodomized. An angry red line across her throat suggested that her killer had tried to strangle her. Hensley examined the bedroom, where there appeared to have been a struggle. Bedding was strewn everywhere. The mattress had been shoved off-center. A white electrical cord, perhaps used in the strangulation attempt, lay across the bed, plug end on the floor.
Murders were rare in Stephenville, and this was as bad as most of the officers at the house that night had ever seen. What stayed in everyone’s minds afterward wasn’t so much what had been done to Susan Woods. Instead, it was a pillowcase, stained with mascara. As Hensley studied it, he realized he could see the outlines of a face. It had obviously been pressed over her nose and mouth and was, in effect, Susan’s death mask. “I could see where her eyes had been,” Hensley says. “For years, I mean, all I could see was that eerie mascara.”
In the bathroom they found two good sets of fingerprints and palm prints, which, in 1987, were of limited use. DNA analysis was still years away, and fingerprint databases were not yet available in Texas. So while detectives had plenty of physical evidence, there was little they could do with the prints until they were compared with that of a specific suspect. Officers knocked on doors up and down the street. No one had seen anything strange.
At the police department the next day, a lieutenant named Ken Maltby announced that no other detectives would be working the case. He would take it on alone. Hensley exchanged glances with another officer. Today, thirty years after his departure from the force, Hensley is a leathery seventy-year-old retiree living in nearby Granbury. He still has misgivings about the case, beginning with Maltby’s impromptu takeover. “He wanted to be a hero,” he says.
Maltby, who died in 2016, investigated for two months with little progress. Then, that October, when Maltby stepped aside to assume control of a narcotics unit, Hensley decided to take on the investigation in his spare time—with little guidance, he says, and, surprisingly, no written reports. The case was cold, Hensley remembers. “I looked, but I couldn’t find no damn notes. I didn’t know what people had said to him.”
Hensley started from scratch, attempting to revive the case. Because Susan’s remains were badly decomposed—her upper body appeared to have spent two days in the bathwater—it was unclear whether she had been smothered, strangled, or drowned. But Hensley saw that there were basically two possible scenarios: Susan had been killed either by a stranger—a crime all but unknown in Stephenville—or by someone she knew. There was no sign of forced entry, which suggested the latter. The more Hensley studied the crime scene photos, the more he suspected that Susan had known her killer.
What most struck him was the living room table. There was an open can of Coke and an ashtray containing six cigarette butts. It didn’t fit. Susan wasn’t a habitual smoker, and she avoided caffeine. One friend said she drank nothing but water. The table suggested that she had hosted someone who stayed long enough to open that soda and smoke six cigarettes.
Once Hensley began interviewing Susan’s friends and family, he realized there weren’t many people she would’ve invited into her home. Her social circle had shrunk over the years, a process that accelerated after her husband left. He had taken their car, an old yellow Mustang, and for months she had worked six days a week to save enough money to buy a replacement. She spent Sundays, her day off, mostly doing laundry and buying groceries. She had only a handful of girlfriends and little time for dating.
But there was one thing. According to notes still in the case files, a friend from work named Debra Hardy told of a troubling call from Susan a few weeks before her death. “She was real upset and she said, ‘Debbie, I have got to talk to somebody,’ and I went down there, and she was crying,” Hardy said to investigators. “She had some dark marks on her neck, hickie-looking marks, and she said she didn’t know how or why she let it happen . . . She was afraid what everybody else would think.” Susan wouldn’t say much more, even about who had done it.
Her best friend, Cindy, filled in the blanks. The hickeys were the work of a bartender in Granbury, J. C. Baughman, whom she’d seen a few times. “I said, ‘What happened?’ ” Cindy told the police, “and she said that J.C. had got a little fresh, a little carried away.”
Hensley drove to Granbury to see J.C., who admitted to the affair. After meeting Susan when she and some work friends came to his bar, J.C. had cuddled with her on her couch for a few nights before they had sex, just the once. Susan ended it after the hickeys. J.C. seemed like a sweet guy, in Hensley’s estimation, and he passed a polygraph test. His prints didn’t match any found at the house.
Hensley’s next suspect, Cindy’s boyfriend (and later husband), Roy Hayes, was just a hunch. Roy was a big, gentle young man who often helped Susan around the house, at one point nailing the windows shut when she worried about her safety; his fingerprints, unsurprisingly, were all over the home. But he also played Dungeons & Dragons, which in those days, at least in a place like Stephenville, carried a whiff of satanism. Hensley interviewed him and found nothing suspicious but asked him to take a polygraph test just to make sure.
They administered it at a Texas Rangers office in Waco. “Donnie meets me right at the door as I come out, and he says, ‘Roy, you failed—you might as well confess,’ ” Roy recalls. “And I’m like, ‘There’s no way. I didn’t have nothing to do with this.’ Hensley says, ‘There is no way this is wrong. You did it.’ ” Then the polygraph technician emerged and announced that, actually, he’d passed. He was cleared.
By Christmas, five months after the murder, Hensley could see he was getting nowhere, which more than a few people in town told him was just plain stupid. Because everyone in Stephenville knew who did it.
Follow along as award-winning author Bryan Burrough hosts a podcast version of this story, Stephenville, available at TexasMonthly.com/Stephenville and on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and elsewhere.
In those days Stephenville was a sleepy town of 13,000 or so, conservative and insular. Dairies sprawled across the surrounding countryside. The smell of manure hung in the air some evenings; a fiberglass statue of a dairy cow, dubbed Moo-la, dominated the town square beside the courthouse. The county was dry. You couldn’t even buy beer.
Children’s activities were defined by 4-H, rodeo, and, on Friday evenings in the fall, high school football. Saturday nights teenagers cruised Washington Street between the Dairy Queens on each side of town; friends who did it together were known as “drag buddies.” On Sundays just about everything closed. Everyone was in church. If you were a man and drove anything other than a pickup, well, someone might glance at you funny. Outsiders got noticed.
And everyone noticed Michael Woods. In a town where FFA jackets, cowboy hats, and close-cropped hair were common, Susan’s then husband wore a leather jacket and engineer boots and had a brown beard, shoulder-length hair, and a bad attitude. He drove a motorcycle, got into fistfights, and never seemed to have a steady job; Susan had been the breadwinner. Michael called himself a musician. Cindy called him a bum. It was whispered around town that he dealt weed, something Michael denies ever doing.
Many days, Michael could be seen lying shirtless in their yard, sometimes lifting barbells, a Harley beside him in the driveway. He wasn’t from Stephenville. No one had to ask to know that. No one ever saw him at the rodeo, or a football game, or church.
Michael was born in Indianapolis and in second grade moved to El Paso. His mother was fleeing one of what he terms a series of volatile marriages and relationships. Michael later described his upbringing as erratic and abusive. Money was scarce, they moved often, and one of his mother’s carousel of boyfriends was usually in the mix. “She was a little hellion,” is how he puts it. “She liked to party and have kids.” He ended up with seven siblings.
When he was fifteen, his mother remarried, and the family moved to Virginia. It was then that Michael began leaving home for long periods. He had learned the guitar and loved it, playing Southern rock, Marshall Tucker, Skynyrd. Away from home, he played on street corners and at the odd club—mostly along the East Coast, wherever the mood took him—sleeping on couches where he found them, one step from homelessness. “It wasn’t as rough as being at home,” he remembers.
When he was twenty or so, a friend in El Paso was moving to Stephenville and asked him to drive a truck there. He arrived in small-town Texas in the late seventies and, when the friend needed more help, stayed on. Just a few years out of high school at the time, Susan told friends she spotted him on the drag, though Michael recalls they met when he was playing pinball in a convenience store and she walked in.
If Michael presented as a bad boy, Susan was very much the good girl: sweet, timid, close to her mother, naive. According to Cindy, who befriended her in the Stephenville High clarinet section, Susan hadn’t dated in school; she didn’t even go to her prom. But she thought Michael was adorable, especially his shoulder-length brown hair. She said he looked like rock star Bob Seger. Her friends didn’t get it.
“I thought he was very immature,” Cindy says. Susan was already working long hours at a nursing home, and “he always wanted to have fun, have a good time,” she recalls. The only serious fight she and Susan ever had, Cindy says, was over Susan’s decision to date him.
When it came time for Michael to meet Susan’s parents, he didn’t exactly arrive in a blue blazer with a vase of daylilies. “I showed up on her doorstep; it was about ninety degrees outside,” he recalls. “I was wearing a pair of cutoffs and sandals and not much else. And her mother opened the door and about fell on the floor. How disgusting: a man walking around with no shirt and short shorts. So right from the beginning, her family didn’t care for me one bit.”
Joe Atkins, who died in 2015, didn’t waste many words on him. “He had a, I think it was a .357, but he showed me the pistol he had in his closet,” Michael says. “He said, ‘If you ever hurt my daughter, I’m going to shoot you.’ ”
Michael never found steady work in Stephenville. He insists that few businesses wanted to hire, or retain, anyone with long hair. He also admits that as a musician and a night owl, he chafed at nine-to-five jobs. Over the years, he says, he worked in a hayfield, at a Sonic, at an auto-parts factory, and for a place that made cattle feeders.
“I just did whatever I could until they got tired of me, or I got tired of them,” he says. “I had a bit of an attitude problem back then because when people would try and say stuff like ‘Hey, fur face, get over here,’ I would not react well to that. And in Stephenville during that time period, big guys liked to push their weight around, and that didn’t work with me. I figured, if you’re going to push me around, I’d just pop you in the mouth. I didn’t get along real well.”
In 1980 Michael persuaded Susan to return with him to El Paso, where an uncle had promised him a job. Soon after arriving, they got married. “What she had said to me is ‘My parents are going to disown me if, you know, I’m living with a man out of wedlock. So can we get married?’ ” Michael recalls. “And I said, ‘Well, okay, I can take the day off tomorrow.’ ” They walked into a justice of the peace alone and came out married minutes later. Back in Stephenville, Susan’s parents were aghast.
The job, meanwhile, didn’t pan out, and before long Michael and Susan had to begin pawning their things. In a letter to Cindy, Susan complained that she was subsisting on bacon-bit sandwiches. Soon enough they were back in Stephenville, but a pattern had been established. Michael detested the town and everything about it. Susan wanted to make him happy but found it hard to be content elsewhere. At least once they moved to Indianapolis to be near Michael’s brother.
“Two or three times they’d get settled in, get a place, get it fixed up, buy their appliances,” recalls Susan’s friend Gloria Martin. “Mike would get itchy feet: ‘We’re going, we’re going.’ She’d quit her job, move away, sell all their stuff, stay a month, starve to death, come back, and they’d start all over again.”
Until 1985 or so, they shared rental houses with others. Then Susan found the bungalow on McNeill Street, near Stephenville’s downtown. That’s where Michael mostly hung around the house or sunned in the yard. He began acting out. After a disagreement, a neighbor accused him of pouring sugar in her gas tank. He caught the eye of Stephenville police, who he claims would sometimes stop him for no reason. Friends rolled their eyes, wondering when his and Susan’s relationship would end.
Susan tried. Every day she would come home after her shift and make him dinner, often Cornish game hens. But it wasn’t working. The last straw, at least from Michael’s perspective, was when he told her about his desire to begin flipping houses. Susan, who had earned almost all their money, wasn’t keen to invest. Michael accused her of emasculating him. Finally, in the summer of 1986, a year before her death, he could take it no longer.
“He more or less gave her an ultimatum: ‘Texas or me,’ ” Barbara Williams, a coworker of Susan’s, told detectives. “She chose Texas.”
Michael went to Indianapolis but, after a series of talks and letters, agreed to return that winter, for what both understood as their final shot at reconciliation. It didn’t take. In February 1987, Michael departed for good, taking their car. He left behind a cassette-tape recording in which he excoriated Susan for destroying their marriage. Years later, Roy and Cindy still marvel at the ferocity of Michael’s feelings. “It was just thirty minutes of what a bitch she was,” Roy says, “how it was all her fault.”
“Her parents were horrible,” Cindy remembers him saying. “They never gave him a chance.”
Almost as bad, Michael had hidden handwritten notes with similar sentiments throughout the house, in cabinets and coat pockets. Susan was still finding them weeks later. It left her deeply shaken. Cindy’s mother begged her to move into their spare bedroom. When she declined, Cindy slept on Susan’s couch for a time. Roy nailed the windows shut and lent her a pistol.
Susan filed for divorce. Once the shock of the tape and the notes passed, friends noticed that her attitude began to lighten. She bought a car and discreetly trysted with J. C. Baughman. “She was kind of like what you’d read in a book,” Roy says, “a person who has turned a chapter.” As Gloria Martin puts it, “She was the happiest I’ve seen her in a very long time.”
One Friday in late July, Roy and Cindy took Susan to a carnival in nearby Hico. Afterward, they went to a Dairy Queen and ordered hot fudge sundaes. When they were done, Susan ordered a second one, something Cindy had never once seen her do. “She was happy-go-lucky,” Cindy says.
Four nights later, Susan was found dead.
Susan’s father, Joe Atkins, disappeared into Ken Maltby’s office almost every day in those first weeks, arguing that Michael was behind his daughter’s murder. It was hard to find anyone who disagreed. Transcriptions of several of Hensley’s interviews still sit in the district attorney’s files, and in every one, Hensley asks who could have done this. And in almost every case, there is a version of the same reply: Michael Woods. Duh.
“Everything goes back to Michael Woods,” Hensley recalls. “And every time I talked to Joe, it was just, ‘No, Michael did it.’ ”
After leaving Texas for Indiana, Michael lived quietly, sleeping in a tent he pitched inside a dilapidated house his brother had bought for a song. They spent every available hour remodeling it, eventually carving out four apartments, one of which Michael took. One day, he was standing outside when a pair of Indianapolis police officers drove up. He and his brother had been arguing with neighbors about a parking situation, and Michael agreed to go to the station house, believing that it was necessary to deal with another complaint.
Once there, though, detectives began asking about his life in Texas, about Susan, about whether he had gone back. “Just off-the-wall questions that didn’t make any sense to me,” he remembers. “And then they stopped and said, ‘Well, you’re lying. We know you killed her. She’s dead. You killed her.’ ”
This was how Michael learned of Susan’s murder, he says. He rushed to the bathroom and vomited. Afterward, the grilling continued. “They just said, ‘Well, you did it. We know you did it. We’ll get you a mental hospital if you just admit to it,’ ” he recalls. “And I’m like, ‘Dudes, I have nothing to do with this.’ ” When they asked him to sign a statement, Michael refused, demanded a lawyer, and left.
He hadn’t even begun to process his feelings when, within days, “the harassment started,” he says. “Cops started acting in Indianapolis the way they’d been acting in Stephenville: just pull over and talk to me for no reason. I got arrested a couple times for being drunk in public when I hadn’t been drinking. They’d just let me go in the morning and say, ‘Oh no, you’re fine.’ There’s no court, there’s nothing. They just arrest me and throw me in the cell with a bunch of rough dudes, let me out the next morning.”
He vividly remembers the two officers who came from Texas: the initial investigator Ken Maltby and a Texas Ranger. Michael was standing in his yard. “So they pulled up and told me, ‘Get in the car—we’re going to the airport,’ ” he recalls. Michael had begun carrying a gun, fearing just this kind of thing. When he declined to get in the car, they insisted, and he claims he drew back his shirt to reveal the .357 Magnum jammed into his belt. “I said, ‘Nope. We can have a gun battle right here. Go for it. See if you clear leather.’ That’s an old Texas term.” (A Stephenville cop with direct knowledge of the case tells me he doubts that this happened, but Michael maintains that it did.)
After the harassment in Stephenville, Michael was wary of Texas police, but he says this incident cemented a growing hostility. His lawyer advised against any cooperation, he says, to the point that Michael withheld potentially exculpatory information. Michael would eventually elicit a dozen statements from people who swore they had seen him in Indianapolis at around the time Susan was killed. The lawyer advised him to also keep these from police for the moment; if they were shared, he warned, the Texas cops would no doubt try to undermine the accounts.
What frustrated the Stephenville police most was their inability to secure Michael’s fingerprints. Had the visiting Texans tried a gentler approach, they might have left with them. Court records confirm that Michael would have had no problem handing them over—as long as it occurred in Indiana. “I volunteered to give them blood samples, hair samples, fingerprints,” he recalls. “They insisted it be done in Texas, where the cops have full rein. I felt like if I went to Texas, I’d for sure get shot and police would claim it was an escape attempt.”
Hensley badly needed those prints. By this point, he had no other suspects. He was certain that Michael’s prints would match those found beside Susan’s body—if only he could get them.
In April 1988, nine months after Susan’s murder, Hensley found himself squatting inside an unmarked police surveillance van in Indianapolis, peering at Michael’s house via a periscope that jutted out the top of the vehicle. One day he watched as Michael, his brother, and his sister-in-law began laying out items for what appeared to be a yard sale.
Back in Stephenville, Susan’s family was making a big deal of the fact that Michael had taken not only the couple’s yellow Mustang but also a fur coat and a series of crystal figurines that they felt belonged to Susan. Scrunched inside the van, Hensley spied some of the figurines, which gave him an idea. If they could arrest Michael for theft of the figurines, they could get his fingerprints.
Hensley had a search warrant drawn up. He then accompanied a crew of Indianapolis officers who descended on the house. “They tore it apart and took everything I owned,” Michael says, “with the exception of my guitars, the clothes on my back. They took my cassette tapes, they took my underwear, they took my clothing, they took everything that was mine. Then they found, after their exhaustive search, a marijuana roach in my sister-in-law’s purse. So they arrested me and my brother for that roach, put us in jail, let us out the next day. Never went to court on it.”
No charges were pursued. But the arrest got Hensley what he wanted: the prints. On the flight back to Texas, he sensed the noose closing around Michael’s neck. He began drawing up an extradition request. He wasn’t at all prepared for the news he got once he returned to Stephenville and compared the prints. “They didn’t match,” he says. “F—ing. Didn’t. Match.”
There had to be an explanation, but Hensley couldn’t think of one. In his bones, he knew that Michael had done this. Everyone in Stephenville did. But there seemed no way to tie him to the crime. In desperation Hensley attended an FBI profiler’s class in Lampasas. Another attendee asked if he had considered the idea of autoeroticism; maybe Susan had died during some kind of elaborate sex game. Hensley looked into it but eventually dismissed the notion as far-fetched.
When he mentioned this to a superior, he says, the officer suggested using the theory as an excuse to close the case. Hensley, who felt intense loyalty to Susan’s family, says he exploded in anger: “If another officer hadn’t stopped me in the hallway, I’d have killed the guy.”
Soon after, he was reassigned to patrol duty. A few years had passed since Susan’s death, and the investigation was no longer being actively pursued. “This thing haunted me for years,” says Hensley, who, after resigning from the Stephenville force in 1993, went on to work for an arm of the United Nations, at one point helping investigate atrocities after the war in Kosovo. “Kosovo didn’t haunt me. Susan did. I mean, I’m sorry, but every time I talked to Joe Atkins, my heart broke. And I’m a tough old cop. I mean, I thought I was.”
No one ever told Michael, much less announced publicly, that he had been all but eliminated as a suspect. For him, and for the people of Stephenville, nothing changed. Joe Atkins kept on as he had before, telling anyone who would listen that Michael was getting away with murder. Cindy and Roy felt the same way.
“It was just an article of faith. For years. Michael Woods was a murderer, and the police department had somehow let him go.”
Eventually the Atkinses took things into their own hands. Susan had a life insurance policy, and Michael was due a death benefit of $11,000 or so. In 1989, two years after Susan’s death, the family sued, claiming that Michael was responsible. He refused to return for the trial. The judge not only awarded the family the $11,000, but he hit Michael with an additional judgment of a mind-boggling $700,000. Michael was told that as long as he stayed out of Texas, it could never be collected.
In Indianapolis, Michael sank into a funk. It wasn’t just his paranoia almost every morning that this would be the day Texas police finally came for him. The fact is, he had never taken the prospect of divorce seriously. He still loved Susan. He felt certain she had still loved him. “She’ll probably date a couple of cowboys and remember why she loves me,” he recalls thinking. “So I thought we were going to get back together.”
“It was impossible to find a single person in Stephenville that didn’t believe Michael Woods was guilty of murder,” one of Hensley’s closest friends, a Stephenville officer named Don Miller, recalls.
At first he tried to move on. He installed home burglar alarms and took a few courses at a technical college, but his heart wasn’t in it. Slowly he realized that nothing would ever be the same. What he wanted most was to be a musician, but his lawyer warned that if he traveled outside Indiana, his risk of arrest multiplied. Instead, he and his brother limited themselves to local gigs, mostly small clubs and private parties. Billed as the Hamilton Brothers, named for their birth father, they’d split the $35 they made for each gig. The money never went far.
It only got worse when the Indianapolis paper ran an article about the case. After that, Michael says, “I had people come to the stage and say, ‘Aren’t you the guy that killed his wife?’ Kind of puts a damper on the rest of your evening when they do that.”
Over time, his funk deepened into depression. “I was going to a therapist. I was on antidepressants,” he says. He turned to recreational drugs, which didn’t help. “I was taking anything anybody offered me as a gig, and I mean anything. Get me out of this world. I drank like a fish. Nothing seemed to cheer me up, or if it did, it wasn’t for long. I was too far gone for therapy to be much good for me. They said that I had an identity crisis and needed to learn how to be me without my wife, which, at the time—I wasn’t me without her. Because I always figured we’ll get back together.”
He prepared relentlessly for the life in prison he expected. “I’m a small guy,” he says, “so I started working out like a madman.” Years went by. It never got much better. Susan’s birthday was in April, and every spring Michael’s mood would darken, growing worse as summer dawned, then peaking around the anniversary of her death in July. He worked construction and trained himself to be a carpenter. He dated some but never found anyone he adored as he had Susan.
By 2000 or so, he felt everything slipping. Music was the thing he’d always loved most. He stopped practicing as much. He stopped writing songs. At his lowest point, Michael says, he attempted suicide. “I took a whole bottle of tranquilizers and figured, ‘I’ll just go to sleep and not wake up.’ But what I did was, I slept for three days, and I woke up and I was still depressed.”
Finally, in the summer of 2005, came a turning point. He was performing alongside his brother at a birthday party. The eighteenth anniversary of Susan’s death was imminent. “I got finished playing,” he recalls, “and I left the stage and I went around behind the house and I broke down and I was crying.”
The host, an acquaintance of his named Barbara Gary, followed and asked why. He told her about the murder, explained that it remained unsolved, and said everyone in Stephenville blamed him for it. Gary thought this was terrible. She decided to try and help. Soon after, she sent an email to the Stephenville Police Department.
By the early aughts, Stephenville had a backlog of three unsolved murders, including Susan’s, and Donnie Hensley’s pal Don Miller was asked to look into them. Bald and garrulous, Miller thought Susan’s case was the most promising of the three, but he initially saw little he could do with it. DNA testing was now available, so he had sent the six cigarette butts found in Susan’s living room in for testing, but the results had come back “unidentified male,” which was little help without a suspect’s DNA to compare it with. He was working one of the other cases in July 2005 when he heard about Barbara Gary’s email.
When he phoned her, Gary said the situation “was killing Michael and his family, and she wanted to know where the case stood,” Miller recalls. If Michael truly wanted closure, he replied, he should talk to him. When Miller heard nothing for five months, he called back and this time managed to get Michael on the phone. Miller asked to come to Indianapolis to get his DNA. Michael was hesitant. He agreed at first and then waffled, at one point canceling after Miller and his partner had already bought plane tickets. They decided to go anyway.
It was winter in Indiana. Shivering in summer-weight sports jackets, they drove to Michael’s address and knocked on the door. “He cracked the door open, and I told him who I was, and he said, ‘Miller, I told you I wasn’t going to cooperate,’ ” Miller says. “And I just started talking.”
He explained how the cigarette butts were the only way to establish Michael’s innocence. “And if you don’t give me your DNA, if you don’t cooperate with me, then I’m going to turn around and I’m going to leave, and this case is going to go nowhere. You’ve got to help me.” Eventually Michael relented. There was just one problem: neither Miller nor his partner had ever used a DNA kit. They read the instructions there, on the front porch, and managed to get it done.
Unlike Hensley and everyone else he talked to in Stephenville, Miller wasn’t wedded to the idea that Michael was the murderer. In fact, given that his fingerprints hadn’t been at the scene, he was confident he could clear him. “I know that DNA is not going to match the cigarette butts; I know that for a fact,” he says. But he needed to clear him anyway because, if and when he found another suspect, whoever it was might claim that Susan’s death had been an accident during risky sex. He needed someone who could testify that she had no history of such behavior, and Michael was the only one.
Miller returned to Texas, sent in the samples, and as expected, they didn’t match. “So I called and said, ‘Michael, you are one hundred percent cleared from the case. Your fingerprints don’t match; the DNA doesn’t match. You are no longer a suspect.”
Michael began to cry. Then he said thank you and hung up.
Clearing Michael was great for Michael, not so great for Miller: he was now out of suspects. His only hope was the prints lifted from Susan’s bathroom mirror and tub. In 1999 the FBI had unveiled an electronic national fingerprint database; a department could submit unidentified original prints and have them compared against thousands of others. But Miller’s request to take the prints to Washington was denied, and he felt he couldn’t risk mailing them.
Then he heard that the Texas Department of Public Safety had gained access to the FBI database. In May 2006, not really expecting that this newfangled technology would produce any kind of breakthrough, Miller drove to Austin and handed the prints to a DPS officer.
A few days later, the officer called back. “Hey, we got a match on those prints,” he said.
“Who’d they come back to?” Miller asked.
“Joseph Scott Hatley.”
“Never heard of him.”
The officer had no details, only that Hatley had been arrested in 1988 for a robbery in Nevada. He called the Erath County prosecutor, John Terrell. “Do we know a Joseph Scott Hatley?” he asked.
Yeah, Terrell said. Local kid. “Raped a girl, grand jury declined to indict,” he went on. “I’ll get the file for you.”
When Miller read the file, he was floored. The rape of a sixteen-year-old girl in 1988, a year after Susan’s murder, sounded especially brutal. Hatley, he saw, came from a well-known Stephenville family. His late father, Levi, had operated a Texaco station in town, then a wholesale ice business and, later, a diesel-repair shop. His mother, a woman named Celia, was a homemaker. Hatley was the youngest of three children. On the face of it, the family lived a standard small-town Texas life. The Hatleys were hardworking, had doting grandparents, and attended church every Sunday. Hatley’s mother and sister still lived in Stephenville.
At a glance, there was nothing tying him to Susan Woods. But Miller kept scanning the gruesome details of the yellowing report on the rape. The attack had happened in a roadside park south of town. At one point, after the girl had already been raped, she got up and ran. Hatley, she said, chased and caught her.
“He laid on top of me and told me if I didn’t mind him, he would kill me,” the girl recalled. The next words stopped Don Miller cold. Hatley, she said, told her “he had done it before.”
Miller stared. “Sumbitch, he did it.”
Fifteen years later, on December 9, 2021, Hatley was found dead in an RV where he had been living alone outside Abilene. He was 56 and had been diagnosed with cancer. Not long after, Miller, who had just retired, took an odd call from a Stephenville police officer. A man who had purchased the RV had found a cache of papers inside. The man, the officer said, was freaking out and wanted to be rid of it all.
Once he retrieved the cache, Miller saw that much of it was a kind of autobiography, nearly two hundred pages handwritten in neat block letters. It appeared to be Hatley’s earnest attempt to solve the mystery of his life, to understand why it had veered so wildly off course. He paints a portrait of a small-town Texas boy who built a secret life inside the bosom of family and church and tells how everything came apart once he ventured beyond Stephenville. It also answered a vexing question: How had Hatley gotten away with not just one vicious crime but two?
Scott Hatley—Scotty to close friends and family—was born in 1965. He makes clear that from an early age he was consumed by a burning anger he couldn’t fully explain. He claims that his mother was abusive and regularly slapped him, accusations that she would deny. In Hatley’s telling, the abuse “enraged” him, though he kept it inside.
Bullying may have played a role. Like his beloved sister Regina, who was three years older, Hatley was a heavy child, and both kids were teased about their weight. The first serious anger he recalls came upon hearing his sister crying in bed one night after a teasing episode. By the age of eight, he had started to fantasize about getting revenge against those who had hurt him or his sister.
An inquisitive child, prone to daydreaming, Hatley found much of life perplexing. Questions about sex, which his parents refused to discuss, confounded him, even as news stories of sexual violence stirred in him feelings he couldn’t explain. The family was religious, sometimes debating Scripture at the dinner table; to Hatley, God and Satan were tangible beings who could influence lives. He recalls sitting in the front pew in church, straining for understanding that never came. At around twelve, when his favorite choir leader was fired, he quit the church in disgust. What may have seemed like a healthy and happy upbringing from the outside, he writes, was in fact plagued by confusion and violent musings. At one point, his anger crystallized into what he says became his favorite daydream: an intricate plot, years before mass shootings became a national scourge, to barge into his school and kill everyone in sight.
Little of this was apparent to those around him. Growing up in the seventies as a blond preteen with a bowl haircut, Hatley played baseball, basketball, and football, worshipped the Dallas Cowboys’ Roger Staubach, and was a Cub Scout. His sister’s friend Gloria Martin recalls him as a Beaver Cleaver type: “Just a nerdy little guy, kind of chubby, and didn’t look like he was particularly popular in school.”
In fact, as a teenager, Hatley developed multiple sides to his identity. At Stephenville High, he was quiet, uninvolved with girls or sports, arranging his classes so he could leave early to help his father at work. Among family, he could be outspoken, even pushy, says Cindy Hayes, who was his first cousin (their mothers were sisters, and the two families spent Thanksgivings and Christmases together).
“Cindy always felt Scott was a bully in the family,” Roy Hayes, who knew Hatley since kindergarten, told me. “He often talked down to other family members like they were slow. Kidded them about being dumb and voting Democrat. He often would pick on siblings and cousins as he got bigger, knowing his mom would not let the family stand up to the baby.” He adds, “He thought he was smarter than everybody.”
Roy was one of the few who seemed to sense Hatley’s dark side. When Cindy urged him to bond with her cousin over a shared love of books, Roy was put off by Hatley’s preoccupation with true crime, especially stories of serial killers such as the Son of Sam. “Even back then, he was drawn to darker stuff,” Roy says.
At thirteen Hatley began tagging along when his sister and her friends cruised the drag, and when one of them handed him a beer, he found his first true love: “Booze!” he writes. “My mind that always worked too fast slowed down and I could focus for the first time in my life. From the first buzz I knew that alcohol is what I craved, what I needed, what I had to have.”
His other fixation was pornography, which in those days he found in magazines. He hid them, and a stash of vodka, from his parents for years. As a self-described “fat anti-social kid,” Hatley lamented that he never had a girlfriend. “I have often wondered how my life might have turned out if I had learned about relationships at an early age, how to love, care and share with a woman.”
During his senior year, in 1984, Hatley joined the Air Force Reserve and was training at Carswell Air Force Base, in Fort Worth, to become a munitions specialist. After graduation he endured reservist training in San Antonio before transferring to Colorado for technical school at Lowry Air Force Base, outside Denver. At the dormitory, he met a young, serious, dark-haired woman from Ohio. Hatley had never even kissed a girl. He calls it love at first sight.
Late one night, they slow-danced to Prince’s “Purple Rain.” On weekends they made love in a cheap hotel. It was the happiest time of his life, Hatley writes. On impulse, they married. Neither their commanding officers nor his parents were thrilled.
Once training ended, Hatley opted not to enlist in the Air Force, but his wife did. She was assigned to a base on the Pacific island of Guam, and after a few months of separation, he joined her there, walking off the flight into a land of azure ocean, white beaches, and deep-green jungle. From the moment they reunited, though, he knew that something was awry. “It seemed that the fire that had burned so hot in us had cooled just a bit,” he writes. “There was a story in her eyes I could not read.”
She had rented them a small apartment in an outlying village, and at first, things went well enough. They were both heavy drinkers, which helped initially. When she went skydiving with her new friends, he would wait on the ground with a machete, slashing through the foliage when one of them inevitably landed in the jungle. He got a job at an insurance agency, selling policies to service members.
The magic of their courtship, however, was gone. As the weeks wore on, she became distant, and they fought almost daily. Their love life flagged. For the first time in years, he began to pray. When things didn’t improve, he decided to pledge his life to Satan. There was just one problem. In a tragicomic moment, he realized he didn’t actually know how to contact the devil. “I had seen movies and it always seemed to start with candles,” he writes. “My wife had a house full of candles so I gathered some up and lit them. I got on my knees and asked Satan to help me out of my situation . . . I prayed that I would give him my soul for my freedom. If I could have only known what consequences my actions would bring to my life . . . May God have mercy on my soul.”
It seems to have been a onetime thing, but the memory plagued him for years. In his manuscript Hatley returns to the incident again and again, wondering if his impromptu plea to Satan explained the things he would later do.
He drank more in a vain effort to forget his troubles. This soon took a toll at work. His sales commissions shrank. Whether in need of money or to keep up appearances, he began using an office copy machine to crudely forge company checks.
His wife, meanwhile, began going out alone. Hatley came to believe she was having an affair. Years later, he pinpointed this as the moment his life changed forever, giving him the “fuel that I would use to destroy my life . . . I just did not have the maturity or experience to overcome this kind of thing.”
He called his mother, and she told him to come home. He stumbled off the plane “so drunk I could barely walk.” Stephenville was exactly the same as he’d left it. But he realized he wasn’t. “I was broken,” he writes.
Now 21, Hatley went back to work for his father and eventually rented a small apartment. Making a stab at reinvention, he asked people to call him by his first name, Joseph. But he couldn’t put Guam out of his mind. It wasn’t just the end of his marriage. When his embezzlement was discovered, his old boss threatened to bring criminal charges unless he repaid what he had stolen. He indicates that he took out a bank loan to do so.
When he wasn’t at work, he drank, usually vodka, sometimes starting after breakfast. He knew he’d lost control but didn’t care; when he suffered blackouts, he was relieved to depart reality. After he got a cold and took cough syrup, he liked it so much he began mixing it with the vodka: V-syrup, he called it. It became his daily tonic. In time he added a can of Pepsi, mixing it in a 44-ounce foam cup from Sonic, which he would sip during long drives in the brown pickup his parents bought him after graduation. They knew he was drinking, and when he disappeared they would search for him.
He cruised the roads around Stephenville for hours, brooding, cranking up Mötley Crüe. What social life he had revolved around his sister Regina and her friends, all in their twenties. Many nights he joined Roy and Cindy Hayes and four or five others to drink and play cards around Regina’s circular kitchen table; they began calling themselves “members of the Round Table.” He took to sleeping with one of them, a married woman, a fleeting affair he dismisses as “two lonely people trying to feel loved.”
At the kitchen table, Hatley talked openly about his impending divorce. The others worried about him, but not much. “I could tell the drinking was getting more and more,” Cindy says. “He was heavier, getting heavier every time we saw him.”
Then, on a fateful night in July 1987, a new face appeared at the Round Table: Cindy’s best friend, Susan Woods. Though she was eight years older than him, Hatley had known Susan, and Michael, for years. The first marijuana he ever bought, he said, he bought from Michael, a claim Michael denies.
That night in his sister’s kitchen, Hatley writes, he was drunk and thought Susan was flirting with him. He remembers flirting back. And that—a single evening, a single interaction, a single moment—was all it took.
The following Sunday night, after another drunken drive, he decided to swing by Susan’s house unannounced. “You must understand that I did not set out that night to hurt anyone,” Hatley writes.
She welcomed him in. In his telling, they listened to records and had a few joints—in fact, they were cigarettes. At some point, he writes, “I overstepped my bounds and Susan slapped me.” What happened next, Hatley says, was a blur.
“By the time I came out of the fog I had brutalized her,” he writes. “At first she said she was going to tell what I had done to her. She then said she would not tell anyone if I just let her go. I found it interesting that she thought any of that mattered. I asked her if she believed in God. She said she did. I told her then you need to pray.
“All of these years later I still do not know why I said that. I honestly do not know if I was mocking God or if I still had a little humanity left in me . . . All I know with certainty is the last moments of Susan’s life were spent in prayer. That night I took the life of a kind, sweet, loving woman who never did anything to me but show me kindness. My God I had become a monster.”
Afterward he drove home. The police station was on his way. He paused at the adjacent stop sign and considered pulling into the station. Instead, he drove on. Four days later, news of the murder appeared in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. “I wish with all my heart that I could tell you that I mourned for what I had done but that would be a lie,” he writes. “Reading about it in the paper was a high like I had never had before.”
He went to the funeral, signed the guest book, noticed the loitering police officers, and felt nothing. When his group gathered in his sister’s kitchen for the first of a long series of boozy nights debating who might have killed Susan, Hatley was an enthusiastic participant. “He was drinking heavily and making jokes,” Roy says. “He’d call the cops the Keystone Cops. If you wanted to find a cop, you need to go to the doughnut shop. Maybe the murderer would wander in there.”
It’s a sentiment that permeates Hatley’s manifesto. “A basic investigation would have identified me in only a few days,” he writes, terming the police hicks and rubes. “I could not believe that they never once interviewed me. A week before [Susan] was partying with us at the Round Table. My God how could they have missed that? [Instead] the detectives decided it had to be the ex-husband. They homed in on him and never let up. Yet another one of my victims.”
Many evenings and every weekend Hatley hung out at Regina’s, drinking vodka and smoking in the backyard deep into the night. He soon noticed a fifteen-year-old girl who lived next door, Shannon Myers, a rebellious newcomer whose family had recently moved to Stephenville from Arkansas. Shannon spent much of her time partying at Tarleton State University’s fraternity houses. Her mother had all but given up trying to rein her in. She came and went as she pleased.
That summer of 1987, bored and with little to do, Shannon befriended Hatley’s cousin Melissa, who babysat Regina’s two kids. Shannon began hanging out at the house. She vividly remembers her first meeting with Hatley, who was seven years older than she was.
“He walked in and we kind of made eye contact and he just started paying attention to me,” she recalls. “No one ever took the time to sit down and really talk to me. And I was like, ‘This is nice.’ ” They struck up a friendship. “Just good old porch conversation. I saw more of the sweeter, caring side of Scott than most did.”
Then, one night on Regina’s couch, he kissed her. “And we just started having the relationship there.” The next day they had sex at Regina’s house.
They soon fell into a routine. Shannon would go out partying most nights, and then, after parking her blue Mercury Cougar back home, she would smell the cigarette smoke and hear the clink of ice in a glass, signs that Hatley was in the backyard waiting for her. She would wander over and they would end up having sex, often in one of Regina’s bathrooms.
“Looking back on it now, he was very controlling,” she says. “When I’d leave, he’d ask, ‘Hey, where are you going?’ And I would tell him, and it was ‘What time are you going to be home?’ ”
Shannon was being sexually abused by someone close to her family. She thinks that it made her easy prey for Hatley. “I needed to be loved,” she recalls, “and Scott played on that.” After sex, she says, “he kept telling me that I’m special, I’m the special one. And that still, today, sends shivers through my spine.”
After several weeks, Shannon says, her mother discovered what was happening. “She didn’t like the age difference,” she says. Distraught, Shannon’s mother confronted Hatley in a Kmart parking lot. He promised to end the relationship, as did Shannon, but they didn’t. When Hatley started renting an apartment, he and Shannon began meeting there.
One night in September, Shannon took her white poodle, Deedee, to the apartment. Lately she had sensed that Hatley was under some kind of stress—today she speculates that it had to do with Susan’s murder—but what happened came out of nowhere. When they began to have sex, he seemed more forceful, more aggressive.
“And I kind of backed away and was like, ‘Hey, stop, you’re hurting me,’ ” Shannon remembers. “And, well, as soon as I said ‘stop,’ all hell broke loose. In his eyes was a coldness. And I was like, ‘Okay, what the heck’s happening?’ He took a knife out and held it to my throat.”
She didn’t object, she says, out of concern that Hatley might hurt Deedee, who had begun to growl. “Me, fifteen-year-old me, I was worried about my dog,” she says. “And then I finally pushed him off me, and I grabbed my dog, and I ran out.”
She was fast-walking home when Hatley pulled up alongside her in his pickup. He asked to give her a ride, and at first she refused, so he apologized. “And I looked at him, and I didn’t see that anger in his face anymore.” She got in the vehicle. In her driveway, “he looked at me and put his hand on my face and said, ‘I’m sorry. I love you.’ And I said ‘Love you’ back.”
When Shannon told her mother about the assault, she insisted on going to the police. While being interviewed at the station, Shannon sensed the officers’ skepticism once she said she and Hatley had an ongoing sexual relationship. She says her reputation as a “wild child” probably influenced her treatment. “It was ‘he said, she said,’ ” Shannon remembers. “They just viewed it as I was the crazy one.”
But according to Hatley’s journals, the police gave so little credence to Shannon’s story that he didn’t even have to contest the accusation. When an officer paid him a visit, he thought he’d soon be linked to the murder. “That did not happen. What happened was the [officer] told me that this was a screwed up little girl so I should stay away from her. Incredible!”
Deeply frightened, and confused by the police department’s refusal to prosecute, Shannon cut off contact with Hatley, though she continued visiting his cousin Melissa next door in daylight hours, when he was gone. Once, when she hadn’t realized that Hatley was in the house, she overheard him arguing with his sister. “They were having a conversation about ‘Well, you shouldn’t have messed with her,’ ” she recalls. “And he goes, ‘Yes, but I love her.’ And she goes, ‘But she’s fifteen!’ ”
The police visit, meanwhile, left Hatley deeply paranoid, convinced he would soon be arrested. He lived near the station and, each day, watched cruisers drive past his apartment. He dreamed of taking Shannon on a cross-country crime spree à la Bonnie and Clyde and writes that she was initially receptive. She strongly denies this. According to Shannon, their only communication was a barrage of plaintive phone calls and letters. “He basically stalked me.” She ignored him.
Nine months passed. She tried dating boys her age, but after a difficult breakup, she finally agreed to see Hatley again. It was July 1988, a year after Susan’s death. “I was over at Regina’s house, and he was already there,” she recalls. “And he goes, ‘Hey, can I talk to you? I miss you.’ And I’m like, ‘Oh, I miss you too.’ ” Shannon was still uneasy. “I didn’t really trust him. I feared him a little bit.”
Sometime later, Hatley called her at home one evening. “He kept saying, ‘Shannon, I really want to see you tonight. I need to explain why I did what I did to you.’ And the sixteen-year-old me wanted answers. You know, ‘If you loved me so much, why did you hurt me?’ ”
They met in a laundromat parking lot. The moment she climbed into his truck, “I immediately knew I made a mistake,” she says. “We drove off, and he locked the door and he goes, ‘Come over and sit beside me.’ Just the way he was talking to me was totally different. He had aggression in his voice. And I was doing exactly what he told me because I was afraid.”
As they drove, though, he kept telling her they were destined to be together, and she briefly warmed to him. “I’m just wanting to be loved and accepted,” she says. They pulled up to a roadside park south of town, where Hatley parked out of sight of the road. “As soon as we got there, everything changed,” Shannon goes on. “He turned back to that night when he raped me with a knife, the look in his eyes and everything, and I knew I was in trouble.”
He pressed her to have sex, and when she refused, he slapped her. They got out of the truck and sat on a picnic table. “He immediately started taking off my clothes, and we ended up having intercourse, and it was brutal.” He started hitting her so hard it knocked her unconscious. After she came to, she felt blood coming out of her ear. He raped her repeatedly, taking breaks to smoke a cigarette and have a drink.
Thinking he would kill her and hide her body, Shannon began tossing her things—a hairpin, her bra, the beret she was wearing—hoping the police might find them later. “I fought for my life there,” she says. “I remember going in and out of consciousness and thinking I’m not going to get out of here alive. And there was a little bitty spring, because it rained a few days before, so it was a little muddy. He took me by that water. Scott had a fascination with water and having sex in the bathroom. That’s where he wanted to have sex every time at Regina’s.” He pushed her face into the little spring as he raped her again. Police later surmised that it was the same fantasy he had acted out with Susan.
It went on like this for six hours. “I knew I had to turn the tables on him in order to survive,” she says. “I knew I had to convince him that I loved him.” Eventually, they got back into the cab of the truck, and Shannon sat as far away from him as she could. “And he goes, ‘No, I want you over here by me.’ And that was probably one of the scariest minutes of my life. Do I breathe? Do I don’t breathe? I was scared to make a sound and scared to show my face, because if I showed my face he’s going to see that he did damage to me.” If he saw the blood and bruises and realized the severity of what he’d done, she feared, he would know that this time the rape could not be swept under a rug.
“So I looked down real fast and he couldn’t see the bruises; he couldn’t see the swelling. And he was caressing the side of my face and he goes, ‘Are you okay?’ And I’m like, ‘I’m okay.’ And I said, ‘I just want to start my life with you.’ And he goes, ‘I’m sorry for what I did.’ And I said, ‘It’s okay. I love you. I just need to listen to you.’ And I remember saying that to him and he goes, ‘Don’t you turn me in.’ I said, ‘I’m not going to say anything,’ and he believed me.”
He reached under the dashboard and turned on the ignition. He drove her to the laundromat parking lot and left her just before the sun rose. “I’ve never ran so fast in my life,” Shannon says. When she got home, she fell into her stepfather’s arms, and he yelled for her mom. They rushed her to the hospital.
This time her account was taken seriously. Nurses administered a rape kit, if awkwardly; it wasn’t clear if any of them had done it before. Because the attack had occurred outside city limits, the investigation fell to the Erath County Sheriff’s Office, whose deputies soon arrived at the hospital to interview her. Badly bruised and bloody, but still alive, Shannon Myers told them everything.
The next morning, Hatley was awakened by a knock at his door. Glancing through the curtains, he saw that it was a deputy sheriff. He took a swig of vodka and fetched his pistol. He prepared to shoot the deputy as soon as he entered the apartment. But the officer left when no one came to the door.
Hatley assumed that the authorities would soon return in force. He packed a bag, threw in his pistol, and drove to the bank, where he drained his account. Then he headed west, no clue where he was going. That night he drank beer in an El Paso motel, staring out at Mexico. The next day he went farther west, thinking he might see the ocean in California, but when he spied billboards for Las Vegas, he steered there instead.
He had no plan. Days, he drank and wandered. Nights, at a motel on Fremont Street, he drank more and pondered suicide. More than once he put the gun into his mouth. Running low on money, he walked into a strip-mall shoe store, tried on a pair of shoes, then pointed his gun at the saleswoman. He trotted out with $120, the shoes, and a powerful adrenaline rush. After that, he tried to rob a hotel clerk, but the man barely understood English and started shoveling him handfuls of coins. Hatley became enraged and was about to shoot him but took off when someone approached the outside door.
The next day, while scouting new targets, he noticed a motorcycle policeman behind him. A moment later, three patrol cars appeared. He drew his gun into his lap. A helicopter hovered into view. When the patrol cars hit their lights, he heard a voice on a loudspeaker telling him to pull over. He eased into a Denny’s parking lot. For a moment, he considered starting a gunfight. Instead, he crawled out and lay on the pavement and was arrested. Thrown into a holding tank, Hatley waited for the Stephenville police to arrive and haul him back to Texas to answer for the rape and no doubt the murder.
They never came.
In a Las Vegas courtroom, Hatley was convicted of two counts of armed robbery and faced a thirty-year sentence for each. Instead, a judge, noting his age, sentenced Hatley to 120 days in a youth offender program. After he served that brief stint, his parents drove him home. By the time he arrived back in Stephenville, it was becoming clear that his escape west had been a misjudgment. It turned out there was no reason to have fled. A grand jury had already declined to indict him for the rape.
His parents had fought it in his absence. “His mother went to the church and got all the members of the congregation to sign up about what a great boy he was,” Roy recalls. According to Don Miller, the Hatleys hired a private investigator who “did a hatchet job on Shannon.” Miller said that at the time, if you could prove the victim was promiscuous, the charge would likely be dismissed. “Hatley was clean-cut,” Miller says. “He was a Stephenville kid. One of us, you know? Shannon, well, she did not enjoy that reputation.”
Shannon thought Hatley would be jailed for years in Nevada, so she was stunned when she spotted him back in town. She told police, who hadn’t known either. She assured herself that the sheriff’s rape investigation would put him away. Then came the official letter in the mail. “I was reading it,” she says, “and I’m like, ‘What does this mean, not indicting him?’ What does this mean, ‘lack of evidence’?” She went over to her neighbor’s, who helped her make sense of it. “And she’s trying to find the words, and she goes, ‘They should have indicted him.’ I was confused. I was hurt. I felt like I was raped all over again.”
Several of those involved in the Stephenville law enforcement community now acknowledge the egregious injustice. There were multiple failings. It’s easy to criticize the Stephenville police for focusing so much of their energies on investigating Michael Woods, and for so casually ignoring Shannon’s first rape allegation. Another serious criticism could be directed against the Erath County Sheriff’s Office, which failed to pass on to police what Shannon told them of Hatley’s admission to a previous murder.
“Hindsight, heck yeah, we should have known about Hatley,” Miller says. “But in all of the statements and reports we did, none of Susan Woods’s friends ever mentioned he was in her circle. The only red flag would have been if somebody in the sheriff’s office would have listened to what Shannon was saying, and really listened to her, and correlated it over to Susan Woods. But to my knowledge no one ever knew they had even met. I had no idea. And Donnie didn’t either.”
As for Shannon, she never understood what happened inside the grand jury, whose deliberations were secret. But afterward, she noticed that Hatley seemed to turn up in places she was visiting: at Regina’s, a fraternity party, and the skating rink. “He was following me,” she says. It was almost as if the grand jury decision had emboldened him. After seeing him at the rink, she took a friend with her and drove home. Hatley’s truck was already in the driveway next door.
“I called him out,” Shannon says. “I’m like, ‘Scott, you need to come out now.’ ” He refused. “I’m like, ‘Quit being a chickenshit and come out and face me like a man.’ I stood up to him that night. We had words out in the front yard, and I told him to stop. I’m like, ‘You know what you did to me.’ ”
He quit harassing her after that. Even so, Shannon’s life was beginning to crumble. Her mother and stepfather moved away, and she stayed with an uncle. Barely a year after the rape, in a bid for security of some sort, she suddenly got married to a local boy. It lasted ninety days. Afterward, she leaned heavily on a friend for support, but then he was killed in a motorcycle accident. “My world crashed,” Shannon says. At her lowest, she considered killing herself.
Instead she fled, moving to Pasadena, southeast of Houston, with her mother when she was nineteen. She would seek professional counseling for years after that. Things never came easy. But, she told herself, she was still alive. She was a survivor. And she had escaped Stephenville.
Back living with his parents, having gotten away with murder and rape, Hatley knew for sure he couldn’t stay in Stephenville. The specter of imminent arrest was ever present. He moved to Nashville and in 1993 got married, and he and his wife had two children. Like his older brother, Hatley became a truck driver. By his telling, he was a good one, valued by his company for the long hours he drove. He worked so hard, he says, his dispatcher once asked what he was running from. “Myself,” he said.
Alone out on the road, Hatley writes, “I honed my skill at picking up broken women,” mostly in roadside bars. If he violated the law doing so, there is no known record of it. He took pills to stay awake on the road and ended up rear-ending another truck in Dallas, which led to his dismissal. He then took a job in a Nashville grocery warehouse. It paid well, but his past remained a torment; he was never able to get the murder out of his mind. He drank every night and at all hours on weekends. His daughter was injured in a car accident and required extended bouts of physical therapy. His wife was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. When a tornado damaged their apartment complex, they moved into a duplex, only to see it destroyed when a drunk driver plowed through it. He began to believe that it was all God’s punishment for what he’d done.
Years passed, five, then ten. His life calmed. In the late nineties, Hatley’s company proposed promoting him to help run a warehouse in Round Rock. Returning to Texas felt like a serious risk. “Deep down I knew it was a mistake but in the end my ego and greed won my emotional battle,” he writes.
They found a nice poolside apartment, but Hatley’s drinking was destroying the marriage. He and his wife fought, sometimes violently. She later alleged that he beat her. His schedule didn’t help. He worked nights and slept most days, which is what he was doing one morning in 2006 when, after nineteen long years, they finally came for him.
It was June 6. As they drove from Stephenville to Round Rock that day, Don Miller turned to his partner and said, “Make no mistake, the day is six-six of ’06, and we are about to meet the devil himself.”
A few months earlier, after reading the file on Shannon’s rape, Miller had tracked down Hatley in Round Rock. He asked police there to bring him in for questioning. The man who appeared voluntarily in a police interrogation room the next day was a forty-year-old warehouse supervisor, nearly three hundred pounds, with close-cropped dark hair and a matching mustache. When Miller told Hatley why they’d come, he seemed blasé, almost bored.
“He comes in and tries to act calm, cool, and collected, nonchalant, which to me is a big red flag,” Miller says. Innocent people tend to heatedly deny false allegations. “That’s not what he did. He just said, ‘I didn’t have anything to do with it. Maybe I might have had sex with her. I don’t remember. I don’t think so.’ ”
Miller wasn’t seeking a confession and didn’t need one. The physical evidence was enough for an arrest, and Hatley agreed to provide his DNA. When it matched the material found at the scene, as Miller was confident it would, a conviction would likely follow. So he didn’t push. When he asked why Hatley’s fingerprints had been found at Susan’s, the man shrugged, insisting that “members of the Round Table” spent many evenings there. At one point, a Round Rock officer took Miller aside and told him to keep talking. Hatley’s wife was considering charges of her own.
The next day, Round Rock police reinterviewed him. Just as Miller had anticipated, Hatley now claimed he’d had a “kinky” affair with Susan, an assertion that Miller knew was a lie. Meanwhile, Hatley’s wife went ahead with the charges. That night, when Hatley took his family to dinner at IHOP, Round Rock police descended on the restaurant and arrested him on domestic abuse charges. A few days later, Miller filed the arrest warrant for the murder. When the results came back on the DNA, Hatley’s genetic material matched that on the cigarette butts.
The news landed like a meteorite in Stephenville. Before the arrest was announced, Miller found Susan’s father at the golf course. Miller told him they had the man who murdered his daughter. Joe Atkins refused to believe that it could’ve been anyone but Michael Woods. It was the same everywhere. “Nobody believed me,” Miller remembers.
Roy and Cindy Hayes were among the doubters. Almost twenty years after Susan’s death, Roy was still irked at his treatment by police. Rumors of his involvement had cost him the career in law enforcement he’d planned and at least one other job, he says. He thought Cindy’s cousin Scott was now being wronged in the same way. Not until Miller personally explained the evidence did Roy and Cindy come around. This caused a rift with the Hatley family. Roy remembers Hatley’s mother telling them, “We need to circle the wagons. It is our family against the cops.” According to Cindy, “It tore our family completely apart.”
Michael was in a college class when Miller phoned. Although he’d already been cleared, he had never felt truly safe with the case still unsolved. He took the call outside. “I hadn’t had a cigarette in a year,” he says. “My professor, who came out with me, gave me one. I needed it. I cried a little bit. It was surreal: they finally got him. I was beginning to think they never would.”
It took forever for Miller to track down Shannon Myers. She had been so traumatized by the two rapes that she had “basically gone into hiding,” she says. For years she was stricken with panic attacks and migraines. News of Hatley’s arrest offered her the validation Stephenville had never given her. Today, after years of therapy, Shannon is happily married and working in the Houston area.
“When Miller called me, oh Lordy. I was mad. I was relieved. ‘Now you’re finally listening?’ ” Shannon says. “He kept telling me, ‘I believe you. I believe you.’ And that’s what I needed to hear.” She’s grateful the full story is finally being told, she says, “because I truly believe there are other victims out there. He was a trucker, remember. I can’t be the only one.”
There was no showy trial, no dramatic perp walk, no teary confessions. Confronted by the physical evidence, Hatley quietly cut a deal to serve thirty years. It wasn’t what some had hoped for, but Susan’s parents wanted to avoid the attention of a trial, and Hatley agreed to testify against one of his new cellmates in the Stephenville jail.
He was sent to Huntsville, where in time he claimed to have rediscovered religion, wrote his manifesto, and, in 2017, was diagnosed with bladder cancer that soon went into remission. Released the following year on good behavior, having served just eleven years, he entered a halfway house in Midland, found a job repairing oil-field trucks, and, after being laid off at the outset of the coronavirus pandemic, moved into an RV park outside Abilene to be near one of his daughters, Amanda. He was sober, and things went well for a time. It didn’t last.
“I don’t know what happened, but I’m pretty sure he started drinking again,” Amanda says. “He distanced himself from us. He didn’t come around for months at a time, then he’d just pop up at the door. I told him he needed to call, and we’d have a big fight.”
On Halloween 2021, Hatley told her his cancer had returned and spread to his spine. Six weeks later his landlord found him dead on the floor of his trailer. He was 56.
Hatley had never admitted to Amanda what he had done in Stephenville. She learned the details only after she read his manuscript. “All those things he did, the rape and the violence, he did those same things to my mom,” Amanda says. “So it didn’t surprise me.” She pauses to regain her composure. “I don’t know what to tell you. My dad was just a really bad guy.”
This article originally appeared in the July 2023 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “A Killer Among Us.” Subscribe today.