In collaboration with AARP The Magazine, the Perfect Scam podcast presents A Special Report on the Texas Elder Murders, a four-part mini-series hosted by Bob Sullivan. Featuring exclusive interviews and courtroom audio, the series takes a deep dive into the deceit, stolen identity, murder and ageism that permitted a killer to continue his spree for years.
A Special Report on the Texas Elder Murders: A Killing Spree, Part 1
Four women move to independent living communities in the Dallas area, hoping to continue enjoying their active lives in the security of their new homes. They are each found dead in their apartments in 2016, and their deaths are ruled as due to natural causes, but missing jewelry and strange circumstances raise suspicions among family members.
[00:00:01] Diana Tannery: I was more horrified knowing that, that she didn't die peacefully in her sleep, that her last few minutes was struggling in trying to breathe. I think about that every night.
[00:00:13] Loren Adair: My brother and I both started having nightmares. I would have visions of her in her, in her gown and robe going to the door and someone trying to get in. I would say to her, "Don't open the door." I would try to save her in my, in my dreams all the time.
[00:00:29] Ellen French House: That was something that was very hard to hear, what he did to them. It was hard to hear the depositions. And Mary Bartel saying, "I knew when I opened that door I was fixated on those green gloves. I knew I was in grave danger."
[00:00:42] Mary Bartel: (courtroom audio) My eyes were fixated on these green rubber gloves that I saw. I knew that my life was in grave danger.
[00:00:53] Ellen French House: I'm sure that's how my mom felt.
[00:00:56] Reporter: Police across Dallas and Collin Counties are worried they have a serial killer on their hands.
[00:01:01] Reporter: Just days before an alleged serial killer will go to trial, we’re taking a closer look at the murder spree Billy Chemirmir is accused and suspected of committing. It includes at least 24 murders and two attempted murders throughout North Texas beginning in 2016.
[00:01:16] Reporter: He would take a pillow and suffocate them so it was hard for the medical examiner’s office to figure out there was a pattern that he was suffocating these elderly women.
[00:01:25] Reporter: He was banking on them not doing full blown autopsies.
[00:01:29] Trey Crawford: Uh, I'm not even sure what the real number is. I don't think anybody will ever know. One case led to another to another and then all the sudden we were pretty blown away and this, this may be the most prolific serial killer in the history of our state.
[00:01:44] Bob: Jeffrey Dahmer, Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy. These are the names of the serial killers that almost everyone knows. And yet, the man who might be the most prolific serial killer in Texas history, well his is a name that most Americans do not know, and in a strange way, that's part of the reason why Billy Chemirmir was able to kill so many victims for so long, because he chose to attack those that sometimes as a society we find the easiest to forget. Billy Chemirmir stalked and killed the elderly. During a two-year rampage of terror, Billy Chemirmir made his way through independent living facilities near Dallas Texas, suffocating victims, stealing their jewelry. Despite this horrid trail of death and theft, he kept on getting away with it because facilities and institutions designed to protect these residents failed repeatedly. And they wrote off the murders as innocent, unattended deaths. The families involved were often told their loved ones had died peacefully from natural causes. Ageism is rampant in America, often with devastating impacts on the victims. But in the case of Billy Chemirmir, the ageism was quite literally fatal. This is a very, very hard story to tell. But these deaths cannot be forgotten. A murder rampage committed by a mad man, but enable by age-bias must never happen again. So today at The Perfect Scam, we begin a 4-part series on Fatal Ageism in connection with AARP - The Magazine. I'm your host, Bob Sullivan. We begin in Dallas a luxury, gated retirement community named Edgemere with Loren Adair, whose mom moved there a decade ago with big plans and dreams to enjoy the next phase of her life.
[00:03:47] Loren Adair: My mom was Phyllis Payne.
[00:03:49] Bob: And where was she born?
[00:03:52] Loren Adair: She was born in Fort Worth, Texas.
[00:03:54] Bob: So she lived her whole life in Texas?
[00:03:56] Loren Adair: She did not. Actually, after she and my dad married, he was working for a company that moved them all over the United States. She laughed and said that they lived in 20 houses in 20 years.
[00:04:08] Bob: But the family settled back in Texas when it was time to raise the kids. Phyllis loved being a mom and a grandma.
[00:04:16] Loren Adair: Yeah, well she was, she was just so involved and loved being part of everything that we were doing. She was a very supportive mom, very, that mom that believed in you and loved all of your activities, and just supporting and taking you everywhere, you know. And she was the same way with my kids, and she was always at their baseball games or their ballet recitals, or whatever it was that they were doing.
[00:04:45] Bob: Phyllis was in her 80s when her husband died. Within a year, she decided that big, old house was too much to take care of.
[00:04:53] Loren Adair: She was living in the house where she raised us, she and my dad, they'd been in that house for 46 years. And one day she said, "You know what, the garage door just broke again, the sprinkler system just broke again. I am tired of taking care of this house." And she knew people at Edgemere. And so she said, "I want to move." So this was her decision, and she was very excited about it. She loved it. After she moved in there, whenever people would ask her, "How do you like living at Edgemere?" she would just say, "What's not to like?"
[00:05:29] Bob: Edgemere looks more like a resort than an independent living facility. People move there to live, not to grow old, and Phyllis was thriving, still driving into her 90s, not that she had to drive far.
[00:05:42] Loren Adair: It was nearby. We lived 5 minutes from her in the house that they lived in, but then when she moved, we were just about 10 minutes away, so it was still very convenient to, to get to be with her.
[00:05:56] Bob: In 2016, it was so important that Mom lived that close because Loren's husband was dying from terminal cancer. Loren leaned on her mom a lot.
[00:06:07] Loren Adair: Oh goodness, she, she was the person that I talked to every day. We were together multiple times a week, and just doing simple things, just if, even if we were just running errands, she wanted to be with us. She wanted to be doing whatever we needed done.
[00:06:26] Bob: When Phyllis wasn't with Loren, she had very full days at Edgemere.
[00:06:31] Loren Adair: She typically ate her breakfast in her apartment. Her apartment did have a full kitchen. And so she would get up and fix herself some breakfast and read the newspaper was her first thing. Then she would probably go for a, a walk around, and she also was volunteering at Edgemere in the, there was a little store there, and she would volunteer in the store. And so she would go down there and, and volunteer on certain days. She was in a bridge club, she was in some different organizations, and so she would, you know, go see friends for lunch, or we would go have lunch together, go run errands. She had her church and her other organizations that she was a part of. And so she would love to go to maybe a book club and hear a speaker. She just wanted to keep learning and growing, even at 9--, even at 91.
[00:07:23] Bob: Mom always wanted to be a part of everything, but one weekend in 2016, when Loren plans a family vacation to the beach, she fears it will be her last trip with her husband. Well Mom, her busy social schedule just can't fit it in.
[00:07:39] Loren Adair: We were going to the beach, we were going to Gulf Shores, and we said, "Come, come with us." And she said, "I'm already committed to host bridge club at Edgemere, and I've made that commitment, and I really don't think I should break that," and, "Ya'll go and, and have fun and we'll talk, and we'll see you when we get back." So my husband and I drove, and we had stopped along the way to spend the night on Friday and called her that evening. And she had, you know, had her, she had had the bridge club that day, and so we had a great conversation, and she fussed and said, "Well, they didn't have the tables set up right, and I had to go chase someone down to set the tables up, but my cards were really good and the food was good and everybody had a, had a fun time," and so we just had this great talk.
[00:08:27] Bob: For Phyllis, Saturday, May 14th, 2016, begins like any other day. She wakes up, probably makes breakfast, reads the paper, thinks about last night's bridge game when a knock comes at the door. It's a man who says he's there for maintenance. He wasn't to check on the medical alert button in her bathroom. Phyllis lets him in. Meanwhile, Loren and her family have arrived at their vacation and they're busy getting settled in and so it's unusual, but Mom and daughter don't talk that Saturday. Sunday morning begins the beach with laughter and sunshine, then the phone rings. It's Loren's brother. Something has happened to Mom.
[00:09:09] Loren Adair: Edgemere had gotten a hold of him. He said that she had passed away. And I just dropped to my knees and in the sand and said, "What do you mean? We just talked to her. She just, you know, she just, she just hosted bridge club. She was great." I had been to the doctor with her a week before for her checkup and the doctor had said she was fine. And she, she only took one pill, one blood pressure pill, she was still so vibrant and alive and active. And so we were, we were devastated and shocked and so, yeah, it was pretty horrific.
[00:09:49] Bob: The family throws everything into the car and races back to Dallas. It's all so sudden. During the drive, they called the facility.
[00:09:58] Loren Adair: We got a hold of Edgemere to say, what, you know, what happened? And they said that she had not shown up for Sunday, for Sunday breakfast with some people that were expecting her, and so they went and checked on her and found her in her apartment. Just looked like she had, you know, she was still in her gown and robe, and it just looked like she had maybe laid down to take a nap or just hadn't, and that she had died in her sleep.
[00:10:26] Bob: It's a comforting thought that Mom died in her sleep, but it doesn't make things feel much better. Now there's that long drive ahead and then the awful task of cleaning up all the usual loose ends when the get to Dallas. That begins with going through Mom's things in her room.
[00:10:44] Loren Adair: When we were cleaning out the refrigerator to throw away food, that's when it dawned on us. Oh, the coffee can. Where is it?
[00:10:52] Bob: Where is the coffee can? It was a secret, that coffee can, but it was precious. Mom would never have misplaced it.
[00:11:01] Bob: She had kept her best jewelry in a, in a coffee can?
[00:11:04] Loren Adair: In a coffee can...in her refrigerator, yes.
[00:11:06] Bob: ... in her refrigerator. That's really, first of all that's rather ingenious, I think.
[00:11:10] Loren Adair: Yes, I think so too.
[00:11:11] Bob: You, you knew about the coffee can? Or was that...
[00:11:13] Loren Adair: Oh yes, yeah, yeah, we knew about the coffee can,. She had; she had done that for years. She'd done that, she did that in their, in their home that they lived in, 'cause she thought that was, you know, a very good way to store it and not have it be found.
[00:11:27] Bob: They looked everywhere. The coffee can with Mom's finest jewelry isn't anywhere. And there are a few other mysterious things out of place.
[00:11:37] Loren Adair: Part of her sterling silver flatware was missing, and so at that point, we just thought maybe someone had, had pilfered it.
[00:11:45] Bob: In the midst of all the sadness and grief and loose ends, now there's another one. A possible theft. Loren files a police report but missing jewelry is far from her mind. Her mom, her rock isn't there to talk with every day anymore. She won't be there to help her deal with her dying husband. One day Mom is hosting bridge, the next day she's gone. So Loren mostly forgets about the missing jewelry and focuses on her husband's few remaining days. She has no way of knowing that one month earlier, on April 7th, Catherine Sinclair had also died, unattended at Edgemere. Or the few weeks after Phyllis dies on June 5th, Phoebe Perry is also found dead. Another unattended death at Edgemere. And as Loren begins the healing process, she doesn't hear but only a few days after Phoebe Perry dies, on June 18th a man is arrested for trespassing on the floors of Edgemere.
[00:12:53] My name is Diana Tannery, and I'm in Nacogdoches, Texas.
[00:12:57] Bob: And where is that?
[00:12:58] Diana Tannery: That is East Texas.
[00:13:00] Bob: East Texas. How far from Dallas are you?
[00:13:03] Diana Tannery: I'm a three-hour drive from Dallas. My mother, her full name was Juanita Purdy is they, how they know her.
[00:13:10] Bob: Juanita Purdy was a bit of a legend at Tradition Prestonwood Independent Living Facility. A complex that's about a 15-minute drive north of Edgemere in Dallas, nestled next to the White Rock Creek, it's much more like a college campus retirement community. Juanita and her husband are among the first to move into the facility when it opens in 2015. She even boasts a founder's tag. When her husband dies of cancer, she moves to a smaller unit on the same floor, the legendary, 4th Floor where Juanita and her friends often make mischief.
[00:13:44] Diana Tannery: Oh yeah, she, she, they were known as the party girls on the 4th floor, because if it was any kind, you know, Mardi Gras, they had Mardi Gras parties, they had Christmas parties, and everybody knew the 4th floor was where to go. And so she was known as one of the party girls. And she always liked her red wine, because you know, red wine is good for your heart. So she always had a red wine at night, so we, every time we went down to the dining room, she had her carafe of red wine with her, and I would even, on Tuesdays and Fridays they always had happy hour there, so those are the days that I would come and visit and spend the night with her on, it was on a Tuesday or a Friday.
[00:14:22] Bob: Oh my God. So you would you, you would crash there because you were all drinking.
[00:14:24] Diana Tannery: Exactly.
[00:14:26] Bob: Juanita knows how to have fun, but her life had been touched by tragedy many times. Two previous husbands had also died of cancer, but that means she has a big, very big, blended family.
[00:14:41] Bob: And the Christmas card list must be enormous is what I'm thinking.
[00:14:43] Diana Tannery: Oh yeah. And my mother, she never forgot a birthday. One of the grandkids said, that's one thing we're going to miss is always having a birthday card from my mom.
[00:14:52] Bob: Juanita is thriving at Tradition Prestonwood.
[00:14:57] Diana Tannery: Well she always woke up, she opens the door and gets the newspaper, and then she always has her hot tea. She reads the newspaper for a while, and then she'll have her cereal. She likes to go down and exercise, they do exercise classes for any of the continuing education. So they had classes and stuff like that, for them, and so she did that, and she liked to go shopping and so every time we came in, we went shopping. She never liked to just stay, you know, inside for very long. She always like to go out and do stuff, have fun.
[00:15:27] Bob: July 30, 2016, is a Friday night, and Juanita is out to dinner with friends, but she doesn't want to be out too late. She's really excited about an amazing 7-course dinner planned for Saturday.
[00:15:40] Diana Tannery: So Traditions, 'cause they always have stuff like that, and so she was really looking forward to that, 'cause she really likes being able to dine and wine and that kind of fun stuff.
[00:15:50] Bob: But when dinner starts, Juanita isn't in her seat. As they move through the seven courses, her friends start to worry. Someone tells the front desk, and sometime in the next few hours an employee conducts a wellness check. .... Juanita is found dead in her room, an unattended death. Soon after, Diana gets a call from an employee at Tradition Prestonwood.
[00:16:17] Diana Tannery: He says, "You need to come here." And I was asking him why, and he goes, "You just, you just need to come to The Tradition." And then my husband took the phone, and he goes, "Can you please tell me what's going on?" And he said that they had found my mother, and she must have died peacefully in her sleep.
[00:16:31] Bob: Peacefully in her sleep? But she was out on Friday night. She was ready for that 7-course meal. Diana and her husband race to Dallas, but it's going to several hours before they get there. By the time they arrive, Mom has been moved and well, something just doesn't look right. She tells an employee.
[00:16:53] Diana Tannery: We were walking around, and I always remembered my mom always took her rings off and laid them on a really pretty glass crystal heart that was next to the sink. Now I noticed there was no rings there. I asked, I said, "Did you see the rings?" And he goes, "No." He goes, "There wasn't any rings that we saw of," And he goes, "But it might have been on her. You need to call, you know, the EMT and see if they...", and I said "Okay." And he said that it was probably one of the EMTs, but probably not because, they'll probably lose their job if they took it. And I kind of said, "Well what about people from Tradition." And he said that, that they will do their own investigation.
[00:17:30] Bob: And there's something else that's wrong. Very wrong.
[00:17:35] Diana Tannery: We're sitting there, and I started looking, and I go, she woke up this morning. She didn't die in her sleep. And Phillip goes, “What do you mean?” I said, "Cause the Sunday's paper is here out on the table, and her tea is sitting right there." I said, "She was up this morning."
[00:17:51] Bob: "And perhaps she died during a nap," she remembers the employee saying.
[00:17:55] Diana Tannery: "Well she must have started not feeling good and then went back to bed and that's when she died." And I was like, well, that just doesn't make sense, because she just had a physical and everything was fine. But I was like, you know, she was, I was like everybody else, "She was 83," you know, there was nothing wrong with her, but I just, there was just this weird, why was the paper out and why did she, you know, and why were they telling me she died in her sleep? I just knew that she didn't die peacefully in her sleep. I knew that she had woken up. "Then well she probably started feeling bad and went back to sleep." I go, "Okay, well maybe that to be plausible," you know, feasible things like that. But then, then the jewelry was gone.
[00:18:36] Bob: By the time they add it all up, Diana figures about $27,000 worth of jewelry is gone. She doesn't know what to think of it. And she doesn't know that on July 18th, just two weeks earlier, Joyce Abramowitz had died an unattended death at Tradition Prestonwood. But Leah Corken who lives near Juanita on the 4th Floor has definitely taken notice of these deaths. She mentions it to her daughter, MJ Jennings, just a couple of days after Juanita's passing.
[00:19:08] MJ Jennings: She had said to me, "They're dropping like flies around her. I don't know what's going on."
[00:19:12] Bob: It's the kind of dark humor MJ was used to from her mom. They'd become very close after her father died several years earlier.
[00:19:20] MJ Jennings: I lost Dad, I, I thought I hadn't felt pain before Dad died, but he died of pancreatic cancer in 2009. And it was just the worst thing ever imaginable. It was three months after he was diagnosed, because you know, here he is this rock star of a, of a, you know, dad, like a CIA agent and, and James Bond-ish who just whittled away in three months, and it was excruciatingly painful.
[00:19:49] Bob: About two years later, Mom moves from Tampa to Dallas to be near her youngest child.
[00:19:54] MJ Jennings: It was a lot of fun. Actually, I got to know Mom more in the, I guess it was just six years, five years that she lived here than I ever really did my whole life because we were just always moving and going. So I really got to have a close bond with my mom when she moved here. Well it was kind of like the closest we had ever been, so I got to dev--, I, I kind of thought I was the luckiest because I got to spend all this time with Mom.
[00:20:22] Bob: At first, Leah lives in her own place in Dallas, but when Tradition Prestonwood starts advertising about this brand new state-of-the-art facility...
[00:20:31] MJ Jennings: About a year after she moved there, I was like, "Mom, there's this new place called Tradition-Prestonwood moving in around, literally around the corner." It's like a mile and a half away from me, and brand new building. So I was really excited about it, and we went and toured it, and you know, she'd be the first person in her apartment, and one of the first people in the building. So we were really excited when we found out that was being built.
[00:20:59] Bob: Moving to Tradition Prestonwood doesn't slow Leah Corken's social life at all. After all, she lives on the 4th Floor, the party floor. Still, she loves going out. Mom is a football fan, a really big football fan.
[00:21:14] MJ Jennings: She's the kind that would belly up to the bar at a restaurant. You know, and a cold beer at a Packer's bar to watch her Green Bay Packers. Oh my God, she was the best fan in the world. And get on the phone with my brother and talk play-by-play, and she just, she was just a fun one. She had a lot of fun.
[00:21:36] Bob: Did she have a cheesehead?
[00:21:38] MJ Jennings: Of course! I got one in my bar right now. A bottle of vodka with a cheesehead.
[00:21:44] Bob: Mom's days are filled with activity that includes plenty of phone calls with her children.
[00:21:50] Bob: You guys talked on the phone at least every day, right?
[00:21:53] MJ Jennings: Every day. So we have a routine. She we would, I would wake up, get my coffee, call Mom, say, "Whatcha doing today?" You know there were lots of activities. She was still doing things like playing Wii or Wii Bowling or whatever it was, or she was going in the gym and, and trying to stay fit and just I'd call her every morning between 9 and 9:30 a.m. And then, if I didn't see her that day, my sister would get off work around 3 o'clock, 4 o'clock our time, and she would make sure to call Mom every night to see how she was. So we had a routine to check on her on a regular basis. And then I was there at least four times a week either taking her to dinner, picking her up.
[00:22:39] Bob: On August 18th, 2016, MJ and her mom going on a big date.
[00:22:45] MJ Jennings: I'd taken her shopping, and she was standing there with her hand on her hip, and I took a picture of it looking all sassy. We just went to have dinner and then we were off to a movie.
[00:22:56] Bob: What movie did you see?
[00:22:58] MJ Jennings: I knew you were going to ask me that. The movie with Hugh Grant and Meryl Streep. She was, it was, it was just the most charming movie ever. She wanted to be a singer, but she was a terrible singer, but Hugh Grant helped her, and it was, we just laughed, and it was one of those, you know dinner theaters where you get dinner served and, and just these comfortable chairs and it was right next door to Tradition-Prestonwood. So it was so convenient, she was just, you know, a mile away, like I said. Well yeah, we just had a great time.
[00:23:33] Bob: The next day they talk in the morning as they do every day. But by lunchtime ... the routine is broken.
[00:23:41] MJ Jennings: I had my normal call in the morning, and asked her what she was doing that day, and she told me she was getting her hair done around noon, and so, you know, I had my chance to say, "I love you. Have a great day, Mom." And then that afternoon my sister called, and there was no answer.
[00:23:59] Bob: MJ's sister leaves a voicemail on one of those old style answering machines, the kind where you can screen calls. So anyone in the room could have heard the message. "Mom, where are you? Mom, pick up." But no one answers. Did anyone hear the calls? We'll never know, but when repeated efforts to raise Mom fail, MJ becomes very concerned and calls the front desk.
[00:24:24] MJ Jennings: I asked them to just knock on her door and make sure she was okay. And at the same time, I said, "I'm going to be on my way." So as I'm on my way, I get a phone call that says, "You need to get here." And as I'm turning the corner, I see the reflection of a fire truck, the EMTs, and I, I just lost it. My heart just sank knowing it was Mom. I knew it was Mom. And then just parked the car and ran up there as fast as I could.
[00:24:51] Bob: She races upstairs to Mom's apartment.
[00:24:54] MJ Jennings: I walk in and, and it's just the two young EMT guys and my mom laying down on the floor with a, a sheet over her. And they wouldn't let me see her, so I, obviously, just started screaming and crying, and shocked because I just lost her, and I just didn't expect it, I was just with her and talked to her. So I just didn't expect this happening. And so I, I was pretty hysterical. I'm sure I was just bawling and in shock.
[00:25:25] Bob: The death is so fresh; the scene is still pretty chaotic. But in the midst of the shock and chaos, MJ notices something is wrong.
[00:25:34] MJ Jennings: They made me wait until the police officer came before they took the sheet off of her. In the meantime, staff at Tradition Prestonwood had, had come in. I was angry that there wasn't anybody there except the EMT, and I, I can't remember if it was before they took the sheet off or after, I, I looked, it must have been after. I had looked at her finger, and I'm like, where the hell's her ring, and I believe I, I was yelling it, "Who took her ring?" Mom never took her ring off. She never took it off. So, and when they took the sheet off, I just, I'd never seen a person die before, but, but I look at it and I said, so, "No, this, this, it's not how people die." It just looked. the way she laying looked odd, her walker was on the other side of the kitchen. And I thought, well why is, you know, just little snapshots I took that everything looked really odd. But I don't know how people die, so the staff there was hugging me and saying, "Yes, this is how people, if they have a stroke, this is how they fall. This is how they might look like." And I'm like, eh, you know, I'm kind of arguing saying, eh, I don't know about that, but the...
[00:26:56] Bob: Still trying to process everything that's happened, she starts to cling to the idea that Mom died a peaceful death at 83. But, things were nagging at her.
[00:27:06] MJ Jennings: That was comforting. I just hoped that it, you know, she, she was hit with a stroke or whatever and died instantly and didn't even know what happened to her. That, that was my, a comforting thought. But at the same time, I'm looking around and I'm like, this doesn't look right. This doesn't look right. You know, ow, my poor mom, poor mom. And just, just, I was heartbroken. And um, I felt, it was just heartbreaking.
[00:27:41] Bob: A few weeks later, Ellen French House would feel that same heartbreak.
[00:27:46] Bob: Tell me about your mom.
[00:27:47] Ellen French House: So my mom was Norma French, and she was born in Galveston, Texas, on August 14th, 1931. I was the baby of four, and I was most similar to my mom of all the kids, and there was five years difference between myself and my next sibling. So I got to spend a lot of time with my parents in their older years. That being said, we had so much fun together, and she was fun, and she was funny and witty and um, understanding and compassionate. We were so close that she could finish my sentences. She spent a lot of time with my family after my dad had passed away, and we would travel together and take her on, on our trips with us, and we have a place in Florida, so she would come to Florida with us and she would cook and help with the kids, and then when we'd, she'd come visit me in Indiana, we would do gardening. She loved to garden. And we would spend hours planting our flowers in May, and teaching my kids to do the, to learn how to plant with us. My mom also was a really wonderful seamstress, and so we spent a lot of time, she'd make a lot of my dresses and a lot of my clothes.
[00:29:12] Bob: Oh wow.
[00:29:12] Ellen French House: Yeah, yeah, I didn't apprec--, that appreciate that as well as I should now, but it's fun.
[00:29:18] Bob: So like your, your high school prom or something, did she make a dress for something like that?
[00:29:21] Ellen French House: Yeah. Yeah, oh yeah, she would make those. And even in college.
[00:29:25] Bob: After her husband dies of melanoma in 2006, Norma lives in their home for almost a decade, but by 2014, it's time to try a simpler life. She moves to Tradition Prestonwood.
[00:29:39] Ellen French House: She wanted to downsize, and she wanted to be in a safe environment. We wanted her to be in a safe environment. She had one of those flagstone backyards, and you know, you get worried as they get older that they're going to fall, and they're by themselves. My brother and sister live in Dallas, so she saw them frequently. And we all talked to her every day, so we weren't too worried, but you know, it was getting roof problems, it had big trees, and a tree would fall on the house, and we're like, let's get her out of here. So it was actually really fun. I flew into Dallas, and we went and looked at a couple of different places, and she ended up choosing where she was living, and I thought it was awesome and safe and very, very nice. And that she'd be happy there. And safe.
[00:30:29] Bob: It turns out to be an easy adjustment. Norma loves living at Tradition Prestonwood.
[00:30:36] Ellen French House: She really did travel a lot, and she drove, and so she would get up, depending on what day, you know, she'd have her cleaning girl come in. She would go to Bible study probably twice a week, so she did a lot of cooking for them, and she did cooking for the church that she'd take meals for funerals or whatever they had needed. She was active and with her church friends, and her older friends that were, most of her high school and college friends were out of town, but they would come in town, and they would go to lunch or, you know, shopping or whatever every so often, so they could all get together.
[00:31:16] Bob: It's now nearly two months since Juanita and Leah were found dead in their rooms at Tradition Prestonwood. It's early October 2016, and Norma isn't in Dallas. She's in Indianapolis visiting Ellen. It's a nice long visit, about a month. A few days before she's meant to go back to Dallas, Norma says something unusual for the 85-year-old mom and grandmother.
[00:31:42] Ellen French House: And she'd go to bed earlier than I would, and we would go put my kids, and we'd read them Bible stories and say their prayers, and then I'd go down and lay with her in bed. And we were just talking, and she said, "Ellen," she said, "I don't know what you're going to do without me." And she was genuinely worried. And I said, "Mother, you're not to worry about that." And she said, "I just, I worry that you're just, if something happens..." I said, "Mother, first of all, nothing's going to happen, and second of all, you know what, you've raised me in a Christian home, I know you're in heaven. I know I will see you again." And you know, of course, it made me cry. And I just said, "Don't even think about that or worry about it." It's just strange she said that to me and then she went home two days later.
[00:32:29] Bob: Ellen always hates it when Mom leaves.
[00:32:33] Ellen French House: She wanted to go back, and of course I always beg her, "Just stay a little bit longer." But Texas/OU weekend was approaching, and she has friends that come in from Austin and they go to dinner Friday night.
[00:32:46] Bob: Can't miss the Texas/OU festivities. So, they pack Mom up for an early morning flight.
[00:32:52] Ellen French House: My husband woke up, it's like 5 in the morning, and we went to the front door to say good-bye to her, and she gave just a big old hug to me, and she said, "Let not cry today." She said, "I'm going to see you in a couple of weeks for Thanksgiving," and just, "We'll be together soon.:" And I said, "Okay, okay." I was so tired I didn't cry; it was like the only time I've not ever, ever cried. And then my husband, husband gave her a kiss on her forehead, and then when she got to Dallas, she'd always called me to say I'm home, you know, whatever; she goes, she said, "That was so sweet. Did you notice your husband kissed me on the forehead?" And I said, "No." And she goes, "Well, I don't think he's ever done that." And she's like, "It was so sweet."
[00:33:39] Bob: So Norma gets back in time to see friends on Friday night, but decides she doesn't want to deal with big game crowd on Saturday, and instead, plans to watch the game at home. That morning she wakes up, gets ready, and then goes down to the cafeteria to get a big salad to eat during the first half. The salad stays untouched on her kitchen counter.
[00:34:00] Ellen French House: My sister had called me that evening, and said, "I can't get a hold of Mother." And I said, "Okay, well I mean I'm sure she's, maybe she's gone to sleep already," or, you know, I don’t know. So she said, "Well you try her." And I said, "Okay." So I called her twice on her cellphone, went into voicemail, and then I called her on her landline where she had one of those older machines that she can hear the person leaving a message. And I was like, "Mother! Hello! Answer your phone or I'm going to ping you," because I also had her iPad Apple ID, and I could put it in and ping her if I really needed her. She did not like it when I did that, because it would scare her.
[00:34:44] Bob: Ellen pings her. Mom doesn't respond to anything. So the family asks for a wellness check. Ellen's sister gets a call back right away. "Come to Tradition Prestonwood."
[00:34:57] Ellen French House: And my sister said, "Yes, I'll call my brother." So they drove over there and met the Community Relation Director. And he met them outside and there was an ambulance, and my sister was, you know, just taken back, and he told her out there that, you know, she had passed away. And then they walked upstairs and as they were walking upstairs, the paramedics were walking out, and you know just confirmed whatever, then when they got in the room, the Community Director stayed with them the whole time. And the police came, and they had to, you know, have a cause of death.
[00:35:49] Bob: Heart attack or stroke they suggest to the family. Still on the phone from Indiana, Ellen feels completely helpless. She acts on instinct.
[00:35:57] Ellen French House: So my Mom had donated her body to UT Southwestern, and so they had to wait a couple hours for them to get there to get her body. And when they were coming I said, I was hysterical, pretty much. I was, you know, my family was with me, and no one could believe it, you know, and I said, "She has to take a picture of her." And my sister's like, "What?" I go, "You have to take a picture of her. I can't never see her body again, I need it for closure, and I just need it to believe, you know, the whole thing that's happened." I, my brother had died a while back, and none of us ever saw his body, and that was something that I didn't realize was going to be hard, because you always wonder, hey, was it really him? I don't know. So anyway, they took a picture and it's a good thing they did.
[00:36:51] Bob: Because when they come to take the body, there is an awful discovery.
[00:36:55] Ellen French House: When the UT Southwestern came, I said, "Oh, check her jewelry." My sister said, "She doesn't have her ring on." And I said, "She has to have her ring on because she couldn't get it off." And I said when she was here, we made chicken marsala one night and we both had flour in our rings, and I said, "Take off your ring. Let's wash our rings," and she said, "I don't even take it off anymore." I said, "Oh, come on here, here's some Dawn soap," (chuckles) like, "Pull them off." And could, could not get it over her knuckle. And so we just washed there and that was that. But it was interesting that that happened that, that instant that I knew she couldn't get her ring off. I just started thinking, who in the world steals a ring off a dead person's body?
[00:37:43] Bob: It takes a couple of days for Ellen to get to Dallas,
[00:37:46] Ellen French House: My sister picked me up at the airport, and took me straight there, and there was the salad on the counter, and a bloodstain on the carpet.
[00:37:57] Bob: So she starts looking around the room trying to figure out if anything else looks wrong.
[00:38:02] Ellen French House: So we went through everything. And I mean clothes, pockets. When she was visiting me, she had a cro--, big cross necklace that she had gotten, gold chain and a cross that she had gotten in Italy. And it's just another thing, you know, I said, "Oh, you're wearing that cross that's so pretty," and she said, "Yeah, I took it out of the safety deposit box. I decided to, that I should start wearing it." She had it in this little mesh case or bag, and she, I saw that mesh bag on her countertop, and it was empty. And I said, "Did you," I just asked my sister, "Did you do anything with that necklace?" And she said, "No." And I said, "Okay, well she had a necklace in there." And she had cash in her wallet, or she should have. She only had a couple dollars in there, but she had been to the bank the day before and had gotten out $600 in cash, and that was gone. And over time, we realized a couple other items that were missing.
[00:38:57] Bob: When the opportunity arises, she reports her concerns, and she hears what sounds like a terrible theory about what's going on with these unattended deaths.
[00:39:09] Ellen French House: So, when we started making plans to do a service for her, we decided to do it at the building that she loved, and we had to talk to the staff and the management. And so we met down in their office, and I just said to them, "My mother's ring was stolen off of her finger by someone." And I was just trying to be nice. I said, "You know, for you guys," I say, "You shouldn't be sending your concierge up there by herself to find a deceased person. That's bad for them. You should always be sending in twos." And I said, "And you, you should never let the paramedics alone with my mom. She should have never been alone until my brother and sister got there." And so they just kind of looked at me and said, "Oh, oh, okay, we'll..." And then the next day, the director called me on the phone, she said, "Can I come up to your room?" And I said, "Yes." And so she came up and she said, "I just wanted to let you know that we have had two prior deaths with thefts." And I said, "Wedding rings?" And she said, "Hmm-hmm." And I said, "Okay. That is really bad." And she said, "Well the other families are suspecting of the paramedics or the fire department."
[00:40:38] Bob: The other families suspect the paramedics? It's horrible, too much to think about at the moment really. She reports the thefts to police, but she's got so many other things to think about. On October 15th, nine days after Norma French's unattended death, a big memorial service is held at Tradition Prestonwood. All Norma's friends are there, Ellen is overcome with grief, but still, on that sad day, she notices flashing lights outside the building. EMTs are outside again. She doesn't know it yet, but they're there because there's yet another unattended death that day at Tradition Prestonwood. Who is it and who in the world steals a ring off a dead person's body? That's next week on The Perfect Scam.
[00:41:39] Bob: If you have been targeted by a scam or fraud, you are not alone. Call the AARP Fraud Watch Network Helpline at 877-908-3360. Their trained fraud specialists can provide you with free support and guidance on what to do next. Thank you to our team of scambusters; Associate Producer, Annalea Embree; Researcher, Sarah Binney; Executive Producer, Julie Getz; and of course, our Audio Engineer and Sound Designer Julio Gonzalez. Be sure to find us on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts. For AARP's The Perfect Scam, I'm Bob Sullivan.
END OF TRANSCRIPT
A Special Report on the Texas Elder Murders: The Jewelry Box, Part 2
Reports of a suspicious person, posing as a maintenance worker, entering Dallas-area independent living communities are followed by an attack on a resident. The survivor’s description leads police to a man who has a history of trespassing. Could a victim’s jewelry box be the evidence they need to catch him?
[00:00:01] Reporter: Police across Dallas and Collin Counties are worried they have a serial killer on their hands.
[00:00:07] Sherril Kerr: She'd been painting that morning, and she had her painting smock on, and she had paint on her fingers and on her hand. There is no way she would lay down on that bed with paint on her fingers and on her shirt unless she had been made to. No way.
[00:00:25] Bob: Welcome back to The Perfect Scam. I'm your host, Bob Sullivan. This is Part 2 or our 4-part series, "Fatal Ageism" in connection with AARP - The Magazine. When we left our story, Norma French had just passed away, an unattended death. She lived on the legendary 4th Floor, the party floor, at The Tradition Prestonwood Independent Living Facility in Dallas. It's fall 2016. That summer, neighbors Juanita Purdy and Leah Corken had also died, also unattended deaths. So Glenna Day isn't kidding when she hints to daughter, Sherril Kerr, that she was beginning to worry. These people are dying all around me. The deaths are unusual for the facility where most of the residents are healthy and enjoy busy days of exercise, driving to have lunch or dinner with family, continuing education. In fact, it's a week after Norma's death, and as friends and family gather at Tradition Prestonwood for her memorial service, Glenna is already busy that morning.
[00:01:26] Sherril Kerr: She had been up early. I talked to her about 11, but she had been restoring a painting for a friend. Someone had poked a hole in it. It was back in the 18--, I think 1890 was the, the date of the painting, and so the canvas was brittle and old, and she had figured out how to soften it up, and to, to patch it on the back, and then she had matched the colors, the texture, the style, you couldn't even tell it had been injured. And she had, she had finished it that morning and put it in the frame, and had finished, she puts linseed oil on it when she would finish.
[00:02:00] Bob: Glenna has an artist's heart. She's fixed plenty of paintings, plenty of homes in fact in her day.
[00:02:07] Sherril Kerr: She was quite the painter. She was great at interior design. She had an eye for all that. Oh my goodness, she was so creative. She could sew anything; she could make anything. If you wanted a pillow for your couch, not a problem. She could, she could do it. She taught me how to just get in there and, and nothing was above what I could try, and it might not be success, but you've got to give it a go. And she's just drop-dead beautiful. I mean she doesn't look; she doesn't look 87. She looks like she might be late 70s, maybe.
[00:02:39] Bob: Wow.
[00:02:40] Sherril Kerr: She looked like, well they thought she was my sister. And I don't look so old.
[00:02:45] Bob: Glenna has plenty to live for. She still loves to travel, loves spending time with friends and family. She'd been widowed decades earlier, but never remarried. That was part of her charm, Sherril says.
[00:02:58] Sherril Kerr: My dad had polio when he was 7, so when they married, obviously, he was handicapped, and they were married until he died at the age of 52. And he had emphysema, of course, smoking got him. But she always took care of him. She was just a, a servant all of her life.
[00:03:16] Bob: And then she never remarried after that.
[00:03:18] Sherril Kerr: No, no, she was like a, a cute little bird that got out of the cage, and there were a lot of, as she would say, "I've had a lot of, of people apply for the job, but none that I thought could handle it." (chuckles) So she also, she was fully of funny quotes. She said, "If I want something with hairy legs, I'll get a dog."
[00:03:40] Bob: Humor helps keep Glenna healthy.
[00:03:42] Sherril Kerr: She was just funny like that. Came up with, in fact, we've got a whole list of, of things that Nana Sayings because, and they fit. I mean they just were; they just were funny. I don't know, she was amazing. I thought she would visit me in the rest home, quite honestly.
[00:03:57] Bob: She's also a generous soul. At 87, Glenna is still a more than capable driver. Just a few days after Norma French dies, one of the employees at Tradition Prestonwood becomes ill. Very ill. And Glenna, jumps into action.
[00:04:13] Sherril Kerr: She had taken one of the employees of Tradition to the hospital in the middle of the night because they got sick, and they called her. And she stayed with them all night and then, and then brought her home. She was always willing to go the extra mile and very people oriented, and that, that was, that was just a really sweet thing about her.
[00:04:32] Bob: And she was actually taking care of them.
[00:04:34] Sherril Kerr: Oh absolutely.
[00:04:35] Bob: She cared for her caretakers. A couple of days later, it's October 14th, 2016, a Friday night, and Glenna is out doing the kind of thing she often does on weekends.
[00:04:47] Sherril Kerr: She went to Farmers Branch for the Seniors... they have dances every so often. She loved to dance, and had driven her friends to this dance in Farmer Branch.
[00:04:57] Bob: And the next morning, she wakes up early to get to work finishing that painting repair job.
[00:05:02] Sherril Kerr: At 11 I had talked with her on the phone, and she was great, everything was fine. She's feeling great, busy. And when, in fact when I talked with her on Saturday, I was coming home from Chicago after taking care of my daughter and her children for several weeks due to a back injury that my daughter had, and I had to get on her schedule for the next week to go have lunch because she was already full. So um, she just, (sigh) I, she, she lived life bigger than any of us.
[00:05:33] Bob: Because Sherril was traveling, it's a bit of an unusual day. The regular evening phone call never happens.
[00:05:40] Sherril Kerr: We were on the road, and I knew she had plans that night. She had things she was going to do, so I thought, well, I'm not going to, typically at night she would call, like 9 o'clock almost every night we would, I'd call her, or she'd call me when she got home. And we just didn't get in until late. I was tired, but all of her messages and all her responding on social media and her phone all kind of stopped around 4 o'clock.
[00:06:04] Bob: Sherril doesn't notice the unusual digital silence from her mom and goes to bed that night at peace. But Glenna's friends have already started to worry.
[00:06:14] Sherril Kerr: She didn't show for dinner, and they always met for dinner unless they, you know, said I've got plans. 'Cause they ate there at Tradition. They had a really nice, they had a really nice dining room. And then the next morning she didn't answer, and my friend knew that, that she would be there earlier, and then she would go to church, and when she didn't answer, then she went down to the front desk and they came up and, and opened the door, and that's when she was discovered.
[00:06:40] Bob: Glenna is found dead alone in her room. Soon after, on Sunday morning, Sherril's phone starts to ring.
[00:06:47] Sherril Kerr: I was at church. And my phone buzzed, and it said, "Dallas Police." And I thought, well that's really strange. So I got up out of church and went and called the man, and he told me, and of course I didn't believe it because I had just talked with her, and she was wonderful. And so we left church and were there by probably 11:00. Drove straight to Traditions, and the police were there. One of them stayed until we got there. So that's, but that's how we found out.
[00:07:17] Bob: Sherril races up to the 4th Floor to see her mom. At first it seems like maybe a peaceful, beautiful last act. The repaired painting sits in the easel restored to its original beauty. It looks like she finished the project, laid down for a nap, and passed away peacefully.
[00:07:35] Sherril Kerr: It looked like a great ending to a wonderful life, you know. She was very project oriented, always wanted something to do, and so she had done this for her friend, and it looked like she had, you know, like, like you would all just lay down and that's it.
[00:07:51] Bob: But then Sherril notices something looks off.
[00:07:56] Sherril Kerr: There were several things about it that were really, really wrong. She had ovarian cancer when she was 80 and so she'd gone through chemo, and we called it her chemo retail therapy. Whenever she would start feeling better, she'd go shopping. And she had bought this $400 bedspread that she did not sit on, she would always take it off, or turn it back if she was going to sit on the bed. She was very persnickety about that. And she was just, I mean she had nice things, but she took care of them. And she was laying on top of the bedspread, which made me, I, I just thought what? You know, boy, I don't, I don't understand this. And her, I have, unfortunately at my age, I have attended several deaths and the look on her face was not one of peace. And just several things like that. Her head wasn't on the pillow.
[00:08:47] Bob: And there's more, a lot more.
[00:08:50] Sherril Kerr: The other tipping point for me was she'd been painting that morning and she had her painting smock on. And she had paint on her fingers and on her hand. There is no way she would lay down on that bed with, with paint on her fingers and on her shirt unless she had been made to. No way.
[00:09:08] Bob: And when Sherril starts to move around the room, she begins to realize that some things are missing.
[00:09:14] Sherril Kerr: All of her jewelry was in her safe locked away because she had gotten arthritis in one of her hands and she couldn't wear the rings. And so she had locked them in a safe. There was a, a Rolex missing. We had the empty case, but we didn't have that. And she'd gone to the bank. She always liked to have cash and had withdrawn several hundred dollars and that was missing out of her billfold.
[00:9:35] Bob: Sherril reports the missing items to police, but she doesn't know what to make about the paint on her mom's fingernails or any of it. She has a memorial service planned.
[00:09:46] Sherril Kerr: It was huge. We did it there at Tradition and it took up the meeting room and three-fourths of the dining room. I mean there were several hundred people from Tradition. They did everything for us. I mean they; they catered lunch, they helped us set up. they didn't charge me one penny.
[00:10:04] Bob: Right around the time that memorial service takes place, on October 30th, two weeks after Glenna Day is found dead, Doris Gleason dies at Tradition Prestonwood. She's found lying on the floor of her apartment. She's 92. It's another unattended death. Natural causes, police say, but daughter Shannon Gleason-Dion notices that a necklace is missing, a necklace with a guardian angel figure, the one Mom never takes off. In fact, Shannon wears a matching necklace, but it's gone. So is some cash from her purse. Doris's family calls police. Thirteen days later, Dallas Police receive report of a suspicious person at Tradition Prestonwood. Police are told that a well-dressed man had been walking around the building claiming to be a maintenance worker. The facility is told to increase security. Reports of suspicious unattended deaths at Tradition Prestwood stop. As weeks and months pass, there's a mix of grief and melancholy, and a desire to move on. For the families we've told you about, life doesn't get any easier. Loren Adair is still caring for her sick husband. He dies of cancer before the end of the year, so she has something else to mourn. Ellen French House never really gets time to grieve. Her husband needs a heart transplant. He spends four months in the hospital. So weeks turn to months and the missing jewelry reports, well they aren't anyone's top priority -- not at a time like this. But eventually, Ellen French House, daughter of Norma French gets an update. Remember the rumor that EMTs were to blame for the missing jewelry after those unattended deaths?
[00:11:47] Ellen French House: My sister followed up with Sergeant Davis of the Dallas Police Department when they opened up a public integrity report for the initial death with theft investigation, and she called me and wanted to ask me some questions. I told her some things. She interviewed my brother, my brother-in-law, and my sister. She interviewed the police, the fire department guys, the paramedics. She, they interviewed her maid. Anyway, this took a couple months. I want to say, let me think, was it April? Sergeant Davis called my sister and said, "We're closing the investigation. We've done these interviews. We do not believe it is any of the Dallas workers. We think it's an inside job." She said, "But in a week or two you need to get these records" you know, "signed." She gave them a form to send in, and she said, "Cause something here is not right. Something is fishy." And you know, then Laurie called me, and I said, "Well if something's fishy? Why are they closing the case?" I just thought here an investigator says something's fishy, and we don't think it's, you know, the paramedics. They don't like when you accuse their people of stealing, and I felt bad doing it, but I had to pull everybody into the equation because somebody did it.
[00:13:20] Bob: Somebody did it. But for MJ and Sherril and Ellen and Loren and Diana, they've all buried their moms, all tried to move on as best they can. But questions still linger about the missing jewelry, about how someone can be so healthy one day and die the next. But life does go on until about one year later on March 19th, 2018, when Mary Bartel opens her apartment door, and she sees a menacing pair of green gloves reach around the door. Mary lives in a different independent living facility, Preston Place. It's about 10 minutes north of Tradition, just on the other side of George Bush Turnpike. But it's about to be linked to Tradition and Edgemere forever. Here’s a recording later played in open court of Mary Bartel describing what happens when she opens the door.
[00:14:15] Mary Bartel: I knew instantly when I saw those two green rubber gloves, number one, I should not have opened the door, number two, my life was in grave danger. I tried to force the door shut. He was inside and he, in my apartment, and he said, "Don't fight me. Lie on the bed." He just smashed a pillow down hard over my, my face and my chest, and I, I just couldn't breathe.
[00:15:02] Bob: Mary Bartel had been attacked in her apartment by an assailant. She passes out, but her heart keeps going, perhaps because of a pacemaker that she has. And when she's found by a friend, she's revived. And that is about to change the lives of dozens of families in the Dallas area.
[00:15:20] Prosecutor: When you came to, did you notice on your hand, or did someone notice on your hand you were missing jewelry?
[00:17:26] Mary Bartel: Well, I noticed it.
[00:17:27] Prosecutor: All right. What were you missing on your hands?
[00:17:30] Mary Bartel: I was missing my engagement ring and my wedding ring.
[00:17:38] Bob: When Mary Bartel wakes up, she tells the EMTs that her rings are gone, that she'd been attacked, and she's able to describe the attacker. The story sounds familiar to police investigators. Six months earlier in the fall of 2017, a 93-year-old woman living at Parkview Independent Facility nearby, had told people that a well-dressed man had come to her door claiming to be a maintenance worker. When she said she didn't need any work done, he forces his way inside, knocks her from her walker to the floor, and tries to smother her with a pillow. He takes jewelry and leaves. The woman survives, but she's unable to provide a clear description of her assailant, but Mary Bartel's description is enough to point to one man, the same man who'd been arrested for trespassing at Edgemere nearly two years earlier, who had been the subject of that suspicious person reported at Tradition Prestonwood a year earlier. Immediately, police begin hunting for a man named Billy Chemirmir. Within a day they're staking out his apartment. Right then, as police lay in wait to nab their suspect, Chemirmir is at a nearby Walmart. And so is Lu Thi Harris. She's there to pick up a few things for her home in Dallas. Here’s her son-in-law describing Harris's amazing life journey from Vietnam to Dallas. It’s a recording of his testimony in a Dallas courtroom.
[00:17:05] She grew up in uh, Cholon, which is the Chinese section of Saigon. And uh she went to school there and then she opened up a business where she owned a restaurant and bar in downtown Saigon, uh which is, you know, kind of near the French Embassy. And she ran that, and her restaurant was across the street from Caltex, which is where my father-in-law worked, that's where their offices were. And so they met and married in uh 1974. When the demise of Saigon was imminent, then he was called out to Hong Kong, at Hong Kong by his company. But he had arranged pay board for her, and she actually got to Saigon on a helicopter off the American Embassy to an aircraft carrier in the South China Sea.
[00:18:09] Bob: Eventually, after the war, the family settles in Dallas.
[00:18:13] She was a very fun person. Very humorous, very generous. You know, most people hate their mother-in-law, my mother-in-law was a hoot. She, she was very, very fun to be around.
[00:18:30] Prosecutor: You had mentioned that she’s generous, lots of gifts?
[00:18:35] Yeah, I mean she, she'd um, you know, like for your birthday, she'd always have a $2 bill and the gift card.
[00:18:40] Bob: Just about 24 hours after the Mary Bartel attack, Lu Thi Harris is shopping at that Walmart and doesn't know she's being watched by Billy Chemirmir. Store surveillance video shows him checking out only a moment before she does. Chemirmir follows her in his car, then follows her into her Dallas home. Soon after Chemirmir returns to his apartment complex, police are there for the stakeout. They watch as he casually tosses a jewelry box into a trash can. They descend on their suspect.
[00:19:13] I approach him, and I see that it’s Mr. Chemirmir. The car door was open, I identified myself as police. Told him to get out of the vehicle. At that point I had no reaction from him. I observed that when I approached him from the driver's side I observed in his left hand, he is carrying a, a clear plastic bag with jewelry. I repeatedly tell him he was under arrest, to get out of the car. He wouldn't get out of the car. So I pulled him out of the vehicle, and pulled him out in the parking lot.
[00:19:57] Bob: Police find Chemirmir holding Harris's jewelry, and a wad of $2 bills. Her name is inside the jewelry box he threw in the trash. They also find a set of keys in his car that open Harris's front door. When they rush to her home, they find her dead. A pillow nearby, covered in lipstick marks. Investigators interrogate Chemirmir, he tells them nothing. But pulling on the threads of the story, the trespassing arrest, the missing jewelry reports, the prior close call at Parkview, the horror of what has really happened starts to sink in. There are hundreds of unattended deaths involving the elderly every year int he Dallas area. And there's now a pile of theft reports. Just how far does the trail of Billy Chemirmir lead? On March 23rd, just three days after the arrest, police go public with the story. They need help tracking down the trail of victims.
[00:20:54] Police: We're not going to leave any stone left unturned.
[00:20:57] Newscaster: Police across Dallas and Collin Counties are worried they have a serial killer on their hands.
[00:21:02] Newscaster: He's under arrest, in jail on a million dollar bond, and we are just learning about a possible string of crimes targeting the elderly. Billy Chemirmir, 45, is accused of capital murder and attempted murder.
[00:21:13] Police: In Dallas alone, our initial estimates is over 750 uh elderly females. that we're going to go back and review those cases.
[00:21:20] Newscaster: Police say they're looking into this man, Billy Chemirmir. For years he's been posing as a home healthcare nurse, or maintenance worker. They believe he's been attacking and possibly murdering elderly women and stealing their jewelry.
[00:21:33] Bob: It's not just police who start casting a wide net. The family of Dr. Catherine Sinclair, the first unattended death we mentioned last episode at Edgemere, well they believe she was murdered now, and they want their own investigation. They get in touch with Trey Crawford.
[00:21:48] Trey Crawford: It was probably in early April of 2018, when I first heard the name Billy Chemirmir. And when we did, it was actually, we had just started our law firm, probably a couple of months prior, and with some people that I practiced with for a very long time, and we've since grown, but I recall getting a phone call from a colleague outside of our firm saying, "Hey, um, you know, there may be an issue with respect to this family whose loved one they believe was murdered by a serial killer who had recently been arrested." And, and that, that woman, her name was Dr. Catherine Sinclair. We met with the Sinclair family in April of 2016. They were convinced that Chemirmir was the person who had murdered their aunt, and they, and they were positive about that because of all of the abnormalities that were present at the time of death. Dr. Sinclair was a very healthy, beautiful woman. She had, and they'd been to dinner with her the night before; she was very vibrant, no, nowhere close to being where you would think that she was living her last days. And her safe was missing. And when their, the loved ones, Dan and Jane, had come to the scene and actually had a, a chance to see their aunt, uh nothing looked right about it at all.
[00:23:09] Bob: When Crawford starts to investigate their claims, the truth is almost too horrible to see.
[00:23:15] Trey Crawford: Well, we started uncovering suggestions that this was far more widespread than this, and I think at the time, law enforcement to have just arrested Chemirmir, just a few days prior and were starting to see all the connectivity between literally hundreds of prior similar instances where you had elderly individuals who all of a sudden were showing up dead and unattended, and had contemporaneously reported missing jewelry. We started spotting significant abnormalities, and started pulling pretty much everything we could that was publicly available of prior incidents at Edgemere and other independent living communities that we believe he had gone to, and it was pretty astonishing when we got that information back and started really putting together some of the pieces.
[00:24:11] Bob: And there are a lot of pieces to put together. Trey's firm is, in some ways, investigating Chemirmir's case in reverse.
[00:24:20] Trey Crawford: We were kind of working in the opposite direction in time, if that makes sense. You know law enforcement was, was kind of working from 2018 backwards, and we were representing a victim who was on the front end, in fact the first known victim I guess that's been indicted, Dr. Sinclair, we were working from that time period up towards the present. We were trying to kind of move that way, but at the same time also following what was, you know, being discovered in the criminal case, that was public--, publicly available. I, I can't tell you how many times we have read the search warrant affidavit, and the evidence that was gathered at the scene there, and almost every time you do, you see something different that triggers something else that you've since uncovered, um, that has some semblance or has you know builds a piece to the puzzle, even if it's a small piece.
[00:25:13] Bob: And those puzzle pieces lead to uncovering the truth about more and more of these unattended deaths. Trey starts calling the families of anyone who had died recently at the various independent living facilities in Dallas, just doing research, but some of these interviews lead to awful discoveries.
[00:25:33] Trey Crawford: And those calls were not easy. We would try to locate the next of kin of these families just to, you know, further understand the facts and circumstances surrounding the, the victims that we were representing at the time, so we can really no stone unturned, understand the who, what, where, when, why, and how of this criminal activity as best we could, and in doing so, you know many times we would start, you know, by introducing ourselves, you know here's who we represent, here's why we kind of need to talk to you a little bit about this because you may know something that's helpful for one of our clients. And there was a number of times where we would have that call and a lightbulb went off and you could tell through the phone they knew right then that their mom was a victim too.
[00:26:25] Bob: And in some cases, that means it's Trey's job to deliver the chilling news to families that their mom, or their dad, didn't actually die peacefully.
[00:26:35] Trey Crawford: I mean, and those phone calls were very difficult. You know, nobody wants to believe or think that this could happen, but you also cannot deny facts and evidence that are just staring you in the face. And then the more you learn about the specifics and then, you know, juxtapose that with what law enforcement has that corresponds with those victims, it's just, it's hard to swallow. It's really being forced to relive a tragic, and tragic, I mean people, you know, pass. You know we're, you know, at some point you're, it's your time, and we kind of accept that. You never think it's the next day, and particularly for our clients' families, and then that, they had many more years ahead of them. And it was never for, for any of them, it was not like, you know, okay, well you know Mom is not doing well, and we only have a few days left. They were all thinking they had years left. And then to all of the sudden be met with that shocking reality that they're no longer here, and you're wondering, you know, why, but you're being told, well that's just how it happens. And then to find out several years later that they were actually murdered. And so you're forced to relive that, and I can tell you from most of their perspectives, they're not a day that goes by they don't think about it. And wondering, it's just, you know, your loved ones' last memory on earth is living a horrific death.
[00:28:10] Bob: Just how many murder victims would police and Trey Crawford find? What is it like to learn that your mom or dad, who you thought died of natural causes, was actually murdered? And why would a jury find the case against Billy Chemirmir inconclusive? That's next week on The Perfect Scam.
END OF TRANSCRIPT
[00:28:43] Bob: If you have been targeted by a scam or fraud, you are not alone. Call the AARP Fraud Watch Network Helpline at 877-908-3360. Their trained fraud specialists can provide you with free support and guidance on what to do next. For this Special Report, we want to thank AARP the Magazine’s Vice President & Editor in Chief Bob Love, Executive Editor Bill Horne, Investigative Journalist Lise Olsen and researcher/fact checker Annette Deinzer. Thanks to our team of scambusters; Associate Producer, Annalea Embree; Researcher, Sarah Binney; Executive Producer, Julie Getz; and our Audio Engineer and Sound Designer Julio Gonzalez. Be sure to find us on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts. For AARP's The Perfect Scam, I'm Bob Sullivan.
A Special Report on the Texas Elder Murders: The Investigation, Part 3
The arrest of Billy Chemirmir and the identification of more victims confirm the suspicions of many family members. Chemirmir has even been working as a home health care worker under an assumed name in the home of one of his victims. Law enforcement builds its case and takes it to trial, but will the families get the justice they deserve?
[00:00:00] It was Friday the 13th; I do remember that. We got a phone call from a detective in the Plano Police Department who said he had picked up our case and knew we were missing some jewelry. Would we be available to come in that afternoon to look at some pictures. So my wife and I got in the car, and we drove to the Plano Police Department. We're in an interview room with the detective and he's showing pictures, and it's a lot of pictures. Hundreds. Does this look like your Mom's jewelry? And in the midst of this, he's talking about this Chemirmir arrest and that a lot of these pictures came off of Chemirmir's phones that they had found. And my wife looks to me and goes, "Wait a minute. So are you telling us that you believe that Chemirmir killed Carolyn?" And he says, "Oh, I'm certain of it. He was there, and I'm certain he killed her."
[00:01:00] Bob: Welcome back to The Perfect Scam. I'm your host, Bob Sullivan, and this is Part 3 of our 4-part series, "Fatal Ageism" in connection with AARP - The Magazine. It's April 2017, about a month since Billy Chemirmir was arrested at his apartment after police see him toss away a jewelry box that belongs to Lu Thi Harris. Soon after, they go to Harris's home and find her dead. Almost immediately, investigators start linking Chemirmir to unattended deaths and jewelry thefts all around the Dallas area. Hundreds of cases; deaths previously determined to be from natural causes are reopened. Carolyn McPhee found dead in her home on New Year’s Eve a few months earlier is near the top of that list. Her son, Scott, has been insistent that Mom's wedding ring and other valuables had been stolen, even though police initially dismissed his concerns. But now, there's a murder investigation. Scott and his wife are talking to the lead detective on the case.
[00:02:08] Scott McPhee: So now we're having a conversation about this Chemirmir guy. He'd been down to the Dallas County Jail interviewing this guy. He said, "Yeah, the guy said, kept saying something about Grace World." And my wife goes, "You mean Griswold?" And we explained that Griswold is the name of the agency that was placing people in our parents' home. Now I've seen pictures, I didn't recognize him, right, and I'm like, "but I don't know a Billy Chemirmir," and he goes, "Well he goes by an alias, Benjamin Koitaba."
[00:02:42] Bob: Benjamin Koitaba. That name does ring a bell either, but lots of people had been through Mom's house in the past couple of years. After decades working as one of the original IMBers back in the '60s, '70s, and '80s, Scott's dad had developed a rare and heart-breaking neurological disease that presented a bit like Lou Gehrig’s disease. His mind was fine, but his body started to waste away. He's a huge hulk of a man, and pretty quickly it's obvious Mom needs help with everyday tasks, like getting Dad into bed at night. So they turn to a home healthcare agency. Over the months and years that follow, while there are a few regulars, dozens of aides come for the daily 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. shift to help Mom. Fortunately, Scott has records to refer to.
[00:03:32] Scott McPhee: By this time we've cleared out my mom's house, we've sold the house, I've destroyed most of the records that we needed. I mean I’ve; I've done all of the, how do you unwind someone's life. I had nothing left. I had one, I had one thing left, and don't ask me why I had it, it's a God thing. I had all the records that mom had kept for all the caregivers that had been in the house since she contracted Griswold, all the way through to her death. So I had everything. So I'm coming back here now with the last remaining thing out of the out of her house, digging through records find, oh look, Benjamin, Benjamin Koitaba was here these days and these days and these days and these days and made that connection from those records.
[00:04:24] Bob: Indeed, back in October 2016, a man calling himself Benjamin Koitaba shows up as a fill-in home healthcare aide. Around that very time Norma French, Glenna Day, and Doris Gleason are all found dead at Tradition Prestonwood, not far away from Carolyn's home in Dallas. During the next three months, Koitaba would be in the McPhee home three or four days a week. He is competent and on time, but otherwise different from the other aides.
[00:04:56] Scott McPhee: When you have these people that come that come in your house, they become almost part of your extended family. You got to know them; they were there 12 hours a day; they're in your life. They're having breakfast with you, they're having lunch with you, they're having dinner with you. On holidays they'd be, they'd I mean some of those, those folks we got to know because they'd be here on Christmas Day and enjoy Christmas with us. They'll go off and read in another room or whatever, but they tend to be integrated and the thing that we, we remember about Benjamin Koitaba in the home is that wasn't him. He was distant, disconnected, he didn't take meals; he'd go in the other room. He didn't sit with the family, sit with people watching; he was always off on his own. He was a little bit of a loner.
[00:05:36] Bob: By January of 2017, Koitaba has moved onto another assignment. And Scott's dad, his health rapidly declines. He passes away in April. Some of the aides, not Koitaba, come to the funeral. It takes a while, but after this four year ordeal of taking care of Dad, Mom starts to move on and enjoy life again.
[00:06:00] Scott McPhee: Yeah, you know she was, it was a hard time. I mean of course they'd been married for 50 some years. My dad's goal was to make, make 60 years of marriage and he, he didn't quite make that. You know you lose; you lose someone you've spent basically the majority of your life with, that's hard. And, and but she also struggled with, and she and I talked a lot about the fact that the memories that she had of him were the memories from the end, right, when he was struggling and where he was, you know, emaciated and, and not himself physically, and that she was having a hard time kind of getting past those and going back and remembering who our, our father was before the disease took him, right. But other than that, I mean she, she is living at home, she is redecorating the house, she's reengaging with friends, she's going to church, which was always an important part of their lives, and, and they spent so much time there. She was, she was in life, right, she wasn't at home mourning and letting that control her; she was taking control of it and, and working to rebuild and move on with her life. And she had plenty of it left to go, trust me. She was a force of nature.
[00:07:17] Bob: A force of nature that is suddenly gone.
[00:07:22] Scott McPhee: On New Year's Eve day, so December 31st of 2017, my family, we were at lunch, and I, I got a phone call or a text message from some of my mother's church friends who said that they, they weren't able to get a hold of her and this was, you know, noonish on, on Sunday after, after church that she hadn't shown up for church, and that she was supposed to be at their house right then to watch the Cowboys game, of course, 'cause that was also central to their lives, the Dallas Cowboys. So, so you know we, we started worrying about it and I called Rob, I called my brother. He was, he was off and I, I had moved my mother's phone, cellphone service over onto my account just, just to make it easier so I knew what technology she had and so I could, I could see that her phone was still at the house and, and she was not answering it. So I called Rob. We all, we all jumped in the car. We all rushed to her house. The front door was locked. They, they had a key, went in the house and found Mom in her bedroom on the floor in, in a prone position, arm over her eyes, glasses askew and, and obviously deceased.
[00:08:36] Bob: The family calls 911 and policy come to examine the scene. They find a few small bloodstains on the door handle, on her glasses, but pretty quickly they determine Mom died of natural causes.
[00:08:49] Scott McPhee: The detective came out and said that, that they also did kind of a, a physical exam and they didn't see any signs of trauma. There were bloody tissues in her bathroom on the, on the floor and that was, you know, they, they kind of, I asked about that. And the detective was explaining that what they believed had happened was she had gotten ready for church, right, she was ready to go, looked like she was leaving, and they believe she'd gotten in the car, maybe began having an aneurysm, had a nosebleed, that's why there was blood on the outside of the door because she touched the door, that's why there were bloody tissues so then she had cleaned herself up, and then as she was walking back to leave, she just, the aneurysm struck and that she just instantly died right there and fell to the floor and, talked to the medical examiner on the phone, they explained it, he said, that's as good an explanation as any, and they kind of just were done. That was the end and they released, we released the body to the mortuary and, and that was basically the end of that day.
[00:09:52] Bob: That explanation seems reasonable enough to Scott and his family.
[00:09:56] Scott McPhee: You're in such shock. Your brain, your brain's not really working. You kind of go into a little bit of a tunnel focus and, and., and in that time, you were trusting that these people who do this every day are, are taking you on the path. And I did have a pretty good conversation with the detective to try to make sure that, that I had assurance that what he was saying was valid, right, and it, it, it made logical sense at the time. It makes perfect sense. It, it didn't make sense in the fact that we knew just a couple of weeks before she'd been at the doctor and gotten a clean bill of health, but she was still 82 years old, and you just never know, you know as, as you age, things just break. It, it seemed like a reasonable explanation at the time.
[00:10:40] Bob: But that time doesn't last very long. Within days, the family has questions about missing jewelry.
[00:10:47] Scott McPhee: So, over the course of the next day or two, and we started, we realized that she did not have her wedding ring on. And we thought that was, I mean that was odd, because she never took her wedding ring off. This is, it's the same ring she'd worn their entire marriage. So that ring was a fixture. I actually asked the detective about it that day and he said that, that generally if you wear a ring at least an indentation. He didn't see any indent on her fingers. So he doesn't believe that she'd even had it on that day. I'm like, oh, that doesn't make any sense, but fine, right, you're the detective. So what we started to realize over the course of the next few days is that ring was missing. We couldn’t find it. And that there was a fashion ring, a diamond fashion ring that she also wore a lot that we also couldn't find. That there was a jacket that she had been wearing because it was cold, right, this is coming into January, you know late, late December, early January timeframe, New Years, it was cold here. My younger son had taken her out to dinner Fri--, the Saturday night before; she'd worn this black puffy jacket that she liked to wear. He dropped her at the house Saturday night. That jacket was nowhere to be found in the house. We thought that was odd. So I'm going back now to the Plano Police Department to this detective and saying, oh, I need an explanation. Where, where is the jewelry? Where is her jacket because this, it doesn't make any sense, and the explanation I started getting from the detective was, "Oh, you know, she was old, old people hide their jewelry. I'm sure it's somewhere around there. Look, you know, look through all her boxes. Maybe it fell in the p-trap, literally, maybe it fell you know in the sink and it's in the p-trap." So I was, I, I'm starting to get uncomfortable with the explanations. I'm starting to think we had all these people coming through the house. We had the firemen show up, the ambulance people show up, the police show up, the, the detectives show up, the photographers; there were probably 15 or more individuals who traipsed in and out of that room and I'm starting to talk to this detective going, I'm telling you, someone stole these rings. Because they are gone.
[00:13:12] Bob: Someone stole those rings. There has to be an explanation. About 10 weeks later, Scott wakes up and opens the Dallas Morning News and thinks he's found his explanation.
[00:13:24] Scott McPhee: I want to say it was around March 23rd. So the Dallas Morning News shows up at my house on that Saturday morning, and there's a big front page article about this man named Billy Chemirmir, who had just been arrested in Plano holding the jewelry of a, of a woman named Lu Thi Harris, who was a Dallas resident, who they had found dead. So I'm reading this article and I immediately got up and I emailed that detective and said, "This has to be the explanation. This guy," I mean it all fit. Killed, killed an elderly woman, arranged it to look like a natural death, stole some of her jewelry that he was planning to go off and hawk, this is the only explanation. So we, we phoned, played phone tag a little bit, and then he sort of went dark.
[00:14:21] Bob: Then a few weeks later, a different police officer, the detective investigating Chemirmir's case calls the family in for a meeting. And that's how Scott finds himself on April 13th, Friday the 13th, staring at pictures of stolen jewelry from Billy Chemirmir's phone. Learning that Benjamin Koitaba was really Billy Chemirmir. And that a suspected serial killer was in his mom's house almost daily for three months, probably at the same time he was out killing other older people. And that Chemirmir knew his dad had died, knew mom would be alone, and that he killed her on New Year's Eve.
[00:15:01] Scott McPhee: The logical part of you is going, the only logical thing is this guy must have killed Mom. But you don't really process that until that time later when it's confirmed, right, and you have a detective going oh yeah, we pinged him with his cellphone. Your grieving process starts all over again. Because by this time, think about it, we've, we're now four months in, 3½ months in to accepting the fact that our,, you know, we found our mother dead, believing that she had died instantly, painlessly, and, and, and had like buried, we were done, right. We had started to move on from that. It was the question of where the jewelry went that we were dealing with, and all of a sudden now all of that is opened up again. Your whole life gets turned upside down in that moment.
[00:15:51] Bob: Chemirmir is in jail initially held on an outstanding arrest warrant for another crime. By May, he's indicted for attempted murder and held in lieu of paying one million dollars bond. And as detectives keep pulling the threads of evidence they find, there are many more conversations to come that turn families lives upside down. Here's Loren Adair whose mother, Phyllis Payne, was found dead in the Edgemere Independent Living facility about two years earlier.
[00:16:21] Loren Adair: I was sitting in my den in the house, and I got a phone call, it was a number I didn't recognize, which I normally don't really answer on my cellphone, but for some reason I, I answered it. And it was a detective and he, he, he asked me if I had heard of the Billy Chemirmir case, and a man that was, they had discovered had murdered some elderly people and stolen from them. And I had not heard the news. And so I said, "No, no, what are you talking about?" And he said, "Well, we're sure that your mother was one of his victims." And so I was shocked and appalled and you know it had been two years that she died in May of 2016, and this was April of 2018. And so I, my immediate reaction was if this is a joke, this is really sick. And I said that to him, and he said, "No ma'am, this is my, Let me give you my badge number, my phone number; we really need to come and speak with you. We would, we would like to come out to your home and speak with you." And at that point, I still didn't know who this was. And so I said, "I will come to you." And so he gave me the address of the Dallas Police Station. I said, "I would like to get a hold of my son." He said, "We need you to come down to the station right away." And so I said, "Okay, I'm going to call my son, I'd like him to come with me." So I'm sorry, this is bringing it all back.
[00:17:54] Bob: There are other investigators racing to understand what happened, to find the truth about potentially hundreds of unexplained deaths in the Dallas area during Billy Chemirmir's reign of terror. One of them is Trey Crawford, who represents the family of Catherine Sinclair, also found dead at Edgemere in 2016. As he interviews other families whose parents have died recently, just investigating, sometimes the calls turn dark as children realize the awful truth about their mom's death.
[00:18:26] Trey Crawford: You know we would try to locate the next of kin of these families just to further understand the facts and circumstances surrounding the victims that we were representing at the time. We would start by introducing ourselves, you know we represent, and here's why kind of need to talk to you, because you may know something that's helpful for one of our clients. And there was a number of times where we would have that call and a lightbulb went off and you could tell through the phone, they knew right then that their mom was a victim too.
[00:18:58] Bob: Sharing that moment with families, it's an awful task. And in some cases, Trey calls with something more definitive in mind. To say, we have evidence that your mom was murdered, and we want to make sure you know. He has to place one of those horrific calls to MJ Jennings, whose mom, Leah Corken died in August 2016.
[00:19:22] MJ Jennings: So, my husband is double-board certified in orthopedics and sports medicine. It was a Wednesday night, December 12th, and I was not feeling well, but he had just found out he'd passed his board recertification. So we went to our favorite steakhouse, Chamberlain's, and we were walking in, sitting down, ready to celebrate, and I get a phone call. Well I never answer a call that I don't know who the number is. But they left a message. So I'm sitting there, and I'm reading this message, and it says that we, I think it implied that we have reason to believe that there was suspicion or were you suspicious about your mother's death? And I'm reading this going, what are you talking about? And it was from our attorney, Trey Crawford. And I ran outside the front door of the restaurant and called him back and said, "What are you talking about?" And they said, "We have reason to believe that your mom was a victim of serial killer Billy Chemirmir." And with that, I don't think he got another word in edgewise. I started telling him of all these images that I had in my head that were disturbing, but never murder, that it was like flashbulbs clicking with images of, oh my God, this now makes sense. It makes sense. She was one of his victims. And that was, as I said, the pain of losing my dad to pancreatic cancer was the worst thing I'd ever had to experience because I physically was with him when he was in so much pain. This, no one, you know I hate to say this, but when your loved one is a murder victim, it is so surreal and that out of body experience, like, you know, I'm on a, I'm on a program. I'm in a TV show, but it's what you watch, which doesn't happen to you. And so my poor husband, we couldn't celebrate, and I just remember getting in the car and getting my brother and sister on the speakerphone and telling them, I'm sure I just screamed, "Mom was murdered."
[00:21:47] Bob: Sherril Kerr's mom was Glenna Day from that 4th Floor at Tradition Prestonwood, the party floor. She got the news from the police.
[00:21:55] Sherril Kerr: The detective called me. And he, he was asking me questions. And he thought she died on Sunday, and I said, no, I, I said, "I don't think so and here's why." And I told him exactly what I thought and which day she died and what time, and he said, "Ooh, I need to call you back." And so he hung up, and in about 15 minutes later he called back, and he said, "I have some evidence that would indicate that this was not a natural death."
[00:22:22] Bob: When you got that call, were you aware that Chemirmir had been arrested earlier?
[00:22:27] Sherril Kerr: Oh no. No. No, none of it.
[00:22:31] Bob: What was that like to get that, it seems almost...
[00:22:34] Sherril Kerr: Besides horrific?
[00:22:37] Bob: Yeah, I mean well, 'cause it's like unbelievable, right? I mean...
[00:22:41] Sherril Kerr: I don't even know if there's a word. It was like, are you sure? You've got to, you, it's got to be somebody else.
[00:22:47] Bob: Ellen House French learns the awful truth about her mom, Norma French, from a conversation. It was a coincidence. Ellen's sister had a friend who turned out to be a neighbor and witness to another death tied to Chemirmir. The neighbor, Joy, and Ellen's sister were having lunch one day when detectives called Joy away from the table.
[00:23:09] Ellen House French: And so she called my sister later and said, "Okay, this is so weird, like they think they have somebody who's stealing jewelry and hurting the elderly." Anyway, so my sister was thinking in the back of her head, okay, that's weird, 'cause my mom's jewelry was stolen. So Joy had mentioned that about my sister to the investigator, and he said, "Have your friend call me." So my sister called, and he said, "Is your mother Norma French?" And she said, "Yes." And he said, "Well she's on the top of our list. We were going to call you later today."
[00:23:48] Bob: The news is really, really hard to take.
[00:23:52] Ellen French House: It, it's such a unbelievable, emotional experience to go through a murder. It was hard to get it in my head. I'm like, maybe she wasn't one of them. But of course that's when I didn't know either that there were 8 other deaths, but there were 9 later. And I would talk to the investigator, and he would give me information about Chemirmir and how you know he had been in the building like so many times, and he made $90,000 in so many months, and that this was just his job. He, you know, and so he said that there were others in the building.
[00:24:31] Bob: And Diana Tannery, she learns the awful truth about her mom, Juanita Purdy's death from a different lawyer.
[00:24:41] Diana Tannery: Well I got a call from my mother's probate lawyer, which was kind of weird, and he even said, "This is my first, I don't know how to tell you, but I've had a lawyer reach out to me and they think that your mother was, was murdered." And I was like, I knew it, I knew something was up. And they said they wanted to know if they could talk to me. I said, yes, they can talk to me. And so I contacted the lawyer and then found out that there's several people that were killed there, there was more people.
[00:25:12] Bob: As time goes by, the list of victims keeps growing. Chemirmir is indicted for 11 murder in May 2019. A June lawsuit alleges there's even more victims at Tradition Prestonwood. There's more lawsuits, then more indictments, and as the prosecution continues to build its case, the victims start to find each other.
[00:25:34] MJ Jennings: Well, it's a puzzle. It, it was a puzzle piece. The first thing you do is find, you see this victim list, and I see all these people. You start googling, I mean I would be up until 2 or 3 in the morning googling all these victims, and I'm like, ooh, ooh, there's, and I'm sure my attorney told me there were 8 victims in 3½ months at Tradition Prestonwood, and then a couple of us, we'd just become detective mode where we're trying to reach out to other victims and I, I think I reached out to Shannon Gleason because she had written a Yelp review that said, "It's beautiful except, you know, unless you want to get murdered." And so I, I found her, and, and then I found Ellen French House, and then pretty soon we're all meeting and it's, it's just so surreal. It's, it's like he murdered how many there? How many there? And how many there?
[00:26:25] Bob: How many? The victim families keep working the case.
[00:26:29] Ellen French House: So then I started investigating myself. Googling, doing whatever I could do. And I had this little law website that I can get on, and a lawsuit popped up. Doris Gleason. And I just looked at it and I thought, oh my gosh, there's another one. And so I googled, I placed, I looked up her daughter's Facebook and just to see what she looked like, and then I looked at my little white pages premium, and I got her phone number, and I called her, and I left a message. And then she called me back, and when I left a message, I just said, "Hi, this is Ellen French House, and my mom was Norma French. She lived at the same place that your mother did. And I think we may have the same circumstances."
[00:27:18] Bob: But by this point you were all finding each other.
[00:27:20] Ellen French House: Uh-hmm. God, because it has been just so much help to actually have someone to talk to that has been through the exact same thing.
[00:27:36] Bob: Ultimately, Chemirmir is indicted for 22 counts of murder and 2 additional counts of attempted murder. There are the usual legal delays, and COVID slows down the wheels of justice too. So to ensure he gets to prison as soon as possible, prosecutors decide to bring a case forward for 1 count, the death of Lu Thi Harris. Chemirmir's defense says all the evidence that he's the murderer is circumstantial. But when the trial opens in November 2021, more than three years after Chemirmir's initial arrest, prosecutors claim it's an open and shut case.
[00:28:17] Prosecution: Ladies and Gentlemen. This is a case about stalking, smothering, and stealing. Last Wednesday when we talked to you all, it was mentioned a couple of times that this was going to be a difficult chore on your part. I'm going to tell you right now; I don't think it's going to be that difficult. You just heard what I have to prove to you in that indictment. I have to prove that that man right there, Billy Chemirmir, caused the death of Lu Thi Harris by smothering, and then stole from her.
[00:29:47] Bob: Chemirmir is a cold killer, a sociopath, the prosecutor argues. That's obvious from the way he talks with investigators after his arrest.
[00:28:57] Prosecution: Did he even ask who died? Did he even want to know the name of the person who died so that he could say, wait, is it my neighbor? Is it someone I've come into contact with? He just says, "No, I've never been anywhere." Never been at Preston Place, never been near Lu Harris's home on Warm Breeze. He didn't even think to ask who had died. Wouldn't that be normal to say, wait, you're charging me with murder of who? That's what a sociopath is. Who is so easily able to separate what he's done from himself that that never even comes into his mind.
[00:29:43] Bob: The prosecution calls dozens of witnesses, including medical examiners who testify that Harris was smothered. And there's evidence presented from another unattended death, the death of Mary Brooks who was found in her condominium only a few weeks before Harris. Chemirmir stalked her at a nearby Walmart and then followed her to her home the same way he stalked Lu Thi Harris. A witness testified that cellphone records place Chemirmir at the site of the murder.
[00:30:13] Prosecution: The jury's heard evidence that Mary Brooks, who was last seen alive at Walmart on January 30th at 11:51, was found dead with her groceries still out and a ring missing that was later linked to Billy Chemirmir's Offer Up account. What can you tell us about the defendant's cellphone records in regards to 10 minutes after leaving that Walmart?
[00:30:37] Witness: It's the cell data is consistent with the cellphone being in the area of the victim's residence.
[00:30:44] Bob: The jurors also hear from Medical Examiner Dr. Jeffrey Barnard. Mary Brooks's death was not investigated, an autopsy not performed. Well that's common when there's an unattended death involving an older person, he says. Why?
[00:31:00] Dr. Jeffrey Barnard: Well we have somewhere around 9,000 or more cases that we don't bring in because otherwise we would end up with like 15,000 cases coming in the office, that's untenable. No office can handle that, so you have to make decisions based on those cases, the findings, and the medical history of which cases uh rise to the level that they need to come in to be examined.
[00:31:22] Prosecution: So the scene, as it was left that night, left the police, experienced police officers to believe nothing, there was no foul play, and therefore, you all had to treat it the way you would a normal situation where an elderly individual had passed away.
[00:31:36] Dr. Jeffrey Barnard: That's correct.
[00:31:39] Bob: Chemirmir hunted his victims including Mary Bartel who regained consciousness after an attempted murder and gave police a description of Chemirmir simply so he could sell their precious possessions for cash, the jury is told. Lu Thi Harris's jewelry would have been sold too if Chemirmir hadn't been arrested. He'd made a lot of money recently selling jewelry.
[00:32:01] Prosecution: We know that just like with Mary Brooks and Mary Bartel, if the policy had not caught him discarding this jewelry and throwing stuff out at the dumpster, he would have been right back at Dallas and Gold Exchange just like he was in their two cases. Seemed like a lot of money right over time, $91,000 in transactions. That's the kind of money you could make if you don't have a job and all day you're just out hunting, hunting, hunting for someone to take advantage of.
[00:32:36] Bob: Billy Chemirmir was an experienced home healthcare aide. We know from Scott McPhee that he had at least the basic skills to do the job. So he knew how to make the crimes look innocent, look like natural deaths. He told his victims to lay down on their beds, so that's often where they'd be found. And worse, he knew how to use ageism to his advantage.
[00:32:59] Prosecution: That path and that pattern has shown that every time he finds a victim, he finds someone that if someone finds her dead, they're just going to think, well she was 87. Things like that happen. Maybe she fell. Maybe her heart gave out. But then, it's just like clockwork for him. Attack the person, kill the person, immediately he'll try to turn that over for a little bit of money.
[00:33:27] Bob: The prosecution rests its case, and asks the jury to return a verdict that will put Billy Chemirmir in prison for the rest of his life.
[00:33:35] Prosecution: You know now that to him, the women who are matriarchs, who are grandmothers, who are focal points of a family, to him are just walking dollar signs. And that the jewelry that they wear that represents love and life and memories, to him, it's just a way to get some quick cash. So think about when you're deliberating how in the world is this a coincidence when you have three different women who don't know each other, who don't know him, that Ms. Bartel ends up attacked and left for dead, but thank God, she lived. Ms. Brooks killed in her home and Ms. Harris killed in her home. And the only really common factor among all three is that every time they're at Walmart, he's there and that he's outside their house. And that their property ends up sold or about to be sold. His greed was more important to him than the life of Lu Harris. That's what the evidence has shown over these past few days. The judge read the charge to you, and all of it goes towards to what is alleged in the indictment that the defendant took the life of Lu Harris during the course of robbery and/or burglary. You're not going to read that court's charge and see the name Mary Bartel or Mary Sue Brooks. But the law allows us to put on that evidence, and it was important for you to hear what happened to those two women. Why was it important? It's important because it shows that this isn't just a coincidence. If you just have the Lu Harris case, you might be tempted to say, well maybe he just had her stuff, and that she died, or someone killed her, and that he just happened to have her property with him. But because you have the cases of Mary Bartel and Mary Sue Brooks to go along with it, you know now that when they were shopping at Walmart, when they were running their errands, he was in his hunting grounds. You know now because you've heard of all three women and their situations that he picks out women he thinks are too weak to resist.
[00:35:48] Bob: The jury deliberates for an afternoon, then into an evening. It's a torturous time for the families.
[00:35:56] Ellen French House: It was surreal. I mean the evidence was the case, the prosecutor, they all did such a fabulous job. The defense didn't ask a lot of questions, they didn't, it was just we really thought it was a done deal. So when the jury was deliberating, and then when they sent us home to come back the next day, he's like, "I don't feel good about this." And I said, "I don't either."
[00:36:29] Bob: There's one note, then another, and another from the jury to the judge. The jury can't reach a unanimous verdict. The judge implores them to keep trying, but by midday the result is in.
[00:36:42] Newscast: A Dallas County Judge declared a mistrial in the first capital murder case against accused serial killer Billy Chemirmir. The jury deadlocked 11-1 and said it could not reach a unanimous decision despite repeated urging from the judge. Fox 4's Alex Boyer is at the Crowley Court House in Dallas. Alex.
[00:37:02] Reporter: Yeah, Blake, a pretty incredible turn of events here today. Now it all came down to one juror who could not be swayed. About 45 minutes into deliberations this morning, the foreman sent a note to the judge indicating one juror would not be deviating from their vote. The judge ordered them to keep deliberating. A short time later the judge received another note saying they remained deadlocked 11-1.
[00:37:29] Scott McPhee: Um, shocking. Just sitting dispassionately listening to the evidence, looking at the evidence, listening to stories, you go, there's no way this guy is, is not guilty. And, and that you had one juror who's like, no, I don't believe it. I mean none of us could, I mean it was, it was one of the most shocking moments of my life, honestly. You know, it was up there with finding your mother dead and finding out she was murdered, that there's somebody who could listen to all that and go, no, I don't think so. Unbelievable. I still can't get over it.
[00:38:02] Loren Adair: We were stunned and again, horrified that it uh you know, that it was a mistrial because it was so clear, the evidence was so, so strong and clear that he had done this, and it was just one juror that held out, and so we couldn't believe it. And we, you know, we just, could not believe that he was not convicted. And that then there was going to, you know, this was going to start all over again and have another trial in a few months. So...
[00:38:38] Bob: And so you had to just go through the entire experience all over again.
[00:38:42] Loren Adair: All over again.
[00:38:43] Diana Tannery: And just, and then when they came in and first trial and that one lady was the one that screwed it all up, and there was a mistrial because one person you know, decided that he, you know, she wasn't sure or whatever. But oh my God, it was the biggest let down and we all cried, and we all became like a big family, all of the family members that were there. And I mean it was devastating. It was like I was for sure; I mean he would have been found guilty, and then we had to go through it again.
[00:39:19] Bob: The prosecution announces it will move for a retrial as soon as possible. Still, it will take five months. Chemirmir remains in jail. What happens to Chemirmir at the next trial? Will anyone else have to pay for the crimes of Billy Chemirmir? Will the families ever get justice? That's next week in the conclusion of our 4-part series, Fatal Ageism.
[00:39:50] Bob: If you have been targeted by a scam or fraud, you are not alone. Call the AARP Fraud Watch Network Helpline at 877-908-3360. Their trained fraud specialists can provide you with free support and guidance on what to do next. For this Special Report, we want to thank AARP the Magazine’s Vice President & Editor in Chief Bob Love, Executive Editor Bill Horne, Investigative Journalist Lise Olsen and researcher/fact checker Annette Deinzer. Thanks to our team of scambusters; Associate Producer, Annalea Embree; Researcher, Sarah Binney; Executive Producer, Julie Getz; and our Audio Engineer and Sound Designer Julio Gonzalez. Be sure to find us on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts. For AARP's The Perfect Scam, I'm Bob Sullivan.
END OF TRANSCRIPT
A Special Report on the Texas Elder Murders: The Conviction, Part 4
Five months after a hung jury, Chemirmir is again brought to trial. This time a conviction brings a much-needed feeling of justice. But family members brought together by this tragedy won’t stop until they’ve made a difference by helping protect all seniors. In Part 4, the last in our series, AARP’s Tina Tran shares how ageism and missed opportunities on the part of institutions and law enforcement allowed Chemirmir to go undetected, and she offers tips on how we can best protect our loved ones.
[00:00:01] Loren Adair: We have said so many times, if we'd only known, if we'd only known, if we'd only known. Then countless lives could have been saved.
[00:00:11] Bob: Do you really think ageism played a role in the death of your mother and the death of all these other folks?
[00:00:16] Scott MacPhee: I do. I really do believe that. I believe, I mean here, had it been 20 college people, younger folks, it would have been all over the news, but because these were elderly people, the, the police departments didn't really follow through. I think they; they took a few things for granted. The, the press basically hasn't been as interested in, and it amazes me even here in Dallas, the number of people that I run into, that I work with, that I know, who have never even heard this story. Have no idea. So yeah, I think ageism is a big problem and a big part of it on many fronts.
[00:00:57] Trey Crawford: They were in the unique position of knowing all of these deaths and reported thefts when law enforcement didn't, and you know, and profit and greed are a dangerous thing, and instead of disclosing what they knew to the families of victims and law enforcement which would lead them to believe, okay, we have a big problem here. They steered the investigation into something else.
[00:01:26] Bob: Welcome back to The Perfect Scam. I'm your host, Bob Sullivan. And this is the conclusion of our 4-part series, Fatal Ageism. When we left our story, Billy Chemirmir had been formally accused of 22 murders, mostly in senior living facilities, but the first attempt to convict him for one of the murders ends in a shocking hung jury. It takes months for the retrial to begin. During that time, the horror for the families really starts to set in.
[00:01:58] That year was first of all, all I could do is sit there and say I'm sorry to my Mom. I have a picture in my game room, and she sits there and watches whatever I'm watching. I bet I screamed "I'm so sorry," for a year to my mom's picture, because it was my job to take care of her. And uh, I felt responsible.
[00:02:19] Bob: Trey Crawford is a lawyer representing the families.
[00:02:22] Trey Crawford: You're forced to relive that, and I can tell you from most of their perspectives, there's not a day that goes by they don't think about it, and wondering, it's just, you know, your loved ones' last memory on earth is living a horrific death.
[00:02:38] Bob: Finally, five months later, in April of 2022, the families all head back to court as Dallas County tries again to convict Billy Chemirmir for the murder of Lu Thi Harris found dead in her home back in March 2018.
[00:02:55] Newscast: You hear video played in court today showed Chemirmir in a Walmart as the same time as 81-year-old Lu Harris on the day of her murder, and hours after, police say he had Harris's house keys and jewelry. Fox 4's Alex Boyer has more from the courthouse live. Alex.
[00:03:08] Alex Boyer: Hi guys, that's right, and today, of course, the prosecution focused a lot of its attention on that surveillance video because it does just that. It points the two of them in the same location at the same time the day of the murder. Now what's interesting is this time around it appears that the prosecution is not going to show uh the jury Chemirmir's taped interview with police.
[00:03:32] Bob: Watching the trial again, all the evidence presented again, it's just so much for the victims to take. For Ellen French, it's been a long road. Remember, her mom died, was murdered, in October 2016. It's been nearly 6 years, but with each new event, the morning restarts.
[00:03:54] Ellen French House: It just seems like it was yesterday for all of us. It's very strange.
[00:03:59] Bob: Well the clock restarts every time something happens, right?
[00:04:01] Ellen French House: Mm-hmm, the clock restarts and you've got to start going down that path again.
[00:04:07] Bob: While Chemirmir is on trial for the murder of Lu Thi Harris, prosecutors introduce evidence from other violent attacks. The families once again listen to Mary Bartel, who survived a murder attempt, describe what it was like when Billy Chemirmir covered her face with a pillow. Mary is the star witness, even though she died three years after the attack back in 2020 before the trial. She comes to life for the jurors through her recorded deposition.
Mary Bartel Deposition:
[00:04:39] Investigator: Mrs. Bartel, is that a closeup of your face?
[00:04:42] Mary Bartel: Yes, it shows how my nose was all smashed, and how um, on my right cheek um, you know, the effects of having all that pressure on there.
[00:05:01] Bob: The prosecution lays out its case, reminding the jury about the attack. Mary Bartel was revived after she passed out and was able to describe Chemirmir to police. And right at that moment, while she is describing him, he's trying to sell her jewelry.
[00:05:18] Prosecution: We know one thing for certain. We know that she got a pillow put over her face. That thing of comfort which you put your head on and rest to go to sleep and hopefully have some good dreams? Uh-uh. Thank God she had a pacemaker. That's the only reason this man was able to sit down and do a deposition of her and find out what happened.
[00:05:40] Prosecution: What we know is that while she is at the hospital, while she is being tended to, while her son is, sons are there with her, Billy Chemirmir is over posting her ring, and it's not just any old ring. It's the ring that has been on her right hand for 50 years, given to her by her husband.
[00:06:06] Prosecution: Where's her stuff? Her stuff is where everybody else's stuff is. The things that we treasure, we spend our money on, that we get as gifts that are mementos to us, that those are the things that we count on to be a part of ourselves, that we love and respect and our husbands and wives and relatives, that we buy ourselves that create our identity, they all somehow kinda wind up right over here. And that's the commonality in these cases.
[00:06:44] Bob: Scott MacPhee found his mom, Carolyn MacPhee, dead in her home on New Year's Eve 2017. Initially ruled a natural death, police reopened her case after Chemirmir's arrest, and reexamined the evidence, including blood found on her glasses. It took a year, but DNA tests eventually show the blood is Chemirmir's. Listening to the testimony makes his mom's last moments all the more real for Scott.
[00:07:12] Scott MacPhee: As hard as it was to live through, you start to realize what she actually went through, but it also makes you proud of her, because you realize he was bleeding, right. So whatever happened, she, she made him pay for it, right, he was bleeding by the time he was done. Um, so I'm proud of her for that.
[00:07:31] Bob: The defense once again argues that the case against Billy Chemirmir is based only on circumstantial evidence that there's no direct proof he killed Lu Thi Harris. But prosecutors say there are overwhelming signs that Chemirmir is guilty. He stalks her at a nearby Walmart. There's video of that. He's sold stolen jewelry. Cellphone location data puts him at the site of the attacks. Prosecutors rest their case for the second time.
[00:08:00] Prosecution: Okay, all this stuff is actually not stuff, it's evidence. It's evidence of the guilt of Billy Chemirmir in the death of Lu Thi Harris. That's what this is. Plain and simple. This is an easy decision. Mainly because we bit so much off. You are instructed to go back, to deliberate, and to render a just verdict, and when that verdict is a verdict of guilty, it will be loud, it will be proud, it will be justice, and it'll be nothing and no amount of surprise to this man right here, and it'll be what he deserves. Please bring back a speedy verdict so that we could put an end to this.
[00:08:57] Bob: Naturally, the families are nervous. Last time a single juror forced a hung jury, a mistrial, but this time, the jury comes back in just 40 minutes.
[00:09:08] Judge: Have the jury reached a verdict.
[00:09:10] Jury Foreman: We have.
[00:09:11] Judge: And what is the verdict of the jury?
[00:09:14] Jury Foreman: Guilty of Capital Murder.
[00:09:17] Judge: Okay, thank you. You may be seated.
[00:09:19] Diana Tannery: And then the second time when he was guilty, oh my gosh, you talk about joy, I mean it was like, we wanted to scream, but we were told we couldn't scream, we couldn't scream in the courtroom, and so coming out, I mean it was just, I probably squeezed the heck out of my husband's fingers when they were doing the verdict.
[00:09:38] Loren Adair: Oh, (laugh) we all, uh, we all shouted with, with glee, you know, to, that finally justice you know, finally that after all those years, that there was some justice out of this. And that mainly, you know, just that he can never hurt anybody again.
[00:10:01] Scott MacPhee: Wow, that was just almost, it was almost a relief and justification in, in many ways, because you knew the first group got it wrong. As hard as they tried, right, and, and hey, look, and I respect the fact that, you know, in, in our jury system, this is, you know, you've got to stick by what your belief system is. I don't, I don't understand how that first juror, that juror in the first jury could have come to the conclusion that she did, but it doesn't mean that I don't respect it. But coming back in and doing it again and realizing how quickly those 12 people got it right, was very satisfying, right, because now it's like, okay, the truth, the truth is being seen, accountability is, is where it needs to be, and justice at least on earth is being done, right.
[00:10:54] Bob: Chemirmir is taken to prison. He's sentenced to life without parole, but that's hardly the end of the legal battles around the murders. He is tried again in October 2022 for a second murder, the killing of Mary Brooks, basically to ensure he will serve the rest of his days behind bars. He's convicted a second time, sentenced to a second life term. That conviction means the end of the road for Ellen House French. The end of those sad flights from Indiana to Dallas to sit in a cold courtroom. In some ways, that fills her with mixed feelings.
[00:11:30] Ellen French House: We'd go to the trials, we'd fly into the trials, it would wipe us out emotionally, you come back and are like, oh my gosh, I'm so tired. I had no idea how I was going to feel when I got home. I got on that airplane, and I cried the whole way home, because I felt like it was over. But I'm not ready for it to be over, if that makes sense. It's over, it's over for my mom, it was hard to leave Dallas, and it's been hard to come into Dallas. Because I always came to see my mom, and she was always there for me.
[00:12:01] Bob: Soon after that second conviction, the other murder cases against Chemirmir are dismissed. It's a standard legal procedure, but one that still stings.
[00:12:11] Ellen French House: It's just so interesting that I, I, something that would give me peace, which is not going to happen, which is something that everyone's going to say, is that with our mothers being dismissed, their cases, so I got my mom's dismissal two days ago, I believe, three days ago. The Dallas County Office sent me an official form. There's a number on there, her name is not even mentioned. It is a number, it's her case number. And I couldn't help but look at that and go, are you kidding me? She's just a number. That's all she is. An older person with a number that died. And that's just so hard to comprehend that she's not going to have her own trial. I would have loved to have seen the day my mom have her day in court so that he could be convicted. And I'm glad that we at least got the indictment.
[00:13:17] Bob: Lawyer Trey Crawford explains the frustration that other families feel.
[00:13:21] Trey Crawford: The families of these victims continue to suffer. And I, and I guess, you know, to make it specific, I think knowing that for some of them they're not really going to get the justice they deserve, and it's just hard.
[00:13:38] Bob: It's more than emotionally disturbing because there is concern that Chemirmir killed more victims who will never be uncovered.
[00:13:45] Ellen French House: he'd been stealing for a long time at these homes that he would go into. And I know several people that did not come forward. Because they were residents, didn't want to say or come public that their mom was murdered by someone that was hired into their own home.
[00:14:05] Bob: But Scott is philosophical about the end of the road, about the dismissal of his mom's case.
[00:14:11] Scott MacPhee: Maybe I'm too logical about some of these things, but I feel like what he did to all of these women was, was a horrible thing, right, and that, that what, what our justice system has done to the best of its ability is held him accountable for all of those by holding him directly accountable for two of those. And as long as this man spends the rest of his life behind bars without any possibility to get out, I'm comfortable that he won't ever get to do it again. He'll never have the opportunity to do it again, but going and getting a conviction for Billy Chemirmir for my mother's death isn't going to bring her back. It's not going to put him in jail any longer. It's not going to change the outcome. So I'm okay with it. I think the justice system has worked to the best of its ability, it's messy, but I, I'm, I'm comfortable that it's done what it needs to do.
[00:15:12] Bob: Even after the second conviction, there's still one more bit of unfinished legal business, the victim impact statements. Families have a chance to stand in court to look Chemirmir in the eye and for a few moments, describe the impact he had on their lives. Many hold life-size photos of their parents as they speak. MJ Jennings talks directly to Chemirmir, tries to get him to react.
[00:15:39] MJ Jennings (victim impact statement): Do you recognize this picture? This is my Mom, Leah Corken. You took her from me and my husband, my brother Matt, my sister, Lisa, her grandchildren and great grandchildren. What you saw when you looked at this woman that day, was a quick way to make money. You devalued my innocent mom to dollar signs and preyed on her.
[00:16:03] Bob: Talking to Chemirmir was an experience the victims can't stop thinking about, in part because of what didn't happen.
[00:16:11] Diana Tannery: He would just look at you. He didn't change expression. It was like, he didn't hear it. It was like he had some kind of earplugs in.
[00:16:19] Bob: Courtroom images show Chemirmir looking right at the victims as they speak.
[00:16:24] Ellen French House: His eyes were so dark and almost yellow. But when I held up a picture of her deceased, he definitely looked at it, I saw his eyes switch to that, and then I also saw the defense attorney kind of peak around from his computer and look at it. But yeah, every time I looked at him, he was looking at me, but just no expression, no, nothing.
[00:16:51] Bob: MJ uses her time not just to unload emotionally on Chemirmir, she has a plan. She's trying to help the other victims. She still thinks that they need to hear from him, from the killer what really happened. Remember, Chemirmir still maintains his innocence, and no one really knows how many victims there might be. So, she tries to goad him into confessing.
[00:17:17] MJ Jennings (victim impact statement): You speak as if you are a man of God. If this is true, then you will have to ask for forgiveness for what you have done, and only God can judge you, but I will ask you to confess to me and the other victims' families. Don't be a coward in the eyes of God. Ask for forgiveness and confess to your sins.
[00:17:38] Bob: Whatever relief the victim impact statements may have offered; it's fleeting the victims all tell me. There's always one more legal document, one more insurance issue, there's ongoing civil litigation, and each one of these things makes them revisit the pain.
[00:17:53] Ellen French House: It's like having a band-aid, you know, taking off over and over again, and it's just, you couldn't get over it if you could get over it if that makes sense. Um...
[00:18:11] Bob: But each one of these things you're describing to me is another thing to, to get over, so...
[00:18:12] Ellen French House: Yeah, yeah.
[00:18:13] Bob: I'm so sorry. Including this interview. I hope it's as painless as I can make it, but I know I'm sure going over this story every time is painful. So I apologize for that.
[00:18:24] Ellen French House: Oh, Bob, it's okay. I, I want to, I really want this story to be out there. It, up here in Indianapolis, or when we're in Florida, or when we're in South Carolina, it, no one knows this story. And you know, I'll be getting my hair done or something, or working on something, and she said, "What are you doing?" "Well, my mom was murdered." She's like, "What?" No one knows the story. I mean in Dallas there's a lot of people that don't know the story, and it can happen anywhere.
[00:18:59] Bob: To a person every one of these victims told me they're shocked that so many people have never heard of Billy Chemirmir. Never heard about the string of elderly murders miscast as unattended deaths of natural causes. And they have lots of opinions about why that is.
[00:19:17] Loren Adair: We have said that if this had been a bunch of people in their 20s, or yeah, but I, we feel like that because it's the elderly, oh, it's just not the story that, that the media has picked up on like we, like we thought they would. So we're very, we're very thankful to you for picking this up and helping get the word out.
[00:19:41] Ellen French House: My mom was 85 years young. She was walking, talking, driving, drinking, cooking, shopping. Totally healthy. And sharp as a tack. And a lot of these other women were too. And you know, people like to say, oh, nursing home. Oh assisted-living. No, these were places that they chose to live because they were nice and they were safe, and they wanted to have all the amenities in one place.
[00:20:11] MJ Jennings: I'm just going to be honest with you. Nobody cares about elders, it's not a big enough story.
[00:20:18] Bob: And meanwhile we can only presume that there are families, probably many families who don't know the truth about why their loved one died.
[00:20:25] MJ Jennings: Well, you know, maybe there's, there's families who uh didn't realize the jewelry was missing, 'cause they are, weren't as close with their family member. You know he disappeared in 2017. You just don't stop murdering, so I know the police know where he went. I mean I, many times just screaming at them, saying you guys just stopped, and literally stopped researching. I know that they took detectives off the case to quit looking for more victims. They, personally, I, nobody wants to be known as the host for the biggest serial killer in history for the United States. Dallas doesn't want to be known for that. Um, I know there's, I mean he might have moved somewhere else in 2017, but he was in Plano in 2012 and 2013. People were taking off the case. I'm so angry with our, our system that's failed us.
[00:21:19] Bob: The Billy Chemirmir story, it's about a single man, an evil monster who wrecked dozens, really hundreds of lives. But that's not the whole story. It's also a story of missed opportunities. If only, if only, if only, if only police hadn't been so quick to dismiss reports of theft as old people misplacing items. If only every unattended death were properly investigated. If only these independent living communities had shared more information, had followed up, had connected the dots, had tighter security. If only older people were treated as important. Yes, Billy Chemirmir killed the victims, but ageism was, in some ways, the murder weapon. Billy had worked with older people. He knew how to smother them, so their deaths looked natural. But more important, he knew their deaths would likely be overlooked. In the prosecutor's words, "He finds someone that if someone finds they're dead they're going to think, well she was 87. Things like that happen." Let me be completely clear: Most, if not all of these deaths didn't have to happen. This isn't some Monday morning second guessing. When a plane crashes, scores of FAA investigators descend on the scene to learn what went wrong, to unearth all the mistakes and make sure they never happen again. And basically a planeload of healthy, older Americans were murdered by Billy Chemirmir. The investigation into this disaster needs to be complete. It can't happen again. We should listen very closely to the families of these victims to find out what we need to learn from their nightmare.
[00:23:09] Loren Adair: We're seeing now that unattended deaths should be investigated. And especially if there's anything missing. That's one of the things that we'd like to educate people on too is just because someone is old and passes away and they're, and it's, and it's unattended, that it needs to be checked on, needs to be looked into.
[00:23:30] Bob: Scott wants law enforcement agencies to receive training in elderly issues.
[00:23:34] Scott MacPhee: I felt like those detectives, in hindsight, right, those detectives were, were trying to just get done because the reality is they're going, it's an 82-year-old woman, old women die all the time. They explained it away and, and moved on. And had they had a little more of that intellectual curiosity, maybe gone, why is there blood here? She had a recent clean bill of health from her doctor. Had they just gone one more step and actually done a deeper investigation, other people may have still been alive.
[00:24:08] Bob: It's so frustrating to think that because frankly the elderly are often overlooked that precisely why this went on for so long.
[00:24:17] Scott MacPhee: And I, I believe in my heart that the ones that the, the women that we know about that he killed are the tip of the iceberg. Ah, I believe this man made a living killing elderly people and stealing their jewelry at 3 to 5 thousand dollars a pop, and he did it for years. And, and, and if you really talk to the police department and the detectives, they believe it as well. It's just really hard, he was really good at covering it up. And no one paid attention.
[00:24:49] Bob: Meanwhile, lawyer Trey Crawford thinks the independent living institutions didn't do enough.
[00:24:55] Trey Crawford: There's two sides of this equation. You know, there's the criminal side and you know, Chemirmir's going to get what he deserves. He's going to be in prison for the rest of his life. But the, the communities that, you know, opened the door and let him in essentially, uh, that's got to change, and so, you know, that's the part that we're working on is to, is to effectuate change in the independent living communities. He was originally arrested for trespassing at Edgemere, and you know had an alias, he, none of his story made sense, and within a few days of his release had murdered one of our clients, Joyce Abramowitz, who had had her safe stolen a couple of months prior and it was reported, so can, you can legitimately say that none of this should have happened.
[00:24:45] Bob: Some families have settled civil litigation with the institutions involved. You can read more of the legal details at the companion to this podcast, and excellent story written by Lise Olsen for AARP - The Magazine. For its part, Tradition Prestonwood didn't respond to AARP's request for comment. It had previously told other media outlets that it had cooperated with police and quote "relied on the investigation at the Dallas Police. The deaths in people's homes and at multiple senior living communities is a true tragedy." Preston Place was sold to new owners after the murders. They did not respond to a request for comment. They previously told the Dallas TV station, quote "It is important to remember that Billy Chemirmir is the person law enforcement agencies believe is responsible for these horrible crimes." Edgemere filed for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy Protection in April 2022 citing $112 million in debt unrelated to the murders. AARP is actively working to make senior living communities more safe and trying to hold more people accountable for Chemirmir's string of murders. Tina Tran is the Texas State Director of AARP.
[00:27:00] Tina Tran: The murderer in this case really exploited a bias that made him I think maybe one of the most prolific serial killers in Texas history, and yet, if you were to mention his name on the street now, no one would know it. Very few people would know it.
[00:27:19] Bob: Do you remember where you were the first time you heard his name?
[00:27:23] Tina Tran: You know, I do. I remember it was actually one of my volunteers brought the, the story to my attention.
[00:27:31] Bob: And, and what was your first thought?
[00:27:32] Tina Tran: I think my first thought was just terror. It was, it was scary.
[00:27:39] Bob: Tran is convinced ageism is at the core of the story.
[00:27:43] Tina Tran: And in this case, what we saw were varied reports of family members saying that that's, how strange that was and how inconsistent that was with the victims' lives that these certain pieces of valuable jewelry would be missing. And yet still, they were written off as well, you know, older people are forgetful, and they may, and they misplace things. And yet the people who know them best are saying quite the opposite.
[00:28:10] Bob: It's that writing them off there that just makes you, I mean we've all had that experience in life, right. You know something's wrong and your, your, your doctor or your spouse, somebody ignores you and then, and then later it turns out you were right. But what if, if being ignored like that leads to, you know, an ongoing murder spree, I cannot imagine the frustration that must feel like.
[00:28:31] Tina Tran: Yeah, and then to find out later that your fears were confirmed. That your suspicions were right in the first place, is really heart-wrenching that something that could have been done and yet it wasn't.
[00:28:47] Bob: The trial highlighted something that probably surprises most listeners. Medical examiners often don't investigate the deaths of older people, even if they die alone. There's just too many deaths to investigate.
[00:29:01] Tina Tran: When someone says they're too busy to actually to do their job, well that's a huge indicator of a much larger problem.
[00:29:09] Bob: Another structural issue that Tran thinks was exposed by the murder spree, senior communities, independent living facilities, assisted-living communities don't have a lot of oversight.
[00:29:20] Tina Tran: A lot of these places often do suffer from low staffing, suffer from less regulation, and that is something that we saw a lot of uh during the pandemic. You know, their, the quality of these um, senior living facilities really did suffer because of the high turnover rates, and it's a hard job.
[00:29:43] Bob: And, and they're also, they're a pretty big business, right?
[00:29:46] Tina Tran: They are a big business. That's right. Quite pricey for family members and the residents who occupy them, that's right.
[00:29:54] Bob: The ageism identified in this murder spree is dramatic, but it's not unique, Tran believes.
[00:30:01] Tina Tran: It's very frustrating and you know, honestly, Bob, we see it every day in nursing homes. We see it as, as people, older people are, are isolated in their homes. We see it when people, and there's a big natural disaster. The people who perish, the people who are, are, who are left out, without a home are older. Like this age bias and is, is really prolific. We saw it certainly during the pandemic when you know, the ma--, many messages that we heard were, well, you know, the people who are dying are older, as if it were, as if it were just acceptable.
[00:30:41] Bob: What is AARP doing about this kind of systemic ageism?
[00:30:45] Tina Tran: One of the things that I think it's really important for people to know, and you know, AARP, as the largest advocacy organization in the country, we're charged with looking out for people who are older. And I hear over and over from people, you know, that, that it can feel a little um, it's almost a, it's almost funny, right, when people get that, that, the red card, and they don't, and they don't want to admit that they're getting older. The fact of the matter is getting older is a blessing, that you get to live so long, that you get to, you know, continue to experience life, and we're charged with looking after people, 'cause it is true, as you get older, you become a little bit more vulnerable to certain things like illnesses and disabilities and so that's why AARP exists. It is just really incumbent upon people, not only for our parents but for our grandparents, but for ourselves to be advocates for older people to con--, to make sure that when we live our lives that we value people who are older, because at some point we'll all, hopefully, if we're lucky, we'll be in that position.
[00:32:03] Bob: And what can families do to protect their loved ones?
[00:32:06] Tina Tran: If you are a resident in one of these facilities, you know, being a self-advocate an, an advocate for your neighbors is incredibly important. If you have a family member or a loved one in one of these facilities, you have to try to be their eyes and ears. And honestly, if you're an administrator in these facilities or a law enforcement, it is incumbent upon these people to, to do their jobs, to make sure that you know these places are safe, that they're good living spaces for their residents, and to give voice when these issues occur of making sure that if something is out of place or something doesn't look right, or someone doesn't look familiar, ask questions. It's a matter of life and death to not accept the status quo of looking the other way.
[00:33:04] Bob: Leah Corken, Glenna Day, Norma French, Juanita Purdy, Caroline MacPhee, Phyllis Payne, the women we've gotten to know through their children in this podcast, they weren't allowed to grow old the way they were supposed to. Their natural lives, who knows, maybe the very best time of their lives was stolen from them. For the families we talked to, they all have to live with it. But to a person, they all told me they want to make something good, something really important out of this horrible event.
[00:33:39] Loren Adair: I have to do something. We have to do something to try and improve security in these places, because obviously, they say they're secure environments, a secure and safe place for your loved one, and we believed that, and so you know, it obviously was not. And I said we, we have to, we have to make a difference here for future elders to not have the same experience, and that's when we decided to form our foundation, Secure Our Seniors' Safety.
[00:34:10] Bob: Secure Our Seniors' Safety is a nonprofit founded by families of the victims that is working with state and national agencies to create better oversight of senior communities. Ellen describes beginning the organization with Shannon Gleason, also the daughter of a Chemirmir victim.
[00:34:26] Ellen French House: Things needed to change. Had they cooperated with the police, had they given flyers to the residents that they had somebody lurking in their building? Had they taken more accountability for doors being propped open with a rock and, and rooms, the mechanical room, the camera kept going out, the cameras kept going out. And I mean we want rules set in place, we want cameras in the hallways, background checks of people that are in the building, background checks for the employees. There's just so many things that can be done to help.
[00:34:58] Bob: The group is lobbying state lawmakers too, working on specific practical legislation that would make seniors safer. They've already had some big wins. One proposal that became law this year steps up enforcement on so-called cash for gold shops, which should make it harder for criminals to sell stolen jewelry.
[00:35:17] Ellen French House: And then Marilyn's Law, which is about Marilyn Bixler whose daughter found out through Facebook Messenger, from another victim who saw Marilyn's name on a list at her attorney's office.
[00:35:34] Bob: The cause of death listed on Marilyn Bixler's death certificate had been changed to "undetermined." But her family was not notified. Instead, they found out about murder allegations six months later from a stranger on social media. Marilyn's Law requires family notification if a death certificate is changed. And more changes are coming. Scott MacPhee, whose mom was murdered in her home, wants more regulation for home healthcare aids.
[00:36:03] Scott MacPhee: The big one I want to see is more oversight for the in-home healthcare providers because there is none. Benjamin Koytaba, who went and presented himself, had an expired driver's license, didn't have the right to work in the United States with, with a 99, didn't have a C--, CPR certification, was not up to date on his immunization shots, didn't go through any sort of a background check, and was sent into my parents' home. And that's just wrong. And, and, and there needs to more oversight to ensure that these people that we're putting into people's homes to take care of our parents are, are qualified, are not, you know, don't have criminal background, are who they say they are. There is, there, there needs to be a change in, in how those, those providers are, are governed and managed and, and held accountable. Because there is, there's little to no oversight there at all. That's, that's one of the big areas that I know the S.O.S.S. team will begin looking at here soon to really start working on hopefully not just Texas legislation, but national legislation to, to put some regulation in place for these providers. That's the big one.
[00:37:24] Bob: He's also adamant that the dismissive attitude towards unattended deaths involving older people, that must end.
[00:37:32] Scott MacPhee: We need the police department to follow through on unattended deaths, even for elderly people and not just assume that because they were old, they just died. That we need to follow the evidence, and, and follow that evidence to where it leads and had the police department done that in Plano and probably in other jurisdictions, the, the Billy Chemirmir's of the world wouldn’t be able to do what they're doing, and they'd, I think Billy would have been caught a lot earlier and saved a lot of lives.
[00:38:02] Bob: Despite the pain, the anguish of their parents' deaths, these families have banded together for our good, to help protect our families, our loved ones. Trey says the courage they have shown is remarkable.
[00:38:16] Trey Crawford: I am privileged and infinitely grateful for the ability to gotten to know them and work on their cases and, and it's a serious honor. I do know that what we are doing and what they have done and the courage they have shown and tenacity and determination, they have continued to display as they pursue this cause has been inspiring beyond words. They have effectuated change in ways that we cannot quantify.
[00:38:45] Bob: What do these victims hope people take away from this story?
[00:38:49] Scott MacPhee: I think the, the people who listen to this story, right, I hope, I hope they, they leave this story first being appalled that someone could do this, right? Second, a little bit concerned for the elderly people around you and that, that they will, you know, having heard this story, they will step up and actually ask how do I, how do I avoid that happening to my parents, and then go do, go do the research to understand. And this is where I think the resources that we need to help provide visibility to need to come into play. How do I do a background check? How do I find a healthcare provider that I have confidence that, that what questions should I be asking them before they send people into my parent's house. These are the things that I think people need to start thinking about and asking themselves, but if we can just use this to sensitize people so they're asking those questions, that's a, that'll make a big step forward in keeping it from happening again.
[00:39:47] Bob: MJ thinks families should ask pretty specific questions before anyone moves in.
[00:39:53] MJ Jennings: Oh, 100%, I would like to know as I age or if I had put someone else into an independent living, to demand to see all the security. Show me the cameras, show me the person that's going to look at the videotape, show me the entrances, the exits. What sort of security measures do you have in place. Make sure that you can't erase the tapes and just copy over them. Do your research, and don't just be blown away by the luxury living amenities. Do the security research.
[00:40:27] Bob: The movie theater is one thing, but it's safety that really matters.
[00:40:31] MJ Jennings: 100%.
[00:40:33] Bob: All the families struggle still with dreams, nightmares about their moms' last moments on earth. But that's just a moment. Their full lives, the laughter, the love they made, those live on. That is their real legacy. Ellen, Scott, Loren, MJ, Sherril, Diana, I can't thank them enough for sharing their story with us, for helping us know who their moms were and still are. We wish them whatever peace they can find. We wish that for all the victim families, especially those we might not yet know about. And we wish for change, change in the way we look at our treasured elders. And we wish that the Billy Chemirmir story can finally come to a real conclusion, but that's probably up to him.
[00:41:25] Bob: Where do you think this ends?
[00:41:26] Trey Crawford: I think this ends with Chemirmir spending the rest of his life in prison. I would not be surprised if at some point he confesses to many of these murders, but I think on the civil side, you know, we have already made a tremendous amount of progress and effectuating change through holding the communities accountable.
[00:41:59] Bob: If you have been targeted by a scam or fraud, you are not alone. Call the AARP Fraud Watch Network Helpline at 877-908-3360. Their trained fraud specialists can provide you with free support and guidance on what to do next. For this Special Report, we want to thank AARP the Magazine’s Vice President & Editor in Chief Bob Love, Executive Editor Bill Horne, Investigative Journalist Lise Olsen and researcher/fact checker Annette Deinzer. Thanks to our team of scambusters; Associate Producer, Annalea Embree; Researcher, Sarah Binney; Executive Producer, Julie Getz; and our Audio Engineer and Sound Designer Julio Gonzalez. Be sure to find us on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts. For AARP's The Perfect Scam, I'm Bob Sullivan.
END OF TRANSCRIPT
Read AARP The Magazine's Special Report: Unnatural Causes: The Case of the Texas Serial Elder Murders.
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