Editor’s note: On September 19, 2023, Texas officials announced that convicted murderer Billy Chemirmir, 50, had been found dead in his cell at a Texas prison. His cellmate has been identified as the alleged assailant. Chemirmir, who was suspected of killing two dozen older women in the Dallas area, had been serving two life sentences without parole after being convicted of a pair of slayings last year. This is the story of those murders:
Lu Thi Harris liked to dress up when she went out, even for a Walmart shopping run. On March 20, 2018, Harris freshened her bright pink lipstick, then slipped on a gold and jade necklace, along with a few other favorite pieces of jewelry. The slim Vietnamese American widow — “Kim” to her friends and family — had moved to a house on Warm Breeze Lane in Dallas with her husband, Bill, in 2003 and stayed on after his death a few years later.
A spry 81, Harris was known as fun and friendly. She gave away $2 bills as good luck gifts so often that she ordered them from the bank in bundles, her son-in-law recalled. “She was just a hoot to be around,” he said.
On that day in 2018, Harris didn’t seem to notice the bald, clean-shaven male shopper, wearing neatly pressed slacks and a collared shirt, standing in an adjacent checkout line at Walmart. The man blended into the background like a security guard, probably because he’d worked as one. He exited the parking lot first and drove away in a gray sedan, security footage showed. Harris went home. A few hours later, police following a tip arrived and discovered her lifeless body on the bed.
It looked at first as if Harris had passed away peacefully in her sleep. The front door had been locked, and her cozy home was intact, stuffed with her late husband’s vast collection of model airplanes.
But gone were her own prized possessions: her collection of lucky $2 bills, her gold necklace with its jade pendant, her rings — and her oversize red jewelry box, with drawers full of jade, gold and other treasures, including papers that showed her journey from a restaurant owner and mother in Vietnam to a U.S. military veteran’s wife in Texas.
Her house keys had disappeared, too.
The clue to foul play was discovered on the underside of a pillow: a smudge of Harris’ magenta lipstick on the polka-dotted case. Later, a Dallas County pathologist found patterns of tiny red dots on her skin known as petechiae and other subtle signs around her eyes and throat that he determined to be indications she was asphyxiated. The most likely murder weapon: her pillow.
A homicide investigation began immediately.
Within days, high-ranking law enforcement leaders in the Dallas area, including the district attorneys of Dallas and Collin counties, gathered for an unusual news conference and made a shocking announcement: It appeared that Lu Thi Harris was not the only older widow to be stalked and smothered for her jewelry, but just one of many.
With TV cameras rolling, officials admitted that a serial killer had been stalking older Dallas and Plano women for at least two years in a previously undetected crime spree that could include hundreds of cases. Detectives in Dallas, the sprawling suburb of Plano and the smaller cities of Richardson and Frisco had begun reviewing older Texans’ deaths connected to jewelry thefts, to determine whether those deaths — all deemed “natural” at the time — were in fact homicides.
The Dallas Police Department alone planned to examine at least 750 recent deaths, an admittedly “monumental task,” said Assistant Police Chief David Pughes. Pughes revealed authorities had identified a suspect: Billy Chemirmir (pronounced Sheh-meer-meer), the man who had been surveilling Harris at Walmart and was arrested with her jewelry clutched in his hand. Chemirmir had worked in home health care for years, and cellphone tracking suggests he surveilled older victims in parking lots and upscale retirement complexes. He was looking for expensive jewelry and plotting his access and exit routes to and from their homes and apartments. He often pretended to be a maintenance man to gain entry, authorities said.
Over the following months, a series of horrific phone calls went out to sons, daughters and other relatives all across North Dallas and beyond. They had long ago buried loved ones who were assumed to have passed away peacefully.
Loren Adair-Smith heard from a Dallas homicide detective in April 2018. Her mother, Phyllis Payne, had died two years earlier. “I have some shocking news for you,” the officer said. “We believe she may not have died of natural causes.”
“I said, ‘If this is a joke, this is really sick,’ ” Adair-Smith recalls. It wasn’t.
Chemirmir, then in Dallas County jail on $1 million bond, eventually faced a long list of capital murder charges in Dallas and Collin counties. He repeatedly proclaimed his innocence. “I just can’t believe this,” he said. “Where I come from, our culture, we don’t even think about murder.”
His first trial for Harris’ murder, in November 2021, ended in a hung jury. In his second trial on the same facts five months later, a new jury convicted him after deliberating for 45 minutes. The families of other people Chemirmir allegedly killed were not sure they’d ever get their day in court. So they gathered to hear the verdict. Among them: M.J. Jennings, whose mother, Leah Corken, is one of 13 victims named in Dallas County indictments. “Elated, ecstatic, thrilled, relieved!!!!” Jennings texted. “Finally.......SOME justice. It was so wonderful to hear GUILTY!!!!!”
Chemirmir is in prison serving two sentences of life without parole for the murder of Lu Thi Harris and, after another verdict was handed down Oct. 7, for the murder of Mary Sue Brooks. He faces additional murder charges in two counties for allegedly killing 20 more victims, all in similar circumstances. Victims’ families suspect he is linked to two more deaths, though he has not been indicted.
His days of freedom may be past, but his case poses a troubling question that goes far beyond Texas. Assuming authorities are correct in their assertions that Chemirmir is guilty of dozens of murders, how could such a brazen crime spree unfold over the course of two years — presenting case after unsolved case, sending more and more families into unending grief — without alarms being raised by police or the facilities charged with the protection of those victims? Our shocking conclusion: because the victims were old.
AARP asked me to investigate the alleged murders of these older Americans, whose ages ranged from 76 to 94. Over 18 months, I sifted through thousands of pages of court records, police reports and witness statements, and interviewed dozens of relatives, lawyers, police and others. Ultimately, two things became clear. First, although Chemirmir has been convicted of two murders, the evidence against him in those and other cases is overwhelming and compelling. Second, the criminal justice system and the adult living complexes entrusted with protecting these victims’ health and safety appeared to be blinded to the crimes by a fatal strain of ageism.
In almost every case, investigators failed to collect fingerprints or DNA evidence, order autopsies or photograph crime scenes — all standard death investigation practices, particularly when paired with a theft or burglary report, as was the case with nearly every homicide in this grim procession. Time and again, the deaths were attributed to heart attacks and strokes. Doris Gleason’s suspicious death in 2016 was instantly attributed to natural causes. As her daughter, Shannon Dion, puts it: “The mentality of it was, ‘They were old, and they just died.’ ”
The most damning admission of an ageist and uncaring system came from Jeffrey Barnard, M.D., medical examiner for Dallas County. In Chemirmir’s first trial, he conceded that his office rarely orders autopsies for anyone over 65. Instead, thousands of “unattended deaths” (outside a hospital with no doctor present) are handled by phone — even those involving robberies or burglaries. Otherwise, he asserted, the workload would be overwhelming: “No office can handle that. So you have decisions based on those cases, the findings and the medical history.” (Barnard and his office, as well as the Collin County medical examiner, declined to comment for this story, citing ongoing investigations.)
“When crime rates are rising in the major cities, the police and medical examiners would rather expend their forces on other crimes rather than on the death of someone who’s reaching their expiration date,” concludes Mitchel Roth, a criminal justice professor at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas, and an expert on serial killers who has reviewed the facts of the case. “A police force also hates to admit there may be a serial perpetrator out there because it reflects badly on them. And the same is true of an upscale living facility. News of a serial killing there is bad for business.”
Who did the killer target? Widows mostly, women living alone, but women of means with the resources to pay for what they believed was safe housing. Most of the alleged murders (plus two attempted murders) described in indictments against Chemirmir were committed in upscale senior independent living complexes. These places are heavily marketed to buyers as secure places to retire to, and they aren’t cheap — one rented apartments for $4,000 a month, and another required residents to buy in for as much as $1 million. But court records and police reports show that for the two years before Chemirmir’s arrest, the murder victims were robbed of tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of jewelry, including wedding rings and large collections of gold, diamonds and coins, as well as two safes. All too often, administrators at these complexes ignored the crimes — and, most important, failed to warn other residents about intruders, home invasions and major thefts.
“Chemirmir was not dumb,” says Dallas lawyer Trey Crawford, who represents 13 victims’ families. “He knew which facilities to go to, the target-rich environments that do not have robust safety and security measures. We counted 30 or 40 [suspicious deaths] within a 5- to 10-mile radius” of where Chemirmir lived.
Billy Kipkorir Chemirmir, 49, could face trial in an additional 20 murders. A Kenyan-born immigrant, he held a series of short-term home health aide jobs during his 15-plus years as a legal permanent U.S. resident. He was comfortable around older people — his father lived to be 100 — and he had years of experience caring for older, fragile people in private homes and upscale apartments. After working through health care agencies, he grew tired of paying commissions and began recruiting his own clients. When first questioned by a Dallas County homicide detective in March 2018, Chemirmir explained his presence at crime scenes by insisting he was simply soliciting health care work.
Yet before his 2018 arrest, Chemirmir was known to Dallas police as a small-time criminal with prior arrests and stints in jail for domestic assault, drunken driving and trespassing. In the domestic assault case, he’d been convicted after admitting to beating an ex-girlfriend with a frying pan following a night of drinking at a Dallas club.
Chemirmir used a fake ID with the name Benjamin Koitaba — which allowed him to work at a Dallas home health agency that required a background check he could not have passed under his real name. That company communicated with him only as Koitaba, and Chemirmir frequently took short nighttime assignments.
From 2016 to 2018, records show, Chemirmir roamed the hallways and parking lots of at least three upscale senior living complexes where sudden deaths occurred. He was repeatedly stopped and questioned as an intruder but left free to continue. “We believe one of his techniques was looking for women who walked their dogs or used walkers — and needed extra time coming in their doors,” says attorney Ali Ohlinger, who worked with Crawford to investigate the murders on behalf of victims’ families.
Chris Bianez, a Plano police officer who specializes in crime prevention and is familiar with the murders, notes that the serial killer didn’t rely on fancy burglary tools or technology. It is in precisely these kind of cases, he says, that standard crime prevention techniques — such as posting flyers to alert residents about an intruder — could have worked: “He was committing robberies — but mainly he was able to access residents by just knocking on the door and posing as a maintenance worker or using some other way to gain their trust.” As Dallas County District Attorney John Creuzot said in the October trial for the murder of Mary Brooks, Chemirmir had a “fundamentally different approach” to his job. “We go to work to produce,” Creuzot said. “He goes to work to kill, strip, steal, sell.”
Though Chemirmir repeatedly made unauthorized forays into senior living complexes for years before the murders were detected, he was arrested only once for trespassing, at the Edgemere retirement community, where authorities suspect the murder spree began.
Catherine Sinclair, M.D., had a successful medical practice — a U.S. Army veteran, she’d worked in hospitals in several states. Near the end of her career, she and her husband shared a sprawling home in Pennsylvania and had the means to collect gold and precious gems on regular trips to the Virgin Islands. She was still working ER shifts when her husband contracted cancer and died. For a while, Sinclair kept rattling around their big old house. Then one day, she called her beloved niece in Texas and said, “You know, this isn’t really working for me.”
That niece, Jane Fold, and a nephew, Dan Probst, talked their aunt into moving closer to their families in Texas in 2014. Together they settled on Edgemere, near the exclusive Dallas neighborhood of Highland Park. The place was luxurious. It offered condos for as much as $1 million, as well as exceptional cuisine, a putting green, a jewelry cleaning service, an oversize pool, an upscale salon and a spa.
“It was as nice as any five-star hotel,” Probst says. “I mean, dinner was served on cloth tablecloths, with flowers on the table and candles, and they would fix anything special you ordered.”
Sinclair soon settled in. She used a walker but, as far as her niece and nephew knew, took no medicine at all. She dined with them in early April 2016, and the 87-year-old seemed in perfect health. So both were astonished when they were notified only a week later that their aunt had died. When they entered her apartment, things got stranger.
“We saw blood on the bed,” Probst recalls. What’s more, their aunt’s oversize safe with her collection of gold, loose diamonds and fine jewelry was gone. He and his sister insisted the Dallas Police Department open a homicide investigation — even though the Dallas County medical examiner quickly attributed Sinclair’s death to natural causes. A robbery detective was assigned but didn’t return calls for about a month; the Dallas Police Department, which had about 500 retirements in 2016, was regularly rotating that detective, and other robbery and homicide detectives, to patrol shifts.
As for Edgemere, civil court records indicate that security guards detected several intruders in the independent living facility that year but didn’t always summon police or immediately review security camera footage.
Sinclair is believed by her family to be Chemirmir’s first victim. But her case remained unsolved — and had been officially attributed to natural causes — when another Edgemere resident, Phyllis Payne, died the next month.
At 91, Payne was still vibrant, a “ball of energy,” according to her daughter Loren Adair-Smith, who lived nearby. Payne’s brunette hair remained naturally dark, and she rarely complained of aches or illnesses. Payne provided welcome support to Adair-Smith, whose husband had terminal cancer. “She was my best friend, and we talked every day,” Adair-Smith says, adding that she often invited her mother on family trips, including one to a beach in Gulf Shores, Alabama, in May 2016. But Payne was too busy to go on the trip.