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AARP The Magazine Special Report

Unnatural Causes: The Case of the Texas Serial Elder Murders

How the fatal age bias of police and others made it easy for a serial killer to continue his spree against two dozen older women in the Dallas area

spinner image victims of the texas elder murders
Collage by Paul Spella, photos courtesy of the victim’s families 

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.

spinner image At the Lu Thi Harris murder trial, a prosecutor shows jury the murder weapon and her jewelry box. 
At the Lu Thi Harris murder trial, a prosecutor shows the jury her jewelry box and the murder weapon.
Tom Fox/The Dallas Morning News via AP/Pool (2)

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.”

The beginning

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.”

spinner image Billy Chemirmir,left - in court. Right - caught on Walmart security camera in March 2018.. A few days later he tailed Lu Thi Harris from there to her home, suffocated her and stole her jewelry.
Billy Chemirmir, left — in court. Right — caught on Walmart security camera in March 2018. A few days later he tailed Lu Thi Harris from there to her home, suffocated her and stole her jewelry.
Shafkat Anowar/The Dallas Morning News; Tom Fox/The Dallas Morning News via AP/Pool

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.

“Not this time,” she had said. “I have too much going on.” Payne loved hanging out with members of her longtime bridge club in Edgemere’s party room and spent hours fussing over the menu and the seating arrangements. Adair-Smith called her mother en route to Alabama and learned the gathering had been a success. Payne crowed that both the food and her cards had been “really good.” Adair-Smith was dipping her toes into the warm waters in Gulf Shores on May 14 when she got another call.

“Mom died,” her brother said.

“What?? I just talked to her. What do you mean?” Adair-Smith said, sinking to her knees on the sand.

Adair-Smith rushed back to Dallas, where her mother’s tidy apartment appeared undisturbed. Only later, as she began packing up flatware and cleaning the fridge, did she notice the missing valuables. Pieces of silver. A coffee can her mom always kept in the refrigerator — a hiding place for her 18-karat gold jewelry. Adair-Smith reported the thefts to the police and the complex’s administrators, but again, no one reviewed security footage, no real investigation materialized, and Payne was declared to have died of natural causes.

The Edgemere’s failure to alert its residents or take steps to protect them after the two deaths reflects a pattern that emerged elsewhere. A former Edgemere executive later alleged in a civil lawsuit that the company “cut corners and security and put residents at serious risk of bodily harm.” On April 19 — about a month before Payne’s murder — Chemirmir was found by police roaming the halls at Edgemere and formally warned to leave and stay away. He returned anyway and was arrested and charged with trespassing on June 18, 2016, less than two weeks after the third victim at the complex, 94-year-old Phoebe Perry, was found dead in her unit. She, too, was missing valuables and pronounced dead of natural causes. Chemirmir was sentenced to 70 days in jail but released after only 12. Incredibly, neither police nor administrators made the connection between the deaths, the thefts and the serial trespasser.

Edgemere did retain its security footage and, much later, was able to help police link Chemirmir to Payne’s murder. Its owners also improved security — adding hundreds of cameras. But all that came well after three of its residents — and many other women elsewhere — were dead.

“Think of all the people who could have been saved over the next two years if there had been some connection made to that man,” Adair-Smith laments.

Indeed, within a few days of his release, it appeared that the killer moved on to Tradition-Prestonwood Senior Living, another luxury independent living complex minutes away in North Dallas.

Sudden deaths, missing rings

Tradition-Prestonwood Senior Living, the flagship of a Dallas-based company, beckoned customers with manicured lawns and beautiful magnolia trees. Marketing literature promised “24/7 access control” and a “cutting-edge security and visitor management system,” a lure for both older couples and widows such as Joyce Abramowitz, who moved there from her comfortable home in Dallas. Other residents moved there from across the country to live closer to adult children and grandchildren. Security cameras ensured their safety, residents were told, and concierges conducted rounds to check for irregularities, such as propped-open exterior doors.

In April 2016 — the same month as Sinclair’s murder — Abramowitz reported to the police that while she was away on a three-week vacation, someone had entered her apartment, number 208, and removed more than $3,500 worth of items from a jewelry box, including an opal heart pendant with diamonds, a white gold pendant, a sapphire ring and an antique bracelet. She feared it might be a maid, since police found no sign of a break-in. Tradition’s written policy was to have its management investigate thefts, though residents could also call police, as Abramowitz did. No one was charged.

The crime remained unsolved when a second burglary occurred, on July 18; an intruder made off with a safe Abramowitz had bought after the previous burglary, and a jewelry collection worth roughly $5,000. This time, Abramowitz could provide no more information: She was dead. But authorities dismissed her sudden and unexplained death as natural, and no autopsy was ordered.

Over the next 18 months, eight more residents in the complex died under similarly suspicious circumstances. All of their homes had been burglarized, according to public records and interviews, and several victims were missing their wedding rings.

One of them was Juanita Purdy, a hale, outgoing 83-year-old featured on the complex’s Facebook page. Two weeks after Abramowitz died, Tradition-Prestonwood’s facilities director, a jovial man named Edmundo Sanchez, discovered Purdy dead in her bed. When her daughter Diana Tannery arrived that Sunday, Sanchez declared that Purdy “had died peacefully in her sleep.”

But the same modus operandi came to light: Tannery quickly discovered that the box in which her mother kept her wedding ring was empty. In tears, she began to clean out the apartment and found a recent appraisal that confirmed that items worth more than $20,000 were missing from her mother’s jewelry collection.

spinner image Juanita Purdy, right, with her daughter and granddaughters at her apartment, a few months before she was allegedly robbed and killed there in July 2016
Juanita Purdy, right, with her daughter and granddaughters at her apartment, a few months before she was allegedly robbed and killed there in July 2016.
Courtesy Tannery family

Administrators assured Tannery the burglary would be investigated internally. But they sent out no alerts to residents about that crime or others, and Tannery never got any updates. “How much has to happen before they let the residents know that, ‘Hey, something’s going on?’ ” Tannery asks.

Three weeks later, Leah Corken, an 83-year-old widow who’d spent the previous day shopping at the mall, was found dead in her unit at the same complex, lying face down on the floor in her living room, her body laid out in an oddly straight line. Her wedding ring was missing.

Her daughter M.J. Jennings knew her mother loved that ring, which had been reset by a jeweler during the years the family lived in Brazil. “And she never took that off,” Jennings says. “Never, ever.” Sanchez, the facilities director, told Jennings, who arrived minutes after she had been notified of her mom’s death, that “old people misplace things,” and he suggested she check her mother’s panty drawer for the missing ring. (Police reports and interviews indicate that Tradition often relied on Sanchez, who moonlighted as a pastor, to speak with families and first responders during the complex’s 2016 wave of robberies and deaths.)

Less than two weeks after Corken’s death, another body was found: Margaret White, 87, also a widow who lived on the fourth floor at Tradition. Her jewelry boxes had been emptied.

As the body count grew, the police apparently considered it business as usual for older people, even those in upscale, higher-security independent housing. Death investigation procedures — routine for younger victims in Dallas — were not followed in most cases later identified as murders and attributed to Chemirmir. Officers did not take photos, collect forensic evidence or dust for fingerprints. The county medical examiner did not send investigators to most death scenes.

Police finally launched a murder investigation of sorts when Solomon Spring, an 89-year-old grandfather — possibly Chemirmir’s only male victim — was discovered dead in his apartment at Tradition by his daughter, Marsha Repp. Like Corken, he lived on the complex’s fourth floor. Crime scene photos show his bedroom and bath contained extensive but unexplained blood trails, an out-of-place lamp and a piece of wood that suggested a worker had entered the apartment (though no maintenance had been ordered). Items of value were missing, too, including a watch and a ring he rarely wore.

That investigation ended when the medical examiner listed the death as accidental, the result of a fall.

By Oct. 1, 2016, it appears, the killer had struck eight times in a matter of months: three at Edgemere near the exclusive Dallas neighborhood of Highland Park and five at Tradition-Prestonwood in North Dallas. Administrators at Tradition-Prestonwood knew that four apparently healthy widows and one man had died suddenly there — and all were missing jewelry. It took a sixth unexpected death at the Tradition complex in a three-month span — again involving a dead widow and a stolen wedding ring — before the Dallas Police Department mounted its first major theft investigation.

spinner image 1 – Edgemere; 2 – Tradition-Prestonwood; 3 – Parkview in Frisco; 4 – Preston Place; 5- home of Carolyn McPhee; 6 – Rosemary Curtis’ house; 7 – Mary Sue Brooks’ condo; 8 – home of Lu Thi Harris; 9 – Billy Chemirmir’s apartment building
Map key: 1 – Edgemere; 2 – Tradition-Prestonwood; 3 – Parkview in Frisco; 4 – Preston Place; 5- home of Carolyn McPhee; 6 – Rosemary Curtis’ house; 7 – Mary Sue Brooks’ condo; 8 – home of Lu Thi Harris; 9 – Billy Chemirmir’s apartment building.
Graphic by Sinelab; labels by AARP

Blame the EMTs

Norma French, 85, a proud alumna of the University of Texas, went away in September to visit her daughter, Ellen French House, in Indiana, but made a point to return home to Tradition by Saturday, Oct. 8, 2016. There was no way she was missing a UT football game against their archrival, the Oklahoma Sooners. She considered going in person but decided to watch on TV. French House knew her mom probably wasn’t happy with the outcome — her beloved Longhorns lost a hard-fought game, 45-40. But even that didn’t explain why French failed to answer her phone afterward.

Her adult children requested a welfare check, and complex employees found her prone on the floor next to the TV. They summoned a paramedic, but it was too late.

French House was so upset that she insisted her siblings take and send to her photos of her mother’s body. She immediately noticed her mother’s wedding ring was missing: Her ring finger was red and swollen. The ring appeared to have been forcibly removed, French House thought. She and her siblings kept calling the Dallas Police Department until a detective was finally assigned to the case.

Sanchez, who still worked for Tradition at press time, responded to questions from two Dallas police officers about the theft of French’s jewelry. He referred to the other recent unattended deaths, but if he had concerns about the unusually high number, he apparently did not share them with the investigators, who made no mention of that in their report. (Sanchez did not return calls for comment for this article, but in an email, Tradition responded that “allegations that staff withheld any information are absolutely false.”)

In her conversations with police, French House passed on a tip she’d gotten from Tradition employees, several of whom suggested to her that paramedics had taken the ring. The Dallas officers investigating the theft apparently bought that angle and launched an internal affairs investigation, rather than a broader criminal probe. That theft case was still open a week later when Glenna Day, 87, was found dead in her fourth-floor apartment at Tradition. Sanchez assured Day’s daughter, Sherril Kerr, that her mother must have fallen ill while painting, then climbed into bed. “God took her,” he told Kerr.

Kerr found it strange that her mother would rest atop her fancy $400 bedspread with her hands and smock stained with paint. “She never would have laid down on it like that to take a nap,” Kerr said. “It just wouldn’t have happened.” Like other victims’ daughters, she was in shock — her lively mother had gone dancing the night before she died — and she knew nothing about Tradition’s crime wave.

When Sanchez met with the detective investigating French’s missing ring, he did not mention the odd circumstances of Day’s death. Sanchez also did not mention that French was at least the third dead widow at Tradition within a few months whose wedding ring had gone missing.

On Oct. 27, 2016, Jeff Wells, one of the administrators at Tradition, met with the detective, too. Under Tradition policies, managers participated in its internal reviews of all thefts and other incidents reported by residents, but Wells played down the crime wave. He offered scant information to police and, worse, repeated accusations against the firefighters and EMTs who had responded to the deaths.

Two days later, on Oct. 29, Doris Gleason, 92, was found dead at Tradition by her daughter, Shannon Dion, who immediately reported yet another large jewelry theft. Gleason was missing a necklace with a solid gold guardian angel handcrafted in Italy, an amulet identical to one Dion always wore. For both women, the angels were treasured gifts from Dion’s sister, who had died of cancer.

spinner image Shannon Dion on a cruise with her mother, Doris Gleason. Two months later Gleason died suddenly—and her angel pendant was missing.
Shannon Dion on a cruise with her mother, Doris Gleason, and her husband, Eric Dion. Two months later Gleason died suddenly — and her angel pendant was missing.
Courtesy Shannon Dion; Lynda M. Gonzalez/The Dallas Morning News

Wells and others on staff who spoke to the Dallas police in 2016 did not mention that the complex was experiencing an unusual wave of sudden deaths — all involving widows who’d expired without even having time to call 911. Usually, Tradition-Prestonwood mourned three or four residents each year; in 2016, there were eight.

In November 2016, a low-level staff member at Tradition called the Dallas Police Department to report an intruder who had been repeatedly spotted posing as a maintenance man. The man was gone when officers arrived. The description provided was general: “Suspicious person — prowler. BM [Black male] 5’10” — 180 lbs. dressed in a clean suit carrying a satchel,” the officer wrote. The report further said that “the suspect has been seen on numerous occasions … and has stated he was there to check pipe leaks.” Officers advised Tradition employees to “tighten security and possibly go door to door.” That did not happen.

Residents were finally alerted about an intruder in December 2016, when Wells escorted someone — perhaps Chemirmir — off the property, according to information shared with residents. The complex publicly congratulated Wells, posting a notice that read, with unintended irony: “Jeff has been promoted to Security Specialist.”

The facility turned out to have only window-dressing security: The few security cameras, for instance, were near the entrance — not on residential levels, including the oddly deadly fourth floor. Further, the concierges who conducted checks weren’t armed or trained to confront intruders; none were security guards.

Instead of tracking down intruders, tightening security and putting two and two together (eight deaths, all with thefts, all within a few months, with reports of a stranger lurking), Tradition officials and the detective investigating French’s theft focused on emergency responders. The investigation of the wedding ring was closed in 2017 with no arrests. Wells was promoted, taking an executive director role at Tradition-Prestonwood and later at another Tradition complex in Houston, according to his LinkedIn page. (It’s unclear where he works now, and he did not return messages seeking comment for this article. As noted, Tradition says that all its employees cooperated with police and that it relied on the police department’s professional expertise in assessing the deaths.)

The spree revives

What Chemirmir was busy doing in the nearly yearlong gap after the murder of Doris Gleason in October 2016 remains a matter of speculation and investigations. Perhaps he was living a more peaceful life with his wife and son after having sold enough stolen jewelry to meet their needs. (He also supported an older son back in Africa.)

Or perhaps more of his crimes remain undetected. Either way, he allegedly resumed, then accelerated, his killing spree in September 2017. In three months, from September to December 2017, Chemirmir stalked and killed seven more women, prosecutors say, including five residents of two senior living complexes in suburban cities over the Dallas County border, in neighboring Collin County.

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First, he allegedly targeted Parkview in Frisco, a complex for seniors with an attractive stone clubhouse and apartment units clustered around a rectangular pool. Helen Lee and Marilyn Bixler, friends who often dined together, were killed there on Sept. 2 and Sept. 17. Their deaths were initially dismissed as natural by the Collin County medical examiner, though both women were missing jewelry. But the killer was getting sloppy — or overconfident.

In October 2017, a well-dressed man knocked on the door of Kay Lawson’s apartment in the assisted living section of Parkview, claiming he was there to check for leaks. Once inside, the man attacked her, attempting to smother her with a pillow. Lawson began “to pray, believing she was about to die,” according to an affidavit. As the attacker helped himself to her jewelry, the resourceful 93-year-old played dead and managed to press her medical alert button, which activated an alarm and summoned 911. In an ambulance, Lawson provided a detailed description to police.

The tally of Chemirmir’s alleged victims had reached 14 — all residents of senior living communities. Only Lawson had managed to survive. But the shorthanded Frisco Police Department identified no suspects and made no arrests. The murderous spree continued unabated, now at the Preston Place retirement community in Plano.

Chemirmir knew this large senior living apartment complex well; his former girlfriend had worked as a caregiver there, he later told police. It is a gated community but did not require its employees to wear IDs. There were few security cameras, and visitors could access large parking lots without checking in with anyone, court records show. Three women died there from October to December 2017: Minnie Campbell, 84; Diane Delahunty, 79; and Mamie Dell Miya, 93. Valuable jewelry was missing from all three apartments, but again, if these were murders, as evidence suggests, they went undetected.

Right before Christmas, it appears that Chemirmir returned to Dallas County, where another resident at Tradition, 90-year-old Doris Wasserman, was killed. Her death was blamed on natural causes, though she, too, had been robbed.

On New Year’s Eve 2017, Chemirmir allegedly killed the only one of the victims he admits he knew: Carolyn MacPhee. MacPhee first met Chemirmir in October 2016, when she contacted a home health care agency to hire an aide for her beloved husband, Jack, who was dying of a rare nervous system disorder. That New Year’s Eve, MacPhee, then an 81-year-old widow, returned dressed in her Sunday best, which is what she was wearing when she was found dead on the floor of her home. Her wedding ring was gone, and her neat home contained unexplained bloodstains in several rooms and on her glasses. Her son Scott MacPhee was shocked when the Collin County medical examiner classified her death as natural, without an autopsy, and cited a heart condition, without contacting his mother’s doctor. (Scott MacPhee kept his mother’s glasses, and more than a year after her death, investigators found Chemirmir’s DNA in a blood spatter on the glasses.)

In January 2018, Chemirmir allegedly stalked, robbed and killed Rosemary Curtis, 76. A couple of weeks later, he killed 87-year-old Mary Sue Brooks, a woman he’d met at Walmart and followed home. Surveillance video shows he met Brooks at the same Walmart where he later encountered his last murder victim, Lu Thi Harris. He followed Brooks in his silver sedan to her Richardson, Texas, condo, where he smothered her with a pillow, stole the wedding ring off her finger and pocketed heirloom jewelry from her bedside table and a portable safe.

Then in March 2018, Chemirmir returned to Preston Place. At the large Plano facility, managers were again handed strong evidence of a continuing crime wave involving, at the very least, burglaries and home invasions. But they did not alert residents — with fatal consequences.

On March 4, he allegedly smothered 80-year-old Martha Williams. The man prosecutors in 2022 described as a career killer again slipped. He left a silver platter and creamer, Williams’ family heirlooms, in the trunk of his car. In the glove box, he stashed away a rubber glove containing incriminating DNA evidence that a lab eventually linked to Williams. Those discoveries came far too late to spare others, including some of Williams’ neighbors.

Three days later, Miriam Nelson, 81, accidentally left her door unlocked at Preston Place because she’d just received a regular grocery delivery. The stranger who knocked and said he was a maintenance man was neatly dressed but wore rubber gloves and presented no identification. Nelson was immediately alarmed: She picked up her phone and watched him from her living room recliner. The man walked into her bedroom, then left after several minutes.

Suspicious, Nelson called the complex administration and left a long voice mail with a description of the odd stranger. Later she discovered a valuable necklace had been taken. When Nelson confirmed the man was not an employee, she called all her neighbors in her two-story building. But the complex itself did not alert other residents or call police, a failure to act that her daughter finds incomprehensible.

“She called the office and explained in great detail what had happened — and his description,” Karen Nelson recalls. “We didn’t know that all the deaths had been happening with missing jewelry. But they knew.”

On March 9, Nelson was found dead, her diamond rings, family heirlooms and other jewelry worth more than $11,000 all missing, according to an indictment and allegations in a civil lawsuit her family filed against the complex.

Plano police investigated Nelson’s death as a possible homicide but only because this victim had recently reported an intruder. They searched her apartment for missing jewelry, dusted for fingerprints and ordered an autopsy. Even so, the complex’s administration seemed uninterested in alerting residents and apparently did more or less the opposite: That month, another neighbor’s daughter posted flyers on residents’ mailboxes, warning of a man in a business suit who’d been roaming around knocking on other residents’ doors since late 2016, always claiming to be “checking for leaks.” Her flyers were removed.

In mid-March, a man whose mother lived at Preston Place reported seeing a stranger who fit the description of Billy Chemirmir lurking for hours parked in a silver car in the parking lot. On March 18, 2018, Ann Conklin, 82, died after going out to walk her dog — just as had happened to another woman, Minnie Campbell, at the same complex in October 2017. Conklin’s daughters found the dog next to their mother’s body, still on its leash.

Mary Annis Bartel lived directly across the hall from Conklin in Building 8. She knew nothing about reports of an intruder at the complex when a stranger knocked on her door a day after Conklin’s death.


On March 19, 2018, Bartel, 91, got up around 6:30 a.m. to pray and read the Bible in her room as usual. She had just finished a regular morning phone call with her sister-in-law when a knock came at the door of her ground floor apartment. A stranger identifying himself as a maintenance man pushed the door open when she answered. She was hard-of-hearing and hadn’t been able to understand him, but her eyes immediately fixed on the stranger’s hands. “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,” she told a prosecutor.

The intruder told her to lie down on her bed. Then he picked up a pillow and smashed it down over her head and chest so intensely that Bartel blacked out. While she was unconscious, the man rifled through her jewelry boxes, took gold crucifixes and a distinctive gold locket with her dead husband’s photo inside — then removed her diamond rings. Bartel regularly attended morning aerobic classes, and friends found her door ajar when they arrived minutes later. The intruder was gone. They called 911 and began CPR. “We have a neighbor we cannot awake,” one friend told the operator. Bartel appeared to be breathing — her pacemaker had kicked in.

Bartel, a straight talker with a strong Catholic faith and thick Indiana accent, regained consciousness in the emergency room and told her sons, Rick and Tom Bartel, to summon the Plano police. The first officer, skeptical, told her sons that Bartel’s weird story about being suffocated by a guy wearing green gloves seemed more like an old lady’s delusion than a real-life robbery. “She probably hit her head and became confused,” he said to them.

The brothers looked at each other incredulously. “That doesn’t sound like Mom,” Tom Bartel said. She would not imagine the loss of her wedding and engagement ring — or of the unusual ring with its parallel rows of diamonds that she’d worn on her right ring finger for 50 years. When she woke up in the hospital, all three rings were gone. The sons asked to see a Plano detective, who took their mother seriously. He thought her story sounded a lot like the bizarre tale that 93-year-old Kay Lawson had shared in 2017 of being attacked and smothered by a robber posing as a maintenance man.

Meanwhile, the police, upon receiving the tip about Chemirmir loitering in the parking lot at Preston Place, ran his license plate, found an outstanding arrest warrant for public drunkenness and finally mobilized.

On the afternoon of March 20, 2018, seven Plano officers in unmarked cars and trucks surrounded a silver sedan as it pulled into the parking lot of the apartment linked to the license plate. It was an unbelievably damning scene: Undercover officers watched and listened as Chemirmir stopped near the entrance to toss into the complex’s dumpster an ornate, oversize, reddish orange jewelry box that fell with a heavy thunk. When officers moved in to arrest him, they found a dead woman’s jewelry in his hands. Chemirmir was arrested on the outstanding warrant, though the police planned to question him about the attempted murder of Mary Bartel. Then a quick search of that discarded jewelry box led them to immigration papers with the name of Lu Thi Harris and a nearby North Dallas address.

The house keys the Dallas police officers recovered from Chemirmir’s car fit the lock on the front door of Harris’ home on Warm Breeze Lane. Inside, they discovered the 81-year-old widow’s body.

‘A deep bias against the elderly, particularly women’

Chemirmir agreed to speak with Plano and Dallas police, even after officers revealed they suspected him of serial jewelry theft and murder. In hours of recorded interrogations, he declared his innocence. He could not explain how he’d obtained distinctive jade and gold jewelry, private papers or house keys that belonged to a murdered woman. Plano police obtained a search warrant for his phone and found photos of the unique rings and gold crosses stolen from Mary Bartel. He’d posted them for sale online hours after she reported being attacked.

After Collin and Dallas county officials held their unusual joint news conference to inform the public about the killing spree, Plano and Dallas police reviewed hundreds of neglected reports of unsolved robberies involving unattended deaths of older Texans ​and cross-referenced them with Chemirmir’s cellphone data, security camera footage and jewelry sales records. Time and again, the information synced up. Though Bartel died in 2020, her riveting testimony was digitally preserved, and prosecutors assembled literally hundreds of exhibits of actual and circumstantial evidence such as Chemirmir’s cellphone pings to local towers, photographs of Bartel’s rings and necklaces posted online, and Harris’ jewelry and house keys.

Chemirmir is serving two sentences of life without the possibility of parole for the murders of Lu Thi Harris and Mary Brooks. At press time, he faced 20 additional capital murder charges, but Dallas District Attorney John Creuzot said he will probably drop all other capital murder indictments against Chemirmir in his jurisdiction. Nine capital murder charges and two charges of attempted murder stand in Collin County, where the district attorney remained undecided on whether to seek a death sentence.

Is Chemirmir the only guilty one here? What of the housing complexes and investigators who time and time again — whether consciously or unconsciously — ignored chilling evidence and declared the deaths “natural”?

“These crimes are horrifying, and the repeated failures of systems that should have been in place to protect the victims add to the tragedy,” says Tina Tran, the AARP Texas state director. “A killer exploited a deep bias against the elderly, particularly women, in our society, which allowed a murderous spree to continue unquestioned and undetected. The callousness — particularly of the police and those who ran the facilities — should shake us to our core.”

A number of the victims’ families filed wrongful death suits against the facilities where their relatives lived. Attorney Trey Crawford represents 13 of those families.

“The owners and operators prioritized the profits of their private equity investors over the lives of the elderly residents they undertook to protect,” he asserted in one suit. The current owners (Preston Place was purchased by a private equity firm in 2018) settled the suits and issued a statement acknowledging the “long and difficult journey for the families and friends of the victims.” They suggest that pending criminal indictments and Chemirmir’s guilty verdicts offer a “welcome path toward finality and closure.”

Another apartment complex with three or more alleged attacks, Edgemere, also promptly settled wrongful death allegations with families. In a statement released after Chemirmir’s conviction for Harris’ murder, Edgemere said that security is a “primary focus” and that it hopes “the trial will deliver a small measure of justice, comfort and closure to all.”

The third, Tradition-Prestonwood, home to nine people prosecutors say Chemirmir killed, settled at least two lawsuits, and the families of other victims have been forced by the company into arbitration, where they continue to pursue claims of as much as $10 million each.

In the filing to secure arbitration, Tradition argued that under the terms of their leases, the elderly residents were responsible for their own safety and that Tradition relied on the police and medical examiners to properly investigate the deaths.

Tradition’s parent company declined our requests for interviews with CEO Jonathan Perlman or Jeff Wells, or to answer specific questions about the deaths. In a statement, the company said, in part: “The deaths by an alleged serial killer in peoples’ homes and at multiple senior living communities in the DFW Metroplex is a true tragedy. The Tradition-Prestonwood regards all our residents as family.” But for the victims’ real families, the horror has continued unabated. “You find out your mom’s been murdered, then you find out it’s a serial killer … and just every day, the grief is overwhelming,” says M.J. Jennings, daughter of Leah Corken. “And to realize that this horrible psychopathic serial killer was the last thing my mom saw on this earth. … I still can’t believe it.”

Systemic change in Texas has been slow. The Plano and Dallas detectives who worked on the cases, and their superiors, declined to be interviewed, citing the pending murder cases. A Plano police spokesperson pointed out the department had updated its policy for treating unattended deaths, but those 2019 changes related only to the proper removal of a body, not to the investigation. A Dallas police spokesman, in an emailed statement, insisted that “our goal is always to bring justice to victims, regardless of age.”

At the behest of victims’ families in this case, and largely through the work of the nonprofit advocacy group the families formed after the murders came to light, Secure Our Seniors’ Safety (SOSS), the Texas Legislature passed a law that requires all medical examiners to inform next of kin whenever the cause of death is changed, after the daughter of one of Chemirmir’s alleged victims learned from another friend via a Facebook message that her mother’s death was being investigated as a murder. The push for further reforms — from victims’ families, SOSS and other advocacy groups and politicians — has just begun.

Karen Harris — whose mother, Miriam Nelson, had tried to report an intruder before he returned to kill her — can’t stop replaying the attack on her mother in her mind. As the list of likely murder victims lengthened, her unease was replaced by a sense of outrage — shared with other victims’ families — at what she considers the ageist biases of police and facilities that had been home to their murdered relatives.

“It’s very frustrating, hearing all of this,” says Harris, who helped form SOSS. “It seems like this story should have been on everyone’s lips in Dallas. They’re saying this is the most prolific serial killer in Texas history. If these were toddlers or children or coeds. … Do elderly lives not matter?”

Lise Olsen is an investigative journalist in Texas and the author of Code of Silence: Sexual Misconduct by Federal Judges, the Secret System That Protects Them, and the Women Who Blew the Whistle.

Photo credits


2016 images — Sinclair: Courtesy Probst family; Payne: Courtesy Payne and Adair family; Perry: Courtesy SPCA of Texas; Abramowitz: Courtesy Abramowitz family; Purdy: Courtesy Diana Tannery; Corken: Courtesy Mary Jo Jennings; White: Courtesy Crawford, Wishnew & Lang PLLC; Spring: Courtesy Repp family; French: Courtesy Ellen French House; Day: Courtesy Kerr family; Gleason: Courtesy Shannon Dion


2017 images — Bixler: Courtesy Pangburn family; Lawson: Courtesy Lawson family; Campbell: Texas Department of Public Safety; Delahunty: Courtesy Lori Delahunty; Wasserman: Courtesy Wasserman family; MacPhee: Courtesy Scott MacPhee.


2018 images — Curtis: Courtesy Curtis family; Williams: Courtesy Williams-Roan family; Nelson: Courtesy Harris family; Conklin: Courtesy Conklin and Stucker family; Bartel: Courtesy Bartel family; Harris: The Dallas Morning News via AP, Pool.

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