Avenging an Angel
Since the day Debra Sue Carter was found dead in her garage apartment, the town of Ada hasn’t been the same. Her murder brought an unspeakable crime to a community not used to such an act of hate and violence. Her case would drag the locals through unprecedented legal nuances. And now, nearly a quarter-century later, Carter remains an angel waiting for justice while Ada begins to divide on who the real killer is.
Townsfolk thought this case was solved, twice. Six years after Carter’s 1982 murder, two drinking buddies were convicted and sentenced for carrying out the crime. A high school teacher and an ex-jock were pinned for the heinous act, the teacher getting a life sentence, the jock getting death. Afterward, the main thing Carter’s family and neighbors worried about was getting through the anniversaries and holidays without little Debbie. One less gift to get at Christmas. One birthday no longer needing a card.
But 16 years after the murder, the seal on the case came unglued and the two men everyone just knew did it, knew killed Debbie, were set free.
A third suspect emerged. His DNA matched evidence at the crime scene. That was it. Ada had its man and in 2003 a jury found him guilty and gave him a death sentence. But the highest criminal court in the state said, no, try again.
Next week, the fourth trial in nearly 25 years for Carter’s murder is set to begin. All three men who have been accused of the crime will play a part in the trial, even though one of them is now dead. The case is separating the town into those who believe the first two suspects really did it, those who believe the current suspect is the murderer, those who think all three were involved and those who just don’t know anymore.
Life wasn’t always easy for Debra. Growing up the child of divorced parents, little Debbie learned the intricacies of shared parenting — Thanksgiving with mom, Christmas with dad. Luckily, her parents never left Ada so the travel was just a trip around the block.
She would struggle with her weight throughout childhood and early teenage years, but by the time she moved out, little Debbie had become a 125-pound, attractive 21-year-old.
Her mother, Peggy Sanders, whom the family calls “Pepi,” didn’t want her little Debbie leaving home and the two quarreled.
“I just told her I didn’t want her to go,” Pepi said to Oklahoma Gazette.
The feisty 21-year-old found an upstairs garage apartment in the fall of 1982 and quickly settled in.
Debbie bounced around a few jobs before becoming a bartender at the Coachlight Club.
Ronald Keith Williamson showed signs of a promising career in professional baseball. But after a few years of struggling in the minor league system, the glove was put in the closet. Stuck in his hometown, Williamson frequented the bar where Debbie served.
It was early December 1982. Pepi worked the night shift at the glass plant. She called Debbie one night, just making sure her daughter was OK.
“She said, ‘Mother, you’re so silly. You’re always thinking something,’” Pepi said.
Two days after that phone call, a friend of Debbie’s went by her apartment and found her nude body on the bedroom floor. Debbie’s dad got the call to get over the apartment.
“Pepi didn’t know, then all of sudden the family starts showing up,” said Pepi’s granddaughter Christy Sheppard. “They all know but they don’t want to tell her. They want my mom to tell her. When she came over, Pepi said, ‘Tell me she’s all right,’ and my mom said, ‘I can’t tell you that.’”
“I really didn’t believe it until about 6:30 (p.m.),” Pepi said. “It’s something you can’t comprehend. The only thing I remember is the ambulance come to get me and I asked why. They told me they were going to take me up to the hospital. My whole body just went limp. They told me they took Debbie to Oklahoma City and I said, ‘Oh, my Lord. My little Debbie is hurt bad, otherwise they wouldn’t be taking her to Oklahoma City.’ I said, ‘I want to go up there,’ and they said no.
“They told me they took her up there for an autopsy and I just about came unglued.”
There would be more hard days for Pepi.
An examination determined Debbie had been raped and strangled to death. The murderer left messages on Debbie’s body in fingernail polish and ketchup.
Pepi refused to go to the funeral, but was taken anyway.
“My mom bathed her and dressed her and made her go,” Sheppard said.
At the funeral home, Debbie’s father made sure a dress with a high collar was placed on the body to hide the marks on the neck from Pepi.
“I got up there and I pulled her collar down and everybody kept saying you can’t do that,” Pepi said. “They had caked her in makeup. She didn’t wear makeup. People were grabbing my hands.”
There would be more hard days.
For years, the case was investigated, but there were never any arrests. Williamson and Dennis Leon Fritz would be questioned, given polygraph tests and even submit hair samples. But no arrests.
Then, nearly six years after the murder, a jailbird named Glen Dale Gore gave police that valuable piece of evidence. Gore was serving time for various crimes including kidnapping and burglary. Williamson was also in jail for writing bogus checks. Gore told investigators Williamson was at the club the night of the murder bothering Debbie. Another jail inmate said Williamson talked about killing her.
Gore testified at the preliminary hearing and Williamson was found guilty. Fritz was convicted at a separate trial. He received a life sentence while Williamson was handed death.
But Pepi said she didn’t feel the case was closed at that point:
“Something was wrong. I just had a feeling.”
No matter, the case was solved, sentences given out.
Williamson was scheduled for execution on Sept. 27, 1994. With just five days remaining in his life, Williamson’s attorney Mark Barrett filed a habeas corpus petition in the hopes of giving his client a few more days of life. It worked. A year later, Williamson was granted a new trial based on ineffective counsel during his trial.
By this time, a new advancement in criminal investigations emerged — DNA testing. Barrett was able to collect the physical evidence from the crime scene and have it tested. The results: Neither Williamson’s nor Fritz’s DNA matched the forensic evidence. On April 15, 1999, the two walked out of prison free men.
It turned out the DNA matched the man who testified against and sent Williamson to prison — Gore.
That was it. Gore was then the convicted murderer. Everyone knew it. DNA doesn’t lie.
His trial in 2003 lasted nine days and ended with a guilty verdict and death sentence. But there was a problem — Williamson and Fritz. Gore’s attorney, David Smith, wanted to present evidence that it really could have been the first two suspects who committed the murder. The trial judge said no way, they’ve been exonerated, move on counselor.
“That’s what bothers me,” Smith told the Gazette. “I keep reading the word ‘exonerated’ and that’s far from the truth.”
Smith is referring to the circumstances which led to Williamson and Fritz’s release. With DNA evidence stacked against them, the Pontotoc County district attorney’s office, along with Barrett, filed a motion to dismiss the case.
That doesn’t fit Smith’s definition of exoneration, and he said there is still some evidence pointing toward the first two suspects including their previous convictions. He wants a chance to present a plausible defense for a jury. An appeals court agreed.
Last year, the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals ruled Gore deserved a new trial based on not having a chance to present a defense which could implicate others for the murder.
“To prevent (Gore) from introducing evidence of Williamson’s conviction denied (Gore) the right to fully present his defense that despite the results of the DNA analysis Williamson was the actual perpetrator,” the court wrote.
And so a fourth trial is now scheduled for the murder of Debra Sue Carter.
“It was a big shock,” said Brenda Tollett, managing editor of the Ada Evening News. “I don’t think anyone expected it … that a new trial would be coming up.”
There will be more hard days.
As shocking as the crime itself, Carter’s case continues to stun the town. The fact that two men served 12 years in prison, one within days of lethal injection, and were later freed was enough of a head spin for residents. Now with Gore’s role in the murder in question and the previous suspects back in the case, heads are spinning in reverse, enough to sever the brain from the heart.
From the Aldridge Coffee Shop to Papa Gjorgja’s Italian restaurant, Ada residents are rethinking the case. Others are just no longer suppressing hidden thoughts.
“In the back of my mind, I still think he had something to do with it,” said Geneva Wier of Williamson. “She was a pretty good girl. I think she could have gotten away from one person, so there may have been another person involved.”
Wier runs the canteen at the Pontotoc County Courthouse near downtown Ada. A 40-year town resident, Wier worked with Debbie for three years in a coffee shop Wier owned at Main Street and Broadway Avenue. Debbie left the coffee shop and went to work at the nightclub. The day Debbie’s body was found, she was supposed to start back at the coffee shop, Wier said.
“She was a sweet girl,” Wier said. “She didn’t flirt. She loved life. She was a good worker.”
Those are words Debbie’s family members totally agree with. But they separate on talk about Williamson.
“That burns me so incredibly bad because I went looking for stuff and I don’t know all there is,” Sheppard said. “And I know that these people don’t know a fraction. They may have read bits and pieces that come out in the paper or the town talk, but they don’t know and that bothers me.
“I don’t care if you think Ron and Dennis were standing there watching it. It bothers me that people don’t know but everybody’s got an opinion.”
Pepi, sitting next to her granddaughter, nodded her head.
The appeals court ruling makes Sheppard and Pepi’s belief difficult for the locals to go along with. In some of the court’s writing, Williamson is nearly implicated.
“This is clearly a case where excluded evidence certainly could have helped (Gore),” wrote Judge Charles Johnson in a concurring opinion. “A previously convicted party knew too many things that were not common knowledge. (Williamson) may well have been involved in some fashion in the crime.”
The opinion reaffirmed beliefs for some.
“Most of it is coffee shop gossip, but most people I heard talking about it were still convinced that Ron Williamson and Dennis Fritz had been involved all along,” Tollett said. “There is a core group who will believe that till the day they die regardless of what the evidence proves.”
A thought Sheppard and Pepi hear all too often.
“People that lived here when all that happened probably feel that Ron and Dennis had something to do with it,” Sheppard said. “If the subject comes up, they’ll tell you.
“In this community, everybody knew Ron. He was the local crazy guy. People associated the fact of that and said he’s probably capable of it. The fact that he was convicted first, that just sticks in everybody’s mind. That’s bothersome to me. I don’t know why it bothers me so bad.”
Sheppard was 8 years old at the time of the murder. She has become one of the more outspoken members of Debbie’s family who believe Gore is the killer and Williamson and Fritz had nothing to do with the crime:
“If you believe in DNA science, you can’t have it both ways. I find it hard to understand how one man could leave all these samples behind, but the other two men didn’t leave a print or anything. I told someone this and they still said, ‘I think they still had something to do with it.’”
There will be more hard days.
Regardless of what folks believe, the thought of another trial is weighing on the community. Through the local paper and town gossip, the horrifying details of Debbie’s murder will come up once again. Pepi will have to resort to some of her proven habits to get through the trial:
“I’ve got a great big backyard and I just go up there and sit. I don’t like to cry around people, but when I go up there I just cry and cry.
“I’m going to get tortured again.”
Pepi and Sheppard say they are ready for another trial. But is the community ready?
“I don’t think that the general public is ready for another trial concerning the murder of Debra Sue Carter,” said Tollett, a resident of Ada since 1978. “Those of us who have been close to it all this time, we know what the significance of another trial is. We know how big a deal it is.
“We have a lot of new people moving into town. To them, this is just another trial. But for those who have been involved all this time … it’s still just as if it were yesterday for them.”
Reversal of fortune
Smith firmly believes he has a case to move the finger away from Gore and point it back at Williamson and Fritz. With a ruling clearing a path for a more comprehensive defense, Smith plans to introduce evidence of Williamson confessing to the crime and using his own forensics to sway the jury.
However, Williamson will not be able to testify or defend himself. He died in 2004.
During his 1988 trial, investigators testified that Williamson gave incriminating statements including following a woman home the night of the murder from the club, and saying he could not confess because it would hurt his relatives. He also talked about having a dream about Carter’s murder.
“We wanted to tell the jury the last time that Williamson confessed, twice,” Smith said. “Apparently he knew some things about the crime scene which I don’t think he would have known if he hadn’t been there.”
At the time of the murder, Williamson was living with his mother, who lived just a block away from Carter.
A jailhouse informant also testified against Fritz, telling a jury Fritz said he never meant to hurt Carter.
On the forensic side, most of the evidence would seem to favor Williamson and Fritz. It’s hard to get around DNA tests that exclude suspects from the crime. But Smith said there is more:
“There was a hair at the scene they can’t say conclusively is not (Williamson’s).”
During the 1988 trials, forensic experts testified hair found at the scene was consistent with Williamson and Fritz. That changed at Gore’s trial when experts said the DNA tests of hair and semen matched Gore. Witnesses also testified they saw Carter push Gore away in the club parking lot the night of the murder.
While the appeals court gave Gore and Smith new hope, the defense attorney knows what he is up against trying a case nearly 25 years old.
“It’s just damn near impossible,” Smith said. “The state’s evidence is chiseled in stone. What if their witnesses died, so what. They’ve got transcripts from three trials.
“But with us, for example, if we wanted to show that Glen had sex with Debbie, who is there now who remembers a quarter-century later who was running around with who? We can’t reconstruct that now.”
Smith also plans to bring in a fourth suspect. He said Ricky Joe Simmons also confessed to the crime and there is a hair sample Simmons cannot be excluded from.
While the first Gore trial lasted less than two weeks, Smith said he has cleared the entire month of June for the case.
Intensifying matters, the prosecutor for the case is well-known former Oklahoma County Assistant District Attorney Richard Wintory. A disciple of Bob Macy, Wintory is flying from his home in Arizona to try the case.
Want more intensity? Famed novelist John Grisham currently sits at his computer writing his first nonfiction book about Williamson, Debbie’s murder and the town of Ada. Tentatively titled “An Innocent Man,” the book is scheduled to be released in the fall.
The case is also unique for Smith who is trying to rebuke what a fellow defense attorney successfully argued. Both Smith and Williamson’s attorney Barrett work and reside in Norman. But they know the responsibilities of trying death penalty cases.
“Mark Barrett, who saved Ron Williamson’s life, is a hero to me,” Smith confessed. “But he knows I’m going to try and blame it on Williamson. He’s a professional and he’s very firm in his belief that Ron didn’t do it. But he’s tried a bunch of capital murder cases and he knows what you’ve go to do.”
Both Smith and Pepi do have something in common — they both want as much detail about the case to come out in the next trial.
“The not knowing is what hurts you,” Pepi said. “I want to know.”
Besides the memories, Pepi still clings to an address book that belonged to Debbie and the $3.25 found in Debbie’s purse.
There will be more hard days.