Lake Waco Murders: 40 years later, attorneys believe wrongfully convicted man executed
‘David Spence was an innocent person murdered at the hands of the state,’ attorney says
WACO, Texas (KWTX) - Forty years ago, before mass shootings became regular occurrences and flags routinely fly at half-staff, the gruesome murders of three teenagers at Lake Waco terrified the community and sent shock waves across the state.
Times were simpler in 1982. There was no internet, no cell phones, no social media, and major advances in modern law enforcement, such as DNA testing, were decades down the road.
Jill Montgomery, Raylene Rice and Kenneth Franks were tortured and stabbed multiple times at Speegleville Park at Lake Waco on July 13, 1982. The girls, friends from Waxahachie, had driven to Waco so Montgomery could collect her last paycheck from her job at the Texas Ranger Hall of Fame and Museum. Before they went home, they hooked up with Franks, Montgomery’s friend from their days together at the Methodist Children’s Home.
Two fishermen discovered the teens’ bodies, and the grisly crime scene shook even the most seasoned officers and had Waco residents wondering how something so horrific could happen here.
The killers propped Franks’ body sitting up against a tree and took the time to put his sunglasses on his face as if he were mockingly posed there on display. The two girls were stabbed repeatedly, their throats cut, and had smaller, shallow cuts on their breasts that pathologists would later identify as torture wounds. Both were sexually abused.
Officials believe the teens first were confronted by their killers while they were drinking a few beers at Koehne Park off Lake Shore Drive, with their bodies later dumped at Speegleville Park off Highway 6.
Stunned parents kept their children at home and called for the city to institute curfews at city parks. The shocking crime was more confounding because it seemed so random in nature. Most murder victims know their assailants, but there seemed to be no rhyme nor reason for the deaths of these three teens. That compounded the mystery for Waco police, who were under considerable and increasing pressure to solve the case as the weeks and months went by.
Retired Waco police Lt. Marvin Horton, now 82, remembers how hard his investigators worked to solve the case and the rift that grew among officers over the direction of the investigation.
Truman Simons, a former Waco police sergeant who is credited with solving the case in award-winning author Carlton Stowers’ bestselling book, “Careless Whispers,” and later in a television movie based on the book, left the police department and went to work as a jailer to focus his attention on his primary suspect, David Wayne Spence, who was in jail on an unrelated aggravated sexual assault charge.
Simons spent long hours visiting Spence in jail, cultivating a relationship with him in an effort to coax a confession that never came.
Vic Feazell was the McLennan County district attorney at the time, and his office gave Simons free rein to try to solve the triple homicide.
“Back in the early 80s when this happened, it had a major impact on the community,” Feazell said this week. “I have heard so many people who have read the book, ‘Careless Whispers,’ or heard me talk about it on my podcast, and they say, ‘I remember that my mom wouldn’t let us go out. Our parents wouldn’t let us go to the lake anymore. They wouldn’t let us drive around town. They kept us locked up.’ Until we made an arrest in that case, nobody knew who did it and they were afraid their child might be next.”
Simons, who died in November at the age of 78, also locked his sights on Jordanian national Muneer Deeb, who owned a convenience store across the street from the Methodist Children’s Home. Simons arrested Deeb initially because he learned that Deeb was going to return to Jordan.
However, those charged were dismissed after officials determined there was insufficient evidence at that time to make the charges stick.
Simons later charged Deeb, whose business was faltering, with soliciting Spence to kill a teenager named Gayle Kelley. Kelley worked at Deeb’s store and Simons learned Deeb had taken out a life insurance policy on her and made himself the beneficiary.
Kelly and Jill Montgomery bore a striking resemblance to each other and Simons theorized that Spence and his co-defendants, brothers Gilbert and Anthony Melendez, happened upon the teens that July night at the lake, killed Montgomery after mistaking her for Kelley, and then killed the other teens to leave no witnesses behind.
“My most vivid memory of the Lake Waco murders were the crime scene photos,” Feazell said. “They were the worst I have ever seen. To this day, they were the worst photos I have ever seen. It was a horrific murder. The whole community was just in shock. It happened in the city limits, right out of Koehne Park, three young teenagers brutally, brutally stabbed and raped. It was a real sad case for the victims and the families of the victims.”
Spence was the first of the four defendants to stand trial. He was already serving a 99-year sentence in the unrelated aggravated sexual assault case, and Feazell and his first assistant, Ned Butler, were intent on seeing Spence die by lethal injection. They were so convinced that Spence was a sadistic, dangerous psychopath that they chose to try him a second time in Brazos County for fear that the first conviction might be overturned. Spence was found guilty after both trials and sentenced to death each time. He was executed in Huntsville in 1997.
Deeb’s trial was moved to Johnson County, where he also received the death penalty. However, his conviction was reversed and he was found not guilty on retrial in Tarrant County in 1993. He died from cancer six years after being released.
The Melendez brothers pleaded guilty to two counts of murder and both died in prison serving life prison terms. Gilbert Melendez testified at Deeb’s trial in Cleburne, while Anthony Melendez testified at Spence’s second trial in Bryan. Both later recanted their confessions.
All went to their deaths proclaiming their innocence.
As Spence was strapped to the gurney in the execution chamber, he turned to the victims’ families in attendance and said that they were being victimized again because he was not guilty and the real killer was still free.
FULL INTERVIEW: Attorney and former district attorney Vic Feazell
After Anthony Melendez’s death in 2017, Simons said Anthony Melendez initially denied his involvement in the murders but failed polygraph tests. After he started cooperating with investigators and said he wanted to testify against Spence for embroiling him and his brother in the brutal crime, he passed polygraphs, Simons said.
Simons said Anthony Melendez told him he also wanted to testify against Spence because he never told his mother he and Gilbert were involved in the killings. By testifying, she would find out and spare him the pain of telling her directly, Simons said in 2017.
“When Gilbert Melendez got through testifying, there was dead silence in the courtroom,” Feazell said. “Even the judge sat there in dead silence. It was so powerful, so impactful. It was so emotional. Gilbert even broke down and cried a few times. We asked Gilbert why he testified and he said, ‘I don’t lie to my mother. I will lie to anybody else, but I won’t lie to my mother.’”
Simons’ investigative style and penchant for cultivating jailhouse “snitches” came under fire, even from his former Waco police colleagues. Critics, including Horton, the retired Waco police lieutenant, claimed Simons gave snitches special favors to coax their testimonies and fed them information. Horton remains convinced to this day that innocent men were charged in the Lake Waco case.
Besides Horton, Waco attorneys Russ Hunt and Walter M. Reaves Jr. also think the four defendants were wrongfully convicted.
“I believe that David Spence was an innocent person who was murdered at the hands of the state,” Hunt said.
Feazell, now 71, and Simons spent years defending the investigation and jury verdicts. Criticism intensified after then Gov. George W. Bush, who was running for president at the time, said the state of Texas never executed an innocent man during his watch.
That claim had reporters from national media outlets flocking to Texas to try to prove that bold statement wrong, and some chose Spence as the poster child for the wrongfully convicted.
FULL INTERVIEW: Criminal defense attorney Russ Hunt
Feazell said he has never doubted that his office prosecuted the right men.
“Over the years there were a lot of effort to discredit the convictions in the Lake Waco case,” Feazell said. “I have been fighting this for 40 years now. People say you prosecuted the wrong guys in the case. Well, we got three jury verdicts convicting them. Every court the case could possibly go to upheld the convictions. People naysaying the convictions found other suspects and submitted DNA. As a matter of fact, there were even articles written saying how this DNA was going to clear these defendants. Well, it didn’t, but what was significant to me was that they never submitted DNA from their own clients. Well, why do you think that was?”
Reaves, who successfully overturned the convictions of Calvin Washington and Joe Sidney Williams in the murder of Spence’s mother ‚Juanita White, in Waco, said he also believes the Lake Waco defendants didn’t do it. Reaves and others led unsuccessful efforts to exonerate the defendants before Anthony’s death.
“I have always had my doubts and never really thought he was a guilty and still don’t,” Reaves said of Spence. “The big difference was the first trial was based almost entirely on jailhouse witnesses and jailhouse snitches. A lot of them had a lot of reasons and motivation to make up something. Most of them ended up recanting later.”
FULL INTERVIEW: Attorney Walter Reaves Jr.
Waco attorney Rod Goble, who represented Gilbert Melendez in the case, said he has no doubt that Gilbert Melendez was involved in the deaths and that the grisly details he related in his testimony “came from him.” However, he said he thinks there was another person involved who was never charged.
“I don’t know who it was or the circumstances, but I never believed we got the complete picture,” Goble said.
Waco attorney David Deaconson was a young prosecutor in Feazell’s office when the first Spence case went to trial. He happened to notice a young juror in the case, a first-grade teacher named Karen who had recently graduated from Baylor University. He introduced himself to her after the trial and they were married less than a year later.
“There has never been anything said or written that has ever changed her opinion that her jury made the right decision,” Deaconson said.
Copyright 2022 KWTX. All rights reserved.