Clifton: Educator's murder conviction inspired local women's novel

Jan Zuehlke and her daughter Lara spent 20 years working on the book. (Photo by Paul J. Gately)
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CLIFTON, Texas (KWTX) Former Clifton High School Principal Joe Bryan’s bid for freedom after more than three decades in prison for a murder he insists he didn’t commit, is on hold, but his story inspired two former Clifton women to use the saga as a basis for a novel.

Bryan, 77, has spent the last 33 years in state prison after he was convicted of killing his schoolteacher-wife Mickey, 44, in 1985.

The conviction turned on an analysis of blood spatter evidence that experts now say was flawed.

A hearing that could lead to a recommendation for a new trial is on hold pending the completion of DNA testing of other evidence.

Jan Zuehlke and her daughter Lara, using the pen name J. L. Bass—a combination of their first initials and Jan's father's middle name—wrote “No Motive In Murdoch,” the pair's first mystery novel, and they used the Bryan murder story as basis for the book.

“Many years of work (and many glasses of wine) went into the novel,” Jan says.

The mother-daughter duo worked on the book for 20 years.

The Zuehlkes lived in Clifton at the time the murder was committed and Jan was a teacher who taught a class across the hall from Mickey Bryan’s classroom.

She's 70 now, and she and Lara, 43, agree Mickey Bryan died far too young.

The book is their effort "to tell her story," Jan said.

Both said they believe there was much more to the case, as well as the murder of teenager Judy Whitley, who was found murdered in Clifton months before Mickey Bryan. Jan and Lara are hopeful that if Bryan receives a new trial, more light will be shed on what really happened in Clifton years ago.

There were three authors in the Comanche County courtroom during the Bryan hearing this week.

Two said they're working on books about the murder and the other says his book is finished; he's just waiting for the outcome of the hearing.

“No Motive in Murdoch” tells a much different story on the surface from Bryan’s.

The synopsis published on the book's website says: "sometimes the only way to return to life is to face death

The novel’s protagonist is New York writer Julia Jarvis, who, the synopsis says, “is no stranger to crafting stories that leave readers, and publishers, wanting more.”

“But after a sudden rise to the limelight with her bestselling novel ‘Steelhouse,’ Julia just as quickly finds herself in the middle of a mid-life crisis,” the synopsis says.

"Her career and six-year relationship are on the rocks—not to mention being haunted by the gut-wrenching tragedies from a past she's desperately tried to forget.

"At the urging of her publisher, however, Julia returns to the sleepy, one red-light town of Murdoch, Mississippi after twenty years. It was in Murdoch, the hometown of her late husband, Seth Dixon, where she got her start as a newspaper reporter.

"In a shocking twist of events, Julia found herself as a young reporter covering the still-unsolved murder of high school student, Allison Mercer—and just months later, the murder of Betty Ann Stark, wife of Murdoch's prominent mayor.

"But it's been the mysterious death of her husband Seth that's haunted Julia the most.

"Now Julia wonders if she can piece together what really happened in Murdoch decades ago to write her next book—and save her own life," the synopsis reads.

Jan, who holds a bachelor's degree from Sam Houston State University, a master's from Baylor University, and a doctorate in educational leadership from Texas A&M University, was the primary researcher.

Lara did the writing and editing, a skill she honed over more than 20 years involved in every type of print and digital media.

She holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from Texas A&M University and now lives in Austin.