Investigators unravel mystery of 1982 murder of Central Texas teen
It took most of 36 years, but on Wednesday McLennan County Sheriff Parnell McNamara announced his cold case task force has solved a 1982 murder in Axtell that left a pretty young high school student dead.
Axtell-area native Talmadge Wayne Wood, who died in 2014, was the man who beat and shot Axtell schoolgirl Beth Bramlett to death, McNamara said Wednesday.
One of the cold case squad members, also an Axtell native, actually worked on the original investigation, was well acquainted with Bramlett’s family and knew the accused man from childhood.
”Everybody in town was afraid of him,” Detective Terry Fuller said.
McNamara said the newly-organized cold case squad conducted more than 60 interviews, carefully reviewed the crime scene and through an extremely intensive investigation was able to eliminate every other suspect in the 35-year-old case and presented Wood as the only suspect that had the motive and opportunity to kill Bramlett.
“A very, very sad case, very disturbing,” McNamara said.
Bramlett’s body lay face down for several days on abandoned railroad tracks near her home in Axtell before a fisherman found her in the middle of the afternoon on Aug. 10, 1982.
Bramlett died from a .22 caliber gunshot to the head, although autopsy would show she suffered more than one bullet wound, McNamara said.
When she was found Bramlett was wearing jeans and a T-shirt.
At the crime scene her body didn't appear to have been brutalized, but one deputy who worked the original case said when investigators turned her over, it looked as if someone had chewed or gnawed, maybe even eaten a part of her body.
The cold case detective didn't have any physical evidence to work with; no weapon, no vehicle, no place where tell-tale DNA might hide.
But what investigators did have was eyewitness accounts of what happened that night and that's what led them to Wood.
The team's theory is that Bramlett, who'd just returned home from a trip to San Antonio and was about to begin her senior year at Axtell High School, gathered with several schoolmates at Tradinghouse Creek Reservoir, near Hallsburg, for a back-to-school party.
Sometime after midnight on Sunday, Aug. 8, Bramlett started walking home down Hall Road, but a short time later some friends stopped to give her a ride.
At the intersection of Hall Road and Wilbanks Road, the driver told Bramlett he didn't have enough gas to get her to Axtell, so she asked to be let out to try to catch another ride.
After Bramlett got out, the boy and girl returned to the party where they encountered the girl's father, Wood, who told the girl he was on the way home and she'd better beat him there.
He left, with the girl close behind, but by the time she got back to the intersection, Bramlett was gone, so she sped on home.
She got there before her father, who didn't arrive until 4:30 a.m. McNamara said.
Wood had a problem with Bramlett, although investigators weren't able to say just what the problem was, but witnesses told detectives they'd heard him tell his daughter she'd better not be hanging around with Bramlett.
Fuller said people he'd talked to spoke about how Wood would tie up and beat his wife.
"One of them told us he showed them pictures of her tied up," McNamara said.
Investigators said they believe Wood saw Bramlett on the roadway trying to catch a ride and he picked her up.
"She started getting concerned when he drove past the road to her house," McNamara said.
At some point, about 18 miles northeast of the lake, Wood stopped the car, beat Bramlett severely and shot her with a .22-caliber pistol, McNamara said, then he dumped her body on some railroad tracks right in the middle of Axtell.
Fuller said Wood got back into his car and drove the 5 miles to his house near the Methodist Children's Home Boys Ranch, on Boys Ranch Road and got there about 4:30 a.m.
A witness interviewed during the recent investigation told detectives he'd seen Wood get out of his car at about 3:30 a.m. that morning and his clothes were stained with blood.
"We looked everywhere for that car," Fuller said.
"(Texas) Ranger Jake Burson went through years of vehicle records and we think we found where it was sold to Wood but we've never been able to track it down since then."
McNamara said Wood can be tied to other acts of violence, including shooting an elderly woman in the head and attacking her son.
The shooting victim was only slightly injured by the bullet that only grazed her scalp and the son was able to overpower Wood with a shovel until deputies could arrive and arrest him.
Wood served time in the Texas prison system after he was convicted of assaulting the couple.
Bramlett's mother Gail told investigators she last saw her daughter at about 1:30 a.m. on Sunday Aug. 8, 1982.
After she learned deputies found a body on Aug. 10, she reported Beth missing the next day.
Several of Bramlett's surviving family members came to Waco to meet with McNamara ad the old case detectives earlier so the deputies could lay out their case against Wood.
"After we finished they told us they were leaving 100 percent sure that we'd found the right murderer."
Edwin Otto "Windy" Stuckley, at 93 probably the oldest current resident of Axtell, moved there in 1958.
One morning late last summer he sat out in his yard with his dog and looked westward, just a couple of blocks, to where the train tracks used to run.
"It was right over there," he said, sweeping his hand toward the spot where the tracks used to be.
"They found her body right there on the tracks."
Larry Walts worked with Bramlett’s father, John.
“This really ate him up,” he recalled.
Walts said Bramlett died a broken man.
"That murder shook this little town up," Walts said.
WACO, Texas (KWTX)--The eight-man unit at the McLennan County Sheriff’s Office formed last September to work on unsolved cases includes names of some big-time investigators who not only know how to solve murders, but they know the territory.
The group gathered Wednesday to lay out their solution to a 35-year-old Axtell murder case that involved a popular high school senior and identified her killer as Talmadge Wayne Wood, who died in 2014 at the age of 74.
McNamara is a member of the group. So are Steve January, a veteran former Waco police officer and a former investigator for the district attorney’s office; Terry Fuller, who’s back for a second stint at the sheriff’s office; David Kilcrease, who is McNamara’s second-in-command; and Fred Rhea, now retired, but with 28 years’ experience as an investigator for the Office of the Inspector General and on the FBI’s Violent Crimes Task Force.
Texas Ranger Jake Burson, SO Criminal Investigation Division Lt. Cody Blossman and David Ives, the computer specialist, round out the list.
Combined, they bring several hundred years of experience in tracking down violent criminals
“They have the green light from me,” McNamara said. “They have my permission to do whatever they need to do to clear cold cases. “They don’t have to come to me to tell me what they’re doing, they just go do it,” McNamara said.
Though he didn’t provide many details, the sheriff said the squad already is working on eight cold cases.
“We invite anybody to bring a case to us,” McNamara said. “We’ll work with any department anywhere to help clear up a cold case, whether it’s our or theirs.”