Local sheriff’s cold case squad clears 6 unsolved murders

Published: Feb. 24, 2020 at 5:58 PM CST
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The cold case unit at the McLennan County Sheriff’s Office has cleared six unsolved murder cases and it’s attracting national attention.

“Other states are watching to see what we’re doing and how we’re doing it,” Sheriff Parnell McNamara said.

There are 38 cases on the cold case list that the unit is working on right now, the oldest of which dates back to 1955, unit Capt. Steve January said and it’s among the six that have been cleared.

“I’ve always wanted to do it,” McNamara said, and “after we solved the Beth Bramlett case, my wife said I’d kept all my campaign promises but one and that was to organize a cold case unit.

“So, I did it.”

In the beginning there was no budget, but McNamara said two Waco businessmen who were interested in the effort, CTWP’s David Willy and restaurateur Sammy Citrano, pitched in and funded the unit.

Axtell schoolgirl Beth Bramlett was shot to death in early August 1982.

A fisherman found her body on Aug. 10, 1982 lying face down on abandoned railroad tracks near her home several days after she died from a .22 caliber gunshot to the head, although autopsy would show she suffered more than one bullet wound.

On Jan. 31, 2018, the cold case unit announced Axtell-area native Talmadge Wayne Wood, who died in 2014, was the man who killed her.

That was the first case the detectives cleared and as a result, the cold case unit was made a permanent branch of the criminal investigation division at the sheriff’s office.

McNamara and January both say it was the story reprising the murder that was the catalyst for the formation of the cold case unit.

“It was that story by KWTX that got us focused on cold cases and KWTX deserves the credit for the idea,” McNamara said.

When the group had answers, the Bramlett family gathered at the sheriff’s office in McNamara’s conference room and the detectives and investigators laid out their case against Wood just as they would have in a jury trial, January said.

“It was a sobering moment for all of us because about eight family members came in and they were happy to see what we showed them.”

There are three full-time cold case detectives, all old, well-experienced law enforcement officers, plus a cast of others including McNamara, Chief Deputy David Kilcrease, two retired FBI agents, a former assistant U.S. attorney and others, who pitch in on cases.

McNamara said when January started cleaning up and organizing the department’s cold case files, “there was so much dust down there (in the basement where the filed had been stored) it made him start coughing.

“It was a real mess and had been neglected.”

January said there were hundreds of case files stored in the basement and in file cabinets left behind by investigators who had moved on, and his detectives reviewed them all before ferreting out several that could still be investigated.

Suspects in the six cases the unit has cleared are either in custody awaiting trials, under indictment, or out of the country and still at large.

“We know where they are, how to get to them, what they do every day,” January said.

“When the time is right we’ll make that arrest, too.”

Like the Bramlett case, the oldest cold case murder involves a suspect who already has died, January said.

“We got a call from a preacher in Colorado who told us he’d given a ride to a conference in Arizona to a man, who along the way said he needed to clear his conscience and he admitted he’d killed his sister,” January said.

“We bought airline tickets to go interview the suspect but before we could get to him, he died,” January said.

Investigators were able to determine the man had killed his younger sister with a shotgun because she was about to tell her parents the brother had been sexually abusing her.

The bottom line is that the unit is paying off with successful investigations, not all of which end in an arrest.

“We check out lots of cases that people bring to us, usually about relatives, and in most cases, we learn the death was natural, sometimes self-inflicted, but even that gives a family some peace,” January said.

The unit has its own challenge coin, designed by Detective Sgt. Terry Fuller, that includes the phrase “Answering Unanswered Questions,” a saying derived from a comment Bramlett’s mother repeated to McNamara when he announced he’d solved her daughter’s murder.

“As we were leaving, she told us ‘Thank you for answering the unanswered questions,’” Fuller said.