Unsolved Valentine’s Day double murder still haunts local investigators

Published: Feb. 14, 2018 at 12:26 PM CST
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North Robinson Drive was bustling with business on Valentine’s Day in 1989, but inside one shop that morning lay two bodies, both victims of brutal murder that remains unsolved nearly three decades later.

City Software co-owner James Monta Tolen, 52, and the company’s secretary, Karey Irene Bowdoin, 33, were found dead inside the business by a customer.

Both were shot execution-style.

The two were last seen alive at around 8:30 a.m. that day, then Robinson police Chief Michael Holder said.

The customer arrived just more than an hour later to pick up a computer, made the gruesome discovery, and called police.

“I need a policeman at City Software,” the man’s voice crackled into the telephone just before 10 a.m. “What’s it in reference to,” the dispatcher asked the caller. “I need an ambulance, squad car and a JP. There are two dead carcasses here,” the man said. “Do you mean people?” the dispatcher asked. “That’s what the hell I’m calling for,” came the curt reply.

Bowdoin, according to her husband, wasn’t supposed to have gone to work that day, but for some reason went in.

Years later he said he never learned why she changed her plans.

Holder, speaking back in 1989, said when the radio dispatcher first put out the call, he couldn’t believe what he was hearing.

Holder and Investigator Marty Harris were headed to a florist to buy Valentine’s Day flowers for their wives, but instead ended up speeding around the traffic circle on La Salle Avenue to head back to Robinson.

Back then a community of about 8,500, Robinson was busy, growing and prospering and that brought some crime issues such as burglaries and criminal mischief complaints, but the double murder—at the start of a business day—remains the worst crime ever committed in the suburb, police say.

Within a couple of minutes the two officers pulled into the gravel parking lot at 409-B North Robinson Drive, behind Sgt. Curtis McLemore, who already was at the store.

He guided them inside to the gruesome crime scene.

The only sound, eerie as it was, was the crackling audio from a small television set someone had turned on earlier in the morning, and, occasionally, the store’s ringing telephone.

The building, which now houses Leal’s Restaurant, then was home to a beauty shop on the north side and the computer business, which also shared space with a television satellite business, on the south side.

Both victims were found lying fully clothed on their sides on a stockroom floor, just a few feet apart, each with a single gunshot wound to the head, police reports and crime scene photos show.

A friend, Nannette Gassman, dropped Bowdoin off at the shop that morning at 8 a.m. and she later told investigators she’d taken Bowdoin to work because Bowdoin’s car had a flat tire that morning.

Gassman was staying temporarily in Bowdoin’s home.

Tolen arrived in his black-and-silver pickup truck at about 8:20 a.m.

It, too, was parked in front of the building when police arrived.

Tolen’s body was slumped in a corner, his shirt and jacket soaked in blood.

Bowdoin, wearing jeans and a pink sweater, was found more toward the center of the south wall of the room, her right arm raised and covering the side of her head.

Between the bodies, near the base of a wall, investigators recovered two .22 long rifle-caliber high velocity shell casings.

Later autopsy findings would reveal both died from a single .22-caliber cranial gunshot wound.

Neither gunshot wound was found to be a contact wound but the shots were fired at close range because the autopsy revealed traces of gun powder in Tolen’s hair samples.

There wasn’t really any sign of a struggle, just the bodies and the blood, Robinson police Criminal Investigation Division Sgt. Mike Noel said in a recent interview for this story.

Noel is now investigator-in-chief on the City Software double homicide and he lives in the case files and boxes of evidence every day.

In fact, he spoke with victims’ family members as recently as Feb. 1 about the case, he said.

He scrolled through old records relating to the case in a squad room outside his office and laid a 3-inch-thick ring binder on a desk that contains 99 very poor-quality color photographs of the crime scene.

“We all learn with every investigation,” Noel said.

“Technology has changed and the way investigators go at a case today is very different even from a couple of years ago, let alone 29.”

He says Robinson police, Texas Rangers and investigators from the district attorney’s office were somewhat stumped for a motive from the very beginning because all the store’s inventory was accounted for and there was nothing else missing, including the cash left in the register, the money in the victim’s wallets and jewelry.

McLemore’s report says he believes both victims were kneeling when they were shot.

Investigators that morning ignored the constant ringing of the store’s telephone, far too busy with their tasks to worry about who might be calling, but soon they’d learn it had been Tolen’s wife, Glinda.

When he failed to answer the phone, she called the nearby Sonic Drive Inn and someone there told her there were police cars all around the business.

Just minutes later police officers intercepted her at the front door, where Holder took her to the beauty salon next door and broke the tragic news to her.

The community still was coming to grips with what had happened that Tuesday at the end of the week when the victims were buried.

Eulogists remembered Tolen as a big, jolly, broad-shouldered man always ready with a word of confidence or support, who had one son and two step-daughters, plus three grandchildren.

Bowdoin, who’d worked at City Software for about 10 months, was from California and she left behind a husband and 3-year-old son.

As the investigation dragged on into the next month, Holder would say detectives were at the point where everyone was a suspect and no one was.

What police saw at the scene was baffling, Holder would say.

“The thing (the crime scene) was neat and clean. There was nothing, absolutely nothing out of place,” Holder said in a newspaper interview soon after the murders.

“It’s kind of unreal because in most crime scenes you’re going to find something out of place, or some kind of struggle, but not in this case,” Holder said.

That fact convinced investigators the killer was a friend, or at least someone known to the victims.

The crime must have happened lightning-fast because neither victim seemed to have reacted.

Tolen was 6-feet, 2-inches tall, weighed about 240 pounds and was solid as a rock, his family and friends said.

Bowdoin was a farm girl who rode horses and cared for livestock, a hunter and not one to shy away from danger, her husband said.

Detectives figured they had to have been caught by surprise by someone who didn’t seem to present a threat, or, someone they knew.

Bowdoin’s husband was questioned at the time but after initial investigation he fell from the list of suspects.

Tolen’s wife had a rock-solid alibi.

Tolen’s business partner, Mike Hinton, was interviewed as well but never was considered a suspect.

The primary suspect back then, actually, was the man who reported the crime.

The 51-year-old man, who authorities described as a former police officer and jailer, showed up at City Software early on the day of the murders, took a blue bank bag inside the store and paid cash for a computer he needed for his business.

“The computer he bought was one the store was using, so it had to be wiped of some business data,” Noel said.

The man told police he paid the bill and left to kill some time while Tolen wiped the computer hard drive clean.

Detectives have developed evidence that shows he drove from the store north on Robinson Drive, took Loop 340 east and drove almost all the way to the Brazos River, then turned around and went back to Robinson.

He got there between 9 a.m. and 9:30 a.m. and when he went inside the shop, he found no one there, Noel said.

Unable to find anyone inside the computer store, the man went next door to the beauty shop to ask if they’d seen anyone next door.

Police talked to a woman who remembered a man acting strangely and “he made me nervous,” she told police.

The owner of Hair and Skin Concepts next door suggested that the man go back and look in the back of the store, which he did, and stumbled on the grisly scene.

That was at least the third time the woman had encountered him that morning.

The first time was just after she got to work, the second after she and her husband returned to the shop about 20 minutes later, and the third time was when she sent him back to City Software to look in the back of the store.

Each time, she told police, the man asked if she had heard anything from next door, or seen anyone.

She answered in the negative each time.

At some point, detectives say, between the first encounter with and his last, the man left the scene to go buy some Advil.

The husband told police that morning he’d encountered the man coming from the back side of the building and he was limping, slipped on the wet ground and almost fell.

The man’s car still was parked in front of the store when police arrived.

Noel says records indicate the man walked through the crime scene more than once before police got there and at least once after officers were on scene.

When McLemore arrived he asked the man to show him where the bodies were, and the two walked through the front of the building into the back room, where the lights were off.

McLemore later reported he searched for a light switch and couldn’t find one, but when he asked the man, he was able to direct the sergeant to an adjacent wall where he found the switch in an unexpected place.

The sergeant wrote that when he asked him when he was last in the back room, the man responded that he “had never been in there.”

Similarly, Holder’s report contains an exchange between him and the man as the chief was trying to get the store’s cash register open but was unable to.

The man showed him the location of a power switch hidden under the counter that activated the register when turned on.

Again, he claimed to have been inside the business only a few times.

There were issues with contamination of the original crime scene and there were errors made in the initial collection of crime scene evidence.

The weather hadn’t helped, it had rained the night before and the gravel parking lot was muddy, which just compounded the mess inside the store.

“You can always look back and see something you might have done differently,” retired FBI Special Agent and now Lacy Lakeview police Chief John Truehitt said.

Truehitt, who came to the Waco FBI Field Office in 1999, assisted investigators years ago when they were preparing the Robinson case for a second look.

“Those investigators did the best job they could back then with (elemental crime scene) technology and their education,” Truehitt said.

“That’s why we look back at those cases because things have (forensic technology has) changed, and it’s changing every day.”

“The whole theory in cold case investigations is to see what was done back then and then see if there is anything we can do now, especially with the advances in technology,” retired Texas Ranger Matt Cawthon said.

Investigators interviewed the man at the scene that morning and found him cooperative and helpful but extremely nervous and fidgety, Noel said.

They asked if they could inventory his car and he said yes, but explained he didn’t have a key to the trunk because he’d left it with his wife when he left home so she could get a copy made.

Holder, in his crime scene report, noted the man was visibly upset and shaken over what he’d seen, so much so that officers had him sit down and try to collect his thoughts.

Holder said he would sit a few minutes, then stand and begin walking into the crime scene before he had to be told to return to his chair.

The inventory completed and his interview done, the man claimed he’d received an emergency telephone call about one of the boys he fostered at his rural home and needed to return there, police allowed him to leave the crime scene, with his car, the trunk still unsearched.

All the “old-school” investigators who spoke with KWTX.com about this investigation agreed “that would never happen today.”

“We went back in 2012 with a warrant to get (his) DNA and hair samples and he was not happy with us about it,” Noel said.

“I invited him to lunch and built a rapport with him,” Noel said.

Tolen’s widow and his daughters in past years have expressed displeasure with the way the initial investigation was completed.

Tolen’s son, Greg, died Feb.19, 2014 in Hutto at age 55.

Bowdoin’s husband says he prays for answers, as well.

Noel’s hard work over more than a dozen years re-investigating and trying to breathe new life into the case has tempered those hard feelings over time.

And there are issues that need still be resolved.

One police report says the man went to the beauty shop after finding the bodies and asked the woman there to call police to report the deaths, while another says he asked the woman for the phone number and made the call himself--and it is a man’s voice on the police department’s recorder.

A .22-caliber Remington rifle taken from the man’s house when the Limestone County Sheriff’s Office went there at the request of late McLennan County Sheriff Jack Harwell to talk with him, was loaded with ammunition that the FBI crime lab said was the same type and brand as the shell casings found on the floor of the shop, but ballistics tests showed the rifle tested did not fire the fatal bullets.

Two hairs found on the crime scene floor, which showed to have different donors, did not match either Tolen or Bowdoin’s forensic examples.

The condition of the lethal bullets was such that ballistics could not confirm that they were fired through the same barrel.

Tolen was blood type B, Bowdoin type A and type O blood was found at the scene.

The man who found the bodies claimed he arrived at the store with $4,560.10 in a blue Marlin State Bank bag, but neither the bag nor the money has ever turned up and there is no record of receipt on the cash register tape for that amount.

The man presented a hand-written receipt to police for his purchase but later the store manager at City Software questioned the authenticity of the receipt.

And then there’s the key to the car trunk, which he said he left with his wife to get a copy made.

He was a locksmith and had the tools, by his own admission, to build the key himself, and besides, his wife told police she didn’t have nor had she ever had his car trunk key, police say.

Truehitt said it best: “They did the best job they were able to do.”

“Those kinds of cases stay with investigators, they never fade away,” Truehitt said.

“Even if they’re solved, the names and faces and the people stay with you,” he said.

And that, Noel said, is “what gets you fired up again and what keeps you going on a case like this.”

Notables who were involved with the investigation include 19th District Judge Ralph Strother, who then was a prosecutor in the McLennan County District Attorney’s office, Truehitt, retired Texas Rangers Cawthon and James (Jim) Ray and Ranger Marcus Cantu.

The investigators did develop a suspect and handed the name over to former District Attorney John Secrest who penned a note included in Robinson Police Department’s case file that says he “won’t take the case without a confession.”

That was the last time police made an effort to submit the case for prosecution, Noel says.

That doesn’t mean, however, the case is closed, because in Texas, which lacks a statute of limitations on for murder, a killing is never closed until it’s solved and Noel’s not giving up.

Ed’s Note: Much of the information published in this report came from a presentation that Robinson police Sgt. Mike Noel put together in 2012 when he presented the case to the Texas Sheriff’s Association’s Cold Case Review Team. As well, the reference desk at the Waco-McLennan County library provided archived information about the incident. Anyone who has information about the 1989 Valentine’s Day murders in Robinson is urged to call Sgt. Noel at 254-662-0525.