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Who killed Lillie Hefele? 40 years later question haunts family

Lillian Morales “Lillie” Hefele was 40 when she died 40 years ago. (Fort...
Lillian Morales “Lillie” Hefele was 40 when she died 40 years ago. (Fort Worth Police Dept. photo)(KWTX)
Published: Feb. 25, 2020 at 7:08 PM CST
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Lillian Morales “Lillie” Hefele was 40 when she died 40 years ago and in all that time nobody’s been charged with her murder, although police do have at least some evidence in hand.

Hefele, the mother of two and the wife of a Waco insurance agent, was found on Feb. 27, 1980 inside her red and white 1976 Cadillac at 3900 Sansom Park Rd., in Buck Sansom Park in Fort Worth, dead from two gunshot wounds.

She’s buried in Waco’s Oakwood Cemetery.

KWTX made no fewer than 12 phone calls and sent half-a-dozen emails to Det. Leah Wagner, the only investigator assigned to the Fort Worth Police Department’s cold case unit, but neither calls nor emails elicited any response.

“She was my very best friend. We were like sisters,” said Wacoan Julia Wilhelm, who said she and Hefele met “when Lillie moved with her family onto the same block where I lived.

“We were the same age. We were neighbors. My older sister and her older sister were friends, too,” Wilhelm remembered.

“She was so cute, just tiny,” said Bernadette Feazell, one of Hefele’s close friends at the time of her death.

“She weighed about 90 pounds and the blast from that shotgun pretty much blew her in half,” she said.

Wilhelm clearly recalled when she learned Hefele had been murdered.

“I was working at Hillcrest (Baptist Medical Center) in the evenings and that night I got a call from a friend that Lillie was missing.

“Then later I learned she had died.

“Lillie was fun to be around, a big talker, a very pretty, pretty girl,” Wilhelm remembered.

“The last time we got together was in early 1980,” Wilhelm said. “We sat and talked and told stories, then the next time I saw her she was in a casket.

“When she died, I was devastated, now I’m angry,” she said.

“It’s been 40 years.”

Fort Worth police responded Feb. 27, 1980 to a request to meet Fort Worth park officers regarding a Signal 12, a deceased person, on Sansom Park Drive and when Officers C.L. Forntenberry and J.H. Payne arrived, they found Hefele’s body inside her car.

“Upon arriving at 2007 hours (8:07 p.m.), officer was met by (a park police officer) who stated he observed the complainant vehicle in the southwest corner of Buck-Sansom Park, approximately 200 yards from 3900 Sansom Park Drive,” Forntenberry’s report reads.

The incident report shows Forntenberry opened the passenger side door of the Cadillac and immediately noticed the woman inside had “suffered a large gunshot wound in the right shoulder and one in the center of her chest.”

The report identified the victim as Lillian Morales Hefele, born April 1, 1939, who lived at 2601 Robinson Dr., in Waco.

A short story appeared the next day in the Waco Tribune that detailed Hefele’s death and it said both Fort Worth and Waco police were investigating.

At least one report indicated the car had been set on fire, but the Cadillac was closed up so tightly the flames were suffocated.

There was, however, no mention of a fire in the police report.

She died as a result of two gunshot wounds, but she evidently wasn’t shot in the car or where the car was found because there was no mention of blood or blood spatter in the report and no mention of recovered shell casings or evidence of gunfire.

KWTX obtained Hefele’s death certificate from the Tarrant County Medical Examiner’s Office prepared and signed by Dr. N.S. Peerwani, chief medical examiner, which indicates Hefele was about 5-feet tall and weighed 96 pounds when she died.

The report names the manner of death as “homicide, shot by another person,” and describes the fatal wound as a gunshot “to the hemothorax with rupture of the right pulmonary lobe” of the lung.

The report did not specify the type or caliber of firearm used.

The police report also shows Forntenberry notified homicide detectives who eventually took over the investigation.

At least one piece of forensic evidence, a cigar butt of a particular type and brand that had been snuffed out on Hefele’s body, was said to have been recovered at the scene, but when asked about it, police refused to confirm the existence of any forensic evidence still in custody.

An open records request also submitted to Fort Worth police was forwarded to the Texas Attorney General’s Office for an opinion, but none has yet been published.

“This case is unique because we can do all this, the testing and forensics and stuff, right here in Waco if outside agencies will work with us,” Capt. Steve January, chief of the McLennan County Sheriff’s Office Cold Case Unit, said.

January said the Hefele case is among the 38 active cases--the oldest among them dates back to 1955--his squad is working on and over the past three years the deputies have been successful.

“We have one conviction and have five people indicted, including one that remains sealed until we make an arrest,” January said.

McLennan County District Attorney Barry Johnson said the Hefele case is on his radar and he and others in his office have spoken with Det. Wagner.

“She told me this case is active and she’s currently working on it,” Johnson said.

He went on to say his office has somewhat of a jurisdictional problem with the case because “there so far is no proof she was killed in McLennan County.”

January, however, said he believes the series of incidents that led to Hefele’s murder “probably started in McLennan County” and that he and his deputies believe she was killed here, and her body later was driven to Fort Worth.

Former McLennan County District Attorney Vic Feazell, now a private practice attorney in Waco, said “Lillie Hefele was murdered in McLennan County, I’m sure, but even that doesn’t matter because there is intersectional jurisdiction in Texas.

“A trial might not happen in McLennan County but there certainly is basis for an investigation here,” he said.

“She lived here, had friends here and was connected to McLennan County.”

January said the cold case unit began working on the case about two years ago after one of Hefele’s daughters contacted the squad about the case.

“It’s important that those who come forward now know that they can trust us, and they are not in harm’s way,” January said.

He sees Lillie’s picture every day when he walks into his office because a three-ring binder with her name and photo on the cover sits on a bookshelf right next to his desk.

He said he and his two deputies “are on it.

“We’ve talked with several people associated with the case and have a list of others, “January said.

Those already interviewed include both of Hefele’s daughters, her sister and other family members, plus others who had information about the incident, January said.

January said his staff is working closely with Fort Worth police to ensure that any evidence available for testing is tested.

Johnson said when he and one of his investigators spoke with Wagner, he asked about the rumored cigar butt and “she told us she had submitted it for (DNA) testing.”

Feazell also mentioned the cigar stub and questioned if it had been subjected to any kind of analysis.

“That cigar butt might be the evidence that solves this murder,” Feazell said.

“The cigar butt, the fact that there was no blood in her car when she was found, those things are strong evidence.”

Family members say they’ve talked only to Waco police about the murder, but “Have not been questioned by any officer from Fort Worth.”

They all say Waco police Detective Mike Trantham, who now is retired, was their primary contact and “he always was very nice to (us).”

Open records requests asking Waco police for “Any records pertaining to the Feb. 27, 1980 murder of Lillian Morales Hefele, aka Gloria Lillian Hefele” were met with the following responses: “The City of Waco has reviewed its files and has determined there are no responsive documents to your request”, and “I am not finding a record of either of the names.”

Hefele lived at the Robinson Drive address with her husband, Gerhard, who worked for John Hancock Insurance Co. in the Waco office.

He told police his wife had left their home on Feb 27, 1980, to drive to Fort Worth to visit a friend and pick up a recipe.

The two were married in August 1977 in Waco when Lillie was 38 and Gerhard was 22, according to online records.

January said his detectives have searched for the husband, but wouldn’t say if he’s been interviewed or where he might be.

Several family members said he may have returned to his native Germany shortly after his wife was killed.

It’s the not knowing that’s driving the family crazy today.

“I know there’s somebody out there who knows what happened and I just want them to come forward and say,” one family member, who asked not to be identified, said.

The bottom line in the Hefele case is simple: “This is a case that can be, and certainly should be solved to bring some closure to Lillie’s family and to serve justice on her killer,” Feazell said.