Belton: 1 convicted, 1 pleads after man killed for ‘cooperating with police’

Dana Francis Walcott, Jr. (left) was convicted of capital murder while Owen Thomas Free III pleaded guilty to murder. (Jail photos)

BELTON, Texas (KWTX) Dana Francis Walcott, Jr., 40, who along with Owen Thomas Free III, 38, was accused in the drug-related killing of a Central Texas man whose burned body was found in September 2018 on a property along a rural road in Bell County, was convicted of capital murder Friday afternoon.

Prosecutors were not seeking the death penalty, so he was automatically sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Free, meanwhile, pleaded guilty Friday afternoon to a murder charge and was sentenced to 50 years in prison.

“This agreement was made in consultation with the victim’s family who agreed to pursue this course of disposition. It also gives finality to the family in seeing the outcome of two sentences for individuals held accountable for the death of their son,” Bell County District Attorney Henry Garza said in an email.

The trial started Monday.

Walcott and Free remained in the Bell County Jail Friday evening in lieu of $1 million bonds.

The victim, Michael Vanlandingham, 30, of Copperas Cove, was shot to death because his killers suspected “he was cooperating with police,” according to an arrest warrant affidavit.

Firefighters found Vanlandingham’s burned body on Sept. 17, 2018 after dousing a brush fire off FM 1670 near U.S. Highway 190/Interstate 14 just west of Belton.

He had been shot twice in the head.

Dental records were used to identify the victim.

Walcott was arrested on Sept. 25, 2018.

Free was arrested two days later a tip that the Bell County Sheriff’s Department received following a news conference that morning.

The property on which the victim's body was found is known as “The Compound” and drug activity has occurred in the area, authorities said.

According to the arrest warrant affidavit, a resident who lived on the property told investigators that three men had come to his trailer earlier in the day on Sept. 17.

He said he knew the three only as Tommy, Dana and Mike, but through a photo lineup, the man later identified Tommy as Owen Free and Dana as Dana Walcott, the affidavit says.

He did not know Mike, the affidavit says.

“Tommy asked for his help,” the affidavit says.

The man told investigators he while he was dressing in order to assist Tommy, he heard a gunshot.

“He then left his trailer and walked to the back of the property where he observed male clothing on the road and smoke coming from a burn pit,” the affidavit says.

The resident told investigators he saw a human body in the burn pit, the affidavit says.

The man told deputies “that ‘Tommy’ had told him they had brought Mike from a local hotel to ‘the compound’ to kill him and that they did so because they suspected he was cooperating with police,” the affidavit said.

A surveillance video obtained from the hotel where Vanlandingham was staying showed Free and Walcott escorting a man from a room whose hands appeared to be restrained, the affidavit said.

Hotel records and the vehicle associated with the room showed that Vanlandingham was that man, the affidavit says.