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Carla Walker

Updated: Dec 16, 2022

The Dance

In 1974 Carla Walker was a seventeen-year-old junior at Fort Worth’s Western Hills High School. She was almost irrepressibly convivial, “the kind of girl who smiled and said hello to just about everyone she saw in the hallways,” a former schoolmate told me. “Everyone at Western Hills liked Carla.”


Just four foot eleven, Carla had a thick mane of honey-blond hair that fell below her shoulders. She was dating Rodney McCoy, a wiry, good-natured kid who was quarterback of the football team. Rodney and Carla talked about enrolling together at Texas Tech University. She told her closest friends that she had no doubt she and Rodney would someday marry and start a family.


The evening of February 16, Rodney arrived at the Walkers’ cozy home in Benbrook, in far west Fort Worth, to take Carla to the school’s Valentine’s Day dance. When Carla walked down the stairs from her bedroom, she was proudly wearing the promise ring he’d given her. He pinned a corsage to her powder-blue dress, then drove her in his mother’s car, a 1969 Ford LTD, to the school cafeteria, which had been decorated with pink streamers and paper hearts.


The evening’s theme was “Love Is a Kaleidoscope,” and throughout the night students danced to a live band called Hydra. When the event ended, around 11:30, Rodney invited another couple to cruise Camp Bowie Boulevard and the Benbrook traffic circle with him and Carla. They stopped at a couple of teen hangouts, Mr. Quick Hamburgers and Taco Bell.

The Abduction

Later, after dropping off the others, Rodney and Carla drove to a nearby bowling alley, Brunswick Ridglea Bowl, so that she could use the bathroom. When she climbed back into the car, they started kissing. Carla leaned back against the passenger door, using her purse as a pillow.


Then the passenger door flew open. Rodney would later say that he caught a glimpse of a tall man with short brown hair. The assailant was wearing a vest. He began bludgeoning Rodney over the head with the butt of a pistol. At some point, the gun’s magazine clip dislodged and fell to the parking lot. The man grabbed Carla. Rodney, barely conscious, heard him say, “You’re coming with me, aren’t you, sweetie?”

“Rodney, go get my dad,” Carla said. “Go get my dad.”

Rodney came to in the driver’s seat sometime around 1 a.m. He sped to the Walkers’ home, which was less than a mile away. He drove up over the curb onto the front lawn and slammed on the brakes.


Carla’s parents, Leighton and Doris, were still awake, playing dominoes in the dining room with relatives. Carla’s little brother Jim, who was twelve years old, and her elder sister, Cindy, who was eighteen, were in the living room, watching television. They heard someone banging at the front door and were stunned to see Rodney, blood dripping down his face. He was frantic. “Mr. Walker, they’ve got her,” he shouted. “They’re gonna hurt her bad.”


Leighton, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, grabbed his pistol and raced to the bowling alley. Doris dialed the operator on the family’s rotary phone and asked to be connected to the police. Officers soon arrived at the scene. Searching the parking lot, they found Carla’s purse along with the magazine clip that had been ejected from the assailant’s weapon. Other cops drove the surrounding streets in squad cars, scanning for any sign of Carla. After the sun rose, more joined the hunt. Peering through binoculars, a few circled the city in helicopters.


When classes resumed on Monday morning, detectives visited Western Hills High. They studied contact sheets of photos taken at the dance, looking for anyone who seemed out of place. They stopped kids in the hallways, asking if they knew anyone who would want to hurt Carla.


In the early seventies, Fort Worth’s population was roughly 400,000—less than half its size today. Local boosters promoted the city as a safe, family-oriented haven. “In our neighborhood, people didn’t even lock their doors,” Carla’s sister, Cindy, told me. “I know this sounds strange, but we were so naive about crime back then that we simply couldn’t imagine that Carla was dead. We figured that someone was going to drive by the house and drop Carla off, and we’d all move on from there.”


But on February 20, four days after Carla’s disappearance, two of the officers assigned to look for her were driving along a remote two-lane road near Benbrook Lake, about five miles southwest of the bowling alley. They spotted a culvert, a concrete tunnel built to let water flow beneath the road, and pulled over to peer inside.


They saw a young woman lying on her back, her face and neck covered with scratches and deep bruises. It was Carla. Her blue dress was bloody and ripped in several places, her bra was pushed up above her breasts, and her underwear and pantyhose were wadded up together at the entrance to the culvert. She had been strangled. Because there were no ligature marks around her neck, investigators believed that the killer had choked her using his hands.

Carla’s parents were asked to come to the hospital morgue to identify her. Jim went with them. “Someone took Mom and Dad down the hall to look at her, and my mom started to scream,” he told me. “I had never heard anyone make a sound like that. It was like an animal sound. That will stay with me for as long as I live.”


The Funeral

News of Carla’s murder covered almost the entire front page of the Star-Telegram. Her funeral, which was held at the Western Hills Church of Christ, was attended by more than 1,250 mourners, far more than the small sanctuary could hold. As they walked past Carla’s open casket, her friends were overcome with grief. They were also terrified. They stopped cruising up and down Camp Bowie Boulevard after school, and some would no longer leave their houses at night. Cathy O’Neal, the editor of the high school yearbook that year, babysat in the neighborhood; she had to call her parents the moment she arrived, to let them know she was safe. Others signed up for self-defense classes that were arranged by the Western Hills High PTA and taught by two men who held black belts in jujitsu.


Task Force

Fort Worth officials formed a task force of detectives from area police departments. But the group didn’t have much to investigate. No fingerprints had been identified on Carla’s body or clothing. The blood on her dress had come from Rodney’s head wounds. Traces of bodily fluid had been found, but the technology did not yet exist to identify a person from their DNA.


In that era, there were no surveillance cameras in parking lots, no license plate readers on the sides of highways. “We didn’t even have computers in our police departments,” Jim Minter, one of the task force detectives, told me.


The group did set up a 24-hour telephone tip line. The detectives were told by various callers that Carla had been murdered by a pair of marijuana dealers, by a carnival worker at the Fort Worth Stock Show and Rodeo, and by a quiet young man who often bowled alone at the alley where Carla had been kidnapped. They heard stories about a boy who had supposedly gotten into an argument with Rodney at Mr. Quick Hamburgers the night before the dance. They also got a call from a man who wouldn’t give his name. He claimed he knew the murderer, who he said hadn’t meant to kill Carla and had “only wanted to f— her.”


The detectives also hired a hypnotist to try to draw more details out of Rodney, who suffered a head injury during the incident. But the most significant memory he managed to recall was that Carla’s kidnapper had been wearing a brown or tan cowboy hat. When the hypnotist snapped his fingers and Rodney awoke, the boy burst into tears—“a scared kid, all torn up inside, tormented that he didn’t do enough to save his girlfriend,” Minter recalled.


During one meeting, the task force detectives did discuss another unsolved murder that had taken place on February 7, 1973, almost exactly a year before Carla’s. That night, a young woman named Becky Martin didn’t return home after attending a night class at Tarrant County Junior College’s south campus. Her body was found almost seven weeks later. It was so decomposed that there was no way to determine the cause of death. The medical examiner said Martin could have been stabbed or strangled or even shot through the stomach.


But what most intrigued the detectives about Martin’s murder was where her body had been found—in a culvert just outside the city limits. Two dead girls in two culverts, a year apart: “It just seemed too coincidental,” said Minter.


Investigators began looking for a serial killer. By March, a month after Carla’s killing, all the task force had to go on was one small lead. The detectives learned that the magazine clip found in the bowling alley parking lot belonged to a newer-model .22 Ruger handgun. They asked the federal government’s Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms to provide them the names of anyone living in Fort Worth who had purchased that model. The ATF came up with a list of a couple dozen people, and the task force set out to interview each of them. One man on the list was a 31-year-old truck driver named Glen McCurley.


In early March 1974, two detectives arrived at McCurley’s home to interview him about his Ruger .22 pistol. When the officers asked about the gun, McCurley said it had been stolen six weeks earlier from his pickup truck while he was fishing. He then agreed to come downtown and take a polygraph test, which he passed.


The task force promptly eliminated him as a potential suspect. “As much as it pains me to say this, we didn’t think about McCurley again,” Minter told me.


By late spring 1974, investigators still had little to show for their work. The task force didn’t officially disband, but many of the detectives were ordered by their supervisors to return to their other cases.


In February 19, 1977, almost precisely three years after Carla’s body was found, someone came across the body of 25-year-old June Ward, a vocational nurse, lying next to a curb in south Fort Worth. Ward was naked except for a bra strap wrapped around her neck. She had been strangled and beaten over the head with what one reporter described as “a sharp, heavy object.”


Detectives who had worked on the Carla Walker task force couldn’t help but notice the similarities between the two crimes. And then, on July 9, 1980, the body of a nineteen-year-old woman named Denise Hough, described in the newspapers as an “unemployed drifter,” was found a few feet from a creek bridge in southeast Fort Worth. She too had been strangled.


Two and a half years later, in February 1983, the body of Christy Tower, a waitress at the famous Billy Bob’s Texas nightclub in the Stockyards, was discovered in a field north of the city. Her hands were bound with electrical wire, and another wire was twisted around her neck.


Like the other killings, the Tower case remained a mystery, though a few days after her murder, detectives received a curious bit of news. They learned that Tower’s purse had been found in a dumpster behind Cheers, a bar on Camp Bowie Boulevard. Cheers was only half a mile from the Brunswick Ridglea Bowl parking lot—the place where Carla had been kidnapped in February 1974.


City residents were getting more worried about the prospect of a serial killer, a fear that law enforcement officials said was “unfounded.” But such concerns grew when Catherine Davis, a 23-year-old aspiring model, went missing on September 9, 1984. Davis was found in a field in far south Fort Worth. About a month later, on October 19, Marilyn Hartman, a 29-year-old middle school teacher, was found gagged and strangled in her Fort Worth bedroom. A mere three days after that, Cindy Heller, a 23-year-old Texas Christian University graduate and former beauty pageant contestant, was last seen near Hulen Mall. She was later found strangled in a creek bed on the TCU campus.


The tragedies kept piling up. On November 26, Kathryn Jackson, another local middle school teacher, was found naked in her bathtub with the water still running. She had been strangled with a cord. Two weeks after Jackson’s killing, Angela Ewert, a 21-year-old part-time model and programmer for an FM rock station, left her fiancé’s house in southwest Fort Worth. The following day, her car was found abandoned by a highway in a southern part of the city, and her decomposed remains were eventually discovered in a field north of Fort Worth.


And on the evening of December 22, just days before Christmas, 21-year-old Regina Grover was seen with her boyfriend walking out of the Keg, a restaurant on Camp Bowie. She was found the next day, strangled and drowned in a creek under a bridge in north Fort Worth. Her boyfriend, who was found in his bed at his apartment, had been bludgeoned to death.

Fort Worth women, especially those living in the southwestern part of the city, were panicking. An editorialist in the Star-Telegram fanned more fear by declaring that the recent spate of murders was most likely being carried out by “one or more extremely sick persons . . . consumed by a passion for killing, particularly for killing attractive young women.” Local media reported on skyrocketing gun and Mace sales. When the police department offered a free seminar on self-defense, more than three thousand attended, most of them women.

The police department formed another task force. “We’re going to break this thing,” police chief H. F. Hopkins promised. Detectives questioned every suspect, from ex-cons with long rap sheets to a freelance photographer. The investigation, though, was fruitless. The only welcome news was a lull in murders. The killer—if it was one killer—seemed to have retreated.


Until February 24, 1986, when a passerby came across a woman’s unclothed body, partially wrapped in a blanket, lying on a hillside near a park in central Fort Worth. She had been strangled. But the police couldn’t identify her through the usual means—fingerprints or dental records. Nor did they receive any reports about a missing woman that might have provided a clue.

Meanwhile

At Western Hills High, students raised money to pay for a memorial to Carla: a tile plaque of a cougar, the school’s mascot, which administrators installed on the floor of the front hallway. Black ropes hanging from metal stanchions surrounded the plaque so that no one could walk on it. “We wanted to make sure Carla was never forgotten,” Konnie Karnes Myers, Carla’s close friend since childhood, told me. “Our hope was to create a place where everyone could come and remember just what kind of special person Carla was.”

In the spring of 1975, those classmates graduated. By fall 1976, when Carla’s little brother Jim (pictured) arrived at Western Hills High for his freshman year, Carla’s name wasn’t mentioned in the hallways like it once was. Students chatted happily to one another as they walked past her memorial.


Jim tried to avoid the plaque. A personable kid with thick brown hair that fell over his ears, he wanted to move on with his life. Still, there were times he would come across Carla’s memorial and feel overwhelmed. “ Our family had been destroyed by Carla’s murder,” Jim told me. “Every morning, my mom would slip back to her bathroom, stand in the shower without the water running, and weep. I never saw my dad cry—he was a military man, you know—but for the first few years after Carla’s murder, I didn’t see him smile either.”

During those years, strangers would occasionally call the Walkers’ house, many of them anonymously, claiming they had information about Carla’s killer. Leighton talked to all of them. “He took notes and kept them in a metal box the size of a cigar box,” said Jim. “He wrote down names and addresses of potential suspects, and he drew circles on maps where he had been told the killer lived. He was not going to rest, he told me, until he knew Carla’s killer was behind bars.”


When Jim turned sixteen and got his driver’s license, he began spending his free time helping his dad hunt for the killer. Sometimes, on the anniversary of Carla’s death, he would prowl the parking lot of the Brunswick Ridglea Bowl, looking for anyone suspicious. Jim took boxing lessons at the Panther Boys’ Club, joined the high school’s wrestling and football teams, and went on long runs through his neighborhood. “I wanted to be ready in case I ever came across the killer,” Jim said. “My plan was to overpower him and take him someplace far away—maybe somewhere out in West Texas, where no one could hear him scream.”


Another year passed, and then another. And this time, it really did appear as if the killer had retreated for good. Short of someone showing up at the police department to confess, the detectives were unable to imagine solving any of the Fort Worth killings.

But Carla Walker’s little brother Jim had not given up. After graduating from Western Hills High, Jim had attended Sam Houston State University, where he read books on serial killers and took courses in abnormal psychology so that he could better understand what he described as “the criminal mind.”


After he graduated from college, he moved back to Fort Worth and applied to become an officer with the city’s police department. “My plan was to get promoted to detective, get my hands on Carla’s files, and find her killer,” he told me.


During a training session at the academy’s firing range, however, Jim noticed something wrong with his eyesight. A doctor later diagnosed him with a congenital eye condition. Forced to drop out of the academy, he went to work in security at a local office of defense contractor General Dynamics. But he continued hunting for Carla’s killer. After his father died, in 1987, of a heart attack, Jim dug through the notes in Leighton’s metal box looking for new leads to pursue. After his mother died of Alzheimer’s, in 2015, Jim purchased his parents’ home and moved into it with his wife. “I wanted to be there in case somebody ever got a conscience at three in the morning and showed up to confess,” he said.

Jim also regularly called the Fort Worth Police Department’s cold case unit to ask about developments in Carla’s murder investigation. He always got the same answer: Sorry, nothing new has emerged. We’ll let you know when we get a break.


When Jim called the unit in January 2018, he was 56 years old and working as a vocational rehabilitation counselor for the State of Texas. His eyesight had steadily deteriorated to the point that he needed a guide dog to help him get around.


Jim left a voice mail. A detective named Leah Wagner returned the call. Wagner had joined the department in 2000, first working in patrol before being named detective in 2013. She eventually was promoted to the homicide division and focused on active cases. But in 2018 she moved to the cold case unit.


Some cops have no patience for cold cases. They can’t imagine spending their days hunkered down at a desk, poring over barely legible incident reports from years ago, searching for physical evidence that almost certainly no longer exists and looking for witnesses who have moved away, forgotten what they saw, or died.


DNA & Genetic Genealogy

Wagner’s office, a small, windowless cubicle, adjoined a storage room filled with nearly a thousand files documenting unsolved murders dating back to 1959. After speaking to Jim, Wagner went looking for Carla’s files. They were on a bottom shelf, stuffed into two large, brown Bankers Boxes. She started reading, but she didn’t get far. Her supervisors sent her to take over the active cases of a detective who had fallen seriously ill.


It wasn’t until January 2019, a year after she’d first talked to Jim, that she returned to her cold case job. By then, more files had stacked up on her desk. She asked her supervisors for some help. They had the perfect solution. They sent her a reserve officer named Jef