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The Nation

Driven Friend Becomes Sheriff, Tackles 1983 Slayings

January 22, 2006|Michael Graczyk | Associated Press Writer

HENDERSON, Texas — James Stroud remembers waiting for hours at the home of his longtime buddy who had gone missing, offering comfort and encouragement to his friend's parents and pregnant wife.

Finally, the phone rang, and almost simultaneously there was a knock on the door. Both messengers brought the same terrible news: David Maxwell was dead.

Maxwell had been shot in the head and dumped near an oil field, along with four others who disappeared the night before from the Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant where they worked in the east Texas town of Kilgore.

"That's how the whole family found out," recalled Stroud, at the time a 20-year-old college student who would serve as a pallbearer at Maxwell's funeral.

That 1983 day was one of many Stroud would spend focused on what became known as the Kentucky Fried Chicken killings. Years later, as Rusk County sheriff, he investigated what is one of Texas' longest unsolved homicides, helping lay the foundation for two murder indictments that were announced in November.

Now 43, Stroud believes divine guidance shaped the investigation -- first when he switched to law enforcement studies instead of majoring in business, and later when, as a rookie sheriff, he got a visit from a retired FBI agent who helped breathe new life into the investigation.

"I'm at a point ... where I can look back and know that God knew exactly what he was doing, even when I didn't know it," said Stroud, who now runs a deli and gift shop in Henderson.

It was about 20 miles north of Henderson, in Kilgore, hub of the 1930s east Texas oil rush, that the fatal events unfolded on a Friday night in September 1983.

Robbers showed up at the KFC around 10 p.m.

About an hour later, assistant manager Mary Tyler's daughter arrived to pick her up from work. Tyler, 37, wasn't there. Neither were her co-workers: Opie Ann Hughes, 39, Kilgore College fraternity brothers Joey Johnson, 20, and Monty Landers, 19, and Maxwell.

Investigators would later find blood on the floor and a cash register tape that showed about $2,000 had been in the cash box.

The next morning, on a road that led to an oil field about 15 miles south of Kilgore, a worker made the ghastly discovery: the bodies of the five KFC workers, all shot in the head from behind. Maxwell, Johnson, Landers and Tyler were lined up. Hughes was about 50 yards away.

"It just doesn't seem like that long ago," Stroud said. "We were just kids. I was just a kid. But at that time, the thing that bothered me the most was that Lana [Maxwell] was pregnant. ... She's going to have a baby and she's going to be by herself."

In 1990, Stroud joined the Kilgore Police Department. Six years later, at age 33, he was elected sheriff, inheriting an office where big file cabinets were filled with KFC case information. But he also confronted a lingering sense among many that the old case could not be solved.

Not everyone felt that way.

Soon after taking office, Stroud met retired FBI agent George Kieny, who had worked the case for the bureau and the Texas attorney general's office.

"I remember asking: 'Can it be solved?' He said he felt it could be," Stroud said.

A later discussion of the case between the two led him to hire Kieny part-time. "Instead of trying to come up with some new idea, we decided to look at everything from the beginning, every report that had been written, every statement that had been taken, and gather all the evidence we could gather in the case," Stroud said.

The investigation involved multiple locations, victims, and law enforcement agencies, who sent evidence to multiple labs.

A grand jury investigated in 1985 but returned no indictments. About a decade later, a torn fingernail found on one victim led to an indictment, but capital murder charges were dropped when tests showed the nail was not the suspect's.

The Texas attorney general's office lost interest in the KFC case when the fingernail indictment fell through. And Kieny, who'd gone to work there after retiring from the FBI in 1995, soon resigned.

Again, the case went cold. Even when Stroud hired him and he plunged into the voluminous files compiled during the early days of the investigation, there would be no quick breakthrough. Kieny re-interviewed people. He obtained a court order to collect a blood sample for DNA testing from the wife of the man who, years ago, had been thought to be linked to the fingernail. But again, no real leads.

Kieny and Stroud decided to present their investigation to an annual gathering of law enforcement officers who routinely discuss cold cases.

"A lot of good ideas came out of that," Stroud said, including applying new technology to old evidence.

On Sept. 11, 2001, as a stunned nation focused on the terrorist attacks, Kieny was busy consolidating old blood evidence from various Texas labs. A bloodstain on a box containing cash register tape from KFC, tested using new DNA technology, put Darnell Hartsfield at the scene. He and Romeo Pinkerton had been on a long list of suspects.

Hartsfield, 44, was easy to find -- he was serving a 40-year prison sentence on drug charges.

Appearing before a grand jury, he denied being at the scene. But the new DNA results supported earlier witness accounts that had put Hartsfield at the KFC that night. He was charged with perjury. Soon, Atty. Gen. Greg Abbott announced capital murder indictments against Hartsfield and Pinkerton, 47, who was also linked to the scene by DNA evidence.

Stroud was no longer in office when the indictments were announced Nov. 17. He'd lost a reelection bid late last year after eight years as sheriff. Still, he and Kieny say they did all they could do to help solve the case.

"That gives me some personal satisfaction," said Kieny.

For Stroud, it's the end of a long, personal journey. He has lost touch with Lana Maxwell, who gave birth to a boy named David, named for his father.

"We stayed close for a year and a half," Stroud said. "She moved. Time went on."

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