Execution offers closure
David Leonard Wood to be executed Aug. 20
By Diana Washington / ValdezEl Paso Times
Posted: 08/09/2009 12:00:00 AM MDT
David Wood, 33, is led from the County Courthouse by sheriff's deputies on the morning of July 25, 1990, after being arraigned in connection with the desert murders in Northeast El Paso. Wood pleaded innocent to the charges.
Click photo to enlargeDuring the investigation, the Police Department interviewed 400 people and investigated 50 suspects.«12»Related
Desert Deaths - Following the execution of David Leonard Wood
Victims of the 1987 crime wave in the NortheastDavid L. Wood's path from El Paso to Death RowChris Lopez: Reporter to witness executionVictim: Donna SmithVictim: Ivy Susanna WilliamsVictim: Desiree WheatleyVictim: Angelica Jeannette FraustoVictim: Maria Rosa Casio and Karen BakerEl Paso man to be executed Aug. 20 for slayings of 6
Photo gallery: Desert deaths
EL PASO -- The man convicted nearly 17 years ago of murdering six girls and young women, then burying their bodies in the desert, is scheduled to die Aug. 20 in Huntsville, Texas.
David Leonard Wood, 52, denied killing anyone, though police link him to as many as nine murders. He will be the third El Pasoan to be executed since 1976, when capital punishment was revived in the United States.
The senior George Bush was president when Wood was sentenced to die for the murders of Rosa Maria Casio, 24; Ivy Susanna Williams, 23; Karen Baker, 20; Angelica Frausto, 17; Desiree Wheatley, 15; and Dawn Marie Smith, 14. All were killed in 1987.
El Paso police detectives also suspected him in the 1987 disappearances of Marjorie Knox, 14; Cheryl Vasquez-Dismukes, 19; and Melissa Alaniz, 14. They are still missing.
Prison administrators said a lethal dose of sodium thiopental, a sedative, is administered to condemned inmates. They also are given pancuronium chromide, a muscle relaxant that collapses the diaphragm and lungs, and potassium chloride, which stops the heart.
The drugs cost $86.08, and the process lasts about seven minutes.
Marcia Fulton, Wheatley's mother, said she planned to travel from Florida to Texas to witness Wood's execution.
"I had promised Desi at her grave the day I
buried her that I would find out who did this and help bring them to justice," Fulton said. "Twenty-two years later, it looks like I will be able to keep my promise."
The execution will bring to a close a terrifying case for Northeast El Paso, where young women disappeared in 1987 at an alarming rate.
In the beginning, Fulton said, families of the young women who were reported missing had a hard time persuading police to investigate.
She said police initially treated the missing teenagers as mere runaways, and the young women as prostitutes and nightclub dancers who led risky lifestyles.
"I told them my daughter was not a runaway," Fulton said.
Wheatley was last seen getting into Wood's truck on June 2, 1987, after he offered her a ride home. Her body was found Oct. 20, 1987, in a shallow grave along the 12000 block of McCombs.
To call attention to the disappearances, Fulton, Karen Baker's mother and others demonstrated at the Stanton Street international bridge.
Al Marquez, then a city detective, said El Paso police mobilized once they realized something heinous was going on.
"We formed a special task force to look into the murders and disappearances. We brought in experts and dogs from out of town to search for bodies."
During the investigation, the Police Department interviewed 400 people and investigated 50 suspects. Detectives traveled to Florida, Utah and Mexico to follow up on leads. They consulted with FBI profilers, and used aircraft with heat-sensing equipment to comb the desert for more victims.
Although Wood was a prime suspect early on, Marquez said, detectives had a hard time coming up with the evidence they needed to arrest him.
A prostitute who accused Wood of tying her up and sexually assaulting her in 1987 in the Northeast desert helped break the case. Her account placed him in the area where the six bodies were buried.
Convicted in 1988 of sexually assaulting the woman, Wood was taken off El Paso streets and sentenced to 50 years in prison. Soon after, with six murders hanging over him, Wood became known as "The Desert Killer."
Wood's world consisted of biker clubs, topless bars, tattoo parlors, prostitutes, drugs and alcohol. His dark subculture snared some of the teenagers and young women who became his victims. The Northeast end of town was his playground.
The girls and women who disappeared in 1987 shared the same physical characteristics. They were small and slender.
At least some of the victims, such as Karen Baker and Wheatley, trusted Wood enough to see him socially or climb into his vehicle.
Baker was last seen at the Hawaiian Royale Motel on Dyer Street, leaving with Wood on June 4, 1987. The 20-year-old told someone at the motel she was excited about meeting Wood later that night for a date. Exactly three months later, her body was found in the desert.
Mary Baker, her adoptive mother, said Karen was attending cosmetology school and trying to get her life together when she vanished.
Most of Wood's victims knew him or had some connection to the other young women who disappeared that year. Parents of three of the victims also had something in common: They worked at Rockwell Industries.
Ivy Susanna Williams, who had been charged with prostitution and drug possession, also was known to stay at the Hawaiian Royale Motel. She was married to Ray Fierro of El Paso, but he told police he had not seen her for a year. Williams worked as a topless dancer, as did Rosa Maria Casio and the underaged Angelica Frausto.
Before her disappearance, Frausto was seen with Wood on his motorcycle. Before that, she had hung around the Hawaiian Royale Motel.
Wheatley lived on Tiber Street, near Wood's home, and knew of him through friends.
Knox, who might have been pregnant, was the first to vanish, on Feb. 14, 1987. She used to ride the bus to school with Wheatley when Wheatley lived in Chaparral, N.M. Baker, who was older, previously lived in Chaparral.
Alaniz and Wheatley attended H.E. Charles Middle School. Vasquez-Dismukes had also been a student there. The school was near Wood's home.
Denise Frausto said her sister, Angelica Frausto, knew Wheatley. "Angie nicknamed (Desiree Wheatley) 'Baby Girl,' and tried to look out after her, so that the older guys would not take advantage of her," Frausto said.
Cheryl Vasquez-Dismukes, who graduated from Andress High School, married Robert Dismukes by proxy a week before she vanished. Dismukes was in prison at the time, serving a sentence for attempted murder.
Erika Dismukes, her mother-in-law, said last week that she suspects that Cheryl is alive. Yet, for practical reasons, she said, she had her officially declared dead last year.
Casio was the only victim who did not appear to have any Northeast El Paso or Chaparral connections.
During Wood's murder trial in 1992, prosecutors revealed that he was living with Joann Blaich near the Cabaret Club on Montana Avenue. Casio was last seen leaving the club with a man who fit Wood's description.
Except for some orange fibers found where Wheatley was buried, which the court did not allow jurors to consider, there was no physical evidence -- such as weapons, fingerprints, DNA or clothing -- linking Wood to the crimes. But the circumstantial evidence was overwhelming.
The victims knew Wood or had met him through friends, and he was seen with the young women before they disappeared.
Perhaps the most compelling testimony at his trial came from the prostitute Wood had sexually assaulted, and his two former cellmates, Randy Wells and James Carl Sweeney Jr. The prisoners said Wood told them he had killed the women. Wells, in fact, said Wood claimed to have killed 15 women.
Both of Wood's cellmates had something to gain. One stood to collect a $25,000 reward. Prosecutors dropped a murder charge against the second one in exchange for his testimony.
Dolph Quijano, one of Wood's lawyers, said former El Paso District Judge Peter Peca made sure Wood got a fair trial.
"He bent over backwards for the defense," Quijano said.
Heavy publicity in El Paso led the judge to move Wood's trial to Dallas.
Prosecutor Debra Morgan told jurors that Wood, interested in sex, lured the women to the desert by offering them drugs. Two victims, Williams and Baker, were found with their clothes on. The rest were in different stages of undress.
The prostitute who testified against Wood said he told her he had cocaine buried in the desert.
In a recent interview, Denise Frausto, Angelica Frausto's sister, said she believed Wood did not act alone.
"The day before Angie disappeared, she took someone to a stash house on Yarbrough (in East El Paso). She was very excited about it," Frausto said. "There were 15 large black trash bags in the garage of the house full of marijuana. After her body was found, people she used to hang around with told our family that Angie was selling drugs for a cop out of a room at the Hawaiian Royale Motel.
"They also said Wood was seen with that cop and a judge at the motel," she said. "We told the cops all this, but they brushed it off. Then, we started receiving threats, and my mother told us to just drop it."
Freddie Bonilla, an investigator hired by Wood's lawyers, said he tried to pursue a lead that had grown cold by the time the defense team found out about it.
"If Wood killed these girls, I don't think he did it alone, and he probably didn't kill all of them," said Bonilla, who retired as a homicide investigator with the El Paso Police Department and the El Paso County Sheriff's Office. "Wood was a convenient suspect."
According to court records, intriguing information surfaced unexpectedly after Wood's trial had started. It had sat in a box for a couple of years in a locker at the El Paso Police Department. Prosecutors made it available to Wood's lawyers as soon as it came to their attention.
One of the items was a Crime Stoppers tip alleging that three people had seen a biker known as "Corey" shoot Dawn Marie Smith and bury her body in Chaparral. According to the tipsters, the biker was romantically involved with a woman who knew Wood and who was sheltering Smith at the time in her trailer house.
Smith, believing she was pregnant, had run away from home in June 1987. Her family last heard from her in August. Her body was found on Oct. 20, 1987.
"I believe Smith's body was moved from Chaparral and reburied in El Paso," Bonilla said. "A couple of years had passed since the tip, and by the time we got to Chaparral to check this, the trailer where these people lived was gone."
Wood's lawyers filed an unsuccessful motion to have Smith's body exhumed so an expert could examine her remains for gunshot wounds.
During the trial, another woman's body was found in the desert on the East Side, wrapped in an orange blanket. The victim was older than the others, between 40 and 45 years old.
"We suspected there was a connection to the Northeast murders, but the police said it was not related," Bonilla said. "The orange fibers from the Wheatley case might have come from this orange blanket."
Another belated tip was a reference in police detective Ben Ayala's notes alluding to a sex-and-drug ring involving the murders. This group purportedly did not involve Wood. Ayala, who was part of the police task force, died in a vehicle accident before he could check further.
Other police investigators told Wood's lawyers that the tip led nowhere.
Across the years, six trial dates were scheduled for Wood. He received a continuance in 1991 to pursue yet another lead. This time it was from FBI agents in Las Vegas. They notified El Paso police in 1989 that a man had confessed to killing young women in El Paso. The man, Edward Dean Barton, was 27 at the time. Except for his blue eyes, he supposedly resembled Wood, who had hazel eyes.
"Barton claimed to have killed four women in the El Paso, Texas, area between May and December of 1987," the FBI report said. "Barton buried the women in the desert off Dyer Street. He chose the desert because the desert eats bodies up. Barton described the women as all being small, petite, young, with features similar to that of his wife."
Barton also told the FBI he had hired someone to kill his wife, Mary Alice Barefoot, but changed his mind. Later, Barton, who was on parole for other crimes, escaped from a halfway house in Nevada.
Steve Simmons, then the El Paso district attorney, said in a July 30, 1991, letter that Barton's wife confirmed her husband was in El Paso between April or May 1987 and February 1988. Simmons said that Barton was a drug addict and that his statements to the FBI "are not worthy of belief."
The bodies might not have been found had it not been for Frank Brooks, who worked for the El Paso Water Utilities and stumbled on the first two victims, Baker and Casio, while hunting for arrowheads on Sept. 4, 1987.
There is no longer any sign of the desert graveyard between McCombs and Dyer, where cars and trucks zip by at high speeds. Today, the only things moving around the area are cottontails that scurry through mesquite trees and quail that scratch at wild melon patches.
To the immediate north, near the New Mexico line, the Painted Dunes Golf Course, which did not exist then, thrives with throngs of golfers.
Last year, the city reported that a major company was interested in creating a giant high-end development in that part of Northeast El Paso.
Some of the people who moved into new homes nearby said they had never heard of the desert deaths.
Diana Washington Valdez may be reached at email@example.com; 546-6140.
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