Witness says condemned Arlington man isn't responsible for 1983 slayings
Just a few paragraphs into the Star-Telegram story, the woman knew something was terribly wrong. A man named Lester Leroy Bower Jr. was on Death Row for the 1983 massacre of four men in a Sherman airplane hangar, she read that morning in 1989. But the woman, who asked to be identified by the pseudonym "Pearl," had reason to believe that Bower wasn’t the killer at all — that it was her ex-boyfriend and three others who had committed the crime.
The woman showed the story to her sister, the one person she had told of her suspicions about the old boyfriend.
"They’re going to put that guy to death for that," she remembers her sister saying.
"Yeah, I know," Pearl replied.
"But he didn’t do it?"
"No," Pearl said.
"You’ve got to do something," the sister said.
After a day of struggling with fears for her own life, Pearl did. The next day, she contacted Bower’s lawyers from Washington, D.C., told them her story and signed a legal affidavit attesting to it.
Now, 19 years later, information she related is at the heart of an increasingly urgent effort to save Bower’s life. On July 22, after 24 years on Texas Death Row, Bower is scheduled to die by lethal injection.
Bower’s lawyers say they have identified the four men whom Pearl alleges to be the killers, have documented their long criminal records and have confirmed other key parts of her story. In recent months, a defense investigator has also located another witness, the wife of one of alleged accomplices who said she heard the four men discussing the killings. The names of the new suspects, though known to defense lawyers, have remained sealed by court order.
"I don’t want Mr. Bower to die for something that he didn’t do," said Pearl, who broke up with her boyfriend shortly after the slayings and remains fearful of him today. Since she signed the affidavit in 1989, her identity has been concealed by court order. "I know in my heart that he didn’t do it. I just could not in my conscience sit back and just go, 'Oh well, sorry.’
"If he would have gotten life in prison, I can’t sit here and honestly say I would have done something different. Life is what, 30 years in the state of Texas? But he got the death penalty, and there’s no getting out of that."
This past week, Bower’s lawyers filed a 65-page legal motion in Sherman’s 15th state District Court detailing the scenario developed after Pearl came forward. The petition asks state Judge Jim Fallon to delay Bower’s execution, vacate his conviction and death sentence, and conduct hearings on his innocence claim.
Because of the plodding appellate system in death penalty cases — Bower’s appeal languished in federal court alone for 16 years — and the shifting nature of capital punishment law, this is the first opportunity for a Texas court to seriously consider the merits of Bower’s innocence claim, his lawyers say. When Pearl first came forward, Texas law precluded state judges from considering evidence gathered more than 30 days after a conviction. The so-called 30-day rule is no longer in effect in Texas because federal judges have ruled that such post-conviction claims need to be adjudicated by the state.
"Whatever you think about the benefits of having capital punishment, no one could possibly argue that executing an innocent man is in the interests of the state, or our society," said Anthony Roth, one of Bower’s lawyers. "Our interests as lawyers and as people should be that our government, when in doubt, should not go forward with an execution. There is ample evidence to give people reasonable doubt about whether Les committed these murders. In my view, the evidence is compelling that he didn’t."
A Grayson County prosecutor, Karla Hackett, said Wednesday that the state will vigorously contest Bower’s innocence claim. Prosecutors also oppose a defense motion to have saliva, hair fibers and cigarette butts from the crime scene tested for DNA. Bower’s lawyers hope that the analysis will link one of the men accused by Pearl to the crime.
"There’s no way there is actual innocence here," Hackett said, citing the large amount of circumstantial evidence against Bower. "DNA is not going to make all that go away. It’s another delaying tactic. It’s normal. We expect it. There’s four dead men, and all the evidence points straight to Lester Leroy Bower Jr."
The wife of victim Philip Good says she is also convinced the right man was convicted. Marlene Bushard, who has since remarried and is living in Arizona, said her husband would have turned 30 the day after his death. He left an infant son, Curtis Good, who is now 25.
As for Bower, Bushard said, "They’re just trying to draw this out."
Bushard said she plans to attend Bower’s execution.
Several months before the slayings, Bower, his wife, Shari, and their two young daughters moved from Colorado to North Texas, where he took a job as a chemical salesman. Lester Bower was a former college football player and devout Baptist with no criminal history. He was also an inveterate hobbyist whose pastimes included rafting, hunting, backpacking and archery.
In the fall of 1983, he was considering another diversion, purchasing and flying an ultralight aircraft. His wife was opposed.
Shari Bower said in a recent interview that she and her husband had watched a news program about crashes and injuries associated with ultralights. "I looked at him," she said, "and pretty much said, 'Over my dead body. You played football, weigh 240 pounds and you’re talking about [an aircraft with] a lawnmower engine. I don’t think so.’ "
But Lester Bower secretly went ahead, calling Philip Good after coming across his name in a magazine ad for the ultralights. Good, in turn, planned to introduce Bower to Bob Tate, who had an ultralight for sale.
On Saturday, Oct. 8, Bower told his wife he planned to spend the day bow hunting. Instead, he drove to Tate’s B and B Ranch just outside Sherman, arriving in mid-afternoon. Bower said he paid $3,000 in cash for the aircraft, then watched Tate and Good disassemble it and strap it to his vehicle.
Bower says he then made the two-hour drive back to Mansfield, where he stashed the aircraft at a shooting range, and arrived at his Arlington home before dark.
At 8:30 p.m. that day, Tate’s wife and son discovered the bodies of the four men. Tate, 50, was a self-employed building contractor; Good was a former Sherman police officer and had begun work as a Grayson County deputy sheriff only a few days before. The other victims were Ronald Mayes, 37, a former Sherman police officer, and Jerry Brown, a 52-year-old interior designer.
Tate, Good and Brown were found wrapped in rolls of carpet inside the hangar. Mayes, who was found by the door, was apparently killed as he tried to flee. All of the victims had been shot in the head, killings described at the time as "execution-style."
The killings dominated the news for days to come, and even Shari Bower commented about the massacre to her husband a few days later. But Bower kept his secret from her and did not come forward.
Then in January, FBI agents traced Bower’s telephone calls to Good. Bower admitted making the calls. But he lied to agents, denying that he had traveled to Sherman on the day of the murders.
After a subsequent search of Bower’s home, where investigators found pieces of the ultralight with Tate’s name on it, Bower was arrested. Prosecutors later contended that theft of the aircraft was Bower’s motive for the slayings.
In a recent interview on Death Row near Livingston, Bower denied involvement in the killings, as he has from the time of his arrest. After learning of the murders, Bower said, "I realized that I had no idea about what I may have gotten myself into or what I may have literally just missed. If I came forward, what might happen about the safety of my family? Then, of course, I had not exactly been truthful with my wife, so there was a level of embarrassment there, family-wise.
"So then October rolls around, November, December and we get into January. Then all of a sudden they [FBI agents] show up. And once you kind of start a lie, it just kind of grows and it rolls along. It just consumed me. You ask, 'Why would an intelligent person do something like that?’ I find that hard to explain."
Bower did not testify during his capital murder trial in April 1984. Grayson County jurors deliberated less that two hours before convicting him on four counts of capital murder, and the next day he was sentenced to die. Bower, now 60, says he can understand how the jury reached its verdict, how his own account could be considered suspect because of the lies he told to investigators.
But the new witness has no reason to lie, he says.
"OK, don’t believe me," Bower said recently in prison. "Don’t believe anything I say. I’m not the one who has come forward and finally told exactly what happened out there."
'A dope deal that went bad’
Pearl is now 48 and raises two grandchildren because her own daughter was murdered several years ago. In the recent interview at her home, she recalled another time in her life, the summer day in 1983 at Lake Texoma when she and a friend met the men known as Lynn and Rocky. She said they were two handsome guys driving a black sports car.
In the whirlwind romance that followed, Pearl said, she quickly moved into Lynn’s home in southern Oklahoma. On the weekend of the Sherman murders, she left to visit her mother in Hillsboro, and was surprised to find Lynn sitting outside sometime after midnight on Oct. 9.
Her first thought was "he missed me so much he had come all the way down here to see me," Pearl said. "That’s how stupid I was."
Lynn was unusually agitated, insisting that Pearl immediately return with him to Oklahoma, she said. He drove until the couple passed through Dallas. As they neared Sherman, Lynn pulled off the road and told Pearl to drive, and when she took the wheel, he stretched out and hid in the back seat.
"He told me to drive straight through Sherman, don’t stop, and don’t do anything to get us stopped," Pearl recalled. "I was like, 'Why, what did you do?’
"He said they had a dope deal that went bad and they had to kill four people. I asked him, 'Who killed four people?’ He said, 'Me and Ches and Rocky.’ I assumed at the time that Bear was there, too, and of course he was."
Pearl’s story, naming the four, is also recounted in the defense motion that was filed last week.
Still, Pearl said, she was skeptical until a few days later, when for the first time she met Ches, who was the head of a drug operation that involved Lynn and the others. Pearl said she overheard Ches and Lynn talking about murders.
"[Ches’ girlfriend] and I were in the kitchen, and Ches and Lynn were in the living room and they were pretty drunk," Pearl recalled. "They had their guns out, talking about it, laughing about it. Ches thought everything was funny. He said something about, 'Did you see that guy’s eyes when he opened the door?’ or 'Did you see that guy’s face when I shot him?’
"I kept asking [the girlfriend], 'Did you hear that?’ She kept telling me, no, and that I needed to not hear it, either."
In the weeks to come, Ches also acknowledged the murders to Pearl, telling her that one of the victims "had been a cop and the killings had happened because things had gone wrong," according to the defense motion filed last week.
Pearl also said that in the weeks following the murders, Lynn was agitated and had trouble sleeping. After one nightmare he told her that he saw one of the victim’s eyes staring at him, a big tin building and shots reverberating inside it. Yet Pearl said she still wasn’t certain that any killings in Sherman had actually occurred, because she did not read newspapers or listen to radio or television news at the time.
"There was a big part of me who still wanted to believe it was all dopers talking, bragging," Pearl said last week. "But then there was another part of me that thought, 'Well, maybe they did.’ But I wasn’t going to stick around to find out. I called my mom and I told her that I needed money, that I needed to get out of there right then."
For the next five years, she says she tried to put her time with Lynn out of her mind. Then came the October morning when she read about the Sherman massacre. Until then, she said she had assumed that Lynn, Ches and the rest would have been arrested if they were guilty of the killings. For the rest of that Sunday, Pearl said she anguished over whether to come forward.
"Was my fear of Ches and Lynn bigger than my fear of not doing the right thing?" Pearl said. "I wanted to do the right thing, but not at the expense of my children. I just had to know that I could protect them and do the right thing."
Accusations in court
Eleven years after signing her affidavit, Pearl, as Witness Number One, told the same story in an appellate hearing in federal court, where Bower was contending that he had not received a sufficient legal defense.
At that same hearing in Sherman, another defense witness testified that back in 1984, after a Narcotics Anonymous meeting, Pearl had told him about Lynn’s participation in the murders. And a third witness said that about 5:30 on the evening of the massacre, she saw several men standing in front of the Tate hangar. There was also testimony from a man who said he had worked as a drug courier for Tate, one of the victims.
In the hearing, the men accused by Pearl were remembered by a former Oklahoma sheriff, Arnold Isenberg. At the time of the killings, Isenberg was a sheriff’s deputy in southern Oklahoma, and recalled that the men were under investigation for manufacturing and selling methamphetamine. Each had a dangerous reputation and "went underground for a while" after the killings in Sherman, Isenberg said. Two years later, federal Judge Richard Schell denied Bower’s appeal, saying the testimony did not prove Bower’s constitutional claim that his lawyer didn’t adequately defend him
Bower’s current lawyers, who took the case after his conviction, say authorities have only minimally investigated the alternative suspects. No state or federal investigator has contacted Pearl about her account. Current prosecutors still contend that the man who committed the murders is the one who will die next month.
"The strength of the case against this man, the lies he told the FBI investigators," said Hackett, the Grayson County prosecutor. "The fact that he made phone calls setting up the meeting with one of the victims; that the meeting happened at the time of the murders and portions of the aircraft stolen from the crime scene found at his residence, as well as a tremendous amount of other circumstantial evidence and eyewitnesses. With the strength of all that . . . the solid evidence that was there against him doesn’t go away just because someone said something in an affidavit."
In her home last week, Pearl said she has reason to believe differently. If Lester Bower is executed next month, she said, "I would feel really sad for the state of Texas."