Feature: Wednesday, September 10, 2003
Death’s Long Shadow

Years before he was murdered, Gregory Spencer felt the pressure of his enemies

By Dan Malone

Gregory Spencer was expecting to see a friendly face when he opened the door. Instead, he saw a man pointing a gun at him.

“Hey Spencer,’’ the gunman told the beloved preacher. “You holler, I’ll kill you. I’ll kill you right now.’’

The gunman moved Spencer inside, shoved him into a vase, tumbling flowers on the floor, then said, “You’re going to learn not to fuck with people.’’ Lay on the bed, the man said. Roll on your stomach. Spencer heard a second voice, the voice of someone he had not seen, say: “Go on and kill him.’’

They wrapped a shirt around Spencer’s head, bound his feet with a necktie, and tied his hands behind his back with an electrical cord. Someone grabbed the telephone next to the bed, and Spencer heard it smash onto the floor. He felt something soft, a pillow, placed against the back of his head. Out of his mind, crazy with fear, and trussed up on a bed where he expected to die, Spencer heard a gun fire, then his assailant’s parting words: “Case closed.’’

The final words heard by Gregory Spencer — Fort Worth minister, funeral director, and civic leader, a man admired and adored by thousands — are now known only to the person, or persons, who killed him. A Tarrant County grand jury indicted two Arlington men in the case on Tuesday. Alex Wilson Jr., 24, is accused of shooting and strangling Spencer, while Kevin Dewayne Sheffield, 25, was indicted on a charge of evidence tampering for allegedly concealing Spencer’s car after the shooting.

The scene above, however, comes not from Spencer’s last minutes of life on June 24, 2003 — when he was similarly tied up and shot in the back of the neck in an Arlington motel room — but from an incident that occurred more than eight years earlier at his funeral home in Fort Worth. The quotes attributed to those assailants come from Spencer’s own account to law enforcement about the Jan. 29, 1995, incident.

Nor was the 1995 incident Spencer’s first brush with death. Fort Worth police records show that Spencer reported threats on his life at least four other times between 1992 and 1995.

In the 1995 assault, Spencer told police he was at his funeral home on Miller Avenue early on the day of the incident. According to police reports, he called a relative at about 8:35 a.m. and told him to come by and pick up some equipment for the office. Ten minutes later, he telephoned two associates with similar instructions.

When the two associates arrived at the funeral home around 9 a.m., they found Spencer bound on the bed in an employee lounge, screaming that he had been shot. They called police, then summoned the relative to the scene. As it turned out, Spencer had been shot at but apparently not hit. He wasn’t taken to the hospital for treatment; police reported that his condition after the incident was good.

As with Spencer’s homicide this year, information available on the 1995 assault raises as many questions as it answers. Spencer told police he kept hearing “shots over and over’’ but was unsure how many times the gun was fired. Nothing in the report indicates where or what the bullets struck or suggests how a gunman could fire multiple times at a bound man on a bed and miss.

Based on the accounts collected by police, Spencer’s assailants had 15 minutes at most, between the funeral director’s last telephone call and the associates’ arrival, to commit the assault and escape unnoticed. Nothing in the public record suggests that Spencer said anything was wrong during his phone conversations that morning — or that anyone else was with him.

The two associates also gave differing accounts about entering the building. One said the pair entered the building through the same rear door. The other said he went in a secondary entrance, then walked through the funeral home to the back door to let the other in. Spencer told police that his assailants wrapped his head in a white shirt. One of the associates said the shirt he found wrapped around Spencer’s head was blue.

The relative whom Spencer had called told police that his family had been having trouble with an ex-employee and referred them to a 1994 offense report about an incident in which someone had apparently taken a shot at Spencer. The police report notes that the relative “did not appear to be distraught over this situation.’’

Perhaps such inconsistencies merely reflect the imperfection of human memory in traumatic situations. Spencer himself was so rattled by the ordeal that he initially could not tell police what had happened, the records show.

In March 1992, Spencer told police that he was assaulted and threatened with death by another funeral home director during a disagreement over an unspecified fee. In November 1994, police reports show, another minister, smelling of alcohol and perhaps mentally disturbed, twice threatened to kill Spencer over a $20 dispute and later vowed “that he would be back to finish what he had started.’’

In December 1994, Spencer told police that a former employee and an associate had taken out a $50,000 insurance policy on his life without his knowledge and that the employee “planned to have me killed to collect.’’ Eight days later, Spencer told police someone had fired a shot through the window of his funeral home as he was investigating suspicious noises outside the window.

It was not immediately clear whether these incidents were related or whether suspects were identified and apprehended. Tarrant County Assistant District Attorney Greg Miller said the earlier attempts and threats were “absolutely not” related to Spencer’s death, although he declined to discuss the murder case in detail.

The threats against Spencer’s life came when the preacher and funeral home director was facing other difficulties. Records show that the Texas Funeral Service Commission in 1992 placed Spencer and an employee on probation after concluding that the employee had submitted “at least 14 falsified embalming apprentice reports’’ to the state agency. The ruling allowed the home to continue doing business, but meant that any additional problems could have resulted in the suspension of its licenses, said Commission Director Chet Robbins

“If anything had happened, they would have been revoked and that funeral home would have been closed down,’’ Robbins said. “He [Spencer] was responsible for everything.’’

“This is serious,’’ Robbins said. “If they’re going to lie on the case report, they might lie on the contract that they have consummated with the consumer.’’

Neither Spencer nor the employee acknowledged violating state law but agreed to pay penalties totaling $12,000, in addition to accepting the probation, records show. In a letter to the commission, the employee said she had “learned from the mistake’’ but had not intentionally violated the law.

Gregory Wayne Spencer’s resumé reads like a Horatio Alger story. The former newspaper carrier was named “most likely to succeed” in his high school graduating class in the early 1970s. He became the youngest licensed funeral home director in the nation in 1975 before he had reached the age of 20. In the mid-1970s, he was ordained as a minister and later founded the 700-member Church at Philadelphia. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, he was regularly honored with awards from business, political, and civic organizations and served as the international pastoral director at the summer 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, Australia. The city of Fort Worth declared a day in his honor; the Texas Legislature passed a resolution honoring his life’s works.

He gained the nation’s attention in the mid-1990s for his work with gang members and their families when a reporter from The Washington Post came to town to profile a charismatic and courageous man she described as “the self-styled moral authority of Fort Worth.’’

“This is not a brag. This is fact,’’ Spencer told the Post. “I’m the most popular black in the city. Little children know, ‘That’s Spencer.’ ’’

The extent of his popularity became evident in the outpouring of grief and praise that followed his death at age 46. Estimates of the crowds attending his funeral at Travis Avenue Baptist Church and lining the funeral procession route range up to 10,000. Hundreds of mourners, hoping to glimpse the white, horse-drawn carriage that carried his body, weathered the blistering heat to fill several blocks along Berry Street. In some ways, much of the city remains in mourning. Gospel music legend Kirk Franklin recently hosted a “Night of Healing” concert that he said was inspired by Spencer’s funeral. The business he founded, Gregory W. Spencer Funeral Directors, continues to run newspaper ads lamenting the loss of “a friend, pastor, mentor, big brother and father to many.’’

On June 25, 2003, the first indication to Fort Worth police that something was wrong came in the early afternoon. A relative filed a missing person report, telling police that Spencer had failed to come home the previous night or show up for work the next morning. He had last been seen, the caller said, around 8:30 p.m. the previous evening at an Eastern Star conference at the Holiday Inn on Alta Mesa Boulevard in south Fort Worth.

Arlington police, meanwhile, were already working what appeared to be a homicide scene with an as-yet-unidentified victim at the Days Inn on Pleasant Ridge Road, a quarter-hour drive to the east. A motel housekeeper had been making her rounds cleaning rooms during the lunch hour when she discovered a man’s body on the bed inside room 201. Clad in a white sheet and black and blue socks, the dead man’s legs had been wrapped five times with electrical cord, his wrists bound behind his back with cord and a belt. A white towel gagged his mouth. Tissue balls were stuffed in his nostrils.

The room was registered, Arlington police learned, to a man driving a dark four-door Mercedes who identified himself only as “Spencer.’’ Neither the car nor the dead man’s personal possessions — wallet, jewelry, or cell phone — were at the hotel.

A fingerprint comparison quickly confirmed the man’s identity. Tarrant County Medical Examiner Nizam Peerwani autopsied Spencer’s body and ruled his death a homicide. Spencer had been strangled and shot in the neck at close range with a .38-caliber handgun.

Police meanwhile reviewed motel surveillance tapes and observed Spencer chatting on his cell phone as he checked into the hotel at 6:58 p.m. and paid for his room with a $100 bill handed to a clerk. He apparently left the hotel without entering his room, then returned less than an hour later, at 7:36 p.m., with a man who appeared to be about half his age. The tape captured the pair as they entered the room. A little over an hour later, it captured the man as he left the room by himself. The tapes also showed a dark, four-door vehicle — Spencer’s 1999 Mercedes sedan was dark blue — leaving the motel parking lot a short time later.

Spencer’s Mercedes was discovered abandoned three days later, on June 27, behind a home on Jessamine Street in southeast Fort Worth. That same day, an informant told police that a man named Kevin had a cell phone that had been taken from Spencer’s car. Police reviewed Spencer’s cell phone records and learned that, several hours after Spencer was last seen alive, someone had used his phone to call the house where Kevin Sheffield lived.

Kevin Dewayne Sheffield and Alex Wilson Jr. had much in common. They were nearly the same age. Both had served time in prison. When Wilson, who went by “Junior’’ on the streets, was released in early May from a Louisiana prison after serving six years of a 10-year sentence for robbery, Sheffield had been dating his sister for about six months. Sheffield had been released from prison several years earlier, after completing a five-year sentence for attempted murder.

Police arrested Sheffield on June 28, the day after they found Spencer’s abandoned car, and the 25-year-old ex-con wasted little time before spilling his guts. Sheffield told cops that Wilson had contacted him a few days earlier wanting to borrow a gun and called again wanting him to help “get rid’’ of a car several hours after Spencer was killed.

Sheffield told police that he and Wilson had taken the car to the Jessamine Street address and parked it behind a house where it could not be seen from the street. Sheffield, according to an account given to police by a witness, then turned to Wilson, boasting, “Hell yeah, ain’t nobody gonna be able find it back there.’’ As the two men continued to talk, records show, Sheffield was heard to say “it’s my piece,’’ an apparent reference to the gun he had loaned Wilson.

When Sheffield heard the news of Spencer’s death, and that cops were looking for a car like the one he had helped ditch, he told police he called Wilson and asked him whether he was responsible.

“Did you do that?’’ Sheffield asked.

“I’ll talk to you later about that,’’ Wilson replied. Later, as news of Spencer’s death rippled outward, Sheffield told an acquaintance that “it was my homeboy that killed him.’’

Police arrested Wilson in the parking lot of his apartment complex in East Arlington the following morning, June 29. He was charged with capital murder and is being held in the Tarrant County jail on $1 million bond.

Sheffield is also in jail on the evidence-tampering charge, being held on $100,000 bond. Sheffield didn’t respond to a request from the Weekly for an interview. Wilson answered with a one-page letter in which he professed his innocence and expressed curiosity about how he has been portrayed in the media. “I can tell you this right now, I did not kill Mr. Spencer,’’ he wrote.

Wilson was born in Dallas and apparently lived there, working in fast food restaurants, until the late summer or fall around his 18th birthday, when he moved to Louisiana and began a downward spiral.

On the evening of Dec. 8, 1996, police said, a Morehouse Parish convenience store operator, Shelia Gregory, and an electrician, Joseph Brown, were preparing a new BP Mart for its opening the following week. A little before 7 p.m., a young man later identified as Wilson’s cousin entered the store and asked Gregory about a job. As Gregory was handing over the application, records show a second man, later identified as Alex Wilson, entered the store, pointed a small gray gun at Brown, and apparently began demanding his wallet.

Despite the gun in his hand, Wilson was having trouble making his intent clear. Gregory told police something was wrong with the man’s mouth. There were large gaps between his teeth, or some were missing altogether, she said, and what teeth he had were filthy. Whatever the problem was, Wilson had to repeat his robbery demand four or five times before Gregory and Brown understood that he wanted their money. Brown eventually surrendered his wallet, Gregory gave up her purse, and Wilson fled.

Within a few hours, police received a call to a tip line stating that the cousins “had just held up a store.’’ Wilson was arrested about a week later and gave a matter-of-fact confession in short sentences punctuated with mumbles.

“We went into the store. ...We was just supposed to go in there and get the money. ... I pointed the gun at the man. ... I asked him for his wallet. ... He gave me the money out of it ... about $140. ... Put it in my pocket. ... Asked the woman for her purse. ... She gave me the whole purse. ...We ran.’’

Wilson’s cousin was arrested a few days before Christmas, but charges against him were later dropped. Wilson pleaded guilty on Sept. 15, 1997. A Morehouse Parish clerk said records in his case show he was “sentenced to 10 years hard labor without the benefit of parole, probation, or suspension of sentence.’’

“Good time,” in the Louisiana prison system, however, apparently trumps the severe language of the law. O.P. Taylor, program manager for the Louisiana division of probation and parole, said it was good time that earned Wilson his release about four years early. In Louisiana, he explained, “once you’ve served half your sentence, you’re automatically released.’’

On May 2, 2003, the Louisiana prison system released a bumbling, mumbling robber and sent him on his way back home to Texas where, less than two months later, he would again be accused of another armed robbery — one that would leave Gregory Spencer dead on a bed in a $50-a-day motel room.

Among the many unanswered questions about what happened on June 24 is why a well-respected, middle-aged preacher would be meeting with an ex-con half his age in a motel room. Was Wilson just another troubled youth that Spencer tried to steer out of trouble? Who was Spencer calling as he checked into the Days Inn?

The person who reported Spencer missing to Fort Worth police said he was last seen at about 8:30 p.m. on June 24 at a hotel in southwest Fort Worth. But police reports say Spencer was last seen entering the Arlington motel room with Wilson at 7:36 p.m., almost an hour earlier.

In his autopsy, Peerwani, the medical examiner, noted an absence of defense wounds, indicating perhaps that Spencer had not struggled with his killer. But nothing thus far explains why Spencer’s body would have been found wearing only his socks.

If police and prosecutors know the answers to those questions, they’re not saying. Nor are Spencer’s friends. The Weekly’s calls to his funeral home, church, and attorney were not immediately returned.

Sheffield’s attorney also did not return a telephone call this week. Wilson’s attorney, Don Gandy, said he wouldn’t have much to say about the case until he sees what evidence the D.A. has.

To those who revered him, Gregory Spencer’s murder seems unfathomable, a thing that no one could have predicted. But in his last decade, Spencer was plagued by violent and angry people. He led a life vastly more complicated than admirers knew. He lived, in some ways, a mystery, and he died one.

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