Metropolis: Wednesday, January 2, 2003
A Mystery Re-Opened

DNA in Walker murder case is being tested with new techniques.


Renewed interest by Fort Worth police might help to solve a murder mystery that rocked the city 30 years ago and has haunted a former cop for much of his life.

The investigation of Carla Walker’s 1974 murder grew stagnant and eventually cold over the years until almost everyone, with the exception of former Fort Worth burglary detective John Terrell, had given up. Now, the man that Terrell believes killed Walker is about to re-enter society.

William Ted Wilhoit, a habitual burglar and convicted rapist, will be paroled from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice on Jan. 10 after serving more than 22 years in prison.

“I hope those involved in the investigation of the Carla Walker case — when it occurred and at the present time — can live with their consciences if someone else is murdered,” Terrell said.

Walker, a pretty, blonde, 16-year-old Western Hills High School student, was kidnapped in February 1974, injected with morphine, raped, and strangled. Her body was found two days later in a muddy culvert in south Fort Worth. Kept as evidence were a semen-stained dress and a pubic hair believed to have come from her attacker, Terrell said, but DNA testing was still evolving and rarely used in 1974 and Terrell was never able to confirm whether it was done in this case.

He has long suspected that evidence was lost and has accused police of flubbing the investigation. Over the years, he developed an antagonistic relationship with homicide detectives, who refused his help and shut him out of the case.

The investigation was recently reopened as part of Fort Worth police’s stepped-up effort to investigate cold cases. “We have a detective who is actively working on it,” said police Sgt. J.D. Thornton. “She’s located all the evidence, all the files.”

Thornton revealed for the first time that prior DNA testing had been done. “I can’t really give you a year but there has been some testing done in past years, but not to the extent that [the current detective] is doing it,” Thornton said. “I can’t get into exactly what we’re looking at. We’ve submitted several pieces of evidence for DNA testing. We’ve got some results back and are going to submit more as a result of the initial tests. I can’t say if it’s going to result in any arrest.”

Some evidence is being tested for the first time, while other items that were tested earlier are being resubmitted, he said. “It’s being tested with new technology they didn’t have in the past,” he said.

Thornton would not say if Wilhoit has provided DNA samples for testing. “I’m not going to get into suspects or who we’ve eliminated or haven’t eliminated,” he said. “I don’t want to sound like arrests are imminent or we’re about to solve it, but we have looked into it and are continuing to look into it and haven’t exhausted all leads that we can follow.”

Meanwhile, Terrell continues to spend his retirement time and money investigating Wilhoit. “I ain’t going away; he might as well accept that,” Terrell said.

Wilhoit’s parole calls for super-intensive supervision — the highest level of parolee supervision — until April 5, 2020. He is forbidden from contacting his rape victim, he must register as a sex offender, and he cannot enter Tarrant or Dallas County without permission from his parole officer. He will also be required to wear an ankle monitor that shows his whereabouts and signals his parole officer if he tampers with it. “They click it to you and you can’t get it off,” said prison spokesman Larry Fitzgerald. “The parole division has had great success with it.”

Wilhoit, as he has done several times in the past year, declined to be interviewed by Fort Worth Weekly. He has filed plans with the Texas Board of Pardons and Parole to move to the Corpus Christi area. Terrell has already contacted Corpus police to warn them of Wilhoit’s past violent tendencies.

This isn’t the first time Terrell has warned a city about Wilhoit. When the former Fort Worth burglar was released from prison on parole in 1978 and moved to Abilene, Terrell called police there. A short time later, an Abilene housewife was raped. Police, using Terrell’s tip, connected Wilhoit to the crime. A conviction in that case earned him 40 years in prison. He is being released early after earning time for good behavior.

Wilhoit’s good behavior in prison doesn’t surprise Terrell, who describes him as diminutive, soft-spoken, polite, and an avid Bible reader. In a free society, however, he has shown an inclination to burglarize homes and brutalize women.

Fort Worth homicide detectives blew a chance to put Wilhoit away for good, Terrell said.

After police discovered Carla Walker’s body on Feb. 20, 1974, Terrell thought of Wilhoit. Walker’s abduction occurred at a bowling alley near the home of Wilhoit, who was on probation for burglary and had previously been suspected of rape. Terrell asked homicide detective Claude Davis to check out Wilhoit as a suspect. Later, he asked another homicide detective if Wilhoit had been questioned about Walker, and the detective claimed Wilhoit had passed a lie-detector test. However, Terrell believes Wilhoit was not questioned about Walker’s murder until Terrell and his former partner, Joe Britt, arrested him for another burglary more than a year later.

In 1975, a bank officer called police to say a man had tried to cash two $500 savings bonds that had been reported stolen. The suspect matched Wilhoit’s description, and Terrell and Britt drove to his house. Wilhoit was standing in his yard when Terrell rolled down the car window and asked him to get in the back seat. Terrell has no trouble recalling Wilhoit’s first words: “Well, I was wondering when you were going to come after me for Carla Walker.” The detectives hid their surprise and took their suspect to the police station for questioning.

Terrell had arrested and questioned Wilhoit on numerous occasions, and the detective’s police style included developing a familiarity bordering on friendship with suspects, an easy manner that helped convince them to talk. During an interrogation, he urged Wilhoit to discuss Walker’s murder, and remarked that Wilhoit was “too good of a Christian” to live with Walker’s murder on his mind. Britt watched the suspect crumble.

“He broke down and started crying, and I thought he was going to confess right then,” Britt told the Weekly earlier this year. “He said he couldn’t handle it anymore. I thought, we got it made and he’s going to ’fess up.”

At that moment, a federal agent knocked on the door and said he wanted to discuss the stolen savings bonds. By the time Terrell got the agent out of the room and returned to Wilhoit, the moment was lost. “That broke everything and we never got Wilhoit back to that point again,” Britt said. “With his reactions that day we showed up with the arrest warrant, I just really believe he was the perpetrator in that [Walker murder].”

Police in 1986 questioned Wilhoit about the rape and attempted murder of Fort Worth resident Janelle Kirby, who in 1974 was shot five times in the face but survived. Wilhoit confessed to the attack, thereby clearing an innocent man who had been convicted of the crime — allegedly to cover up the actions of two corrupt cops. Wilhoit was granted immunity for his testimony.

Wilhoit was paroled in 1992, after serving time for the Abilene rape, and moved to Corpus Christi. Terrell sent the police department information about Wilhoit’s background. On March 25, 1995, Corpus police discovered him crawling out the window of a window where a single woman lived. He admitted to burglary, his parole was revoked, and he was returned to prison.

Seven years later, he is again ready to walk.

Fort Worth resident Doris Walker said she is thrilled that police have reopened her daughter’s case, but she remains skeptical after years of frustration and disappointment. “It seems like everything that’s tried, there’s some stumbling block,” she said. “This would be wonderful if something did come of the investigation. I would give anything if something would pop up. But with DNA you never know. It would be such a comfort to John for it to be solved, too, because he has worked so hard on it. He spent many hours on it and not many people would do that. It takes a special person to work that hard.”

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