October 29,2012 http://www.star-telegram.com
SHERMAN — In a day of dramatic testimony Monday, two women implicated a gang of drug dealers in the 1983 slaughter of four men in a Grayson County airplane hangar.
After 29 years on Texas’ Death Row for the crimes, Lester Leroy Bower, who was a chemical salesman living in Arlington when he was arrested, hopes their accounts will help him win his freedom, or at least a new trial.
One of the women, identified in court as Witness No. 1, said her boyfriend told her that he participated in the killings on the October night they happened.
“He said he and his friends had gone there for a drug deal,” the witness said. “It didn’t go right and they had to kill some people.”
The boyfriend was identified in court as Lynn. Others in the gang were identified as Bear, Ches and Rocky, part of a methamphetamine ring operating in southern Oklahoma at the time, she said.
Several days after the killings, the woman testified, she heard Lynn and Ches discussing it.
“Ches was laughing, telling Lynn, ‘Did you see the guy’s face when you shot him in the head?’” the witness testified. “Lynn said, ‘I had to shoot him. He was running for the door.’”
The witness, who said she was the mother of a slaying victim, said she went to Bower’s defense lawyers in 1989 after learning that Bower had been convicted and faced the death penalty.
“As the mother of a homicide victim, I know how important it is to make the right person pay for what they did,” the witness testified. “I don’t believe Mr. Bower is that person.”
Bower’s lawyers have filed an appeal with the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, arguing that new evidence points to the innocence of their 64-year-old client, the fourth-oldest man on Death Row. The appellate court ordered state District Judge Jim Fallon to hold this week’s hearing in Sherman, in part to build a record of testimony that can be used later in a decision on Bower’s fate.
Bower, a graying man dressed in orange prison coveralls, also testified Monday, the first day of the hearing.
The condemned man, who did not take the stand at his 1984 trial, denied killing the men but said his own lies contributed to his conviction. Bower admitted lying repeatedly to investigators to try to steer clear of the case, and to his wife, fearing that she would have been upset by his secret purchase of an ultralight aircraft.
Bower said he bought the aircraft from the victims shortly before they died.
“This is my doing,” Bower said Monday. “I’m responsible for my actions, my trying to stay out of this and lying to authorities. Lying to my wife, that’s probably where this started.”
Monday was the first time the testimony of Bower and other defense witnesses had been heard in state court. When Bower was sentenced to die, state law specified that new evidence could not be presented unless it had been discovered within 30 days of the conviction. That law has changed.
Some time after this week’s hearing, Fallon is expected to issue a ruling that could suggest upholding the conviction, recommend that Bower be released, or recommend a new trial. Ultimately, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals will decide the case.
Grayson County prosecutors have vigorously contested alternate theories presented by the defense, saying Bower was convicted on the basis of strong circumstantial evidence. That included Bowers’ repeated lies to FBI agents and that he was known to have owned a firearm and exotic ammunition similar to that used in the crimes. Additionally, parts of the ultralight aircraft were discovered in his home.
The victims — Bob Tate, Philip Good, Jerry Mack Brown and Ronald Mayes — were found shot to death in a hangar five miles from Sherman, the Grayson County seat.
During Monday’s hearing, friends and relatives of the victims sat on one side of the crowded courtroom, supporters of Bower on the other. Robbie Dutton, Brown’s widow, listened from the first row, just behind the prosecution table.
“Just rehashing, you know,” she said of her feelings after Monday’s testimony concluded. “We’re not wanting him to be punished for something he didn’t do, but the evidence presented in 1984 was so damning.”
Nothing she heard Monday changed her belief in Bower’s guilt, she said.
“It’s hard to hear all of this again,” Dutton said.
Witness No. 1 testified that she was told of the killings hours after they occurred, while she and Lynn drove through Sherman.
“When he told me about all this, it was like my whole world shifted at that point,” she said. “It was like I just stepped into a TV movie.”
She also described her boyfriend’s behavior in the days after the killings.
“He would have a hard time sleeping,” she said. “He would have nightmares. He would be up pacing. He said he could see the man’s eyes he shot and he could hear the noise reverberating off the tin building.”
The second witness, identified as Witness No. 5, said she was the wife of Bear, who died of cancer five years ago. She testified that several times she heard her husband and the other men talk about a shooting in an airplane hangar in which four men were killed.
“I believe they committed the crime, yes,” she said.
Grayson County prosecutor Kerye Ashmore attacked the credibility of both women, citing their heavy drug use at the time of the slayings, and in the case of Witness No. 1, a felony conviction for forgery.
Bower also faces what likely will be a vigorous cross-examination as the hearing resumes today.
On Monday, Bower described meeting the men in the hangar and paying $3,000 cash as a down payment for the ultralight. But he hid his purchase.
“I was concerned how my wife would react,” Bower said. “I was quite sure she would not have approved.”
He said he was stunned and frightened when he heard of the slaughter a few days after it happened. The following January, FBI agents tracked Bower down through telephone records of his calls to one of the victims. When questioned, he said, he admitted inquiring about the aircraft but did not say he had visited the crime scene.
“Once I headed down the proverbial bad path, I kept on going,” Bower said. “I told them the same lie.”