On a muggy, Texas summer night in 1982, tragedy struck. Three Waxahachie teenagers—Raylene Rice, Jill Montgomery, and Kenneth Franks—were murdered in Speegleville Park, near Lake Waco, on July thirteenth. In the following months, a complex criminal case unfolded, one that sparked local and national attention.
The murders put the city of Waco on edge. Local newspapers reported that Wacoans were fearful, taking extra protective measures and even advocating for park curfews. People wondered how such a violent crime could happen in the small, quaint city of Waco, Texas. Tensions were high, and the Waco Police Department began to search diligently for those responsible and for those who had any knowledge of what happened near the lake that night. Soon, the Waco Police Department, with Officer Truman Simons at the forefront of the case, had four suspects: Muneer Mohammed Deeb, David Wayne Spence, Gilbert Melendez, and Gilbert’s brother Anthony Melendez. Officers questioned and subsequently arrested the suspects. Simons, along with Officers Ramon Salinas and Dennis Baier, believed that Deeb had hired Spence and the Melendez brothers to kill Gayle Kelley, who looked like Jill Montgomery, the Waxahachie teenager visiting Waco with her friends. Investigators suspected that Deeb wanted to collect on an insurance policy he had recently taken out on Kelley and that the killers mistook Montgomery for Kelley, murdered her, and then murdered her friends to cover their tracks. To the relief of the department and those in the community, it seemed that the case had been solved.
District Attorney Vic Feazell prosecuted the case, and while wary of Simons’ questioning tactics, placed him, Salinas, and Baier on the task force. But the case did not seem firmly in their grasp. Discrepancies in suspect testimony called conclusions into question, and the story of what happened that night was anything but clear. In April 1983, the DA’ s office got the evidence they had been searching for. Homer Campbell, a forensic odontologist—someone who studies bite marks—insisted that the marks on the girls’ bodies matched the teeth of David Wayne Spence. With this evidence and the incriminating testimonies of the Melendez brothers, local law enforcement officials believed the case was closed.
Over the next few years, trials ensued. The court found all suspects guilty and sentenced them to prison, with Spence and Deeb receiving the death penalty. While the case certainly captivated the attention of Wacoans and Texans, the story also appeared on national news. In 1986, award-winning author Carlton Sowers published Careless Whispers, creatively recounting the case. Discussions of Spence’s death row sentence appeared in The New York Times and in an HBO documentary. Prior to his execution, young attorneys with the Texas Resource Center, a nonprofit that represented death row inmates, endeavored to stave off the death penalty. Rob Owen and Raoul Schonemann sought to highlight the inadequacies in the investigation. Though their efforts remained unsuccessful and the State of Texas still executed Spence, their defense called previous judgments into question. Following Spence’s execution on April 3, 1997, Dateline featured the case—questioning Spence’s guilt.
In Spence’s appeals, his defenders argued that the state mishandled the case. They contended that the verdict hinged on a questionable, likely false, odontology report. Later, Deeb and Gilbert Melendez also recanted their confessions, insisting that they had been pressured by local law enforcement. Eventually, the state exonerated Deeb. Indeed, as the years passed, it seemed that what was once a closed case was now a cold case.
The 1982 Lake Waco murders continued to pique interest, as journalists and reporters expressed interest in the handling, and likely mishandling, of the case. In the end, only questions remain. While some might continue to insist on the involvement of Deeb, Spence, and the Melendez brothers, others would contend their confessions and convictions were misguided and unfounded. Perhaps in the end, all might agree that a grave tragedy occurred in Waco on July 13, 1982, and that tragedy continued in a complex case that left many Wacoans, Texans, and Americans pondering questions about life, death, and justice.