THE BRYAN HOME was cordoned off with yellow crime-scene tape when the three men pulled up outside shortly before 3 p.m. Law-enforcement officers had swarmed the house; the Texas Rangers, who often aid the state’s rural police departments with homicide investigations, were working the scene, as were Clifton police officers, sheriff’s deputies and technicians from the state crime lab. Dazed, Joe fielded investigators’ questions from the superintendent’s car. Of primary interest to them was whether the Bryans had any firearms in the house, and Joe explained that he had a .357 pistol in the bedroom, which he kept loaded with birdshot to dispatch the rattlesnakes and copperheads that sometimes roved the yard. The conversation was brief, and after investigators returned to their work, Joe was driven to the Blues’ house, where friends and neighbors had gathered to pay their respects. “What am I going to do without Mickey?” he asked Susan Kleine again and again. When she embraced him, he held on to her as if he might fall without her support.
Investigators would remain at the house until after midnight, poring over the crime scene. They had little to go on; the neighbors had not seen or heard anything unusual, and there were no leads to chase down — no bloody fingerprints that might have narrowed the search for the killer, no shoe-print impressions to try to match. (No semen was detected on vaginal swabs that were later collected for the rape kit.) Yet slowly, a picture of the crime began to emerge. Mickey had been shot four times: once in the abdomen and three times in the head. A blast to the left side of her face had been fired at extremely close range. A search of the house revealed that the .357 was missing, as was Mickey’s gold wedding band, her watch and a diamond-studded ring. Tiny lead pellets, which lay scattered around the bedroom, were also embedded in her wounds, leading investigators to surmise that she was killed with the .357. The house displayed no obvious signs of forced entry, but a Texas Ranger who found the back door locked was unable to conclude whether it had been secured before, or after, officers arrived. A cigarette butt was discovered on the kitchen floor, though neither of the Bryans smoked. Taken together, the evidence seemed to point in one direction: Mickey had been the victim of a burglary-turned-homicide.
Hoping to glean new insights, the Texas Rangers called in Robert Thorman, a detective with the Harker Heights Police Department in nearby Bell County, who arrived that evening. Thorman was trained in a forensic discipline called “bloodstain-pattern analysis,” whose practitioners regard the drops, spatters and trails of blood at a crime scene as treasure troves of information that contain previously unseen clues and can even illuminate the precise choreography of the crime itself. Thorman peered through his magnifying glass, moving it in slow, sweeping motions. Mickey’s body had been removed by then — only the baby blue mattress, which was sodden with blood, remained — but he surveyed the reddish-brown flecks that dappled the walls, studying their contours and dimensions. He tacked strings to five small bloodstains on the wall above the headboard, extending each strand down to the mattress below. But his work, in the end, yielded little new information, just a theory that Mickey’s killer had most likely been standing on the west side of the bed when he or she fired the gun.
As the investigators went about their work, Joe spent the night with his mother, Thelma, in Elm Mott, the small town north of Waco where she lived. She had moved there after Joe and his siblings — his older brother, James, and his twin brother, Jerry — left home and had remained after their father’s death. Joe lay awake, his mind racing, until exhaustion overtook him.
At the funeral home in Clifton the following day, he learned that Joe Wilie, the Texas Ranger who was helming the investigation, wanted to speak with him, and he headed over to the police station. A career lawman who had spent 15 years as a highway patrolman before being promoted to the state’s premier law-enforcement division, Wilie cultivated an air of unassailability, his face impassive under the brim of his white Western hat. He carried himself with the assurance of someone who could get to the bottom of the mystery that lay before him. Joe did not take a lawyer with him, nor did the direction of the investigation suggest he should. Despite Wilie’s brusque, no-nonsense style, the interview was not an adversarial one.
As Wilie led him through a series of routine questions about Mickey, their marriage and the days leading up to the murder, Joe explained that nothing seemed out of the ordinary the last time he spoke with his wife. He told Wilie that he called her from his hotel room around 9 p.m. on Monday, Oct. 14, the night before her absence from school. He had been watching the Country Music Awards, and she had been averaging grades. She was in good spirits, he added, and they talked about the rain.
The Texas Ranger listened as Joe talked but shared few details about the investigation, mentioning only that they had found the metal box in which Joe told them the previous day he and Mickey kept $1,000 in cash. But there was no money in it, and the box was covered in dust, suggesting that no one had recently disturbed it. Wilie advised him to look around the house to see if he might have placed the money elsewhere. Joe had no theories to offer about the crime, and the interview did not produce any new leads. “Mr. Bryan indicated to writer that he would have no idea who would want to kill his wife,” Wilie noted in his report.
Wilie and the other investigators working on the case needed more, and fast. This was the second unsolved murder that year in a town where people routinely left their doors unlocked and no one could easily recall the last homicide. Just four months earlier, on June 19, Wilie was called to Clifton to investigate the killing of a 17-year-old named Judy Whitley. Her nude body was discovered in a dense cedar thicket on the western side of town. The details of the crime scene shocked Clifton residents; ligature marks scarred the teenager’s wrists, indicating that she had been bound, and gray duct tape covered her mouth. The medical examiner would later determine that she was sexually assaulted and died of suffocation. Wilie assisted with the Whitley case, which was still no closer to being solved.
When Mickey was killed, less than a mile away, it sent another jolt of panic through the community. The inability of law enforcement to make a single arrest only stoked residents’ fear and uncertainty about whether the crimes were random acts of violence or somehow linked. Susan Kleine, the teacher whose classroom was across the hall from Mickey’s and who lived alone, began spending the night at her sister’s house, where she always slept with a gun within reach.
Though Wilie and the other investigators working on the Bryan case were under enormous pressure to make an arrest, they struggled to develop any new information. In the days after Mickey was killed, the Texas Department of Public Safety flew a helicopter over a pasture near the Bryan home, looking for clothing that might have been discarded by a transient who was reported to have been in the area. Rangers questioned members of a concrete crew who were working on a house on Avenue O and examined the shoes and pants of a yard man who was believed to have been in the vicinity of the Bryan home on the morning Mickey was found. They interviewed the family of a teenage girl who saw a peeping Tom at her bedroom window a few nights earlier. It wasn’t much.
Then, on Saturday, Oct. 19, four days after the murder, Wilie got his first break when he learned that Charlie Blue, Mickey’s older brother, had some important information. Blue, who lived in Plant City, Florida, where he served as the vice president of an agrochemical company, had managed to catch a flight to Texas that Tuesday after learning of his sister’s death. The siblings were not especially close. Blue’s forceful personality had always stood in stark contrast to his sister’s soft-spokenness, and though there was no animosity between them, they had not spoken since he came to visit in February, eight months before her death. Joe was not particularly close with his brother-in-law either, but the two men had a cordial relationship; Joe had helped out from time to time around the farm in Clifton that Blue owned, and together they built fences, vaccinated cattle and mended water lines.
As Blue would recount in a sworn affidavit he wrote the following week, it was that Friday, with no apparent progress in the case, that he decided to call Bud Saunders, an ex-FBI-agent-turned-private-investigator who was on retainer with his agrochemical company. “I asked Bud Saunders if he could come to Clifton and do some checking as there were some things that were bothering me about my sister’s death,” Blue explained in his affidavit. Blue did not tell Joe that he was bringing a private investigator to town or share with his brother-in-law what was troubling him.
Saunders wasted no time; he made the 300-mile trip from the West Texas city of Midland, where he lived, arriving at the Dairy Queen in Clifton the next afternoon. “I went into the Dairy Queen and suggested to Bud that we leave and ride around so I could discuss my concerns,” Blue wrote. “We drove around the countryside for a while talking about the murder.”
The two men were in Joe’s car, which Blue borrowed the day after Mickey was found dead. He’d asked Joe if he could use it for the duration of his stay, and Joe, who was being driven between Elm Mott and Clifton by family members, had been glad to oblige. At some point during the drive, according to Blue, he pulled over so that he and Saunders could relieve themselves, and Saunders ended up getting mud on his boots. Looking for something to clean them with, Blue opened the trunk; immediately, he spotted a cardboard box with a flashlight inside it whose lens was facing up. “I noticed that there were what appeared to me to be blood specks on the lens,” Blue wrote. He handed the flashlight to Saunders, who agreed that the tiny, dark flecks looked like blood.
Blue and Saunders drove back into town with the flashlight stowed in the trunk and headed toward the Bryan home. “I knew that a cleanup and painting crew had been working on the house and thought that some of the officers might be there,” Blue wrote. Finding the house unattended and the front door unlocked, Blue and Saunders decided to let themselves in. Discovering no one there, they left, drove to a pay phone and called the Texas Rangers.
Any number of details in their story, which Saunders told over the phone and later recounted at the Ranger station in Waco, should have spurred Wilie to dig deeper. Why did the men not drive straight to the Clifton Police Department with their discovery? Why did they enter the Bryan home by themselves, and what did they do inside? Why did they not call law enforcement from the Bryans’ phone?
But if Wilie pushed them to explain more, there is no record of it. Instead, he executed a search warrant on the Mercury shortly after midnight. The trunk was inspected and photographed, as was the car’s clean interior, which showed no trace of the mud that dirtied Saunders’s boots. (Saunders later said he cleaned the mud off with his pocketknife.) The flashlight — its lens stippled with reddish-brown specks, each roughly the size of the tip of a pencil point — was taken to the state crime lab for further examination.
Wilie did not impound the Mercury; instead, he released it to Blue once the search was complete, and Blue and Saunders returned to Clifton, leaving the Mercury in the driveway of the Bryan home around 4 a.m. Three hours later, Blue was gone. He headed to Austin, where he boarded a flight later that morning bound for Tampa.
Nobody told Joe any of this. Everything that transpired during Saunders’s visit — the discovery of the flashlight, the entry into Joe’s home, the examination of his car by law enforcement — was unknown to him when he picked up his keys at Mickey’s parents’ house that Sunday. At that point, the car had been out of Joe’s possession for four days.
The following morning, he called Chief Rob Brennand of the Clifton Police Department to report a surprising discovery. On his way back to Elm Mott, Joe told Brennand, he stopped to get gas. After opening the trunk to grab a fuel additive, he said, he spotted a brown money bag, which contained $850, that belonged to him. He then remembered putting it there two weeks earlier, when he and Mickey had driven to Waco to go shopping. In the mental fog he had been in since the murder, he had forgotten that he had taken the cash out of the metal box in the bedroom.
Wilie’s search of the trunk had not turned up the money bag, however; when he heard Joe’s story, he was certain that Joe was lying. He became even more suspicious when the results from the crime lab came back: The specks on the flashlight lens were human blood, type O — the same blood type as Mickey’s, but not Joe’s. Blood typing was the most precise tool that law enforcement had for such evidence before the advent of DNA testing, though it was hardly definitive; nearly half the population has type O blood. Whose blood it was could not be settled with any certainty, but from that point on, the investigation hurtled forward under the assumption that it could have come only from Mickey. A crime-lab chemist also found a few tiny plastic particles on the flashlight lens that, she said, appeared to have the same characteristics as fragments of the birdshot shells that were found at the crime scene. Wilie felt confident enough in the evidence to believe that he had his man.
On Wednesday, Oct. 23, 1985, eight days after Mickey was found dead, Wilie, Brennand and the Bosque County sheriff appeared at the doorway of Thelma Bryan’s home in Elm Mott. It was evening by then, and the men had arrived unannounced. Joe looked at them expectantly, assuming that they had come to tell him of an important break in the case. Instead, Wilie informed Joe that he was under arrest for his wife’s murder. “Are you serious?” Joe said. He looked in disbelief at the three men who were standing in his mother’s den. “On what evidence?” he demanded.
He was not given an answer before he was put in handcuffs and led outside, where a Waco TV news crew — who had been tipped off to the arrest — was waiting.