Texas Ranger Cold Case
by Glenna Whitley 2004
In the realm of human sorrows, there is no more searing grief than that of parents burying a beloved child, and to lower a son into his grave just as he’s flown from the nest is perhaps even more agonizing.
When a child is murdered, a different kind of anguish takes over. Parents need to know not only who but why, to know that no stone will be left unturned in the search for the killer.
Television shows like Law & Order and CSI tap deep into this psychological need. They show investigators painstakingly going over crime scenes, using tweezers to examine minute evidence, chemicals to sniff out blood and microscopes to peer into invisible places. With high-tech crime-solving, a bit of fabric or a ripped fingernail could put whoever is responsible behind bars.
That’s what Jerry and Diana Gutheinz of Richardson believed when their 22-year-old son Brent, a senior living in student apartments at the University of Texas at Dallas, was slain in 1997.
He was their gorgeous middle son: sparkling blue eyes, blond curls and a sculpted body. A 1993 graduate of Plano Senior High, Brent adored girls, and they adored him.
When Brent disappeared on June 19, 1997, his boss guessed that he’d eloped with his former fiancee. Their volatile relationship had been off and on for weeks. They’d talked of getting married in Las Vegas on her birthday, June 22.
But as the days passed, his absence became sinister. At 11:30 a.m. on Sunday, June 22, a fisherman found Brent Alan Gutheinz’s body on the banks of Squirrel Creek, in a rural area between Van Alstyne and Sherman in Grayson County. The body had been burned and mutilated: Brent’s lower jaw had been removed and was missing, as were his upper teeth, his spleen and one kidney. His body had been doused with a solvent and set ablaze.
The Gutheinzes knew none of that when they learned a Texas Ranger had been assigned to investigate.
Wearing a Stetson, starched white shirt, pressed slacks and a star-shaped badge, Ranger Tony Bennie seemed the epitome of the dogged lawman. Part of the Department of Public Safety, Texas Rangers are often asked by county sheriffs to investigate homicides in rural areas. When Bennie sat in the couple’s living room and quietly pledged to find whoever was responsible, the Gutheinzes felt reassured.
But with the approach of the seventh anniversary of Brent’s disappearance, the Gutheinzes are no closer to learning who killed their son. Was the murder of Brent Gutheinz a mob hit, a drug deal gone wrong, an American Indian revenge ritual? The murder had elements of all these.
Unsolved murders are far from rare. But the Gutheinzes have come to believe that from the very beginning of the investigation Ranger Bennie and Grayson County authorities bungled the crime scene investigation–an allegation that is supported by the autopsy report and other documents from the Dallas medical examiner–and then failed to follow up on testing evidence and questioning possible witnesses and suspects.
Former Judge Robert Moss, retained several years after the murder to help the Gutheinzes get some answers, believes the Rangers have refused to disclose information to conceal what happened.
“Jerry’s convinced there’s a cover-up, and I’m convinced there’s a cover-up, but for different reasons,” Moss says. “Jerry’s feeling was that someone in power got to them. My feeling was there was a cover-up to hide the sloppy work.”
“I know Jerry might have called more than he should have, but he wanted answers, and they weren’t giving him any,” says private investigator Jerry Davis, a former Dallas police officer hired by the Gutheinzes after Brent’s disappearance. “In my opinion, they botched it from the word go.”
The oldest state law enforcement organization in North America, the Texas Rangers investigate everything from public corruption to mass murder. The legend of the Texas Rangers doesn’t rest on crime-solving genius but on sheer tenacity, a philosophy encapsulated in this 100-year-old Ranger motto: “No man in the wrong can stand up against a fellow that’s in the right and keeps on a-coming.”
To be considered for a post as one of the 118 currently commissioned Rangers, an applicant must spend eight years with a law enforcement agency, and at least four of those must be with the DPS. Once chosen, Rangers go to work immediately, receiving ongoing training in criminal investigations and procedure. The amount of experience Rangers get in handling homicides depends on where they are posted. Many Rangers will investigate far fewer murders per year than a homicide detective in a medium-size city.
The public sometimes regards the Texas Rangers as a Texas version of the FBI. Not quite. The FBI requires agents to have college degrees; the Rangers require 90 semester hours of college, though three years of military or law enforcement experience can be substituted for that. But both the FBI and the Texas Rangers have the same attitude toward sharing information: They don’t like it.
The Gutheinzes’ concerns about the investigation began almost immediately with their observations of Bennie’s methods. They let it pass, but as their distress built up, the Gutheinzes asked Davis, who had been helping them sort through Brent’s last movements, to pursue leads they thought Bennie was ignoring. Getting little response from the hierarchy of the Texas Rangers, they hired an attorney to present their case to Bennie’s supervisor. Though the Rangers agreed with the family on several dozen items that still needed to be investigated, the Gutheinzes say the Ranger didn’t follow through on most of them. For example, Jerry says, Bennie did not contact a man who had allegedly threatened Brent at Texas Tech in Lubbock, or several other possible suspects.
“We’ve continued to follow up on all leads that have come up,” Bennie told the Dallas Observer. “I’m not going to discuss the investigation with you.”
No lawman wants a killer to get away with murder on his turf. What Bennie has and hasn’t done to solve the murder of Brent Gutheinz is hard to tell; he alone has access to his file. The Gutheinzes have rubbed the Rangers the wrong way with their freelance sleuthing and some of Jerry’s wilder theories.
But by retracing some of Bennie’s steps, the Observer discovered evidence of a slipshod investigation.
The Gutheinzes have persuaded the Texas Rangers Unsolved Crimes Investigation Team to accept the case, a move Bennie has resisted. But even that may not overcome the problems that started at the scene of the crime. In modern crime-solving, attention to detail may be more important than tenacity.
Scrambling down the rocky banks of Squirrel Creek to his son’s last resting spot, Jerry Gutheinz offers a hand. He looks around the placid creek bed. The journey here makes Jerry’s point. He has driven his SUV west off U.S. 75 onto West Farmington Road north of Van Alstyne. When the path ends, he turns left, then right onto a caliche road, stopping at a wooden bridge blocked off with concrete debris. On the other side of the bridge, Jerry picks his way down the bank strewn with beer cans. The killer had to be familiar with this remote spot, some 50 driving miles from Brent’s Richardson apartment. Had Brent been lured here or killed somewhere else and dragged down the slope?
The day Brent’s body was found a photographer for the Sherman Herald-Democrat took a picture of the crime scene: Ranger Bennie stood with a handful of deputies around Brent’s body, which was obscured by trees. As the senior investigating officer, Bennie presumably was in charge of what happened to the body and the collection of physical evidence.
A few days after the funeral, Jerry made his first trip to the creek, searching for some connection between this remote place and his son. One tenuous link he found: A sales manager at a car dealership where Brent bought two cars lives a few miles away. He points out that Ranger Bennie apparently still hasn’t talked to that man.
“I’m not obsessed with this,” Jerry says. “But it’s the responsibility of a father to tend to a son’s unfinished business.” He’s not very convincing. As long as Brent’s murder remains unsolved, that business will never be over for Jerry and Diana Gutheinz.
His older brother Stephen was the studious musician, his younger sister Emily the sweet daddy’s girl. Gregarious, fun-loving and “challenging,” Brent was always the wild child in the middle.
Diana teaches fifth grade, and Jerry runs a family business called NTBS Filing and Storage Systems. Their three children all attended Plano schools.
Even as a preteen, Brent loved to shock his parents. At 12, he asked his dad how someone got gonorrhea. Jerry explained and asked if Brent was sexually active. “Maybe,” Brent said with a grin.
If Brent was sometimes impulsive, he also could be remarkably disciplined. When he took up bodybuilding during high school, he would exercise for hours. For lunch he’d eat nothing but five cans of tuna or hard-boiled eggs. He morphed from a pudgy band nerd into a sexy stud, and the girls noticed. One night, the Gutheinzes caught a girl climbing onto their roof to get into their son’s bedroom window.
His last two years in high school were a series of intense love affairs. Brent never dated casually. Each girl was the most wonderful, perfect girl for him. Then suddenly it would be over.
The Gutheinzes thought they knew their son well. Even at age 22, Brent talked to his parents at least several times a week, sometimes daily. He wasn’t shy about sharing intimate details, even about his active sex life.
Despite his seeming openness, after Brent’s murder the Gutheinzes discovered things they didn’t know about their middle son, such as his use of steroids. More people might have wanted Brent dead than they initially believed. And Brent had a dark secret: He claimed he had been raped in middle school by several older boys. “He was still having a hard time with that,” says Rosalie Castillo, a college girlfriend.
Piecing together the last several years of Brent’s life, what emerges is the picture of a charming, complex and conflicted young man whose need to skate on the edge sometimes got him into trouble.
In high school, Brent befriended several other Plano Senior High students interested in bodybuilding. His brother Stephen warned him to stay away from one boy, a wrestler known for his use of steroids and other drugs. The wrestler later went to prison; he’s now dead, the result of an apparent suicide. Brent seemed intent on sidling as close to the edge of danger as possible, then backing away before getting burned.
After high school, Brent enrolled at Texas Tech. For Sara Martwig, who met Brent in the spring of 1994, it was hate at first sight. The weightlifter with the shaved head seemed arrogant.
But when the two met the next semester, they couldn’t take their eyes off each other. Brent’s hair had grown in a soft blond mop, and his body, while still buff, seemed less bulked up. “He was happy-go-lucky, very personable; everybody loved him and wanted to be around him,” Martwig says. “It took us awhile before we realized we’d met before.” Soon they were inseparable.
That year, Martwig says, she got on the dean’s list because she and Brent spent so much time studying together. “He was a very diligent student,” she says.
Deciding they were soul mates, the couple set a wedding date for two years later, after their scheduled graduations.
During the summer of 1995, Martwig made plans to work as a nanny in Dallas to be near Brent, though the two had been having conflicts. “It was being young and dumb and not knowing ourselves very well,” Martwig says. None of their differences had seemed that serious, but the day before she left Lubbock, Brent shocked her by breaking up over the phone. He never gave her a reason. She later learned Brent had left Lubbock in fear of his life.
Earlier that semester, as a resident adviser in Murdough Hall, Brent had tried to mediate a dispute between two students, “William and Jerry.” William told Brent he was going to pay a student people called “Big Tony” to hurt his rival. Brent knew Tony, a weightlifter, from the gym.
Several days later, Brent ran into Tony, who asked, “When are you gonna do this favor with me for William?” Fearing that the student would be hurt and that Tony might turn on him for not cooperating, Brent called his father and said he was going to the police. Thinking Brent was crazy to get involved, Jerry nonetheless hired Lubbock attorney Robert St. Clair to represent his son. “He was nervous about retaliation,” St. Clair says.
On March 24, 1995, Brent went to the police and wrote a three-page affidavit. “I consider Tony to be a dangerous person,” Brent wrote. He described Tony talking about his involvement with drugs and guns and an incident in which Tony pointed a handgun at him.
That summer, Jerry insisted that Brent return to Tech so he could graduate on time. Crying, Brent told his father that after he wrote the affidavit, Tony had broken into his room, put a gun to his head and told him to leave Lubbock. His tires were slashed, his car stereo stolen and his room vandalized.
“Brent believed that this guy would kill him if he went back to Tech,” Jerry says. “He says that’s one reason he broke up with Sara, so she wouldn’t be hurt.” The story sounded improbable to Jerry, but Brent was clearly upset.
In Dallas, Brent enrolled in community college. At his mother’s urging, Brent began seeing a therapist, who diagnosed him as bipolar, torn between alternating mania and depression.
“Looking back on it,” says Martwig about the end of her relationship with Brent, “I could see he was cycling into a manic phase. He was spending a lot more money and not really thinking about it too much.” And soon Brent had found another new love.
The Gutheinzes remember 1996 as a pleasant period in their relationship with Brent. He stood as best man for his brother Stephen’s wedding. He was the affectionate older brother dishing advice about boys to his sister Emily.
Working part time for his dad and attending classes at UTD, Brent seemed to have recovered from the debacle at Texas Tech. Living with three other men in a student apartment, Brent had made several friends. He and Brad, a computer science major, studied together. (Brad asked that his last name not be used.) Brent was on track to graduate with a business degree in August 1997.
And he had a new workout buddy, Scott Garrett, an electrical engineering student. “He was so disciplined, we couldn’t even eat a frigging pizza,” Garrett says. By the end of 1996, Brent weighed 210, so muscular and chiseled he could crush an egg by flexing his pectoral muscles.
Brent’s father still kicks himself for what happened next.
In February 1997, he asked Brent to take a delivery to his accountant’s office in Plano. Jerry told him he had to see their new secretary Chanel Banks.
“She’s really hot,” Jerry said, even though he knew the young woman was planning her wedding.
In the fall of 1996, Brent had dated Rosalie Castillo. “He wanted to get serious,” says Castillo, now a teacher. (She asked that her married name not be used.) “He wanted more commitment than I did.” Castillo broke off the relationship, but they stayed friends.
Since then, Brent had dated only casually, but after making the delivery, Brent called his dad and said, “That’s the most fantastic-looking girl I’ve ever seen!”
“Brent, she’s engaged,” Jerry told him.
“I’m having lunch with her tomorrow,” Brent said.
Eight days later, Banks broke off her engagement and moved in with Brent.
From the beginning of Brent’s relationship with Banks, his parents were appalled. Hadn’t she been planning her wedding to another man the day she met Brent? Brent explained that she moved in with him and his roommates to get away from Craig Matilton, her former fiance. But a week later, Brent announced they were in love.
“My wife and I were concerned about it,” Jerry says. “I’ve never met anyone who would treat it that lightly being engaged to someone. We referred to it as the lowering of Brent’s brain two and a half feet in his body.”
His parents’ fears weren’t allayed after a meeting with Brent and Banks over her money problems. Banks said she and Matilton, a tall American Indian who worked with a foundation repair company, were deeply in debt. She was earning little more than minimum wage, and her car was about to be repossessed.
At the end of April, not long after he bought a 1997 Mustang for Banks, Brent announced that they were getting married. Deciding that their son needed to take responsibility for his own finances, the Gutheinzes gave him the title to the car they’d purchased for him to use during college. Two days later, they were dismayed to learn Brent had traded in the car and taken out a loan for a 1995 SUV.
On May 15, Brent and Banks leased their own apartment. The Gutheinzes watched as the couple went on a spending spree, buying a $1,200 car stereo, a $1,000 TV system, a $2,500 computer, $500 in bedding, $600 in appliances and hundreds of dollars’ worth of clothes for Banks.
In March, Brent took a full-time job making about $22,000 a year as manager of SimFighters, a start-up at Preston and Belt Line roads that gave people time in fighter-jet simulators. Owner Bill Kingsley hired Brent out of a dozen UTD students he interviewed. “I needed somebody I could trust,” Kingsley says, “somebody energetic and good-looking. Brent was built like a tank. Put a flight suit on him and he fit the image of a fighter pilot.”
Brent seemed level-headed and trustworthy, Kingsley says. He was also passionately in love with Banks.
“All he could talk about was Chanel, like, ‘She’s the perfect girl for me,'” Kingsley says. “She had him completely wrapped around her little finger.”
Even Kingsley cautioned Brent about racking up so much debt. On Mother’s Day, when Brent and Banks came to dinner at Macaroni Grill, Diana was so upset with her son’s spending that she cried through most of the meal. They would later discover at his death Brent owed creditors about $64,000.
On the phone, Brent complained to his brother Stephen that their parents weren’t being supportive. “He was saying things he’d never said before,” Stephen says. “He and my dad were fighting. I got the impression Chanel was a strong influence on him and a bad influence. I was worried about him. We all were.”
Not only were his relations with his family strained, Brent’s friends felt shut out of his life. Brad, now married and a software developer in Plano, says Brent went from being a frugal and diligent student to spending thousands of dollars and skipping class. “Brent told me that he could no longer hang out with his friends unless [Chanel] was there,” Brad later said in a statement to police. “I asked him if that was his choice, and he said it was what Chanel wanted.”
Around the first of June, Brent called Diana and said he and Banks wanted to take her out for her birthday. But days later, he called distraught. Banks had left him.
The next two weeks, his parents watched Brent ride a roller coaster of emotions. Banks moved out, then back in. “One minute he would be in love with her, and the next he’d despise her,” Stephen says. Then on June 8, Banks revealed that she was pregnant.
Brent’s reaction was to forgive all, to marry Banks and raise the baby. “He was excited about being a dad,” Stephen says. “Even though it wasn’t under the best of circumstances, he loved kids.” Banks moved back in on June 12 and out again almost immediately.
A furious Brent called his father, saying Banks told him she wanted an abortion. Brent confessed that he’d spit in her face, called her names and had almost thrown her down the stairs. On Father’s Day, during his last meal with his parents, Brent assured them that he was taking control of his problems. Now driving the Mustang, Brent said he would sell the SUV and work two jobs until he paid off his debts.
The evening of June 18, Brent came by with former girlfriend Castillo. “My last words with him weren’t very nice,” Jerry says with a sigh, “over a dumb bill for overdue videos at Blockbuster. I told him to take our name off his account.”
The apartment manager opened the door of Brent’s third-floor apartment, breaking the strip of tape she’d placed over the jamb after learning the resident was missing. Bennie collected the tape and dusted for fingerprints. Following Ranger Bennie, Jerry walked into his son’s apartment. He tried to follow the Ranger’s request to see if anything was out of place. The rooms were messy, typical for Brent. Nothing and everything seemed strange.
The previous days had been hell. Brent had been missing for a week.
On Friday afternoon, June 26, the biggest man Jerry had ever seen walked into their home. “Ranger Bennie has his Western hat, the gun on his hip, cowboy boots and khaki shirt,” Jerry says. “He takes his hat off. It’s the only time in the ’90s I ever saw a flattop.”
Introduced as the lead investigator on the case, Ranger Bennie informed them quietly that Brent’s body had been positively identified by dental records. They were not told of the mutilation or that identification had been made on three loose teeth found at the crime scene.
Though Brent had lived in Richardson, his body had been found in Grayson County, which gave jurisdiction to the Grayson County Sheriff’s Department. “Mr. Gutheinz,” Bennie asked, “are you aware of anyone Brent knew in Grayson County or any business he had in Grayson County?”
“No,” Jerry said. “Why?”
“Where the body was found, this has got to be associated with Grayson County,” Bennie said. There was little traffic on the dead-end road, and whoever put Brent there had to know the terrain.
In a deep Texas drawl Bennie told them, “I know this is very hard, but we need to work real fast if this murder is going to be solved.”
Bennie listened attentively as they described the last few months of Brent’s life: school, his new job, turmoil with Banks and his wild spending. After 30 or 40 minutes, Diana noticed he wasn’t writing anything down. The Ranger tapped his forehead, saying, “I remember everything that’s said to me.”
Needing their permission to enter Brent’s apartment, Bennie asked Jerry to accompany him. As he left, Bennie promised Diana that he would find who had murdered their son.
Wondering if his son had been kidnapped from the apartment, Jerry felt disbelief, grief and anger all rolled into one. At least a dozen people were tromping through the small rooms, including deputies, the apartment manager and people from the UTD police and public relations departments. Could they be obliterating evidence? Jerry didn’t say anything, feeling that the Ranger and other law enforcement people must know what they were doing. Behind him, people from UTD were talking about how to keep the murder from being associated with the university. They clearly didn’t know who he was.
Disgusted, Jerry left as quickly as he could.
The next morning, Jerry returned to the apartment to begin organizing and disposing of his son’s belongings. Bennie had called at 10:30 the night before. The crime scene people were done.
But on Saturday, Jerry was surprised to see what investigators had left behind: wet towels and a pair of women’s panties in the washer, a hammer and Brent’s golf clubs. They didn’t know how or where Brent had died. Could one of those last items have been a murder weapon? And why was there a hole in the ceiling of his bedroom closet, with plaster and glass shards on the floor? Why had Brent left behind one of his favorite sandals, which he wore everywhere? Castillo would later remember him leaving on the previous Thursday morning wearing them. (No shoes were found with his body.)
Bennie took initial statements from Brent’s friends, including Banks and Matilton. Banks had abruptly quit her job several days before Brent disappeared. A few weeks later, she moved back in with Matilton. (They married in May 1998. Reached at their home in Allen, the Matiltons declined to comment.)
Bennie had asked the Gutheinzes for any information that might shed light on Brent’s activities at the end of his life, so they traced Brent’s last movements. Castillo had spent the night at his apartment (platonically, she says), and Brent had taken her to class that morning, saying he had to go to the bank.
Brent had left SimFighters at around 5 p.m., joined 24 Hour Fitness at 5:30 and bought something at Sugarless Delight at 5:50. These times would later be disputed, but it is clear Brent missed his 6 p.m. class at UTD. He simply disappeared.
Though a student came forward and said he’d seen Brent on the following Friday afternoon, Bennie didn’t put much stock in that. Early on, Bennie said that he believed Brent died Thursday night, but he would never give a reason.
With the help of private investigator Davis, the Gutheinzes began sorting through Brent’s bills, phone records and the car transactions. The Mustang had been obtained through a “straw purchase,” using one person’s name and credit–with his permission–to purchase a car for someone unrelated.
The dealership had sold Brent a credit life insurance policy that would have paid off the SUV in case of his death. (A manager at the dealership lived in Gunter, not far from where Brent’s body was found.) Scott Garrett says that when he accompanied Brent to the dealership while trying to sell the SUV, the salesman asked if Brent had brought his bodyguard, then opened a drawer to reveal a gun. That man had a criminal record.
And there was Tony, Brent’s nemesis from Texas Tech; Brent had told several people that after his last visit to Tech, several people had appeared in his UTD bedroom one night, put a gun to his head and told him it was Tony’s last warning: Stay away from Lubbock.
Bennie deemed it all “interesting.” He seemed to be focusing on several phone messages on Brent’s answering machine involving a “present” for which Brent owed the male caller $400. The present seemed to be drugs, and investigators speculated at first that it might have involved the manufacture of methamphetamine. But the Gutheinzes learned that Brent had taken a “cycle” of steroids in March. (Brent had denied using steroids, but the medical examiner found thinning of the bones and skull, which could indicate longtime use.)
The parents had no way to know what Bennie was doing behind the scenes. Plano police Detective Cindy Bennett, involved when Brent was missing, says that Bennie was often in Plano working on the investigation. “He had two other murders,” Bennett says. “There was no sloughing off.” She declined to comment further.
But to the Gutheinzes, who didn’t hear from Bennie unless they called him, it seemed Brent’s murder was getting short shrift.
In August, Jerry discovered among Brent’s belongings a VHS tape and a vacuum cleaner with a bag full of plaster and glass. Jerry popped the tape into a player and saw that it was a homemade video of Banks in provocative poses, some footage apparently taken without her knowledge. Garrett told him that Banks had been negotiating with Brent to get it back after they broke up.
Jerry called Bennie, who said the vacuum cleaner bag wasn’t useful; the chain of custody had been broken. But he asked Jerry to hold onto the tape.
Brent’s Mustang was discovered in late July parked in front of a motel in Plano, only a few feet from the Denny’s where Brent often studied late at night. The keys were missing, and caliche still clung to the tires. The manager said he’d noted all the cars in the lot on July 4, two weeks earlier, and the Mustang had not been there. Bennie said the car had probably been parked there since Brent’s disappearance, but he wouldn’t explain why he believed that.
By midsummer, the Gutheinzes had several theories about what happened to Brent:
That he’d bought illegal drugs, threatened to turn someone in and been killed in retaliation. Or that the convoluted car transaction involved fraud and that Brent, threatening to expose it, had been killed to cover it up. (“Brent had a pattern of getting involved in doing something wrong, then doing an about-face and getting self-righteous about it and turning them in,” Stephen says.)
That Tony in Lubbock had enacted some kind of revenge.
That Banks and Matilton, a member of the Hupa tribe in California, had something to do with it, and the mutilation of Brent’s corpse was part of some ritual.
That Brent had been killed by someone who had raped him in middle school; he had told several friends he’d seen one of his attackers on campus at UTD.
There were problems with each of these theories, and it all came down to the lack of physical evidence and connecting any of these individuals with the crime.
In September 1997, three months after the murder, the Gutheinzes met for the second time with Bennie and a deputy.
“He had the file and pretty well announced to us that he had done all he could,” Jerry says. “He was a Texas Ranger and would keep investigating. The meeting was to be his condolences, like, ‘I’m sorry that this happened to you.'”
Jerry and Diana pointed out a number of things still to be accomplished. As Bennie had requested, Jerry had brought the VHS tape of Banks. They didn’t understand why Bennie wasn’t being more aggressive about interviewing her. Banks had given them one story about where she was the weekend Brent disappeared, and according to a deputy, she’d told the Ranger another story.
“She’s lawyered up,” Bennie told the Gutheinzes. Matilton seemed to have a strong alibi; he was working in Abilene from Thursday through Saturday. But he’d also declined to be interviewed by Bennie.
Bennie said that he would follow through on several items that the Gutheinzes raised, but the only way it would be solved, the Ranger suggested, was if someone confessed.
Bennie had the autopsy report and photos of Brent’s body, but he refused to show them to the Gutheinzes. No parent should have to see something so grisly. He told them that Brent had died of “violent homicide” and that the likely time of death was Thursday night, the night he disappeared.
But Bennie also knew what the Gutheinzes didn’t: The report and photos revealed that the collection of evidence had been so compromised that solving the crime was going to be difficult and prosecuting it nearly impossible.
In July 1998, the Gutheinzes hired attorney Kevin Keith to help break the logjam with the Ranger.
“Keith thought my personality was causing these problems,” Jerry says.
After sending Bennie a letter of 20 to 30 points the family thought still needed to be investigated, Keith arranged an August 1998 meeting with Bennie, Ranger Lieutenant Richard Sweaney, Ranger Captain W.D. Vickers, Grayson County Sheriff Keith Gary, several deputy sheriffs and a Grayson County assistant attorney. (Keith was not allowed to attend.)
“Vickers told us the Texas Rangers were not our personal investigators,” Jerry says. “We couldn’t tell him what to do, and I was being awfully critical of Bennie, and I needed to go home and find something else to do with my life.”
The meeting ended badly.
Perhaps Bennie was getting sick of the Gutheinzes. Jerry was certainly obsessed, but Bennie had created a vacuum of information that fueled Jerry’s speculations. And Jerry’s impression that Bennie’s investigation was less than aggressive was being reinforced by things such as discovering from a chain-of-evidence receipt that Bennie hadn’t turned over Brent’s computer to the forensics lab until July 21, 1998, more than a year after his death.
After Bennie told Jerry not to interview witnesses, that he could compromise the investigation, Jerry says that when he located someone, he simply passed along the names and phone numbers to Bennie. But he’d later find out that weeks and months passed before Bennie spoke to them, if at all. Bennie never talked to Martwig, for example, though she knew of Tony. “This is the first time I’ve been contacted by anyone outside the family,” Martwig told the Observer.
“Bennie seemed well-intended, if kind of unsophisticated in the ways of criminal investigations,” Keith says. “And he had a lot of cases that he was responsible for. To do the job adequately was going to take more than one person to track these things down. We would provide that information to officer Bennie, and we never got the sense that he in turn did anything with it. He would say, ‘I can’t tell you the status of it because it’s an ongoing investigation.’ But if he had followed up, we would have been aware of it.
“I think that given the tragedy that they were dealing with and the apparent inadequate level of investigation, their continued inquiries were justified,” Keith says. “It’s not like they were on his doorstep daily. We just never learned of any progress being made. I thought a lot more could be done.”
One of the first things Bennie had asked the Gutheinzes was whether Brent was gay. After obtaining records of Brent’s session with a therapist, Bennie contacted them again. Brent had told his therapist that in junior high he’d been raped by several boys–one the older brother of a friend–in a Plano park. The experience had prompted his obsession with weightlifting.
Not long before his death, Brent told several people that he had seen one of the attackers on the UTD campus. Had Brent threatened to expose the man? Bennie gave the Gutheinzes the task of finding names and phone numbers of Brent’s friends in junior high. Jerry and Diana say Bennie never contacted them.
In September 1998, at the Gutheinzes’ urging, Bennie called Brad, one of Brent’s best friends, for the first time. After Brent’s death, Brad had voluntarily called Plano police and given a short written statement.
On September 9, 1998, Brad wrote a 12-page statement describing the events leading up to the murder, including, at Bennie’s urging, his theories about what had happened to Brent. Bennie asked Brad to take a polygraph exam, and he agreed.
But after the polygraph, the operator said Brad had shown deception on several questions related to the murder. Bennie confronted him, suggesting that he and Brent had a homosexual relationship. Stunned, Brad denied it.
After Bennie told Brad he was the prime suspect, Brad hired criminal defense attorney Reed Prospere, who set up an independent polygraph test. Brad passed. But even that didn’t get him off the hook. He later learned Bennie had told his apartment manager he was under surveillance as a possible drug dealer.
“Most of my experiences with Texas Rangers have been good, but this wasn’t one of them,” says Prospere, who spent eight years as a prosecutor for the Dallas County District Attorney’s Office. “He’s frustrated because he’s got a horrible crime that can’t be solved. Texas Rangers have a mentality in general that accords a bigger-than-life attitude. They think they can bully their way through the process.”
As Jerry sat with Dr. Joni McClain, a medical examiner at the Dallas County Institute of Forensic Sciences, on October 15, 1998, he noticed she seemed uneasy, almost apologetic. (McClain did not return phone calls from the Observer.)
Jerry had a list of questions about the autopsy and forensic tests done on his son’s body. Hoping to answer some of the Gutheinzes’ concerns, in October 1998, Keith obtained a release from a justice of the peace in Grayson County that allowed the Gutheinzes to obtain the autopsy report and photos.
During the three-hour meeting with McClain, for the first time Jerry learned the extent of the damage done to his son’s body, which weighed only 108 pounds when discovered.
The autopsy report revealed that Brent’s body arrived at the medical examiner’s office wrapped in a gray blanket placed there by someone at the crime scene. His hands were not bagged, as is standard procedure in a murder investigation to preserve material under the fingernails. And though the body had been intact at the scene, the pelvis and lower extremities had become detached during transportation by Flesher Funeral Home. (The blanket may have come from the funeral home personnel who transported the body.)
McClain told Jerry that none of the three was an acceptable method of handling evidence in Dallas County. The worst error, she said, was using the old blanket to cover the body, contaminating any trace evidence. The separation of the body could have caused false injuries to be noted. And bagging the hands would have helped determine if there had been a fight. Tests done on the nails were inconclusive.
But there were more problems. One note on the autopsy report read: “Evidence in bags with body!” This had created the possibility of cross-contamination with trace evidence. In addition, material from the scene had been packed into an empty paint can and several other nonstandard containers.
A document from a Grayson County investigator says that “portions of dead will be placed in a plastic bag as they have no paper bags at scene.” Several containers arrived in an old box marked “Crown Paint Thinner: Paint Related Material.” Had it been found at the scene? If not, it was an inappropriate way to transport materials.
The photos are gruesome–showing the muscular body of Brent Gutheinz reduced to a charred mass of ruined black flesh and exposed bone, his lower face missing and crawling with insects. One photo shows his legs draped by the gray blanket.
Because of the decomposition, burns and animal activity, McClain’s final determination was deliberately broad. Possible cause of death included, but was not limited to, manual or ligature strangulation, smothering, neck compression, drowning, sharp force injuries and blunt force injuries.
No tests had been ordered to determine the time of death. McClain said that based on the legs, it could have occurred from the last time he was seen alive to within 24 hours of the autopsy. A more accurate time of death might have been determined by examining insect larvae in the body, but that test had not been requested, nor had a test to determine the accelerant used. (Both of those tests would be done years later, at Jerry’s insistence.)
In fact, the forensic testing had been cut short. After the identification, Bennie had notified the medical examiner that he was sending the evidence to the DPS lab. He would later tell the Gutheinzes that he had more trust in the DPS lab. But Jerry found out from a secretary that the move saved Grayson County almost $900.
After his meeting with McClain, Jerry sat in his car in the parking lot and cried. The multiple mistakes were a prosecutor’s nightmare and a defense attorney’s dream. Jerry knew then that nobody would pay for butchering Brent.
In late 1998, after writing state Senator Florence Shapiro–and with the help of Angie McCown, the victims coordinator with the DPS–the Gutheinzes got an audience in Austin with the then-head of the Texas Rangers, Bruce Casteel, Bennie and several other Rangers. Jerry confronted them with the autopsy report and photos, saying that even if no one was ever prosecuted for the murder, he had to know what happened to his son.
Jerry says Casteel agreed that mistakes had been made and promised to get the investigation back on track. They came up with a list of several dozen items that needed to be done.
Over the next year, the Gutheinzes heard little from Bennie. In late 1999, Diana was close to a nervous breakdown. Emily, who went into an emotional tailspin after her brother’s death, was still struggling. To move things forward, they hired former district Judge Robert Moss, who helped set up a meeting with Bennie and G.W. Hildebrand, a retired DPS officer. Jerry secretly taped the meeting.
From the transcript of the meeting it appears that two immovable forces had collided–the exasperated investigator and the single-minded father.
The Ranger admitted that he hadn’t done many of the items on the agreed-upon “action list.” But Bennie said he had been working on the case, talking to key people and testing some physical evidence, though he wouldn’t tell them the results.
But another thing jumps out: Information as basic as whether Brent died Thursday or Friday night had not been determined. Though a forensic entomologist had been asked to examine slides from the autopsy, Bennie didn’t know when the photos were taken, which would impact the insect activity observed on the slides. “As far as the actual time of death,” Bennie said, “I’m not set on that.” Nor was it clear when Brent was last seen alive.
With the Gutheinzes out of the room, Bennie acknowledged to Moss the problem with the gray blanket, but contended that the paint-thinner box contained unused paint cans used to collect arson evidence. But he refused Moss’ suggestion of bringing another agency in on the case.
“There’s a lot going on that they don’t know,” Bennie said. “I promise you if I ever get to a point where I need to holler ‘calf-rope’ and bring some help in, I’ll damn sure do it.”
The Gutheinzes felt that the only new information Bennie had to offer was that a dozen experts had examined the mutilation of the corpse and concluded that the goal was to render the body unidentifiable, not to satisfy some weird sadistic or ritualistic need.
Unwilling to compromise the evidence in case there was a break, Bennie rejected out of hand their request to review his investigative file. The meeting ended with the Gutheinzes hearing once again that Bennie had been unable to eliminate anyone as a suspect.
From December 2000 to August 2003, Jerry says, neither Bennie nor anyone involved in the investigation initiated contact with them.
Keith and others counseled Jerry to back away. The investigation was taking a toll on the Gutheinzes’ marriage.
But he couldn’t. Jerry contacted the FBI, the Texas Attorney General’s Office and the U.S. attorney for the Northern District; he even looked into filing a lawsuit for dereliction of duty against Bennie. The Rangers told him he needed to have an attorney to contact them from now on.
“Now the Rangers have lawyered up,” Jerry says with a bitter laugh.
As the seventh anniversary of Brent’s murder nears, Ranger Bennie is on the list for promotion to lieutenant. The Gutheinzes’ lives have changed. Emily is out of therapy and engaged to be married. Two years ago, Diana returned to teaching. Stephen recently had a composition commissioned and premiered by a major orchestra. Jerry and Diana have bought a new house in Richardson and have tried to put the investigation out of their daily lives. But the family is still haunted by Brent’s murder.
“Ranger Bennie didn’t do this to Brent,” Jerry says. “But I think there was a career-killing series of events that happened in the first few weeks of this murder that nobody wants to come out. They have no incentive to solve this case. It puts their pride and competence out in public.
“If someone at the Dallas Police Department does something wrong, they send in the Rangers. But no one investigates the Rangers. All of them are doing their jobs, but when someone screws up, there’s no review of their procedures and tactics.”
Maybe it takes an obsessed father who won’t take no for an answer. The murder of Brent Gutheinz recently was accepted by the Texas Rangers’ 2-year-old Unsolved Crimes Investigation Team, as Jerry has long demanded.
So far, the eight-detective squad has taken on 58 cold cases, says Ranger Lieutenant Tony Leal; eight have been solved. “None of these cases are slam dunks,” Leal says. The Ranger assigned to the Gutheinz case may not start working it for up to six months, based on his case load. But it’s a start.
Says Davis, “Jerry is obsessed, but if my son was killed like that, I’d be in front of Congress right now. I’d be in the colonel’s lap at the Rangers in Austin. Now it’s pretty cold. The only way it will be solved is if they really work it.”
Maybe he and the public expect too much, Jerry says. “These TV shows make us believe it’s like CSI. They go out and handle the evidence beautifully and six weeks later get an indictment. This case and a lot of cases don’t get that treatment.