True-crime veteran Stowers (To the Last Breath, 1998, etc.) relates the grisly tale of a Texas serial killer who dodged justice for too long.
The small city of Wichita Falls was an ordinary modern metropolis that in the winter of 1984–85, writes Stowers, had “come under assault from a nameless, faceless evil.” Terry Sims’s corpse was found in December 1984; the brutalized body of a nurse named Toni Gibbs turned up in a pasture a few weeks later. Both women had been horrifically raped, then beaten and fatally stabbed. Bar bouncer Danny Laughlin became obsessed with Gibbs’s death, making him a prime suspect to edgy local officials. Laughlin was indicted for Gibbs’s murder on the strength of his own contradictory statements and a jailhouse informant’s testimony. Before Laughlin’s trial began, however, authorities discovered a third victim: Ellen Blau, a recent arrival whose friendliness toward strangers proved her undoing. Laughlin’s jury deadlocked, resulting in a mistrial, but local police remained convinced of his guilt. So no one really noticed when high-strung drug addict Faryion Wardrip confessed to the murder of a woman named Tina Kimbrew and mentioned in his rambling statement that he’d also known Blau. Wardrip was paroled for Kimbrew’s murder in 1997, but improved DNA technologies finally implicated him in the other crimes. A neophyte DA investigator first connected Wardrip to the Blau killing, then memorably secured a DNA sample from him by requesting a “spit cup.” When confronted with the evidence, Wardrip capitulated, confessed to a fifth murder in Fort Worth, and ultimately received the death sentence. Two-time Edgar Award winner Stowers writes competently, though he’s not above larding on melodramatic, ain’t-it-awful asides and digressions typical of contemporary true crime. Still, he deftly portrays investigators’ increasing tenacity and Wardrip’s trail of deceit and violence, elements contributing to the tension as readers wait for the law to catch up with a bizarre and maddeningly fortunate murderer.
A passable evocation of an American nightmare.