Darrell Lunsford: Dashcam Video Records a Murder

Last week we looked at the murder of former child actor Carl Switzer, “Alfalfa” of The Little Rascals. Our subject this week is the murder of Darrell Lunsford, an East Texas police constable. His murder was the first case where dashcam video led to the quick arrest of the killers. The video also ensured their conviction.

Darrell Lunsford is Murdered on the Highway

At about 1:20 on the morning of January 23, 1991, Constable Lunsford noted a vehicle he considered suspicious. It was a ten-year-old Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme with Maine license plates. As the car passed through the tiny town of Garrison, Texas on U.S. Highway 59, Lunsford pulled it over. Lunsford got out of his cruiser, but before he did, he activate his dashboard camera.

Photo of Darrell Lunsford in uniform
Constable Darrell E. Lunsford, Sr.

Three Hispanic men occupied the Cutlass: the driver, Reynaldo Villarreal, his half-brother, Baldemar, and Jesus Cortez Zambrano. Lunsford asked Reynaldo for identification. He claimed to have a driver’s license but said he didn’t have it on him. Reynaldo failed to mention that the three were heading to Chicago from Houston with 30 pounds of marijuana.

At 1:27, Lunsford asked to look in the Cutlass’s trunk and the men reluctantly agreed. When he and Reynaldo opened the trunk, the scent of marijuana was immediately evident. Although told to stay in the car, Baldemar got out and joined Reynaldo in talking with Lunsford. Suddenly, Baldemar grabbed Lunsford by the legs while Reynaldo grabbed him from behind. The two men, soon joined by Zambrano, then began to kick, beat, and stab the immobilized officer.

Sill frame from Darrell Lunsford's dashcam video seconds before the deadly attack
Still frame form Lunsford’s dashcam video, seconds before the deadly attack

Not content to disable Lunsford, Baldemar shot him in the neck with the officer’s own gun. The bullet severed his spinal cord, killing him instantly. The three dragged the body to a nearby ditch. Then they sped off in the Cutlass, leaving Lunsford’s body and his cruiser on the side of Highway 59.

Darrell Lunsford Murder Suspects Captured

Shortly before the murder, Sheriff’s Deputy Don Welch drove by the traffic stop. Moments later, when the Cutlass zoomed past him, Welch turned around and found Lunsford’s body. He radioed for help. Chief Deputy Thomas Stanaland noticed the video camera in Lunsford’s cruiser. He watched the video, then made a copy of the tape.

Analyzing the video, police were able to identify the three suspects. The trio had abandoned their Cutlass less than a mile from Garrison when they realized Welch had spotted them. On foot now, and toting 30 pounds of marijuana, they didn’t move fast. A highway patrolman spotted and arrested Reynaldo Villarreal later that same day. Two days after that, authorities found and arrested his brother, Baldemar. It took another week, but Zambrano was soon in custody as well.

Shooter Baldemar Villarreal in court
Shooter Baldemar Villarreal in court

All three men stood trial for murder and were convicted. Baldemar Villarreal, the actual shooter, received a life sentence. Reynaldo Villarreal received a 40-year sentence while Jesus Zambrano drew a 30-year term.


A few months later, on September 21, 1991, Texas State Trooper Andy Lopez, Jr. stopped a suspicious vehicle along U.S. Highway 77 in Refugio, Texas. In an eerie echo of Lunsford’s murder, three Hispanic men were in the car transporting a cargo of marijuana. At first, they men allowed Lopez to open the trunk. But then, one of the suspects drew a handgun.

Lopez quickly knocked the suspect off balance and drew his own gun. The two men exchanged shots. The armed suspect continued to fire at Lopez while the other two fled on foot. By the time help arrived, the armed suspect had suffered mortal wounds in the gun battle. Lopez credited the video of Lunsford’s murder with helping him learn what mistakes to avoid in a similar situation.

Sign identifying  a portion of U.S. Highway 59 as the Darrell Lunsford, Sr. Memorial Highway
Sign identifying a portion of U.S. Highway 59 as the Darrell Lunsford, Sr. Memorial Highway

According to Bureau of Prisons records, Baldemar Villarreal is in prison in Beaumont, Texas with no release day. He is likely to spend the rest of his days behind bars. Reynaldo Villareal languishes in the Federal penitentiary in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania. His planned release date is January 2026. Jesus Zambrano served 27 years of his 30-year sentence and was released in 2018.

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Carl Switzer: The Truth About Alfalfa’s Death

Last week’s blog featured George Trepal, a man with a genius-level IQ who poisoned his neighbors. This week, I’m going to tell you about the death of Carl Switzer. You probably known him better as “Alfalfa” in the Our Gang comedies, later released on television as The Little Rascals.

Carl Switzer, Child Star

Carl Dean Switzer was born on August 7, 1927 in Paris, Illinois. On a vacation to California in 1934, his family toured the Hal Roach Studios. In the studio café, six-year-old Carl and his eight-year-old brother, Harold, performed an impromptu song-and-dance number. Producer Hal Roach saw the duo’s performance. It impressed him enough that he signed them both to appear in the Our Gang series of short films. Harold had two nicknames, “Slim” and “Deadpan,” while Carl became “Alfalfa.”

Carl Switzer as "Alfalfa"
Carl Switzer as “Alfalfa”

Both Switzer brothers appeared together for the first time in the 1935 short, Beginner’s Luck. With his freckled face and sporting a prominent cowlick, Carl was a natural attraction. By the end of the year, “Alfalfa” was one of the main characters while Harold’s “Slim” and “Deadpan” faded into the background. However, Carl developed a reputation for being abrasive and difficult on the set. He played cruel jokes on the other actors and often held up filming.

George "Spakny" McFarland, Darla Hood, and Carl Switzer as "Alfalfa" in Our Gang Follies of 1938
George “Spanky” McFarland, Darla Hood, and Carl Switzer as “Alfalfa” in Our Gang Follies of 1938

George “Spanky” McFarland was the nominal star of the Our Gang series. But by 1937, Carl’s “Alfalfa” had become the more popular of the two. Although Carl and George got along fine, their fathers argued constantly over salaries and screen time.

Life After Hollywood

Hollywood is notoriously unkind to former child actors after they have grown up. When Switzer’s stint with Our Gang ended in 1940, he continued to act but not frequently and often in uncredited bit parts. He married Dian Collingwood in 1954. They had a son together but divorced in 1957.

Carl Switzer with cowboy star Roy Rogers
Carl Switzer with cowboy star Roy Rogers

By the late fifties, Carl Switzer had few acting jobs. He supported himself by bartending, guiding hunters, and breeding and training hunting dogs. He also had a run-in with the law. In December 1958, he cut 15 pine trees in the Sequoia National Forest to sell as Christmas trees. He was sentenced to a year probation and paid a $225 fine (about $2,040 in 2021).

Carl Switzer guesting with George Burns on The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show

Also in 1958, Carl agreed to train a Treeing Walker Coonhound for friend and sometimes business partner Moses “Bud” Stiltz. The dog ran away while chasing a bear and Stiltz insisted Switzer either return the dog or pay him its value. Switzer didn’t have the money to pay for the dog. So, he took out ads offering a reward for the dog’s safe return. Someone found the dog and brought it to the bar where Switzer was working as a bartender. He rewarded the rescuer with $35 in cash and $15 in drinks.

Carl Switzer Shot to Death

Carl Switzer was unhappy with being out $50 since the dog was not his but belonged to Stiltz. Switzer and a friend, photographer Jack Piott, went to the Stiltz home in Mission Hills to demand payment. It was January 21, 1959.

Stiltz described the ensuing events as follows. He said Switzer pounded on the door and demanded Stiltz let him in. Otherwise, he threatened to kick the door in. One of the men, either Switzer or Piott, hit Stiltz over the head with a glass-domed clock. Stiltz then retreated to his bedroom and returned with a .38 caliber revolver. Switzer and Stiltz struggled for the gun and it went off. Switzer then pulled a hunting knife and threatened to kill Stiltz. Stiltz then fired a shot that hit Switzer in the groin and damaged an artery. The former child actor bled out and was dead when he reached the hospital. Piott backed Stiltz’s story and the shooting was determined to be in self-defense.

Although the self-defense verdict tied up Switzer’s death with a nice, neat bow, there were problems with it. For one thing, the “hunting knife” turned out to be a penknife. Investigators found it under Switzer’s body at the crime scene. For another, Tom Corrigan, Stiltz’s stepson, told a different version of what happened on that Wednesday night in Los Angeles.

Carl Switzer's grave on August 7, 2012, the 85th anniversary of his birth
Carl Switzer’s grave on August 7, 2012, the 85th anniversary of his birth

Another Version and Controversy

On January 24, 2001, Bud Stiltz’s stepson, Tom Corrigan, came forward with another version of Switzer’s death. Corrigan said that an intoxicated Switzer knocked at the door and said, “Western Union for Bud Stiltz.” When Stiltz’s wife opened the door, the two men entered, and Switzer threatened to beat up Stiltz. Stiltz confronted them with the revolver, which Switzer grabbed while Piott crowned Stiltz with the clock. During the struggle, the gun accidentally went off. The bullet went through the ceiling and a fragment hit Corrigan in the leg.

At this point, Switzer seemed to realize things were out of control. He and Piott started to leave. It was then that Stiltz fired a second shot. Switzer slid down a wall with a surprised look on his face. Stiltz then shoved Piott against the kitchen counter and threatened to kill him, too. Corrigan said his stepfather (and Piott) lied to the coroner’s jury.

Corrigan further said that an LAPD detective interviewed him and asked if he would testify at the inquest. He agreed but was never called. “It was more like murder,” Corrigan told reporters in 2001. “He didn’t have to kill him.”

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George Trepal: Murder by Means of a Rare Poison

Last week’s blog underscored the old saw about there being no honor among thieves. This week, our topic is George Trepal, a murderer with a genius IQ.

Problems with the Neighbors

Two families lived next to each other amid the orange groves of the tiny town of Alturas, Florida. In one house, mine worker Parearlyn “Pye” Carr lived with his wife Peggy and their children from previous marriages. Even though they had only been married for a few months, Peggy suspected her husband of having an affair. There was also frequent strife among the children, who were in their teens and early twenties.

Peggy Carr portrait
Peggy Carr

The other family was George Trepal and his wife, Dr. Diana Carr (no relation to Pye). George was a chemist and Diana an orthopedic surgeon who people said dominated George. Both belonged to Mensa, a society for people with high IQ.

George Trepal at the time of his trial in 1991.
George Trepal at the time of his trial in 1991.

You’d think two families living close together with no other neighbors nearby would form a bond but not in this case. The two families argued frequently over things like firecrackers and loud music. It seemed that Diana and Peggy’s stepson, Duane, were frequently at odds. And on one occasion, Peggy and Diana had a ferocious altercation over Duane’s alleged bad behavior.

A Strange Illness — And Death

Peggy Carr worked in a local restaurant. One day her daughter, Sissy, visited her at work. Peggy complained she didn’t feel well, and Sissy urged her to go home. Her youngest son found her lying on a sofa, unable to speak. Her family rushed her to a hospital.

At the hospital, doctors spent three days running tests but couldn’t find anything wrong. They suggested that perhaps Peggy’s symptoms were psychosomatic—all in her head. But her symptoms slowly disappeared in the hospital, so the doctors sent her home. The symptoms returned almost immediately.

Again, Peggy couldn’t speak. She was able to write a note saying, “My feet are killing me.” As they drove Peggy back to the hospital, her son Travis and stepson Duane both started feeling a burning sensation in their own feet. Now doctors suspected poisoning. They thought it might be a metallic substance like arsenic. But when Peggy began to lose her hair, they suspected the poison was thallium.

Peggy slipped into a coma, while doctors put Travis on a respirator. Peggy died in March 1988 after Pye allowed the hospital to take her off life support.

Detectives Find Thallium and Finger George Trepal

Detectives tested the Carr’s well water and dozens, if not hundreds, of items around the house. They found no thallium until they noticed an eight-pack of Coca Cola under the kitchen counter. Four of the bottles were empty and all four contained traces of thallium.

The Carr home
The Carr home

Product tampering is a federal crime, so the FBI was now involved. They found that someone had deliberately opened the bottles in the eight-pack. Since one else in the area developed symptoms of thallium poisoning, investigators concluded that someone had targeted the Carr family.

Naturally, Pye was the initial suspect. But authorities doubted he would poison his own son. Besides, tests showed that Pye himself had consumed thallium. Investigators widened their circle and began to consider the oddball neighbor, George Trepal.

George Trepal was an intelligent but passive man. Even the Carr family thought he was harmless. But George Trepal wasn’t harmless. A self-taught chemist, he had a 1975 conviction for manufacturing methamphetamine for sale. When questioned about the Carrs, he was nervous and complained at length about things that seemed trivial to detectives. Detective Susan Goreck befriended him and got to know him well. He told her he hated people less intelligent than himself and people he couldn’t control. Both traits applied to the Carrs.

The George Trepal house at the time of Peggy Carr's murder
The George Trepal house at the time of Peggy Carr’s murder

George Trepal Arrested and Convicted

Eventually the FBI found traces of thallium in a small bottle in Trepal’s garage. They arrested him and charged him with murder. They also found a room in his house full of BDSM paraphernalia. The supposedly meek Trepal appeared to have a vivid fantasy life.

George Trepal's garage. Inside, investigators found thallium that the jury decided he used to poison Peggy Carr.
George Trepal’s garage. Inside, investigators found thallium that the jury decided he used to poison Peggy Carr.

George Trepal refused a plea deal that would have sent him to prison for life. Instead, he went to trial. A jury found him guilty and, on March 16, 1991, the judge sentenced him to death.

George Trepal prison photo
George Trepal prison photo


Dr. Diana Carr died at age 69 in 2018 from complications following a stroke. George Trepal still sits on Florida’s death row. He maintains his Mensa membership and continues to file appeals, all of which have failed.

Dr. Diana Carr (no relation to Pye Carr)

Detective Susan Goreck and Jeffrey Good wrote a book about the case, Poison Mind.

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Jesse James: Unexpected Death of an Old West Outlaw

From last week’s blog about a homicidal son, we return this week to the Old West. Jesse James was a notorious bank and train robber. You might expect him to have died as a result of his violent calling. However, Robert Ford, one of his own men, gunned him down from behind.

The Early Years of Jesse James

Jesse Woodson James was born on a farm near Kearney, Missouri in 1847. Jesse was only fourteen at the beginning of the Civil War. He stayed home while his older brother Frank joined Confederate guerrilla forces operating in western Missouri and eastern Kansas. Frank eventually found his way into the guerrilla band led by the infamous William Clarke Quantrill. Quantrill’s Raiders were responsible for a particularly gruesome massacre of pro-abolitionists at Lawrence, Kansas on August 21, 1863. Jesse, by then sixteen, joined his brother in late 1863 or early 1864.

A young Jesse James in 1864 (Library of Congress)
A young Jesse James in 1864 (Library of Congress)

The end of the Civil War in 1865 did not bring peace to Missouri. Clay County, the James brothers’ home, had supported the Confederacy. This did not sit well with the occupying Union forces. Supporters always said that it was harassing Federal soldiers who drove the James brothers to crime. Perhaps that was true, or maybe they simply had a predilection for lawlessness. Regardless, the brothers began participating in and then engineering a series of robberies. In 1869, Jesse and Frank teamed up with their cousin Cole Younger and his brothers to form the James-Younger gang.

A later studio portrait of Jesse James (Library of Congress)
A later studio portrait of Jesse James (Library of Congress)

Outlaws and Badmen

The James-Younger gang was reasonably successful at robbing stores and banks. Then they decided to strike out in a new direction. On July 21, 1873, they robbed a Rock Island Railroad train at Adair, Iowa. For this robbery, the donned Ku Klux Klan garb. But this was just a disguise; they never had any serious association with the Klan.

The Cole-Younger gang came to an ignoble end on April 24, 1874. The gang planned to rob the First National Bank of Northfield, Minnesota. But the citizens of Northfield fought back fiercely. Frank and Jesse barely escaped with their live from the bungled robbery attempt. The other gang members were either killed or captured. The Northfield raid effectively destroyed the Cole-Younger gang. Jesse and Frank headed to Nashville, Tennessee (where Jesse took the name “Thomas Howard”). Frank seemed to want to settle down, but Jesse remained restless.

Jesse migrated to St. Joseph in northwestern Missouri, where he teamed up with brothers Charley and Robert Ford. Jesse trusted the Fords although, according to Robert, he had begun to harbor suspicions about them. Also, Robert was secretly negotiating with Missouri governor Thomas Crittenden to turn Jesse in. The large reward offered by the State of Missouri and the railroads had proved too tempting. Jesse didn’t know this, of course.

The “Dirty Little Coward” Shoots Jesse James

It is doubtful that many of his neighbors realized that the man who lived with his family at 1318 Lafayette Street in St. Joseph, Missouri was really the infamous badman Jesse James.

Jesse James's home at 1318 Lafayette Street, St. Joseph, Missouri
Jesse James’s home at 1318 Lafayette Street, St. Joseph, Missouri

On the morning of April 3, 1882, as his mother made breakfast, Jesse took off his gun belt and turned away to dust off a picture. Seizing his chance, Robert Ford shot Jesse in the back of the head, killing him instantly. A popular ballad about the event included these lines:

Well, that dirty little coward that shot Mr. Howard
He laid poor Jesse in his grave


Ford himself came to a bad end ten years later. One Edward O’Kelley fired both barrels of a shotgun into him in Creede, Colorado.

Frank James survived. He surrendered to authorities and was acquitted in trials in Missouri and Alabama. He was never extradited to or tried in Minnesota for the deaths that resulted from the botched Northfield raid. Thereafter he worked odd jobs, including that of AT&T telegraph operator. He retired to the family farm where he conducted tours for twenty-five cents a head. He died there on February 15, 1918 at the age of 72.

Frank James in his later years
Frank James in his later years

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