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

Epilogue

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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John Wesley Hardin: Ruthless Old West Killer

Last week I told you about modern-day killer Colin Ferguson. This week, we take a trip back to the old West to meet John Wesley Hardin. He’s not as famous as, say, Billy the Kid or Wyatt Earp (they had better publicists). But Hardin was a prolific killer. He claimed to have killed 42 men. Contemporary newspapers put the count at 27.

Ferrotype mirror image of John Wesley Hardin (Public Domain)
Ferrotype mirror image of John Wesley Hardin (Public Domain)

John Wesley Hardin — A Violent Boyhood

John Wesley Hardin entered the world near Bonham, Texas in 1853. His father, a Methodist preacher, named his son after the founder of the Methodist denomination. The Civil War broke out when Hardin was eight years old. The next year, when he was nine, he tried to run away with his cousin and join the Confederate army. His father dissuaded him with “a sound thrashing.”

John Wesley Hardin
John Wesley Hardin

When Hardin was 14, he got into a fight with classmate Charles Sloter, a boy Hardin described as a bully. Sloter wrote something on the chalkboard disparaging a girl at the school. History doesn’t record what the writing said, but Sloter then claimed Hardin had written it. Hardin denied it. According to Hardin, Sloter punched him and pulled a knife. Hardin had a knife of his own and stabbed Sloter in the chest and back, nearly killing him.

Hardin’s First Killing

In November 1868, Hardin and a cousin engaged in a wrestling match with a former slave named Major “Mage” Holshousen. During the match, Hardin and his cousin threw Holshousen to the ground, cutting his face. Hardin claimed that the next day, the former slave “ambushed” him as he rode past. Hardin then shot Holshousen five times with his Colt .44.

Union troops occupied Texas in the wake of the Civil War. More than a third of the state police were former slaves. Hardin’s father felt a fair trial for killing a black man would be impossible, so he urged Hardin to go into hiding. Some historians believe Hardin wouldn’t have had any problems with an all-white jury, but he left anyway.

John Wesley Hardin
John Wesley Hardin

According to Hardin, while he was on the run, authorities discovered where he was hiding. They sent three Union soldiers to arrest him. Hardin laid in wait for the soldiers and killed two of them with two blasts from a double-barreled shotgun. The third soldier ran, and Hardin pursued him. The soldier shot at Hardin, hitting him in the arm. Hardin shot the man dead with his pistol.

Outlaw on the Run

By now, John Wesley Hardin was a full-fledged outlaw. He roamed around Texas and, for a while, even taught school in the tiny town of Towash. The students had a reputation for being unruly and frightening off teachers. But Hardin earned their respect—and attention—by carrying a revolver to class.

On January 20, 1875 the Texas Legislature authorized Governor Richard B. Hubbard
to offer a $5,000 reward for the apprehension of John Wesley Hardin.
On January 20, 1875 the Texas Legislature authorized Governor Richard B. Hubbard
to offer a $5,000 reward for the apprehension of John Wesley Hardin.

Respectability wasn’t in Hardin’s future, though. On January 5, 1870 (some sources say Christmas Day, 1869), he got in a card game with Benjamin Bradley. He had a run of luck and Bradley threatened to “cut out his liver” if he won again. Hardin was not armed and left. Later, though, the two men found themselves facing each other in the street. The classic “walkdown” made famous by books and movies was, in fact, quite rare in the old West. They occasionally occurred, though, often among southern gunmen as a continuation of the idea of the “gentlemen’s dual.” Bradley fired and missed. Hardin shot Bradley in the head and chest, killing him.

John Wesley Hardin Kills a Man for Snoring

In the early 1870s, the fugitive John Wesley Hardin (using an alias) met James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok. Hardin admired the lawman-gambler and the two became friends. Hardin claimed that on one occasion, Hickok arranged for one of Hardin’s cousins to escape from jail.

In 1871, Hickok was the town marshal of Abilene, Kansas, a rough-and-tumble Cowtown. On August 6, Hardin checked into Abilene’s American House Hotel after a night of drinking and gambling. Sometime during the night, loud snoring coming from the adjacent room occupied by Charles Couger awakened him. After shouted demands to “roll over” had no effect, Hardin drunkenly fired several shots through the wall. Although he probably intended only to wake Couger, one bullet pierced his heart, killing him instantly.

James Butler "Wild Bill" Hickok (Portrait taken in 1873 by George Gardner Rockwood at his New York studio three years before Hickok's death in Deadwood)
James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok (Portrait taken in 1873 by George Gardner Rockwood at his New York studio three years before Hickok’s death in Deadwood)

Hardin—half dressed and still drunk—saw Hickok coming with four policemen. He escaped out a second-floor window onto the hotel’s roof, then jumped to the street. He hid in a haystack all night. The next morning, he stole a horse and escaped. He never returned to Abilene.

The incident apparently embarrassed Hardin. He later complained about the press he received from it and omitted it entirely in his autobiography.

Prison and Afterwards

Hardin evaded the law for several years. But on August 24, 1877, Texas Rangers and local lawmen accosted him on a train near Pensacola, Florida. Hardin attempted to draw a Colt .44 cap-and-ball pistol, but it caught in his suspenders. The lawmen knocked Hardin unconscious and took him prisoner.

Hardin went on trial for killing Brown County, Texas Deputy Sheriff Charles Webb. On June 5, 1878, he was sentenced to 25 years in Huntsville Prison. He attempted to escape–unsuccessfully—several times. Eventually, though, he adapted to prison life. He read and studied law. He also penned an autobiography in which he wildly exaggerated and even fabricated incidents in his life.

Harden was released from Huntsville prison in February 1894. He was forty years old. Eventually pardoned, he passed the state bar examination and earned a license to practice law.

The Death of John Wesley Hardin

In El Paso, Texas, lawman John Selman, Jr. arrested an acquaintance of Hardin’s and the two men got into a verbal altercation. That night, Hardin was playing dice in the Acme Salon. Selman’s father, 58-year-old John Selman, Sr., entered the saloon, walked up behind Hardin, and shot him in the head, killing him instantly. As Hardin lay on the floor, Selman fired three more bullets into him. John Wesley Hardin was buried the next day.

John Henry Selman, Sr.
John Henry Selman, Sr.

Selman stood trial for murder. He claimed self defense and got a hung jury. Before his retrial, though, he himself was killed in an argument over a card game.

John Wesley Hardin's grave in Concordia Cemetery, El Paso, Texas.
John Wesley Hardin’s grave in Concordia Cemetery, El Paso, Texas.

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The Texas Tower Sniper

In previous blogs, I discussed the San Ysidro McDonald’s massacre and the Killeen Luby’s massacre.  The murders by the Texas Tower Sniper predates both these. Like them, was the deadliest mass shooting at the time but it was also America’s first random mass shooting in a public place.

The Shootings

Charles Whitman was an engineering student and former Marine. On Monday, August 1, 1966, he took weapons, ammunition, and food to the main building of the University of Texas at Austin. He used a dolly to haul a footlocker and a duffel back filled with weapons, ammunition, and food to the observation level at the top of the building’s clock tower. After killing the receptionist and two tourists (and injuring two others), Whitman positioned himself on the observation deck. At 11:48 a.m., he opened fire on people walking around the campus and a section of nearby Guadalupe Street.

The University of Texas at Austin Tower, Austin, Texas.
The University of Texas at Austin Tower, Austin, Texas (© 1980 Larry D. Moore. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0)

For the next 93 minutes, rifle fire from the 231-foot high observation deck wreaked devastation on people below. Some people decided the gunshots were the sounds of a nail gun from a nearby construction site. Others thought the shots and falling people were part of bizarre anti-war protest (it was 1960s). Still others thought it was a theater group or psychology experiment. Soon, however, they realized what was happening and took cover as best they could.

The Police Respond

Four minutes after the first shot, a history professor placed the first call to police. Officer Billy Speed was one of the first to arrive. Despite taking cover behind a decorative concrete baluster, Whitman managed to shoot him; he died in the hospital.

Approaching the tower was difficult and dangerous. Officer Houston McCoy, along with a small group of police began to work their way toward the tower through underground maintenance tunnels. Meanwhile, both police and civilians began shooting back at the tower. Also, a police sniper approached in a small airplane, but Whitman’s rifle fire drove the plane back. It remained in the area, though, circling at a discrete distance. The airplane, coupled with the return fire from below, did not stop the shooting. But they did limit the Whitman’s ability to select targets freely.

As the shooting continued, officers Ramiro Martinez, McCoy, and Jerry Day, along with civilian Allen Crum, made their way to the 27th floor of the tower. The four then climbed the switchback stairs to the observation level. Martinez and McCoy rounded a corner and confronted the sniper. Martinez fired his service revolver at Whitman but missed. McCoy next hit Whitman with two shotgun blasts of .00 buckshot. Martinez then flung his empty pistol to the ground, grabbed McCoy’s shotgun, and shot Whitman once more at point-blank range. Fifteen people were dead, including the Texas Tower sniper himself.

The Sniper

Charles Joseph Whitman was an Eagle Scout and former Marine, married, and studying architectural engineering at the University of Texas.  He held several different jobs to support himself and his wife (she also worked).  Although outwardly appearing normal, he grappled with violent impulses and consulted several doctors, including a psychiatrist.  He documented his feelings and struggles in a journal he began keeping during his stint in the Marine Corps.  He even told friends that on two occasions he hit his wife, an act that left him disgusted with himself.

Charles Joseph Whitman, the Texas Tower Sniper.
Charles Joseph Whitman (Public Domain)

Investigators soon discovered that the night before he ascended the tower, Whitman had murdered his mother and his wife. He had stabbed them both through the heart as they slept.

An autopsy performed after Whitman’s death revealed he had a pecan-sized brain tumor. Neither the pathologist who performed the autopsy nor a commission formed by Texas governor John Connally were able to find concrete evidence that the tumor caused Whitman to commit the killings.

Charles Whitman
Charles Whitman

Aftermath

The University of Texas closed the tower observation deck after the shootings. It reopened two years later with the bullet damage repaired. But it closed again in 1975 after four suicides and remained closed for more than two decades. After installing several security measures, the University reopened the observation deck again in 1999 but only for guided tours by appointment.

South door to the observation deck of the University of Texas Tower
South door to the observation deck of the University of Texas Tower

In 2006, the City of Austin dedicated a memorial garden dedicated to the dead and otherwise affected victims. In 2016, on the fiftieth anniversary of the shootings, a memorial stone was added, and the tower clock was stopped for 24 hours.

Memorial to those killed by the Texas Tower sniper in Austin, Texas on August 1, 1966.
Memorial to those killed at the University of Texas Tower shooting in Austin, Texas on August 1, 1966. (© 2019 Larry D. Moore. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0)

Journalist William Helmer was a graduate student and an eyewitness and wrote about the Texas Tower sniper for Texas Monthly in 1986, twenty years after the event.

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Murder on Birchleaf Drive

Murder on Birchleaf Drive book cover

This week I review a book about domestic homicide, Steven Epstein’s Murder on Birchleaf Drive: The True Story of the Michelle Young Murder Case.  Intimate partners commit more than half (55%) of murders and most of the perpetrators by far are male.  Epstein’s 2019 book recounts one of those cases.  This book isn’t really a whodunnit; the “who” is obvious from the beginning.  The question was, would they be able to convict the S.O.B.

The Couple

Michelle Fisher grew up in the town of Sayville at the southern tip of Long Island.  After high school, she decided to attend North Carolina State University in Raleigh.  There she earned a master’s degree in accounting and landed a plum job in the Raleigh office of powerhouse accounting firm Deloitte & Touche.

Celebrating her birthday in 2001, Michelle met Jason Young, a native of the North Carolina mountains, at a local bar and the two soon began dating.  They made a curious pair.  Michelle was a meticulous planner while Jason was an overaged frat boy.  When Michelle discovered she was pregnant, the couple decided to marry.

But marriage and fatherhood did little to settle Jason down.  He and Michelle argued and fought frequently.  Even a second pregnancy failed to smooth the troubled waters.  Michelle and Jason appeared to be headed for divorce.

The Murder

On the afternoon of November 3, 2006, Jason called Michelle’s sister, Meredith Fisher, and cajoled her into retrieving some pages from the printer at his home.  When she got to the house, she discovered the body of her sister lying face down in a pool of blood beside her bed.  Shockingly, Michelle’s two-year-old daughter, Cassidy, emerged from under the bedcovers, explaining that Mommy “got boo boos everywhere.”

Two immense red flags are noticeable right away.  First, the brutal overkill indicated that this killing was intensely personal.  Second, killers often maneuver a third person into discovering the body, as Jason did with Meredith in this case.  Both facts pointed to Jason as the murderer and made his subsequent refusal to discuss the case with detectives even more suspicious.

The Book

Murder on Birchleaf Drive opens with the discover of Michelle’s body.  It then traces the background of the couple and the long path through their disintegrating marriage.  There is also coverage of the investigation.  Epstein devotes a significant part of the book to the trial—two trials, since the first resulted in a hung jury, not surprising since he is a veteran attorney and a partner in a North Carolina law firm.

Two things are interesting about the trials.  One is the dearth of physical evidence.  Prosecutors had to make a largely circumstantial case.  The other is Jason’s attempt to manufacture an alibi that involved sneaking out of and back into a hotel and tampering with security cameras.  It did take two trials, but a jury did convict Jason of murder in the first degree, in 2012, nearly six years after Michelle’s murder.  Judge Donald Stephens sentenced him to life without parole, saying he had “no quarrel” with the jury verdict.

Appeals

The verdict and sentencing were not the end of the Jason Young story, however.  On April Fool’s Day 2014, the Court of Appeals overturned Jason’s conviction based on an obscure technicality.  The North Carolina Supreme Court reversed this decision and reinstated the conviction the following year.  Jason’s lawyers made one more attempt to have the conviction set aside, this time based on a claim of “ineffective assistance of counsel,” but this effort ultimately failed.

My Take on the Book

I liked Murder on Birchleaf Drive for its deep-dive into the backgrounds of not only Michelle and Jason but of key family members as well.  Part of the story is the long fight over first visitation with then custody of custody of the Youngs’ daughter, Cassidy, on behalf of Michelle’s mother and sister.

I did find it a bit difficult to work through the chapters on the two trials.  They present the legal cases and arguments in fine detail, as one expects from an attorney turned author, but non-lawyers may find these chapters a bit tedious.

But overall, I liked the book and readily recommend it.

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