Trial to Start 24 Years Later in Texas Mass Murder Case

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NEW BOSTON, Texas — Nearly 24 years after the bodies of five people shot execution-style were discovered along an East Texas oilfield lease road, the first of two men charged with what became one of the state's oldest unsolved mass murder cases heads to trial this week.

Career criminal Romeo Pinkerton faces five counts of capital murder, and a possible death sentence if convicted, for what's known in Texas as the Kentucky Fried Chicken murders. The five victims were abducted during what prosecutors say was a robbery of a KFC store in Kilgore, driven to a remote area about 15 miles to the south near Henderson and then gunned down.

Lawyers for Pinkerton, 49, and his cousin, Darnell Hartsfield, 46, both from Tyler, will argue the slayings, which went unsolved for more than two decades, remain unsolved. Both men, who are being tried separately, have pleaded not guilty. Hartsfield's trial is likely to be held some time next year.

Jury selection in Pinkerton's trial was beginning this week in New Boston, where the trial has been moved because of publicity about the case in Henderson in Rusk County, about 90 miles away.

"It is, perhaps, the most notorious crime in northeast Texas, if not Texas as a whole," Lisa Tanner, an assistant Texas attorney general, told State District Judge J. Clay Gossett in prosecutors' request to move the trial.

Gossett, who anticipated the trial could take as long as three months, sent out 350 jury summonses. The bulk of the jury candidates were to report to court Wednesday. Individual questioning of potential jurors was to begin next week.

When the daughter of assistant manager Mary Tyler arrived to pick her up from work late the evening of Sept. 23, 1983, Tyler, 37, wasn't there. Neither were her three co-workers: Opie Ann Hughes, 39; and Joey Johnson and David Maxwell, both 20. Also missing was Monte Landers, 19, who was at the KFC that night to see his Kilgore College fraternity brothers Johnson and Maxwell.

Investigators found blood on the floor and a cash register tape showing that about $2,000 was missing from the cash box.

In Rusk County the next morning, an oilfield worker checking a well off County Road 231, in the heart of the legendary East Texas Oilfield, at one time the world's largest, made the grisly discovery of five bodies. Authorities determined they were the five people missing from the Kilgore KFC.

All had been shot in the head from behind. Maxwell, Johnson, Landers and Tyler were lined up. It appeared Hughes, found about 50 yards away, had tried to escape.

Their deaths went unsolved until a bloodstain on the box containing the cash tape, tested in 2001 using newly developed DNA technology, put Hartsfield at the scene.

He'd been in a Texas prison since 1995 on a 40-year sentence for delivery of a controlled substance and engaging in organized criminal activity. Hartsfield told a grand jury in 2003 he wasn't at the restaurant, but with the new DNA results, plus earlier witness accounts that put him there that night, prosecutors charged him with perjury. A jury convicted him and he was sentenced to life in prison because of his criminal record, which also includes aggravated robbery, burglary and reckless endangerment.

Two weeks later, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott announced capital murder indictments against Hartsfield and Pinkerton, who also was linked to the scene by DNA. The convicted burglar, paroled at least five times over the years, was arrested in Tyler on a warrant for yet another parole violation.

Prison records show Hartsfield was arrested in Smith County for aggravated robbery three days after the KFC slayings. He was paroled in 1992, had the parole revoked, was released two years later and returned to prison in 1995.

Pinkerton, whose birth records list his first name as Ronnie, first went to prison in 1981 for a Smith County burglary. He told investigators he was in prison at the time of the slayings, but records show he was paroled two days before the murders.

Parties in the case have been barred from discussing it under a gag order.

Pinkerton and Hartsfield weren't the first to be charged in the case.

In April 1995, James Earl "Jimmy" Mankins Jr., a Kilgore man convicted of federal drug trafficking charges, was indicted for capital murder after a torn fingernail believed to be his was found on the body of one of the victims. Subsequent DNA tests, however, exonerated him and the charges were dropped.

Even if Pinkerton is convicted, his execution ultimately may be in doubt because defense lawyers say there's evidence in his past of mental retardation, which under a U.S. Supreme Court ruling would bar him from lethal injection.

Pinkerton's attorneys wanted a separate jury trial before the murder case was tried to determine if their client was retarded. Prosecutors opposed the request. Gossett ruled the question could be addressed after punishment phase testimony if Pinkerton is convicted.