30 Years Later: The Kilgore KFC Murders (2024)

Monday marked the thirtieth anniversary of the night five Kilgore residents were kidnapped from the local Kentucky Fried Chicken andlater shot execution style in an abandoned oil field.

Monday marked the thirtieth anniversary of the night five Kilgore residents were kidnapped from the local Kentucky Fried Chicken and later shot execution style in an abandoned oil field.

A frantic phone call to police on September 23, 1983 led investigators from across East Texas--and eventually the country--to five bodies and a murder more gruesome than Kilgore had ever imagined.

"I was at home," lifelong Kilgore resident Linda Johnson said. "I had two small little boys and probably about 45 minutes before I heard, I had come down that road coming home."

Word got around quickly.

"We knew it wasn't going to be good," Johnson said. "I think the main thing was disbelief. To realize that it happened here. We weren't reading about it, hearing about it on the news somewhere else. It was here."

What no one could have realized was that this case that had rolled into town was anything but open and shut.

"It was not your garden-variety crime," Tyler Morning Telegraph publisher Nelson Clyde said.

Along the way, Clyde's paper played an unusually large role. Clyde's father, Nelson the Third, poured huge amounts of money into finding the killers. He went as far as arranging lie-detector tests for people claiming to have information.

In a sense, he ran his own investigation.

"I can really remember my dad sharing with me toward the end of his life and his career that one of the things on his list was hopefully to see that this case was solved," Clyde said. "It was really 'top of mind.' It was more than an anniversary news story or something to cover."

Opie Hughes, 39, Mary Tyler, 37, Joey Johnson, 20, Monte Landers, 19, and David Maxwell, 20, were murdered.

Even though many people have moved on, William Brown has not. The Rusk County District Attorney's investigator still dreams of finally closing the case.

"I'm tickled to death that we have two in custody serving long sentences," Brown said. "But can you say the case is closed? No. Because there is a third person."

That third murderer left his DNA when he raped Opie Hughes. He's never been identified.

For more than a decade all the leads lead nowhere. It was the sheer number of leads that forced so many law enforcement agencies to get involved.

"Of course you had to have a mechanism in place to be able to follow up on that and to run those tips down," Gregg County Sheriff Maxey Cerliano said. "Some turned out to be leads. Some were outlandish and had no truth whatsoever. And a lot of times it was fourth, fifth or sixth hand information."

Cerliano was working narcotics for Kilgore Police in 1983.

"Once [the murders] happened, then everybody with investigative experience was called in," he said.

Cerliano said in those days coordinating between local police departments, sheriff's departments, the Texas Rangers and the FBI was tough.

But as the case wore on, Cerliano and others were learning from it. They were put to the test when a similar murder case unfolded at Katie's Lounge in the Kilgore area in 1994.

"And everyone worked together for a solution," Cerliano said. "And luckily in that case, we were able to reach that in a matter of days."

But the KFC case dragged on. In 1995 Jimmy Mankins Jr. was arrested and charged with the murders.

DNA finally came into play ten years later. Testing part of a thumb nail found at the scene cleared Mankins. Meanwhile, blood on a napkin and a box found behind the counter more than 20 years earlier was finally tested.

It was enough to get Romeo Pinkerton to admit he was guilty, and to convict his cousin Darnell Hartsfield.

"I didn't kill them five people," Hartsfield said in a recent interview from prison. "I'm innocent. I was framed."

He then added a strange qualification to his thoughts on murder.

"I would never kill people in a robbery," he said.

At the time of Hartsfield's trial, victim David Maxwell's former wife said the convictions were like a weight off her shoulders.

"No matter what happens from this point on, I'm free," Lana Dunkerly said in 2008. "I was paroled today."

Five years later she said her demons proceeded to put up a fight she never expected.

"I could mask it, I could change it, I could move, I could re-do myself, I could color my hair," Dunkerly said. "I mean I could do a lot of things and feel better and think 'okay, now I can go on.' But it just comes to the point where you can't do that anymore."

Maybe it's because the case is still open.

"When I go to Wal-Mart, before I get out of my car, I see what's going on around me," Johnson said. "Whether it's in the daylight or in the evening, I look to see what's going on."

And one of the murderers is still out there.

"May be buried six feet in the ground and without exhuming a body or bodies and doing DNA on all of them, trying to get a match on all the forensic stuff we had, who knows?" Brown said.

After thirty years, it still haunts him.

"It had to be a terrifying moment once they figured out that they weren't coming back."

30 Years Later: The Kilgore KFC Murders (2024)
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