July 5, 2008— -- Three months after four bodies were found shot execution-style in an airplane hangar on the B&B Ranch north of Dallas, chemical salesman Lester Leroy Bower Jr. was charged with capital murder.
Four months later, a Grayson County jury deliberated two hours before convicting him. It took them only another two hours the next day before deciding he should die for the crime.
No fingerprints put him at the scene. No witnesses saw him there. The murder weapon never was recovered. Bower never confessed. DNA testing wasn't available in 1984.
Now a state district judge has stopped a scheduled July 22 execution for Bower and has agreed to consider his request that evidence in the case be examined to see if DNA testing could back up his quarter-century-long claims of innocence.
Prosecutors, who oppose the testing as yet another delay tactic, said the mild-mannered salesman with a long marriage, two daughters and no record of criminal activity or mental-health problems just snapped. It happens, they said.
Bower made them suspicious. He had lied to his wife, and authorities, about his efforts to buy an ultralight plane. His wife didn't want him cavorting through the air in such a flimsy craft. He sold firearms on the side, including the kind that carried the ammunition used to kill the men.
"I was quite capable of purchasing whatever I need without killing four people," Bower, now 60, said recently from Texas death row. "Virtually no one, except for the prosecution, thinks this sounds like anything I would do.
If mass murderers fit a profile, Bower stands out. Texas A&M University graduate, good job, family man, father of two daughters, soccer dad, stable marriage, no mental disabilities, no history of childhood abuse, no previous criminal record.
"An absolutely stellar record," Bower said. "Then one day, as the prosecutor says, I snapped, killed four people and snapped back. Those are his words, not mine.
"I'm not minimizing that people don't snap, that people walk into schools and start shooting, former employees walk into post offices. I mean, am I a threat? Does this really sound like something I would do?" Yes, prosecutors insist.
"There is no question in my mind that Bower is guilty," said Ronald Sievert, a federal prosecutor named as a special prosecutor to assist in Bower's trial. "Contrary to some television and movie portrayals, the fact is that no ethical prosecutor would ever seek a capital conviction, in fact any conviction, unless they were convinced of the defendant's guilt." Sievert is now a professor of National Security Law at the University of Texas Law School and the Bush School of Government at Texas A&M University. He and Grayson County District Attorney Stephen Davidchik, who has since died, built a circumstantial case surrounding Bower's purchase from Grayson County Sheriff's Deputy Philip Good, 29, of an ultralight airplane stored at the hangar owned by building contractor Bob Tate, 51.
Tate, Good, Jerry Brown, 52, a Sherman interior designer; and Ronald Mayes, 39, a former Sherman police officer, were all executed at the hangar.
"I lied to the FBI about my involvement" in the purchase of the plane, said Bower. "I wish it hadn't happened."
"If you haven't done anything wrong, there's absolutely no reason to lie to the police -- ever," Karla Hackett, an assistant Grayson County district attorney handling the appeals on the case, said. "I don't care what kind of spat you're going to have with your wife or husband. When you are about up to your eyeballs in a murder investigation and they're clearly looking at you as a suspect, I think you come clean."
"In life you make decisions sometimes you wish you could take back," Bower said from prison. "I was there."
He said Brown was with Good that Saturday afternoon when he was negotiating the $3,000, or 75 percent, down payment. They all waited about 15 minutes for Tate to show up with a key to the hangar.
"We got along well," Bower recalled, saying Tate welcomed him to return to use the facilities. "They were flying. I wanted to learn to fly."
He never saw Mayes, Bower said.
Prosecutors said Bower was obsessed with the plane. Some of the aircraft's frame is gathering dust today, resting against cell bars in the old jail in downtown Sherman.
Evidence at trial centered on Bower's two purchases in 1982, when he lived in Colorado Springs, Colo., of Italian-made Fiocchi-brand .22-caliber ammunition, the kind used in the killings. There also was evidence he had owned a .22-caliber Ruger pistol, which prosecutors said was fitted with a silencer he made.
Prosecutors showed jurors his books about guns and gun parts, a Ruger target pistol manual and a book about silencers.
Bower's federal firearms dealer license is among the paperwork in three file boxes of evidence and trial exhibits, including a sledge hammer prosecutors said the killer used to smash pieces of the plane to destroy evidence.
Also in an unsecured cardboard box are four plastic foam heads, the kind used normally to display wigs. These four, however, have long blue knitting needles stuck in them like oversized pin cushions, representing the path bullets took to kill the person whose last name is etched in ball pen ink at the base of each -- Tate, Good, Brown and Mayes. "They took some information and twisted it to their benefit," Bower said.
"When you've got time on your hands, it's real easy to sit and justify," Hackett responded.
Investigators seized on Bower when Good's phone records showed three calls from Bower charged on his company telephone credit card. Tate had told his wife that he and Good were going to meet someone they believed wanted to buy their plane.
A search of Bower's home turned up parts of Tate's ultralight aircraft missing from the hangar.
"The FBI found the damaged wings in his garage," Sievert said. "We produced documentary evidence he had ordered silencer parts, we had documentary evidence he purchased a .22 Ruger, we had the evidence he purchased the Julio Fiocchi subsonic bullets, we had the Allen wrench in his brief case that fit the silencer and would attach it to the pistol.
"The scientific evidence demonstrated he had tried to destroy the engine block with a sledge hammer found in his trunk and of course the phone documents showed he arranged to meet the victims on the day of the offense. And that is just the evidence I remember without looking at the record."
Sievert said not only was it clear Bower was guilty, "but the jury logically concluded that any person who was capable of systematically killing four people, execution style, was a continuing threat to society."
Questions about his conviction first were raised in 1989 when a woman reading a newspaper article about an appeal filed in Bower's case called one of Bower's attorneys to say her ex-boyfriend and three of his friends were responsible for the slayings, the result of a dope deal gone bad. She said she didn't know anyone had been convicted of the murders.
The identity of the witness, who signed a sworn affidavit, and the names of the four men she implicated for the slayings, identified in court filings as Rocky, Ches, Lynn and Bear, all have been sealed by court order.
"The defense speculation about drug dealers in this case is just the type of wild speculation that all defense attorneys throw out in all capital appeals to get their client off or delay punishment," Sievert said. "It is not unusual.
"But just ask yourself: What concrete evidence have they produced that would justify a conviction, or even an indictment or arrest, of these drug dealers? Nothing. Contrast that with the very hard and concrete evidence that demonstrates Bower committed the crime."
Hackett said the woman who called Bower's lawyers has her own credibility issues and the appeal, sent to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, should be rejected. Bower did own a Ruger pistol but said he lost it in 1982. Evidence in his appeals shows that Bower's lost gun couldn't have been the murder weapon because a specific kind of firing pin used when that gun was made didn't match the marks on bullet casings recovered from the hangar.
Bower's attorneys also point to FBI reports that initially suggested the four slayings possibly were drug or gambling related.
Bower's lawyers also question whether he could have driven the 135 miles from the hangar to his house in less than two hours. His wife testified he was home by 6:30 p.m. The killings occurred between 4:30 and 6:30 p.m.
Bower is realistic about his chances for reprieve in the nation's most active death penalty state.
"I'm hoping somebody will take a look at it and say there seems to be enough to bring the verdict into question and there is a likelihood this is a miscarriage of justice," he said. "That's probably the best I can hope for."
In their DNA request, to be reviewed July 17, Bower's lawyers want to see if substances on items removed from the crime scene match DNA of any of the four men they claim are the real killers.
Hackett said the evidence has not been protected over the years and there's no guarantee it hasn't been substituted or tampered with and altered. And she said even if testing would point to "these four mystery killers," the results couldn't say when they were at the hangar.
Bower said he doesn't want a short-term solution, like a 30-day setoff of his execution, "then start over and do it again."
"Either this is good enough to stop it to take a good serious look or, 'Hey, let's go people.' I told my wife I put in my time and my last words will be: 'I'm out of here. Adios, people,"' Bower said. "I tell the family: 'No disrespect on any of you, but that's kind of it."'