(This post is part of a series concerning Curtis Flowers, an innocent man convicted of a horrific crime that has divided a small Mississippi town. Information on the Flowers case can be found here.)
Addendum: This post was written in the months leading up to the 2010 trial of Curtis Flowers. It was commonly believed that Doyle Simpson’s gun was the murder weapon. But it ain’t necessarily so. The murder weapon was similar to Doyle’s gun, but that’s all that can be said with confidence.
Alan Bean, May 8, 2018
The case against Curtis Flowers stands or falls with Doyle Simpson. The state has demonstrated that four innocent people were murdered with Doyle’s .380 automatic. If Curtis is the killer he had to get his hands on Doyle’s gun.
In five trials over fourteen years, the State of Mississippi has used two hapless and unhappy witnesses to demonstrate how Doyle’s gun ended up in the hands of Curtis Flowers.
Doyle Simpson says he placed the murder weapon in the glove compartment of his 1980 Pontiac Phoenix the night before the murders. The next morning, between 10:45 and 11:00 am, he says he discovered that the gun was missing.
In trial 5, Doyle Simpson claimed that investigators originally thought he and Curtis Flowers were co-conspirators. “They had said I give Curtis the gun,” Simpson said, “that he didn’t break in my pocket in my car.”
Doyle knew the authorities had four options. They could make the case that he was the lone killer; they could charge Doyle and Curtis as co-defendants; they could try Curtis (with the cooperation of Doyle Simpson) as the lone gunman, or they could eliminate both Curtis and Doyle as suspects and look elsewhere.
To avoid prosecution, Simpson had to implicate Curtis Flowers while exonerating himself. The day of the murders, Roxanne Ballard, a daughter of the slain Bertha Tardy, found a check for just over $82 on her mother’s desk. It was quickly ascertained that Curtis had worked for Ms. Tardy in early July but hadn’t returned to work following the July 4th holiday. Maybe the Tardy murders were revenge killings.
Roxanne Ballard believed from the beginning that Curtis was the killer. If she was satisfied with the investigation, Doug Evans knew, the rest of the town would fall in line.
It didn’t take long to identify Doyle Simpson’s gun as the murder weapon. Shells taken from an old railroad tie Simpson had used for target practice contained shell casings identical to those found at the crime scene.
Moreover, Doyle had reported his gun missing the day of the murders and several people were willing to testify that he had been at work all morning. True, he had slipped out a couple of times, once to get his breakfast out of the car and a second time to roll down his windows. It would only have taken Doyle a minute to get to Tardy’s by car, but where was the motive? Like Curtis Flowers, Doyle had worked at Tardy’s in the past, but there was no sign of discord.
In Doug Evans’ mind there were only two possibilities: Doyle gave his gun to Curtis, or Curtis stole the gun from Doyle.
As Doyle’s testimony suggests, men like John Johnson and Sheriff Bill Thornburg were willing to go in either direction. If Doyle could help them convict Curtis they would let him off easy; if Doyle proved uncooperative he would become part of the alleged conspiracy.
But how could Curtis Flowers know a gun would be in the glove compartment of Simpson’s car? It was quickly established that Doyle and Curtis had no social contact between the time Doyle says he locked the gun inside the glove compartment and the time he reported it missing. Furthermore, Simpson has repeatedly testified that the gun was normally kept under the mattress of his bed in his mother’s home. It was only in his car on the fateful morning, Doyle says, because he had had the weapon cleaned the night before. Arriving at his mother’s house, Doyle explains, he locked the glove compartment with the gun in it; then rode to his girlfriend’s house for the night while his car was parked outside his mother’s home.
In every trial, Doyle Simpson insists that Curtis knew where to find the gun. But when the defense asks how Curtis could have known, Doyle backs down. This exchange from trial three is typical:
Question (from attorney Ray Carter): How did Curtis know you had it in there?
Answer: Because he had knowed I had been riding before.
Question: Okay, now Curtis knew you had a gun; right?
Answer: Right. Right.
Question: But Curtis did not know that you put that gun in that car that night, did he?
Question: So he didn’t know the gun was in the car? Right?
Answer: No he did not.
Katherine Snow says she was listening to a cassette tape on her headset when she saw the police cars arrive at the Angelica garment factory. She was told that four bodies had been found at the Tardy furniture store and that the police wanted to talk to Doyle Simpson about the missing gun he had reported.
Katherine Snow told investigators that she had seen a man leaning up against the bumper of Doyle Simpson’s car when she arrived for work that morning. Snow’s description of the man has varied considerably. Sometimes he was wearing white shorts; sometimes the shorts are blue; on one occasion she thinks he may have been wearing black slacks. She generally remembers that he was wearing a white T-shirt and white tennis shoes (hardly distinctive apparel on a hot Mississippi morning).
Doyle Simpson and Katherine Snow have both testified that they talked about the man Snow had seen at work the day after the murders.
There are a couple of problems with this testimony. Eventually, it was discovered that Doyle didn’t show up at work for several days. Angelica management suspended him for bringing a firearm onto the property. Although Snow never mentioned Curtis Flowers by name, Doyle says, her description fit Curtis Flowers perfectly.
Here’s Doyle’s recollection of Snow’s description from trial one: “She said he was—short pants on and had a white cap, and he was built short, had short pants on, tennis shoes, and a white T-shirt and a cap.” In trial three, Doyle said Snow had described the man’s physique as “kind of heavy side and short.”
In trial three, Snow testified that the man she saw was between five-foot-three and five-foot-five.
Curtis Flowers is five-foot-ten.
Moreover, at the time of his arrest, Flowers had a boyish 38-inch chest measurement and a 34-inch waistline.
Asked to explain these gross discrepancies, Doyle has suggested that when Curtis was questioned at the police station the day of the murders he was wearing shorts, a white T-shirt and white tennis shoes. According to testimony from investigators, the clothes Flowers wore to his first interview were tested for blood smatters, DNA, fingerprints and gunshot residue. They came up clean. Furthermore, Curtis was wearing white Nike running shoes (not the Grant Hill Filas the state believes the killer was wearing). The state has always argued that Flowers changed clothes before he came in for questioning.
Katherine Snow is so nervous on the witness stand that defense counsel sometimes asks her if she would like a recess to pull herself together. She admits to being a nervous person and says she was terrified every time the police called her in.
After repeatedly telling the police that the man she saw by Doyle’s car was a perfect stranger, Snow abruptly changed he story on August 18th, over a month after the crime.
Did Katherine Snow really see somebody leaning against Doyle Simpson’s car? We can’t be sure, but it seems unlikely. But Snow certainly didn’t see Curtis Flowers. He is the polar opposite of her physical description. Either Snow lied to police for over a month, or she initially told the truth then caved in under pressure and identified Flowers to get investigators off her back. Given her nervous temperament, the latter explanation makes the most sense. By August 18th everyone in Winona knew that John Johnson and Doug Evans were trying to pin the murders on Curtis Flowers.
Did Doyle Simpson kill Bertha Tardy and three of her employees? It is very unlikely. Like Curtis Flowers, Simpson had just enough time to do the deed and race back to work; but neither man has anything approaching a real motive.
If Simpson’s locked glove compartment was forcibly opened, the thief left little physical evidence. When defense counsel examined the car they saw nothing suggesting a forced entry. The woman who dusted the glove compartment for finger prints admits that she saw no evidence of damage. The picture to the left was taken on April 20, 2010. The glove compartment of Doyle’s car is locked and shows no signs of forced entry.
When investigators asked Simpson where he got his gun he said he bought it from his step-brother Robert. When Robert said he had never seen the .380, Doyle changed his story. Now he had purchased the weapon from a Winona resident named Ike Williams. No one ever asked Williams to corroborate this story and, since Williams is now deceased, no one ever will.
Doyle has never been able to explain why he lied about the gun’s origins. His normal explanation is that he lied to protect Curtis. Asked how his lie protected Curtis, Simpson becomes evasive to the point of being unintelligible.
According to Doyle’s testimony, he went out to his car at between 10:45 and 11:00, realized that his gun was missing, came back to Angelicas to report the theft, then headed out to pick up lunches for co-workers.
We don’t know when the terrible news from the crime scene reached the Angelica plant. But at least forty-five minutes elapsed between Sam Harris’s 911 call and Doyle’s missing gun report. By 10:30 yellow tape was going up at Tardys and a horrified crowd had gathered at the scene. How long would it take for the dreadful news to travel the four or five blocks between Tardy’s and the Angelica plant?
Only Doyle Simpson knows if he knew of the murders before he reported his gun missing. But on the witness stand, Doyle is evasive, deceitful and afraid. He doesn’t lie for pleasure; he is trying to protect himself.
But from what?
Ten years before the Tardy murders, Doyle Simpson had a near death experience. Doyle and his brother, Clyde Simpson, had a legitimate painting business going at the time, but they were also dabbling in the black market. Some major operators in New Orleans asked Clyde if they could use his garage to store bales of marijuana in exchange for $50,000. Clyde didn’t see a downside until somebody broke into the garage and stole far more than $50,000 worth of inventory.
As soon as the news hit the street, a young man named Horace Toppins, Jr. burst into Clyde’s home, slitting his throat and pumping several bullets into his dying body. As Doyle Simpson pulled up in front of his brother’s house, Toppins scrambled through the passenger door, put a gun to Doyle’s temple, and told him to drive to the countryside west of New Orleans. Moments later, Doyle was tied to a tree, his throat was slashed and several bullets were fired into his chest at close range.
Clinging to life by a thread, Simpson slumped forward until only his full weight rested on the rope that bound him to the tree. Believing his work was done, Toppins raced back to the highway and climbed in Doyle’s car. But the tires were mired in the mud and the killer escaped on foot.
Meanwhile, Doyle Simpson was methodically severing his bonds with a big hunk of broken glass. Once free, he staggered across the field to the highway. By the time Doyle reached his destination he had lost so much blood that he collapsed in front of an oncoming semi-trailer. The driver lurched to the left, pulled to the side of the road, lifted Simpson into his truck and raced to the nearest hospital.
By a miracle, Doyle Simpson survived to identify his assailant at trial.
Horace Toppins had nothing personal against Clyde or Doyle Simpson; he was just a hired killer plying his trade. No one asked who paid Toppins to eliminate a couple of low level drug dealers; nobody wanted to know. In the mid 1980s, you didn’t mess with the New Orleans mob.
At the time of his brush with death, Doyle Simpson had friends in very low places.
We don’t know who murdered Bertha Tardy, Carmen Rigby, Robert Golden and Bobo Stewart. Early on, defense attorneys tried to link Doyle Simpson to the crime, but the absence of a motive got in the way. The State’s case against Curtis Flowers is circumstantial, the evidence doesn’t hold together, the key witnesses are an embarrassment and no one has ever explained how Curtis found his way to Doyle Simpson’s gun.
But if Curtis isn’t the killer, who is?
I don’t know, but Doyle Simpson does.
The facts suggest that somebody was highly motivated to kill at least one of the murder victims. The killer was willing to eliminate three potential witnesses. Does that sound like the work of a friendly, small town gospel singer or a hired killer in the tradition of Horace Toppins Jr.?
Mr. Toppins had been locked up for ten years in 1996, of course, but there has never been a shortage of hired killers in New Orleans.
But if a contract killer did the deed, who was paying the piper?
I have no idea.
But every prosecutor confronted with an execution-style slaying needs to pursue all options even if it means outraging prominent people. Doug Evans never entertained the possibility that the worst crime in Winona’s history might have been perpetrated by a paid assailant.
Suppose you have a well-deserved reputation for arranging contract hits and somebody has some work for you in Montgomery County, Mississippi. You want investigators looking for a local suspect and that means a gun that can be traced to a local owner.
Who do you know in Winona, Mississippi?
How about old Doyle Simpson? After what he went through, he’s bound to be cooperative.
Doyle says he got the gun between two months and half a year of the murders. My money is on the two months. He lied about where he got the gun and has never produced a reasonable explanation for his lie.
Why did Doyle say he got the gun from his brother? Did he fear that the gun might be traced to New Orleans? Was he looking for a credible explanation?
Doyle Simpson is no killer, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t make his gun available to some bad people he knew from back in the day.
Maybe Katherine Snow did see a short, plump guy in a white cap leaning against Doyle Simpson’s car. The mystery man may have been the killer or, like Doyle Simpson, he may simply have been a pawn charged with transferring the weapon into the right hands.
Is all of this wildly speculative? Sure it is. But it makes more sense than the theory Doug Evans has been selling to white jurors for fourteen years.
How likely is it that $82 turned Curtis Flowers into a crazed killer?
That’s the subject of my next post.