By Michael Corcoran
At first, Rodney Reed said he didn’t know the victim. “It wasn’t me.” But after being presented with DNA evidence that he’d had sex with the 19-year-old woman, he changed his story. It was consensual sex, he finally admitted, but because he’s black and she’s white, he had to keep it on the down low. Races ain’t ‘sposed to mix in small-town Texas, you see.
This was in Wichita Falls in 1987, not Bastrop nine years later, when Reed would follow the same m.o. after he was indicted and later convicted of the rape and murder of Stacey Stites.
You know that case, right? Nineteen year old doesn’t show up for her 3:30 a.m. shift at HEB on April 23, 1996. She’s found dead in a wooded area 12 hours later with her pants unzipped and her t-shirt off. Her fiancee, Giddings police officer, Jimmy Fennell fails two polygraphs and is the prime suspect until the DNA matches Rodney Reed almost a year later.
There’s a documentary about the case called “State vs. Reed” and the Austin Chronicle has written extensively about it, pushing the idea that Reed is innocent and the cop boyfriend killed her in a jealous rage when he found out that she and Reed were having an affair. Fennell bolstered the defense’s case when he pleaded guilty in 2008 to improper sexual activity with a person in custody and was sentenced to 10 years in prison. The lawyers for Reed, who sits on Death Row near Huntsville, have vowed to fight this to the end.
But this is no Michael Morton case. Texas Monthly or another major magazine hasn’t touched this national true crime story because, although there remain questions (see links below) about the death of Stacey Stites, Rodney Reed has been scarring lives since 1987.
When the Austin Chronicle put Rodney Reed on the cover of its May 24, 2002 issue (“Who Killed Stacey Stites?”), there was no mention of his history of alleged sexual assaults until about 4,000 words into a 5,000-word story. After proudly pointing out that Reed was acquitted of the only rape charge he faced in court, Chronicle crime reporter Jordan Smith wrote “Reed and his family say they can prove he did not commit the other assaults,” leaving it at that.
Maybe instead of asking “Who Killed Stacey Stites?” and serving as the mouthpiece of the defense, the weekly should’ve wondered “Why was Rodney Reed’s semen inside a badly beaten 12-year-old girl?”
There is DNA evidence that while Reed was out on bail in the Wichita Falls case, he beat, raped and sodomized a 12-year-old Bastrop girl. The DNA testing from the Stites rape would tie him to that case, which never went to trial because Reed was sent to death row in 1998.
Reed bounced between Bastrop, where his mother lived, and his father’s home town of Wichita Falls, where he was accused of another vicious attack in 1991. The day after his girlfriend and mother of his two children Lucy E. ended their relationship, Reed broke in and raped and sodomized her in front of the kids, the woman said. But after contacting police and filing a report, she decided it wouldn’t be worth it to press charges.
Three more women came forward during the punishment phase of Reed’s capital murder trial and described brutal attacks from the man that they were terrified might one day walk out of prison. The sexual assault of May 1995 yielded the DNA profile that ended up convicting Reed in the Stites case, though, again, the victim was an ex-girlfriend who didn’t think anyone would believe her.
The other two assaults were more damning to Reed’s claims of innocence, as the first was six months before the Stites murder and the other was six months after. In both cases, the women were abducted from Bastrop’s Cedar Street, which is on Stites’ route from her apartment in Giddings to her job at HEB. The first rape, in October 1995, was a cold case until the DNA match was made 18 months later. The February ’97 attack was an attempted rape that could’ve followed the Stites scenario. Victim Linda Schlueter stopped in at Long’s Star Mart for something and there was Reed, asking for a ride, please. She hestitated because she didn’t know him, but Reed can be charming, convincing. He hopped in. But instead of guiding him to his house at 806 Martin Luther King Blvd., he had her turn down a series of dark roads where he demanded sex, then beat her up when she declined. She was lucky to get out of the car as a pair of headlights approached — and Reed slid over to the driver’s side and floored it. Schlueter filed a police report and picked Reed from a mugshot. That case, following the same timeline and m.o., had police looking at Reed as a suspect in the Stites rape-murder.
None of the previous rape charges nor the attempted sexual assault of Schlueter were brought up during the guilt/innocence part of the trial.
One of the Reed defense team’s key points of appeal is that although 11 sworn witnesses were ready to testify that they had seen Reed and Stites kissing, holding hands, etc., only two were called at the trial. But Reed’s original court-appointed attorneys explained in an interview, after the jury deliberated four hours to find Reed guilty, that he other witnesses were all close friends or relatives of Reed, most with criminal histories.
Reed was known by authorities to roam the streets at night and sometimes walk along the railroad tracks. He also occasionally sold drugs, which led to his arrest for delivery of cocaine in April 1997. By sheer coincidence, the DNA match from Reed’s alleged rape in May ’95 to the Stites case had come back positive for Reed the day he turned himself in on the petty drug charge. Investigators asked if he knew Stacey Stites and Reed said only from the news reports. Never met her.
When they hit him with the irrefutable DNA evidence that his semen was found in Stites vaginal and anal cavities, Reed went back to Wichita Falls in ’87. When he went to trial on that rape charge, the jury believed his “secret affair” story and he was acquitted.
Although Jimmy Fennell is the poster boy for “shadow of a doubt,” Reed’s entire case is built on the claim that he had consensual sex with Stacey Stites more than 24 hours before her body was found. To believe his story, she carried his semen home to her racist cop boyfriend that night, didn’t shower the next day and then went to work. And yet the defense has presented zero credible proof that Reed and Stites had even met. A bunch of friends and relatives who’ve had problems with the law pointing a finger at a cop? That’s not going to do it. Where are the notes, the photos, the stray hair, the little gifts that may have Stites’ fingerprints?
The only evidence that Reed and Stites had ever met was his DNA inside and on her on the day she was murdered.
A key witness for the prosecution was Stacey’s mother Carol, who lived downstairs from the Giddings apartment Fennell and Stites lived in. The night before Stacey’s rape/murder, Carol suggested to Jimmy that he let Stacey take his truck to work, then she’d give him her car the next day. Having one vehicle was an ongoing problem with the young couple. Carol Stites testified that at about 3 a.m. she heard the couple’s door open once and heard one set of footsteps go down the stairs, which was the routine when Stacey had to work. At 6:30 a.m., when she was notified that Stacey was missing, she immediately called Jimmy who came down the stairs. He went to Carol’s apartment and Carol gave him her only set of car keys so he could drive out to look for Stacey. There was only ONE set of keys to the car and she had it overnight. Jimmy didn’t have another vehicle. The only way he could’ve killed his fiancée was if her mother had been complicit.
After the murder of their employee, HEB offered a $50,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of the killer and yet no one thought to drop a dime on Rodney the crack dealer, who they seen with that white girl.
If anyone accused of a rape-murder can explain away their semen by claiming an illicit affair, as unlikely as the couple might seem, that would really clog the appeals courts.
But you figure that first they’d throw out all the cases where the convicted have shown a pattern for the behavior they are accused of doing.
Texas Monthly has not done the 12,000-word story about the Rodney Reed case because Michael Morton was not an accused sexual predator with the DNA evidence to back it up, before he was sent to Death Row.
* * *
UPDATE: The U.S. Supreme Court declined Monday Nov. 3 to review Reed’s case. The decision lets stand a January ruling by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which determined that Reed’s lawyers performed adequately during his trial and his claims of innocence lacked validity. He’s was scheduled for execution Jan. 14, but on Nov. 25 that date was moved to March 5.
Here’s the latest on the case from the Austin Chronicle.
And to read more, this site covers a lot of the more conspiratorial aspects of the case, including the beer can with the DNA that doesn’t exclude a fellow Giddings police officer.
UDATE: Appeal denied 4/12/17.
KVUE’s Nov. 13 report on the case is solid journalism and contains a rare interview with Reed’s last victim Linda Schlueter.