FORT WORTH -- It seemed that the killings would never stop.
A waitress, bludgeoned and raped and left in a field in east Fort Worth.
A popular radio station employee, vanishing after buying gas at a southwest Fort Worth convenience store.
A middle-school teacher, strangled inside her apartment near Ridgmar mall.
A teen-ager. A restaurant hostess. An aspiring model.
By May 1985 -- 21 months after the killings began -- more than a dozen young women were dead, and Fort Worth was terrified, convinced that a serial killer was on the loose.
Terece Gregory, 29, was among the last to die. She was last seen leaving the Caravan of Dreams in downtown Fort Worth a couple of hours before daybreak. The next day, a fisherman found her body in the Trinity River. She’d been shot in the face.
Twenty years later, most of the cases remain unsolved. But police said Wednesday that they have linked a convicted murderer with a history of terrorizing women to DNA evidence found on Gregory’s body.
And it’s possible, they say, that the discovery is only the beginning.
Curtis Don Brown, 46, is serving a life sentence for the 1986 murder of Jewel Woods, a 51-year-old Fort Worth nurse. Brown, who was transported to Fort Worth on Tuesday, now faces a capital murder charge in Gregory’s death.
He declined to be interviewed Wednesday.
Since linking Brown to Gregory through the DNA database in February, investigators have re-examined 25 unsolved slayings of women that occurred while Brown lived in Tarrant County.
At least 18 deserve a closer look, they say.
“The DNA hit caused us to look at several other cases to determine whether Brown may be possibly involved in those,” said Sgt. J.D. Thornton, who heads the Fort Worth Police Department’s homicide unit.
“Whether he is or not, the evidence available in those cases will be processed to determine whether we can make a link to any suspect.”
Watching and waiting
By 1986, the killings had slowed, and young women had returned to their routines.
On the night of May 28 — almost a year to the day after Gregory’s death — Woods cracked open a window in her apartment to enjoy the mild spring weather.
With her two children grown, she lived alone and was working as a nurse while studying for her master’s degree in gerontology.
She chatted with a close friend about attending the horse races, then later ran a bath.
Outside, Curtis Brown was watching — and waiting.
According to Woods’ son, Gregg, Brown later said he removed the window screen, reached in and unlocked the door. Woods found him crouching in the kitchen, and he chased her into the bathroom, Gregg Woods said.
Brown also said he was high on cocaine at the time, Gregg Woods said.
A neighbor told police that she had heard a disturbance about 11:30 p.m. inside Woods’ apartment and then what could have been moaning.
About a half-hour later, Brown attracted the attention of undercover officers working a special detail. He was walking along a private drive south of Brentwood Stair Road, breathless and sweating, carrying two purses wrapped in a towel.
Woods’ identification was inside one of them.
Officers went to Woods’ apartment and found that it had been ransacked. Her bathroom door had been kicked in.
But she was nowhere to be found.
The next morning, officers on horseback discovered Woods’ body, nude from the waist down, in tall weeds east of her apartment.
She had been raped and beaten to death with a rock.
A series of arrests
Brown was in his mid-20s when he moved to Fort Worth, where his mother lived. He had been paroled in 1983 in his native California after serving time for armed robbery.
He was married in July 1984 and had a daughter about a year later. He worked sporadically as a laborer and a machinist and lived near Meacham Airport on the north side, and in the Hulen area of southwest Fort Worth.
When he killed Woods, he was free on bond after terrorizing two other women in Tarrant County.
On June 20, 1985, he removed a screen and crawled through the window of an apartment on Hulen Place. Concealing his face with a towel, Brown grabbed the woman from behind. She fought, and he forced her onto the floor with a pillowcase over her head.
A neighbor heard her pleading for her life and called police. When officers approached, the woman ran to them screaming, her lip split and a finger possibly broken. Brown was arrested, and police found white cotton gloves in his pants pocket.
He was freed on bond. Eight months later, he was arrested again, this time in Arlington.
Just before midnight on Feb. 24, 1986, a 29-year-old woman heard someone at a back window of her apartment. She stepped out on her back patio and saw Brown. He jumped the wooden fence and fled.
When police arrived, Brown was running from a security guard. Another woman had told the guard that Brown had made sexual advances in the laundry room.
Officers caught up with Brown and took him into custody.
He was again freed on bond.
In December 1986, Brown struck a deal with prosecutors. He pleaded guilty to capital murder in Woods’ slaying and to burglary in the Hulen Place attack. He received life for each offense.
Gregg Woods was disappointed that prosecutors didn’t seek the death penalty.
Now, he realizes that by comparison his family was fortunate.
“After 19 years, I realize that closing my mother’s case with some justice was a lot better than not having any justice at all,” Woods said.
Other families, he knows, are still waiting for answers.
“God knows what their torture and torment was like all these years,” he said. “I can only imagine what those poor families have gone through.”
Investigators had little reason to connect Woods’ killing with those that had tormented the city in 1984-85.
The only parallel seemed to be the random nature of their deaths. Woods and another woman had been beaten; the others had been strangled, stabbed or shot.
Woods was older and lived a much quieter lifestyle. She was killed in east Fort Worth, while many of the other victims had connections to the southwest part of town.
Four of them — Catherine Davis, Cindy Heller, Angela Ewert and Sarah Kashka — were last seen within two miles of one another.
Davis, an aspiring model who worked at Ridglea Country Club, disappeared in September 1984 from her apartment south of Texas Christian University. Neighbors had heard her arguing with a man.
The next month, Heller, a TCU graduate and former beauty contestant, vanished after delivering a message for a stranded motorist at an apartment complex near Hulen Mall.
Ewert, who worked for radio station KEGL-FM, disappeared in December 1984 after buying gas in the Wedgwood neighborhood. Three weeks later and a block away, Kashka, a 15-year-old from Denton who was spending the weekend with friends, disappeared from an apartment complex parking lot.
On New Year’s Day 1985, Kashka’s body was found in a swampy area near Mountain Creek in southwest Dallas. She had been raped and stabbed in the neck and chest.
Four days later, children found Heller’s remains in a small lake on the TCU campus. Police believe that she had been strangled and dumped into a storm drain, and washed into the lake.
Late that month, surveyors found Davis’ skeletal remains in heavy underbrush in a field in far southwest Fort Worth. Her cause of death could not be determined.
Ewert would not be found until almost nine years later. Her bones were wrapped in an afghan in a trash-strewn area near the Johnson County line.
The cause of her death has never been determined.
Murder was all too common in Fort Worth in the mid-1980s: 128 people were killed in 1985, and a record 202 were killed the next year as gang and drug wars raged across the city.
But the gruesome deaths of young women were something else entirely, and they shook the city to its core, especially southwest Fort Worth.
Police downplayed suggestions that a serial killer was responsible, citing the varied causes of death and a lack of strong links among the victims. But they created a task force that grew to 40 officers. The city spent $1 million to conduct about 3,000 interviews and field countless tips.
“The investigators did an extremely thorough job of trying to establish links between victims to determine if one person could be responsible for the killings,” Sgt. Thornton said. “However, when the victims are selected at random by a stranger, any amount of investigative effort may fail to identify a suspect.”
Homes were searched. Boyfriends took polygraph tests. Three men were arrested but later freed.
Women changed their locks, took self-defense classes and bought guns. Police were ordered to help stranded female and elderly drivers.
“I don’t care if they lock him up in Dallas, lock him up in Grand Prairie ... I just want him off the streets,” Fort Worth Mayor Bob Bolen said during one of many news conferences.
Laura Rodgers was among those paralyzed with fear. After her sister-in-law, Marilyn Hartman, was found bound, gagged and strangled inside her southwest Fort Worth home Oct. 19, 1984 — one of eight young women killed within a four-month period — even the most mundane tasks seemed terrifying.
“I was scared to take a shower,” Rodgers said recently. “I would put knives on the floor and put a towel over it. I had a gripping fear.”
The grief, too, was overwhelming. Hartman’s mother died three years after losing her daughter, the youngest of her 10 children.
“She was never the same. There was always a sadness,” Rodgers said. “I think she just died of a broken heart.”
The break in the case
It’s been almost 20 years since Curtis Brown has been home.
On Tuesday — flanked by three Fort Worth homicide investigators, his hands and feet in shackles — he returned.
It was the second time in a week that detectives had met with Brown.
Last week, Thornton and detectives Mike Carroll, Cheryl Johnson and Manny Reyes traveled to the Wayne Scott Unit in Angleton. They told Brown that a DNA database had linked him to Gregory’s slaying and that they were re-examining the unsolved murders of more than a dozen women.
Thornton declined to comment on Brown’s demeanor or whether he cooperated.
He would only say: “Based on the interview, he has not been eliminated as a suspect in any of the cases we’re reviewing.”
On Wednesday, police obtained an arrest warrant for Brown in connection with Gregory’s slaying and filed the case with the Tarrant County district attorney’s office.
Defense attorney Tim Moore, who was appointed by Judge Elizabeth Berry to represent Brown, has had a brief conversation with his client. He declined to comment.
Police say that Brown’s DNA matches semen taken from Gregory’s body and stored in a crime lab freezer for almost two decades.
The discovery was made in February as part of an investigation into cold-case killings. A DNA profile extracted from the semen was entered into the Combined DNA Index System, or CODIS.
The database — which became operational in 1998 and has evolved into a valuable tool for law enforcement — links DNA profiles from unsolved cases to those of convicted offenders.
In the past, police needed a suspect before such comparisons could be made.
The CODIS hit was a major break for investigators. Brown was already a convicted killer. And his link to Gregory raised the possibility that he could be responsible for other deaths that occurred during that period.
Some relatives of those who were slain are grateful that the cases are being reviewed.
Peggy Heller — whose daughter’s remains were found on the TCU campus — was among those who received a phone call from Fort Worth police.
“I was a little shaken at first,” said Heller, who lives in Illinois. “It is very large news for us. We’ve waited for 20 years to hear something.”
Police warned her not to get her hopes up. Still, she said, she feels a strange sense of relief.
“I’m grateful that this has happened before I have to leave this earth.”
Looking for connections
• Mary Elizabeth Till, 27
Till, an Arlington woman who worked as a legal secretary for a Dallas law firm, was last heard from Aug. 18, 1983, when she called her supervisor to tell him she was running late. Two days later, her burned-out car was found at an Oak Cliff apartment complex. Her body was discovered Jan. 4, 1984, in a grassy field near Interstate 20 in south Dallas, about a mile from where her car had been found. She had been shot once in the head.
• Sandra Bush, 21
Bush, a receptionist at a doctor's office, was last seen Nov. 17, 1983, leaving her home on Cutter Street in southeast Fort Worth. Her Chevrolet Monte Carlo was found the next day outside a north-side bar, a blood-stained pillowcase in the trunk. On Jan. 2, two hunters found her partially-clad body beneath pieces of wood in a field off Old Decatur Road, just east of the Tarrant County College Northwest Campus. She had been strangled with a cord.
• Elsie Mae Deem, 82
Deem, a retired grocer, was severely beaten and raped Jan. 6, 1984, by someone who broke into her home at 511 W. Daggett Ave., just south of downtown Fort Worth. She died three weeks later.
• Cheryl Ann Taylor, 23
Taylor, a waitress, was last seen at an Arlington bar days before her nude body was found March 4, 1984, in a field behind the Bell Helicopter plant. She had been sexually assaulted, strangled and severely beaten with a large object.
• Ginger Hayden, 18
Hayden, a graduate of Arlington Heights High School, was a freshman at the University of Texas at Arlington when she was stabbed dozens of times in the southwest Fort Worth apartment she shared with her mother. Her mother found Hayden's nude body in her bedroom Sept. 5, 1984. She was the first of several young women to disappear or be killed within four months, sparking fears that a serial killer might be on the loose.
• Catherine Davis, 23
Davis was an accounting clerk at Ridglea Country Club and an aspiring model when she went missing Sept. 29, 1984, from her garage apartment south of Texas Christian University. Neighbors heard her arguing with a man minutes before a fire destroyed her apartment. Her car was found Oct. 7, 1984, a few blocks from her apartment, with a flat tire and blood on the door handle. On Jan. 23, 1985, surveyors found her skeletal remains about six miles from her apartment, in a field in far southwest Fort Worth.
• Marilyn Hartman, 29
Hartman, a Stripling Middle School teacher, was found dead Oct. 19, 1984, in the bedroom of her home in southwest Fort Worth. She had been bound, gagged and strangled. The killer fled in her car, which was found the next day at an Everman apartment complex.
• Cindy Heller, 23
Heller, a TCU graduate and former beauty contestant, disappeared Oct. 22, 1984, after befriending a stranded motorist. Her car, its interior burned, was found the next day at an apartment complex near Hulen Mall where she had gone to deliver a message for the motorist. Her remains were found Jan. 5, 1985, in a small lake on the TCU campus. She had been strangled.
• Kathryn E. Jackson, 32
Jackson was found dead in her Ridgmar Park apartment Nov. 26, 1984, after she failed to show up for her teaching job at Irma Marsh Middle School in River Oaks. She had been bound, beaten and strangled with a cord. Her nude body was facedown in a bathtub with the hot water running.
• Angela Leigh Ewert, 21
Ewert, a programmer at radio station KEGL-FM, was last seen Dec. 10, 1984, buying gas at a convenience store on Wedgmont Circle North. Her car, a tire flat, was found the next day near the Tarrant County College Southeast Campus. A broken knife was nearby. On Feb. 2, 1985, her purse was found in a creekbed near Overton Ridge Boulevard, a few miles northwest of where she disappeared. Her skeletal remains were found nearly nine years later, in August 1993, in a trash-strewn area several miles east of Interstate 35, near the Johnson County line.
• Regina Suzanne Grover, 21
Grover, a hostess at Pepper's Restaurant, was found dead Dec. 23, 1984, in Marine Creek just south of Meacham Airport. Her boyfriend, David Larson, 26, was found dead that day in his apartment near TCU. He had been clubbed on the head with a large blunt object. Police suspect that Grover was abducted from the apartment, strangled and dumped in the creek.
• Sarah Kashka, 15
Kashka, of Denton, was last seen Dec. 30, 1984, in the parking lot of the Wedgwood Terrace Apartments, near Hulen Mall. She was in Fort Worth to attend a party with friends. Her body was found Jan. 1, 1985, in a swampy area near Mountain Creek in southwest Dallas County. She had been raped and stabbed in the neck and chest.
• Zita Rogers, 70
Rogers was shot in the abdomen Jan. 25, 1985, apparently during a burglary of her home on Carey Road in southeast Fort Worth. A neighbor concerned that Rogers had not picked up her evening newspaper found her dead after discovering that the front door was ajar.
• Mary B. Taylor, 36
Taylor's body was found March 30, 1985, in a vacant lot at 2300 Cobb St., between Vickery Boulevard and Lancaster Avenue. Taylor, a prostitute, had been shot multiple times in the back and head.
• Frances Johnson, 71
Johnson was found strangled inside her home on Grace Avenue in northeast Fort Worth on May 28, 1985. She apparently was killed during a burglary. She was facedown between a bed and dresser and appeared to have been dead for about 10 days.
• Terese Gregory, 29 **SEE CORRECTION**
Gregory was last seen leaving Caravan of Dreams about 4 a.m. May 29, 1985. Later that day, her car was found wrecked in the 5500 block of Bridge Street, near her home in the Woodhaven area of east Fort Worth. On May 30, 1985, a man fishing near Rockwood Park Municipal Golf Course, northwest of downtown Fort Worth, found Gregory floating in the Trinity River. She had been sexually assaulted and shot in the face.
• Phyllis Broadus, 25
Broadus was possibly working as a prostitute at Freeman and Rosedale streets, near Hillside Park, on Feb. 23, 1986, when a man driving a red and white Oldsmobile ordered her into the car. When she refused, he shot her in the right buttock. Broadus, who was pregnant at the time, died March 6, 1986, of complications from the injury. She was one of at least three women fatally attacked or found dead during a three-month period in early 1986.
• Jane Doe,
Identity and age unknown
A white woman believed to be in her late 30s or early 40s was found Feb. 24, 1986, nude and partially wrapped in a blanket, also near Hillside Park. An autopsy revealed that she had been strangled, and homicide detectives theorized that she had been killed the night before and dumped at the site. She has never been identified.
• Fannie Chambers, 22
Chambers was shot several times late on the night of April 5, 1986, near East Rosedale Street and Carverly Drive in southeast Fort Worth. Two people living nearby told police that they had been awakened by a woman's screams.
Looking back: 8 unsolved cases
Among the cases police are re-examining are those of eight women who disappeared or were found dead during a four-month period in late 1984. Here are those eight victims:
Ginger Hayden, 18
Catherine Davis, 23
Marilyn Hartman, 29
Cindy Heller, 23
Kathryn Jackson, 32
Angela Ewert, 21
Regina Grover, 21
Sarah Kashka, 15
Star-Telegram researchers Cathy Belcher, Marcia Melton and Victoria Valles contributed to this report.
Deanna Boyd, (817) 390-7655 Melody McDonald, (817) 390-7386