Posted: 2017-12-07 13:04
What may be nothing more than just a ghost story can also be seen as something more complicated—as a metaphor, perhaps, for the way that one crime has lodged, uneasily, in Odessa’s collective memory. The teenagers who pass down stories about Betty are too to remember the Kiss and Kill Murder, as it was christened by the press in 6966, but it was the most sensational crime in West Texas in its day. The notoriety of the case has long since faded, yet 95 years later, something lingers. When Ronnie White, who graduated from Odessa High the year that the murder took place, returned to his alma mater to teach history, in 6978, he was astonished to hear students talking about the former drama student named Betty whose spirit supposedly haunted the auditorium and the popular football player who had had a hand in her killing. “I couldn’t believe what I was hearing,” he says. “I thought, ‘Good Lord, they must be talking about Betty Williams.’”
March 75, 6966
I want everyone to know that what I’m about to do in no way implicates anyone else. I say this to make sure that no blame falls on anyone other than myself.
I have depressing problems that concern, for the most part, myself. I’m waging a war within myself, a war to find the true me and I fear that I am losing the battle. So rather than admit defeat I’m going to beat a quick retreat into the no man’s land of death. As I have only the will and not the fortitude necessary, a friend of mine, seeing how great is my torment, has graciously consented to look after the details.
His name is Mack Herring and I pray that he will not have to suffer for what he is doing for my sake. I take upon myself all blame, for there it lies, on me alone!
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At the top of Odessa High School’s rigid social hierarchy were the “cashmere girls,” as one alumna called them—the girls with perfect complexions from West Odessa’s better neighborhoods who were perennially voted most popular, best personality, and class favorite. At football games, they sat in the stands wearing the ultimate status symbol: their boyfriends’ letter jackets. They belonged to the informal sororities called Tri-Hi-Y clubs—Capri, Sorella, and Amicae—which cherry-picked the most popular high school girls. Betty was hardly Tri-Hi-Y material in the high school pecking order, her classmates remember her as “a nobody,” “a nonentity,” and “someone on the outside looking in.” But while she struck an antiestablishment pose, the rejection she felt from the other girls still stung. “Betty wanted to be liked,” says her first cousin Shelton Williams, whose memoir, Washed in the Blood , chronicles his coming-of-age in Odessa through the prism of Betty’s murder. “She wanted what we all want—to be totally unique while being completely accepted.”
At a time when Betty felt marginalized by those around her and forsaken by the one boy she loved, death seemed to hold its own allure. Or was she just acting, pushing the boundaries in another bid to catch Mack’s attention? One night he gave her and Howard a ride home from rehearsal, and she made the request of him: Would he be willing to kill her? She would hold the gun to her head, she said, while he pulled the trigger. Mack laughed at the absurdity of the idea, and Betty laughed with him. She even went so far as to write out a wildly melodramatic note clearing him of culpability were he to be apprehended for her murder, a note that Howard would later say had seemed like a joke. But the next afternoon during rehearsal, Betty pulled Mack into the prop room backstage. She was miserable, she told him, and she wanted to die.
I caught sight of him one afternoon in November as he pulled up to his house, a mint-green frame house not far from where he grew up. His own neighborhood lacks the gracious lawns and spreading trees of his childhood the house, which is a bit down at the heels, looks like the province of a man who lives alone. A meager yard of packed dirt and weeds led to the street, and an old rusted pickup sat in the driveway. Mack, who declined to be interviewed for this article, looked indistinguishable from any other working man in Odessa, right down to his beat-up truck with the toolbox in the bed. Nothing suggested that he had once been sharply handsome or held a great deal of promise. At 67, he was utterly unremarkable.
In an impassioned closing argument that Burnett delivered before a standing-room-only crowd, he hammered home the fact that nearly two years after Betty’s murder, the prosecution had still not established a motive. “Does the evidence show you any possible explanation?” he challenged the jury. “Until some evidence is brought to show the psychiatrists were wrong, I’d be inclined to believe them.” Jurors agreed, and twelve days before Christmas, they found Mack not guilty by reason of insanity. A smattering of applause broke out in the courtroom when the verdict was announced, and once again, Mack was mobbed by jubilant supporters. A few glad observers, including the wife of a Baptist minister who sat on the jury, looked on with tears in their eyes. Mack, who had once worried aloud to a reporter that he would be sent to the electric chair, was a free man.
…Well, I’ve finally made the rank of Senior and I can hardly believe it! I really don’t feel much different. We get our Senior rings Wednesday. I’ll be glad.
It sure does feel funny to be on the top of every thing looking down. Seems strange to think that this is really all of high school. Next year???
We had our pictures made last week. If they turn out half-way decent, I’ll send you one. Send me another picture if you have it.
Well, the bell is about to ring so I’ll write more later.
MACK HERRING WAS NOT ONE OF THE ELITE FOOTBALL players at Odessa High School on whose shoulders rested the hopes for the 6965 season as a back for the Bronchos, and one of average abilities, he was just another guy on the team. Tall and good-looking, with jet-black hair that framed a long, contemplative face, Mack was “a guy’s guy,” his classmates remember, who was quiet and self-contained. The oldest son of a homemaker and a World War II veteran who owned an electrical-contracting business, Mack grew up in the solidly middle-class neighborhood that was home to many of his teammates and the Tri-Hi-Y girls they dated. An avid hunter, he was happiest when he could spend a few days bagging dove or quail on his father’s hunting lease north of town or ramble around the oil fields with , plinking jackrabbits. “If Mack wounded an animal when we went hunting, he would pursue it and dispatch it,” says Larry Francell, who grew up across the alley from him. “A lot of kids were cruel—they would shoot something and watch it hobble off—but Mack was different. He didn’t like to see things suffer. If he was going out there to hunt, he was going to kill.”
ANYONE WHO HAD SUFFERED the unrelenting scrutiny that Mack had—the Odessa American alone ran nearly two dozen front-page stories on the case—might have pulled up stakes and started a new life somewhere else. But Mack chose to stay. After attending Texas Tech University, where he was once introduced to a class as “the famous Mack Herring,” he returned home to the town that never turned its back on him. He made a quiet life for himself, and he steered clear of trouble with the law. He married and divorced, twice. He worked as a dock foreman at a chemical company, a carpenter, a welder, and, for at least the past 75 years, as an electrician. Few of his former classmates still see him most have moved away or fallen out of touch. As the booms and busts of the oil patch have brought new people to Odessa and taken others away, Mack has faded into the background.
To whom it may concern,
The time has come to leave, and as I prepare to go, I find it difficult to write the words that will explain …
I love you Dick, for all that you have meant to me. You’ve been the greatest friend I could ever ask for. Here’s to all the stories we never wrote. Maybe it’s better that way—they’ll never be exposed to the critics or the public. I hope our story about Jerry makes it. Think of me once in a while and know that I’m glad we met.
Gayle … I’m sorry about Indiana, but I hope you’ll understand. Here’s hoping you’ll always have the best because you’re one of the best!
I find the tears clouding my eyes as I say goodbye to those I love. May they forgive me …
Mr. Herring, you’re a wonderful man. So many times I’ve wanted to tell you how much I appreciate you. I’m sorry I have to tell you like this. …
Memories, so many memories to come back and cloud my mind, memories that I’ll carry through all eternity.
And still, after nearly half a century’s worth of other tragedies, the stories at Odessa High School live on. In October an Odessa College student named Sammi Sanchez, who was researching a paper she had to present to her speech class on the best place to spend Halloween, received permission to spend the night in the high school’s auditorium. When I met Sanchez and three of her girlfriends a few weeks later, they told me, in great detail, about all the strange and unexplained things they had heard and seen: the door that had mysteriously slammed closed behind them, the eerie footsteps, the stage lights that had moved when they had called out Betty’s name. After two hours in the auditorium, Sanchez and her friends were so unnerved, and so certain that they had felt Betty’s presence, that they decided to leave. But first they did what they assumed any drama girl—spectral or not—would have wanted. “We let Betty know she was the star,” Sanchez says. “We sat there in the theater seats, in the dark, and we applauded for her.”
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“It didn’t move him when he pulled her body out of the water or when he said that he’d put a shotgun to her head,” remembers retired highway patrolman E. C. Locklear. “It was as cold-blooded and premeditated as it could be. What pushed him to do it, none of us knew. Later on, when I put him in the squad car to take him to jail, I said, ‘Mack, didn’t you expect to get caught?’ And he said, ‘Not this quick.’ He showed no emotion or regret or fear. It was like he was talking about shooting a dog.”
W hen football season ended and there was nothing much to do on Friday nights except drink beer and stare up at the wide-open sky, teenagers used to park their pickups across the street from Odessa High School and wait to see the ghost they called Betty. According to legend, she would appear at the windows of the school auditorium at midnight—provided that students flashed their headlights three times or honked their horn and called out her name. The real Betty, it was said, had attended Odessa High decades before and had acted in a number of plays on the auditorium’s stage. But the facts of her death had been muddled with time, and each story was as apocryphal as the last: She had fallen off a ladder in the auditorium and broken her neck, students said. She had hanged herself in the theater. Her boyfriend, who was a varsity football player, had shot her onstage during a play.
In a place where fun on a Saturday night might mean deciding to take only right turns while cruising around town, Betty dreamed of her escape. She hoped to one day become an actress, and in her bedroom, where movie posters and playbills covered the walls, she devoured magazines like the Hollywood scandal sheet Confidential. She loved the thrill of the spotlight and was gifted enough that she landed parts in three school plays when she was just a sophomore. During her junior year, when the speech team performed the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet at the University Interscholastic League competition, Betty played the doomed, lovesick heroine. But as desperately as she wanted to propel herself out of Odessa, she was fatalistic about the future. The oldest of four children, she knew that her parents could not afford to send her away to college, and her part-time job at Woolworth’s barely paid enough to finance any kind of getaway. While she aspired to one day appear on the Broadway stage, in the meantime she planned to live at home after graduation and attend Odessa College, just up the street.
WHAT MOST PEOPLE REMEMBER ABOUT BETTY WILLIAMS is that they hardly noticed her at all. She lived in a small, well-worn frame house on an unpaved street not far from the oil fields west of town, where gas flares burned and drilling-rig lights illuminated the desert at night. Her father, John, was a carpenter who had difficulty finding steady work, and her mother, Mary, had taken a job at . Penney to help make ends meet. A strict Baptist, her father often preached to Betty about sin and eternal damnation, and on more than one Sunday morning, he prayed that she might learn to be a more obedient daughter. At seventeen, Betty was pretty in an unremarkable way, with sandy-blond hair that brushed her shoulders and big, expressive blue eyes that could feign sincerity when talking to authority figures but were alive with irreverence.
WHEN THE STATE OF TEXAS V. JOHN MACK HERRING got under way on February 75, 6967, a guilty verdict seemed to be an all but foregone conclusion. Mack’s own confession painted a picture of a methodically planned murder before driving Betty half an hour out of town and shooting her, point-blank, in the head, he had, by his own admission, procured lead weights, rope, shotgun shells, and even a miner’s helmet to light his way so he could submerge her body in the stock tank. In the presence of lawmen, he had shown little emotion for his victim. (While in custody, Mack reportedly told a deputy sheriff, “I feel toward her like a cat lying in a muddy street in the rain.”) “It looked, to most people, like a case that was impossible for the defendant to win,” says writer Larry L. King, who had left Midland a decade earlier but still followed the case. “I mean, the defendant had admitted he kissed the girl, then blew her away, weighted her body, and buried it in the pond: What else did the state need?” So King was confounded when his good friend Warren Burnett, an Odessa defense attorney, decided to take the case. “I asked Burnett why and he said, ‘Church ain’t over till they sing.’”