KILGORE (KYTX) - Monday is the 30th anniversary of the KFC murders. For years it was one of Texas' most infamous unsolved murders. Five people kidnapped from Kilgore's Kentucky Fried Chicken -- and then shot execution style -- in the middle of nowhere.
For so many East Texans, Kilgore's KFC Murders will never be anything more than the pictures that have lasted three decades. A fast food place, fingreprints and an overgrown oil field five people should never have seen.
Rusk County District Attorney's investigator William Brown was there from day one.
"But my number one question is still 'why here?," says Rusk County DA Investigator William Brown.
At the time, cooperation between law enforcement agencies was lacking and no one on the scene had any idea five people had gone missing from near-by Kilgore.
"And we still didn't know where they had come from until we got up here and found Opie and she had on a KFC uniform," says Brown.
39-year-old Opie Hughes had been sexually assaulted and then shot. Further down the road, 37-year-old Mary Tyler, 20-year-old Joey Johnson, 19-year-old Monte Landers and 20-year-old David Maxwell had been lined up and shot.
"They're all face down/facing that way.Which is to say the least, unusual./very," says Brown
Unusual because they didn't expect to die.
"If we were to all lie down, expecting to get back up in a minute, we would put our face or our head on something./To keep it from being in the dirt./Yeah because we didn't want our nose stuck in the dirt."
For twelve years, evidence found at both crime scenes led nowhere. Investigators say it was a cold case that every armchair detective and every criminal looking for a break would have claimed to have already solved. There was a false alarm in 1995, when Jimmy Mankins, Jr. was arrested and charged with the murders.
It was a shaky case, based largely on a ripped fingernail found in the waistband of one of the victims and allegedly Mankins' repeated boasting that he had done it. Investigators believe he was trying to gain credibility among drug dealers. Eventually he was cleared and then spoke exclusively with CBS19.
"100% I'm innocent and I resent even the question," says Mankins.
He said investigators had no reason to lock him up in the first place.
"The worst part was the six months in jail over there thinking about being put to death for something I didn't do. And more than likely if it wasn't for that DNA I would have been on death row."
Now he's back in prison for something else. But he was right, the DNA was the key. A box and a napkin found behind the counter at KFC had been waiting in a lab for years until someone figured out how to see whose blood was on them. Romeo Pinkerton and Darnell Hartsfield, already in jail on unrelated charges, were identified as two of the three murderers in 2005. Ironically, they'd been among the original suspects in 1983-- Even placed on a makeshift wanted for questioning poster. But they fell through the cracks.
Hartsfield was convicted in 2008 and told CBS19 the jury was wrong.
"Me and my cousin Romeo Pinkerton, we were just being, we were stooges for the state."
In the mean time, Pinkerton had already admitted guilt to avoid the death penalty which gave Opie Hughes' husband a reason to smile after nearly 25 years.
"I got the privileged of hearing that snake say 'guilty.' And he's not said it once. He's said it five times, " says Jack Hughes.
Amazingly, his wife's rapist, the third suspect has never been identified. But the verdicts and two people in prison for life were enough for David Maxwell's former wife.
"No matter what happens from this point on, I'm free. I was paroled today." "He counted, to me. And so as long as I can stand up, I'm going to make sure people know," says Lana Dunkerly.
We will have continuing coverage tonight with the lasting impact those murders had on Kilgore.
Plus, lessons law enforcement learned from the investigation and how they've changed the fight against crime in East Texas.