Years of twists and turns in Beatrice Six case taking toll on victim's family -
Published Sunday, February 2, 2014 at 12:30 am / Updated at 12:12 am
'I'll have to go through it all over again'
Years of twists and turns in Beatrice Six case taking toll on victim's family

LINCOLN — Jan Houseman sat through the entire murder trial in 1989.

She heard in wrenching detail how Helen Wilson was beaten, raped and suffocated. She heard things painful to imagine happening to anyone.

But Helen Wilson wasn't just anyone to Jan Houseman. Helen Wilson was her mother.

Houseman heard the guilty verdict and saw the defendant sentenced to life in prison. Then, one by one, she saw five other people sent away.

And she thought it was over.

Now, nearly 25 years later, it's still not over.

A federal civil rights lawsuit that recently went to trial in Lincoln accused authorities of recklessly investigating the Wilson murder and wrongly convicting six people of crimes they didn't commit. Following 20 hours of deliberations, the jury deadlocked Thursday without a verdict, and the judge declared a mistrial.

As attorneys for the Beatrice Six and the Gage County sheriff's deputies started gearing up for a second trial, Houseman lamented the thought.

“I'll have to go through it all over again,” she said through tears. “I can't take much more of this.”

Although Wilson was central to the case, she was mostly reduced to evidence during the three-week trial last month. Lawyers talked about the hairs found in her one-bedroom apartment, the blood recovered from her bedsheets, the bodily fluids soaked into her carpet and recovered from her battered and bruised body.

Wilson was just a victim. She could have been any victim.

But to family, she was a sister, a mother, a grandmother and a great-grandmother. Although she lived alone in the tiny apartment inside the brown brick building in Beatrice, she was in daily contact with her loved ones.

Her husband, Ray Wilson, was a factory worker who died of a heart attack in 1966. For a time after his death, Wilson lived with family, working at a nursing home, cleaning houses and baby-sitting at her church.

She took great pleasure in her grandchildren and great-grandchildren, writing personal poems for each. She almost considered it an affront if they were left with other sitters.

As she entered retirement age, she started an AARP chapter in Beatrice and organized bus trips for senior citizens. People on the trips took to calling her Miss Sunshine, Houseman said.

She loved music. Accompanied by her sister on piano, Wilson sang at holiday gatherings for the family. Other times, she strummed a ukulele as she crooned.

“She kept us going, that's what she did,” Houseman said.

In early February 1985, she had just returned to Beatrice by bus after visiting her younger son, Larry, in Scottsbluff. On the evening of Feb. 5, her other son, Darrell, stopped at the apartment to visit while his wife, Katie, was bowling.

Wilson was fighting a bad chest cold, so Darrell headed home about 9:45 p.m. Katie called Wilson about midnight to remind her to take more medicine. The call, and two others, weren't answered. Her callers assumed she was sleeping through the rings.

The next morning Wilson's sister, who lived in the apartment next door, found Wilson's body on the living room floor. She was 68.

The family was devastated. Houseman called it the worst time of her life.

Beatrice police launched the investigation by collecting about 50 items of evidence from the crime scene. They soon learned the killer had Type B blood, present in just 10 percent of the population. Over the next three months they interviewed more than 300 people in connection with the case and ran many blood tests, but they failed to find a suspect with the precise match.

At the same time they were approached by a former police officer named Burt Searcey who asked if he could look into the homicide as a private investigator. The family gave its blessing.

But the case went unsolved for four years. It seemed to fade from the memories of everyone except those who loved Wilson.

“If you don't think that isn't hard,” Houseman said. “You go to bed every night and wonder.”

The wondering ended in early 1989 when Searcey, now a deputy for Gage County, arrested Joseph White and Ada JoAnn Taylor. In subsequent months he arrested Thomas Winslow, Debra Shelden, James Dean and Kathleen Gonzalez, who had the elusive Type B blood.

The prosecution's case relied almost entirely on the confessions of Dean, Taylor and Shelden. They testified that the six invaded Wilson's apartment to rob her. White and Winslow attacked while she was in bed, took her to the living room and raped her as the others watched. Taylor put a pillow over her face, suffocating her.

Their testimony convicted White. The other five all took plea bargains, which resulted in lesser prison sentences.

As painful as it was to hear, at least the murder was no longer unsolved. Although they never forgot their loss, the family members were able to move on.

But that changed in 2008 when they were called to a meeting at the police station in Beatrice. There, the county attorney and lawyers from the Attorney General's Office told them court-ordered DNA testing on the evidence in their mother's apartment had failed to match the six.

Instead it matched only Wilson and a man named Bruce Allen Smith, who died in Oklahoma in 1992. They were able to link the DNA to Smith because he had emerged as a suspect in 1985, and police still had blood and hair samples in evidence storage.

Smith, a former Beatrice resident, had been passing through town the night of the murder. A former friend told police he was with Smith and dropped him off about a block from Wilson's apartment after a night of drinking.

A task force led by the attorney general reopened the case to determine if Smith was either the seventh or the lone perpetrator. After reviewing police reports, trial testimony and videotaped interrogations, they concluded that the six could not have been in the apartment.

“Not beyond a reasonable doubt, but beyond all doubt,” Corey O'Brien, one of the state attorneys who served on the task force, said at the 2009 hearing during which pardons were granted to five of the wrongly convicted. White didn't need a pardon because his conviction had been vacated months earlier.

But Houseman said she wasn't convinced of their innocence.

She still isn't.

“How can you be wrongly convicted when you plead guilty?”

Her family opposed the creation of a state law that awards compensation to people convicted of crimes they didn't commit. Some of the six have obtained compensation through the law.

Houseman also disagreed with their federal lawsuit, which alleged the civil rights of the six had been violated by Searcey, Deputy Wayne Price and the late Jerry DeWitt, who was sheriff in 1989.

She and Wayne Houseman, her husband of 61 years, attended as many days of the three-week trial as they could. They sat behind Searcey and Price, to show their support for the deputies.

She heard how the testimony at White's 1989 trial did not square with modern DNA evidence. She heard how those who confessed said they were coerced by the authorities, how they were afraid, how they were threatened with the death penalty if they didn't cooperate.

Last week, as she waited for a verdict, she said she wasn't swayed by any of it. She thinks the six killed her mother and Smith came upon the scene afterward.

“I feel like they were there, and I'll never feel any different,” she said. “My whole family thinks the same.”

Robert Bartle, a Lincoln attorney who helped represent the six, pointed to the 2008 task force report. Attorney General Jon Bruning put his own investigators and two of his most experienced prosecutors on the case.

“There was no credible evidence whatsoever to support that any of the six had anything to do with it,” Bartle said.

The Wilsons are victims, he said, but so are his clients.

Today Houseman is 78 — 10 years older than her mother was at the time of her death.

Helen Wilson has never been allowed to rest, Houseman said. Neither has Helen Wilson's daughter.

“I just want it to be over,” she said.

Contact the writer: Joe Duggan    |  

Joe works in the Lincoln bureau, where he helps cover state government, the Legislature, state Supreme Court and southeast Nebraska.

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