Friday, July 7, 2017
Murders of Rhonda Johnson and Sharon Shaw
Rhonda Renee Johnson and Sharon Lynn Shaw were two teenage girls who disappeared in Harris County, Texas on the afternoon of August 4, 1971. In early 1972, skeletal remains of both girls were discovered in and around Clear Lake near Galveston Bay. A local man, Michael Lloyd Self, was charged with their murders in 1972 and convicted of Shaw's in 1975, though controversy arose in 1998 when serial killer Edward Harold Bell confessed to the murders; this paired with corroborating statements from both law enforcement and prosecutors that Self had been coerced into a false confession led many to believe he had been wrongfully convicted. Self died in prison of cancer in 2000. The case was featured in national media, and portrayed on Unsolved Mysteries in 1993. The case has often been associated with the Texas Killing Fields, which refers to a 25-acre section of land off of Interstate 45 in southern Texas where the bodies of over thirty people, mainly young women, have been discovered, beginning in the 1970s. A fictionalized film about the area, titled Texas Killing Fields, was released in 2011. Disappearance: On Wednesday, August 4, 1971, Rhonda Johnson (born December 16, 1956 in Houston, Texas) and Sharon Shaw (born August 11, 1957 in Mobile, Alabama), both of Webster, Texas, spent the day on a beach in Galveston on Galveston Bay, approximately one week before Sharon's fourteenth birthday. The girls were seen leaving the beach, but did not return home. Eyewitnesses reported last seeing the girls walking on Seawall Boulevard in Galveston. Discovery of bodies: On January 3, 1972, two boys fishing in Clear Lake discovered a human skull floating in the water, which they had initially believed to be a sports ball. Six weeks later, searchers discovered the rest of the body, along with that of another girl, in a marsh near the lake. According to a coroner's inquest filed on February 17, 1972, the skull found in the lake was determined via dental records to have belonged to Sharon Shaw. Additionally, a crucifix found wrapped around the jawbone of the skull was identified by Shaw's mother to have belonged to her daughter. The other body found in the marsh was positively identified as Rhonda Johnson. Investigation- Michael Lloyd Self: In May 1972, a tip was received from Glenn Price, a city councilman, to look into Michael Lloyd Self, a gas station attendant and sex offender in Galveston. Police visited Self at his workplace, and he voluntarily went to the police station the following day for questioning. When shown photos of Shaw and Johnson, Self admitted to recognizing the girls, but stated that he did not know them. According to Self, Chief Michael Morris held him in confinement for hours, remarking that he would not leave until Self had made a confession. Self also stated he was held against a wall, hit with a nightstick, and taunted by Morris with his pistol, threatening to kill him if he did not confessed. Self eventually agreed to confess, and was forced by Morris to hand-write a confession to the murders of Shaw and Johnson; Morris allegedly forced Self to re-write the confession several times. Dave Coburn, a local investigator, corroborated Self's story by claiming to have witnessed Morris treat a prisoner exactly the same way a year prior. The final signed confession by Self contained notable discrepancies; in the confession, Self stated he had dumped Shaw and Johnson's bodies in El Largo, which was over twenty miles from the marsh where police discovered the remains. Self also wrote in his confession that he strangled both girls to death, though reports from the medical examiner showed no evidence of strangulation. Three days after his confession, on June 23, 1972, Self provided further details to police in an oral confession that conflicted with his initial written confession. In an interview with Deputy Sheriff W.A. Turner and Deputy Sheriff Frank Beamer, Self claimed that he had picked up Shaw and Johnson from a Sizzler steakhouse, and that the two had driven around the El Largo neighborhood and gotten food from a local Jack in the Box restaurant. According to Beamer, Self claimed to have pulled over in a secluded area, and struck the girls over the head with a Coca-Cola bottle, and that he had stripped their clothes and thrown them on the highway; this conflicted with the fact that the girls' clothing was discovered with their remains. He then claimed to have thrown the girls' bodies in a culvert on Choate Road. Two weeks later, sheriff's deputies checked Self out of jail and drove him to the various locations mentioned in his confession, and photographed him at each of the locations; this would later be presented in court, though Self's attorney claimed the taking of the photos was illegal. Conviction and aftermath: Self's trial began on May 15, 1973, concluding on September 18, 1974, in which Self was charged with the first-degree murder of Sharon Shaw, and sentenced to life imprisonment; he was not convicted of Johnson's. An October 9, 1974 appeal of the case was denied. Three years later in 1976, Chief Don Morris and Deputy Tommy Deal, both of whom had worked on Self's case, were arrested and charged with multiple bank robberies dating back to 1972. Morris was sentenced to fifty-five years in prison, and Deal was sentenced to thirty. Michael Self was denied parole numerous times, and unsuccessfully appealed his conviction over the course of his sentence. In a September 22, 1992 written petition for appeal, reference to coercion in his confession was made, reading: The district court acknowledged that the state court had twice found that no force or threats were used against Self to obtain his June 9 confession. Nevertheless, it found that the confession was so obtained and not freely given, despite Miranda warnings having been given. This finding is influenced by its earlier, unwarranted, sua sponte illegal arrest ruling, as well as by credibility choices contrary to those made by the state trial judge, who had an opportunity to observe the witnesses' demeanor, and whose province included weighing conflicting testimony. Self was refused a new trial by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1993, having exhausted his appeals. He died in prison of cancer in 2000. In 2011, the Houston Chronicle published an article in which Self's attorneys stated their belief that Self was wrongly accused and coerced into making a false confession; the article also noted two investigators, a Galveston police officer, and a former Harris County prosecutor who also believed Self had been wrongly convicted. Other confessions: On April 2, 1980, a man in Taylor Lake, Texas walked into the local police department and claimed to have been responsible for the murders. In his confession, the man allegedly mentioned having tied the girls down with electrical cord, a detail that had not been released to the public, nor ever mentioned by Michael Self. The man, apparently suffering from psychosis, was eventually dismissed by police, despite his mention of the electrical cord, as well as the fact that he lived in close proximity to one of the victims. Edward Howard Bell: In 1998, Edward Howard Bell wrote multiple letters to prosecutors in Galveston and Harris Counties, confessing to the murders of numerous young women. At the time, Bell was serving a seventy-year sentence for murdering a Houston-area Marine who had attempted to stop him from publicly masturbating in front of a group of teenage girls. In August 2015, Bell admitted to murdering a total of eleven girls, whom he referred to as the "Eleven that went to Heaven," and claimed to have been brainwashed and forced to kill by a secret organization. He named Shaw and Johnson among the girls he admitted to murdering; however, Bell has not been charged in the murders of either Shaw or Johnson.