Authors: Irene Pence
Following Rose’s orders, they tried to stem their enthusiasm, and worked slowly so they wouldn’t disturb or damage the evidence. Little by little they dug, then dusted away the loose soil. The piece of blue fabric broadened and lengthened.
Rose again motioned to Deputy Ashley. “Now we need a shot of every step. Let’s set up a progression of photos so we can show exactly how this thing looks.”
“Yes, sir,” Ashley replied, and attempted to move closer to the grave. He gingerly stepped between the other deputies, who were still digging, and steadied his camera.
For half an hour, they carefully bailed out dirt, following the contour of their discovery. Then they uncovered a brass zipper sewn into the cloth, and they realized it was a sleeping bag. The bulk of the material gave every indication that it was not empty, and the way the canvas curved suggested that the body inside had curled into a fetal position.
Now everything happened quickly. Rose remembered his earlier doubt, and it rapidly faded. He dared to believe that he had the evidence to force a jury to find the defendant guilty beyond all reasonable doubt. Then, being a realist, he reminded himself of previous cases where curious neighbors had claimed they saw someone being buried, only to have police come out and dig up a family’s beloved German shepherd.
Linch got down on his hands and knees to scrutinize the find. Peering underneath, he found a mud-caked hole. He glanced up at the spilled vines and flowers that still clung to the well’s ruptured interior.
“Looks like two years of flower watering rotted the bag,” Linch said.
He pointed out the hole to O’Brien and Rose. “Once the bag is removed, we need to get someone over here to sift the soil and check for anything that may have worked its way out.”
Meticulously, Linch examined every detail of the sleeping bag and requested more photographs. An hour after his arrival, he nodded to Deputy Rose. “Give me a hand here, Rick, and we’ll put the body on a gurney.”
Once the dirt-laden sleeping bag was in position, O’Brien paused for a moment to inhale, then held his breath and tugged hard on the zipper. A strong, sickening-sweet odor permeated the night air. Despite all of their experience and mental preparation, the sight of a human skull staring at them appalled the investigators. The skull and the rest of the bones were brown, contaminated by the decomposition process. Sparse strands of dark hair still clung to the top of the skull, and bits and pieces of tissue remained, especially the nose. Rose could actually imagine the victim’s profile.
More noticeably, he saw pink and white upper dentures still tucked into place. In the absence of lips, the teeth lent the impression of an uninterrupted, macabre smile.
If Rose’s information was correct, it had to be the skeletal remains of forty-six-year-old Jimmy Don Beets. A fact that forensics would prove true a few days later.
Linch reached for the skull. He curiously fingered a hole near its side. “This is a bullet hole,” he said calmly.
The news flew out to the reporters as quickly as a storm could blow across the lake. The investigators had found the remains of Jimmy Don Beets, and he had indeed been murdered.
Suddenly, thousands of residents in the nine chain-linked lake communities remembered that night back on August 5, 1983. Almost two years earlier.
As dusk settled over Cedar Creek Lake, the sky took on canvas-painted pink and coral hues, promising another beautiful sunset. Impressive homes circled the lake, some with as many as eight bedrooms, and just as many baths. Behind those were more modest homes, followed by acceptable trailers on wooded lots, and down the pecking order to rusted trailers that sat anywhere they could find a plot.
The regulars who kept their boats docked at the Redwood Marina had tied up their crafts for the night and were inside the paneled office betting each other on the bass fishing contest planned for the next morning.
Gabby Harrison would have rather stopped at one of the many taverns in Seven Points for a cold draft beer, but fishing had been good so he’d stayed later than usual and now would be late getting home. He had to settle for a can of Miller Lite that swam in melted ice in the bottom of his boat’s cooler.
After making some comment about “my old lady will be wondering where I am,” he pushed open the door and went out on the dock. He paused a moment and squinted through the gathering darkness; then he turned around and stuck his head back inside the office.
“Hey, y’all,” he called, “something looks kinda fishy out here. Pardon the pun.”
Tex Beaucamp’s curiosity pulled him off a folding chair, and he went outside to investigate. Both men stared at a green-and-white boat bobbing in the dark water about fifty feet from the dock. It appeared empty.
“We better take a look,” Gabby suggested, and Tex nodded.
Gabby untied his boat and they climbed aboard. He didn’t start the engine because of the short distance, so he rowed to the other boat. By the time they were a stone’s throw away, they heard a gathering behind them as their fellow boatmen collected on the dock to watch.
Gabby noticed the motor had been pulled out of the water. “Looks like somebody’s had engine problems,” he said.
Once they were alongside the nineteen-foot inboard-outboard Glastron, Tex threw his leg over the side and climbed on deck. Then he called back to Gabby, “Nobody’s here, but whoever was sure left in a hell of a hurry.” He bent over and picked up a card and read, “ ‘Jimmy Don Beets.’ At least that’s what his fishing license says.”
Gabby frowned. “God, no, not Jimmy Don. He’s that Dallas Fire Department captain. Really a nice guy, and he’s big enough to swim clear across the lake.”
“Maybe he did,” Tex replied. Then he reached down to the floorboards and retrieved a small bottle. “On second thought, maybe he didn’t. This here’s a prescription for nitroglycerin. That’s probably what all these pills are around the bottom of the boat. Here’s his glasses, too.”
Gabby tossed Tex a rope, who threaded it through the boat’s towing ring to haul it back to the marina. The waiting cluster of people began examining their find. Many faces darkened when they learned the name of the boat’s owner. “He was always the first to offer help if you had a problem,” one sailor said. “I went fishing with him just last week,” another recalled. Stories flooded back of fishing trips, barbecues, or sitting around Beets’ living room, drinking a cold beer while watching the Dallas Cowboys on television.
Another man brushed his hand over the boat’s motor. “Must have hit something underwater that sheered off the propeller. Blade’s clean missing. He didn’t even have a chance to get a wrench out of his toolbox,” he said, nodding toward the metal container that also lay in the bottom of the boat.
Nighttime began falling as everyone stood outside, discussing the mystery of the empty boat. Thousands of lacy-winged water flies, twice the size of large mosquitoes, zigzagged back and forth, darting to the lights outlining the dock.
The marina’s owner, Lil Smith, sized up the situation and dashed inside for the phone book. She found a listing for a J. D. Beets and dialed the number. Nervously tapping a pencil on her desk, she listened to the phone ring over and over, but no one answered. Periodically, she’d go outside and listen to the men, then trudged back in to make another call. After several unsuccessful tries, it was almost ten before a woman answered.
“Yes, this is Mrs. Beets.”
Lil told her of finding the boat and its contents.
“Oh, dear! Jimmy Don went out fishing last night. I’ve been worried sick about him. I called the sheriff this morning and reported him missing.”
“I tried to reach you earlier,” Lil said, “but no one answered.”
“I went up to Dallas today to do a little shopping with my sons. Got back about eight, but I’ve been out planting flowers in my yard ever since. Guess that’s why I didn’t hear the phone. What should I do, come get the boat?”
“I’d suggest you stay by the phone in case he calls. His boat will be fine. We’ll tie it up for the night and there won’t be any charge.”
“I’m a nervous wreck hearing all this. Maybe I’d better come right over.”
Ten minutes later, a breathless Betty Beets hurried into the marina’s office. “I came as soon as I could.”
Lil couldn’t help but notice the men eyeing Betty’s full bosom, and her Texas-big blond hair. At the same time, Lil took in Betty’s perfectly applied makeup, her spotless blouse, and her crisply creased jeans. Very clean looking for a woman who’d been out working in the yard.
Betty asked to see Jimmy Don’s boat, so they led her outside to the dock. She gasped when she saw the familiar sight. Then she soberly fingered his eyeglasses, pill bottle, and fishing license. “What on earth could have happened to him?” she said to no one in particular. “He was so good at fixing things. Why, he’s fixed dozens of motors for friends, although his own motor had been giving him some trouble lately. ’Course he did have a heart attack five years ago,” she said, dropping her head toward her chest.
Lil’s husband had drowned a few years before she still remembered the anguish and loss she’d felt. She had screamed and cried and cursed God for taking away the man she loved. She couldn’t help but admire the strength Betty showed. Betty wasn’t even crying.
A faint noise beckoned from the buoys that had begun sloshing against the waves. Triangular flags on the dock started flapping in concert with flags on boats as the wind continued to build. The thin dark clouds that earlier slithered across the face of the moon had been replaced with thunderheads.
“Don’t like the looks of this one bit,” Tex complained.
Just then Sheriff Charlie Fields stepped out of his car. The popularly elected sheriff had been around Athens since he was a small boy and could tell stories of horses and buggies kicking up dust on the dirt roads surrounding the Henderson County Courthouse. The sheriff’s pointed-toe boots clicked on the concrete parking lot as he made his way to the dock to examine the boat. He shook his head as he checked out the broken motor and spilled medication. Then he eyed the dark clouds rolling in and said, “There’ll be no search tonight, boys, not with this storm brewing.”
Everyone agreed and promised to be back in the morning. One way or another, they’d find Jimmy Don Beets.
Betty drove herself home while the billowing clouds grew angrier by the second. When she pulled up to her property, she passed the wishing well located near her driveway.
She got out of her truck and fought the wind as it grabbed the door from her grasp. As the storm built with more intensity, she felt the wind blow her hair. She watched a flash of lightning crash and disappear into the water.
There was something fresh about a storm; a cleansing that shook all evil out of the air. She hurried to her house, still hearing the storm scream across the water, breaking against barrier walls.
Valor . . . is the fire fighter entering a fire area or burning building to protect life or property. . . . Valor is a nebulous virtue. Sometimes it is observed and recognized; probably more often it is not—but make no mistake, it is the common bond that forms the foundation for the Dallas Fire Department. It is the heart of our emergency organization.
—1980 Medal of Valor Yearbook
At the first crack of daylight, a caravan of cars, pickups, and vans snaked its way down Highway 175 from Dallas. Over fifty fire fighters had learned of Captain Beets’s empty boat and were coming to search for him.
The firemen came because they were like family. Having spent twenty-four hours a day eating and sleeping together, they had myriad hours of conversation where they learned about each other’s families, the names of their children, and how they got along with their wives. So when one of the firemen died, a brother had died.
The one hundred boats of the bass fishing contest quickly turned into a search party for Jimmy Don. Overhead, wealthy residents in private planes crisscrossed the clear blue sky scanning the lake. Coast Guard and privately owned helicopters slowly hovered over the lake’s surface. Never had there been so many people on the lake at one time.
Captain James Blackburn of the Dallas Fire Department lived in Mabank, one of the lake-hugging towns, so he was chosen to set up tactical headquarters at the causeway between Seven Points and Gun Barrel City. Blackburn’s commander appointed him, knowing he had been friends with Beets since their rookie days on the fire department switchboard. Using maps of the lake, Blackburn penned a detailed grid—a framework that formed the basis of an organized, complete search. He initially calculated the acres of lake separating Jimmy Don’s home from the marina where his boat had been found—an awful lot of water to investigate, but if necessary he’d explore the entire lake.
He glanced from the map to the lake. Water stretched as far as the eye could see. The boundless reservoir was created by damming five creeks into one giant body. The largest, Cedar Creek, ran through terrain overlaid with large stands of cedar trees.
In coordination with the Coast Guard, boats were dispatched hourly to various parts of the lake. And hourly they returned with the same report—no sight of Captain Beets. The Red Cross parked a mobile food center by the search headquarters and busily dispensed cold drinks, sandwiches, and watermelon to the heat-exhausted volunteers throughout the day, a day that saw temperatures climb to over a hundred degrees with rarely a breeze to break the smothering warmth.
While they searched, the throng of local volunteers jabbered to each other about their church activities, and eagerly gloated over their children’s and grandchildren’s achievements. Family was a priority to these people. And the vast majority of them never doubted for a minute that Jimmy Don’s disappearance was anything but an accident. They accepted that one of their own had simply been out night fishing and encountered motor trouble, and the anxiety of trying to make repairs brought on a heart attack. Not even nitroglycerin had helped as Jimmy Don probably stumbled and fell overboard.