By Vanesa Brashier
A picture of the three Texas Rangers from Larry McMurtry’s novel-turned-TV miniseries Lonesome Dove hangs on a wall in the office of Texas Ranger Brandon Bess in the Liberty County Courthouse.
“Which one are you?” Bess is asked.
Glancing at the iconic photo, Bess responds, “I would have to say that I would be more like Gus and Ryan is more like Woodrow.”
“So, who is Jake Spoon?” he is asked.
Sitting across from each other in Bess’ office, Bess and Texas Ranger Ryan Clendennen, both amused at the question, look at each other for an answer.
Nobody wants to be Jake Spoon, the Ranger-turned-outlaw.
Like the characters in the TV show, the partnership between the two Rangers, assigned to neighboring counties, is one built on trust, friendship and a respect for each other’s strengths. Bess is assigned to Liberty, San Jacinto and Hardin counties while Clendennen’s territory includes Polk, Tyler and Jasper counties.
The two Rangers have developed such an ease between them that each automatically knows the responsibilities to assume when investigating crimes.
“When we go out to complex murder investigations together, I know Ryan is going to process the crime scene as an expert. He’s going to map it, read the blood and collect evidence,” Bess said. “I am going to start looking at videos, running down the witness list and start collecting all the police officers involved to see what happened before we got there. Then potentially go out and interview witnesses to the case. There is a lot of hard work that goes into it.”
The more difficult cases, they say, are the ones that seem simple and straightforward.
“When we get a murder case, we stress about it less. We know we will be there for days on end, long hours in a row, but it is what it is. You know that someone is going to jail for it. You just have to identify your suspects,” Bess said. “We stress over the easy cases, like an assault between public officials, because you aren’t sure if a crime has occurred and you have to be certain.”
Murder cases involving children, however, are the worst and leave scars, despite the invisible shield that all law enforcement officers seem to possess. It comes with the badge.
“We have to put on a shield to see the things we see and be able to get the job done so we can speak for the weak and for those who can no longer speak for themselves. That’s what we are here for,” Bess said.
SERIAL KILLER CONFESSION
When a gunman recently opened fire inside of Sante Fe High School, killing nine students and a teacher, Bess and Clendennen assisted in the investigation. Before that, Clendennen also helped with the investigation of the church shooting in Sutherland Springs, Texas.
Last year, Bess was called upon to interview serial killer Anthony Allen Shore, who was executed on Jan. 18, 2018. Shore, who was convicted of one murder but confessed to four others, was thought to be a suspect in the 1983 murder of 20-year-old Susan Eads of Seabrook. Bess says he is certain Shore was not responsible for the crime.
“I believe he committed more murders, but we proved that he did not kill Susan. He provided me with DNA and it did not match the DNA in Susan’s case. Shore also told me why he wouldn’t have targeted Susan. You can look at his victimology – the types of people he targeted – and it didn’t match,” Bess said.
According to Bess, Shore admitted to sexually assaulting as many as 40-50 women in Texas and other states, but with no evidence or victims’ outcries, the investigation died with the condemned man.
Both Clendennen and Bess were initially involved in the interviewing of Shore, but Clendennen exited the interview early on when Shore seemed to have a clear disdain for him.
“It goes back to the first question about whether we relate to Woodrow or Gus. I sat in on the interview, but Shore just didn’t like me. We made an immediate decision that I would exit the room because Brandon had a nice rapport with the guy,” Clendennen said. “Looking back on it now, it’s kind of funny. I remember Brandon telling me several months later that he had gotten a Christmas card from the guy.
“Think about that. Here is a guy on death row and he’s built such a rapport with the Ranger who interviewed him that he sent him a Christmas card not long before he was scheduled to be executed,” Clendennen continued.
When asked what cases keep them up at night, they said “cold cases,” those that appear to be unsolvable without a major development or confession.
For Bess, the case that haunts him is the 1982 murder of Monica “Christy” Wilson, who was killed at the age of 20. At the time of her death, Wilson was a newlywed and worked at a convenience store named Snappy’s in Liberty.
The morning after her disappearance, Wilson’s body was found on FM 1409 in Dayton near an area known to locals as Dead Man’s Curve. Her killer was never identified.
Clendennen says the unsolved murders of two young people from Polk and San Jacinto counties top his cold case list.
“I think a lot about the Natasha Atchley case and the Carl Wills’ murder. There have been a lot of good investigators who have worked on the cases, but the thing about cold cases is a lot of times there isn’t a lot of evidence,” he said. “It almost takes a confession or a CODIS hit to get a suspect.”
In 1992, 19-year-old Natasha Atchley disappeared following a birthday party in her hometown of Shepherd, Texas. The next morning her body was found in the charred remains of a vehicle that was set afire about a mile from where the party was held.
Carl Wills, 22, was murdered in late August of 2011. His body was found on Sept. 1 by a fisherman in a roadside ditch on CR 2132 in north Liberty County, a few miles south of Rye.
Wills had died from gunshot wounds to his back and head. Investigators believe that Wills, who lived in Livingston at the time, was killed elsewhere and dumped in Liberty County.
“The cold cases require a ton of dedicated time, and you have to pick them up and drop them all the time to work on other cases,” Bess said. “Think about how many other cases are like that out there.”
One of the biggest misconceptions about Rangers, they say, is that they are an internal affairs division to investigate law enforcement officers.
“We actually are here to assist law enforcement. About 90 percent of the cases sitting on my desk, and the cases we handle, are assisting other agencies in their investigations,” Bess said.
“But we are not in the business of interjecting ourselves into local departments’ investigations,” Clendennen added.
Their role is often misunderstood by the public, they say.
“People think they can just call us up to report a crime. We take citizens’ complaints but advise them to start with the agency in their jurisdiction,” Bess said. “We will do our best and be objective. The one thing we never want to do is harm the public’s opinion of the Rangers, no matter what we do.”
Even when they are away from work, they know they have a reputation to maintain as one of the 162 Texas Rangers representing the state.
“There just aren’t a lot of us across the state. We are just another police officer. The only thing that is different for us is that we are part of a family that has been around for almost 200 years. Our history is the oldest police agency in the world,” Bess said.
“Once you are a Ranger, you are always a Ranger.”