Jurors in a far northeast Texas courtroom this week begin hearing about an infamous mass murder case that left investigators baffled for nearly a quarter-century and will test witnesses and lawyers trying to sort out fact from legend.
[Romeo] Pinkerton, with a long burglary history, faces a possible death sentence if convicted. His cousin and alleged partner, Darnell Hartsfield, 46, faces the same charges when he goes to trial likely next year.
The five victims were reported missing the night of Sept. 23, 1983, after assistant manager Mary Tyler’s daughter arrived to pick her up from work but found the KFC empty and in disarray. Investigators found blood on the floor and a cash register tape showing about $2,000 had been in the cash box.
Police officers dusted for fingerprints at the front door of the restaurant on Sept. 24, 1983.
The next morning, Tyler, 37, along with co-workers Opie Ann Hughes, 39; Joey Johnson and David Maxwell, both 20; and Monte Landers, 19, were discovered by an oilfield worker checking on a production site in nearby Rusk County. Investigators determined all had been shot in the head from behind.
Prosecutors allege Pinkerton and Hartsfield, both of Tyler, showed up about 10 p.m. to rob the place. A bloodstain on the box containing the cash tape, tested in 2001 using newly developed DNA technology, put Hartsfield at the scene.
Prison records show Hartsfield was arrested in Smith County for aggravated robbery three days after the KFC slayings. He was paroled in 1992, had the parole revoked, was released two years later.
Hartsfield had been in a Texas prison since 1995 on a 40-year sentence for delivery of a controlled substance and engaging in organized criminal activity. He told a grand jury in 2003 he wasn’t at the restaurant, but with the new DNA results, plus earlier witness accounts that put him there that night, prosecutors charged him with perjury. A jury convicted him and he was sentenced to life in prison because of his criminal record, which also includes aggravated robbery, engaging in organized crime, burglary and reckless endangerment.
Two weeks later, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott announced capital murder indictments against Hartsfield and Pinkerton, who also was linked to the scene by DNA. The convicted burglar, paroled at least five times over the years, was arrested in Tyler on a warrant for yet another parole violation.
Pinkerton first went to prison in 1981 for a Smith County burglary. He told investigators he was in prison at the time of the slayings, but records show he was paroled two days before the murders.
Osler [Mark Osler, a former federal prosecutor] said successful prosecutions of old civil rights cases recently tried in the Deep South can serve as a “good template” for the KFC case.
Osler said DNA would help prosecutors place Pinkerton at the KFC, although DeGuerin noted DNA wouldn’t necessarily pinpoint a time.
Key dates in KFC slayings case
Sept. 21, 1983: Convicted burglar Romeo Pinkerton of Tyler is paroled.
Sept. 23, 1983: Five people—four employees and one friend of a worker—are reported missing at 11:30 p.m. from the Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant in Kilgore. The restaurant was to have closed at 10 p.m. A Rusk County couple reports hearing gunshots about 11 p.m.
Sept. 24, 1983: An oilfield worker at 10:20 a.m. finds the bodies of the five missing people along an oil lease road near a well off Rusk County Road 231 just northwest of Henderson, about 15 miles south of Kilgore. All had been shot in the head.
Sept. 26, 1983: Pinkerton’s cousin, Darnell Hartsfield, commits burglary in Smith County, according to prison records.
Feb. 13, 1984: Hartsfield is sentenced to nine years for burglary and 25 years for robbery.
May 8, 1984: Pinkerton is sent to prison for 25 years for January 1984 Smith County burglary while on parole.
Jan. 27, 1988: Pinkerton paroled.
June 8, 1989: Pinkerton parole revoked for April 1988 burglary while on parole. He gets 50 years.
Aug. 11, 1995: Hartsfield taken to prison with 40-year sentence from Smith County for delivery of controlled substance and engaging in organized criminal activity.
Dec. 1, 1998: Pinkerton paroled.
December 2000: Rusk County Sheriff James Stroud hires a former FBI agent, George Kieny, to work on the KFC case. He finds evidence scattered at labs from Austin to Dallas.
Sept. 11, 2001: Kieny requests DNA test on blood-stained box that held cash register tape rolls at KFC restaurant. The splatter on the white box, about the size of a dress-shirt gift box, had never been tested. Hartsfield’s blood is identified.
Nov. 10, 2004: Hartsfield indicted on aggravated perjury charges for lying about whether he was in KFC restaurant the night of the abductions in 1983.
Dec. 8, 2004: Pinkerton paroled.
July 30, 2005: Pinkerton arrested in Tyler for burglary of school.
Oct. 26, 2005: Jury convicts Hartsfield of aggravated perjury; sentenced to life because of six earlier felony convictions.