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A True Story of Marriage, Betrayal, and Murder
By Diane Fanning
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2006 Diane Fanning
All rights reserved.
Texas Ranger Shawn Palmer and Terrell Hills Police Department Investigator Boyd Wedding drove into the hardscrabble countryside of southeast Bexar County to follow up a lead on the afternoon of January 14, 2003. Only miles from the thriving downtown of San Antonio, the eighth largest city in the United States, this rural area looked worlds away from the glitter of the Majestic Theatre and the majesty of the Cadena-Reeves Justice Center.
Palmer and Wedding traveled past well-maintained ranch homes, old farmhouses with peeling paint, seedy trailers with broken windows, overgrown fields and occasional piles of illegally dumped mattresses, broken appliances and other no longer desirable accoutrements of civilization. The investigators' destination was an abandoned farm owned by Clark Barkmeyer at 9394 South W.W. White Road. Although, as always, the two men hoped this lead would be productive, they knew they followed many to nowhere — they knew the many miles they walked to find nothing at all. They squashed their optimism under the weight of the hard lessons they had learned.
They pulled into the dusty side street. A mound of dirt blocked the end of the drive leading into the property. The owner created that barrier a short time ago to discourage trespassers. The tall dried weeds and weary buildings on the unkempt property spoke of dying dreams and shattered hope. There was no warmth and no welcome here.
Both officers headed straight for the empty house. Inside, it looked as if the last occupant woke up one morning and walked away. Clothing, small personal items and an occasional weary piece of furniture filled each room. Dust covered every surface and sparkled in the sunlight trickling through the windows. The refrigerator was well stocked, but, without electricity, its contents were rotten and rancid.
They moved trash aside searching for any place a body could be concealed. They peered into corners looking for any signs of an altercation that could point to a crime occurring inside this dwelling. Nothing raised the slightest suspicion.
Outside of the house, the two men split up down an invisible line that ran the length of the property from the road. Wedding took the right half, Palmer the left. In addition to looking for a body, they were looking for any signs of a fire — witnesses reported something burning on this land.
Flattened brown grass crunched under Palmer's feet as he walked the short distance to the detached garage just north of the residence. The double doors hung open. From the disrupted dirt scraped and mounded around the doorway, it looked as if someone had opened the door wider a short time ago.
Next, Palmer moved to the small outbuilding, thirty-six steps from the garage. It was a strange structure, slapped together with big sheets of Styrofoam insulation.
Palmer stood still and listened to the whispered sounds of movement inside. He exercised caution as he eased open the door. He was greeted by a litter of nine- to ten-week-old black puppies with white chests and tan feet squirming out of their makeshift bed to beg for attention. Scattered through this building were more signs of an impulsive departure in the past — articles of clothing, household items and other detritus of daily life.
Near this building a Datsun pickup truck bed converted into a pull-along trailer caught Palmer's eye. As he neared it, a foul odor blending the corruption of decomposition and the nauseous stench of burnt flesh drew his attention as it offended his senses. He yelled for his partner.
Wedding, meanwhile, walked a zig-zag path through the field. He found a 1988 Chevrolet Camaro stolen two days before Christmas — not in any way connected to the case they were investigating.
Then, he turned his attention to the barn. It was a derelict wooden building, appearing as if it would collapse to the ground in a light gust of wind. Hanging from the huge rafters were scythes, rakes and other farming implements ready to fall on an unsuspecting head and harvest a life.
Wedding was so focused on the barn and its contents, he did not hear the repeated calls from Palmer. He contemplated the risk of going inside. Just before he stepped across the threshold, he turned his head in his partner's direction. Palmer saw the movement and windmilled his arms in the air.
As Wedding headed toward him, Palmer took a closer look at the trailer. On the surface of the rubble in the bed were wires and the metal skeletons of electronic devices marred by flames and rust — perhaps the television and VCR reportedly gone from the missing woman's Explorer.
Beneath that debris, Palmer spotted what he both hoped and dreaded he would find — the curve of human rib bones, an upper arm bone and the roundness of a shoulder. The surfaces were crusty, cracked and browned, but still the bones screamed out their humanity. He confirmed this deduction when his eyes found the unmistakable shape of a human skull.
He looked closer at the pyre and saw metal springs. Then his eye caught an interesting piece of litter tucked in the corner. It was plastic packaging, curled and puckered from the heat — a strip of wrappers that once held Wyler's Authentic Italian Ices. Palmer knew their suspect, Richard McFarland, was obsessed with this snack. And he knew he found the missing woman.
He walked toward the approaching Wedding. "I found her," he said.
"Where's she at?" Wedding asked.
Pointing, Palmer answered, "Over there in the trailer."
Wedding approached, taking great care not to touch or disturb any possible evidence. He looked hard at the contents, but could not identify anything that looked human. Palmer pointed out the curves of the charred bones and then Wedding, too, knew the fate of Sue McFarland. The hunt was over.CHAPTER 2
Former judge and Bexar County District Attorney Susan D. Reed sat in a burgundy leather executive's chair embossed with the seal of Texas in her office on the fifth floor of the Cadena-Reeves Justice Center in downtown San Antonio. Perched above the city streets, through the windows to her left, she was at steeple level with the historic San Fernando Cathedral. The cornerstone for this city landmark was laid in 1738. Construction was completed in 1755, making it the first parish church in Texas. Those original walls still stood and formed the sanctuary of the current edifice.
Across the street from the Cathedral, a swatch of green and a shooting fountain broke the concrete monotony of the city streets. Tall brick and sandstone buildings created a red backdrop on the skyline.
From the window behind her, she looked across the street at the massive Romanesque Revival architecture of native Texas granite and red sandstone — the old Bexar County Courthouse, built in the 1890s. The new justice center that housed her office was connected to the older building by a tunnel that ran under Main Street.
Inside, a wooden desk with a light layer of clutter sat in front of Reed. The wall she faced was covered with photographs taken of her with other important Texas personalities like both Presidents Bush and Barbara Bush, Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison and Governor Rick Perry. Scattered throughout the display of photos were framed magazine covers featuring the district attorney's determined face.
To her left, a bookcase stretched along the wall. As expected, its shelves held a complete set of Vernon's Annotated Texas Codes as well as other legal guides. The personal side of the D.A. lightened the weight of the serious tomes — photographs of her son from babyhood to adulthood; CDs by Norah Jones, Carly Simon and Lou Rawls; a few eclectic books like Capone by John Kobler, Grudge Match by San Antonio author Jay Brandon and Frommer's Born to Shop Paris.
A herd of elephants trumpeting her political allegiance stampeded through her office in every size, shape and design imaginable, including a colorful Oaxacan wood carving from Mexico. The whimsical touches continued with items like a Texas Prison Rodeo cap, a bottle of Victory over Evil oil and a basketful of cascarones, the colorful confettifilled eggs that were ever-present during the Fiesta celebration in April each year.
Reed's cell phone, as usual, was tucked down in her purse. Most days, though, she had it set to vibrate and never noticed when someone called. Not today.
When the phone rang just after 2 P.M., she fumbled in her handbag until her fingers locked around the keypad. She extracted it from a bundle of miscellany and pressed the TALK button.
"I'm out here in a field and I think I've found her," Texas Ranger Shawn Palmer said.
He didn't need to say more. Reed knew who he meant. It was mid-January and everyone had been looking for Susan McFarland since Thanksgiving. Everyone except Richard McFarland.
Reed wanted to rush to the scene to see it all first-hand, but she had her job to do. First, the three young sons of Susan McFarland needed to be spirited away from the family nome to a secure location. Next, Richard McFarland needed to be cuffed, arrested and questioned once again. She had no doubt about his guilt. Now, she just needed to prove it.CHAPTER 3
Steven Hanson, the chief medical investigator for the Bexar County Medical Examiner's Office, arrived at the scene at 3:05 P.M. He observed the contents of the trailer. He agreed with investigators that the Texas Department of Public Safety's Crime Laboratory Service personnel should process the scene before the damaged body was transported in for an autopsy. He left two body bags and two clean white sheets and instructed officers on the proper procedure for collecting the remains and the surrounding debris.
While the Texas Department of Protective and Regulatory Services was ensuring the safety of the three McFarland boys, Sergeant Palmer was drawing up paperwork. He would not serve any warrant until he knew the boys were removed, to prevent them from becoming possible hostages if McFarland decided to flee. He prepared the three affidavits he hoped would result in arrest warrants for Richard McFarland. He presented his case to Judge Sid Harle of the 226th District Court. The judge issued three warrants on charges of unauthorized use of a vehicle, tampering with a witness and tampering with or fabricating physical evidence. Murder charges could not be filed until the medical examiner confirmed the identity of the charred body and made a ruling on the cause and manner of death.
While waiting for word on the safety of the children, Sergeant Palmer and Investigator Wedding kept McFarland under surveillance. They were parked in a lot at Interstate 35 and Dolorosa Street when they received information that McFarland was heading out to pick up his oldest son and go to his lawyer's office.
In the heavy downtown traffic congestion, the two officers wound up a block ahead of their quarry by the time they got the go-ahead for the arrest. They slowed down and allowed McFarland to move ahead of them on St. Mary's Street near Commerce Street. Palmer pulled up beside McFarland's white Windstar van. Then he whipped his vehicle in front of McFarland and slammed on his brakes. The suspect honked his horn in annoyance.
Palmer and Wedding approached opposite sides of the van with guns drawn. Since they were not wearing uniforms, the two armed men looked more like carjackers than law enforcement to many of the drivers and pedestrians on the scene.
In locked elbow stance, they ordered McFarland to get out of the van. McFarland unlocked the driver's-side door, but did not move. Palmer opened the door and repeated his request. Still, McFarland did not move. Palmer eased him out of the car, cuffed his hands behind him and put him in the back seat of his official vehicle. Palmer drove McFarland over to the Justice Center, and Wedding followed behind the wheel of McFarland's van. McFarland appeared apathetic and disinterested. He asked no questions. He offered no answers. Inside the Windstar, Wedding was jubilant.
In the courtroom, Judge Harle set bond at $150,000 for each charge — a total of $450,000. Before the bench, McFarland mumbled about an attorney — speaking out when he should have been silent and remaining mute when it was appropriate to speak. Palmer delivered McFarland to the nearby Bexar County correction center, where sheriff's department personnel confirmed the warrants. Then they booked and processed their prisoner and escorted McFarland to his cell.
Living in a home with three young boys was a noisy proposition that prepared McFarland for almost any decibel level of sound — but it did not prepare him for the constant din of jail. Behind bars, the voices never stopped shouting in his ears. The thumps and bangs of masses of men crowded into confined spaces beat like a drum in his head. The slamming of metal doors reverberated in his ears long after the entry was shut.CHAPTER 4
Oxford, Mississippi, was home base for Mary Elizabeth Mitchell's family. In fact, her great-grandfather, T. D. Isom, founded the town and was a leader in the establishment of the University of Mississippi — "Ole Miss" — there. Mary Elizabeth's parents moved to St. Louis for a while, where she was born. Then they moved back to their home state.
Mary Elizabeth was not a typical young woman of the 1930s. After high school, she continued her education at Belhaven College in Jackson, Mississippi, and went on to earn a bachelor's degree from the University of Mississippi in Oxford in 1940. From there, she pursued a master's degree in social work from Tulane University in New Orleans.
Huck Smith's family hailed from Indianola, Mississippi, southwest of Oxford. His dad was 68 years old when Huck was born. He was just 8 years old when his father died and his mother moved the family back to her hometown of New Orleans.
After getting his undergraduate degree in accounting from Loyola, Huck went to law school at Tulane during the day. By night, he worked as a transcriber for the FBI. It was here in the Big Easy that Miss Minnie — Huck's cousin and Mary Elizabeth's friend — introduced the couple. They were married in June of 1942.
Huck left law school to work full-time for the FBI and Mary Elizabeth never got around to writing her dissertation. Huck's job transfers moved them to Seattle, Los Angeles and finally, St. Louis. The couple endeared themselves to family and friends. Huck loved to entertain others with his jokes and storytelling. Mary Elizabeth, with her natural proclivity for organization, shared her skills and tips with anyone who was interested. Visitors to their home always felt welcome. Huck and Mary Elizabeth dropped everything to make sure their guests had a good time.
By the time they moved to the St. Louis area in 1956, they had three children: Harley, Ann and Pete. Their fourth and final child was born on New Year's Eve in 1958 when Mary Elizabeth was 40, Huck 48 and the other three children were 15, 13 and 11.
Mary Elizabeth loved the name Susan, so the first name of the new baby girl was not up for debate. The siblings lobbied for a middle name that started with an "O." They wanted their little sister's initials to spell out "S.O.S." In the end, they lost that battle — the new addition to the family was Susan Burris Smith.
As she grew up, her brothers and sister would often tease her that she was an accident. She always quipped back, "No, I'm a bonus!" Huck, an FBI agent, received a letter of congratulations from FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover upon the birth of his daughter. That letter would later be framed along with a picture of Huck and hung with pride in Susan's own home.
Sue grew up on Newport Avenue in Webster Groves, Missouri. Older sister Ann got saddled with all the baby-sitting duty for her kid sister. In that era, watching over little ones was girls' work and not something a red-blooded, all-American boy would even be asked to do. At times, Ann resented that her brothers did not have to share in the responsibility.
By the time Sue was three, Ann discovered that it was fun to spend time with her little sister. She was cute, easy-tempered and affectionate. Ann even took her along on dates on occasion. One time, Ann and a date had Sue along with them at Blackburn Park. Sue got a little bit annoying. Ann's date picked her up, swung her around and dumped her in a trash can. Sue giggled with delight and the two teenagers laughed along with her.
Excerpted from Gone Forever by Diane Fanning. Copyright © 2006 Diane Fanning. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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