Never See Them Againby M. William Phelps
One of our most engaging crime journalists. –Katherine Ramsland
In the summer of 2003, the Houston suburb of Clear Lake, Texas, was devastated when four young residents were viciously slain. The two female victims were just eighteen-years-old, popular and beloved--but when a killer came knocking, it turned out to be someone they knew all too well. . … See more details below
One of our most engaging crime journalists. –Katherine Ramsland
In the summer of 2003, the Houston suburb of Clear Lake, Texas, was devastated when four young residents were viciously slain. The two female victims were just eighteen-years-old, popular and beloved--but when a killer came knocking, it turned out to be someone they knew all too well. . ..Seventeen-year-old Christine Paolilla was an awkward outsider--until the girls befriended her. In this gripping true story, M. William Phelps delves into the heart of a baffling mystery to get to the truth of an act so brutal it could not be understood--until now.
"Phelps is the Harlan Coben of real-life thrillers." –Allison Brennan
"The best true-crime writer to come along in years." –Gregg Olsen
Praise for M. William Phelps
"Phelps ratchets up the dramatic tension." –Stephen Singular
"One of America's finest true-crime writers." –Vincent Bugliosi
"Phelps creates a vivid portrait." –Publishers Weekly
Includes 16 Pages Of Dramatic Photos
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NEVER SEE THEM AGAIN
By M. WILLIAM PHELPS
KENSINGTON BOOKSCopyright © 2012 M. William Phelps
All right reserved.
Chapter OneIt was just after six o'clock on the evening of July 18, 2003. For the past ninety minutes, eighteen-year-old Brittney Vikko (pseudonym) had been calling Tiffany Rowell, one of her BFFs since middle school. Something was wrong, Brittney felt. She kept dialing Tiffany's number, but there was no response.
Brittney had spoken to Tiffany's boyfriend of several years, Marcus Precella, earlier that day, after Marcus had answered Tiffany's cell phone.
"She's in the bathroom," Marcus said. It was close to three o'clock then.
"I'll call back," Brittney told him.
Thirty minutes later, Brittney started phoning her friend again.
But no one—not even Marcus—picked up.
"I was in the area, so I drove over to Tiffany's house," Brittney recalled later. Brittney's boyfriend, her nephew, and her boyfriend's cousin went with her.
Brittney drove. They stopped at a McDonald's after leaving an appointment Brittney had downtown at 4:10 P.M. A few minutes after six, Brittney pulled into Tiffany Rowell's driveway in the stylish suburban neighborhood of Millbridge Drive, Clear Lake City, Texas, and noticed immediately that Marcus's and Tiffany's vehicles were there. Tiffany's truck was parked in front of the house; its back wheel up on top of the curb. Marcus's car was positioned next to the garage.
Why aren't they answering their phones?
Brittney pulled in behind Marcus's car.
Odd, she thought, looking at both vehicles. They must be here....
Brittney got out and rang the doorbell.
She rang it again.
Not a peep from inside the house.
She knocked. Then she tried to look through a nearby window, cupping both hands over the sides of her eyes to block the light.
But again, no movement or sound from anyone inside.
Brittney kept banging, harder and louder, eventually forcing the unlocked door to creak open.
Brittney's boyfriend and the others watched from inside Brittney's vehicle as she slowly walked into the house.
Something seemed peculiar about the situation. It was eerily quiet inside the house. There was a steely, metallic smell in the air.
The door left unlocked and open? Both cars in the driveway and no one around? It was so unlike Tiffany.
Where was everyone?
Brittney walked through a short foyer before entering the sunken living room.
She took five steps. Then found herself standing and staring at a scene that, at first, didn't register.
As Brittney's boyfriend got out of her vehicle, he watched Brittney run like hell back out the same doorway she had just walked through.
Brittney Vikko was screaming, with a look of terror on her face.
"Call the cops!"
Out of breath, approaching her boyfriend, who was now looking toward the house, Brittney yelled again. "Call ... the ... cops!" She was hysterical.
Her boyfriend walked up to the doorway and approached the inside of the house.
Then he came barreling out of the same doorway, screaming.
Brittney was on the ground by then, crying, smashing her fists into the grass. Her boyfriend noticed a neighbor across the street talking on his cell phone. So he ran toward the guy, yelling, "Call the police! Call the police!"
The man dialed 911.
"There was blood everywhere," Brittney's boyfriend later said, describing what he had seen inside Tiffany Rowell's house.
Chapter TwoIt happens when life seems arrested by adolescence. Just out of high school, you're still running on a full tank of teen angst. To think about college seems, well, overwhelming—so far in the future. Your parents are getting on you. Adulthood is not something you want to think about. You want to go with the flow. Take the summer and, as they say, discern. Yet that's when a good dose of reality, in all of its matured ugliness, grabs hold and shakes the childhood right out of you.
When you're least expecting it.
Within the second largest city in the southern central portion of the United States, the atmosphere was volatile on July 18, 2003, those familiar three H's annoyingly present: hazy, hot, humid, a fourth counting the city of Houston, the largest in Texas, right there in the top five of the country. The dew point was a balmy seventy-five. "Oppressive," they call stickiness in those numbers, about as high as it can get without rain falling. In addition to the stuffy air, it was almost ninety degrees; the kind of day when a "severe storm," the kind those talking heads on the Weather Channel get excited about, can roll in at any time, darken the skies as if it were night, turn on the torrential downpours, kick up damaging winds, and drop hail the size of Ping-Pong balls.
Ah, yes, summertime in the Bay Area of Greater Houston. Sunny out one minute, and the next you're running for the nearest storm shelter.
As the skies decided what to do, yellow POLICE LINE DO NOT CROSS tape fenced off Tiffany Rowell's modest house from the road and the swelling crowd. Strands of the familiar crime-scene ribbon fluttered in mild gusts of wind, slapping and whipping, making the noise of a playing card flapping in a child's bicycle spokes. Lights of blue and red flashed against the sides of the Rowell house, pulsating a warning to the residents of this exclusive community just outside Houston, where, some say, "the city's wealthiest and best educated" live, that something horrific had happened inside this one-story contemporary. Brittney Vikko running out the door, screaming, and neighbors heading outdoors, just to have a look, added to the talk circulating the block: Word had spread that evil had reared its nasty face in this otherwise quiet residential neighborhood. Something so horrendous had taken place inside that house, no one, it seemed, could come to terms this early on with just how bad the scene truly was beyond the front door.
All the cops roaming around didn't help matters. The coroners' vans—emphasis on the plural—were parked along the street. The detectives huddled together, talking things over: pointing, measuring, comparing notes. Flash bulbs inside the house made lightning strikes in the setting sun and the otherwise cozy and comforting dusk light. Whatever was beyond that slightly ajar door into Tiffany Rowell's house was going to be big news in the coming hours and days. Anybody standing, staring, wandering about the scene, was well aware of this.
Ironically, Clear Lake City, Texas, "a pretty peaceful area," according to many residents, was used to the sort of high-profile crime, especially murder, the discovery inside the Rowell house was going to reveal. After all, who could forget about that homely-looking woman with those large-framed glasses, a dazed look of emptiness in her eyes, Andrea Yates? While her husband was at his NASA engineering job nearby one afternoon in June 2001, Andrea chased their five kids through the house and, one by one, held each underwater in the family's bathtub. Then she calmly called police and reported how she'd just killed them. And what about the infamous astronaut, Lisa Nowak, who would (in February 2007), while wearing an adult diaper, drive from Clear Lake City to Florida—some nine hundred miles—to confront her romantic rival at the airport, the tools of a sinister plot to do her opponent harm inside Nowak's vehicle. And lest we forget about the orthodontist's wife Clara Harris, a well- regarded dentist in her own right, who would run her cheating husband down with her Mercedes-Benz after catching him with his receptionist, with whom Harris had gotten into a hair-pulling catfight only moments before.
Those notorious crimes, on top of all the murder and rape and violence that doesn't make headlines and "breaking news" reports, happened here, within the city limits of this plush Houston suburb, just around the corner from this quiet neighborhood where all the attention was being thrust on this night. In fact, inside the Rowell house, some were already saying, was a tragedy of proportions dwarfing anything Nowak or Harris had done: if not for the severity and violence connected to the crime, then for the fact that among the four dead bodies cops were stepping over, taking photos of, studying closely, not one of the victims had reached the age of twenty-two—and sadly, three of them were teenagers.
NEIGHBORS, REPORTERS, AND bystanders gathered on the opposite side of the crime scene tape as cops did their best to hold back the crowd.
Some cried openly, their hands over their mouths.
Oh, my God ...
Others asked questions, shook their heads, wondered what in the world was going on. This was Brook Forest, for crying out loud: a "master-planned community." Panning 180 degrees, street level, you'd find well-groomed lawns (green as Play-Doh), edged sidewalks, expensive cars, boats on trailers propped up by cinder blocks waiting for the weekend, kids playing in the streets, dogs barking. Brook Forest certainly isn't the place where violence is a recurring theme. Not to mention, it was just after seven o'clock on a Friday evening, the scent of barbeque still wafting in the air, and the murders had occurred, by the best guesstimates available (Brittney Vikko's initial timeline, that is), somewhere between quarter past three and three-thirty in the afternoon.
The middle of the day.
People were saying, Wait a minute. A mass murder had occurred in this neighborhood, at a time of day when soap operas are on television, and no one had seen or heard anything?
It seemed unimaginable.
Investigators were talking to Brittney Vikko, getting her version. But she had walked in after the fact. As far as neighbors standing around could see, nobody had noticed anything outwardly suspicious in the neighborhood, or at the Rowell house all day long. The Rowell place was located on Millbridge Drive, a cul-de-sac in a cookie-cutter farm full of them, a neighborhood sandwiched between the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center and Ellington Air Force Base. Galveston Bay is a ten-minute drive east; Clear Lake is just to the south, ultimately spilling into the Gulf of Mexico. This is suburban bliss, likely created in an infrastructure lab somewhere, maybe by a former NASA engineer (the region is full of them), or by some city planner driven to construct middle-class perfection. Certainly, this was not a haven for a crime on the scale of what was being rumored: young kids murdered in the middle of the day, homeinvasion style, for no apparent reason.
"I walked inside and saw Tiffany and a guy on the couch," Brittney Vikko told police, "and another girl on the floor in front of the television. At first, I thought they had been partying too much—and then I saw all the blood on the floor."
With the sight of such carnage in front of her, Brittney Vikko bolted out the door and screamed for her boyfriend to call the police. Neighbors, cops, fire trucks, and emergency medical technicians (EMTs) arrived shortly thereafter.
Consoling the community best he could, Houston Police Department (HPD) Homicide Division officer Phil Yochum released a statement, hoping to calm things: "I think it happened very quickly," he said in the release, "but it was very, very violent. It looks like some type of confrontation happened at the front door, then moved into the living room."
There had been no sign of forced entry—that familiar set of words cops use when they don't have a damn clue as to what the hell happened. A news release gave the concerned and worried community a bit more detail, but was still evasive and vague, though not by design:
The bodies of four people were discovered ... two males, two females ... shot multiple times, and two of the victims had sustained blunt trauma to the head.
The last part was an understatement. Two of the victims had been beaten badly. And the blood. My goodness. From one end of the living room to the other: the carpet, the walls, the couch, even the fireplace. Two of the victims were found sitting on the couch, facing the television, as though sleeping. Looked like neither had moved in reaction to what had happened. One of them had a bullet hole—execution style—through the center of his forehead. There looked to be powder burns on the side of his head, ringed around another hole, which meant someone had carefully and deliberately placed the barrel of a hand-held weapon up to his skin and pulled the trigger. Police call it "tattooing," an imprint of the weapon on the skin.
As patrol officers did their best to hold back the swelling mob outside, a woman pulled up, parked sharply with a shriek of rubber, jumped out, and limboed underneath the crime scene tape.
Police stopped her before she could get close to the front door.
"Tell me that it's not the Rowell house," she said. "Tell me ... please tell me it's not the Rowell house. Please!" The anguish in her voice was undeniable.
Police officers looked at each other.
The woman doubled over and fell to the ground; then sobbed in loud bursts of guttural pain. An officer went over and helped her up, eventually walking her off toward a private area of the yard, out of eyesight and earshot of the crowd.
Maybe within all that grief and pain was some important information.
EARLIER THAT DAY George Koloroutis had taken off on his Harley from his home in Clear Lake City, the Pine Brook section, just a few miles away from Brook Forest. Although his alibi would soon be checked by police, George said he was in a meeting at work at the time of the murders. It was around 3:30 P.M. when George said he got this "sinking feeling" that ... something's wrong.
George wasn't a believer in Karma, ESP, or any of that see-into-the-future nonsense. But this sudden heavy feeling pulled at him.
"Something was out of order," George recalled. "My perfect little family unit was in a funky state. My girl is somewhere where I don't want her to be." He was talking about Rachael Koloroutis; she had been staying at the Rowell house with her best friend, Tiffany. George wanted Rachael back home with his wife and Rachael's sisters. But what could he do: Rachael had her own life, she was old enough now to make her own choices, whether Dad and Mom agreed.
With George's oldest daughter, Rachael's sister, off at college (but home for the summer on this July 18, 2003, evening), the disunity in the Koloroutis family unit got to George and he scooted out of work early, around four-thirty. When he walked in the door at home, George asked his oldest daughter, Lelah (pseudonym), if she wanted to head out for a ride with him on his bike and grab a bite to eat. George wanted to talk to Lelah about Rachael, who had been out of the house for a little over a month, ever since graduating high school. George thought Lelah could offer some insight. He didn't like the path Rachael was heading down; it felt thorny and already beaten down by others who had ended up lost. He figured talking to Lelah, whom Rachael looked up to, and with whom she had been as close as sisters could be for most of their lives, would help.
The ride, the food, and the conversation turned out to be overly emotional for George. He dropped Lelah back at home and took off alone on his Harley—"I was not feeling good ... this whole Rachael thing"—and decided to go out and find Rachael and talk to her. He ended up not being able to locate Tiffany Rowell's house (he'd been there only a few times, and the neighborhood, if you don't know it, is akin to a labyrinth), but instead found a neighborhood bar, where he ordered a few beers, sat and listened to a band play loud music in front of him.
Consequently George couldn't hear his cell phone going off as details of what had happened at Tiffany Rowell's house hit the airwaves and people started calling.
"I'm glad I didn't hear it," George later said, looking back, "because the messages on my cell phone were horrifying."
George finished his little cooling-off period at the bar and headed home. As he pulled into his driveway, he noticed that his wife's car was gone.
Excerpted from NEVER SEE THEM AGAIN by M. WILLIAM PHELPS Copyright © 2012 by M. William Phelps. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON BOOKS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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