In May 2003, an Arizona man who'd bought dozens of sealed boxes at a self-storage facility's auction of unclaimed property made a horrifying discovery: the bodies of three plastic-wrapped infants, one of which had become mummified over the years. Police traced them to Dianne Odell, 50, a mother of eight children, who admitted the babies were hers but claimed that they'd died of natural causes. She'd kept the bodies for over twenty years before abandoning them.
In 1989, police had found the remains of a long-dead infant in a suitcase in the trunk of a car Odell had abandoned. The statute of limitations on manslaughter had saved her then from prosecution. She maintained that the fetus was the product of a rape by her father and, after he beat her, was stillborn.
Odell said her own domineering mother had forced her into teen prostitution and murdered what she viewed as "bastard children." Both parents were dead and unable to contradict her. Would Odell's stories sway the jury and buy her the mercy her babies were never granted? Or would she be forced to face the consequences of bringing innocent lives into the world--only to end them in cold blood. . .
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IN THE EARLY 1960s, the Molina family lived in a three-story house on Ninety-fifth Avenue in Jamaica, Queens, New York, near Brooklyn, Coney Island, and JFK Airport. Bright lights, big city. Neighborhoods made up of what seemed like a thousand and one different cultures. It was a time in New York when a ride on a graffiti-free subway cost twenty cents and racial riots were part of the fabric of everyday life. Shea Stadium, an iconic structure by its own merit and home to Major League Baseball's New York Mets, was built back then. In 1964, some 51 million people flocked to Flushing Meadows Park to visit the World's Fair, where today the only hint of a fair is the massive steel globe sitting at the base of a wide open green blemished with homeless, drug dealers, crackheads, trash, and abandoned vehicles.
The '60s were a time of great social change in America. Martin Luther King gave his famous "I have a dream" speech in Washington, DC, and was fighting furiously to get blacks registered to vote. Around the same time, well- known Black Muslim leader Malcolm X was assassinated. America, one could say, was at a turning point: two worlds colliding, people fighting for an identity.
None of what was going on in the world mattered much to little eleven- year-old Dianne Molina while living on Ninety-fifth Avenue, however — a house, incidentally, Dianne would later refer to as a "prison." What Dianne focused on, even then, she said later, was survival.
It was near Easter, Dianne remembered. A time of year when it was "still cold enough to wear a jacket." Her father had come home from work drunk. He had been celebrating, she claimed, yet rarely needed a reason to drink.
"I don't ever remember a happy holiday. He always came in drunk and ruined it."
One night, while sitting at the table and eating, Dianne's father, John Molina, a mechanic by trade, said, "If anyone rings the doorbell, you be sure, Dianne, to answer it." He obviously didn't want to be bothered while he was eating. John would laugh, Dianne recalled, a certain grunt whenever he gave her an order. She had learned to fear that laugh and everything else about him. John was born in Santiago, Chile, in 1900. "His eyes were green to silver." He had a temper. According to John, or at least the story Dianne Molina said he would tell the kids, he was "sold into slavery at the age of nine." From there, things just got worse until he moved to America.
There were bedrooms on the first, second, and third floor of the Molina home. Dianne was the youngest. Two of her brothers lived in the home with their wives: one on the second story, the other in the attic. There were problems between Dianne's brothers and father, she said, but she didn't know exactly what had caused such acrimony.
The front door was at the end of a long and narrow corridor downstairs. At night, her father kept most of the lights turned off in the house. Perhaps there was a flickering television coming out of the living room and lighting up the other rooms, like a strobe light, but other than that the house was always theater dark. Much in line, Dianne insisted, with the secrets it held.
She sat that night, waiting, anticipating. He wouldn't tell me something unless there was a reason behind it, she thought. "If anyone rings the doorbell, you be sure, Dianne, to answer it." That's what John Molina had told his daughter. And that's what John expected her to do.
Dianne would later hear that sentence over and over again. She had to remember — because disobeying her dad wasn't an option. Yet, what ended up being behind the door that night was a horror, Dianne remembered, she could never have imagined.
Fifty-eight-year-old Thomas Bright was born and raised in Safford, Arizona. When he reached the eleventh grade in the early '60s, Bright decided he wanted to serve his country. So he enlisted in the army and became one of Uncle Sam's coveted paratroopers.
"I made thirty-eight jumps," Bright recalled humbly. "I was stationed in Panama."
When he got out of the army, Bright moved to Illinois, where his half brother lived, and found a job in manufacturing.
After bouncing around the country, getting married and divorced, Bright finally settled down where his roots were, in Safford, with his second wife, Molly. To Bright, like a lot of people in Safford, getting up every morning in such a beautiful part of the country was like staring into God's eyes. The mountains. Trees. The land. Pure bliss.
Located in Graham County, which also includes the towns of Thatcher and Pima, a visitor's guide to the region boasts of its "green valleys and open spaces." Indeed, much of the county is made up of desert land, mountains, and talcum-dry terrain. On average, the high temperature is 80.9 degrees, while the low comes in at around forty-seven. Based on a thirty-year average, as little as 1.3 inches of snow, hail, and sleet fall annually.
Not a bad place to live.
For Thomas Bright, living in Safford had always been a solemn, simple way of life: hot weather, long, straight roadways, maybe a stop at a friend's house once in a while to chat it up. Getting on in years, Bright never saw himself at the center of one of the biggest stories ever to encroach upon Safford — a story so bizarre, mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, PTA members and churchgoers alike, would be talking about it for years to come.
Little Dianne Molina's father told her to answer the door if the bell rang. He was eating (and drinking) and didn't want to be disturbed.
When the doorbell finally rang some time later on that night, Dianne jumped up off the couch and began walking toward the corridor. It was dark going down that hallway, she remembered years later. But she knew there was a light switch at the end. All she had to do was make it there and the darkness would disappear with the flick of a switch.
Her father was still sitting at the dining-room table, one room away, eating and drinking, watching her out of the corner of his eye.
At the end of the hallway now, with her left hand on the doorknob, Dianne reached with her free hand and turned on the light.
No sooner had the hallway lit up when Dianne saw a man waiting on the doorstep. He was tall. Heavyset. An adult for sure. She couldn't tell who he was because he had a black stocking over his head covering his face.
Looking at him, Dianne screamed ... then she ran.
"He chased me down the hall," she recalled, "and I turned a corner to hide and he followed me. Then he backed me into a corner of the room."
Like a boxer caught between the ropes, she had nowhere to go.
"Do you want to live, little girl?" she claimed the man said, staring at her through the mesh of the black stocking covering his face.
Then he took a switchblade knife out of his pocket and snapped it open. As soon as she saw the stainless steel of the blade glaring in the light, Dianne held her hands over her face and once again started to scream as loud as she could.
As he twisted the blade in front of her face ... "Daddy?"
As far as she could tell, John was still sitting at the dining-room table.
She was sure he could hear her.
One of Thomas Bright's favorite after-work and weekend activities was sitting on his front porch, or walking the lot near the Thunderbird Mobile Home Park, where he lived, watching the birds. It was meditative for Bright to sit and gawk at what amounted to over three hundred species of birds inhabiting Graham County and much of Arizona. With the Mexican border one hundred miles south, "many migratory birds from Central and South America," the Graham County Chamber of Commerce says, swoop into the region and offer residents like Bright a wide spectrum of species to observe.
With his binoculars, Bright would sit for hours waiting, watching.
A cement- and dump-truck-driver, Bright was living happily during May 2003 at the Thunderbird Mobile Home Park, going to work every day and returning home to spend time with his wife and watch the birds — this calming ebb and flow of life seemed to fit Bright well at this stage in his life. He had quit drinking alcohol some time ago because, he said, "it's done taught me a lesson after I got busted a second time." He added, "Safford itself is made up of about [thirty-five thousand] people. Compared to towns back east, it's not very big."
Bright speaks with a patent Western drawl. His voice is low-pitched, relaxed, composed. He wears a tightly cropped beard, neatly trimmed. The directness he exudes is admirable. Thomas Bright doesn't mince words. He tells it like it is and, for the most part, speaks confidently.
Molly, Bright's wife, had suggested he go to an auction that a local self-storage facility was having.
"Molly's boy got in trouble ... and he lived in the same trailer park we are," Bright recalled. "We helped him get a trailer and he was livin' down on a lot in the same park."
That trailer, Bright said, needed to be furnished. Around the same time, Smith Storage, a self-storage facility near the center of town, had announced it was going to auction off the contents of about fifty units whose renters had been delinquent on payments. Some people had rented units, stocked them with personal items, but for whatever reason failed to keep current on payments. Part of the contract renters signed read that should the bill not be paid, the contents would become the storage-facility owner's property. Auctions were held at various times to make restitution for delinquent payments. Collectors, mostly, flocked to the auctions with the hope of buying relics and antiques people had forgotten about.
One man's junk is another man's ...
Bright had never been to an auction. It just wasn't something he had ever put any thought into, he said, and didn't much interest him.
Early Saturday morning, May 10, 2003, Bright got into his truck and drove to his good friend Tom Summers' house. When he got there, he asked Tom if he was interested in going to Smith Storage to attend the auction with him. It would be fun, Bright said. Two friends hanging around on a beautiful spring Saturday morning.
"Sure," Tom Summers said, "but I don't have any money."
The bidding was supposed to start somewhere around 9:00 A.M. It was pushing 8:45 now.
"Let's get it goin,' then," Bright said. "We runnin' late."
Bright and Summers arrived shortly after nine o'clock, but got lucky; the bidding hadn't started. There were about one hundred people anxiously waiting, scurrying around the site, Bright remembered. There were about one hundred units, many of which were small, five feet by eight feet. Bright was hoping to purchase some items for his stepson's trailer and maybe — just maybe — hit a cache of collectibles or antiques for himself.
The first thing Bright had to do was find the auctioneer's table and register. By that time, the auctioneer was in the middle of explaining how the bidding was going to work.
As potential bidders walked in front of each unit, sizing up the contents, Bright and Summers speculated about what Bright might end up with at the end of the day. Laughing, Bright said, "Maybe we'll hit a treasure, Tom ... somethin' somebody dun forgotten about."
Tom Summers shrugged his shoulders and laughed. "Yeah, sure!" he said in jest.
As the bidding go under way, Bright was outbid on a unit he'd decided earlier might be worth his money. He had noticed a bed, refrigerator, and some other items that could potentially help out his stepson. With Bright, most of what he did in life centered on other people. Sure, he might end up with an old lamp or box of baseball cards worth a few bucks, but his main objective was to help out his stepson.
Being outbid wasn't the end of the world. There were plenty of units available. When the auctioneer got to unit number six, Bright recalled, "That unit looked like there had been parts of a bed in it."
An old friend of Bright's, who also happened to be at the auction, apparently had the same idea, because he started bidding against Bright as soon as the unit went up for sale. For a while, the bidding went back and forth. When it got to $75, however, Bright won.
"And there I was," he recalled, a chuckle in his voice, "with a seventy- five-dollar bid. And I really didn't think I wanted it."
Regardless of Bright's ambivalence, it was a purchase, he was about to learn, he would never forget — and a purchase that would have nearly every news organization in Arizona looking to talk to him about.
When her father didn't rush into the room to save her from the man with the stocking over his face, holding a switchblade knife in front of her, little Dianne screamed again.
The man was waving the switchblade back and forth, Dianne recalled, like he was going to do something with it. She was terrified.
"I had been raped by my half brother," Dianne claimed later, "when I was six." It was a safe bet the thought of the man in the black stocking violating her had crossed Dianne's mind as she sat crouched into the corner of her living room in a fetal position wondering where the hell her father was.
After Dianne screamed again, the man, who was holding her down now, said, "Looks like you're on your own, little girl."
Dianne started struggling to break free. But she couldn't move; he had placed his hand around her throat. He was laughing.
She recognized that laugh: the voice, its affect and inflections.
She begged, "Don't, please, don't ..."
He let go. Backed away. Stood up. Then took off the stocking and started laughing louder as Dianne sat trying to figure out what was going on.
As the man walked away, Dianne could see her father, who had poked his head around the corner of the opposite room. He had stood there and watched it all. Her father and the man, Dianne said, were now both laughing at her.
When the man turned to show his face, Dianne couldn't believe it was her older half brother. He had since walked over to their father, who then patted his son on the back as if he had just hit a home run.
"Good job, son!"
Years later, after telling the story, Dianne said, "I realized that day I had always been invisible, but after that I would always have to be invisible ... or I'd be dead."
She cried herself to sleep that night, and every night she had to spend in the Molina house afterward. Maybe tomorrow will be better, she'd tell herself under covers, as if it were some sort of prayer.
"Little did I know that tomorrow and all the tomorrows after that would never be all right."
Indeed, in the coming weeks, months, and years, Dianne's life at home, according to her, would become a litany of incredible, almost unbelievable episodes of abuse and emotional torture.
After the bidding concluded, those who had purchased units at the Smith Storage auction had to pay off their debts and, with locks, secure the units they had purchased. Bright had purchased another unit to go along with number six, but he didn't have any locks. So he ended up driving to his brother's house in town, picking him up, and then heading home to get a few locks.
Within a few hours, Bright was back at home with the contents of the two units he had purchased, scurrying through the boxes to see what he had. Yet, inside the next forty-eight hours, Thomas Bright's simple life of driving a cement truck and bird-watching would take an inconceivable, horrific turn.CHAPTER 2
THOMAS BRIGHT LET the boxes he had purchased at auction sit in his stepson's trailer at Thunderbird Mobile Home Park in Safford for a few days while he decided what to do with everything. There were dozens of boxes. Upon a quick look, Bright didn't see a treasure trove, or cache of antiques, as he might have hoped. What much of it amounted to was nothing but papers and film and old pairs of panties and letters: some unknown person's life packed away in boxes and sold to the highest bidder.
"The unit I took the boxes from," Bright recalled, "was pretty dusty. It turned out, I thought, ain't nobody had been in it for years."
Bright's stepson's trailer had a rather large carport protruding over a good portion of the front of the trailer. Bright figured it was as good a place as any to store half the boxes, while "a dozen or so," he added, "we put in the livin' room" inside the trailer.
On Sunday evening, May 11, Bright returned to the trailer to begin digging through the boxes. Immediately he uncovered a keyboard for what appeared to be an old computer, and hoped to find the hard drive and perhaps even a printer. It wasn't a bag of gold coins, but better than nothing.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Sleep In Heavenly Peace"
Copyright © 2006 M. William Phelps.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I thought this book jump around from person to person. I got the personal history of every person involved in this book. Where they grew up, where they went to college, how many kids they had. It was really hard to follow. I skipped through a lot of pages. I would have liked to see more personal storyies about the living children she had and what kind of mother she was to them.
It takes a bit of time to get used to the author's decision to split the chapaters up between past and present; between backstory and current investigation. If you can withstand that you will find what makes for interesting True Crime. A criminal, a consumate liar, a rationalist, a selfish egotist, and much more. Included in this story is a unique portrayal of someone who almost got a way with it - if not for herself. The greatest tension from the story comes from the investigators recognizing how important the prime suspect is to understanding just what happened in a case that is trully unique.
I agree with the others about jumping back and forth. Its hard to read but if you can read it its a great book.
What a great read. Was fascinating how law enforcement in many different capacities, across many state lines worked together to bring Odell to trial. For the reviewer who skipped pages they didn't get what the whole book was about. Odell was not just a murderer but an evil, wicked person.
Amazing story. I can't believe someone could do this so many times!
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Good read; sad story
Was a good read although wasnt my favorite..well researched book..Bn
This was a very good book and even though it is non-fiction, I had a hard time believing that the justice system couldn't sort out the truth based on the way this woman lived, her past experiences, her fears and phoebias if truely examined by a pschiatrist. Someone who had gone thorough as much as she had, certainly will not have a had clear head in respect to past details, timeframes, and even people when being interrogated. I went through some terrible traumas in my life (nothing even close to hers) and know that the mind selectively forgets items from the past as a means of protection. I have completely forgottten some of the horrible things done to me and events around that time frame as a manner in which to cope with society. I personally don't think she was guilty and was sent to jail after living the equivalent of hell on the outside with her "family" doing the most harm to her. What a sad story.
Sad. Much detail, you can tell there's been lots of research, and yes it did jump around some, but lots of books do. Still a very good story about the deaths of the babies, and the attemps to find out the means/cause. Makes you wonder if she wanted to get caught really, by letting the rent go unpaid. on the storage.
Read the free sample and now need to buy the book. How this woman got away it for so long is beyond me. Poor babies and her stories of how they died is crazy.
While I am a fan of the other books I have read by this author, I was sadly disappointed in the way this one is written. The subject matter is fascinating, but the way the book is written is confusing and contradictory--even with an explanation at the beginning of what Phelps is trying to achieve by telling the story more or less in Dianne Odell's own words. Odell herself constantly changes her story, which alone makes it difficult to follow what happened, but the way that Phelps jumps around from past to present and back makes it nearly impossible for the reader to discern what is going on at any given time. Don't get me wrong, all-in-all I think he is a very talented writer, but I would not recommend this book, sorry.
Good read! Kept my interest. I was surprised to find out the mother lived for a period of time in Montrose, PA where we go to the mountains.