"Evil people always support each other; that is their chief strength."
It was the 28th of November 2014. A Friday. The day after Thanksgiving Day. A 911 call was made by a resident at an apartment complex in Fort Worth, Texas, United States to ask for help. Another apartment in the complex was on fire.
Police discovered that thirty one year old Ashlea Ann Harris lived in the apartment that was on fire. Nobody knew for certain whether Ashlea was inside or not. Firefighters managed to control the fire and it was only then they discovered that Ashlea was inside.
The inside of the apartment and Ashlea's body led police to believe that the fire was not an accidental fire. Ashlea was found lying face down on the floor of her bedroom. There was a significant amount of blood around her body which indicated she had been beaten and her hands were bound with duct tape behind her back. Ashlea's ankles were also bound with duct tape. Police found burn marks on her body and she had been strangled and her throat was slit.
The investigation revealed that the fire was not accidental and that rubbing alcohol had been poured in different areas throughout the apartment including on Ashlea's bed. Ashlea had been murdered and her body and apartment had been set on fire.
The only thing missing from Ashlea's apartment were her keys. So what was the motive for such a savage attack?
Police spoke to all of Ashlea's neighbors. One neighbor, Steven Lee, told police that he had a cigarette on his balcony at around 6.30am that morning and saw a car parked outside. He noticed it because he never saw it parked there before. It was a black Infiniti G35. Another neighbor also told police something disturbing. He heard a scream at around 7.30am. Patrick Sweet lived in the apartment below Ashlea's apartment and he told police that he heard a thump, screaming and heavy breathing. He called 911 when his carbon monoxide detector went off and he realized there was a fire.
Police retraced Ashlea's movements. She worked as an assistant manager in an American Eagle store in the Hulen Mall. They discovered that on Thanksgiving Day, she went to dinner with her friend Alexis Torres and other friends at an apartment inside her complex. After that, she went to work. It was a late night due to Black Friday sales and Alexis looked after Ashlea's dog Nala while Ashlea was working. After work, Ashlea returned to her apartment around 3.15am and Alexis called over for a few minutes. Alexis left after 4am. Police believed that Ashlea was killed between 4.15am and 7.30am. Due to that, they wanted to speak to the owner of the Infiniti G35.
Police asked Alexis if she knew who drove a black Infiniti G35. She said that she did not. Christopher Chris Cravey, Ashlea's boss, heard that police were asking about that vehicle and he told them he knew someone who drove one. Her name was Carter Carol Cervantez. Carter was a former employee at the American Eagle store where Ashlea worked but she was fired in August.
Police set up surveillance outside Carter's home and the next morning, the Saturday morning, at 8 am they saw her leave her apartment and get into her Infiniti G35 with a man. The man drove to Hulen Mall and when they got there, he dropped off Carter at the door and parked. Police spoke to him. He was also a former employee at the same American Eagle store where Ashlea worked and he was Carter's boyfriend. His name was Clarence David Mallory.
Police arrested him as he could not produce his driver's license when asked. At the police station, police observed that he was wearing a ski mask. It looked new as there was not any noticeable wear and the plastic price tag fastener was still attached. Police also saw what appeared to be a fresh injury to his lower lip and his lower lip was swollen.
Police could not find Carter inside the mall even though they saw Clarence drop her off at the door. They later found her at her apartment complex doing laundry. She was taken to the station for questioning. She told police that she did not leave the apartment complex at all that day. But surveillance video confirmed she was not being truthful and it showed her leaving the mall and walking towards her home. Police believed she saw them talking with Clarence in the car park and walked the two miles home. Police observed that she had superficial scratches on her arms.
Police had to establish if they were involved in Ashlea's death what the motive was. They discovered that Ashlea's missing keys had the store keys on them too. They believed that Carter and Clarence killed Ashlea as they knew she had the keys for the safe and the plan was to take the keys and go to the American Eagle store to steal the tens of thousands of dollars they knew would be in the safe after Black Friday. They went to the store as planned on the Saturday morning with the keys but the locks had already been changed.
Police searched their apartment. They found a plastic tub that contained bungee cords and a rope. They found a lock in a kitchen drawer and a TASER box and some strands of duct tape in the trash.
Police also found a damaged deadbolt lock, two other locks that had been used for practice. Police believed they were used for practice as they were labeled “lock picking practice lock.”
Police searched the black Infiniti G35 and found a plastic bag inside a black trash bag, a sharpening stone for a knife, a nine-millimeter cartridge, a cell phone, a walkie talkie and a Buck knife with a sheath. They also found a toboggan with a hole cut in it, a tarp still inside the package and a kitchen knife. A loaded Glock 19 with a bullet in the chamber was found under the driver's seat.
Clarence and Carter were both charged with capital murder. The State waived their right to seek the death penalty and instead looked for life in prison without parole. They both pleaded not guilty.
Their cases were heard separately but the Prosecution case was almost the same for both with the exception that they believed Carter was the mastermind behind the crime. Carter's case was heard first.
Carter Carol Cervantez
It was the Prosecution's case that Carter and Clarence had a couple of different reasons to want to harm Ashlea. It was their case that they wanted her keys to steal the money from the store but also that they wanted revenge after they held Ashlea responsible for them losing their jobs.
The Court heard that in June 2014, Ashlea was appointed to run the store while Chris was on medical leave. Carter worked there as an assistant manager and she hired her boyfriend Clarence to work at the same store.
On the 24th of August 2014, at 1.14am, $18000 was stolen from the safe in the American Eagle store. And Ashlea discovered that Carter was the person due to lock up the night it was stolen and had left the back door open. Ashlea identified Clarence as the person who took the money from the safe from the surveillance footage.
It was only at that point that Chris discovered that it was Carter who had hired Clarence and he found out that Clarence had previously worked at an American Eagle store in Amarillo and was listed in the American Eagle system as “non-rehireable." That was a term the brand used to indicate that the person should not be hired at any location. Chris looked at Clarence's personnel file and discovered that when Carter hired him, she changed his Social Security number and his name in the system so that it would not be detected or show up any red flags. Chris testified that Carter and Clarence would have known that Ashlea identified Clarence and informed him of the theft.
Ashlea suspended Carter and one week later, Chris called Carter and told her that she had been terminated for leaving the store unsecured.
The Court heard that police believed that over the course of a few weeks, Carter and Clarence planned to kidnap Ashlea and steal the keys. On their cell phones, they had images of Ashlea's apartment, her apartment door and her vehicle. The Court also heard police found latitude and longitude coordinates on the cell phones.
Detective Cedillo testified that one of the text messages on Clarence's cell phone contained latitude and longitude coordinates and when he entered them into Google Earth, it revealed a location near Lueders, Texas. Detective Cedillo drove there and he found a hole that had been dug that measured six feet long, two and a half feet wide, and three feet deep. He testified that it looked like a human grave.
The Prosecution believed that the original plan was to kidnap Ashlea using a pistol to threaten her and kill her at a different location but she put up a fight when they entered her apartment and they killed her there instead.
The Court heard that when police searched Clarence's car, which was a Cadillac, they found two shovels, a box of plastic sheeting, and a box of Craftsman sockets.
The Prosecutor, Kevin Rousseau, told the Jury:
"There are no good murders. But at least there are some you can understand. This was different. At a minimum, this took at least a month of planning. They stalked Ashlea Harris like people stalk a deer."
The Court heard testimony from Alexis Torres Bunch. She told the Court that she left Ashlea's apartment after 4am the morning of the 28th of November and that when she left, Ashlea locked the door. The Jury heard that at 6.56am, Alexis had a missed call from Ashlea and when she noticed it, just a few minutes later, she called her back but there was no answer.
The Court heard testimony from Steven Lee. He lived downstairs and diagonally across from Ashlea. He told the Court that he saw a black Infiniti G35 with a faded Toll tag sticker on its roof parked outside. The Court heard that the car was still there when Steven left for work after 7.30am.
Another neighbor, Patrick Sweet, also testified. He told the Court that he lived in an apartment just below Ashlea’s apartment. He testified that at around 7.30am on the 28th of November, he woke when he heard a loud scream. The scream was followed by a loud thud and he could hear labored breathing. Patrick testified that he thought about what he should do. He heard the door of Ashlea's apartment close and when he looked out his window, he saw a black Infiniti G35 driving away. He thought that somebody had collected Ashlea for work. A few minutes later, Patrick's carbon monoxide detector went off and he saw water dripping from the ceiling in his bathroom. He called 911 as he realized there must be a fire.
Clarence David Mallory
The Prosecution called Jeff Kayser to testify. Jeff was a neighbor and friend of Ashlea's. He testified that he woke that morning when he heard the sound of the fire alarms. When he realized it was Ashlea's apartment and when he observed her car was still parked outside, he ran upstairs and kicked her door down. He testified that when he entered the apartment, it was full of smoke and water was spraying from the sprinkler system. Jeff crawled midway to the kitchen before he was forced to get out for some air. He tried again a second and a third time but the smoke made it an impossible task. At that point, the firefighters had arrived.
Wallace E. Hood Jr., an arson investigator, told the Court that he located multiple origins of the fire, including in the bed, on Ashlea’s body, and in the closet. He observed that the smoke detector had been removed and was underneath the mattress.
Mark Sedwick, a special agent with the FBI and a member of the Cellular Analysis Survey Team, testified as to the content of texts that had been sent at 11.52am on the 28th of November between Clarence's phone and Carter's phone:
Carter's phone-Hey, remember that thing you said I didn’t clean well?Did you clean it? Did we leave it behind?
Clarence's phone-We left it. I didn’t touch it.
Carter's phone: Well, damn. That’s not good. Take out all the trash andleave that. . . . . I need to take care of that. I’m so sorry I forgot.
The surveillance video from the front of the American Eagle store showed that at around 2am on the 29th of November, someone with a covered face knelt down next to the lock on the gate and attempted to unlock and raise the gate.They were unsuccessful as the locks had been changed. The Prosecution claimed that person was Carter. The Court heard the two of them returned to the mall at 8am and at that point, were being followed by the police, unbeknownst to them.
The Jury heard that Clarence was arrested in the car park at the mall . He told police that Carter had gone into the mall to collect some papers but when police searched the mall, she wasn't there. She was later found in her apartment complex.
The Court heard about Ashlea's injuries. Dr Richard Fries, a deputy medical examiner at the Tarrant County Medical Examiner’s Officer, performed the Autopsy on Ashlea’s body.
The Autopsy revealed that Ashlea had numerous injuries on her body including but not limited to a laceration on the right side of her scalp, on her cheek and the left side of her face and a patterned bruise on the right side of her face, a bruise between her eyes and around her left eye. There was a scrape and lacerations of her lip, a scrape on her chin and a star-shaped laceration with a surrounding bruise behind her left ear which the medical examiner was caused by being struck by the pistol. She was savagely beaten.
There was a cut on the right side of Ashlea's neck which was caused by a knife and bruises and abrasions on her neck, chest and right arm. Dr Fries testified that the injuries on Ashlea's face were caused by multiple blows. He testified that the presence of petechiae in Ashlea’s eyes reflected asphyxia or strangulation and that a fractured cricoid is:
“the least common place we see fractures in asphyxia or strangulation-type deaths because it consists of cartilage that is pliable."
Dr Fries explained that cricoid fractures are seen mostly in motor vehicle accidents or something involving a significant amount of force.
He determined that Ashlea's cause of death was asphyxia and blunt force trauma to the head and neck. The manner of Ashlea's death was ruled as a homicide.
At Carter's Trial, her Defense was that she was not involved in Ashlea's death. She testified at her own Trial and told the Court that she was afraid of Clarence. She told the Jury that he controlled her and even told her when she could eat or drink. She admitted that she tried to access the American Eagle store but claimed she only did so because Clarence threatened to kill her if she didn't . She said that he held the gun up to her and told her to do it and that he also claimed there was somebody waiting outside her parent's home and they would be killed also if she didn't steal the money.
Carter's testimony also included an account of a time that she claimed she was raped by two men. The two men, who were strangers to her, were invited into the apartment by Clarence and she was raped by both of them. She claimed that when Ashlea was murdered that she was in bed asleep and she didn't know where Clarence was. She told the Court she did not kill Ashlea and played no part in her death.
The jury did not believe her. It took them just two hours to find her guilty and she was sentenced to life in prison without parole.
At Clarence's Trial, he claimed that he was not involved in Ashlea's murder but the Jury also did not believe him and he was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison without parole.
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