"Remorse is a heavy burden but in its weight, it has power to awaken men's souls."
-R. William Bennett
It was the 2nd of October 1996. Heather Rich knew she was not allowed to leave the house. It was a school night and after 11pm but that didn't stop the 16 year old. Heather climbed from her bedroom window at her parent's house and ran from the house into the night. She would never return.
Heather was a confident , sassy and beautiful cheerleader from Waurika in Oklahoma in the United States. Waurika is a small town just across the Red River and in 1996, less than 2000 people lived there so Heather was well known in the area. She was also well liked. In high school, she was voted Sophomore class favourite and had been nominated for Homecoming Queen. Heather had three brothers, all football players, and that was probably why she was so at ease in the company of boys. She loved the attention she received from them and got on well with them.
When Heather failed to return home, her parents, Duane and Gail, reported her missing. The night before Heather and her mother had a fight over a phone bill. When Gail told police about it, they told her not to worry as Heather was probably just trying to make a point and stay out to allow the fight to blow over.
Like in nearly all missing person cases, one lead that police need to look at is the possibility that the missing person has run away. This seemed like it may be the case in Heather's disappearance. The popular teenager had changed in the weeks prior to that night. She was not herself and was acting erratically. Heather had been suspended for being drunk and she seemed to be troubled about something. She had a lot on and had started to cut herself. Her father was involved in an accident, one that had almost killed him. He worked as an electrician and was badly burned when a transformer blew up and he required a lot of care and skin grafts. Her mother took on extra work to look after the family. Despite that, Gail was convinced that Heather did not run away. She wasn't the type to not face problems head on. Also, Heather always made sure she looked perfect and her makeup bag and clothes were all still in her bedroom.
Gail was correct. Heather did not run away. Several days after she disappeared into the night, a rancher and his 7 year old granddaughter saw what looked like a body in a North Texas Creek, Belknap Creek. The rancher returned without his granddaughter to have a closer look and he found the body of Heather Rich. Heather had been shot in the back of the head so she was unrecognisable but was wearing a gold signet ring , heart shaped with a diamond that she had been given for her 16th Birthday. She was also shot a further eight times in the back. It was later formally confirmed through dental records that it was Heather's body.
The murder rocked the small and tight knit community but it also made the people who lived there too afraid to talk. There were secrets and whispers and many many rumours. Some people said they saw her hitching a ride that night, others saw her at various locations.
But the police ignored the rumours and instead took an interest in one her high school friends, Joshua Bagwell. Josh, who was 17 at the time, charged four boxes of Winchester 00 buckshot to his grandparent's account. Heather's autopsy revealed she had been shot with an M9 Winchester shotgun and pellets from the buckshot fired hit her body in a number of places. The gun was traced back to another teenager. Curtis Gambill. Josh often went hunting with 19 year old Curtis. Police questioned them about the ammunition and they told police it was for hunting. When police had Curtis on his own, he said that maybe he was involved.
Curtis told police that he was drinking with a friend Randy Wood and Josh in Josh's travel trailer on the 2nd of October. The night began as a normal night out which involved heavy drinking. Heather joined them in the trailer and after consensual sex, she passed out. They were worried that she would later accuse them of rape so they dressed her and put her in the pickup. Randy shot her nine times. Once in the back of head and eight times in the back. They all threw her body into the creek.
After that account, Curtis and Josh did not cooperate further with police. Randy was different. He admitted it all and agreed to testify against Curtis and Josh.
Nobody could quite believe Randy was involved in Heather's murder. He was Homecoming King, captain of the Waurika Eagles and seemed like a really soft spoken and polite young man. In fact, he even dated Heather previously. He had never been in trouble before and fully cooperated with the police. He even refused a plea deal in the case. So, everyone wanted to hear what Randy's account of that night was.
Randy's account was that the night had started like any other night and involved drinking. The three of them, Randy, Curtis and Josh, were driving around Waurika in Josh's grandfather's pickup. They were drinking beer and whiskey and continued drinking in the trailer . Heather didn't tell her parents she was heading out that night. Josh had arranged to meet Heather that night but when they went to collect her, she was already gone. Heather and Josh were supposed to go on a date that night. When they got to the trailer, Heather was waiting outside for them. Heather knew Josh and Randy from high school but she didn't know Curtis. Randy and Curtis went out to try to find more girls to join their drinking session and to pick up some more drink. From the very moment Heather arrived, the night went from another normal night in Waurika to a dark and sinister one that would change the lives of four teenagers forever.
When Randy and Curtis returned to the trailer, Josh was putting his clothes on and Heather was naked. She was standing but intoxicated and there was an empty bottle of gin in the trailer. Randy admitted that he touched her while she was naked. He was about to have sex with her but she passed out so he stopped. Curtis went into the back with Heather after that. When Curtis came back out, Randy looked in and Heather was still passed out. Randy, Curtis and Josh continued drinking and Heather woke up and screamed twice before passing out again. Curtis was worried Heather would say they raped her and he told Josh to get the pickup.
Randy dressed Heather and put her in the pickup.They drove to Belknap Creek bridge. They took Heather out of the pickup. At this point, she was still passed out. According to Randy, Curtis shot Heather nine times.
Heather did not know it that night when she innocently went out to have a fun night that one of the teenagers in her company had a dark past. Curtis had a history of being in and out of trouble. He enjoyed driving around and shooting animals in their gardens. He also brought an unloaded gun into school and threatened to kill his teachers. He was in and out of juvenile centres and once admitted that his fantasy was to kidnap and rape a girl and then "blow her head off."
Both Curtis and Randy initially agreed to a plea deal. Josh entered a not guilty plea. Curtis testified at his Trial and told the Court that Randy was the one who killed Heather and Josh was not involved. Randy rejected the plea deal so that he could testify against Josh freely in Court. That meant that there was a possibility Randy would face the death penalty. However that was a risk he was willing to take as he wanted Heather's family to know the truth. Against the advice of his lawyer, Randy rejected the plea deal and took the stand. Randy told the Court that Curtis shot Heather and that Josh was a willing participant. The Jury believed him. Josh was found guilty of capital murder and conspiracy to commit murder and was sentenced to life and a further 99 years in prison.
Curtis was sentenced to life imprisonment with the possibility of parole after 30 years. Randy was sentenced to life imprisonment and will be eligible for parole in 2036.
Gail accepted Randy's apology for the pain he caused her family. She could not accept it for Heather's murder as that was up to Heather. Gail believed that Randy had told the truth about what happened that night as in doing so, he gave up his plea deal which opened up the possibility of him being sentenced to death. He felt it was the right thing to do. Had he found the courage on the night of October 2nd to do the right thing, then the four teenager's lives may have taken a completely different path. Unfortunately to prevent themselves from getting into any trouble for raping a heavily intoxicated Heather, each and every one of them made the decision to participate in her murder, in an effort to silence her and silence her story. Gail was in Court every day wearing her daughter's signet ring so that whatever happened in the case and the sentencing, Heather would be there and would not be silenced further.
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"The criminal justice system will take a hard look at what happened to Matthew Eappen. It is up to the rest of us to take an even harder look at who is minding our children."
- Eileen McNamara, the Boston Globe
"The effects of abuse are devastating and far reaching. Domestic violence speaks many languages, has many colors and lives in many different communities."
- Sandra Pupatello
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