"Our dead are never dead to us, until we have forgotten them."
It was the 23rd of April 1996. A Tuesday. Nineteen year old Stacey Stites was due to work the early shift at the H-E-B grocery store in Bastrop, Texas, United States. She had to leave home early every morning when she was working that shift,just before 3am, as it was in the produce department but it allowed her to earn an extra 50 cents an hour. She had been working extra shifts as she wanted to save as much as she could for her wedding which was in eighteen days time. She was excited about it and just a few days earlier her family had a bridal shower for her. Stacey was the youngest of five children and they all made an extra effort to make the day special. Her sister, Crystal Hefley, said that the wedding was all Stacey could talk about.
Stacey was due to marry twenty four year old police officer Jimmy Fennell. They met in Smithville and moved into an upstairs apartment in Giddings in Texas in the same building that Stacey's mother, Carol Stites, lived in. Due to the close proximity of the two homes, Stacey saw Carol frequently and Stacey called into her the evening of the 22nd of April to tell her she loved her before she went upstairs to her own home with Jimmy.
Early the next morning, the morning of the 23rd of April, Carol received a call from one of Stacey's coworkers. They told her that Stacey did not show up for work that day. Carol called Jimmy and he went downstairs to Carol's home straight away. Carol gave him the keys to her car and told him to go look for Stacey.
Stacey Stites and Jimmy Fennell
A patrol officer found Stacey's and Jimmy's red truck at the Bastrop High School parking lot that morning. It was locked. There was a bag of clothing in the back of the truck and a broken piece of belt with the buckle attached outside of the driver’s door. Police asked Jimmy to meet them at the truck and Jimmy unlocked the truck when he got there. Jimmy told police that there was a piece of plastic from a cup Stacey used inside the truck that was now broken. He also observed that there was a tennis shoe on the passenger floorboard and an earring on the passenger side floorboard. Jimmy confirmed that the broken piece of belt that was outside the truck belonged to Stacey.
There was no sign of Stacey though, either inside the truck or in the area around or close to the truck.
Police checked the truck and found bodily fluids on the floorboard of the truck. They noted that the driver’s seat position was reclined with the seatbelt fastened and they believed it looked as if someone was pulled out of the seat while buckled in. Due to that and Stacey's personal items and broken cup inside the truck, they suspected that foul play was involved and that a struggle of some sort had taken place.
Later that same day, at 3.30pm, Stacey's body was found off a rural road outside of Bastrop. She was wearing only a black bra, underwear, undone blue jeans, socks, and a single tennis shoe. Her H.E.B. name tag was found in the crook of her knee. A white t-shirt, a piece of a brown woven belt without a buckle, and two beer cans were found nearby.
Stacey had been raped and strangled.
The DNA analyst in the case said the semen found in Stacey's body had been deposited at the same time as her killing. Police had to find the match. They asked Jimmy, friends, family, coworkers and anyone who knew Stacey to provide a sample of their DNA but none were a match.
Even though Jimmy's DNA was not a match to the semen found inside Stacey's body, police looked into the possibility that he was involved as they knew he was with her the night before she was found dead. Jimmy agreed to take two polygraph tests and was asked if he killed Stacey. He answered no but the examiner determined his answer was deceptive in both tests. Jimmy told police and the examiner that he was emotional when taking the tests and pictured Stacey lying dead in her casket.
Police ruled him out as a suspect as the DNA wasn't a match and they could not establish how he would have dropped his truck off at Balstrop and then returned to Giddings, some thirty miles away in the timeframe.
Police had no match to the DNA they obtained from Stacey's body and no concrete leads until almost a year after her murder.
Almost a year after Stacey's murder, police looked at the possibility that a man named Rodney Reed may have been the one responsible for her death. The reason Rodney came to their attention was based on a separate case which involved the assault of a young woman. Linda Schlueter was attacked and had her car stolen and she identified Rodney Reed from a photo when police showed her a number of different photos of different men.
Linda was close in age to Stacey and police looked for Rodney's DNA on their system to see if he was connected to Stacey's case. His DNA was on their system from another allegation that had been made against him. His DNA had been collected and stored in the system for an earlier sex attack that had taken place. The charges were dropped. But they used his DNA on the system to test it against DNA found on Stacey's body. It was a match.
Police spoke to Rodney. He told them he was aware of Stacey's name but only through the news coverage of her case. He had never met her. Police didn't believe him. He was charged with sexual assault, kidnapping and murder. He entered a not guilty plea.
It was the Prosecution's case that Stacey left home that morning, the morning of the 23rd of April, at 3am as she was due at work that day at 3.30am. The Court heard that her normal route to the grocery store was on Highway 21 through Bastrop.
Jimmy testified. He told the Court that he spent the evening of the 22nd of April with Stacey. They watched television together. According to Jimmy, Stacey left for work at 3am the morning of the 23rd of April which was her usual time to leave.
The Prosecution believed that Stacey was killed shortly afterwards.
It was their case that as Stacey drove to work, she was stopped by Rodney who abducted her, raped her, strangled her and then left her body at the side of the street where she was found a number of hours later. The Prosecution told the Jury that he then drove the truck back to Balstrop where it was later found by a patrol officer. They believed he then walked home. The truck was abandoned just 0.6 miles from where he lived. The Court heard that Rodney frequently walked the area late at night.
The Department of Public Safety (DPS) crime scene investigator Karen Blakley testified. She was part of a team, along with Wilson Young and Terry Sandifer, who processed Stacey’s body, the truck, and the scene where Stacey was found. Karen testified that she believed that the murder weapon was Stacey's belt:
“because it matched the pattern that was on her neck.”
Karen testified that the two belt pieces, one that was found outside the truck and the other part beside Stacey's body, matched and were torn, not cut.
The Court heard testimony from Karen in relation to the sexual assault aspect of the case. The Court heard that Stacey was found partially clothed and her pants had been ripped open so Karen presumed a sexual assault preceded the murder.
Karen also told the Court that Stacey's underwear was wet in the crotch and bunched around her hips. She observed scratches on Stacey’s arms and abdomen, a cigarette burn on her arm, and what looked like fire ant bites on her wrists.
The Court heard details of the Autopsy that was conducted by Dr. Robert Bayardo, the Travis County Medical Examiner. He determined that Stacey died around 3.00am on the 23rd of April. He concluded that the belt was the murder weapon and the cause of death was asphyxiation by strangulation. He also presumed Stacey was sexually assaulted and concluded that Stacey had anal injuries and they occurred at or around the time of death. Due to that he believed that no consensual sexual activity took place.
It was the Defense's case that despite Rodney telling police that he did not know Stacey and that he had never even met her, that they did in fact know each other and were having an affair.
The Court heard that their relationship was purely a sexual one. When asked why Rodney did not tell police when asked if he knew Stacey, his lawyer claimed that he was afraid, as he knew he “was a Black male having sex with a white girl in Bastrop.”
The Defense had no evidence and no witnesses to call who could say or prove that Rodney and Stacey knew each other and were involved in a sexual relationship.
The Jury deliberated and found Rodney guilty.
At the sentencing part of his Trial, the Prosecutors presented two separate cases to try to establish that Rodney was a dangerous man and deserved a severe penalty. One was in relation to a woman called Vivian Harbottle Chapman. The Jury heard that in October 1995, just six months before Stacey was murdered, Vivian, who was thirty nine years old at the time, was raped. DNA found on her matched Rodney's DNA.
The second case that the Prosecution referred to was the case of twelve year old Angela Hammy. Angela was raped in September 1989 and the Court heard that DNA obtained in relation to that crime was also a match to Rodney's DNA.
The Jury deliberated in relation to the sentencing phase and sentenced Rodney to death.
Stacey's family and the State of Texas believe that Rodney is the man who killed Stacey and that the Jury made the correct decision. They do not believe that Rodney and Stacey knew each other. Her sister, Debra Oliver, told 20/20:
“There has never been any evidence, whatsoever, there was any type of relationship. There’s no notes, there’s no letters, no phone records.”
The Innocence Project, a non-profit legal organization that works to free wrongly convicted people, took over the handling of Rodney's case in 2012. At that point, he had exhausted almost all of his Appeals and had a scheduled execution date. Texas officials granted Rodney an indefinite stay of execution so that claims that he is innocent can be examined.
Despite nobody coming forward at the time of Rodney's Trial to say they were aware of a relationship between him and Stacey, the Innocence Project have obtained a number of Affidavits from people to assist with his new legal fight for freedom.
One such Affidavit relates to a woman called Alicia Slater. She worked with Stacey at the H-E-B grocery store. Alicia said that Stacey told her she was having an affair with Rodney. Police spoke to Alicia at the time of Stacey's murder and Alicia did not mention Rodney or that Stacey was having an affair.
Another Affidavit relates to an Insurance salesman who claims he tried to sell life insurance to Stacey but when she told him she didn't need any as she was too young, he claimed that Jimmy said:
“If you ever cheat on me, I will kill you and no one will ever know about it."
The Innocence Project are trying to get a new Trial for Rodney based on new evidence that wasn't presented at his original Trial.
Stacey Stites and Jimmy Fennell
While Jimmy was ruled out as a suspect in Stacey's murder shortly after her death, he came to the attention of police in an unrelated case. The case involved a woman called Connie Lear. Connie accused Jimmy of raping her while she was in custody. In October 2007, police were called to an apartment complex after a neighbor complained that a couple were drunk and arguing. That couple was Connie and her boyfriend. Her boyfriend was arrested for public intoxication and was taken to the police station. Jimmy told Connie to get into his patrol car. According to Connie, Jimmy told her to sit in the front of the car. Connie said that Jimmy drove to a secluded park and told her to get out. He placed his utility belt and gun on the back of the car and raped her.
Jimmy was charged with aggravated sexual assault with a deadly weapon, aggravated kidnapping, improper sexual activity with a person in custody and official oppression. He pleaded guilty to improper sexual activity with a person in custody and kidnapping and was sentenced to 10 years in prison.
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