"This family, as you can imagine, is grieving, but is also happy about the way this community came together because it is representative of the way that Zoe lived her life, a life that she lived for others, recognizing a power that was greater than herself."- Shonn Brown, a spokeswoman for the Hastings family
It was the 11th of October 2015. A Sunday. That afternoon, eighteen year old Zoe Hastings, left her house in Dallas, Texas, United States to go to bible study. She told her parents, Jim and Cheryl, that she would be home after bible study for dinner. Zoe graduated in May 2015 and was preparing to go on a mission trip for her Church in November. Zoe was excited about the trip and she wanted to make sure to attend that bible study class as it included preparations and instructions for the trip. Zoe left the house after 4.30pm to head to the class at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It was due to begin at 5pm. She left in the family minivan. Her parents expected her home around 6.30pm.
At 6.30pm, there was no sign of Zoe and her parents were worried about her as it was very out of character for her not to be at the family dinner. She loved sitting down for dinner with her parents and her three younger sisters and one younger brother. Thinking that she may just have been delayed, they sent her text messages. When they received no reply, they called her multiple times but there was no answer. They reached out to friends to see if anyone knew where she was but nobody saw her. In fact, her family discovered, that Zoe did not attend the 5pm bible study class.
Zoe's parents called police at 10pm but by midnight, the police had not arrived at their house so they went ahead and filed a missing persons report and continued looking for her themselves. A few hours later, in the early hours of the Monday morning, her parents realized that Zoe had a Find My iPhone app installed on her phone. They managed to figure out where her phone was from that. It was at a nearby creek which was just a five minute drive from her home. Zoe's parents went straight there but by the time they got there, there were already people there. They saw lights, police, police tape and paramedics. They were informed a vehicle had been involved in a crash. The minivan that Zoe was driving was found crashed in the creek, it was nose down in the creek bed, almost in a vertical position.
Police were there on foot of a call made by a member of the public. A man, Kurt Arnim, was out walking his dog and observed a man running towards him. The man told him that there was a crash and a car and a girl were down in the creek near the intersection Easton Road and Lippitt Avenue. Kurt went down to the creek with the man and the man told Kurt that the girl was dead. Kurt called 911. The other man left the scene before police arrived. When asked what the man was like, Kurt told police he was visibly shaken.
Police went down to the creek and found the girl. It was Zoe. She was lying face down in a pool of blood and was around ten to twenty feet from the driver’s door of the minivan.
Zoe's parents were informed that Zoe was dead. But police notified them that their daughter had not died due to injuries sustained from the crash. Her death was the result of homicidal violence.
Zoe's dress was pulled up above her waist. Her underwear was rolled down to her mid-thighs. Police believed that she had been sexually assaulted. Her throat was cut multiple times.
Police searched the area. The doors, with the exception of the driver's door, of the minivan were all locked. They found a knife that was covered in blood at the top of the embankment and police believed that that was the knife used to cut Zoe's neck.
Zoe's phone gave police a timeline to work with. Her phone was at the creek and location services data on the phone revealed it was there from 5.01pm on the Sunday evening and remained there until the Monday morning when Zoe's body was found.
During the course of their investigation, police discovered that after Zoe left her house, she stopped at Walgreens on Garland Road to return a Redbox movie on her way to the bible study. The Walgreens was so close to her house that she could see her house from the car park. She dropped the movie back at 4.42pm. So what happened to her after that and why didn't she make it to the Church for 5pm?
Two witnesses came forward. They told police that they observed a woman at a minivan in the car park outside Walgreens. One of the men claimed he saw an African American man rapidly approach her and they both got into the minivan and drove off. He told police that the man was driving the minivan. The second man told police that he saw the man approach the woman and it looked like he had something in his hand. The man said something to her and they both got into the minivan and the man drove off at speed.
DNA was obtained from the knife found at the creek and police got a match. It was matched to a man whose DNA was already in the database. His name was Antonio Cochran.
Antonio denied any involvement but due to the DNA results and the accounts given to police from the witnesses, he was charged with capital murder based on the murder of Zoe in the course of committing or attempting to commit a kidnapping.
Maj. Max Geron of the Dallas Police Department described Antonio as "obviously a sexual predator that's been taken off the streets." Police believed that it was a random attack and that he did not know Zoe prior to the abduction.
When his Trial began, he pleaded not guilty.
It was the Prosecution case that Zoe left her home that Sunday afternoon to go to bible study and on the way, she stopped off at the Walgreens across the street from her house to drop a Redbox movie back. The Court heard that the Prosecution believed that Zoe was abducted from the car park there just as she was about to get into the minivan.
That belief was corroborated by two witness accounts and those witnesses were present in Court to give testimony.
The first witness, Lester Lee Clark, testified that he worked as a tattoo artist at a tattoo parlor located near the intersection of Garland Road and Peavy Road, in east Dallas, and was walking towards the Walgreens store at around 4.45pm to buy a pack of cigarettes. He told the Jury that he saw a woman, who was either returning a movie or getting one from the Redbox kiosk, walking back towards a minivan. He observed that as she was about to get in, a "short, heavy set African American male" approached her. He was moving fast and grabbed the car door. He noticed that he had what he described as a “kind of animated” conversation with Zoe.
Lester testified that he could not hear what they were talking about but that it lasted no more than five seconds and the woman, who was at the driver's door, got in and moved across to the passenger side. The man got in and drove off.
When asked why he didn't get help, he told the Court that he thought they were boyfriend and girlfriend.
The second witness, a man named Gary Whitman, testified. The Court heard that he was homeless at the time and was across the street from the Walgreens at around 4.45pm that Sunday afternoon. He testified that he saw a "stout, heavy set African American man, about five feet and eight or nine inches in height" walk up to a woman who was at a minivan in the car park at the Walgreens store. He described his walk for the Court and the Jury heard that he was walking aggressively in a sneaky way. He believed that he was trying not to cause too much attention.
Gary testified that the man approached the woman from behind as she was trying to get into the minivan. He told the Court that the man put his arms out to stop her from getting away and he believed he took something from his pocket but he couldn't see what it was. He saw them both get into the minivan and testified that the man drove off in the minivan.
The Court heard that Gary tried to get help. As he had no access to a phone, he asked an employee at a convenience store to call 911.
The Prosecution told the Jury that they believed that the man the two men saw was Antonio and that they had further evidence, DNA evidence, to prove same.
The Court heard that multiple hairs were collected from the crime scene and examined and that DNA analysis determined that Antonio’s mitochondrial DNA profile could not be excluded from a hair found in Zoe’s left hand. Gloria Jean Dimick, a mitochondrial DNA analyst, testified that mitochondrial DNA is not a unique identifier. It cannot identify a particular individual but it can be used to exclude people.
It was the Prosecution case that after Antonio abducted Zoe, he drove to the nearby creek , sexually assaulted her and killed her there. The Jury heard the knife was found at the creek and Antonio's DNA was on the handle of the knife and the knife was covered in Zoe's blood.
Zoe's mother Cheryl testified. She told the Jury that when they traced Zoe's phone to the creek, they went straight there and saw the police and they instantly knew that something was not right:
“As we drove up, you could see emergency lights. They gave us the horrible news that she had passed.”
She testified that after her own daughter was raped and murdered she became a sex assault trauma nurse.
The Court heard that cell phone data placed Antonio at the scene. Prior to Zoe's abduction, Antonio sent a number of text messages to various people. At 1.48am on the Sunday, he sent a text to Gilis Pina,his housemate, and said that he was moving out of the house. At 2.07pm, he sent a text message to Angie Simon, his ex-girlfriend, and told her that “Rena,” who had been like a mother to him, had died the day before.
He sent text messages at 2.25pm and 3.19pm to Mimi and told her he had been driving, drinking, and crying. No text messages were sent between 3.19pm and 9.30pm on the Sunday.
At 4.34pm, Antonio's cell phone communicated with a particular transceiver on a radio tower in Dallas, and the area covered by it included the Walgreens store.
Just after 9.30pm on the Sunday night, Antonio sent a text message to Frank Torres, Gilis Pina’s brother:
“I really need u bro[.] I don[’]t know wh[a]t to I[’]m not well [Frank] to[o] much has happen[ed.] I need u bro[.]”
The Court heard that Antonio started a new job as a checker at a Fiesta Mart grocery store just two days before Zoe's murder. He was scheduled to work the day after Zoe's death but he did not show up for that shift. That night, he sent a text message at 9.35pm to Angie Simon:
“No I was for u and my life is over ull find out soon enough [sic].”
The Court also heard about web searches that had been carried out on Antonio's phone between the 13th of October and the 23rd of October which was the day before he was arrested. He searched for local news and crime thirty two times and five related to Zoe's death. Prior to that timeline, in the thirty days before that, he looked up news only once and it was a Daily Mail article about gang crime.
The Court heard about Zoe's injuries and the cuts to her neck.She was stabbed six times. But, the testimony in relation to sexual assault by the Medical Examiner, Dallas County’s Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Jeffrey Barnard, came as a surprise to many when he testified that he found no evidence of trauma that would suggest sexual assault.
It was the Defense case that the Prosecution and the police targeted the wrong man based on weak DNA evidence and unreliable witness testimony. They told the Jury that at the time of Zoe's murder, Antonio was helping a friend.
Defense attorney, Paul Johnson, cast doubt on the testimony given by the two witnesses who testified they saw Zoe's abduction. Paul challenged Lester on his testimony, questioning whether he was correct with the timeline he gave and with the description of the man he provided to the police.
Paul told the Court that the other witness Gary had a criminal history and could not be trusted. The Court heard abut his drug use and Paul questioned how he would have seen anything at all if he was across the street. Gary accepted he didn't see the man's face but claimed he came forward as it was the right thing to do even though it had consequences for him. There was an active warrant for his arrest and Gary was taken into custody after he testified in Court.
The Defense also questioned the DNA evidence.
They conceded that Antonio's DNA was on the handle of the knife but they claimed that it was on it before it was used to murder Zoe.
Antonio was identified as a suspect when the DNA found on the handle of the knife was compared to DNA of several suspects on the system. The Court heard it was “touch” or “handler” DNA that was found. That can occur when something is touched and the person who touched it leaves behind their DNA on it.
Testing revealed that the DNA from the knife handle matched Antonio’s DNA. But the Defense argued that his DNA may have already been on the handle from an earlier date as he may have handled the knife while he was working at a local movie theater. Items, such as knives, were sometimes found there and Antonio may have found it and touched it and then another person may have later used that same knife to kill Zoe and somehow manage not to leave their own DNA on it.
The Defense reminded the Jury that no fingerprints were found on or inside the minivan. If he grabbed the door, as the witnesses claimed, then why was there no fingerprints on it? He also referred to the evidence given by the Medical Examiner that there was no evidence of sexual assault found. Antonio was not charged with sexual assault. Paul believed the sexual assault was referred to to inflame the Jury.
Paul urged the Jury to find Antonio not guilty:
“I know this case is going to stay with you for a long time. The popular thing to do today would be to go back there and convict. I’m going to ask you to do the thing you told me you would do: make the hard decision, do what is right and return a verdict of not guilty.”
The Prosecution disagreed and asked the Jury to find him guilty.
The Jury deliberated for nearly 23 hours over several days. During that time, they asked the Judge for further details/clarification re three points. They asked to see a picture of the Walgreens store where Zoe was last seen, they asked about mitochondrial DNA and they asked about the timeframe of police interviews with the two men who testified that they saw a man fitting Antonio's description with Zoe at her minivan.
The Jury found Antonio guilty of the lesser included offense of murder instead of capital murder. It took them just six minutes to decide his sentence. Antonio was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole and a $10,000 fine.
Zoe's family issued a statement after her death:
"We are devastated at the loss of our daughter Zoe. Today, we express our gratitude to local law enforcement, officials, and loved ones helping our family. Our Zoe was full of life and love and light. She was full of talent. She was happy and joyful. She is loved by her parents and her siblings. She loved the Lord, Jesus Christ, and loved serving others. She was planning to serve a mission to share this message of the Savior’s love with others. It pains us to know that her life has been taken, yet we feel comfort in knowing that our family is forever and we will be together again someday. We are grateful for the privacy and respect given to us during this extremely difficult time. Please continue to pray for our family. We appreciate and need your support."
After the Trial, it was revealed that it was not Antonio's first conviction. Antonio had a history of arrests and convictions including assault, theft and burglary. In February 2014, he was arrested in Bowie County, Texas. He was accused of raping a teenage girl in a car and the case was sent forward for Trial. A seventeen year old girl testified at that Trial that Antonio had been in a relationship with her mother and he offered to give her a ride on the 12th of February 2014. She told the Court he threatened to kill her in the car and drove to a wooded area and then sexually assaulted her. During the assault, residents who lived nearby approached the car with flashlights. They had been on alert due to a number of burglaries in the area. They called 911. Antonio was arrested. At his Trial for that case, which took place in January 2015, the Defense claimed the sex was consensual. He was found not guilty.
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“She's not with me, and she's not with my parents, and at that moment I know that my sister's dead.”
- Alayne Katz, Gail's sister
"Madness, as you know, is a lot like gravity. All it takes is a little push."
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