Cold-case murder trial begins 36 years later
Updated On: Jan 16 2014 05:09:07 PM CST
Witnesses testified that they became the keepers of a dark secret given to them by a man they knew decades ago.
Testimony resumed in the cold-case murder trial of Roger Garrett on Thursday.
Garrett, 55, and his 74-year-old mother, are charged with murdering 35-year-old Major Chester Garrett.
Maj. Garrett’s body was found beaten and stabbed in the back of his Volkswagen Beetle on January 4, 1977.
The car had been left in the desert of east El Paso County and was spotted by a passerby.
Roger Garrett is on trial ahead of his mother, Lisbeth Garrett, who is expected to face a jury early next year.
If convicted of killing his stepfather, Garrett could spend five years to the rest of his life in prison.
“Why? Why have they waited all this time,” defense attorney Matthew DeKoatz asked jurors in opening statements. “Why? Ask yourself. Why have they waited 37 years?”
Prosecution witnesses testified on Wednesday that at different points in time Roger Garrett told them each the same horrific story – that he and his mother concocted a plan to get Maj. Garrett to return to their home on 1349 Backus street, kill him, then dispose of his body.
Deborah Drake Rodriguez was the first witness to take the stand on Wednesday.
Rodriguez testified that she had recently moved to El Paso in 1978 and became friends with Roger Garrett, who was 20-years-old at the time.
Rodriguez said she would see Garrett mostly along with other mutual friends when the group would go to Juarez to dance.
She said she was not interested in Garrett who had ideas of a romantic relationship with her.
Rodriguez testified that she was 15-years-old when she first met Garrett, who shortly thereafter, took her to a park at night, after he had been drinking, and confessed the murder.
“He told me he had something that’d been weighing on him for quite some time – a deep, dark, secret,” Rodriguez said. “He proceeded to tell me that he killed his father and that he only did it on the behest of his mother.”
Rodriguez said Garrett and his mother agreed it was most important to take the officer down using an element of surprise.
She said Garrett told her he hit his stepfather from behind with a wooden object, then Lisbeth Garrett uncontrollably stabbed her husband.
Rodriguez testified that the confession lasted 30 to 45 minutes, concluding with details on how the pair disposed of the body.
“They put the body in the car then drove it to the furthest part of the desert,” Rodriguez said. “They had to clean up the garage, because of all the blood. He said the chemical they used made a strange-colored runoff and he told me how he was surprised their neighbors didn’t know.”
Rodriguez also testified that Garrett gave her a list of warnings before the first time she met Lisbeth Garrett in the early 1980s. She said she was told not to look Lisbeth Garrett in the eyes.
“She was very abusive toward Roger,” Rodriguez said. “She cursed, she yelled, and then I understood why he was prepping me. She wasn’t a very nice person.”
DeKoatz questioned Rodriguez on cross-examination why she withheld details of a confession from authorities for so many years.
“The 15-year-old me thought it was a crock,” Rodriguez. “I never for an instant thought it was for real. I never believed it until later.”
Rodriguez said she introduced Garrett to the woman who became his wife, Theresa Heffelfinger.
Heffelfinger and Garrett were married just over one year in the early 1990s.
Rodriguez and Heffelfinger were friends, Rodriguez testified.
She said it was not until after the couple’s divorce, during a conversation with Heffelfinger, that she finally believed what Garrett had told her years before was true.
Rodriguez claimed that Heffelfinger said Garrett had told her the same story of how he and his mother killed Maj. Garrett.
Rodriguez said she left it up to Heffelfinger to decide whether or not to contact authorities.
Rodriguez said she told Heffelfinger she would be willing to participate should she ever be questioned regarding Garrett’s confession.
“I figured if his ex-wife couldn’t get this case going, how could I,” Rodriguez said. “I was waiting to be contacted. I figured they didn’t have a case.”
Rodriguez said she never spoke to Heffelfinger again after their final conversation in the 1990s.
She testified she never contacted anyone regarding the case and heard nothing of it until investigators questioned her on June 18 of this year.
Cross-examination reached a boiling point on Wednesday when defense attorney DeKoatz questioned Rodriguez’s character as a teen.
“So you were a 15-year-old party girl, hanging out with frat boys, getting juiced over in Juarez,” DeKoatz asked.
“I am not ashamed of one iota of my past,” Rodriguez said. “Can you say the same?”
“I’m the attorney,” DeKoatz responded.
“I didn’t commit murder,” Rodriguez said.
The questioning ended at that point and jurors may not have picked up on what Rodriguez was referencing when she said, “I didn’t commit murder.”
Rodriguez, who had spent nearly 30 years as a legal secretary in El Paso, was alluding to a 2011 shooting involving the defense attorney.
Police said DeKoatz was shopping with his wife at the J.C. Penny in downtown El Paso when the attorney spotted a man breaking into his car.
DeKoatz shot and killed the man but was never indicted by a grand jury.
The second witness called to testify on Wednesday was Theresa Heffelfinger, Garrett’s ex-wife.
Heffelfinger testified that Garrett told her the same story years ago when the couple was still married, on their way back to El Paso from a trip to Las Vegas.
“[Garrett] told me he hit [Maj. Garrett] with a bat, and then his mother went into a rage, and stabbed him,” Heffelfinger said.
Heffelfinger testified that Garrett told her his mother got the idea from either a book that she had read or from an episode of “Murder-She-Wrote.”
It would not have been possible for Lisbeth Garrett to derive the idea from “Murder-She-Wrote,” because the television series premiered on CBS in 1984, seven years after Maj. Garrett’s death.
“It was Lis Garrett’s idea,” Heffelfinger said. “She had convinced him that her life was in danger.”
Prosecutors questioned Heffelfinger outside the presence of the jury in an attempt to bring new information into the testimony that had not been discussed.
Heffelfinger said Garrett had to be supervised when he visited his daughter because he and Lisbeth Garrett had once tried to kidnap the girl.
That information was ruled inadmissible.
Patrick Garrett, the son of Lisbeth and Maj. Chester Garrett, was the last witness to take the stand on Wednesday to testify about an alleged confession.
Patrick Garrett said he was 12-years-old when his father was killed.
He retold the story of what happened the night before Maj. Garrett’s body was found.
Patrick Garrett said his mother dropped him off at the Cielo Vista movie theater with his friend, Buddy Larson.
He said he said he thought it was unusual because it was a school night.
He said when he called for mother to pick him up she did not answer the phone, and Larson had to call his mother to take the boys home.
Patrick Garrett testified that when he arrived at his home, the lights inside of the house were dark, and nobody would answer the phone.
Patrick Garrett said he saw lights go on in the house later that night and was eventually let inside, shepherded to his bedroom by his then 18-year-old brother Roger Garrett.
Patrick Garrett thought it was also strange that he was not told to take a bath and brush his teeth that night, just to go to bed.
The next morning, Patrick Garrett testified, he was awoken by his older brother, standing in his bedroom with a bowl of cereal. He said Roger Garrett told him to eat his breakfast then get to school. He said he was told their father had been in an accident and he was dead.
Patrick Garrett testified that Roger Garrett confessed to killing their father years later.
In December of 1990, Patrick Garrett testified, he asked his brother for more information on their father’s death.
“I asked him, ‘Roger, is there anything you want to tell me about dad’s death,’” Patrick Garrett said. “His whole demeanor changed. He put his arm around me and he told me he and mom killed dad.”
Patrick Garrett said Roger and their mother called their father to the home to repair the dishwasher.
Maj. Chester Garrett had been living on post at the time, at the Fort Bliss bachelors officers quarters.
Patrick Garrett said his brother told him their father was leaning over the sink when he “hit him as hard as he could with a baseball bat.”
“They dragged him toward the garage and dad started gurgling, gasping for air, and mom pulled the bat out of his hand and hit him over the head,” Patrick Garrett said. “Crushed his skull.”
Patrick Garrett said Roger Garrett told him they took off their dead father’s clothes then put them in plastic bags, eventually dumping those bags in different trash bins outside of 7-11 gas stations across West El Paso.
Prosecutors asked the witness why he never came forward with the information.
“I just couldn’t turn my family in at that time,” Patrick Garrett said. “I just couldn’t do it.”
Prosecutors asked why he chose to withhold the information until January of this year.
“I became a Christian,” Patrick Garrett said.
“You’re going to have to do better than that,” Assistant District Attorney Kyle Myers said.
Patrick Garrett began to cry as he retold how he had a life-changing experience when his 16-year-old son died in 2009.
“Thou shalt not kill,” Patrick Garrett said. “I thought that if I didn’t do anything I could be cursed, as guilty as the ones who did it.”
Roger Garrett has been held in the El Paso County Detention Center since his arrest in lieu of a $500,000 bond.
Lisbeth Garrett is free on bond awaiting trial.
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