By: Kim Benestante
Getting inside the mind of a killer isn’t just reserved for law enforcement detective work – it’s also essential in portraying the written story of a hideous crime and its longtime ramifications on its victims. Yet trying to understand and explain evil also can be mortifying, exhilarating, often exhausting and always ground-breaking for writers like award-winning author Sherri Knight, a longtime Erath County resident whose latest book will be the subject of an upcoming fundraiser for the Stephenville Historical House Museum.
Death List: Trail of Terror is the true, creative non-fiction story of three men who escaped from a Colorado prison in August 1974 on a vengeance mission to get even with old grudges in Texas. Terrorizing or killing any person or animal in their way, the trio’s three-state crime spree came to a halt in Erath County, following what many longtime residents remember as three days of sheer terror that summer 41 years ago. Having already kidnapped two young women in New Mexico and killing a West Texas rancher whom one of the escapees resented, the convicts eventually landed in Erath County, a previous home of one. Leading more than 200 lawmen from federal, state and local police forces down the county’s backroads, the convicts terrorized and harmed citizens, killed several dogs and murdered a woman north of Huckabay simply “because she got in the way of their hunt for a fast car, guns and ammunition,” Knight explained.
“I interviewed at least one person from every place that was broken into,” Knight said about researching those six Erath County households for Death List, published in 2012. Despite a time-lapse of over four decades, the author recalled common denominators among the victims she interviewed: “They were all very much traumatized and had very clear memories—so much so, I was able to write creatively with dialogue; the story told itself,” she said. “Once I got into it, I was very much consumed by it—one of those, ‘The story got a hold of me.’”
Even in her initial stages of research, Knight was admonished by a former police officer that had been involved in the siege. When she approached him for an interview, “He said, ‘Don’t write this book if you know what’s good for you,’” Knight recalled. “It was fear; plain and simple. It was fear,” she surmised about his harsh reaction. “I respected that; he was afraid that Jerry Ben Ulmer was out on parole and would come get him.”
The crisis was riddled with terror—profoundly impacting the community, officers of the law and local officials, Knight said, noting how eerily reminiscent the event was compared to this summer’s prison outbreak by two convicts in New York. One especially frightening moment during those days in 1974 was when the Texas Rangers notified then-District Attorney Bob Glasgow. “They told him these convicts were after him and to take precaution,” Knight said. “Rumors emerged they had a death list.”
She conducted 60 interviews before completing Death List; afterward, Knight began to rethink her fascination with researching and writing about justice—a passion and second career since retiring as a teacher of mostly history for 31 years in 2004. Becoming the mind of a killer also includes diagnosing what makes that person proverbially tick; and it’s discovering the heartbreaking, yet fascinating impacts to victims, too—sometimes uncovering private, gut-wrenching facts of which no one has previously spoken. Writing about evil and its often permanent side effects is an emotional process—exacerbated because it is mostly carried out in silence. The creative process itself is cerebral and conducted in isolation – a phenomenon which arguably parallels the silent, private anguish a victim of heinous crime endures and attempts to process over time.
One of those experiences of which Knight became acquainted while researching Death List occurred when she located one of the young women kidnapped by the escapees. Knight discovered the women were abducted from their vehicle in New Mexico and brought to Texas, witnessing the convicts’ actions prior to their entry into Erath County. With the aid of a mutual friend, the author was able to obtain an interview with the woman, Janice Marie Lefever, now a Colorado resident. “She was terrified, but ended up suffering a bit from Stockholm,” Knight said about Lefever’s torment. During the interview, Knight came to her own conclusion that Lefever suffered from Stockholm Syndrome, the psychological occurrence in which hostages empathize, have positive feelings toward and even defend their captors. Lefever was 22 at the time of the abduction.
“One man (Dalton Williams) raped her repeatedly,” Knight said about Lefever’s experience. When the men finally released the women in a hotel room in Graham, “they were told to wait one hour before calling the police; and they did,” Knight said about the seeming oddity that the women obeyed—even after their captors left. Williams also gave Lefever a note to give to his mother. “She still had that note in her billfold,” Knight said incredulously. “She sent me the note,” the author revealed, adding it has been donated to the Stephenville museum.
The convicts’ three-day reign of terror came to an end after barking dogs alerted law enforcement to the escapees running across the Wise Ranch on the Lingleville Highway—ironic since the men shot several dogs during their crime spree. One convict was killed; the other two were taken into custody and eventually accepted a plea bargain ahead of imprisonment.
“At this point, I’d already decided writing about people who got on the wrong side of the law wasn’t good for me,” Knight said recently from her 1891 home near downtown Stephenville. “I just don’t think I want to do this anymore—getting inside the minds of people who are evil is just not how I want to spend my life…When it took over my dreams—that’s when I decided enough is enough.”
Nevertheless, the book has been a hit and remains sold out. And while the five-time author subsequently has declined numerous crime research and writing projects following her epitome, Knight has agreed to take part in the upcoming Sundown on the Square fundraiser October 10th benefiting the museum; the event will coincide with the institution’s annual By Gone Days on the Bosque celebration.
The idea for Sundown on the Square was hatched by a female group of community volunteers after a few of the women—Metta Collier, Brenda Taylor and Stephenville City Secretary Cindy Stafford—were at The Fitness Center in Stephenville early one morning. While on the elliptical machines, the trio began talking about those days of terror, and how Taylor’s own father had been shot by one of the convicts. “Back then there was just three TV stations—ABC, NBC & CBS,” Collier recalled; “and they were all here. All the streets were desolate, except for black (Chevrolet) Blazers with lawmen.”
Initially, the women thought they’d ask Knight to release more copies for a book signing, Collier explained; then Collier relayed the possibilities of the event to her good friend, Marion Cole. “We discussed the idea and then it just grew,” Collier said. Stephenville resident Patricia Weldon and Diane Wilson, secretary of the Stephenville Historical House Museum Board, were soon helping with brainstorming. Eventually, the group was ready to enlist Knight—the key to launching their innovative plan to raise money for the museum.
Knight remembered how she was introduced to the fundraiser. “Diane Wilson called me and asked me to lunch with Metta Collier and some other ladies,” the author noted. “I had no idea what it was about.” During the meeting, Collier relayed the group’s plan to feature a community event that would take place in conjunction with her personal passion, By Gone Days on the Bosque—an added event that would commemorate more recent days of yore and simultaneously raise funds for the repairs needed for the Center Grove Schoolhouse. “She said, ‘We have an idea for a fundraiser and it all depends on whether you’ll agree to be a part of it,’” Knight recalled about Collier’s pitch.
If the author would agree, Sundown on the Square would entirely be centered on Death List, Collier explained. Knight was perplexed – the book had been sold out for a year and was only available as an E-reader; Collier then asked Knight if she would consider releasing more copies. “I said, ‘I’ll go you one better and make sure the book will be printed as a hardback copy,’” Knight said. Following the meeting, the group took their plan to the museum board for approval. Soon, longtime Stephenville resident “Jane Hickie got involved—she was actually the one who came up with the name of the event,” Collier noted; “then we went to July Danley (Chamber of Commerce CEO and President) to discuss how to best utilize the Stephenville downtown square to host Sundown on the Square.”
Many others have been instrumental to organizing what Collier hopes will become an annual event, including Cross Timbers Fine Arts Council Executive Director Julie Crouch who will host a children’s art contest; Jody Caudle and Dan Delgado who are handling live music arrangements; and Miller Wells and Opal Black who will donate artwork for raffles. There will be vendors, including food, wine and beer and a photo booth inside a vintage 1970s van. “Stephenville’s fortunate to have a group of workers who love the community and give back,” Collier said, emphasizing many others also are helping. She’s especially thrilled Knight will release 100 hardback copy editions of Death List to be promoted as a collector’s item; each book will be numbered and signed by the author, along with some of those folks she interviewed, and given as an appreciation gift for anyone donating $100 or more to the museum’s restoration project.
Knight experienced her first critical acclaim with her first book, Tom P’s Fiddle, a true story about her great, great uncle, Tom P. Varnell written in 2008. Her entry into the literary world wasn’t exactly planned. Following retirement, she’d been helping plan a family reunion and discovered Varnell’s history: he had killed a man. “I became very, very interested,” she recalled, and began wondering, ‘Was he a good guy, or a bad guy?” What started out as a two-year research project soon developed into Knight’s initial effort at writing about being “on the wrong side of law,” she said. “I became very fascinated with justice—especially justice in Texas…His story turned out to be wilder than any Wild West movie,” she said, adding Varnell was subjected to five trials during the 1880s in Texas, and then lived in jail for a year while deliberations ensued before being found guilty. “He had killed a man in self-defense,” she explained, yet spent nine years in prison following the verdict; he was subsequently pardoned by the governor.
Tom P’s Fiddle was written in a fashion that would become Knight’s signature style. “It put me into a part of what’s called ‘creative, non-fiction,’” she explained—a manner of writing about historical facts, while using so-called poetic license to fictionalize some of the dialogue to keep the story flowing and connecting elements.
Critics took notice. In 2009, Knight entered Tom P’s Fiddle into the North Texas Book Festival, with the book placing in the top three of entries. The recognition helped her with book sales—especially since she was self-publishing. She also knew the key to sales would be to identify the correct target audience. Realizing that she needed to market her book to genealogy groups enabled her to sell more copies of Tom P’s Fiddle than any book she’s written. “I did not write the book to become famous,” she stated. “I wrote it as a story that needed to be told.”
Knight continued to be interested in how justice worked in 19th Century Texas, with her research leading her to write her next three books, Vigilante to Verdicts: Stories from a Texas District Court and co-written with James Pylant, The Oldest Profession in Texas: Waco’s Legal Red Light District, the latter about the only town in the state where prostitution was legal (1889 to 1917). A companion book, Who’s Who Among Early Waco’s Pimps, Madams, Prostitutes & Shady Ladies, was also published. “After these books, I began wondering, ‘What’s next?’” she remembered, adding her thoughts evolved to asking, “What was the biggest criminal event in Erath County?” The rest is proverbial history.
“I am very excited about Sundown on the Square,” Knight said. “I am amazed and awed at the women who decided to make this a reality. I am humbled they decided to center it around my book.”
But what’s next for the author? The next chapter of her career likely will be a hybrid of her work as an intuitive historical writer and teacher. Holding dual Bachelor’s degrees in English and History and a Master’s degree from Tarleton State University (coincidentally, her husband and editor, Arden, holds like degrees), she will continue to research, but potentially more serene historical occurrences. “We’re hoping to open a research facility at the museum in the spring—for those looking into history and local genealogy,” she said.
“The research part of all my books is my favorite thing,” Knight explained when asked where her passion will lead her next. “I follow every rabbit down every rabbit hole.” As for where that next rabbit leads her: the story remains untold.