Editor’s Note: This is the first in a five-day series recalling paroled sex offender Jerry Walter McFadden’s murderous 1986 crime spree that terrorized a region and influenced the way Texas deals with prison overcrowding.
HAWKINS – On a clear May 4, 1986 evening, Suzanne Harrison, 18, and her best friend, Gena Turner, 20, waved goodbye to their families, jumped in the car and headed out on an ill-fated ride around Lake Hawkins.
It was a journey the young women had made many times before, mostly to soak up a few rays at a popular beachside teenage hangout spot called “the point.”
But on this particular day, they left the beach towels and portable radio behind. Their journey was not so much about tanning, but about meeting up with a friend, Bryan Boone, 19, and taking a slow cruise around the water’s edge.
It would be several gut-churning days before the bodies of all three young people were discovered, sparking a murder investigation and manhunt of historic proportions, the likes of which East Texas had never seen.
In the end, Jerry Walter McFadden, 38, a three-time convicted rapist, was arrested for the slayings.
And before that horrible summer of 1986 drew to a close, a contingency of residents, still reeling from loss, would be demanding prison reform from Texas lawmakers, so no other town would have to suffer a similar fate.
It’s been 30 years since some of Hawkins’ best and brightest young people were murdered, yet many in the community are still coming to terms with the loss.
"It was one of the first times we had a major crime in the area," said former Wood County Sheriff's deputy and retired constable David Barber, a 38-year lawman. "Before that happened, you never locked your doors, you left your car keys in the car and your shotgun in the window. At that time, we'd never had anything like that happen here."
“It was one of the first times we had a major crime in the area. Before that happened, you never locked your doors, you left your car keys in the car and your shotgun in the window. At that time, we’d never had anything like that happen here.”
— Former Wood County Sheriff’s deputy and retired constable David Barber, a 38-year lawman
Decades later the violence which unfolded that summer continues to defy explanation and understanding.
“It seems like yesterday and always will,” said Glyndia Lane, Suzanne’s aunt. “You never get over it, you just learn to live with it. I think this is the worst thing to ever happen in Hawkins, Texas. They were all good kids … they were the cream of the crop.”
The murders took place during a time when the state of Texas was reducing its prison populations to save money, free up space and avoid building new prisons.
At that time, prisoners were granted excessive time off their sentences for good behavior, essentially opening the spigot for releases.
Among those chosen for early freedom was McFadden, described as a violent, repeat offender, who came up with his own, however fitting, nickname: “Animal.”
Physically, McFadden cast an imposing shadow.
He was a big, wild-haired man whose body was covered in devilish looking tattoos featuring contorted faces and satanic imagery.
This menacing appearance seemed to be amplified by his less than seventh grade education, long history of mental instability and an inner fury that was unpredictable, violent and sometimes unbridled.
He was violent with women, finding pleasure in stalking and then overpowering females that interested him, according to officials and prison records.
His actions resulted in three convictions that should have kept him behind bars for years.
But the laws of that time weren’t bent in favor of victims.
McFadden was granted parole in 1985 after serving less than five years of a 15-year sentence for aggravated sexual abuse of a young secretary.
Originally from Haskell, Texas, he was allowed to move to the small community of Hawkins to live with his mother and sister.
It was his second parole. His first parole, for a double rape, was granted after serving less tan five years.
The parole office in Tyler and area law enforcement knew about him, but most people in Hawkins had no direct knowledge of his presence or violent past.
The parolee agreed initially to follow the rules, which amounted to the obvious: get a job, save money, report in, attend counseling and stay out of trouble.
If he succeeded at these things, even for a while, the cash-strapped Texas penal system would be spared the cost of feeding and housing him.
But there was just one problem — McFadden didn’t like following rules.
He preferred breaking them, it seemed.
The state’s parole board may have hoped for more when they agreed to give the serial rapist another shot at freedom.
What he actually got was the opportunity to reoffend, again and again.
For the next five days, the Tyler Morning Telegraph plans to re-examine the case that ripped away the innocence of a small town and traumatized a region.
Many of the details and photos of those difficult days come from the newspaper’s archives and journalists of the day, who followed the story from the disappearances to McFadden’s trial and eventual execution by lethal injection.
The series also includes recent interviews with some people directly affected by the murders and updates on their lives today.
Some are in new places in their lives; others are still unable to conquer the despair that arises after such senseless acts.
Others contacted through friends, relatives, electronic media or traditional mail chose not to talk about the painful chapter in their lives.
‘CREAM OF THE CROP’
Hawkins could be described as a largely blue-collar town built on the sweat and sore muscles of the oil industry.
The town historically offered reasonable, affordable housing for workers and a plentiful infusion of cash when the oil field was booming.
Exxon was once a major employer in the area, and the Hawkins school district enjoyed the benefits of being its neighbor.
It was, and remains, a close-knit community of common sense values, where people look out for one another and scold other people’s children if they need it.
During the 1980s, when Suzanne, Gena and Bryan were growing up there, many people didn’t think much about leaving their front doors unlocked.
If a purse was inadvertently left in the car overnight, it was still there the next morning.
And if someone got in trouble at school, they could count on getting in trouble at home, too.
The three young people who disappeared from Lake Hawkins and were murdered weren’t on the naughty list at school.
“It seems like yesterday and always will. You never get over it, you just learn to live with it. I think this is the worst thing to ever happen in Hawkins, Texas. They were all good kids … they were the cream of the crop.”
— Glyndia Lane, Suzanne’s aunt
Suzanne, remembered for her infectious grin, was a graduating senior and cheerleader. She was active in several organizations, including band, National Honor Society and Future Teachers of America, acquiring a job later at a local pharmacy.
The beautiful Gena, voted Miss Hawkins High School, was academically gifted and valedictorian of the 1984 graduating class. At the time of her death, she was attending Tyler Junior College and dreamed of being a nurse.
Handsome Bryan, recalled as an all around “good guy,” was an above-average student and gifted athlete, who played both football and basketball before attending Tyler Junior College.
At the time of his death, Bryan lived at the lake with his uncle, which was a positive for Suzanne and Gena, who were always on the lookout for an excuse to head to its sparkling shores.
The trio planned to ride around in the cool night air, but they didn’t make it back by curfew. To everyone’s horror and disbelief, they never made it home at all.
At the time of their disappearance and murders, it was common for young people to spend hours at Lake Hawkins, hanging out at “the point.”
Teenagers would gather each weekend by the dozens at the point to enjoy the freedom of youth … lazing on the sandy beach listening to music on car radios and rubbing a baby oil-iodine blend on sun-drenched skin.
They felt safe at the lake and largely insulated from the world that lay beyond the piney curtain of trees that surrounded it.
McFadden, the paroled sex offender, felt safe there, too.
He was known to camp not too far from the point, where rolling waves crashed against the rugged shoreline and pretty girls flirted with the guys.
McFadden didn’t have the same type of teenage experience the kids in Hawkins enjoyed.
His life seemed to unravel even before reaching adulthood.
The former Haskell, Texas, oil field worker dropped out of school before completing junior high, and by 19 was married to a girl, who was 15.
The couple had two children before divorcing several years later, after his repeated brushes with the law.
State records indicate McFadden was convicted on a burglary charge in 1966 and destruction of property in 1968.
By 1973, he was convicted for two rape offenses in Denton and Haskell counties for separate attacks on a 14-year-old girl and a junior high school teacher.
He was sentenced to concurrent stays in the Texas Department of Corrections, but was paroled in 1978 after serving only a few years.
McFadden was still on parole when he was convicted of a 1979 aggravated sexual assault of an 18-year-old West Texas secretary in Shackelford County, records show.
He received another 15-year prison sentence, but walked out again on parole on July 17, 1985, after telling authorities he would follow the terms of his release.
Wood County authorities protested vigorously after learning McFadden intended to settle in the Hawkins area.
"I wrote the parole board and asked them not to parole him to this area," then-sheriff Frank White said in a May 13, 1986 newspaper. "I asked them to parole him back to West Texas, where the officials there knew his habits and could better keep an eye on him."
But McFadden’s parole to East Texas was granted anyway, in spite of White’s objections.
After moving to Wood County for a fresh start, McFadden tried for a while to follow the rules, but he couldn’t stay out of trouble.
On the same day the three friends disappeared, McFadden — just months into his release — was trying to stay one step ahead of authorities.
He matched the description of a wild-haired, tattooed man who approached a couple at Lake Hawkins about 7:45 p.m., asking for money and a quick sexual encounter.
The suspect pulled a weapon, but eventually let the couple leave after they convinced him they had no cash, records show.
They left him standing near a blue-and-white Bronco-type vehicle and reported the incident to authorities.
A few hours later, family members of Suzanne, Gena and Bryan started worrying after the trio failed to show up after their ride around the lake.
Bryan’s brother located his truck abandoned about a half-mile from where the couple was confronted at gunpoint.
A search was launched and neighbors reported seeing the missing friends with a scruffy man in a blue-and-white vehicle, possibly a Chevrolet Blazer or Ford Bronco.
Authorities were eager to locate the unkempt man. Suzanne’s body was located the following day and by May 6, officers stopped the suspect vehicle near Loop 564 and State Highway 37, north of Mineola.
The man behind the wheel was McFadden.
He was taken into custody and jailed in Wood County on suspicion of aggravated robbery with a bond of $100,000.
Authorities were still questioning him about Suzanne’s death and Gena and Bryan’s disappearances when two more bodies surfaced.