Sunday, January 26, 1997
In prison for years, wife awaits new trial in husband's death
GATESVILLE - Susie Mowbray, dressed in
her prison whites,
out a final comment from the doorway of the Gatesville
""It's unbelievable that in
America this could happen to me,"
says, brushing stray blond curls from her face.
eight years of a life sentence for the 1987 murder of her
J.W. ""Bill" Mowbray, a prominent Brownsville Cadillac
""Bill shot himself,"
she insists. ""I was in bed with him."
Now the Texas Court of Criminal
Appeals has thrown out her
and ordered a new trial.
And in Brownsville, there are many who
agree the 1988 trial
Fredda Sue ""Susie" Mowbray was an unbelievable miscarriage
""They want to win, that's
it. The prosecutors want to win,"
Larry Holtzman, a businessman who was a friend of Bill
""I've learned the lesson that if you're guilty,
get off. But if you're innocent, you're going to spend
long time in jail."
Friends and associates say Bill
Mowbray was a handsome man, 43
old, generous and loyal to those he liked. They also say
was given to dramatic mood swings, compulsive spending,
and dependence on pain pills.
At the time of his death, Mowbray
Motors was near collapse
he had duped banks into making multiple loans on new
an illegal scheme known as ""double
floor planning." The
was also investigating Mowbray for tax evasion, and he had
Luke Fruia, then the dealership's
general manager and now its
described Bill Mowbray as ""a very good, generous and
man," who would stop people on the street and give them
But Fruia also said Mowbray would stay
in his office with the
shut for weeks without talking to anyone.
""He was a compulsive
spender. Instead of buying one shirt,
buy 12," said Fruia, recalling how Mowbray ordered a
Italian shotgun the same day he reported the
was out of money. ""He was a very smart businessman.
just couldn't control his expenses."
Fruia also recalled his boss confiding
that tax problems would
land him in federal prison. ""I will never go to jail. I
kill myself before I go to jail," he quoted Mowbray as
a few months before his death.
""Bill had been threatening
suicide for three years, so I had
living with that black cloud," recalls Susie Mowbray.
had become self-destructive in just about every aspect
his life. The only family he had was me."
Fruia and other family friends agree
the couple loved each
but their marriage - the second for both - often was
There were separations; Susie moved to Austin at one
Bill had affairs, friends said.
The couple's live-in maid testified at
Susie Mowbray's trial
she once saw Bill Mowbray waving a gun in his car while
was sitting next to him. On another occasion, the maid
he shot at Susie in the house.
WADE BURNETT, Susie Mowbray's son from
her first marriage,
a teen-ager when his mother was sent to prison. Convinced
her innocence, he has since raised $20,000 to hire a new
(His dad was Susie's first lawyer.)
""If someone will look at
this case objectively, without bias,
is only one conclusion you can reach - that Bill Mowbray
suicide. I believe that down to my core," said
now a law student at Louisiana State University.
Late last year, Fort Worth appellate
attorney Robert Ford
the state's highest criminal court that the
blood spatter expert gave false testimony during
Mowbray's murder trial. The court also agreed the state
critical evidence from another blood expert who had
Mowbray's death was probably a suicide.
Susie Mowbray insists corrupt
investigators and prosecutors at
Cameron County district attorney's office framed her for
husband's murder. And recent events cast some doubt on the
Since her conviction, a respected
investigator in the office
himself after confessing to superiors he had lied from
witness stand to win convictions in another murder case.
Last month, another investigator in
the office pleaded guilty
charges that he pocketed cash in exchange for dismissing or
dozens of criminal cases. The secretary of former
Attorney Luis Saenz (an assistant DA when Mowbray
trial) faces similar charges.
Saenz, who was not implicated in the
case-fixing scandal, was
in the last election. He has not returned phone calls
comment on the Mowbray prosecution in which he
""Now I am sad, that you
fight that hard and that long, and
we get six judges (to order a new trial) . . . and the
still protects those who did this to me," says Mowbray.
men had unchecked power, and unchecked power can be
But there are others in Brownsville
who believe Susie Mowbray
either because of mistreatment by her husband or to inherit
than $1 million in insurance money - killed him while he
in their two-story lakeside home north of town.
The officer who headed the murder
Lt. George Gavito, believes Mowbray killed her
because he was planning to divorce her and remove her
beneficiary on several life insurance policies.
""Susie Mowbray is so guilty
that she makes O.J. Simpson and
Cisneros look like amateurs," said Gavito, referring to
local woman who was convicted in a murder-for-hire
""She is the best actor I have ever seen in my life."
""There was plenty more
evidence besides that (blood spatter
to convict her," added Scott Mowbray, a cousin of
deceased. ""There was a whole lot more at the crime scene
shows this is not a suicide."
IN 1988, Cameron County authorities
built their murder case
Sheriff's deputies and emergency
medical workers who arrived
the Mowbray home about 3 a.m. on Sept. 16, 1987, testified
they found Bill Mowbray in bed, lying on his left side, a
pulled up to his shoulders. He had been shot in the
side of his head toward the back, and the bullet went
the left side, through a pillow and into his left
""When the EMS people came
on the scene, he was laying in bed
the right arm he supposedly shot himself with covered by
blanket," said Scott Mowbray.
The bullet's path indicated Mowbray
had to fire the revolver
an awkward position behind his head, his cousin said. ""He
have to be a contortionist in order for him to fire the
that way," he said.
On the night of the shooting, Gavito
said, he asked Susie
why she had not returned to the upstairs master
to comfort her dying husband after she telephoned for
""She says, 'One time I ran
over a dog . . . and I almost threw
I can't stand the sight of blood,' " Gavito said.
""I said, 'This is your
husband, not a dog.'
""Then she said, 'Oh, wait.
I remember I did go upstairs, and I
next to him and I prayed and prayed.'
""Give me a break,"
""The house was full of
people, but I don't remember," Susie
recalls in an interview in prison. ""Someone would come
and say, 'He's dead.' Then someone would come down and
'He's still alive.' It was just surreal."
Bill Mowbray officially was pronounced dead at the hospital.
Investigators at the crime scene
recovered a .357 caliber
that was found next to the victim and one bullet that
in the pillow.
But tests by a pathologist revealed no
traces of blood, bone
brain matter on Mowbray's right hand, residue normally
when someone shoots himself in the head.
""This death was a
murder," Dr. Lawrence Dahm would later tell
Investigators also said the crime
scene was disturbed by
friends who helped Susie Mowbray paint the bedroom and
rid of stained furniture after investigators left the
the day of the shooting. Mowbray wasn't arrested as a
in the case until months later.
Susie Mowbray maintains it was not
her, but the investigators
tampered with the crime scene. She claims her husband was
covered with a comforter when she left him to summon help,
that the bloody T-shirt he had been wearing and a blue
""All of that is fantasy.
Somebody created it," Susie Mowbray
She also claims authorities washed
blood and powder residue
her husband's right hand to make it appear his death was
However, her appellate lawyer said he
could find nothing in
court record to support those claims other than the
In the days before his death, Susie
Mowbray says, her husband
been upset because Fruia, the dealership's general
was moving to Dallas to take another job at the end
When she woke up that night, she says,
her husband was in bed
her, holding the loaded pistol and moaning and crying.
""I know I tried to talk him
out of it. I begged him," she
""I can't tell you how long we talked, three to five
maybe. I don't know.
""He said he was going to
count, and that's when I lost it" and
to scream, Mowbray says.
Mowbray says that after the shooting,
she took two of her
pain pills to calm herself and several more later
her parents arrived. Today, she says her memory of the
events is spotty. She doesn't remember the shot, she
A KEY PIECE of evidence that
prosecutors used to convict
Mowbray was the nightgown she wore that night; it was
central to her winning a new trial.
Austin police Detective Dusty Hesskew,
a blood spatter expert,
that the front of Mowbray's nightgown had blood
consistent with someone kneeling on the bed and
a person lying on the bed.
""I don't believe it was a suicide,"
Hesskew told the jury.
The spatter evidence was critical to
the state's case because
contradicted Susie Mowbray's statement to police that she
lying down in bed next to her husband when he killed
Despite her contention now that she
pleaded with her husband
to shoot himself, she told police that night that a
by her husband woke her up, and when she reached up
touch his arm, the pistol fired.
State experts found gunshot residue on
the right sleeve of
nightgown, although officers said she indicated she
with her left hand.
During the trial, then-District
Attorney Ben Euresti Jr.,
the couple's king-size bed with mirrored headboards as
exhibit, rolled onto the bed to demonstrate how the state
Susan Mowbray murdered her husband. Rising from the
bed, Euresti kneeled over a dummy and shoved the
against its head.
Jurors also learned Susie Mowbray was
the beneficiary of three
her husband's life insurance policies worth $1.3 million
that her husband was planning to remove her from the
A dealership employee testified that Susie Mowbray
examined the insurance papers before her husband's death,
the widow says her husband asked her to.
""Most people down here who
know her say they think it's
for her to take a gun and shoot someone, and I find
hard to believe myself. She's not that type of a person,"
Scott Mowbray, Bill's cousin. ""The only thing I can think
is the insurance money."
After her conviction was upheld by a
Corpus Christi appeals
Mowbray asked the Court of Criminal Appeals in Austin
hold a hearing on new claims that her defense team was
at trial and that perjured testimony was given.
At a 1995 hearing, Hesskew, the blood spatter expert, recanted
trial testimony about the pattern of microscopic stains on
nightgown. He said he had assumed an earlier test had
the stains were blood, but had since learned the
testimony, and the conclusions he drew,
was another equally reasonable hypothesis other than
Mowbray's) guilt: Mowbray's death was suicide or an
concluded District Judge Darrell Hester.
Hester also blasted prosecutors for
days before trial, evidence that could have been
to the defense.
The prosecution team had hired Herbert
MacDonell, a top blood
expert, seven months before trial and took the
and other evidence to his New York laboratory for
MacDonell told prosecutors he could find no pattern
blood spatter, and concluded it was more probable Bill
Susie Mowbray's attorney did not get
MacDonell's report until
days before trial, and only after prosecutors were
with sanctions by the trial judge.
""The state's conduct in
connection with MacDonell was, at
questionable trial strategy, and, at worst, intentional
of (Susie Mowbray's) counsel," Hester wrote in
a new trial.
Without time to prepare for
MacDonell's testimony, Mowbray's
relied instead on a blood expert to refute Hesskew's
It was a serious mistake in judgment.
Hester concluded that if
jury had heard MacDonell's testimony, Susie Mowbray
would have been acquitted.
""I think the original
conviction now has been shown to be
tainted," said Ford, Susie Mowbray's current attorney.
(prosecutors) had an original report by MacDonell that
Mrs. Mowbray, and they sat on that for months and
Despite the latest court's ruling,
Susie Mowbray's fight to
out of prison is far from over.
On Dec. 31, the last day District
Attorney Saenz was in
he filed a motion asking the Court of Criminal Appeals
reconsider its order for a new trial. The court has not yet
on that motion.
Yolanda de Leon, who defeated Saenz
last year and became the
attorney on Jan. 1, said last week she believes there
enough other evidence presented at the 1988 trial to
Mowbray's murder conviction. She said a decision on
to hold a second trial will be made after reviewing
and the availability of witnesses.
""Hey, she may not get
out," said attorney Ford, noting the
court could reverse itself. ""This ain't no sure bet,
""We don't know if there is
going to be another trial, or even
this decision is going to stand," added Mowbray's son,
""We're trying not to look too far ahead."
For now, Susie Mowbray must wait in
her cell at Gatesville.
""They have made me out to
be the bad person, and I am not,"
said, holding her face in her hands. ""I tried to save him.
tried to save him numerous times. I loved Bill."