Houston Chronicle
Sunday, January 26, 1997

JUSTICE IN LIMBO:
In prison for years, wife awaits new trial in husband's death

by JAMES PINKERTON

 

   GATESVILLE - Susie Mowbray, dressed in her prison whites,

blurts out a final comment from the doorway of the Gatesville

Unit.

 

  ""It's unbelievable that in America this could happen to me,"

she says, brushing stray blond curls from her face.

 

    Mowbray, 48, still proclaims her innocence after serving more

than eight years of a life sentence for the 1987 murder of her

husband J.W. ""Bill" Mowbray, a prominent Brownsville Cadillac

dealer.

 

  ""Bill shot himself," she insists. ""I was in bed with him."

 

  Now the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals has thrown out her

conviction and ordered a new trial.

 

   And in Brownsville, there are many who agree the 1988 trial

of Fredda Sue ""Susie" Mowbray was an unbelievable miscarriage

of justice.

 

  ""They want to win, that's it. The prosecutors want to win,"

said Larry Holtzman, a businessman who was a friend of Bill

Mowbray. ""I've learned the lesson that if you're guilty,

you'll get off. But if you're innocent, you're going to spend

a long time in jail."

 

  Friends and associates say Bill Mowbray was a handsome man, 43

years old, generous and loyal to those he liked. They also say

he was given to dramatic mood swings, compulsive spending,

womanizing and dependence on pain pills.

 

  At the time of his death, Mowbray Motors was near collapse

because he had duped banks into making multiple loans on new

cars, an illegal scheme known as  ""double floor planning." The

IRS was also investigating Mowbray for tax evasion, and he had

attempted suicide twice.

 

  Luke Fruia, then the dealership's general manager and now its

owner, described Bill Mowbray as ""a very good, generous and

kind man," who would stop people on the street and give them

money.

 

  But Fruia also said Mowbray would stay in his office with the

door shut for weeks without talking to anyone.

 

  ""He was a compulsive spender. Instead of buying one shirt,

he'd buy 12," said Fruia, recalling how Mowbray ordered a

$12,000 Italian shotgun the same day he reported the

dealership was out of money. ""He was a very smart businessman.

He just couldn't control his expenses."

 

  Fruia also recalled his boss confiding that tax problems would

likely land him in federal prison. ""I will never go to jail. I

will kill myself before I go to jail," he quoted Mowbray as

saying a few months before his death.

 

  ""Bill had been threatening suicide for three years, so I had

been living with that black cloud," recalls Susie Mowbray.

""Bill had become self-destructive in just about every aspect

of his life. The only family he had was me."

 

  Fruia and other family friends agree the couple loved each

other, but their marriage - the second for both - often was

stormy. There were separations; Susie moved to Austin at one

point. Bill had affairs, friends said.

 

  The couple's live-in maid testified at Susie Mowbray's trial

that she once saw Bill Mowbray waving a gun in his car while

Susie was sitting next to him. On another occasion, the maid

said, he shot at Susie in the house.

 

   WADE BURNETT, Susie Mowbray's son from her first marriage,

was a teen-ager when his mother was sent to prison. Convinced

of her innocence, he has since raised $20,000 to hire a new

lawyer. (His dad was Susie's first lawyer.)

 

  ""If someone will look at this case objectively, without bias,

there is only one conclusion you can reach - that Bill Mowbray

committed suicide. I believe that down to my core," said

Burnett, now a law student at Louisiana State University.

 

  Late last year, Fort Worth appellate attorney Robert Ford

convinced the state's highest criminal court that the

prosecution's blood spatter expert gave false testimony during

Susie Mowbray's murder trial. The court also agreed the state

suppressed critical evidence from another blood expert who had

concluded Mowbray's death was probably a suicide.

 

  Susie Mowbray insists corrupt investigators and prosecutors at

the Cameron County district attorney's office framed her for

her husband's murder. And recent events cast some doubt on the

office's credibility.

 

  Since her conviction, a respected investigator in the office

killed himself after confessing to superiors he had lied from

the witness stand to win convictions in another murder case.

 

  Last month, another investigator in the office pleaded guilty

to charges that he pocketed cash in exchange for dismissing or

reducing dozens of criminal cases. The secretary of former

District Attorney Luis Saenz (an assistant DA when Mowbray

stood trial) faces similar charges.

 

  Saenz, who was not implicated in the case-fixing scandal, was

defeated in the last election. He has not returned phone calls

seeking comment on the Mowbray prosecution in which he

participated.

 

  ""Now I am sad, that you fight that hard and that long, and

finally we get six judges (to order a new trial) . . . and the

system still protects those who did this to me," says Mowbray.

""These men had unchecked power, and unchecked power can be

evil."

 

  But there are others in Brownsville who believe Susie Mowbray

- either because of mistreatment by her husband or to inherit

more than $1 million in insurance money - killed him while he

slept in their two-story lakeside home north of town.

 

  The officer who headed the murder investigation, former

sheriff's Lt. George Gavito, believes Mowbray killed her

husband because he was planning to divorce her and remove her

as beneficiary on several life insurance policies.

 

  ""Susie Mowbray is so guilty that she makes O.J. Simpson and

Dora Cisneros look like amateurs," said Gavito, referring to

another local woman who was convicted in a murder-for-hire

scheme. ""She is the best actor I have ever seen in my life."

 

  ""There was plenty more evidence besides that (blood spatter

testimony) to convict her," added Scott Mowbray, a cousin of

the deceased. ""There was a whole lot more at the crime scene

that shows this is not a suicide."

 

   IN 1988, Cameron County authorities built their murder case

on circumstantial evidence.

 

  Sheriff's deputies and emergency medical workers who arrived

at the Mowbray home about 3 a.m. on Sept. 16, 1987, testified

that they found Bill Mowbray in bed, lying on his left side, a

comforter pulled up to his shoulders. He had been shot in the

right side of his head toward the back, and the bullet went

through the left side, through a pillow and into his left

hand.

 

  ""When the EMS people came on the scene, he was laying in bed

with the right arm he supposedly shot himself with covered by

the blanket," said Scott Mowbray.

 

  The bullet's path indicated Mowbray had to fire the revolver

from an awkward position behind his head, his cousin said. ""He

would have to be a contortionist in order for him to fire the

gun that way," he said.

 

  On the night of the shooting, Gavito said, he asked Susie

Mowbray why she had not returned to the upstairs master

bedroom to comfort her dying husband after she telephoned for

help.

 

  ""She says, 'One time I ran over a dog . . . and I almost threw

up. 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

knelt next to him and I prayed and prayed.'

 

  ""Give me a break," Gavito said.

 

  ""The house was full of people, but I don't remember," Susie

Mowbray recalls in an interview in prison. ""Someone would come

down and say, 'He's dead.' Then someone would come down and

say, '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

revolver that was found next to the victim and one bullet that

was in the pillow.

 

  But tests by a pathologist revealed no traces of blood, bone

or brain matter on Mowbray's right hand, residue normally

present when someone shoots himself in the head.

 

  ""This death was a murder," Dr. Lawrence Dahm would later tell

the jury.

 

  Investigators also said the crime scene was disturbed by

family friends who helped Susie Mowbray paint the bedroom and

get rid of stained furniture after investigators left the

house the day of the shooting. Mowbray wasn't arrested as a

suspect in the case until months later.

 

  Susie Mowbray maintains it was not her, but the investigators

who tampered with the crime scene. She claims her husband was

not covered with a comforter when she left him to summon help,

and that the bloody T-shirt he had been wearing and a blue

blanket disappeared.

 

  ""All of that is fantasy. Somebody created it," Susie Mowbray

said.

 

  She also claims authorities washed blood and powder residue

from her husband's right hand to make it appear his death was

not a suicide.

 

  However, her appellate lawyer said he could find nothing in

the court record to support those claims other than the

missing T-shirt.

 

  In the days before his death, Susie Mowbray says, her husband

had been upset because Fruia, the dealership's general

manager, was moving to Dallas to take another job at the end

of the week.

 

  When she woke up that night, she says, her husband was in bed

beside her, holding the loaded pistol and moaning and crying.

 

  ""I know I tried to talk him out of it. I begged him," she

says. ""I can't tell you how long we talked, three to five

minutes maybe. I don't know.

  ""He said he was going to count, and that's when I lost it" and

began to scream, Mowbray says.

 

  Mowbray says that after the shooting, she took two of her

husband's pain pills to calm herself and several more later

when her parents arrived. Today, she says her memory of the

night's events is spotty. She doesn't remember the shot, she

says.

 

  A KEY PIECE of evidence that prosecutors used to convict

Susie Mowbray was the nightgown she wore that night; it was

also central to her winning a new trial.

 

  Austin police Detective Dusty Hesskew, a blood spatter expert,

testified that the front of Mowbray's nightgown had blood

spatters consistent with someone kneeling on the bed and

shooting 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

it contradicted Susie Mowbray's statement to police that she

was lying down in bed next to her husband when he killed

himself.

 

  Despite her contention now that she pleaded with her husband

not to shoot himself, she told police that night that a

movement by her husband woke her up, and when she reached up

to touch his arm, the pistol fired.

 

  State experts found gunshot residue on the right sleeve of

Susie's nightgown, although officers said she indicated she

reached with her left hand.

 

  During the trial, then-District Attorney Ben Euresti Jr.,

using the couple's king-size bed with mirrored headboards as

an exhibit, rolled onto the bed to demonstrate how the state

believed Susan Mowbray murdered her husband. Rising from the

blood-stained bed, Euresti kneeled over a dummy and shoved the

revolver against its head.

 

  Jurors also learned Susie Mowbray was the beneficiary of three

of her husband's life insurance policies worth $1.3 million

and that her husband was planning to remove her from the

policies. A dealership employee testified that Susie Mowbray

had examined the insurance papers before her husband's death,

but the widow says her husband asked her to.

 

  ""Most people down here who know her say they think it's

impossible for her to take a gun and shoot someone, and I find

it hard to believe myself. She's not that type of a person,"

said Scott Mowbray, Bill's cousin. ""The only thing I can think

of is the insurance money."

 

  After her conviction was upheld by a Corpus Christi appeals

court, Mowbray asked the Court of Criminal Appeals in Austin

to hold a hearing on new claims that her defense team was

ineffective at trial and that perjured testimony was given.

 

  At a 1995 hearing, Hesskew, the blood spatter expert, recanted

his trial testimony about the pattern of microscopic stains on

Susie's nightgown. He said he had assumed an earlier test had

confirmed the stains were blood, but had since learned the

test was negative.

 

  ""Without Hesskew's testimony, and the conclusions he drew,

there was another equally reasonable hypothesis other than

(Susie Mowbray's) guilt: Mowbray's death was suicide or an

accident," concluded District Judge Darrell Hester.

 

  Hester also blasted prosecutors for intentionally concealing,

until days before trial, evidence that could have been

critical to the defense.

 

  The prosecution team had hired Herbert MacDonell, a top blood

spatter expert, seven months before trial and took the

nightgown and other evidence to his New York laboratory for

analysis. MacDonell told prosecutors he could find no pattern

of blood spatter, and concluded it was more probable Bill

Mowbray committed suicide.

 

  Susie Mowbray's attorney did not get MacDonell's report until

10 days before trial, and only after prosecutors were

threatened with sanctions by the trial judge.

 

  ""The state's conduct in connection with MacDonell was, at

best, questionable trial strategy, and, at worst, intentional

deception of (Susie Mowbray's) counsel," Hester wrote in

recommending a new trial.

 

  Without time to prepare for MacDonell's testimony, Mowbray's

defense relied instead on a blood expert to refute Hesskew's

testimony.

 

  It was a serious mistake in judgment. Hester concluded that if

the jury had heard MacDonell's testimony, Susie Mowbray

probably would have been acquitted.

 

  ""I think the original conviction now has been shown to be

totally tainted," said Ford, Susie Mowbray's current attorney.

""They (prosecutors) had an original report by MacDonell that

exonerated Mrs. Mowbray, and they sat on that for months and

months."

 

  Despite the latest court's ruling, Susie Mowbray's fight to

get out of prison is far from over.

 

  On Dec. 31, the last day District Attorney Saenz was in

office, he filed a motion asking the Court of Criminal Appeals

to reconsider its order for a new trial. The court has not yet

ruled on that motion.

 

  Yolanda de Leon, who defeated Saenz last year and became the

district attorney on Jan. 1, said last week she believes there

was enough other evidence presented at the 1988 trial to

support Mowbray's murder conviction. She said a decision on

whether to hold a second trial will be made after reviewing

evidence and the availability of witnesses.

 

  ""Hey, she may not get out," said attorney Ford, noting the

appeals court could reverse itself. ""This ain't no sure bet,

at all."

 

  ""We don't know if there is going to be another trial, or even

if this decision is going to stand," added Mowbray's son,

Burnett. ""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,"

she said, holding her face in her hands. ""I tried to save him.

I tried to save him numerous times. I loved Bill."