EL PASO, Texas (KTSM) – It was one of the most frightening times to be an El Pasoan.
And now it’s the focus of an upcoming one-hour episode of the award-winning Oxygen True Crime network series that will bring it back into the spotlight, called “Mark of a Serial Killer,” airing this Sunday night at 6 p.m. MST.
Back in the Summer of 1987, several teenage girls and young women disappeared in the Borderland, only to be found later the same year buried in shallow graves in the Northeast El Paso desert.
The victims’ ages ranged from just 14 to 24 years old. Five of the bodies were located in a one-half mile area near what is now Painted Dunes Golf Course. A sixth body was unearthed three quarters of a mile away.
Thirty-four year-old El Pasoan David Leonard Wood, later labeled “The Desert Killer,” would eventually be convicted of the murders in 1992 in Dallas, following a change of venue, and sentenced to death.
“These young victims were not troubled, they weren’t deliquents, they weren’t druggies,” said Pat LaLama, an Emmy Award winning investigative journalist and host of Oxygen’s “Mark of a Serial Killer,” who spent months interviewing those close to the case in El Paso. “Right under the noses of parents, of police, of prosecutors, this man was wreaking his heinous havoc on all these young women. Six that we know of and there are three others than may or may not be connected to him, in a very short period of time, over a Spring and Summer of one year…1987.”
LaLama, who previously spent five years working with John Walsh on the popular crime show “America’s Most Wanted,” said viewers who watch this latest “Mark of a Serial Killer” episode will learn a lot about about the now more than 30 year-old case and Wood, who remains on death row in Huntsville, Texas.
“What our viewers get to see is, where do you begin as a detective, how does it all start?” LaLama said during a recent interview with KTSM 9 News. “If you’re a real true crime fan, you’re going to learn something. It isn’t just telling people these sad, tragic stories of murder. It’s getting at helping people to understand the criminal justice system and how hard it is to solve a case.”
Wood, who escaped a scheduled execution date in 2009 with a court-ordered stay just 24 hours before lethal injection, was known to his victims as “Skeeter.”
In the Wood episode of “Mark of a Serial Killer,” forensic phychologist Joni Johnston analyzes the motivation for the murders.
“(Wood) has a tremendous amount of rage and anger towards women and sees them really as means for his own sexual gratification,” Johnston said. “He buries them in very shallow graves. This is not a tremendous amount of effort to disguise them. The burying part is symbolic for him. He’s kind of collecting these victims and it is interesting that he did bury them in pairs. ‘Here are my two girls here. Here are my two girls here.’ For him, it has some kind symbolic, maybe even spiritual significance. Almost as if they were maybe keeping each other company.”
REMEMBERING THE VICTIMS
Marcia Fulton, the now 69 year-old mother of then 15 year-old Wood victim Desiree Wheatley, still lives in Northeast El Paso. KTSM asked her if watching “Mark of a Serial Killer” will be difficult for her.
“If I’m watching it or I’m talking about it, I take my emotions and set them over here,” Fulton said, motioning to her side. “Then, later on, I get emotional. It’s a hard thing to try and separate those two.”
El Paso Police Department Detective John Guerrero describes in the Wood episode of “Mark of a Serial Killer” when detectives discovered Desiree’s body.
“They brought out shovels and rakes and picks and that kind of stuff,” Guerrero said. “We started excavating and digging. When we were real close to the body, we were using really small little whisk brooms to whisk all the dirt away from the body. The closer you got, the more you could smell the decomposition. I could tell that she was a very young lady, very young, petite and short in stature and this victim was nude. When I saw that she was nude, I immediately thought she was sexually assaulted.”
Fulton, who currently resides just a few miles from where her daughter’s body was found, still remembers vividly the last time she saw Desiree, who was a student at Terrace Hills Middle School at the time.
“It’s very detailed in my mind. I can see it, almost like a movie,” Fulton said. “She was walking toward school and then she turned around and started walking backwards, ‘Bye, Mom!’ I said, ‘Bye, see you later, love you’ and she goes, ‘Love you, too.’ That’s the last time I saw her.”
TRACKING A SERIAL KILLER
Police, scrambling due to the disappearance of so many young girls in a short period of time, zoned in on the area where Desiree disappeared.
“The police actually went to the principal in this school where the killer lived, very close by, and they set up shop and started interviewing students and they got a lot of information about Skeeter,” LaLama said. “They carefully crafted this investigation that finally led them to him.”
LaLama said the Wood episode of “Mark of a Serial Killer” will detail that investigation.
“This show really shows you from A to Z how a case is investigated and how deeply these detectives feel about solving a case,” she said. “These are very beautifully crafted episodes that take a lot of planning.”
What eventually led investigators to Wood was a victim named Judy Brown, who he took to the same area in the Northeast El Paso desert months earlier where the bodies were discovered, but got away. In “Mark of a Serial Killer,” detectives describe that encounter.
Det. Guerrero says in “Mark of a Serial Killer” that Brown coming forward was a major key to solving the case.
“So we tell her, ‘Can you take us to the location?’ She says, ‘I sure can,'” Guerrero said. “So we put her in our detective car and off we go. So she says, ‘Turn here.’ Then she says ‘Turn here.’ Then she says, ‘Stop, this is the spot.’ The assaut of Judy Brown was less than 100 to 125 yards away from where Karen Baker and Rosa Maria Casio were found buried in the desert. And what is this guy doing? He has a shovel and he’s digging a hole, so we’re certain at this point that it’s the same person. Now we have a witness and she says, ‘I will never forget him. I will be able to identify him.'”
A KILLER’S PLAYGROUND
Fulton said Desiree and her friends knew Wood prior to her murder.
“He hung around Nation’s (Tobin) Park a lot, just to talk to the young girls,” Fulton told KTSM recently. “So he wasn’t a total, complete stranger and that was one of the problems.”
LaLama called her interview in the episode with Fulton, about identifying Desiree’s remains, heartbreaking.
“(Desiree) had a T-shirt on that she was going to have all her friends (at school) sign,” LaLama said. “And sure enough, when the detectives find the evidence, Marcia looks at the plastic bag with the T-shirt inside and says they don’t even have to take it out. She knows that’s her daughters T-shirt, because she sees all of the names of her classmates. I have no doubt that her heart aches every single day, all day long. I’m so grateful to her that she would be willing to sit down with us and tell her story. And I think it does help other crime victims, I really do.”
Fulton is one of the few family members of Wood victims who has continued to do interviews throughout the past three decades, during which Wood has somehow managed to avoid execution.
JUSTICE FOR DESIREE
Attorney’s for Wood, now 64, asked for a re-examination of all of the evidence in the case back in 2018, further delaying a new execution date.
“I said 10 years ago that I was afraid that he was going to outlive me,” said Fulton, who will be 70 soon. “And so I’m thinking now, no, I’m not going to let him off that easy. I saw it from the beginning and by God I want to see the end. The more I keep it in the public realm, I think the more people will just be outraged that this has gone on for so long.”
Fulton said she will find comfort if Wood is finally executed for his crimes.
“I will, I will and a lot of people say the death penalty is like revenge,” she said with a shrug. “No, it’s justice. That’s part of our justice system. I just want this over. You know, I’m not a Spring chicken anymore, so let’s hope that things get moving on this. Hopefully this will, I don’t know, jump start it maybe. Because after 30 years, a lot of people just forget, you know, and I don’t blame them. It didn’t happen to them, it’s just human nature. But I’ll never forget.”
LaLama said she’s hopeful that the Wood “Mark of a Serial Killer” episode will bring the spark in the case Fulton is hoping to see.
“We always hope that by shining a light on these cases that we are keeping this in the conciousness of the court system as well,” said LaLama, who believes after studying the case that Wood is undoubtably guilty of the killings. “I have no doubt in my mind that he is the killer. I have no doubt. It’s very important for us to keep the legacy of the victims alive. And my guess is, yes, his execution date will come.”