The trouble with the case of the cheerleader “hit mom” is that it is so positively preposterous. And sinister as well.
It could be a tale of small-time dreams and foolish people, of a mother who may have been willing to hire a killer to help her daughter’s chances of making a cheerleading squad. Or it could be one of cunning deception by a father who wants custody of his children and is willing to entrap his former wife to make that happen. Maybe it is a little of both.
This week Wanda Holloway, 37, of Channelview, Tex., went on trial, charged with conspiracy to murder Verna Heath, 38. As testimony ended Friday, the jury in this widely celebrated case was staring at two wild, competing scenarios.
The prosecution would have the jury believe the first scenario, which begins with the upwardly mobile, thrice-married Wanda Holloway living in her middle-class home in her decidedly un-middle-class Houston suburb, the kind of place where petrochemical accidents happen, where beer is the drink of choice and the color of the collar is decidedly blue.
Such surroundings aside, Wanda had a problem, in her mind a really big problem. It was her daughter, Shanna, 13. Though pretty and intelligent, Shanna just couldn’t seem to make the cheerleading squad at school. In fact, she was disqualified in the last election for handing out rulers with her name embossed on them. The rulers were Wanda’s idea.
The fuming, scheming Wanda wanted to find a way for Shanna to become a cheerleader, prosecutors said. She stopped at nothing to see her daughter waving pompons at pep rallies.
Wanda aimed her frustration at Shanna’s one-time friend and archrival at school, 13-year-old Amber Heath, who did make the cheerleading squad. She also saw Amber’s mother, Verna Heath, as an impediment. Wanda believed that with Amber gone, Shanna would be a cheerleading shoo-in. The girl and her mother needed to be eliminated. Or maybe just the mother, whose death would cause the girl to be so distraught she would withdraw from the cheerleading competition.
Next, according to the prosecution, Wanda talked to her former brother-in-law, Terry Harper, an unemployed pipe fitter who has himself had a few scrapes with the law.
Harper testified that Wanda told him: “I hate this girl. I want to get rid of her and her mother, too. I want to get rid of these people forever. You know what I’m saying?”
But Harper didn’t tell her to forget such nonsense. Instead, he jokingly said--according to his own testimony--that it might be easier to find a Colombian drug lord and sell both the girl and her mother into white slavery. Harper also told Wanda he was not himself interested in killing Heath because he was on probation for drunk driving but that he would “look into it” and “see what I can do.”
Harper decided to go to the police, who wired him with a tape recorder. Harper then had several more conversations with Wanda, who was subsequently arrested by Harris County deputies and charged with solicitation of murder and kidnaping.
The tapes made for interesting listening at the trial.
“You want her dead?” Harper asked.
“I don’t care what you do with her,” Holloway replied. “You can keep her in Cuba for 15 years. I want her gone.”
In a later conversation, Holloway asked: “When is it going to happen? Honey, you’ll have your money. I want her gone. I cannot stand the woman.”
But in all of the conversations, Holloway never specifically mentioned violent death--no use of the words murder or kill.
Only Harper refered to death. “Are you wanting them dead, injured, dismembered, maimed, disappeared?” he asked.
Holloway’s reply: “Maybe a car wreck, impact or explosion. Then it wouldn’t be so obvious.”
The conversations were almost always punctuated with Holloway’s raucous laughter.
On Wednesday, just as things were looking their bleakest for Holloway, Marla Harper, Terry’s wife, took the stand. She painted her husband as a drunken wife-beater, a cruel man who had hated Holloway and had repeatedly said that he was going to “burn that bitch.”
She described a series of telephone conversations in which Terry Harper and Holloway’s former husband, Tony Harper (Terry’s brother) had conspired to frame Holloway with the murder solicitation charge, thereby making it easier for Tony Harper to gain custody of the children.
Marla Harper said her husband said that he “had finally gotten Wanda where he wanted her” and how he “hated that bitch.” The source of his animosity, incidentally, was that Wanda had once told Tony that Terry had made a pass at her.
Marla Harper also testified about the time Terry held a gun to her head for three hours, and that she had tried to indirectly--and unsuccessfully--tell the police that Holloway was being set up. Terry had beaten her up in an attempt to keep her from testifying at the trial, Marla said. Marla said Terry also bragged “about setting Wanda up.” She also said Terry asked her on several occasions “if I was prepared to be the wife of a famous man and a hero.”
“He talked about the money he was going to get from a movie about this case,” she said.
Terry Harper returned to the stand and said that yes, he may have been the one to suggest the various ways to dispose of Heath. In his testimony, Tony Harper said he had received 20 movie offers and that Harper had complained about not being given a bigger piece of the movie pie.
Finally, on Friday morning Holloway herself testified. In a tearful statement, she admitted her animosity toward Verna Heath and young Amber, and said some of the statements that were taped stemmed from that anger.
But she also said she thought Terry Harper was joking at first when he suggested that he knew people who could take care of Verna and Amber for good.
“I just laughed at him,” she said. “I thought it was funny. I said, ‘Terry, you’ve got to be kidding.’ ”
Then she said things became more serious when Terry told her, in an untaped telephone conversation, that she had to go through with the murder because his hit man would be furious if she went back on the deal. But, looking at the jury, Holloway said that no matter how much she disliked Heath and her daughter, murder was never what she wanted.
“I have never wanted Verna or Amber killed,” she said, in tears. “Never.”
The case is expected to go to the jury by early next week.
Times researcher Lianne Hart contributed to this story.