Tangle of Guilt and Repentance Follows Slaying of Cheerleader
A farmer spotted something dead tangled in the brush and fallen tree limbs of a muddy North Texas creek. A calf, he thought.
To sink it, he fired two rounds into it with his .22-caliber rifle. But the next day it was still there, so he took a closer look.
It was the body of Heather Rich, a petite, brown-haired, blue-eyed Waurika High School cheerleader and honors student, who had been missing for a week. Investigators who fished her body from the creek found she had been hit with far more than a couple of .22-caliber slugs.
Someone had shotgunned her repeatedly, thrown her body from a nearby bridge and spread dirt over the concrete to hide the blood.
Heather’s journey to Belknap Creek is a saga of restless and rootless kids, of sex, booze and betrayal, of violence, repentance and forgiveness, all played out in the rural Red River country straddling the Oklahoma-Texas border.
It also appears to be a story of how one young man found courage too late. Too late to save Heather, too late to save himself, but just in time to change the course of justice.
When Heather’s parents reported her missing on Oct. 3, 1996, police were not inclined to fear the worst. Though pretty and popular, Heather had lately tiptoed on the wild side. She had been kicked off the cheerleading squad for drinking at a football game.
Maybe, police thought, she had just run away.
Word of Heather’s death came just hours before Waurika High School’s homecoming. That night, the Waurika Eagles crushed the visiting Wayne Bulldogs, 28-0. At half time, Heather’s former boyfriend, a handsome, well-mannered 17-year-old football player named Randy Lee Wood, was crowned homecoming king.
Authorities who interviewed Heather’s classmates the following week puzzled over Wood. He appeared less than forthcoming about his relationship with Heather and foggy about where he was the night she disappeared.
After talking with Wood, Texas investigator Craig Crawford scribbled a notation across the bottom of his notebook: “Lie.”
Although hardly evidence, a profile of Wood in the weekly Waurika News-Democrat reflected an aloofness that seemed out of character for a popular homecoming king. Asked about the best day of his life and his most prized possession, he offered only a couple of “don’t knows.” He listed his favorite color as black.
When asked for his “words of wisdom for underclassmen,” he replied: “Cruise the back roads.”
Those words would have a haunting resonance in the days ahead.
At least 14 investigators from five local, county and state police agencies worked the case full time, operating out of the historic red-brick Rock Island Depot in Waurika. The FBI joined them because federal kidnapping charges could be brought if Heather had been taken across state lines against her will.
The early days turned up little, and Montague County, Texas, Sheriff Chris Hamilton was increasingly frustrated.
“The people in this community are tight-lipped,” he told a local reporter.
“We’re scared, real scared,” resident Sunni Williams admitted. “Everybody’s just kind of keeping to themselves. Everybody stays home. Nobody goes anywhere. You don’t know who you can talk to.”
As the inquiry dragged into a second week, investigators appeared at football practice and again questioned Wood.
“OK,” he told them. “I’ll go over it again.”
But he provided nothing new.
Each night, as Crawford and Hamilton drove back to Texas, they repeated the same painful question:
“What are we not doing?”
Their first break came when forensic tests determined that the buckshot and wadding found in Heather’s body was consistent with 00 Winchester ammunition, and that the likely murder weapon was a Mossberg M-9 shotgun.
Then Dan Benson, a sheriff’s investigator in Oklahoma, learned that Joshua Bagwell, a 17-year-old senior, had charged four boxes of Winchester 00 buckshot to his grandparents’ account at Beaver Hardware in Waurika. Bagwell’s frequent hunting companion, Curtis Gambill, 19, of nearby Terral, owned a Mossberg M-9.
Bagwell seemed an unlikely suspect. His mother was a lawyer, and his grandparents were among the wealthiest landowners in southern Oklahoma. Gambill, on the other hand, had been in and out of trouble, even spending some time in a juvenile detention center.
Bagwell and Gambill had a frequent drinking companion already known to investigators: the homecoming king of Waurika High, Randy Wood.
On Thursday, Oct. 24, investigators picked up Gambill to question him about his shotgun and the ammunition Bagwell had purchased. Gambill insisted he and Bagwell used the ammunition for hunting and said he could prove it. He directed FBI Agent Phil Gadd to several pastures in search of spent shotgun hulls, but with little success.
Exasperated, investigators pulled the car to the side of a country road to question Gambill further. Suddenly the teenager ducked his head and allowed as how “maybe” he was involved in the events of Oct. 2, 1996.
He said a shotgun he had nicknamed “Old Blackie” had been used to shoot Heather Rich nine times after a wild night that began in Oklahoma and ended in a cold, muddy, backwoods Texas creek.
Gambill told investigators that he and his two buddies spent the evening in question drinking in Bagwell’s travel trailer in Waurika. After Heather arrived, there was some consensual sex, he said.
After she passed out from drinking, Gambill said, the teenagers “freaked out,” believing she might later accuse them of rape. They dressed her, loaded her in a pickup and drove in darkness through the back roads of southern Oklahoma.
“I couldn’t ever look at her face,” Gambill said in an affidavit. “I knew that it was too late. We had done kidnapped her.”
At the bridge over the creek, the teenagers pulled Heather from the truck. Wood, he said, was the triggerman, shooting Heather in the back of the head and then firing the remaining eight shells into her back.
Together, Gambill said, they threw her body into the creek. Then they picked up the shells, kicked or threw dirt on the bloody bridge and returned to Waurika.
Heather’s mother, Gail, has disputed Gambill’s account of consensual sex. “That’s Curtis doing his macho bragging. My daughter was kidnapped, raped and murdered.”
For the people of Waurika, the trio’s arrest added a new layer of despair. People had hoped that the killer was not from the area, and few could believe that Randy Wood was involved.
In Oklahoma, Wood and Bagwell were charged with kidnapping and denied bail. Across the Red River in Texas, all three teenagers were charged with capital murder.
Wood admitted it all, and in return for his testimony against the others, was promised a life sentence with eligibility for parole after 30 years. If convicted by a jury trial, he risked a tougher sentence--perhaps even death.
Gambill then pleaded guilty to murder and was spared the death penalty in return for his testimony in the upcoming trial of Josh Bagwell--the only one of the three who did not admit his guilt. As part of the deal, Gambill now admitted that he was the one who fired the shots.
Bagwell’s murder trial began last February in Montague County’s brown-brick courthouse.
Unlike his alleged accomplices, Bagwell, now 19, was represented by three private attorneys instead of court-appointed lawyers. He faced a possible life sentence for murder and another 99 years for conspiracy to commit murder.
Bagwell’s lawyers knew the only way to save him would be to destroy Wood’s credibility. And there seemed to be a way: persuade a jury that Wood was lying in return for his plea-bargain deal.
To that end, they found an unexpected ally: Curtis Gambill. Changing his story once again, Gambill, now a hostile prosecution witness, testified that it was Wood who actually shot Heather.
Unknown even to his own attorney, a remorseful Wood had reached a decision that would change everything.
“I thought about it for a long time,” Wood confided later. “I made the decision the Monday before I testified on Tuesday. It was something I had to do for myself and for them,” he said, referring to Heather Rich’s family.
Wood renounced his plea bargain. In doing so, he exposed himself to a trial and to the death penalty. Now no deal with the prosecution could taint his testimony.
“I knew,” he explained, “it would make people see I was telling the truth.”
Wood’s attorney, Pat Morris, was aghast and made a last-ditch effort to change his client’s mind. He quickly realized that arguing was futile.
“Randy carried himself differently,” Morris says. “He was at peace. He was confident. He was calm.”
The stage was set for Wood to take the stand and tell his story under oath for the first time.
That fateful night, he said in a weary monotone, started off like many others during his senior year--drinking with friends.
Gambill, Bagwell and Wood were drinking when Bagwell called Heather and suggested that she meet them at a travel trailer at his grandfather’s home. Gambill and Wood went to pick up some beer. When they returned, Bagwell and Heather were naked, and a bottle of gin was half empty. Heather, Wood testified, was “nearly passed out, if she wasn’t passed out all the way.”
Gambill had sex with the girl anyway, and Wood admitted that he fondled her. As Heather began moaning and crying, Gambill started worrying that she would accuse him of raping her.
“He wasn’t going down for a rape charge,” Wood said of Gambill. “That’s when he started talking about killing her.”
The teenagers dressed Heather and carried her to a pickup truck owned by Bagwell’s grandfather. For two hours, they drove the back roads of southern Oklahoma as Gambill kept muttering that Heather had to die. Finally, Gambill took the wheel and drove to the bridge over Belknap Creek. There, they dragged Heather from the truck.
“I got back in the pickup and sat there with my hands over my face,” Wood testified. “I didn’t want to see it happen. . . . A little bit of time went by and I heard the first shot. Then I heard a bunch more.”
When Wood, feeling sick, climbed from the truck, he thought Gambill looked “dazed at what he’d done.” Bagwell found a rock to weight the body and secured it with a shoelace from one of Heather’s shoes. The three together tossed the body into the creek and spread dirt over the bloody bridge.
If jurors wondered who pulled the trigger, the final witness of the day may have erased their doubts. A former juvenile detention center guard said Gambill had once told another inmate his ultimate fantasy: to kidnap and rape a beautiful young girl, then “blow her head off.”
“And he did it,” Sheriff Hamilton said afterward. “There’s not many of us who get to live out our fantasies.”
The next day, Bagwell, polite and contrite, took the stand in his own defense and insisted that he was not in the trailer when Gambill and Wood talked about killing Heather. He said he thought they were just driving her around to sober her up.
It was Wood, angry that his former girlfriend wouldn’t have sex with him, who shot her, Bagwell testified. He claimed that he had wandered off to urinate when he heard the shots.
Returning to the pickup after the shots were fired, he said, he saw “Curtis, I mean Randy, lowering the gun.”
The jury found Bagwell guilty of capital murder and conspiracy to commit murder. The murder conviction, which is being appealed, carries a mandatory life sentence, with no possibility of parole for 40 years.
As the verdict was read, Gail Rich repeatedly kissed a ring her daughter had been wearing the night she was shot.
Bagwell’s mother, Cherese, on the other hand, was furious, accusing the prosecutor of misconduct and blaming the jury for not following the judge’s instructions.
“My son’s no angel,” she said, “but he damn sure is no murderer.” She insisted Wood had reason to kill Heather because he found her with Josh.
Today, 19-year-old Randy Wood sits in the Montague jail awaiting a trial he could have avoided. His story, once obscure, has been on network television and in newspapers throughout the Southwest.
“There is no question about guilt, just punishment,” said Montague County Dist. Atty. Tim Cole.
Wood can’t explain what happened the night of the murder. “I was both confused and scared,” he said in a recent interview. “I should have had the guts to stand up and say something. But I didn’t.”
In the end, he did the only thing left to him. He told the Rich family he was sorry and asked their forgiveness. He did not expect to receive it.
In the hope that “something good can come from this tragedy,” Gail Rich allowed a TV crew to capture Wood’s apology and the family’s response.
“We forgave him for the hurt he caused us,” she said.
“I can’t forgive him for killing Heather. Only Heather can do that.”