AMARILLO, Texas (KAMR/KCIT) — 44 years ago, on Oct. 26, 1979, a season of terror began in Amarillo. A gruesome murder started a series of events that led to the execution of one of the youngest death row inmates in Texas history, major changes within the Amarillo Police Department, and the creation of the specialized unit that now investigates homicides in the city.
But not before the murderer killed again.
Gene Pinkerton, then 63 years old, told his son “Bye,” and watched as he was killed.
Four other sons had died before this one; Michael, just five months old, suffocated after falling off of a bed and getting tangled in sheets in 1956. Local news reported that 11-year-old Kenneth was sent to his North Platte, NE bedroom as a disciplinary action, and hanged himself on his light fixture in 1964. In 1974, the Associated Press reported two more of Gene’s sons, 21-year-old Vietnam Veteran Roger and 15-year-old Allen, were killed in a car accident.
Gene and his wife Margie had relocated after that, moving their lives and their several young children from Nebraska to Amarillo, Texas.
Now, just after 1 a.m. on Thursday, May 15, 1986, Gene’s 24-year-old son Jay was preparing to take his last breaths—strapped to a gurney in Texas’s Huntsville death chamber.
Jay Kelly Pinkerton, born on Valentine’s Day in 1962, Texas Death Row inmate #686, remains one of the youngest people Texas has ever put to death.
He might have been the youngest, but lived longer thanks to three stays of execution. According to Texas Department of Criminal Justice death row records, Pinkerton had been scheduled to be executed three times: May 24, 1984; Aug. 15, 1985; and Nov. 26, 1985.
In August of 1985, he had eaten his last meal and was within minutes of receiving the lethal injection, before the Supreme Court had voted in favor of the stay. On May 14, 1986, Supreme Court Justices voted seven-two to allow the execution to continue, with Thurgood Marshall and William Brennan voting instead to favor the stay.
That night, according to reporting by Mary Schlangenstein of United Press International, Pinkerton wrote another appeal by hand, which his mother Margie delivered to U.S. District Judge Hayden Head. While Head’s usual bench was in Corpus Christi, where Pinkerton’s first murder trial had been held, on that day he was in Houston attending a conference. Head rejected the appeal, as did the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans, and the Supreme Court.
At the time, a prison spokesperson said Margie made it back to Huntsville in time to see her son in the afternoon before he died, although she was not present at the time of his death several hours later.
“A lot of tragedy in that family,” said Retired Amarillo Police Officer Randy TenBrink, “[Margie] was one of the moms where Jay never did anything wrong. If we had him, and we had him a lot, it had to have been our fault.”
TenBrink said that the Amarillo police “had him a lot,” and they did – though it had never been for long.
Chased, arrested, released
Before he became a household name in Amarillo in the early 1980s, Jay Kelly Pinkerton was well-known to Amarillo Police Officers who patrolled near his southwest Amarillo home.
According to TenBrink, the police got complaints about Pinkerton related to offenses such as trespassing, window-peeking, and burglary.
“The burglary wasn’t specific, now, he’d take money if he found it laying around, but it was usually to check women out. So, that’s the kind of record he had leading up to it,” TenBrink said. “If you worked on the south side, which I did, you knew Jay.”
TenBrink was a three-year veteran of the Amarillo Police Department at the time, and on Oct. 26, 1979, he was working his usual midnight shift with APD Sgt. Dennis Hendley.
After they heard about Sarah Donn Lawrence’s murder, TenBrink said, they went to see Jay.
Watch TenBrink describe chasing and arresting Jay Kelly Pinkerton on the night of Sarah Donn Lawrence’s murder.
[Editor’s note: This interview transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity, to watch TenBrink tell the full story unedited, click on the video]
“Dennis knocked on the door and asked if we could talk to Jay. And oh, very hateful—his mom answered the door. And said ‘He’s not in. He’s not here.’ [We asked] Can you tell us where he is, do you have any idea where he is?’ [Margie] wouldn’t let us in the house, wouldn’t answer any other questions. We gave her a card and said to have him call us when he comes back around.”
“We got in the car left down 45th, and got to about Abuelo’s, there’s a Mexican food place there. And we both looked at each other. And because we knew him, Dennis said, ‘You know, one of his MOs and to not get caught, or if he has a whole bunch of change,’ – because that’s what he would do, take change out of a house – ‘is he goes to Albertsons and pretends like he’s using the payphone.’”
“So, we whipped it around and went back up 45th, crossed Western. It’s about a block – and here comes a shirtless guy, tall, blond-headed guy just streaking down 45th… We pulled up into that parking lot and Dennis stopped… I jumped out and I chased him, and I saw him go around the corner, make a left-hand turn, and I was just about to catch up with him at that point, and he turned right down an alley, and two or three houses down he tried to go over a fence. I caught him just as he was about to top that fence and go over on the other side.”
“I pulled him down, handcuffed him, notified him of his rights right off because that was just odd. His hair was slicked back he must have just got done showering, because his hair was really, really, wet, or he had some good wet-look hair gel one of the two, I’m not sure.”
TenBrink said that the then 17-year-old Pinkerton was silent on the way to the patrol car. TenBrink and Sgt. Hendley took him to Amarillo’s police station where he was booked on suspicion of parole violation. He was released three days later, on Oct. 30, 1979.
Meanwhile, the family of Sarah Donn Lawrence was in mourning.
[Editor’s note: APD Sgt. Dennis Hendley passed away just a few days after KAMR Local 4 News interviewed TenBrink, on October 1, 2023.]
‘Beloved mother, wife, daughter, and sister’
Sarah Donn Lawrence was born in Kansas City, MO, and according to her obituary, she worked at Corporate Systems in Amarillo. Sarah, 30, and her husband, David, 33, had three children and attended Polk Street United Methodist Church.
On the night of Oct. 26, 1979, David was working, and Sarah had taken the kids to an elementary school Halloween Carnival.
Police responded to their home at around 11:30 p.m. after David found her dead. He testified that she was still bleeding from being raped and stabbed repeatedly with a commemorative replica Bowie knife that had been hanging in the couple’s bedroom.
Jay Kelly Pinkerton, 17, had broken into their home through a window and killed Sarah as the children slept.
Although news reports from the time of Lawrence’s murder differ on the gruesome detail of how many times she had been stabbed, the doctor who performed her autopsy testified that it had been 30 times.
TenBrink said that as he and Sgt. Hindley were leaving the Amarillo Police Department later that night, after they had brought Pinkerton in on suspicion of a parole violation, he remembers seeing David and the kids.
“When we were about to leave, an officer brought David Lawrence in carrying his two kids—that bothered me horribly, and it still does—wrapped in blankets.”
“Seeing those kids,” TenBrink said, “you just knew they’d never see their mom again.”
However, it would be 336 days before Sarah’s killer was arrested, and the Lawrences would by that time not be the only family whose lives Pinkerton had changed forever.
‘The Sunshine of Our Lives’
25-year-old Sherry Lynn Hales Welch was a local beauty pageant participant and had graduated from Claude High School in 1973 before going on to marry Tex Welch, her high school sweetheart.
The young couple lived in Canyon, and the Canyon Sunday News reported that Welch attended First Baptist Church and was a member of the Canyon Study Club.
She also managed her family’s furniture store, Reflections in the Amarillo Wolflin Village Shopping Center, which is where she was killed on April 9, l980.
Amarillo police said Welch was closing the store at around 5:30 p.m. that Wednesday afternoon when Pinkerton attacked her. Welch was stabbed more than 30 times and raped, just as Sarah Donn Lawrence had been more than five months before.
Prosecutors said that Pinkerton used the sink in the back of the store to clean himself up after murdering Welch. Then, he went back to work at an Amarillo meat packing plant.
Months later, Tex told the Canyon Sunday News that he suspected that the Amarillo Police Department, which he said “bungled” his wife’s murder investigation, was avoiding charging Pinkerton with her murder because of the guilt of mishandling the Lawrence murder investigation.
Thousands of dollars were donated to a reward fund to entice anyone with information on Welch’s murder to come forward.
Welch’s family wanted answers. Tex subpoenaed the case file of his wife’s murder and told the Canyon Sunday News that Amarillo police had not been to the store where Sherry was killed to take fingerprints until the next day.
Pinkerton, who had been arrested and held in police custody for murdering Lawrence on Sept. 26, 1980, was not indicted for Welch’s murder until July of 1981.
The family took a meeting with then-Amarillo Mayor Jerry Hodge, who later told KAMR Local 4 News that to tell them that her murder had been preventable was the worst thing he had to do during his two terms as mayor.
“That was tough,” Hodge said, “I had to call them back and say that if our policemen had done their job, your daughter, your sister would still be alive.”
A killer on the loose
People were so scared after hearing about Sarah Donn Lawrence’s murder just a few days before Halloween, then-Amarillo Mayor Jerry Hodge cancelled the holiday altogether in 1979.
“That goes back to the media,” Hodge said, “They called me the Grinch Who Stole Halloween, which comes with the territory, I guess. We did cancel Halloween because the whole town was terrified.”
Even though he had been arrested on the night of Lawrence’s murder, Pinkerton was released from police custody on Oct. 30, 1979, while investigators worked through leads on hundreds of other suspects.
“Detectives back in 1979, in 1980 had a lot of legwork to do,” said Amarillo Police Department Lt. James Clements, who is the present-day director of APD’s Homicide Unit. “Today, we still do, but as you can see, just in the amounts of paper and reports that were on paper, they had to research, and they did an outstanding job and the endless amounts of investigative work they did—it was amazing back then.”
“And, of course, these two cases are a stepping-stone and what created the Special Crimes Unit,” said Clements, pointing to two large file boxes of evidence about both Pinkerton cases, “Due to the horrific nature of both of these cases and the amount of work, it was decided to start a multi-jurisdictional task force, which was called the Special Crimes Unit, which consisted of Potter/Randall and Amarillo Police Department.”
The creation of the Special Crimes Unit in 1981 – which became APD’s Homicide Unit in 2017 – opened lines of communication and fostered cooperation between law enforcement agencies. TenBrink said up to that point the investigation process was much less organized.
“Pretty much back then, investigation was cowboy work,” TenBrink said, “People went and did their own investigation and evidence got rat-holed in a desk drawer so they could maybe use that later or prints just didn’t get filed. I mean, nobody does that now, that just doesn’t happen.”
During Lawrence’s murder investigation, Hodge said fingerprints taken at the scene were in fact put into a desk drawer, and poor communication within the police department prevented Pinkerton from being tied to Lawrence’s murder while he was initially in police custody.
Court documents show Pinkerton left a bloody palm print on Lawrence’s body, and on the coffee table next to her. When they were eventually processed, the fingerprints left at the scene of Lawrence’s murder were what ultimately led to Pinkerton’s arrest nearly one year later.
“They had Jay Kelly Pinkerton’s fingerprints from the first night,” said Hodge, “One of the officers stuck it in his desk drawer and didn’t tell anybody about it and it got lost for six or seven months.”
It was also Lawrence’s husband David, not an investigator, who noticed that the primary bedroom window had been pulled out and that there was blood on the sill under the screen.
Two Amarillo police officers also testified that they saw footprints in the alley behind the Lawrences’ house and followed them to the alley across from Pinkerton’s house. One officer said the tennis shoe tracks matched in size and pattern the shoes Pinkerton was wearing that night, but no measurements were taken of the prints at the time.
Then 18 years old, Pinkerton was arrested for Lawrence’s murder 11 months to the day after it had happened, on Sept. 26, 1980. By that time, it had already also been months after the murder of Sherry Hales Welch.
When Pinkerton was arrested for the murder of Sarah Donn Lawrence, changes had already begun to be made at the Amarillo Police Department. The then-Police Chief Lelond “Lee” Spradlin had been forced out by the Amarillo city leadership, after Hodge said he lost the faith of both the community and the commissioners.
In a story Hodge said he has not often told, he explained what happened that led to Spradlin resigning, after a motion to fire Spradlin came up for a vote during an Amarillo City Commissioner’s meeting but failed. Spradlin had been in the position since 1975.
“I went to [longtime Amarillo City Manager John Stiff] and I said, ‘John, I’ve just figured out the structure of the city. You’re the only one that works for the City Council. And the Chief of Police works for you,” said Hodge, “So, you need to make a good decision. And the City Commission will make a good decision. In other words–he’s your employee, you need to correct it. Otherwise, the City Commission will vote on your success or failure.’ It was kind of a gutsy deal,”
“But Stiff was strong and he was good, and he agreed with me. So, he worked on it and Spradlin resigned,” Hodge continued, “Tough time. Really tough. But as a result, we had 25 years of an outstanding Chief of Police. It was a bad situation. It really turned out pretty good in the long run as far as the structure of our police department, but boy was it tough.”
Hodge said after Spradlin left, many Amarillo police officers were either fired or resigned. Amarillo’s next police chief, Jerry Neal, served for 25 years.
The changes that swept through the department were seen as improvements, though remnants of the “cowboy work” style of investigation remain in the intensity with which officers approach their cases. In 2023, cases still result in investigations where records and evidence – like with Pinkerton – require multiple crates to hold.
“Well, we always hope people feel safer out there. The investigators we have here at the Amarillo Police Department will go to the end of the world to find out what’s going on. Even though back in 1979, 1980, we created case files like this–still today, we create case files like this, there’s a lot of work involved in these.” Lt. Clements said. “There’s a lot of emotion, there’s – we lose sleep, we take this to heart and make sure that we put these people behind bars where they belong. We’re still pushing, and we haven’t stopped yet. We’re still looking at cases from the 1970’s, ’80s, all the way up into their current decades. So yeah, we will never stop. We continue to do these and when I’m gone there will be people behind me and they’ll continue to look at these cases.”
Using evidence from investigators and witness testimony, Jay Kelly Pinkerton was convicted of capital murder in both the Lawrence case and the Welch case. He received a death sentence for both cases, which was carried out on May 15, 1986.
However, while the Amarillo Police Department may have shifted in a better direction as a result of the cases, the pain left in Pinkerton’s wake remained: neither Sarah Donn Lawrence nor Sherry Lynn Hales Welch would ever come home.
Asked if TenBrink thought the families of the victims got justice, he paused before answering: “They got as much justice as the justice system is made to give out.”