When a crime is so heinous, so awful, so brutal, we want a villain. We need a person to blame so we feel safe again, knowing it can’t happen to us. Sometimes we get blinded by that need and attach it to the first scapegoat we come across. It makes me wonder if this is why trial-by-media is so effective, we want to know who the bad guy is so desperately, for our own self-preservation, we’ll take the smallest shred of evidence and convince ourselves everything is fact. It’s human nature to want to feel safe.
Ada, Oklahoma is a small town halfway between Oklahoma City and Dallas. It’s a picturesque bible belt town with churches of all flavors on each corner. Ada also caught the eye of writer John Grisham, when the town suffered from two horrific murders of young women that resulted in a tangled web of confusion, wrongful conviction, and clouds of questions left hanging in the air. He wrote The Innocent Man, detailing the chaos surrounding the men arrested in these cases. This is the story of one of the victims, Debbie Sue Carter.
In 1982, Debbie Sue Carter was an independent 21-year-old living on her own in a garage apartment near the local university. She had a very close relationship with her mother and was loved by all who knew her. She was described as outgoing, kind, caring, and a hard worker with good morals. She was a very bright light in the Carter family. She worked as a bartender at the nearby nightclub, The Coach Light Club, and babysat for multiple families in town.
The night of December 7th, Debbie was at The Coach Light Club. She was seen in the parking lot of the club, in her car having a conversation with a man who was standing outside the car, inside the open driver’s doorway. Some witnesses say it appeared to be a normal conversation, other’s say Debbie pushed the man away so she could close her car door, and then drove away.
A few hours later, around 3:00 a.m., Debbie’s friend Gina Vietta received a phone call from her. Debbie knew Gina was having a party, but she just wanted to go home so she declined to go, which is probably why she knew she could call Gina and get an answer at that time of night. Gina said Debbie asked her if she could come and get her because she had a guest that was a making her uncomfortable. Concerned, Gina asked her who was there but Debbie didn’t answer. Gina told her she was heading over, and not to worry. Before Gina could leave the house, Debbie called her back and told her she was just going to stay home, still avoided giving the identity of her houseguest, and asked her to call in the morning so she wouldn’t be late for work. Confused, Gina abides her friend’s request and doesn’t go to her apartment to pick her up.
***WARNING: The details of this crime are rather graphic, and sexual in nature***
On the morning of December 8th, 1982, Debbie’s friend Donna Johnson stopped by her apartment for a visit. She was in town visiting her parents and was excited to see Debbie for the first time in quite a while. Her excitement to see her friend, slowly faded to dread when she stepped on glass climbing the stairs to the garage apartment and as she heard loud music coming from inside. Donna reached the top of the stairs and her heart raced when she saw the open screen door and the window broken out of the front door accounting for the glass. Concerned for her friend, she opened the door and walked inside the apartment.
Donna’s fear deepened when she saw the living room and kitchen in shambles. Sofa cushions, clothes, and other items were thrown all through the rooms. Items were knocked over, everything looked like chaos. It was apparent there had been some kind of struggle. Donna then noticed a note written on the wall, “Jim Smith next will die” and “Don’t look for us or ealse” (spelled as such) on the kitchen table in red. As Donna made her way through the apartment still searching for Debbie, she noticed an outfit on the kitchen floor. Debbie’s jeans and top, as if they had been removed there in the kitchen. Donna was covered in what I’m sure were full body chills at this point and continued towards the bedroom.
Donna met resistance as she tried to open Debbie’s bedroom door. Her bed had been moved over, almost blocking entry. The bedroom was in the same state of disarray as the rest of the apartment. Donna’s panic set in when she saw blood all over the room and then saw Debbie’s nude, lifeless body, face down on the floor. The name “Duke Gram” was written on Debbie’s back in what turned out to be ketchup. Upon finding Debbie’s body, Donna ran for help and called Debbie’s parents who in turn called the police.
I can’t imagine what that must have been like for Donna, not only finding her friends body but finding it in the circumstance it was in. The scene was so grisly, one of the first responders was so taken aback by the violence and brutality he had to leave to vomit and didn’t go back inside.
Law enforcement examination of the bedroom revealed:
- the comforter and sheets from the bed thrown in the floor.
- Debbie’s panties which had on leg completely ripped open strewn on the floor, along with her bra.
- A bloody palm print on the wall, 18 inches from the floor.
- Inside the bedsheet was a ketchup bottle with no lid.
- A shampoo bottle with no lid near Debbie’s body.
- Money was left on the floor, possibly eliminating robbery as a motive.
- Debbie was on the far side of the bedroom, as Donna had found her, nude except for one sock and a bracelet.
- Shampoo residue appeared to be on her buttocks.
- Upon turning the body, they saw “Die” written on Debbie’s chest in what turned out to be nail polish.
- Debbie’s western belt and an electric blanket were under her body.
- hairs on the scene not the length of Debbie’s.
- A pack of cigarettes and a can of 7-up.
The medical examiner report from Debbie’s autopsy showed a blood-soaked washcloth had been stuffed inside her mouth and became lodged in her throat. Bruises and bite marks showing how hard she fought to get that washcloth up, were found inside her mouth and on her tongue. The autopsy also revealed multiple fresh bruises and lacerations on Debbie’s face and the back of her neck. Debbie’s chest, arms, hips, knees, and thighs were also painted with bruises. Fresh narrow ligature marks were present around Debbie’s neck. A rape exam showed vaginal bruising, along with intact sperm in both the vaginal and anal canals. The lid to the ketchup bottle was found in her anal canal. Debbie also had collapsed lungs and a dilated heart. Her cause of death was ruled asphyxiation due to strangulation. All other injuries appeared to have been inflicted prior to death.
Ada, Oklahoma was a town on alert after Debbie was found. If a girl so loved by everyone could be killed in such a terrible manner, then how is anyone safe? The more days that passed with no leads, the fear intensified. The days turned into weeks, the weeks turned into months, and months into years with no arrests. A town on edge thought they were safe to breathe a sigh of relief when the suspicion fell on two men, Ron Williamson, and Dennis Fritz.
Both men were known patrons of the club Debbie worked. Williamson was known to suffer from bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. He preferred self-medication over the prescribed method. Society tends to lean towards immediate suspicion of people with mental illness when in reality those who suffer mental illness are actually more susceptible to being a victim. Another patron of the club and former classmate of Debbie’s, Glen Gore, told police that both of the men had been in the club on December 7th. Gore also added that it was Williamson who was arguing with Debbie by her car that night. He stated he had also seen the two talking inside the club earlier in the night.
At the time, there wasn’t enough evidence to make a case against either of the men even though neither one had a verifiable alibi, so the investigation continued. Unbeknownst to anyone outside of law enforcement, the day after Debbie’s murder a man came forward with a confession. Ricky Simmons told police the night Debbie was murdered he was high on acid and full of rage at his brother. He came forward concerned he did something bad out of anger. According to Simmon’s taped statement, he said he was hiding in Debbie’s backseat, but later says she offered him a ride. He couldn’t say for sure what kind or even color car it was. Simmon’s goes on to say “I asked her if she believed in the Lord and she said yes and then I killed her”. He also said he heard a voice saying “do it”. He couldn’t give a for sure answer on how he strangled her or if he stabbed her. Investigators didn’t find Simmon’s credible and wanted to get him psychiatric assistance.
Five long years later, an arrest was made in Debbie’s case. Both Williamson and Fritz were charged with first-degree murder, first-degree rape, and rape by instrumentation.
Hairs found at the crime scene were matched to both Williamson and Fritz. In 1982 the hair analysis consisted of looking at the hairs under a microscope and seeing if they visibly look similar and appear that they “could be” from the same person. Subjective science makes me anxious because it’s subjective, what I see in something, someone else may not, so it’s not certain. I need certainty. DNA analysis wasn’t available at this time to test the hair or the semen found.
A fellow inmate came forward stating he took a confession from Fritz about the murder. The snitch came forward one day before the prosecution would have been forced to drop charges. A jailhouse informant stated she heard Williamson make an incriminating confession statement, and Williamson later made comments that he had a dream about a murder. The prosecution leaned heavily on these “confessions”.
During the trial, Williamson, who was not mentally stable at the time, had outbursts and knocked over tables. He was full of rage for being on trial and he didn’t help himself show the jury he wasn’t capable of what was done to Debbie.
In 1988 both Ron Williamson and Dennis Fritz were found guilty of the murder of Debbie Carter. Williamson was sentenced to death and Fritz was sentenced to life in prison. Both men maintained their stories of innocence. Williamson is convinced Ricky Simmons is the guilty party.
At one point Williamson was five days away from his scheduled execution before he was granted a stay. Years later, once DNA testing was readily available, the men’s appellate teams quickly filed for testing of the semen samples. The hair analysis method originally used on the hairs found in Debbie’s apartment was ruled as junk science and not sufficient. The DNA analysis on the semen did not match either man. Two men had lost years of their lives based on faulty science, false witness statements, false confessions, Brady violations by the prosecution, and a society that deemed them criminal and deplorable. Eleven years after they were convicted, Williamson and Fritz were filled with joy as they walked out of prison free men, but the Carter family was with filled with despair, grief, and anger.
For eleven years the Carter’s believed Debbie had received justice, they thought the nightmare was over, but an injustice tore the scab off and reopened such a deep wound. In another strange turn of events, the main witness placing Williamson outside of Debbie’s car arguing with her escaped his prison work detail in Purcell Oklahoma after hearing the results of Williamson and Fritz being released because of DNA. Glen Gore was currently serving a 40-year sentence for burglary, kidnapping, and shooting with intent to injure. He knew his DNA would be matched to the sample obtained from Debbie’s body.
Gore stayed on the run for a week before obtaining an attorney and turning himself in. Gore pled not guilty and went to trial in 2003. He was found guilty of first-degree murder and sentenced to death. The court of appeals overturned the conviction stating Gore should have been able to present evidence that could show DNA being at the crime scene doesn’t mean that person committed the crime.
Glen Gore was tried and convicted again in 2006. He received a sentence of life without parole. In reading the appeal filed by Gore’s defense team, they wanted to focus attention to Ricky Simmon’s who confessed to the crime in 1982. They were trying to make it appear as though Gore and Debbie could have had a consensual relationship explaining his DNA, followed by Simmon’s committing the murder. Obviously, no one on the jury bought that story.
As far as explanations for things found at Debbie’s apartment, there is just more speculation. The handprint was eventually matched to Debbie after having her exhumed. I found a comment thread of basically speculation on Reddit about the notes left. They theorize that Duke Graham, a nightclub owner, and Jimmy Smith had arguments and run-ins with Gore. Perhaps he was hoping it would act as a red herring and tie up Graham and Smith with law enforcement.
Debbie’s mother wrote Gore a letter asking for answers for what really happened, but mostly she just wants to know why. Gore has not replied and has not accepted any blame for what happened to Debbie. With the level of brutality and depravity in Debbie’s murder, do you think Gore acted alone? What do you think the trigger was? Personally, I think Gore was drunk, upset Debbie rejected him at the club, he followed her home. He somehow managed to get her to let him inside, she started to feel unsafe so she called Gina. I think Gore agreed to leave so she told Gina nevermind, and then he snapped and unleashed all of his rage on Debbie. After he killed her, he staged the scene to draw the attention elsewhere, then called the police and drew their attention to Williamson and Fritz. His later conviction so kidnapping and assault show his tendency to violent outbursts.
This is just a summary of Debbie’s case, it’s so layered and so tangled, it’s why Grisham wrote a novel about it, and Netflix made a series about it. They also cover the murder of Denice Haraway and the confusion surrounding her case. I’m so grateful that Debbie’s family, especially her mother, were able to see her truly receive justice. Debbie’s case is a chilling reminder that we are all vulnerable, and things aren’t always what they seem.