Murder of Heather Rich

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The murder of Heather Rose Rich took place on the night of October 2, 1996 on a remote bridge over a creek in Texas. Rich, a 16-year-old sophomore high school student from Waurika, Oklahoma, had been driven to the location by three young men, two of them her schoolmates. She was in a state of severe intoxication following a session of heavy drinking, and had been sexually assaulted and raped by two of the men while semi-conscious, with the third also admitting sex but claiming Rich had consented. Rich was shot nine times on the bridge, and her body dumped in the creek. All three accused were convicted of her killing after trials featuring conflicting testimony and recanted plea bargains, leading to lingering controversy over the eventual verdicts and the identity of the person who pulled the trigger. The case received national coverage and was the subject of a feature on ABC News's 20/20 magazine show, and an episode of the American Justice documentary series as well as a portion of Justice Files, episode "Small Town Trouble."

History[edit]

Heather Rich attended high school in Waurika. She was a cheerleader, successful academically and a popular student, and had been nominated as homecoming queen for the approaching school celebrations.[1] She had exhibited some troubled behavior in the weeks before her death, and had been suspended from the cheerleading team for drinking alcohol.[1]

Late on the evening of October 2, 1996, Rich slipped out of her home without her parents' knowledge in order to meet 17-year-old Joshua Bagwell in a trailer at the home of Bagwell's grandfather. Bagwell had already been drinking with his friends Curtis Gambill and Randy Wood, who went off for an hour and left Rich and Bagwell alone together. When they returned they found both naked, with Rich intoxicated and largely insensible. Bagwell accepted the two had had sex during this interval, but claimed Rich had consented. According to Wood's testimony, Gambill had sex with the semi-conscious Rich after he himself had sexually assaulted her; after this, fearing a rape prosecution, Gambill decided to kill her[2] and persuaded the others to help him. Rich was dressed, placed in Bagwell's grandfather's pickup truck and driven to a lonely spot on Belknap Creek in Texas. Bagwell carried her to the bridge where Gambill shot her repeatedly in the back and head.[3] The body was thrown into the creek, where it was discovered on 10 October by a rancher.

Arrests and trials[edit]

Curtis Allen Gambill, a 20-year-old high-school dropout with a criminal record; Josh Bagwell, a classmate of Rich's from a comparatively affluent background; and Randy Wood, another classmate and Rich's ex-boyfriend, were arrested two weeks after the body was discovered.[4]

Gambill was tried in October 1997 and Bagwell in February 1998. Having first blamed Wood, Gambill then entered into a plea-bargain, admitting to shooting Rich and agreeing to testify against Bagwell in exchange for a reduced charge of "straight", not capital murder. This offered a more lenient sentence and would allow him to avoid the death penalty. During Gambill's trial, a prison guard who had known him during a period of juvenile custody in 1992 testified that Gambill had told another inmate of a desire to "kidnap and rape a beautiful young girl, then 'blow her head off'".[3] He was found guilty and sentenced to a life term. However, when Wood gave testimony at Bagwell's trial, identifying Gambill as the murderer without the incentive of a plea-bargain, Gambill rejected his own agreement with prosecutors and changed his story, minimizing Bagwell's role in the affair and testifying that Wood was Rich's murderer.[5] This opened the way for a further prosecution, on a charge of conspiracy to commit capital murder, which took place in February 2002 and resulted in a second life sentence for Gambill.[6]

Wood initially accepted a similar plea-bargain to that offered to Gambill, in exchange for his testimony at Bagwell's trial in February 1998. However, in a surprise move hours before he was due to give evidence he changed his mind and rejected the bargain,[2] testifying against Bagwell without preconditions despite advice from his lawyer that he risked a longer prison sentence or the death penalty if convicted. Wood was quoted as saying that he did it for his own peace of mind, for the benefit of Rich and her family,[2] and also to improve the credibility of his testimony. "I knew it would make people see I was telling the truth."[7] Wood was eventually tried for capital murder later in 1998 and received a life sentence, with no possibility of parole until aged 57.

Bagwell refused to admit any complicity in the murder. He claimed his sex with Rich was consensual,[5] that he believed they were driving Rich around to sober her up, and that he was unaware of the plan to kill her.[4] He blamed Wood for the actual shooting, claiming not to have been on the bridge at the time, and admitted only to helping cover up the crime after the event. It was for this reason that the prosecutor offered plea-bargains to Gambill and Wood in exchange for their testimony against Bagwell. In the event, Bagwell was convicted of capital murder and conspiracy to commit capital murder on 14 February 1998[4] and sentenced to a life term.

Aftermath[edit]

In 1999 Rich's father, as administrator of her estate, initiated a lawsuit against the store that handed over shotgun ammunition to Bagwell and Gambill on October 1. The suit alleged negligence on the grounds that the action violated state law on the supply of offensive weapons to minors, and that this negligence caused Rich's death. However, the court denied the motion and an appeal in May 2000 also failed.[8]

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b "A bend in the river". Texas Monthly. The Gale Group. 1 July 2002. Retrieved 4 May 2010. 
  2. ^ a b c "Teen-Ager Abandons Plea Agreement in Killing of Cheerleader". New York Times online. 12 February 1998. Retrieved 5 May 2010. 
  3. ^ a b Cochran, Mike (6 May 1988). "Friends face one another in courtroom climax". Abilene Reporter-News. Retrieved 4 May 2010. 
  4. ^ a b c "Teen convicted of capital murder in 1996 slaying of cheerleader". Laredo Morning Times. 16 February 1998. Retrieved 4 May 2010. 
  5. ^ a b Cochran, Mike (5 May 1998). "A stunning reversal changes the case". 5 May 1998. Texas News. Retrieved 4 May 2010. 
  6. ^ Brown, Angela K. "Nationwide search continues for escapees". Amarillo.com (Amarillo Globe-News). Retrieved 5 May 2010. 
  7. ^ Cochran, Mike. "Trial in girl's death takes turn". Lubbock Avelanche-Journal. pp. 5 May 1998. Retrieved 4 May 2010. 
  8. ^ "United States Court of Appeals Order & Judgement No. 99-6238". Washburn University School of Law. Retrieved 4 May 2010. 

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