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Who killed Billie Jean?

By MICHAEL WHITELEY

This article was published October 20, 1997 at 8:50 p.m.

— Billie Jean Phillips rode life like a sexual Jet Ski. Death seemed to trail in her wake.

At 35, her reddish-brown hair flowed to her shoulders. She was petite, pretty and tough, a scrapper with connections to the drug-dealing underbelly of Huntsville and the ability to move freely among the town's most prominent citizens.

She died Sept. 2, 1994, a Friday night, beaten and strangled in her bedroom. Her murder remains unsolved. Those who have investigated it have centered their inquiries on the Madison County drug trade and on the men who loved her.

Phillips' sexual activity has helped confuse the three-year effort, says Prosecuting Attorney Terry Jones of Fayetteville, who has been in charge of the official investigation.

"She lived a lifestyle that tended to antagonize the spouses of people that she went out with -- girlfriends and wives," Jones said. "She would call them up on the phone and let them know what she was doing and anger them.

"Over the years, she developed a long line of people that probably weren't too happy about having her around. You have somebody that's got a lot of potential enemies. And then you get a family that's peripherally involved in drugs, which opens up hundreds of more possibilities."

To know her, men say, was to love her.

Those who were close to her say her sexual encounters began in her mid-teens and included boys even younger than she. At 15, she took her first lover, a state trooper. Her father caught them getting out of a patrol car and punched him. But the sporadic affair continued until Billie Jean was 23.

Her later lovers included both the local prosecuting attorney, Howard "Rusty" Cain Jr., and his son, Trey.

She flaunted her other romances to whichever man she was with at the time, say friends and family. That drove at least two of them to violence.

The first was Randall Wayne Sharp, who took his vows with 19-year-old Billie Jean McKnight on the diving board of a family friend's swimming pool.

The relationship was "tempestuous," one family member said. Sharp tied her up and locked her in a closet for hours while he gambled with his friends.

Soon after they separated, Sharp shot himself in a motel room while Billie Jean watched.

Roger Dale Harp, her second husband, concedes holding a gun to Billie Jean's head after a fight in which, typically, she questioned his manhood and bragged of outside relations.

"She could play me like a drum," Harp said. "She was good to look at, and she'd flirt around and make me jealous. She could cut you so low it would take a stepladder to climb onto a match box."

Harp suspects that her long-term affair with Rusty Cain developed after the death of Randy Sharp and continued throughout Harp's two-year marriage to her. Billie Jean's family also dates the relationship to Sharp's death. Through his lawyer, Cain has repeatedly declined to be interviewed.

A story told by more than one person has Billie Jean receiving a telephone call while engaged in sex sometime after her marriage to Harp ended in 1983. She answered the phone, carried on a conversation, and never missed a beat.

The story is true, said one law enforcement officer who knows the man she was with. The phone call, he said, was from future third husband Jim "Chic" Phillips, who wanted to come over. Billie Jean told him it was too late.

Said the man she was with: "That race horse was a little too fast for this country boy."

Former Huntsville Police Chief Elmer Cook, who died earlier this year, told investigators looking into the murder that Billie Jean planned to sleep with every police officer in Madison County. The chief quoted her as bragging that she had a briefcase with embarrassing information about prominent Huntsville residents.

Billie Jean's tastes matched her zest for life.

She drove a 1994 custom Chevy Silverado and had ordered an $800 bedroom ensemble just before she died.

She also liked power. Cain, as deputy prosecuting attorney for the 4th Judicial District and Huntsville's city attorney, was a visible symbol of power. Their affair was common knowledge around Huntsville.

Billie Jean's family says that Cain's clothes, including suits, shirts and pants, occupied the left side of Billie Jean's walk-in closet. His mustache trimmer had a permanent place in her bathroom.

The son of former aides to Gov. Orval Faubus and his wife Alta, Cain is married to Sharon Cain, Huntsville's music teacher. During the months before her death, Billie Jean had begun to push openly for the prosecutor to divorce his wife and marry her.

The strain had begun to show. A year or so before she died, Billie Jean had gotten a Christmas card inscribed "Go F*** Somebody Else's Husband." It was signed, "S.C."

In the months before she died, Billie Jean provoked a confrontation with Sharon Cain during a visit to the Cains' home. Billie Jean was drunk, an investigator said.

Two weeks before the murder, the investigator said, Sharon Cain caught her husband and Billie Jean together in his car. Sharon Cain walked up to the window and punched her husband in the nose.

A TRAIL OF CONFRONTATIONS; A KILLING LEADING NOWHERE

Madison County Sheriff Ralph Baker, who says he counted Billie Jean a close friend but was not one of her conquests, knew she could provoke confrontations, especially with her lovers.

He said her goading probably prompted Randy Sharp to fire a bullet through his brain at the Jan-Ran Motel in Huntsville on Dec. 10, 1979. Sharp's family still believes Sharp may have been murdered. Either way, the case remains one of Huntsville's great mysteries.

Among other things, the 29-year-old Alaskan pipeline worker shot himself with the wrong hand.

Estranged from Billie Jean, Sharp had returned from Alaska for a visit and checked into room No. 5. Gary Cornett, the brother of a woman Sharp was dating, was visiting when Billie Jean showed up with her brother, Robert McKnight.

Sharp threw the door open and seemed annoyed, McKnight said. Sharp was a big man, and "he filled that old doorway up." McKnight left.

At some point, Cornett went outside. Billie Jean was alone with Sharp when, police say, he shot himself in the right temple with a Colt .45 caliber pistol.

Deputy City Marshal Lenn Rich found Sharp bleeding on the couch. Billie Jean was on her knees, cradling his head and screaming, "I love you." The pistol was on the bed, its clip removed. A loaded Colt AR 15 rifle stood next to the refrigerator. A shoulder holster with a Browning 9 mm automatic pistol was tucked into a dresser drawer. Sharp was a gun fancier.

He died at Washington Regional Medical Center, where Arkansas State Police criminal investigator Doug Fogley conducted metal-trace tests. Fogley found strong traces of metal on Sharp's right palm and medium-strength traces on his left. He also found traces of metal on Sharp's right index finger and deduced that Sharp had shot himself with both hands, with the butt of the pistol gripped in his right hand.

Billie Jean tested negative. Cornett, who told police he had taken the gun from Sharp's hand and laid it on the bed, wasn't tested.

Over the objections of Police Chief Cook and Sharp's family, Baker and Fogley ruled the death a suicide. Then Baker and Cain told Cook to leave the case alone, according to one of the statements Cook made to investigators.

Melba Sharp, Randy Sharp's mother, contends that her son was left-handed and couldn't have shot himself with his right hand. And she talked of the gold coin and chain she had given him. She had added a safety clasp a few weeks before his death. But when a funeral director returned it to her, the chain was stretched and the clasp had broken away.

Tonya Sharp, Randy Sharp's daughter by an earlier marriage, blamed Billie Jean. She became a suspect in Billie Jean's slaying because she told at least one friend that she wanted Billie Jean dead.

Baker said he's convinced Sharp's death was a feigned suicide that accidentally succeeded. "The clip was out of the gun," he said, "but there's always a bullet or two still in the gun."

Billie Jean spent a year at her parents' home, sometimes sleeping with them to ward off the nightmares. A sister, Euna McKnight, said Billie Jean was on the rebound when she married Dale Harp on Sept. 24, 1981.

Harp, a truck driver for Tyson Foods, said his bride was attracted by signs of money. He had a good job and a new truck.

The couple settled into Billie Jean's yellow frame house, on a hillside off a dirt road near the community of Alabam, in the valley just northeast of Forum.

Robert McKnight was a frequent guest. He would remove the screen and crawl through the window to a back bedroom that he used so often the couple came to call it "Robert's room."

"We had a pretty good marriage. We really didn't step on each other's toes any more than we had to," Harp said. "We had a pretty good marriage until she found out I didn't have enough money."

Then, he said, they fought -- about money, about Sharp's death, about Billie Jean's hints of other men. He said she would just push you into it. But he never quit caring, even after they divorced in September 1994.

He figures jealousy got her killed.

And he is convinced she left a clue.

"There's a hell of a trail behind Billie Jean, to be such a young, pretty girl," Harp said. "I can't believe she didn't leave a sign. Billie Jean didn't leave anything undone. I know she left a sign, if anyone could figure out what it is."

A BROKEN MARRIAGE, A LOYAL LOVER AND TROUBLE ON THE ROAD

Billie Jean got her only child, MacKenzie, from her third marriage -- to Chic Phillips, a federal poultry plant inspector who says he loved her deeply and accepted her eccentricities.

Phillips said he learned just to walk away when Billie Jean made him angry. Usually, he took to his four-wheeler. Once, he said, he got so angry he accidentally drove his truck into a ditch near the Huntsville convenience store Billie Jean operated, doing about $2,000 worth of damage.

"You had to know Billie," he said. "You didn't want to argue with her. It was just better to go on."

But he said she never taunted him with other men and, when he asked, denied seeing anyone else. He now thinks he was naive to believe her.

The marriage lasted more than eight years, until July 1, 1993. But they had separated in November 1992, nearly two years before she was killed.

Billie Jean's family and ex-husbands say her affair with Rusty Cain probably overlapped her marriage to Phillips. "She made it right in her mind by divorcing Chic," Euna McKnight said.

Robert McKnight helped arrange rendezvous with the prosecutor, who would park up the two-rut trail above Billie Jean's house and walk down.

After Billie Jean and Chic separated, family members say, Friday nights and Saturdays belonged to Cain. Billie Jean didn't have to be at the store she ran, the Ozark Shoppe, until the night shift began at 6.

Cain was loyal -- to the point of mixing his responsibilities as prosecutor, private attorney and friend when tragedy next struck.

Kristi Box, the daughter of Huntsville's most prominent doctor, died July 11, 1993, in a one-car accident.

Box, her boyfriend Thomas L. Garrett and Billie Jean had just left a party at Box's house. Garrett and Billie Jean were seriously injured, but Billie Jean was gone before sheriff's deputies and state police arrived at the scene.

Family members said a teen-age friend took Billie Jean back to Box's house, where she called Cain. Another friend from the party, Robbie Houston, then drove Billie Jean back to her home. Cain picked her up there and drove her to Washington Regional in Fayetteville.

Acting as deputy prosecuting attorney, Cain charged Garrett with negligent homicide.

Garrett pleaded guilty. He drew four years' probation, paid a $7,500 fine and lost his job as Billie Jean's night manager at the Ozark Shoppe, although he had been her longtime friend.

Garrett, who has never been questioned by authorities in connection with the murder, declined to be interviewed. He would neither confirm nor deny rumors that Billie Jean -- and not he -- was driving that night. He would only say that convincing state troopers that he was driving was "a hard sell."

Cain, after prosecuting Garrett, then acted as Phillips' private attorney in winning a $21,000 settlement from Garrett's insurance company.

Billie Jean's mother, Edna McKnight, said the company paid off about two weeks before her daughter's death. She said Billie Jean told her that $11,000 went for Cain's fee and medical expenses.

People around town knew Billie Jean had just gotten a lot of money. Edna McKnight wonders now if the windfall might have triggered her daughter's killing.

Two of her other daughters, Euna McKnight and Diane McCloud, wonder about something else.

AN UNUSUAL CIRCLE OF FRIENDS AND A PICTURE OF FAMILY SOLIDARITY

Earl "Junior" McKnight Jr. was Gen. Matthew Ridgeway's mess sergeant in Korea, but he spent enough time in the front lines to be wounded twice. After the war, he met Edna Martinez while stationed at Fort Polk, La. They married in 1952, moved into a one-room building that had been a chicken house, and bought 9 1/2 acres in Forum, a community just north of Huntsville.

The McKnights opened a small grocery store and sold the greens and strawberries they grew on their land. They had four daughters in rapid succession -- Debra, Diane, Euna and Billie Jean -- and then, four years later, a son, Robert. They worked hard, and the children pitched in.

In time, they built McKnight's Drive-In in downtown Huntsville. Selling that for a healthy profit, they built the Huntsville Mini-Mall, then bought the Ozark Shoppe to surprise Billie Jean and Chic, who were off vacationing.

Their land holdings grew steadily, to 400 acres. The McKnights are now comfortably retired in a house that overlooks a panorama of intersecting hillsides that appear to march in lock step toward the promise of larger mountains to the east.

The family has always been close. Billie Jean and Robert, the McKnights concede, always needed more support than their other children.

By age 16, Billie Jean would regularly slip away from the house at night. Euna would often have to go find her, but didn't learn until later what her younger sister was up to. "I was going to church when she was out screwing. ... And I didn't know it."

Despite her passions, Billie Jean was the favorite. Robert, whose passion was for drugs, was the baby.

His heavy use of methamphetamine -- and his constant pursuit of cash to buy it -- landed him in at least two of the county's intertwining drug circles. One included Sheila Pitts, a former girlfriend, and Dale Harp, Billie Jean's second husband. Harp and Robert shared a love for meth and for digging arrowheads from the rich black mud around Billie Jean's home. The other revolved around Steve Hathorn, a trucker, salvage car dealer and cousin of County Judge Herb Hathorn.

Steve Hathorn acknowledged being arrested on meth charges in Oklahoma and Louisiana, but denied he has ever been involved in dealing. He was placed on two years probation for possession of cocaine in Alexandria, La., in 1991. He has never been charged in Madison County.

His contacts included Joe Benton Head of Springdale, who was convicted of drug and weapons charges in 1995. Head, in turn, was connected to the best-known drug dealer in Northwest Arkansas. Head was an associate and former high school friend of Dennis Cordes, who built a methamphetamine lab in a trailer park on the Illinois River and advised his girlfriend Connie L. Lewis in the construction of the largest methcathinone lab in U.S. history.

Cordes made headlines across the Ozarks when Lewis removed the screws from a Plexiglas window in a visiting room of the Washington County jail and freed the 49-year-old career drug dealer. Cordes was recaptured seven days later as he slept in the back of a truck in an Oklahoma park.

Robert McKnight said he was only vaguely aware of the movements of drug dealers like Cordes. Robert wasn't a high roller. He seldom worked. He often borrowed money from Billie Jean to pay his drug debts. When that failed, he stole. Family members say that, in recent months, he has used his mother's key to the Ozark Shoppe to take cigarettes and gas. A shotgun stolen from his father helped finance one drug transaction.

When Robert's methamphetamine use got out of hand, Euna and Billie Jean stepped in. Euna, a nurse at Washington Regional, warned local drug dealer Billy Holt to stop selling to Robert. Billie Jean paid his drug debts but argued with him over missing cash and cigarettes at the Ozark Shoppe.

When Robert asked for money, Euna said, "she'd give it to him. ... She'd tell him no, and then she'd give it to him in an hour."

For Billie Jean, Euna said, "there was no better love than her brother. Her main goal in life was to get Robert straight."

Those activities put him, along with Cain, on Prosecuting Attorney Terry Jones' short list of suspects. Suspicions were heightened, investigators say, by Billie Jean's decision to move a house key reserved for Robert a few days before her death.

It had normally been kept in an electrical box near the back door, family members said. Investigators found it that afternoon below the back door landing. Robert said his sister never told him about moving the key.

He has repeatedly denied that he knows who killed his sister.

The McKnight family stands unified behind Robert's innocence.

But Euna worries that Billie Jean died because she was paying a debt for her brother -- "or that she didn't pay one."

A week before the murder, Diane said, Billie Jean warned her that something was going to happen: "She said there was going to be a bust, and a lot of big people were going to go down."

Euna echoed Diane: "Billie told me at least three times that big people were going to go down." But Billie Jean didn't seem concerned.

"The last thing she told me that Friday night was that the only thing she had to worry about was her brother."

A MOTHER'S LAST DAY WITH HER DAUGHTER

Billie Jean spent the last day of her life with her mother. They went to Springdale to buy Cain a present at Sam's Club, then stopped by Dillard Department Store to get him some shirts.

They talked of death and of a safety deposit box Billie Jean had rented the day before at Madison Bank and Trust. Cain had been named to the board of directors there, replacing Gov. Jim Guy Tucker, then under investigation in the Whitewater affair.

"She wanted to get me off and tell me what she had," Edna McKnight remembers. "She told me about the safety deposit box and said all it had was one piece of paper."

Billie Jean also told her that she and Cain had some jointly held stock. "If anything ever happened to her, she wanted me to take those for [her son] MacKenzie," Edna McKnight said.

The McKnights say police later told them there were no stocks or notes in the safety deposit box. Through his lawyer, John Lisle of Springdale, Cain said he had no stocks with Billie Jean and was unaware of the piece of paper Billie Jean spoke of.

Baker opened the safety deposit box but declined to discuss it.

Other investigators say they found a second safety deposit box, to which both Cain and Billie Jean had access, with two $10,000 stacks of cash.

Again speaking through Lisle, Cain said the money belonged to his son Trey, who was in the midst of a divorce.

Lisle said Cain saw Billie Jean for the last time at 5 p.m. Sept. 2, the day she was killed, when he dropped two $100 bills by her house and picked up the shirts she'd bought. He told her he wasn't going to be able to be with her that night, because he had family coming to town.

Edna McKnight last saw her daughter about 10 p.m., as Billie Jean prepared to close the Ozark Shoppe. Out on Arkansas 23, Huntsville's main Friday night drag, post-football game traffic from the Huntsville-Ozark game was picking up.

Billie Jean and her mother discussed preparations for Diane McCloud's upcoming birthday. Billie Jean looked pensively out the front window and watched a white Corvette drive by.

She put her hand on her mother's shoulder and said, "You need to get out of here now."

Investigators think she died sometime within the next two hours.

A NUMBER OF INVESTIGATORS, UNCOVERING A LONG LIST OF MOTIVES

Rusty Cain and Chic Phillips took polygraph tests within two or three days of the murder. Both failed on some responses. It would have been nearly impossible, said one investigator, for men who had loved Billie Jean to have denied they ever entertained thoughts of killing her.

A week later, Cain crossed the imaginary line his boss had drawn for him. He called the state Crime Laboratory for information on the case. His role as a Madison County prosecutor ended at 5 p.m. Sept. 9, 1994.

"Since our phone conversation, the arrow has apparently moved to the critical point," Terry Jones wrote Cain that day. "This is my written renunciation of your previously granted authority to prosecute all felonies and misdemeanors in Madison County, Arkansas."

Cain hired Lisle, a former state senator, when Jones summoned Sharon Cain to his Fayetteville office, led her into a room full of investigators, and threatened to charge her with perjury on the basis of statements from an earlier conversation.

Lisle abruptly ended a subsequent interview and said Sharon Cain was claiming spousal privilege and her Constitutional protection against self-incrimination.

Lisle brought in ex-FBI agent Dick O'Connell and his partners, Gary Swearingen and Claude DeLao. The four men began an investigation that lasted nearly two years and involved interviews of more than 190 witnesses.

When he became convinced that drugs and corruption were behind Billie Jean's death, Lisle called the FBI. His investigators and agents began a series of meetings in October 1996.

Jones' official investigation, meanwhile, had run into numerous delays at the Arkansas and FBI crime laboratories. And Fogley, the state police investigator who was working with Baker, was repeatedly pulled off the case to follow the trail of Morgan Nick, the 6-year-old girl abducted from an Alma ball field in June 1995.

Earl and Edna McKnight posted a $25,000 reward, hired their own private investigator and started a petition drive to replace Jones.

Perplexed by damage to the crime scene and by a plethora of suspects, Jones told reporters the case might never be solved.

On March 29, 1996, saying he wanted to avoid any appearance that he might have a conflict of interest, Jones named Fayetteville attorney John Everett special prosecutor and Jack D. Knox, a retired FBI agent of 29 years, as special investigator. Neither received a fee. They offered to work for expenses only, and they never sought reimbursement for those. They resigned Aug. 7.

Court records and interviews with investigators and with people they have questioned and tested show the number of suspects has steadily grown. Tests to match DNA with skin found under Phillips' fingernails have done little to narrow the list.

There are enough motives to fill a detective novel:

Cain and his son, Trey, both have passed DNA tests and talked with investigators. McKnight family members say either one might have been angered when Billie Jean pushed Cain to get a divorce during the summer of 1994. Neither Sharon Cain nor Cain's other son, Blakney, has been tested.

Robert McKnight and his half-brother, Chris McKnight, have passed DNA tests. The two were taken to Washington Regional after state crime analysts reported that skin under Billie Jean's fingernails probably came from a family member.

DNA samples were taken from MacKenzie Phillips, now 10, on Aug. 11, in an attempt to rule out DNA as a piece in the puzzle. Family members say Billie Phillips liked to scratch her son's back. Jones and Baker have refused to comment on the outcome of the boy's test.

Billy J. Holt, a 39-year-old tractor mechanic and convicted methamphetamine dealer from Huntsville, has passed a DNA test. He and a group of Huntsville people who shared drugs and sex remain a target of investigators. Witnesses reported they saw bloody clothes in Holt's house in Huntsville the day after the murder, and one of Holt's close associates said she saw a bloody club in the cab of Holt's pickup. Holt adamantly denies existence of the clothes and has said the club was used to kill road-crossing possums.

Tonya Sharp, the daughter of Randy Sharp, is being sought for questioning. Investigators have also questioned Michelle Suddith, whose husband, Keith Suddith, was dating Tonya Sharp at the time of the murder.

Warren Coger, who owned a Huntsville car wash, clashed with Billie Jean months before her death. She claimed his equipment had scratched her truck. She had it repainted and sued him for the $2,500 bill. He later told a mutual friend, "I'd just as soon see the b**** dead as do business with her."

Coger's father, Larry, a former Huntsville pharmacist, was convicted in 1994 of killing an exotic dancer in Fayetteville and trying to burn her body in a Madison County creek bed. Warren Coger testified at the trial that the two men discussed how to dispose of the dancer's body.

One investigator compares the case to the movie "Clue," a farcical mystery with multiple endings. In the end, all of the suspects played a part in the crime.

But there is no humor in the reality for Earl McKnight. Neither his reward offer nor his own investigator, former state police officer Quimby Johnson, has produced any valuable leads. McKnight is now battling a heart problem and makes regular trips to the veterans hospital in Fayetteville.

"I probably won't live long enough to find out who killed her," he said.

THE STRANGE WAYS OF A "METH" CIRCLE AND A VISION IN THE NIGHT

Sheila Marie Pitts served as social director for Madison County's meth crowd.

At the time of Billie Jean's death, the group included Robert McKnight; Billy Holt; Holt's girlfriend, Janet Brand; Dale Harp; Harp's new wife, Sandra; Sam Hicks of Harrison, who now faces a plethora of drug charges; and a group of friends from Farmington, Nob Hill, Prairie Grove and Springdale.

They spent their days and nights on a steady high fueled by crank. They sold drugs to each other to finance their habits. When they ran out of money, they stole household goods from each other and, finally, from outsiders. When their belongings were gone and they were scared to steal any more around Huntsville, they moved to Washington County.

During their sleepless binges, the group would sometimes seek refuge in the caves in the Wildlife Management Area next to Billie Jean's house.

They complained that helicopters and airplanes dogged them, then worried when the drugs wore off that they were suffering from delusions. When things got too intense, Pitts cast spells on her enemies.

Pitts lived at Ridgecrest Apartments. Holt and Brand lived just across a creek from her, in a small house in the woods.

Holt, who used vitamins to cut the drugs he sold, had earned the street name "Billy B-12." But, like the others in the group, he navigated Madison County's thriving drug traffic without arrest during the months before Billie Jean died. In fact, he and Brand worked for the Drug Enforcement Administration in 1994. That soured when Holt, equipped with a body microphone, announced to a target that he was "wearing a wire."

It was not until two months after the murder that Holt was arrested and charged with two counts of delivering methamphetamine. The undercover buys, Detective Laney Morriss attested, had taken place Jan. 31 and Feb. 22, 1994 -- more than six months earlier. Holt pleaded the charges down to a single count of methamphetamine possession and got 10 years' probation.

On the morning before the murder, Holt felt comfortable enough about his relationship with local authorities to drag a fight with Brand onto the lawn of the Madison County Courthouse.

He wanted sheriff's deputies to calm her down.

But at 12:38 a.m., according to police records, the couple's day-long fight over money and sex erupted again. While Holt was being questioned, Brand slapped him.

Sheriff's deputies photographed Brand's injuries. She was bleeding from a cut on the bridge of her nose, and she had a bruise on her left arm in the shape of a hand print and a scuff on her right elbow.

Then deputies checked the couple's records on their computer.

They arrested Brand on a contempt-of-court citation from Berryville. Huntsville police officer Bill Nelson drove her to the county line and turned her over to a Carroll County sheriff's deputy.

Police made no mention of injuries to Holt in the report they filed. He was booked into the Madison County jail on an assault charge. He bonded out about two hours later.

Around midnight that night -- the night of the murder -- Holt appeared at Pitts' front door, according to a statement taken by Cain's investigators.

A friend from Washington County had had a fight with her husband and had brought her two children to Pitts' apartment. The woman said she was on the telephone when she heard a knock on the door and spotted Holt through the peephole. She didn't open the door.

Holt came to the apartment again the next day and took Pitts to the bedroom to talk, she said. When they came out, "Sheila told me she was going to help Billy clean up his house, because him and his wife Janet had had a fight and he was afraid she planted drugs on him."

The woman said Pitts told her that night that she had "had to clean up blood and stuff from the fight." She said Pitts gave her a pair of black jeans and some size 3 shirts from Brand's wardrobe.

Pitts, Dale Harp and Sandra Harp all say they went over to Holt's house that afternoon. They deny seeing any blood and say they left when Brand showed up in a truck with her parents.

Nevertheless, Pitts, 32, became a focus for investigators.

She had pleaded guilty to possessing methamphetamine and 11 syringes after a June 10, 1996, arrest, receiving three years' probation. She was arrested again this summer and accused of selling drugs to an undercover state police officer earlier this year.

Prosecutors have asked that her probation be revoked, and a public defender has been appointed for Pitts, but no action has been taken. One law enforcement official said charges were filed to pressure Pitts into telling what she knows about Billie Jean's murder.

Pitts has told her story only in fragments. And her ramblings have been laced with fear.

After her first meeting with an investigator, Pitts said she returned to her Fayetteville home to find a dozen small baseball bats tied with a nylon cord and lying in her driveway.

"It spooked me," she said. "I saw those baseball bats in the driveway and it was dark. [My roommate] and I went upstairs to close the apartment door and shut the lights off."

But it is her dream that has interested investigators from the outset. They've tried in vain to get Pitts to submit to hypnosis.

"I dreamt that the morning after she was murdered I went over there. They couldn't see me; I was invisible," Pitts told the Democrat-Gazette.

Billie Jean's family was taking things out of the house. Then Billie Jean appeared, wearing a flowing white nightgown.

"Billie comes up beside me. ... I was just glad no one could see us. ... Billie and I were just talking -- `My poor mom, my poor dad.'"

Then, Pitts said, one of the suspects appeared at the house below.

"He was taking something he had given her, and she was just going crazy. `Get him out of here! get him out of here!' ... She starts going in a spin and rises up into the sky. As she goes up, she's telling me, `You've got to do something about this.'"

It was only a dream, Pitts said. But it seemed real.

DID KNOWING ABOUT BILLIE JEAN'S MURDER COST HIM HIS LIFE?

No one in Madison County knew the circle of drug dealers and friends who grew up along the hilly backwoods of Alabam and Forum better than Norma Jean Walden.

Walden drove the school bus across that part of Madison County for 27 years. Billie Jean McKnight and Robert McKnight rode it. So did Danny and Gary Walden, Norma's two stepsons.

The Walden boys grew up outside the clique of Huntsville kids who took to drugs in their early teens. Danny and Gary preferred cowboy boots and beer.

As adults, big and full-bearded, Danny and Gary looked the part of mountain men. They looked alike, but, by their 30s, the similarities ended there.

Danny, a welder, started a thriving methamphetamine trade a few years before Billie Jean died. Gary, by all accounts, hated drugs. He didn't even smoke. Evette Murphy, his ex-wife, said her experimentation with drugs nearly broke up their marriage.

Gary had other problems. His six DWI convictions attest to that.

His drinking had gotten so bad, one family member said, that he once pulled into a left turn lane in Siloam Springs and passed out before the light changed.

His favorite pastime was to load up on beer and drive his Ford pickup along the dusty back roads of Madison County. His favorite spot was the web of creek beds and two-rut roads near Billie Jean's house.

After a state trooper found him drunk and sitting behind the wheel of his truck, one attorney advised Walden that he would have been better off not being found with the keys. So Walden took to tossing his keys into the woods when he got too drunk to drive or got stopped. Robert McKnight said he towed Walden's truck home with his tractor on the nights Walden couldn't find the keys.

The habit may have followed 33-year-old Gary Walden to his death.

He had joined Danny Walden's welding business in the months after Billie Jean's murder. Sometimes, the Walden brothers swapped trucks. They had closed -- for a brief period -- the years of distance arising in part from their differences over drugs.

But it was his stepmother that Gary Walden chose as a confidante in late February 1995. He was increasingly troubled by the 7-month-old murder case in Alabam.

"I know some stuff about Billie's murder that I'll have to carry to my grave," Norma Jean Walden remembers him saying. "If something happens to me, I want to be buried in Marshall Cemetery."

Three weeks later, he was.

On March 18, 1995, after an all-day fishing trip and drinking spree, Gary Walden ended up with friends at the Angler's Inn, a colorful bar and restaurant on the Benton County back roads near Beaver Lake.

Walden had been kicked out of his house that weekend by his girlfriend, Teresa Keeney, who had dumped his clothes at Happy Perry's front door in Clifty. Perry and Walden were building houses together at the time. Keeney said later the dispute was only temporary.

At the Angler's Inn, Walden pinched a waitress. But the ensuing argument went scarcely noticed by the crowd finishing the Saturday night buffet.

Around 10:30, Piney Point volunteer firefighter Doug Trostle loaded Walden and another couple into his own truck and drove them back to the desolate woods around Arkansas 127, near Lookout in Benton County.

Trostle dropped Walden off at his truck, which was parked in the woods off the dirt road.

Walden stopped by the truck to relieve himself and told Trostle he was going to take a nap. Trostle thinks Walden climbed into the driver's side of the truck and leaned over to go to sleep.

Trostle spent an hour at the nearby home of Vernon Metcalf, another of the Angler's Inn patrons, before heading back to his own home. When he passed Walden's truck at 11:30, fire was burning from the base of the front wheels to the back of the cab.

Trostle says he ran to the driver's-side door.

The window was closed, but the handle was cool to the touch. Trostle opened the door, looked inside, then closed it again. Bullets began exploding inside the cab.

"He was gone from the waist up. So I just shut the door," Trostle said. "I tried to call for help on the CB. But the ammo began exploding inside the truck, and I couldn't hear anything."

Back at Metcalf's house, it took Trostle nearly 30 minutes to reach Benton County 911 -- he kept getting a busy signal or being put on hold.

Investigators found Walden lying on his side and locked into a boxer's stance. He had stood 6-foot-1 and weighed 185 pounds. When his body was pulled from the truck, the remains weighed 112 pounds and measured 47 inches. His blood alcohol level was .33, more than three times the legal limit. Investigators identified him through dental records.

Walden died from smoke and soot inhalation, state Associate Medical Examiner Frank Peretti ruled.

"We really couldn't determine where the point of origin [of the fire] was," sheriff's Capt. Sam Blankenship said. "It was a suspected murder."

An autopsy report and investigators' files released by Benton County Sheriff Andy Lee traced the intensity of the fire to an accelerant in the cab. Lab tests identified it as either Liquid Wrench or a type of charcoal starter sold by Safeway and Kroger.

The fire burned an arc 15 to 20 feet into the forest. Sheriff's office reports indicate that it disintegrated the wiring on the 3/4-ton Ford truck and melted the ignition. Investigators found four key rings on the floorboard, as if they had dropped from Walden's pants pocket. The truck keys are not noted in the inventory of keys taken by sheriff's deputies. Blankenship said he's not sure they were ever found.

After Trostle passed a polygraph test, Lee's office ruled Walden's death an accident and closed the case. In the file, they included a bulletin from Ford Motor Co. warning that the engine mounts on Walden's brand of truck were prone to loosen and could cause separations in the fuel line, especially if the truck was driven over rough roads.

But Trostle says Lee's findings conflict with his years of experience as a firefighter in Kansas and Arkansas. He said he was dismissed from the Piney Point Fire Department because of Walden's death.

"In my opinion, there was a fire set outside the truck and one set inside the truck later," Trostle said. "I've been in several car fires, and it doesn't fit with what I've seen."

Walden's family agrees.

Gary Walden's stepmother; his ex-wife, Evette Murphy; and his natural mother, Shirley McCormack, have all asked Lee to keep investigating. But Blankenship said the case is officially closed and considered an accident pending new information.

"It's like something didn't look right. It just wasn't kosher. Things didn't fit," Murphy said. "But he was a drunk and a nobody. There wasn't anybody there to push it."

AT THE BLOODY SCENE, LITTLE THINGS SEEM WRONG, TOO

Euna McKnight knew Billie Jean was dead before she pulled up at the house shortly after noon. She made her way past the laundry room and MacKenzie's bedroom down a hallway toward her sister's bedroom. The odd things in the kitchen stopped her.

MacKenzie had stayed with his father the night before. That morning, when his father had brought him by to pick up the four-wheeler, the 7-year-old had found his mother's body sprawled against the wall in her ground-floor bedroom.

Confused by what he'd seen, he ran from the house and told his father, "Mommy fell painting."

Chic Phillips went inside to check his son's story, then panicked. He loaded MacKenzie into his truck and drove away -- first to a salvage yard north of the McKnight property, then back to the home of Earl and Edna McKnight, then to his own house when the McKnights weren't home.

Finally, he reached the McKnights by telephone at the Ozark Shoppe. Only then did he report the death to the Madison County sheriff's office.

The McKnights called Euna, and she drove immediately to Billie's house. She was surprised the police weren't there already.

Instinctively, she headed for the master bedroom but stopped short in the recently remodeled kitchen that Phillips kept "neat as a pin."

On the counter were two candy wrappers and a birthday card. Billie Jean loved Hershey Kisses with almonds, but these weren't Hershey Kisses wrappers. The card, from Rusty Cain, was from a year or two before.

"I find that real odd that it was laying out. She just didn't lay things out like that," Euna McKnight said. "She'd put it in a junk drawer or put it somewhere in a chest."

In Billie's bedroom, McKnight found a "horrible bloody scene."

Blood had splashed up to within two feet of the ceiling on the walls adjacent to the bed. Two large pools of blood stained the sheets. A T-ball bat broken into two pieces lay on the floor nearby. On the bedspread, twisted at the foot of the bed, lay a piece of her sister's right middle finger.

Billie Jean's body was against the far wall, face up beneath the air conditioner, her head resting against a smudged black dresser. Her eyes were fixed. Her scalp was split open and her hair was matted. A lamp with a stained-glass shade lay across her legs.

Her arms were badly battered and bruised. Her white T-shirt was pulled up over her breasts, and her stomach was bruised. Her white panties were stained red.

Euna McKnight, a nurse and frequent witness in medical lawsuits, checked to be sure her sister was dead. Billie Jean's body was stiff with rigor mortis.

Later, she would realize that Billie Jean couldn't have been surprised in her sleep. Billie Jean slept in T-shirt and panties, but she always took off her jewelry.

Now, she wore a gold necklace, a wedding ring that once belonged to Cain's grandmother, another gold and silver ring, and an ankle bracelet. Her watch lay on the floor with the band broken. A barrette in her hair had been shattered.

Moreover, the autopsy showed that Billie Jean had .54 grams of methamphetamine in her blood. But it hadn't worked its way through her system, indicating she had only recently taken it, as if she were expecting company.

A clock pulled from the bedroom wall put the time of death at 3:35. It was probably misleading.

Across the room, a radio still played the strains of soft rock from one of Billie Jean's favorite stations. It wasn't playing at the normal volume.

"She always had her music on. I hated it ..." Euna McKnight remembers. "She always cranked her music up a little too high. Well, this was really low. But it was still on."

Robert McKnight was the next to arrive, and Euna McKnight warned him that he might not want to enter.

He did, moments before Rusty Cain called from his law office. Cain seemed confused at first.

"Us girls kind of sound alike on the phone," Euna McKnight said. "I wish I could remember what he said, but it was kind of like he didn't know it was me. I don't know if he thought it was her or not. But he was really testing the waters."

"You've got to be kidding," Cain said when told that Billie Jean was dead.

By then, Euna McKnight was crying. She handed the phone to her brother.

Cain arrived soon after.

Although he insisted to investigators that he'd spent a quiet night at home, Euna and Robert McKnight say he showed up red-faced and looked as if he hadn't slept all night

Uncharacteristically, Cain was wearing old clothing and a "gimme" cap.

He tried to enter the bedroom, Euna McKnight said, but she ordered him "not to touch her."

She said she realized then that Cain could be both prosecutor and suspect.

"He looked at Billie Jean and stopped. He said, 'I can't believe someone would do this,'" she remembers. "He tried to cry, but he didn't cry."

When Deputy Livermore arrived, he ordered all three people out into the yard and made Euna sign a statement. Cain turned to speak briefly with Robert McKnight, then went back into the house.

The McKnights say Cain entered the home repeatedly that day.

That night, state police investigator Fogley drove to Cain's house to pick up Cain's clothing and shoes. He also took the clothing and shoes Chic Phillips was wearing.

The FBI laboratory in Quantico, Va., found no evidence on the clothing to trace back to Billie Jean. But investigators say two police officers on the scene later signed statements that Cain had wandered the crime scene with spots of blood on his tennis shoes.

Euna and Robert McKnight say most of Cain's clothes and his mustache trimmer were gone from the house that Saturday. The clothing Billie Jean had worn the day before was hanging haphazardly on what had been Rusty's side of the closet.

THE END OF THE DARK TRAIL: WHO KILLED BILLIE JEAN?

Baker, Fogley and Everett, the former special prosecutor, have declined to discuss all elements of the criminal investigation.

But a videotape of the crime scene shows a vacuum cleaner in the middle of the bedroom floor, away from its usual storage place.

It also shows a black, rectangular case with a silver label and a silver seam protruding from beneath the antique dresser in one corner of the bedroom.

Investigators say the black case was never reported to Everett. No one in the McKnight family remembers seeing such a case before or after the murder.

The vacuum cleaner bag was not taken by police. Robert McKnight says it was missing when he took the vacuum cleaner home weeks later.

Investigators took no note of the unmade upstairs bed, which the family says Billie hadn't used since building the addition that housed her bedroom. The crime scene videotape shows that the bedcovers were pulled to the end of the bed, and the pillows were in disarray.

The family did not return to empty the house until Billie Jean's bedroom had been recarpeted and repainted, weeks later. By then, someone had remade the upstairs bed. The family stripped it and sold the sheets.

Nearly a year after the murder, state Crime Laboratory technicians refigured the time of Phillips' death to be between 11 p.m. and midnight and offered differing explanations for the source of hair found on her hands.

Having first been told it was red-dyed facial or pubic hair, investigators picked up one Madison County man and forced him to give hair and blood samples for DNA testing. Then the lab rechecked the hair and learned that it had come from Billie Jean's own head.

The only certainty, based on the pattern of blood, was that the first blow struck Phillips while she was in bed or on the bed. She lifted her hands to protect her head and lost the piece of her middle finger as the beating continued.

She took the brunt of the beating on her right side, leading investigators to believe the assailant was left-handed. Her T-shirt, torn in back and pulled up above her breasts, indicates she was jerked across the room, overturning the lamp.

When the beating failed to silence her, investigators believe, the killer choked her to stop the noises she was making.

Investigators believe the killer or killers faked signs of a break-in.

A screen on the window to MacKenzie's bedroom had been pried off and discarded in the yard. But the dust on the window sill was undisturbed, and a piece from a child's puzzle lay on the sill where it had been before the murder.

A half-moon-shaped slit had been cut in a screen covering the double French doors to the living room. But the doors, secured by deadbolts, appeared to be undisturbed.

Also undisturbed was the $301 in Billie Jean's wallet.

The lawyer and investigators hired by Cain believe that the person or persons who beat and strangled Billie Jean left sometime after midnight and returned in the early hours of the morning to stage the break-in and pull the clock from the wall.

A check of satellite photos taken early that morning showed no evidence of a vehicle in the area, Prosecuting Attorney Terry Jones said. But Thelma Smith, who runs chicken houses just up the trail behind Billie Jean's house, is convinced someone was there.

She lived close enough to the property to see the glow of Billie Jean's lights through the woods. It is just a short hop up the grassy, rutted path from Billie Jean's house past Smith's chicken houses to the homes of Robert McKnight and Phillips' parents.

Smith had gone to tend the chickens between 5 and 6 a.m. She heard a vehicle engine pulling hard up the hill. She was puzzled when she didn't see its headlights reflecting off the wall of the chicken house.

"It was cool, and the curtains were rolled up tight, so you could see out," she said. "But I never saw the headlights."

Smith thinks that whoever chugged through the woods that morning knew the trail well enough to drive it in the dark.

Information for this article was contributed by staff writer Jeffrey Wood.

Copyright © 2009, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Inc.

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