How One Cop Gets the Killers to Talk
Detective P.E. Jones is a 36-year DPD veteran and a nice guy. He’s also able to elicit confessions from murder suspects won over by his straightforward manner.
|photography by Dan Sellers|
You’ve just killed a man. Blown him away with a pipe bomb concealed in a newspaper rack. Or beat him to death with a monkey wrench when he found you burglarizing his home. Or stabbed him dozens of times as he lay sleeping in his bed, just because he made you mad.
Now you’re sitting in a small room in Dallas police headquarters, 6-by-6 feet, gray walls, a bare wood-and-metal table in front of you. There’s another chair at the table, but it’s empty. You’re trying to get your story together because pretty soon somebody is going to be sitting in that chair. He’ll have reviewed a file with your fingerprints, your driving record, your phone records. He’ll have talked to your friends, and your friends’ friends, and your enemies. He’s going to sit down, lean forward, and start asking questions. He’s going to try to make you talk about things you don’t want to talk about.
The door cracks opens, a fellow looks in. It’s not an unfriendly face, roundish, pink-cheeked. Older guy somewhere in his late 50s who spends a lot of time outdoors.
“I’ll be in here with you in just a second, son.” He speaks in a soft, country voice. “I’ve got a couple things I need to do.”
What you don’t know is that your interrogation by Detective P.E. Jones has already begun. He has already started sizing you up. It began the moment he saw you, when you were sitting in the back of the patrol car or when you exchanged glances at the crime scene.
He soon returns. He sits next to you, so he can talk to you face to face, without the table between you. Both chairs are vinyl, in case there is an accident. Some suspects have been known to urinate during interrogation. Others have been known to fall asleep, or get down on their knees and pray, though you don’t know this yet.
He sits down and looks you straight in the eye and introduces himself. The eyes are green, shading to gray, extraordinarily clear. From time to time, as you speak, you’ll catch the slightest twinkle of amusement.
He says, “I’ll tell you what. I’m not gonna lie to you if you won’t lie to me.” Then he reaches out and shakes your hand, slowly and firmly.
“Ninety-nine percent of these killers aren’t bad people,” P.E. Jones says. “I’ve always tried to maintain that these are human beings. A lot of it comes from something personal. A lot of it comes from my background.”
He’s sitting in a coffee bar in the old Sears complex, just across the street from Jack Evans Police Headquarters. Loft-dwelling hipsters come and go, ordering lattes and caramel mochas. Jones takes his coffee black, just as he’s taken it most of his life. On the dirt farm where he grew up, Momma boiled coffee every morning, adding a pinch of salt to settle the grounds. P.E. started drinking it when he was 4, mixing in a little fresh milk from the family’s cow.
In early October, P.E.—the initials are for Philip Eugene, but on the street they call him Chewin’ Tobacco—closed his 36-year career with the Dallas Police Department. In every profession there are the old hands who are so good at what they do that the new hands line up to learn from them. Jones was good at almost everything, but he was great at one thing: talking to murder suspects. Talking and listening, patiently waiting them out, figuring where their mind was going and getting there ahead of them. That and his flinty integrity earned him a reputation inside and outside the force. “The last of the old-style Texas lawmen,” fellow detective Rector McCollum calls him.
“I’m the last of nine kids,” P.E. says. “Farm family, farm stock.”
The farm was on the side of Chalk Mountain, a local landmark along Highway 67 a few miles past Fossil Rim, southwest of Glen Rose. The highway used to run around the mountain, but when P.E. was about 10 they cut it through the mountain and through his parents’ farm. “That old white farm house you see up on the right as you climb the hill,” he says. “That’s where I was born and raised. My grandmother delivered me.”
Sometimes the only food on the table was what the family grew in its garden. But he says that somehow his parents managed to share what they had with families that were even poorer.
Though he was the youngest, P.E. was expected to work. “I didn’t get any privileges that the others didn’t get. We all had things to do. My momma made me a cotton sack and we’d go out there in fall time and pull cotton. Ever since I was big enough to pull a cotton sack, my life has been about work.”
For the past 17 years his work has been murder. “What makes murder unique is that you’re representing a dead person,” he says. “Whether they’re a good person or a bad person doesn’t make any difference. You’re still representing that person. Any other case, with the exception of maybe a missing person that hasn’t been found, you’ve got a live person, a live witness that can tell you their story.”
On the TV shows P.E. sometimes watches (Law & Order: Criminal Intent
is his favorite), the detectives are like scientists. They sift bones and stir up chemicals and pluck significant bits of evidence almost out of thin air. P.E.’s more like a kindly parson, the minister at a small church to whom you can tell your troubles.
He took a psychology course in college (Tarleton State, then UTA) before settling on history with a geology minor. The psychology was only marginally useful to his later career. What helped him most was that he liked people, and liked to talk to them. “That’s a curiosity I’ve always had, to figure out what goes through somebody’s mind.”
He joined the Dallas Police Department in 1971. He had been working at the Arlington GM plant when the United Auto Workers went on strike in September 1970. He and his wife, Rita, were married two years, with a daughter. They were making payments on a little house in East Arlington, and suddenly P.E. was out of work. He took a job hauling hay. One day a Department of Public Safety trooper pulled him over. The truck he was renting had an inspection sticker that belonged to another vehicle. The registration had expired. The brake lights weren’t working.
He sat in the patrol car, sweaty and smelling of hay, while the trooper wrote out the tickets. When he had finished, the trooper suggested right out of the blue that P.E. should try out for the DPS.
He talked it over with Rita, who was skeptical. The next day he went to the DPS office near Fort Worth and applied. They offered him $540 a month. He had been making $780 a month at GM. So he drove in to the Dallas Police Department and interviewed and was accepted.
Halfway through the Dallas Police Academy, they assigned him to the Southeast Patrol Division, which in those days was headquartered at 6500 Bexar, right up against the Trinity River bottoms. It was a tough neighborhood. One day somebody dumped a body on the front steps of the station. P.E. rode with a veteran officer, Raymond T. Epting. “R.T. was a go-getter,” he recalls. “He got me involved in more stuff than most officers see in years. If there was a burglary alarm, we were there. If there was a barroom fight, we were there. If there was a drug bust, we were there.” He was a 22-year-old kid in the gray uniform of a probationary officer. No weapon. He looked like a bus driver. Dallas was rigidly segregated, and racial tensions were high. But P.E. took to the work. “I always showed respect, and in return I got respect.” That’s when they started calling him Chewin’ Tobacco.
“He was one of the best patrol officers who ever worked for me,” says Sgt. Graham “Greyhound” Pierce, a 45-year veteran of the department. Pierce still works Southeast Division, where he is first watch station agent. “P.E. immediately sized up an individual or a suspect. He was probably born with it.”
In 10 years P.E. made detective and went to CAPERS: Crimes Against Persons. He worked assaults and then sex crimes. In 1982 they asked him to come over to homicide. “Homicide was the ultimate,” he says, “always has been.” It was the way for an ambitious young detective to test his mettle. P.E. told them he didn’t think he was ready yet. “I felt that I needed a little more hands-on experience in interviews and interrogations.” But by the end of 1983 he felt ready. He became the 13th member of the homicide unit. Almost immediately they handed him his first case. “You want a mystery,” the training detective said. “This is one.”
The morning of January 12, 1984, a couple of road repair workers along South Walton Walker Boulevard came upon a car jacked up at the side of the road. A tire was flat and the trunk was open. The morning was cold, but the driver’s window was wide open. That afternoon the repair crew passed by again. The car was still there, so they stopped to take a closer look. Inside, a man was slumped over in the driver’s seat. There was a bullet hole in his head.
P.E. still remembers the victim’s name: Rod A. Knutsen, a U.S. Department of Agriculture auditor from Petaluma, California. Knutsen had been attending a seminar at an Arlington motel when he rented a car to visit friends in North Dallas. Sometime that night the car had a flat. Knutsen pulled over, got out, jacked up the car, and opened the trunk. Then he climbed back into the driver’s seat to warm up, P.E. surmises. Another car pulled in behind. Knutsen rolled down his window. Someone had walked up and shot him, then robbed him. Or robbed him, then shot him.
There were no witnesses, no fingerprints, no physical evidence of any kind. “We had had a series of freeway robberies about then,” the detective recalls. “I went through all the records. It took me about three months. We had to search them by hand.” Now you could log on to a computer, do it in a few hours. “We never got the guy,” he says. “I’ll remember that until the day I die. I’ve kept the case records.”
There would be others over the years who got away with murder, though not many. The most frustrating case, he says, was in a way one of the most routine: a husband and wife fight ending in a killing.
“I know to this day his wife killed him,” P.E. says. “She drove up to the house at 4 am and they had an argument. The neighbors heard him shouting. They heard a woman’s voice but they couldn’t see her. We found a .357 Magnum at the curb, the murder weapon. But of all the luck it had no prints on it.” That was in 1985, before DNA.
“I brought her in and I brought her in. Four times. Eventually she got an attorney. He showed up and chewed me out. I said, ‘Her husband is dead. You’d think she’d want to help me.’ We just couldn’t get her over the hump.”
Through the years P.E.’s clearance rate—the percentage of homicides solved, in the sense that somebody either pled guilty or was successfully prosecuted—hovered around 80 percent. That’s very good. There are detectives who will claim a 90 percent clearance rate and higher, he says. But they’re usually fudging the figures.
It’s a head game. you’re trying to get into their head,” he says. The preliminary face-to-face and the handshake can function as a kind of early-warning lie-detector. “One, is we’re making eye contact. We’re talking to each other directly. He’s either putting trust in me or he’s not, right? But secondly, are the hands sweaty? Sometimes you can feel the pulse. You can even see the throat twitch.”
He told this to younger officers when he taught them the ins and outs of interrogation. They laughed at him. “But I said try it sometime. So they tried it, and, sure enough, it works.”
To hear P.E. tell it, the principles of interrogation are simple and straightforward: find out as much as possible about your subject. Get him to trust you. Get him talking and keep him talking. And be prepared to change your tack. If a line of questioning starts to lose the suspect, you’ve got to get him back into focus. Ask him what he likes and doesn’t like. Ask him about his family.
Years ago P.E. found out through driving records that a suspect once owned a ’64 Mustang. Funny thing is that P.E. also once owned a ’64 Mustang. Drove it into the side of a train and totaled it when he was courting Rita. So that was the first subject that came up during questioning, even before P.E. got around to mentioning the crime.
“I looked at him and I said, ‘You know, Darren, what you ever do with the old Mustang you had?’ And he looked at me and said, ‘You know I had a Mustang?’ I said, ‘You understand I’m big city po-lice. I’m paid to learn this stuff. What’s unique is I used to have one, too.’
“He changed on me instantly. He said, ‘What kind you have?’ I said, ‘Well, I had a 289 with four on the floor.’ He said, ‘Damn, all I had was a six-banger.’
“All of a sudden I got him to where we’re talking. He says, ‘What’s this all about?’ I say, ‘Well, we got a little problem. I think it’s not as bad as what it could appear. But if I don’t get a story from you then it’s gonna appear real bad.’ ”
The trick is never to give away the case, never let the suspect know just how much you know. You can even lie to a subject if that’s what it takes to get the truth. If you don’t have fingerprints from the crime scene, P.E. says, it’s not against the rules to tell him you have his fingerprints.
But it’s not a good idea, either, he warns the officers he teaches. “If you’re the type of detective or interrogator who plays with that system then you’re going to get bit. Eventually you’re gonna get a guy, where you say, ‘You know I got your fingerprints.’ Well, he wore gloves. And he’s looking at you thinking, ‘Yeah, you idiot.’ He’s on to you. He knows that you’re just flat-ass lying.”
So P.E. always stayed away from that kind of thing. But that doesn’t mean he didn’t have his bag of tricks.
“I worked a murder case in 1985 on a Doctor Melancon. He lived in Oak Lawn.” At 29, J. Thomas Melancon Jr. had a brilliant career ahead of him. He was chief of the ob-gyn staff at Parkland Hospital and taught his specialty at the UT Southwestern Health Science Center. A young man had been living with him, Daniel Murphy Johnson, 22. But things had not gone well. After an argument, Melancon had ordered Johnson to move out.
At night, P.E. says, Johnson came back to the second-floor apartment. “He has a key, goes upstairs. This is down there off of Lemmon Avenue. The Doctor is lying there and Johnson shoots him three times. Then he sets the house up to look like a burglary and leaves.”
In the morning, Johnson returned to the apartment and “discovered” the body. When P.E. got to the scene, he found drawers open, socks and clothes pulled out onto the floor. Conveniently, Melancon’s ID was lying right next to the bed, in case somebody should want to call next of kin. The glass on the French door was broken. But here’s the thing, P.E. says: the glass shards were lying outside the door. “It didn’t take much of a genius to figure that out,” he says.
Later in the day, police bring Johnson in for questioning. “Initially he tells me he spent the night with this other local guy named Danny Jones. I brought Danny Jones in and I say, ‘Will you verify that he spent the night with you?’ And Jones says, ‘Yeah, he spent the night with me. We slept in the same bed.’
“Well, now I got a problem because I feel pretty certain Johnson is gonna be the one. So I ask Danny Jones, ‘By chance do you have a pistol?’ He says, ‘Yeah, I just bought a .22.’ I said, ‘Where’s it at?’ ‘I got it at the house. It’s in the nightstand next to my bed.’ I said, ‘I’m gonna run ballistics on that pistol.’
“So now I’m pulling a bluff,” P.E. says. Because it’s all but impossible to run ballistics on a .22. The bullets usually frag; there isn’t enough left for a proper test.
“I didn’t have anything to hold them on,” he says. It’s 11 pm. They’ve been at it all day. He tells them to bring in the pistol tomorrow. Then he goes home to await further developments.
“I lay my head on the bed, the phone rings. It’s the young lady in our Records Section. She says, ‘P.E., there’s two men here to see you. They said they won’t talk to nobody else but you.’ ”
As P.E. had anticipated, Jones and Johnson had been talking things over. Jones asked Johnson if he’d done anything with his pistol during the night. Because if he did, he, Jones, could be in trouble.
“I said, ‘Well, put Danny on the phone.’ That’s Daniel Johnson, the suspect. He gets on the phone, whimpering, ‘Man, I’m sorry. I should of told you. I killed him.’ So now I’m coming awake. Because here I’m getting a confession lying on the bed. So he run the whole thing down to me. I say, ‘Hey, that young lady standing next to you? Put her back on the phone.’ She gets back on the phone. I say, ‘As of right now, he’s under arrest. You got a police officer down there? Just hold on to him. I’m getting dressed as we speak. I’ll be in there as quick as I can.’ ”
Phone-in confessions are rare. At the other extreme is P.E.’s longest interrogation, the 12-hour questioning of Marshall DeWayne Williams in what is probably his most famous case.
“We’re all creatures of habit, right?” he says. At 5:15 the morning of January 27, 1984, as he did every morning, Ward Keeton, 60, put on his bathrobe, stepped out of his apartment in far North Dallas, and walked to a nearby Dallas Morning News
rack. He dropped a quarter into the slot and opened the door. Inside, in a wooden box on top of the paper stack, someone had planted a pipe bomb full of nails. The explosion was heard all over North Dallas. The blast caught Keeton full in the torso, killing him instantly. Parts of the rack sailed 100 feet. Fragments went through a car in the parking lot. Burning newspapers scattered everywhere, starting small fires.
“When we got out there that morning, we walked into Keeton’s apartment, and there were several notes from his wife strategically placed, about five of them: ‘Honey, I’m out of town.’ ‘I’m down in Dublin this weekend.’ ‘I’ll see you after the weekend.’ ”
Suspicion settled quickly on Keeton’s wife—there was some insurance money—and on his 22-year-old son, a former Marine named Marshall DeWayne Williams, “Dodie.” A search of Dodie’s garage in Mesquite turned up nails and wood fragments that seemed to match bits and pieces found at the crime scene. Since a bomb was involved, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives agents took them to a lab in California. In the meantime, P.E. went to work on Dodie Williams.
“This is one of those you never forget,” he says. Questioning started early in the morning and went on all day. For several hours, they just talked about Dodie’s family, his childhood, his mother. She always blamed him for killing his little brother, pushing him into the Mississippi River when he was 5. He was carrying a lot of guilt on that. He wanted to please his mother. “That’s what this was all about,” P.E. says. “Dodie wanted to pray several times. So we got down on our knees and prayed. Finally he put down his head and cried. He signed a statement at 7:59 that night. About 8:15 we get a report back from the ATF crime lab. The nails were milled in the same mill and the wood fibers were similar.”
During questioning Dodie named his uncle, his mother’s brother, as an accomplice. “We brought him up from League City. This was down past Houston. He established his alibi that he was nowhere around.”
P.E. also asked the mother to come in. “We talked to her several times. What was funny was, she came in with an attorney, raising all kinds of heck. ‘What are you doing here? What are you asking me? I told you I wouldn’t talk to you. Blah, blah, blah.’ ”
Dodie Williams was sentenced to life plus two consecutive 10-year terms. His mother was never charged. And charges against his uncle were dropped. “I’ve never had to drop a case except for that one,” he says.
P.E. will be 60 on his next birthday this August. And though the spirit is willing and the mind is sharp as ever, the body is wearing down. “Physically it’s catching up with me,” he says. After years of 40-hour weeks, plus overtime sitting in courtrooms, on call day and night, of kicking in doors at an age when most men are contemplating bass fishing, you need to change gears, he says.
The retirement ceremony at Dallas police headquarters was full of cheer and tears. The brass, fellow detectives, policemen he had trained over the years, and friends all showed up. Rita was there, and their two daughters and son. Brian is a patrolman in the Central Division.
It’s not like P.E. is walking away completely. The department is talking about forming a cold case squad among retirees. If it does, Jones will be on board. He might do a little investigative work for one of the local counties. He still has 12 homicide cases pending in local courts, cases in which he’ll have to testify. And he and Rita are building their dream house out on Lake Granbury. She found the plans on the Internet, and they’ve changed them a bit here and there. They’ll have a boat dock and a fine view.
There’s a big pile of rocks on the property that interests P.E. He wandered out to the rock pile the other day and got to looking around. He found a shed rattlesnake skin. It turns out he likes to hunt snakes almost as much as he likes to hunt holes in a suspect’s alibi. “That’s a big pastime of ours down there,” he says. “Get you a sack and a half a pint of moonshine and go out and catch rattlesnakes.” The snake thing started out on the farm, as you might expect. After the state blasted a right-of-way for Highway 67 up through Chalk Mountain, P.E. says, “every darn rattlesnake that was up on that mountain come down through our place. For about two or three years, I mean it was a rattlesnake haven.” His oldest brother actually got bit. He’s been fascinated ever since.
P.E. used to hunt deer. But he’s stopped doing that. “I got to where I just didn’t care about killing anything,” he says.
Bill Marvel is a longtime reporter, columnist, and author. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org.