Jeffrey Maxwell told the police officers that his house was a mess. He stepped outside and closed the door behind him. He was a big man, 6-foot-5 with nearly 300 pounds poured over a broad frame. He had thick, gray sideburns and greasy, disheveled hair. He smiled at the investigators waiting for him on the small front porch.
It was just before 6 pm on March 12, 2011. Sgt. Ricky Montgomery and four other investigators had come to this modest, modular lake house in Corsicana—50 miles south of Dallas—with questions about a missing 62-year-old woman. When the woman’s house had burned down and her remains weren’t found in the ashes, search teams had combed the surrounding hillsides. There were helicopters with heat-detecting cameras and ever-expanding grids. After a few days, police figured they were looking for a corpse. They brought in cadaver dogs and pumps to drain two nearby ponds, but there was still no sign of the woman. Then, eight days after the fire, a check for $500 cleared on her account. It was addressed to Maxwell and dated from weeks back. When police learned that Maxwell also owned a blue hatchback fitting the description of one seen by a neighbor on the day of the fire, they got a search warrant for the car and drove more than 100 miles from Weatherford to Corsicana to question him. A digital tape recorder in investigator Montgomery’s pocket caught the entire conversation.
“We are talking to several people that knew Miss Lois Pearson,” Montgomery said. “Are you familiar with who she is?”
“She used to be my ex-neighbor,” Maxwell said.
“We’re talking to everybody that lives in that area, everybody that used to live in that area, and everybody that’s been in that area recently,” the investigator said.
“I ain’t been out there in a long time,” Maxwell said.
“When’s the last time you had any contact with Miss Pearson?”
Maxwell thought about it for a moment. “Well,” he said, “she sent me a check here—” He stopped to clear his throat. “She owes me some money.”
Montgomery didn’t miss a beat with his follow-up. “What does she owe you money for?”
Maxwell said he’d loaned her money a couple of years earlier, but he couldn’t remember the exact amount. “A couple thousand dollars,” he told the officers. “I guess I felt sorry for her.”
Montgomery started to ask Maxwell if he would be willing to come down to the sheriff’s office when the front door swung open. They heard the high-pitched voice of an older woman.
“I’m here!” she said. The woman was frail, hunched over, her unwashed hair in knots, her face covered with bruises. She limped quickly past Maxwell, toward the officers. Though Montgomery was carrying a picture of the missing woman, he didn’t recognize her.
“Who are you?” he said.
Before she could answer, one of the men behind Montgomery called out in shock: “That’s her!”
“Lois Pearson,” she said, her sweet Texas twang lingering in the air.
There was a second of stunned silence. Texas Ranger Anthony Bradford, who was standing next to Montgomery at the time, would later explain, “We all needed to pick our jaws up off the ground.”
Bradford pushed Maxwell against the wall and put him in handcuffs, even as Maxwell cried out that he hadn’t done anything. Montgomery and another officer went into the house with their guns drawn, clearing each room, calling out, “Sheriff’s Office!” over and over. They didn’t find anyone else in the house, but they did find an assortment of chains, locks, and bloody sex toys. They found handcuffs and shackles next to an open jar of peanut butter, a bottle of lube on the bedroom windowsill, a loaded pistol next to a half-built model ship, and something in the garage that reporters soon took to calling a “homemade deer-skinning device.”
“In all my years of law enforcement, I’ve never seen anything like this,” Parker County Sheriff Larry Fowler told the media. He called the scene “a house of horrors.” The case quickly garnered international attention. It drew comparisons to the movie The Silence of the Lambs. But just as what happened in the home of Jeffrey Maxwell would illustrate the depths of human depravity, it would also prove the endurance of the human spirit.
In many ways, Lois Pearson’s life resembled something out of a Thoreau essay. Instead of bustling city highways and crowded strip malls, she preferred the peaceful solitude of the small wooden house she grew up in, surrounded by the rural hills of northwest Parker County. Her family lived in that house when she was born, in 1949, and except for the two years she spent at Tarleton State—where she and her mother shared an apartment—Pearson never moved away. She was content living on the modest income she got from leasing her 60 acres to a man with cattle. On warm days, she would stroll through the pastures with her cats and feed the cows.
“I’ve just always been comforted by animals and nature,” she would say. “There are so many things in society that are harmful.”
After her mother died, Pearson became fiercely self-reliant. When the pipes froze a few years ago, rather than hire a plumber, she decided to live without running water, hauling jugs of water herself from a well. Many of the lights in the house stopped working long ago, too, so she carried an old lamp, attached to an extension cord, from room to room as she went about her daily business.
She grew up a devout Baptist. Every Sunday, she drove to church, and once a month she’d go into Mineral Wells, the nearest town with stores, to buy groceries and wash her clothes at the laundromat. She drove the 1970 Nova she bought new during her first year as an elementary school teacher. On Sundays when the Nova wouldn’t start, she would walk to church and back, a 20-mile round trip. She got rid of her television more than a decade ago. She often went days without any human interaction. She never had a boyfriend. She had, in fact, never been naked in front of a man—not even a doctor.
The first time she met Jeffrey Maxwell was in 2001, not long after he bought the property to the west of hers. Maxwell was in his late 40s at the time, and Pearson in her early 50s. They made small talk every so often, and he’d wave as he’d pass her house. One time he helped her borrow a tractor for the field out back. As a thank-you, she brought him a basket of fresh vegetables and berries. She hated feeling indebted to anyone.
Maxwell once asked her out on a date, to dinner. She told him the invitation made her feel “weird,” and she declined. Then one afternoon he showed up at her house, jumped out of his car, and asked her for a kiss. Pearson was insulted. The expectant smirk on his face made her angry.
“Don’t you ever come to my house ever again,” she told him. “You’re not welcome.”
He moved away shortly after that, in 2005, but, much to her surprise, she saw him once more before he left. Their conversation was brief and civil. He stopped by to show her photos of the modular house he was having built on Richland Chambers Reservoir, just outside the city limits of Corsicana.
On the afternoon of March 1, 2011, Pearson was preparing to make her monthly trip into town—she was actually standing next to her car—when Maxwell pulled up behind her Nova in a silver Chevy TrailBlazer.
“If he came five minutes later, I would have been gone,” she’d say later.
Maxwell greeted her cordially, with a smile. He got out of the truck, making small talk along the side of the house. Before she could remember that she’d been mad at him all those years ago, he asked her about her church. As she talked, he slowly moved toward her. She slowly moved away. Before long they were nearing the back of the house. Pearson, feeling a bit embarrassed about her containers of well water, began directing the conversation back toward the driveway. Then she noticed that something about his face had changed.
“He had this strange look in his eye,” she’d remember. “We both just stopped talking.”
He reached into his coat pocket, pulled out a can with a strange top, and lifted it to her face. Before she could say anything, he unleashed a stream of pepper spray, making sure to get it into both of her eyes. But the spray had no effect. She turned and ran for the barbed-wire fence next to her car.
She’d just reached the fence—her hands were on the top wire—when he caught her. He wrapped his arms around her abdomen and heaved, but she wouldn’t let go of that fence—even as the barbs dug into her fingers and blood began dripping from her hands.
He was too strong, though. He dragged her to the ground in front of his truck. That’s when, in an act of desperation, she yelled as loud as she could. Hoping someone might hear her, or maybe it would deter Maxwell, she screamed, “I got AIDS!”
But in the seldom-traveled back roads of Parker County, there was no one to hear her. And Maxwell just muttered something along the lines of “I woulda done this for free,” as he dragged her to the back door of the house.
He stood her up, clicked a pair of prison-style shackles onto her ankles, and opened the back door. She was still struggling to free herself when he got her into the kitchen. He picked up a wooden rolling pin off the kitchen counter—it had been her mother’s—and hit Pearson on the left side of her head. When she didn’t go down, he swung again, even harder this time, and hit her on the right side. This one sent her to the ground. Later, she would say that on a scale of one to 10, the hit on the left side of her face was a 10 and the hit on the right side was a 15.
She could feel her eyes swelling shut almost immediately. But she didn’t stop trying to run away until he picked up her large butcher’s knife. She sat still, dizzy and bleeding onto her kitchen floor. He asked her where she kept the duct tape. She was silent. He asked again, and again she was quiet. He pulled the long extension cord off of her lamp and began cutting it into sections.
He walked her into the living room and used the strips of extension cord to tie her to a doorknob. She watched him as he went back through the kitchen and out the back door. She heard him walking toward the cars. He’d been gone only a few seconds when she was able to slip her wrists out of the ties—she’s always had very small wrists. She stood up and ran out the door in the opposite direction.
By the time he’d gone back into the house, noticed she was gone, and gotten into his truck to chase her down, she’d already made it several hundred yards down the road, even with the shackles on her ankles. He sped after her, pulling the truck off the road in front of her, cutting her off. Then he stepped out with a pistol in his hand.
“Now we’re going into plan B,” he said.
The look on his face terrified Pearson. He opened the cargo gate at the back of the truck and pushed her in. He leaned in over her and put handcuffs around her wrists. Then he slid a piece of duct tape over her mouth. She shook her head violently.
“Air!” she yelled, though it was muffled by the duct tape. “Air!”
He looked down at her, finally in control, and grinned.
“Are you a virgin?” he asked.
She began to cry. He mimicked her cries, mocking her. Then he closed the door and climbed behind the wheel. As he drove away, he told her he’d have to come back and burn her house down.
“Please don’t,” she pleaded through the tape. “Please don’t burn my house.”
She felt the truck pull onto the highway. He watched her in the rearview mirror and told her to lie down flat in the back. It was still daylight, though, and she hoped that maybe if she could lift her legs and passing drivers could see her shackles, they might be able to help her. Every time she raised her legs, he screamed at her and told her he’d pull over and kill her. She noticed that the windows seemed to have an especially dark tint, and as she heard car after car go by without seeing her, she felt helpless. She imagined throwing the spare tire and hitting Maxwell but figured that would only make him angrier. She thought about opening the back gate and rolling onto the highway, but she couldn’t find the release. He heard her praying aloud, asking God for help over and over, and he scoffed.
“When I’m through with you,” he said, “you won’t believe in God.”
Pearson felt the truck turn off the highway. She didn’t recognize any of the roads or buildings she could see. She felt Maxwell stopping, turning the truck around, and backing in somewhere. He got her out and into the garage of a house she’d never seen before. He closed the door behind her.
She looked around the cluttered room. There was lawn furniture, a mower, a workbench full of tools, a washer and dryer in the corner. Maxwell took off her shackles. He began peeling off her clothing, everything but her bra. That he cut off with a knife. Then he cuffed each of her hands to the ends of a thick steel bar attached to the ceiling with chains.
Confused, she watched him flip a switch on a yellow control box attached by a cable to the same spot in the ceiling as the chains. She felt her arms lifted first. Then she felt her shoulders pulled forcefully upward. The motor in the ceiling hummed as she moved higher and higher. When he flipped the switch again, it stopped, and she could feel her naked legs dangling in the air.
Detectives who have known Jeffrey Maxwell for decades say he has always been able to get himself out of trouble. Whether it was burning down his house for the insurance money or shooting his animals to get out of feeding them or much, much worse, Maxwell has always, one way or another, evaded punishment. He once bragged to police that he started stealing women’s underwear when he was a teenager and had taken between 30 and 40 pairs in his lifetime, without ever getting caught. Sometimes he’d break in when nobody was home. Other times he’d excuse himself to use the restroom during dinner and slip his hand into the dirty clothes hamper.
He had lots of jobs over the years. He worked as an airline mechanic, as a feed salesman, and as a prison guard. For the last few years, he had been living off Social Security disability benefits.
He married when he was 18, when his girlfriend, Rita, got pregnant. After a few years, they divorced, and in 1981, Maxwell met someone else through a mail matchmaking service. Martha Martinez lived with her parents in Mexico. Apart from a few trips to see her, their relationship consisted primarily of loving letters back and forth. When he finally came to Mexico to propose, Martha’s family was very upset.
“We just didn’t like him,” says Carole Martinez, who is married to Martha’s brother Javier. “Everyone tried to be nice to him, but he gave people such a creepy feeling.” Though they begged Martha not to marry him, she was 29 and worried this would be her last chance to become a wife and mother. “She was insecure,” Carole says. “And he preyed upon that.”
When Carole married Javier, Martha brought Maxwell to the celebration. Carole remembers Maxwell approaching her at the reception. “He looked at me, and he said, ‘I guess since we’re family now, I get to kiss you,’ and he jammed his tongue down my throat.” A few months later, he did the same thing to the bride at another family wedding.
Martha began telling friends about some more troubling behavior. She would show up with bruises on her wrists and ankles. She mostly kept it from her family, though. By then, Martha and Maxwell had a son together.
In 1987, Martha was found bound and beaten alongside I-35, about 10 miles outside Ardmore, Oklahoma. Her throat was slit, and she was barely alive. When she awoke in the hospital, she told police that Maxwell had drugged her, tied her up, tortured her, and left her to die. When detectives searched their Watauga home, they found stashed next to the air-conditioning unit a brown paper bag full of books about bondage. One was Bound, Whipped, and Caged School Girls. Another was Bondage for Three Wives. Below that they found another bag containing handcuffs, cords, and clothespins. Maxwell was arrested and charged with aggravated kidnapping.
Martha took her son with her to Mexico to stay with her family. She told them some of the stories she’d kept secret for so long, about Maxwell binding her and locking her alone in a small room for days. But when it came time to testify about what she’d suffered, she felt like the judge and the police didn’t believe her. Authorities stopped contacting her, and eventually the charges were dropped.
Maxwell started writing Martha letters again, apologizing for what he’d done. Martha shared them with her family as they pleaded with her not to go back to him. “The letters were really more manipulative than anything,” Carole says. He appealed to Martha’s Catholic upbringing. “He kept telling her that God wanted them to be together and basically blamed her for everything that had happened.”
Her family was livid when she announced that she was moving back to Fort Worth to live with him. “She felt like she didn’t have any options,” Carole says.
At first, things seemed to get better. She went to college and got an associate degree. Their son seemed happy, and Martha adored Maxwell’s son from his previous marriage. When Martha brought Maxwell to a family reunion, some people even forced themselves to make small talk with him. But they still weren’t completely surprised when, in 1993, Martha went missing.
Two people received letters that looked like they were in Martha’s handwriting, saying she was leaving her husband and son and wouldn’t be in touch for a while. The letters were alarming.
“She almost always just picked up the phone and called,” Carole says. “It was strange.”
The letters were in English, even though anytime she’d written anything to anyone in her family, it had been in Spanish. The outsides of both envelopes had been addressed in a different hand. Convinced something horrible had happened, Martha’s friends and parents contacted the Fort Worth police. But it wasn’t until her brother flew to Texas to talk to them in person that there was a report filed. And though the family felt strongly that Maxwell was involved—“There was no doubt,” Carole says—the investigation went nowhere. Years later, when police asked him if he had done anything that might have resulted in his wife’s death, Maxwell replied, “Not intentionally.”
In 1995, he petitioned the court for a divorce, citing Martha’s disappearance. Soon after, he remarried Rita, who by then had three young daughters from another marriage. But two days before his second wedding to Rita, police reports would later show, her best friend said Maxwell raped her. That woman, who was renting part of a duplex from Maxwell, said he came over one night to fix a broken sink and forced himself on her. When he was done, he put his clothes on, warned her not to tell anyone, and left her crying on the bed.