Wednesday, September 27, 2023 Sep 27, 2023
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Four who died by the gun

By Eric Miller |

Thelma Catherine “Katie” Row, 64, was the manager of the Lake Highlands High School Cafeteria. For 12 years, the mother of three had worked for the Richardson Independent School District’s food service department and had developed a reputation as a personable woman who was easy to get along with. “She was very outgoing,” says food service director Bill Georges. “Whenever she came into a room, she made her presence known. She was a good mixer.”

On May 16, 1983, Row was working as the lunchroom cashier when a man wearing a ski mask and brandishing a .357 magnum revolver burst into the cafeteria, demanding all the money from the cash register. During the robbery, Row was shot once in the chest. She died 11 days later.

Her killer, Billy Conn Gardner, was convicted of capital murder October 20, 1983, and was sentenced to death by injection four days later. His case is currently on appeal. The Richardson School Food Service Association dedicated its 1983-84 yearbook to Row, saying: “Her death was so cruel that we tend to forget the Master was carrying out his purpose for her. It’s time for us to remember her as the caring, fun-loving person she was.”

The memorial to Row by her co-workers also included excerpts from Ecclesiates: “To everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven… a time to be born, a time to die.”

But many of her friends are still searching for any purpose in her death.

Richard Pierce was head of the Mobil Oil palynology department, a fossil specialist and a senior advisor at Mobil Exploration and Producing Services Inc. The 57-year-old scientist was regarded by his co-workers at Mobil as a quiet, scholarly man with an inquisitive mind. “He was literally a walking encyclopedia, an oracle, an authority,” says his former boss, Lee Gibson. “He read copiously, and he was an expert in scientific fields ranging from astronomy to microbiology.”

At about 10 p.m. on December 8, 1983, Pierce left The Wycliff Point, a restaurant and lounge at 2525 Oak Lawn, where he was known as a regular customer. Outside, he was stopped by a man with a pistol who demanded money. Even though Pierce complied with the robber’s request, the man shot him twice. Pierce died two weeks later. A suspect charged with the murder was no-billed in January by the Dallas County grand jury.

Pierce is survived by a brother and sister, who say that their brother raised the family after their father died. At 16, he stepped in immediately as the head of the household.

“He was terrific,” Gibson said shortly after Pierce’s death. “He worked for us 26 years and five months. He was well-known, an internationally-known scientist. I’ve had calls from all over about him. It doesn’t reflect well on Dallas. I can’t believe it.”

At the time of his death, Pierce was planning to retire soon and devote his time to writing articles for National Geographic about plants and rocks-hobbies he had enjoyed since his childhood.

For the past two years, Billy Jack Jones was a voice-and-diction teacher at the Dallas Theater Center (DTC). Friends say that the 53-year-old actor was an astute, dynamic and sensitive man whose professional advice was sought by actors from all over the world.

On November 25, 1983, at about 12:50 p.m., Jones was leaving the Theater Center when he was confronted by a man carrying a pistol. A DTC student told police that he saw Jones and a man walking up a wooded hill near the DTC. Then, an hour later, another student discovered Jones’ body in a group of nearby bushes. He had been shot once in the back of the head; since his wallet was missing, police believe that robbery was the motive. Police found Jones’ 1982 sedan a mile south of the Theater Center.

Jones had been hired away from the Goodman Theater in Chicago to strengthen the voice-and-speech program at DTC. At the time of his death, he was directing Shakespeare’s As You Like It, which was being performed for theater classes in the DISD.

“It’s a tremendous loss to the whole country, in a way,” says co-worker Robin Flatt, director of graduate studies with Trinity University. “There are very few superb voice teachers who have the kind of acute ear he had. It takes years to develop a voice and good clear speech, even standard American speech. And he knew so many dialects. He was effective as a teacher: He had a system down for communicating to others.”

Police have no suspects in Jones’ murder.

When 5-year-old Michelle Lupercio, a kindergarten student at David Burnet Elementary School, flashed her big round brown eyes, people would melt. Her family says she was a “daddy’s girl” who was used to being the center of attention and able to con “everybody about everything.”

On the afternoon of October 13, 1983, Michelle was playing with a group of children in her neighborhood who had huddled to look at a new “toy” that an 8-year-old boy had found in a vacant parking lot. The “toy” turned out to be a .25-caliber automatic pistol. As a 10-year-old girl was showing it to the group, it accidentally discharged, hitting Michelle in the chest. She died two hours later at Parkland Hospital.

“I would like to know whatever idiot let them have a gun, especially a gun with bullets in it,” Mrs. Lupercio said.

For some time after Michelle’s death, her two sisters, Misty, 8, and Mandy, 6, believed that their sister would return. “Misty felt guilty for a long time,” says Lupercio. “She felt like she should have pushed the gun away from the little girl showing it to the kids.”

Lupercio says that the family misses Michelle because she was the baby: “My sister had to take care of my other two girls while they grew up, but I got to raise Michelle myself. I really miss her. Could you put something in your article for me? Could you say that I really think we need more laws on gun control? I’m a strong believer that we need to make it harder to get small handguns.”