The hallway leading to the Death Row Wing was silent except for the occasional clang of a metal door and the squeak of my sneakers on the heavily waxed floor. My chest tightened with fear, perhaps a reaction triggered by the stale, musty air. I felt a wave of uneasiness, and my hands, carrying only a notebook and a pen, suddenly grew wet with perspiration.
“Please, God,” I thought as the guard escorted me deeper into the most heavily guarded section of the Texas prison, “don’t forget I’m in here.”
At the time of my 1999 visit to death row, I was working as a reporter for the McKinney Courier-Gazette. I had spent years trying to get an interview with Michael Blair, sentenced to die for the 1993 murder of Ashley Estell. The death of the 7-year-old Plano girl inspired legislation called “Ashley’s Laws,” which require sex offenders to register with local law enforcement when they are released from prison and require public notification when offenders move into a community. After six hours of travel, the thought of leaving the Charles T. Tate Unit in Livingston without interviewing Blair made my stomach knot. But he had rejected me once before.
I sat in an interview booth where Blair was supposedly waiting. For a moment, I thought there had been some sort of mistake. The 29-year-old man sitting on the other side of the glass looked nothing like the wild-haired defendant plastered on television. His head was shaved and he was a good 25 to 30 pounds heavier than the Blair I remembered from the nightly news. His sleeveless prison coveralls revealed large bulky arms and several tattoos, including a large one that read “Wings of Glory.” He studied me for a moment then picked up the receiving end of the interview phone and motioned for me to do the same.
“Why are you here?” he asked. I reminded him I was there to interview him.
Blair’s eyes were hard, black, and full of rage.
“I did not kill that little girl,” he said. “I’ve been wrongly accused and now they are going to kill me. Now, what else do you want to talk about?” His voice was bitter, almost a growl, and I was grateful for the thick pane of glass that separated us.
“I didn’t come here to talk about your case,” I said. “That information is public record and there is nothing new there. I came here to find out more about you.”
He stared for a moment before speaking again. “Well, that’s different. Nobody wants to know about me anymore. In here, it’s like I don’t exist anymore—like I’m already dead. What is it you want to know?”
“Let’s start with your childhood,” I replied.
Haltingly, Blair told me he came from a broken home. A native of Thailand, he never knew his father, and his mother suffered a mental breakdown shortly after he was sent to death row. As the conversation progressed, Blair relaxed somewhat and began to speak more freely. He said he had been sexually abused as a child and inflicted the same on a young female relative as they were growing up. That seemed to cause him a lot of distress.
“I learned not too long ago that she tried to commit suicide,” he said. “It hurt me to think that it might be because of what I did.”
As he spoke, a trail of ants navigated past my notepad and entered a tiny gap in the cement wall between us; they moved back and forth from freedom to death row. I wondered what it was like to live on the other side of that glass with nothing but memories and nightmares for company.
Blair abruptly blurted out, “There were others, you know.”
Caught off guard, I said, “Other what?”
“Victims,” he replied.
I looked up from my notepad and into his eyes. He waited for a reaction, but I just sat there dumbfounded, trying to think of something professional to say.
“Are they alive, these victims?” I asked.
“Yes, they are all alive,” he said. “I didn’t kill them. I’ve already told you, I’ve never killed anyone. I sexually abused them.”
“Tell me about the others,” I said.
Slowly, Blair began to disclose details of crimes committed in the years before Ashley’s disappearance. These other crimes involved more than a dozen children, both boys and girls.
“Most were children of my associates,” he said.
“Why are you telling me?” I asked. “Why now?”
“Because I want to apologize to them and you can help me do that,” he replied. “I never told the cops about them because, let’s face it, it wouldn’t have helped my case. I have some of their pictures in my wallet. Want to see them?”
Blair fished a small wallet out of his coveralls and removed several photos of young girls and boys. He identified some as family members. “I could tell you things that would give even you, a journalist, nightmares,” he told me. “But I won’t.”
I started feeling a little ill. Some of the children in his snapshots were the same age as my own elementary-aged kids. Trying not to look at him, I kept scribbling.
“I keep records on each one of my victims, their names, where they live, and how to get in touch with them,” Blair said. “I can have copies made and sent to you if you like. Leave your address with the guard.”
In my years as a journalist, I have interviewed murderers, rapists, and sexual predators. I served as a witness to the 1999 execution of Texas’ oldest and longest-serving death row inmate, Robert Excell White, who killed two teenaged boys and the elderly owner of a tiny Princeton grocery store and once bragged to authorities that the machine-gun executions were as simple as “shooting fish in a barrel.”
But my visit with Michael Blair two years ago changed my life. I went there expecting nothing but the standard jailhouse “I’ve been framed” interview. Instead, Blair spilled his guts about his hidden crimes and twisted sexual fantasies about children.
Blair, by his own accounts, is a serial child molester. He does not sugarcoat his past and freely admits that his actions have devastated the lives of more than a dozen children. His letters to me—in all, more than 800 pages—detail these crimes. Although the statute of limitations has run out on most of these acts, Blair’s accounts provide a horrifying glimpse into the mind, motives, and methods of a child abuser.
Letters that he’s sent me disclose how he’s stalked and victimized innocent children. He’s evil. But while I despise Blair’s perversions, I have serious doubts that he committed the crime that landed him on death row. I’m not the only one. New DNA tests on forensic evidence that once sealed Blair’s capital murder conviction have now discredited that same evidence, illustrating the serious problems inherent in Texas’ system of capital punishment.
As of yet, no one in the Plano police department or Collin County District Attorney’s office is admitting error. But was the wrong man sentenced to die for the murder of Ashley Estell? And what can Michael Blair teach us about protecting our own children from predators like him?
I remember it was miserably hot the day Ashley disappeared in 1993. My family, like many in Plano, was hosting a cookout, trying to ignore the heat and celebrate the long Labor Day weekend. Watching the news that evening, I learned that Ashley had been kidnapped from a crowded Plano soccer field with her parents sitting only a short distance away. I was alarmed; Ashley was about the same age as my oldest daughter and the park wasn’t that far from my home. I felt angry when I heard the next day that her half-nude body had been found lying alongside an isolated country road six miles from the soccer field.
Plano police were desperate for leads. The days that followed were tense. I was fearful of allowing my children out of my sight until the murderer was caught. Sorrow was intermingled with panic.
After an exhaustive six-day search for witnesses, officers returned to the country road to re-examine the murder scene for clues. There, detectives stumbled onto Blair. Or rather, Blair stumbled onto them.
Police sighted Blair’s car cruising past the crime scene, not once but several times. Authorities conducted a traffic stop, struck up a conversation with him and then asked to look inside his vehicle. Inside, they found a stuffed animal, a newspaper article about the crime, and a flyer asking for information about the girl’s abduction—evidence authorities would later use in his trial. Suspicions against Blair ballooned after police learned he was a paroled sex offender. At that point, the search for Ashley’s killer came to a halt. With no alibi and a prior conviction for molesting an 11-year-old girl, Blair was the perfect suspect.
But another potential suspect—a soccer referee with pending charges for child molestation—was working at the soccer field that day. Authorities briefly questioned him about the girl’s disappearance but quickly concluded their investigation when Blair entered the picture. The referee was eliminated as a suspect, in part, because his previous encounters had been with young boys. Authorities released the referee without collecting any DNA samples. He left town without picking up his paycheck.
The media reported that Blair—a disheveled, 23-year-old carpet cleaner—had served only 18 months of a 10-year sentence for a 1987 child molestation conviction. He was publicly branded a child-killer, but the case against him remained weak. After 10 hours of interrogation, Plano police had no admission of guilt and were unable to produce any witnesses who could place Blair at the scene with the girl.
Ultimately, prosecutors turned to the testimony of a forensic consultant, who said that two of three hairs found in Blair’s car “appeared similar” to Ashley’s. Blair refused a plea bargain offering him life in prison instead of a possible death penalty. At trial, prosecutors taunted Blair, describing him as a “subterranean troll.” The jury convicted Blair and sentenced him to die by lethal injection.
In the years that followed, Blair rebuffed press inquiries about his conviction and pending execution. In 1998, I wrote to him asking for an interview, but Blair didn’t respond for several months. Then one day I received a letter from him, asking for an update on his appeal. He promised an interview in exchange for answers.
I phoned the prison to arrange a visit, but Blair abruptly refused on the advice of his appellate attorney. It wasn’t until Blair’s appeals stalled in 1999 that he finally agreed to see me.
Blair’s first letter arrived about a month after my visit. “Dear Ms. Hilburn,” he wrote, “As you requested, I’m sending you copies of my records.”
With trembling hands, I started flipping through the pages. It contained a few court documents pertaining to Ashley’s murder. One was a transcript of a recorded phone conversation between a Plano detective and Blair just before he was arrested. The envelope also contained what Blair claimed was a report from an FBI agent, who indicated he had found no witnesses to the girl’s abduction. The document looked similar to those included in the trial notes, but I was unable to determine its authenticity.
I wrote back and said thanks for the letter and the interview. Days later, I received a manila envelope stuffed with copies of old letters Blair had written to friends, his attorney, clergy, and others.
“Dear Ms. Hilburn, Hi out there. Very briefly, as promised during our interview, I have enclosed some copies for you regarding my prior offenses and of my continued endeavor to deal openly with such past incidents…I have no problem accepting responsibility for what I have done during my life, having first began trying during the summer of 1993….”
What followed was a detailed description of Blair’s attacks and sexual encounters, including a 1985 incident described in a letter to a friend written on Dec. 29, 1996. “Do you remember when I went to stay the night over at Kenneth’s apartment? On that particular night, there was a young girl staying there too…. I had kissed the girl that was then sleeping on the couch, but more. I had also fondled her while watching adult movies on TV.”
In that letter, Blair acknowledged more molestations and his criminal culpability. “I know this much, what I had done while visiting with you and your family was wrong of me,” Blair wrote of several 1987 attacks when he was 17. “And if anyone wants to pursue criminal charges, I am willing to face up to and [accept] such against me.”
In another letter, Blair described crime after crime in detail, admitting to attacks against children in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Ohio, and Texas. I stopped reading and resealed the envelope, too nauseated to continue. It would be several weeks before I could bring myself to open the manila envelope again.
Meanwhile, Blair’s letters continued to arrive. Still sickened by the content, I stuffed each one, unopened, in my desk drawer.
Not knowing exactly how to respond to the growing mountain of mail, I sought the input of some of my police sources. They said that the information might clear up some outstanding criminal cases so long as the events were true and not fabricated and that the best thing to do was to convince him to keep writing.
Reluctantly and with growing uneasiness, I responded to the letters with questions. Within a matter of months, the pile of Blair’s letters, documents, and journal entries contained more than 800 pages of text. For me, the line between concerned citizen and reporter blurred. Looking at it from a journalist’s point of view, the confessions were a fascinating but disturbing glimpse into the mind of a serial child molester.
But as a parent of two children, now 12 and 9, I believed Blair’s victims and their families deserved to know the truth.
Blair created a chronological outline of each attack, complete with a summary statement. “As a (once) sex offender, generally my prior offenses had occurred with females, as a minor and young adult, such girls had been between the age of two years and seven years old.” But he also molested boys, confessing that of his 14 victims since his early youth, three had been males. A fourth encounter with a young boy came in 1989, while Blair was on parole.
As the months passed, Blair’s writings became more detailed. The most chilling account was detailed in a letter dated Feb. 2, 1997, that he said he sent to a church worker in Wisconsin. In it, Blair admitted he was responsible for sexually abusing the 3-year-old daughter of a congregation member in the church’s day care.
“What happened, without describing the details was vaginal fondling and attempted vaginal penetration…in more simple spoken words, rape.” Blair indicated he first became interested in the child after meeting her father, who worked at his high school. He claimed the blue-eyed toddler had given him “permission” to touch her. He then acknowledged the act was wrong.
Blair asked the church worker to help track down the girl’s family so that he could “resolve the matters of my having repeatedly sexually assaulted her when she was a very young girl.” For added emphasis, Blair provided a hand-drawn map of the church and pinpointed the areas where each of the offenses took place. According to the map, Blair indicates he repeatedly assaulted the girl in the restroom and several classrooms.
As I continued reading the various letters, my eyes were drawn to the word Plano. In one letter to his court-appointed attorney, Blair claims he repeatedly fondled a young girl who lived in an apartment community near the area of Independence Parkway and Spring Creek Road. “At the time of these offenses, this girl, a white female, was approximately 5 to 6 years old. Her mother was employed at [a] grocery near I-75 [sic], and her father was either a security officer or possibly even a police officer,” Blair wrote. “The father was also at that time acting security personnel for the apartment complex and this girl and her family lived directly across from the apartment my family was living in.”
One journal entry—written eight days before Ashley’s abduction and murder—revealed the extent of Blair’s mental confusion. In it, Blair recalled his rescue of a stray kitten. “Petting this kitten, I started questioning myself as for any differences for my taking what likely was a stray wild kitten home with me and the kidnapping of children. As I examined both pictures for any differences, I wasn’t able to find any, aside that in one picture was a small kitten and in the other were children.”
Was Blair aware of the difference between right and wrong, or was this fantasy? For a moment, I wondered whether I had, as my police sources insinuated, been taken in by a man desperate to save his own skin. Throughout the rambling text, I saw that Blair was always on the prowl for a sexual thrill. I began to suspect that he was reliving his fantasies through his letters to me. The variety of his correspondence was endless—one letter was written in neat script on a 30-foot section of toilet paper. Another included cutouts from a mail order catalog of prepubescent girls and a creepy confession that Blair found the then pre-teen daughters of President George W. Bush more than a little attractive.
Then there was the invitation.
Blair was initially scheduled to die in July 1999. “When the day comes, would you be a witness to my execution?” he wrote. I accepted.
As unsettling as the letters were for me personally, I suspected there was method behind Blair’s madness. My hunch proved correct.
One morning, I opened a letter from Blair and screamed. It contained a plastic packet of his skin: dozens of small flakes.
“I am providing for you a sample of my skin, of which I shed daily,” Blair wrote. He included a photocopy of a page from a medical journal detailing the symptoms of xerosis: “rough, dull, often fissured” skin that was “mosaic-like; composed of little squares.”
During our first interview, Blair told me he had suffered since childhood from this skin affliction. A slight rub produced a disturbing amount of dry skin—he seemed to shed like a lizard. Blair pointed out that the murder had occurred on a sweltering Labor Day weekend and insisted that if he’d committed the crime, pieces of his sloughing skin would have adhered to perspiration from the girl’s body. He believed his condition should have been a central point at his trial, proof he had not killed Ashley.
Blair provided the last name of his childhood doctor from Wisconsin, but I was unable to find the person. Though Blair seemed obsessed with the issue, one of Blair’s appellate lawyers dismisses it as a key to proving his innocence.
Something was missing. On page after page of his letters to me, Blair freely shared his deepest thoughts and desires. He claimed responsibility for deeds no one had accused him of, but there was never a hint of genuine remorse for any of them. He was clearly fixated on cases in which small children were molested and killed.
Blair admitted that he obsessed about not only Ashley’s murder but also about other unsolved child killings in the region, specifically the murders of Christi Lynn Meeks, 5, who was abducted in Mesquite in 1985; Roxann Hope Reyes, 4, abducted in 1987 and found in Murphy, Texas; Jennifer Day, 14, abducted in 1985; and Christie Diane Proctor, 9, abducted in 1986 and found in Plano. (These crimes all occurred when Blair was 15 to 17 years old.) He seemed particularly interested in the specifics of Kim Nguyen, the autistic 8-year-old Garland boy who wandered away from home in 1993. Several days passed before his remains were found near a drainage ditch. Blair admitted driving near that crime scene, too.
Blair claimed that he learned of Ashley’s kidnapping through television reports and became so obsessed with the case that he couldn’t resist going to the crime scene for a closer look. He is, after all, a pedophile.
“When, how, and where kept going through my thoughts,” he wrote. “I felt I had to know, if not for myself then for the little girl and her family, too. And so as I drove back to John Carpenter Park, I made myself a silent promise to follow the girl’s case until the police found the person or persons who had done that to her.”
Blair explained that his insatiable appetite for information about Ashley’s death drove him to join the search party, which was organized within hours of her disappearance. He even taped a flyer detailing the abduction to his car windshield. After the search party received word of the girl’s death, Blair paused to eat a sandwich that had been prepared for the searchers before starting home.
Blair maintained that he “just wanted to help out” in the search for Ashley. He claimed his motives were pure.
I didn’t buy his explanation. I don’t think he cared about that child at all. I think the idea that he might find the lost Ashley and then interact with her excited him sexually. I think he wanted to victimize Ashley, but his plans were foiled when volunteers found her body.
Strangely, Blair told me he tried to remove the flyer, which he intended to keep as a souvenir. “As I tried to pull the flyer off the windshield, it ripped partially in half and the tear in the flyer was around the neck area of the missing girl’s picture.
“As the flyer tore apart, I cussed myself for tearing it because it was all I had of my efforts to try helping in the search efforts. I felt in some way I had failed to help the missing girl or her parents…with a piece of duct tape, I taped the flyer back together.”
The police, who later found the flyer, believed it was more evidence Blair had strangled Ashley. But were these the words of a killer or a pedophile consumed by his twisted sexual urges and fantasies? Over the next few weeks, Blair provided some unexpected answers, particularly regarding other crimes.
“Understandably, I don’t know if I actually have hurt anyone (my former victims of child sexual abuse). I have never physically abused them, outside of having attempted intercourse with the females or other forms of sexual activity with all.”
The more he tried to rationalize his behavior, the angrier I became. Although I know pedophiles are difficult if not impossible to rehabilitate, it was infuriating to communicate with someone who didn’t have the slightest understanding of the harm he had caused. And that’s when it all began to make sense. Somewhere, somehow, there were lessons to be learned from Michael Blair.
I began writing back more frequently, asking difficult questions about his obsessions such as, “What made you select that particular child?”
What I began to understand is that, deep down, Blair is a coward. He picked his victims based on opportunity: the children were alone and separated from their parents. Blair prefers young girls, but given the opportunity, he molested boys as well.
Most of Blair’s victims were not strangers chosen at random. He generally selected children of his friends or business associates. After gaining the confidence of the parents, Blair, acting in the role of caregiver, would find himself alone with the kids. He looked for easy targets and took elaborate steps to avoid detection. Most of his victims were too little to resist, too far out of earshot to call for help, or too young to verbalize later what had happened.
Blair—who is less than 5 feet tall—seems to be attracted to people who are small in stature. That may be why he was comfortable sharing these details with me. I’m also about 5 feet tall. In our interview, while he was talking about his obsession with children, I looked him in the eye and asked him if he liked adult women. His eyes widened. “Oh, yes,” he said. “I do like adult women.” That was the only time he smiled during our interview.
Like a fisherman who lost his catch, Blair wrote about one that got away. On one occasion, a young girl in Venus, Texas, was riding her bicycle down a county road with her brother when Blair pulled up alongside the pair and pretended to ask directions.
“When I saw that young girl, I was very tempted to kidnap her and spend a couple of hours with [her],” he wrote of the Aug. 26, 1993 encounter. “As I drove upon them traveling in the same direction, I had reached down into my glove box and pulled out my knife.
“But as I was about to bring up my knife to scare her by, I looked into her eyes as she looked at me. And I ‘snapped.’ I can’t possibly do this crap. I liked girls, Jacque. Some boys, too, but I’ve never had guts enough to take a child by force.”
This incident occurred only days before Ashley was killed. I think he was toying with the idea of kidnapping a child but was too cowardly to carry it out. It was the only time in all his ramblings that he ever mentioned using a weapon in an attack.
In spite of all this, I began to find it increasingly unlikely that Blair murdered Ashley. She was abducted, or lured, from her family in broad daylight from a crowd of more than 1,000 soccer kids and parents; that’s not his style. Not because he isn’t a disgusting and dangerous pedophile, but because he is weak and fearful.
As his letters grew increasingly dark, Blair’s anger would flare; at times he launched into page-long tirades about the unfairness of his conviction and sentence. Other times, he seemed almost child-like himself, drawing little smiley faces to indicate pleasure. At one point, I wrote to compliment his ability to recall small, seemingly insignificant details. He responded with a letter describing what I was wearing the day of our interview, with details, some of them lewd, about my body structure and facial features.
That one scared the hell out of me.
At Blair’s trial for capital murder in 1994, the prosecution produced no witnesses who could place Blair at the scene or with the child. Police never got a confession from him. The case hinged on the testimony of the state’s forensic hair expert, who said that several hairs found in Blair’s dilapidated old car were “similar” to Ashley’s. That testimony was convincing enough for a jury to send Blair to death row.
Problems with Blair’s conviction initially surfaced last year, when the Morning News reported that a hair expert testifying for the state was suffering from depression and alcoholism at the time he examined the evidence against Blair. The expert later sought voluntary psychiatric treatment.
Roy Greenwood, the Austin attorney who has been handling Blair’s death-row federal appeal, pressed to have DNA testing done on hairs found in Blair’s car and on Ashley’s body. So far, three rounds of DNA tests conducted on hairs recovered from the victim and inside Blair’s vehicle failed to link him with Ashley.
“Recent DNA tests confirm that hair found on the victim’s body and in the vehicle did not belong to Blair or the victim,” says Jane Shepperd, a spokesperson for the Texas attorney general’s office. “This provides new evidence. It doesn’t necessarily exonerate Michael Blair.”
Collin County District Attorney Tom O’Connell doesn’t enjoy attention; he prefers instead to remain in the background. And he is especially uncomfortable with the spotlight that Blair’s case has shone on his office. It took four phone calls to get an interview with him.
His voice heavy with discouragement, O’Connell explains that the test results don’t clear Blair of the murder. “I believe, after reviewing all the material, that the evidence supports his guilt,” he says. “I don’t know what all has been tested—we will be assessing all the evidence.”
O’Connell’s prosecutors have consistently maintained that Blair’s conviction hinged on several factors, including the man’s insatiable interest in the case and his nervous behavior during interviews with police. But last year, O’Connell acknowledged to me that the physical evidence linking Blair to Ashley’s murder was limited.
Now O’Connell says that the hair specimens tested recently were not identified in the trial as belonging to either the victim or Blair. Rather, the state’s hair expert testified that the hairs found in Blair’s vehicle were “microscopically similar” to the victim’s hair.
That’s not good enough, says Greenwood, who has represented Blair throughout his state appeals process. He added that it was only a matter of time before the inadequacy of the evidence against Blair came to light. “This case looked great on paper,” Greenwood says, “but now it’s, ‘how do we prove it?’ They can’t. They can test any damn hair they want to and it won’t change the results.”
Greenwood has been in a tough spot: innocence, by and of itself, is not grounds to set aside a conviction. “And no one knows for sure he’s innocent,” Greenwood says. “I don’t think he did it, but no one—except him—really knows for sure.” In order to get Blair a new trial, Greenwood dismissed his federal appeal. Now the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals will decide what action to take.
O’Connell says his office will be ready when—or if—Blair returns to Collin County for a new trial. “We’ll put the evidence on and try the case,” he says. “I guess whatever happens will happen.”
From his cell on death row, Blair has kept up with his appeals through his attorneys and outside sources. For a condemned man about to get a second chance in court, Blair’s reaction to the recent round of DNA tests was not one of gratitude but of bitterness.
“I am not pleased; should I be?” he asked me. “I have for seven and one-half years [struggled] to rightfully prove my innocence for a child’s murder I did not do. Now there’s concrete proof, but yet I am still living in prison on death row.”
For Blair, a not-guilty verdict would not mean automatic freedom. A hold issued by the Immigration and Naturalization Services means Blair will likely return to his native Thailand if he’s released.
Blair may not be guilty of capital murder, but he’s admitted his guilt to me of other crimes; most have never been reported to authorities. That’s why I alerted the FBI. Agents are now trying to determine if there is any truth to Blair’s voluntary confessions.
I think often about Blair’s victims, always with a pang of sadness. They deserve closure. As for my role in all of this, it’s a relief to finally rid myself of Blair’s secrets. I don’t feel guilty about sharing information that could ultimately bring Blair additional jail time. I gave this child predator exactly what he asked for—disclosure. This truth should not set Blair free.