Almost 30 years ago, De Ellen Bellah had her friend murdered in an insurance scheme. But that rich old man who moved across the country so he could more easily visit her in prison, the one who signed over his estate to her before dying under mysterious circumstances? She says she had nothing to do with it.
He threw her letters into a garbage bag with his other trash. He’d once been beguiled by her charm, her funny stories and flattery. But no more. He was leaving. Harold Henry was packing his car: pots and pans, towels, sheets, more than 80 Western-snap shirts.
They’d begun their relationship when he answered her ad for a prison pen pal 15 years ago. A retired rancher, he’d moved from South Dakota to live in Gatesville, Texas, where his life revolved around prison visits with the woman serving time for conspiracy to commit capital murder. He believed one day they would live together.
But on that chilly evening in January 2013, 76-year-old Harold was ready to split. He’d been a fool. He would hit the road early the next morning, after meeting his good friend Charles Hines at McDonald’s for coffee. They’d both become enamored of younger women serving time. Charles had even married his prison girlfriend, Carlene Easley, who had killed her fifth husband with several blasts from a single-shot shotgun. Harold had made his prison girlfriend the sole heir to his estate.
The next morning, when Harold didn’t show up for coffee, Charles walked a couple of blocks to Harold’s apartment. He found his friend collapsed on the threshold of his front door, fully dressed, still wearing his eyeglasses. Charles raced back to the McDonald’s to enlist help from soldiers eating breakfast. A Gatesville police officer arrived at 6:18 am, followed by paramedics. By then, Harold was dead.
His son, Dallas Henry, got the news about an hour later. He called the manager at his father’s apartment complex. “Get my dad’s trash,” he said. A maintenance man stored the bags until Dallas arrived a few days later.
A justice of the peace ruled that Harold’s death wasn’t the result of foul play, but Dallas and Deb Berner, Harold’s daughter, didn’t believe it. Their dad, a health nut, never drank or smoked. The only medication he took was for high blood pressure. And they knew about his friend in prison. Why would a churchgoing teetotaler become obsessed with a killer? Dallas eventually got the justice of the peace to order a toxicology screen. The results showed that Harold’s system contained a toxic level of Benadryl, “enough to kill a horse,” the court clerk told him.
That was odd. Police had found no Benadryl bottle in Harold’s apartment. Deb noticed other details in the police report that raised serious questions. Harold had two phones. Neither one was ever found. And he’d left a note scrawled in black marker: “Think I am having a heart attack. Cremate me.” The black marker wasn’t found.
Where were her dad’s phones? Who would write a note like that while having a heart attack? And what about the missing marker used to write it?
The more Deb asked questions from South Dakota, the more she frustrated law enforcement in Gatesville. Then there was the episode of a true-crime show starring Erin Brockovich. At the center of the tale was a woman who’d orchestrated a 1991 murder in North Texas to collect on an insurance policy. Her name was De Ellen Bellah. That was Harold’s prison girlfriend.
Deb would come to learn how that killing 22 years earlier was tied to her father’s death. With her help and that of others, D Magazine has obtained letters and audio interviews of De Ellen, as well as official documents related to the investigation into Harold’s death. They reveal a con artist still working her schemes, even from behind bars.
“Sandy, I really feel close to you like you are my sister. … I love you and consider you family. I will always have that special place in my heart for you.” —De Ellen Bellah in a card written to Sandy Dial, October 25, 1990, a year before Sandy was murdered
De Ellen and Sandy Dial met when they worked together at a paper company in Richardson in 1984. Sandy was a sweet, overweight data entry clerk stuck in a miserable marriage. De Ellen was an account representative. Glamorous, fond of nice clothes and jewelry, De Ellen played the role of femme fatale. Though married, she confided to Sandy that she had a sugar daddy on the side who gave her money and gifts. Shy, from a religious family, Sandy was fascinated with the larger-than-life De Ellen, who loved talking about men and sex. But the glamorous façade that De Ellen showed her co-worker belied her real life.
One of five children of an alcoholic, De Ellen, at age 14, had married a 17-year-old musician named Robert Gober and given birth to her daughter, Michelle. A son, Michael Gober, came along a few years later. After a divorce from Robert in 1984, she married Clay Fuller, who adopted her children. The sugar daddy she bragged about to Sandy was just one of many affairs. The man broke it off when he thought De Ellen was arranging to have his wife find out; Clay and De Ellen later split.
Fired from the paper company in 1986 for falsifying a doctor’s note to secure an extended paid leave, De Ellen got a license to sell insurance. But she kept in touch with Sandy. In the spring of 1990, at a party at Sandy’s home, De Ellen met her brother-in-law, Don Dial, a former police officer who’d recently been fired from his job. The two started dating—and scheming.
A few months after they met, Don filed a lawsuit against De Ellen for damages, claiming he’d fallen off her roof after she paid him $20 to fix a TV antenna. De Ellen demanded that her insurer pay out the homeowner’s policy limit of $315,000. Don received a settlement of $29,000.
Meanwhile, Sandy and De Ellen weren’t spending as much time together as they once had, mostly because De Ellen’s new boyfriend hated Sandy. She’d divorced Don’s brother, Lynn Dial, whom Sandy claimed was an abusive husband. It had been a rancorous split. De Ellen wanted Sandy to know that she still loved her, so she wrote Sandy a card saying she was like a sister to her and would always have a place in her heart. De Ellen was laying the groundwork for her next con.
“Well, I’ve always been a good flirt. … Have you had an affair?”—De Ellen Bellah to a reporter in 1996, two years before conviction
A few months after the “sister” card, in the spring of 1991, De Ellen contacted a MetLife agent with questions about buying a policy. She later mailed an application for a $100,000 insurance policy on the life of Sandy. She signed it Sandy Y. Dial but used her own address in Rowlett, and she named herself, De Ellen, as the beneficiary. MetLife rejected the policy because De Ellen had no “insurable interest” in Sandy. The agent suggested Sandy make her children the beneficiaries, then, after the policy was issued, file a change of beneficiary form naming De Ellen.
De Ellen refiled, and MetLife issued the policy; the change of beneficiary form was completed. Then De Ellen somehow tricked Sandy into paying $18 to MetLife for the premium.
Sandy moved on with her life. Only a few months removed from her divorce, she’d fallen in love, and, as the final months of 1991 were slipping by, she was planning to marry again, on Valentine’s Day. But De Ellen learned that Sandy planned to change the beneficiary on her life insurance policy at work from her ex-husband, Lynn, to her mother on Monday, December 16. It was a $30,000 policy with a double-indemnity clause. She and Don had to act quickly to ensure that Lynn received the proceeds of that policy—$60,000.
On Friday, De Ellen called Sandy. She told her that she’d quarreled with Don and needed to talk. At 6 pm, Lynn, the ex, picked up their children for the weekend. Sandy told the kids and her fiancé that she was going to De Ellen’s house.
On Sunday morning, her body was found in her car, which was parked on a muddy farm road in Royce City, 30 miles east of Dallas. She was lying in the back seat, stripped of her pants and underwear, which were neatly folded on the front seat. It looked like a sex crime, but an autopsy would show no sexual assault.
Her younger sister, Janet Holley, couldn’t bring herself to identify Sandy’s body at the morgue. Killed by a shotgun blast to the side of her head, every bone in her face shattered, Sandy was unrecognizable.
When her sister was killed, Janet was a young mother, a trim Junior Leaguer with perfect skin and frosted blond hair. Married immediately after high school, she cleaned houses to make ends meet. For years after her sister’s death, while Janet cleaned, she pondered the evidence. Solving her sister’s murder became an obsession. She enlisted allies—people at Sandy’s bank, her job, her friends—and asked questions. A Texas Ranger working the case, Don Anderson, fielded calls from her every week. The taciturn Ranger Anderson would listen to her theories, but he offered nothing in return. One time, though, after he said he needed a sample of De Ellen’s handwriting, Janet dug through Sandy’s papers and found the “sister” card. Impressed, Ranger Anderson said, “I’m going to have to put you on study with me.”
Janet had several unsettling conversations with De Ellen. She mentioned that Sandy had made her the beneficiary of a “Metropolitan” policy worth $10,000, taken out so long ago she didn’t know if it was still in force. In the next breath, she said Sandy was “a real ass when it came to men,” that she’d probably gone out drinking, picked up a guy, and gotten killed. Janet found that hard to believe of her shy sister.
De Ellen did submit a claim to MetLife. The company later filed a lawsuit alleging the policy was fraudulently obtained. De Ellen failed to appear for the civil trial and never collected any money.
In April 1993, then a staff writer with D Magazine, I was talking to Janet for a story about her sister’s murder and her efforts to solve it. She couldn’t understand why Ranger Anderson hadn’t canvassed De Ellen’s Rowlett neighborhood. So I suggested we do it together.
Armed with fliers showing Sandy’s picture and car, Janet took one side of the street and I took the other. Janet knocked on the door of the house next door to De Ellen’s, and a woman answered. Janet waved at me to join them. Patsy Hancock looked at the flier with Sandy’s picture and said, “That’s not Sandy Dial.”
Soon after moving in, Patsy’s next-door neighbor—a woman with short, reddish hair—had introduced herself as Sandy Dial. On the night Sandy disappeared, Patsy had gone out to get her mail and had seen three people standing near a car in front of the house next door. Patsy told us that a man she identified as Don Dial was holding a large comforter like it was a baby, and it was clearly heavy because his knees were bent. Two people were rearranging things in the trunk of the car. The next morning, Patsy told us, she saw Don in his rear driveway washing mud from his four-wheel-drive vehicle.
Janet and I were stunned. We’d found a key eyewitness who connected Don and De Ellen to Sandy’s murder. Janet immediately called Ranger Anderson. My story, “Murder in the Family,” ran as the cover of the June 1993 issue of D Magazine. De Ellen declined to be interviewed. She also declined a request to be interviewed for this story.
There was more damning evidence. De Ellen had claimed that her children were with her that night, but Michelle and Michael couldn’t confirm that. (In September 1996, while De Ellen was out on bond, 20-year-old Michael committed suicide.) But the district attorneys for both Hunt County, where Sandy’s body was found, and Dallas County, where it was believed the murder was committed, declined to pursue indictments. They felt there was not enough evidence to convict for murder.
Determined not to give up, Janet learned of a little-known clause in the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure that allows a private citizen to go before a grand jury to seek an indictment. (Most lawyers I talked to for this story had never heard of anyone doing this, nor even knew it was possible.) Janet wrote to each member of the Hunt County grand jury, asking for permission to appear to present her case; they all agreed. She practiced for hours before friends and family. After Janet’s detailed presentation of the evidence, a member of the grand jury asked her, “What do you do for a living?” She told them she cleaned houses.
In April 1996, the grand jury issued sealed indictments for conspiracy to commit capital murder against De Ellen Bellah; her lover, Don Dial; and Lynn Dial, Sandy’s ex-husband.
The murder of Sandy Dial was almost the perfect crime. But De Ellen’s fingerprints on the life insurance forms, the forged signatures, and witness testimony provided powerful evidence that convinced two juries. Convicted in 1997 of conspiracy to commit murder, Don was sentenced to 80 years. Convicted in 1998, De Ellen was given a 50-year sentence. His sentence was longer than hers because Don was a former cop and because he owned a sawed-off shotgun matching the caliber of the murder weapon. Charges against Lynn were dropped for lack of evidence.
De Ellen wound up in Gatesville, home to six prisons, five that house women. She immediately advertised on a prison pen pal website called Paper Dolls.
She wrote: “I am a woman of fairly high intelligence, lots of common sense, and I understand most humor. I read a lot, listen to music, dabble with poetry. … I’m Christian, I’m seeking long term penpal friendships to share thoughts, hopes, and dreams. I prefer men over 50 years to correspond with that also are intelligent with common sense, are Christians, and stable.” The ad said she was 51 (though she was really 47) and listed her projected “outdate” as October 2009.
The ad with De Ellen’s smiling photo eventually popped up on the computer screen of a retired rancher from South Dakota.
“My prayer for you tonight and every night from now on will be that your [sic] safe, strong, healthy, happy. That you go to bed each night with peace in your heart and mind and that you wake each morning filled with love and hope and a beautiful smile on your handsome face.” —De Ellen Bellah to Harold Henry, January 16, 2005
The only child of a former rodeo cowboy, Harold grew up in the West Texas town of Roby, not far from Abilene. But when Harold was 12, his father took a hunting trip to South Dakota and fell in love with the land. He bought a ranch and began raising cattle, farming wheat and corn. Once Harold had his own family, he did the same, rising with the sun and toiling late in the fields seven days a week, neglecting his two kids, Deb and Dallas. His frugality was legendary.
In the early ’80s, Harold sold his cattle. He sat inside all winter, getting on his wife’s nerves and vice versa. He filed for divorce, and their legal battle “was like the War of the Roses,” Deb says.
Sitting in her tidy house in Watertown, South Dakota, which has a large metal sunflower on the front door, Deb showed me several boxes containing material related to her father’s death that she has collected in the past six years. In many ways, she’s like Janet: methodical, relentless. A farm girl who now works as a medical transcriber, Deb admits she annoyed several investigators. But she couldn’t let go of the odd circumstances surrounding her father’s death. Despite their strange relationship in his last years, Deb felt she had to find out what really happened. She owed her father that.
After the divorce, Harold had an estate worth about $500,000. He should have been able to live out his life in peace. But South Dakota winters, when the snow piled up to the eaves, always got Harold down. One year, he spent time in a hospital for seasonal depression. He started going to Texas for a few months in the mid-1990s to escape those dark days. But he’d return to South Dakota in the spring and summer, helping Dallas on the farm, getting to know his grandchildren. Dallas says, “My dad was a better grandfather than a father.” Dallas’ wife, Lorie, who has a degree in psychology, found him warm and helpful around the farm, interested in alternative health topics.
In 1998 or so, Harold, who was then in his early 60s, confided to Lorie that he had a new woman in his life. Dee, as he called her, could do anything: knit, crochet. She was learning Braille so she could help others. “She could almost be a lawyer because she had extensive knowledge of the law, especially insurance law,” Harold told his daughter-in-law. He showed Lorie a picture of Dee. Lorie’s first thought: what does this polished woman want with a redneck farmer from South Dakota?
Harold told Lorie about a book company Dee had gotten him involved with. He wanted Dallas and Lorie to invest $3,000. “The payoffs would be huge,” he said. Lorie declined. She found her father-in-law kindhearted but gullible and wondered why Harold never brought Dee with him to visit.
Then, in 2003, Dallas and Lorie were watching TV when they saw an episode of Final Justice With Erin Brockovich titled “Deadly Insurance,” about the murder of Sandy Dial. Dallas and Lorie recognized the picture of the woman who’d orchestrated the killing. It was Harold’s girlfriend. They immediately called Deb.
Deb phoned her father to warn him, but he brushed her off, saying Dee was innocent and would soon get out of prison. After a lifetime of farming, he’d lost his purpose. Now apparently Harold had seized on a new job: proving De Ellen’s innocence.
De Ellen later told an investigator that Harold had answered her pen pal ad in 1998 and had first visited her in prison in February 2000. In taped interviews, she comes across as a straight talker with a flirtatious laugh and solicitous manner, often bringing up sex. She was 21 years younger than Harold. The beginning of their relationship was a classic romance scam.
Harold committed himself to De Ellen and her cause. On his own initiative, he hired Walter Reaves Jr., a Waco attorney known across the state, to appeal her conviction. He drove the attorney crazy, De Ellen said, calling and visiting his office. (Reaves did not respond to requests for comment.) But De Ellen’s appeal was denied on May 3, 2000. Reaves had exhausted legal remedies by early 2003.
Deb and Dallas had no idea how deeply their father was involved with De Ellen. In addition to paying for a prominent appeals attorney, he put up to $200 per month into her commissary fund. He likely paid for the publication of a book, Tea Please, with recipes, drawings, and poetry by De Ellen. She also had a BBVA Compass savings account into which he deposited checks.
Harold’s relationship with his children became strained. Though unwilling to help Deb, he often talked of De Ellen’s daughter, “pretty little Chelle.” They’d met in 2003, when Michelle traveled to Gatesville to visit her mother in prison. That year, he took a bus to South Dakota, retrieved an ’89 Oldsmobile that he’d loaned to Dallas for ferrying kids to day care, and drove it back to Texas for Michelle to use. He told Dallas that Michelle, training to become a midwife, was struggling and needed the car more than he did.
This didn’t square with Michelle’s later statement to investigators. She claimed that Harold had asked her to sell the car for him. She had no idea he didn’t get the money. De Ellen told a different story: “He didn’t give Chelle that stupid car. He gave the car to me.” She thought she was getting out of prison and needed a vehicle. But with her appeals exhausted, Michelle got rid of it.
Harold finagled his way into a low-income apartment in Gatesville. It was a dump, but he didn’t care. Harold would drive 30 miles for a free meal. But he gave De Ellen monthly money and more. He told friends that they’d live together when she got out. Trained as a Braille transcriber, she could earn up to $100,000 per year. She’d reimburse him. He wrote Deb: “She will be proven innocent. It’s very possible Dee could make Dallas a millionaire & provide education for all 3 grandkids.”
In June 2003, five years after he’d begun corresponding with De Ellen, Harold revised his will, leaving his estate to her, omitting his children. Dallas found the documents in his father’s car. Neither Dallas nor Deb confronted him.
In 2008, Harold sent De Ellen the paperwork for an annuity that would be worth $164,000 on maturity, promising it would be hers when he died. That went into her prison file.
De Ellen became eligible for parole for the first time a year later. Harold hired another attorney, Paige Massey, of Austin. Harold had no idea that De Ellen was anticipating a different life on the outside. In August 2009, De Ellen posted this on WriteAPrisoner.com:
“In search of fun, relaxing, entertaining conversations. I’m seeking friendship with the option of a serious relationship if the opportunity presents itself. I enjoy palm reading, the arts, good food, good wine, good company, family, and friends. I’m very romantic, passionate, affectionate, and easy to talk with. … While incarcerated I’ve accomplished many skills that will allow me to have a successful career, be my own boss, and lead a very happy independent life. At 50 I am a beautiful woman looking forward to discovering the zest of life again. I’d love to have a good friend to share with dreams, hopes, laughs, tears, and goals. Friendship is not bound by age or gender.”
De Ellen was seeking her next sugar daddy—or maybe sugar momma.
But Janet, thinking of her sister, Sandy, and that shotgun blast, was determined to block De Ellen’s release. By then, Janet had returned to school, earned a paralegal degree, and landed a job preparing trial evidence for the U.S. Attorney’s Office. Victims and their families have the right to file confidential protests against the pending release of convicted felons. Janet posted the Brockovich episode on YouTube to draw attention to the case, and she rallied friends to send letters to the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles. Finally, she requested and received permission to make a personal presentation to the board.
Ranger Anderson made the trip to Gatesville with her. Janet asked that De Ellen be given a five-year “setoff,” because her crime had been committed with a deadly weapon. De Ellen’s parole request was denied. The setoff was granted, meaning she would not be eligible for review until 2014. With five more years to work, De Ellen came up with a new scheme.
A few months after De Ellen’s parole request was denied, Janet was contacted by an American woman living in London, Sundae Osborn. Sundae was a screenwriter and wanted to acquire the rights to Janet’s life story, how as a house cleaner she’d helped solve her sister’s murder, then gone on to work for the U.S. Attorney’s Office. After checking out Sundae’s credentials, Janet agreed. She packaged up documents, including her confidential presentation to the parole board and DVDs of the Brockovich show, and mailed the box to London. At Sundae’s urging, she wrote out her story, sending it by email.
A few weeks later, in early 2010, Janet discovered the website DeEllenBellah.com. It proclaimed De Ellen’s innocence and trashed Sandy as having been promiscuous. According to De Ellen, everyone involved in the investigation and her trial was corrupt or incompetent. One entry promised a video of the crime scene, which would prove her version of events, would be uploaded soon.
On the same day Janet found that site, Sundae emailed her to say that the DVD of the Brockovich show, which included video footage of the crime scene, was blank. She asked Janet to resend it.
Janet’s research showed DeEllenBellah.com was registered in the United Kingdom. She quickly took down the YouTube video and revoked the contract with Sundae.
Sundae told me she did try to contact De Ellen to learn more about her motivations and background, but she had not responded. She insists she never spoke to De Ellen or to her daughter, nor did she show anyone else the material Janet had sent her, even her agent. “I can’t stress enough how much I respect Janet,” Sundae says. “What struck me was her determination to get to the truth. I would never do anything to compromise the case.”
But Janet found the coincidences unnerving. And the UK domain name was transferred to Juanita Gober, of Asheville, North Carolina. De Ellen’s daughter, Michelle, lived at the address listed for Juanita Gober and posted and sold photographs as Juanita James. Michelle also established RealWorldVoice.com, a website behind a petition to abolish the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, singling out De Ellen’s Waco attorney, Walter Reaves Jr., as “Outlaw #1” for botching her case and many others. In addition to maintaining her mother’s website, Michelle designed webpages for other inmates for $350.
“Dearest HB … I worry about you, and some of the decisions you make. You just have too big of a heart. That really is one of the things I adore about you though. Your [sic] just a good man. Even if I don’t agree with you, you’ve been good to me and mine. … I love you dearly.” —De Ellen Bellah, date unknown
Deb was driving her daughter to summer camp in 2011 when her panicked father called. A man was coming to South Dakota to kill Harold’s family unless he wired him $50,000. “He sounded scared,” Deb says. She called the FBI in Waco. A female agent phoned back. She’d told Harold the caller was a scammer. “She told him not to give them any money, but he did,” Deb says.
About six months later, Harold’s mother, Ruby, lay on her deathbed. The family asked Harold to come to South Dakota, but he gave excuse after excuse. She died February 1, 2012, without seeing her son. On the day of Ruby’s funeral, Harold phoned his son, Dallas, asking if they could postpone the ceremony, maybe put his mother in a freezer until the spring. Dallas refused. His father broke down, crying, saying, “Someone is threatening to shoot me if I leave the house.”
Dallas asked his father to sign a form giving his children power of attorney in case he was incapacitated. He agreed. The paperwork took a few months, and when it came through, Deb checked her father’s bank account. He’d had no money to come to South Dakota to see his mother before her death. Harold was broke.
By this point, between the supposed death threats and the empty bank account, Deb knew something had to be done. She called the prison. They told her to call the police. The police said call the prison. In desperation, she called Adult Protective Services.
A social worker visited Harold, who said De Ellen had taken him off her visitors list. He said he needed to fix the mess his daughter had created by asking questions. He wrote De Ellen promising that more money would be coming in. He said he was due oil royalties from a deceased cousin. But that wasn’t enough. “He was supposed to take out a life insurance policy on himself, benefiting De Ellen, and then she’d get back with him,” the social worker told Deb. Harold followed through by getting a physical as a first step.
“You know he was like an angel in our lives.”—De Ellen Bellah to investigators, February 12, 2014
On hearing this, Deb again contacted Gatesville police about De Ellen. “Since her reason for incarceration is similar to this,” she said, “we are very concerned that she is setting him up and he will have some sort of ‘accident’ if he gets this life insurance policy.” The detective suggested she contact the prison and ask to be put in touch with an internal affairs investigator.
De Ellen assured the prison investigator that any financial help provided by Harold was voluntary. To prove it, she had not only years of letters but also his will and the annuity documents in her prison file.
The social worker learned that Harold had agreed to pay more legal fees. De Ellen’s sister, a woman named Judy Stevens, had hired Mike Ware, a Fort Worth attorney associated with the Innocence Project of Texas. Harold volunteered to pay half of Ware’s $50,000 fee; Judy would pay the rest. Judy told me she believes in De Ellen’s innocence, blaming Janet—“the jealous sister”—for De Ellen’s wrongful conviction.
Deb discovered that Harold had written two checks prior to his mother’s death to someone named Stephney Martin, each for $12,500. Deb could find no attorney in Texas by that name. It turned out that Stephney Martin’s full name was Stephney Nicole Stevens Martin. That was Judy’s daughter. In other words, Harold was writing checks to De Ellen’s niece.
At one point, Harold called Noble Walker, the Hunt County district attorney, to advocate for De Ellen. “I think he genuinely believed an innocent person was in the penitentiary,” Walker says. “I wish I’d listened to Mr. Harold a little better, but it was over. All the appeals were exhausted.” And no new evidence had emerged. De Ellen had promised Harold a DNA test would free her, but there was no DNA to test.
Now Harold was wavering. De Ellen had lied about the DNA, and she’d lied about money. Harold was due a refund of $7,500 from the estate of Paige Massey, the Austin attorney he’d hired for De Ellen’s first parole hearing. Massey had committed suicide in late 2009. The refund had been sent to De Ellen’s savings account. De Ellen told Harold he’d approved that arrangement.
“TRUST TRUST TRUST,” Harold wrote at the top of a letter he sent to De Ellen in December 2012, about a month before his death. “Why are you broke at the end of the month & Chell does not have money to visit you? Here is 50 to write & explain yourself. You can trust me. How can I trust you, all the money I have spent on you?”
The social worker talked to Harold’s doctor. At his physical for the insurance policy, Harold’s doctor had detected signs of dementia. On January 15, 2013, the doctor executed a “physician statement of capacity/incapacity,” certifying Harold incompetent with regard to his finances.
Deb called her father numerous times the next day. He didn’t answer but returned her call on Thursday, January 17. “Everything is going to be OK in about a week,” Harold said, sounding chipper.
“I hope that you are not destitute like Deb says. I thought you still had the large annuity, plus now your royalties from the oil. … I need to be informed about what you are doing. … I’m having a very hard time without your help in my life. There is not a limit on the amount of money you deposit in my bank account. If you do make a deposit, will you please do it in cash. I really don’t need any more problems.” —De Ellen Bellah to Harold Henry, January 10, 2013
The Gatesville JP initially declined Dallas’ request for an autopsy following Harold’s death, but after the toxicology test, he got his wish. The autopsy showed that Harold had suffered a neck injury and that his stomach contained bright green material and 355 milligrams of diphenhydramine, the active ingredient in Benadryl. So in addition to the Benadryl that had already worked its way into his system and was found in the toxicology test, there was the equivalent of more than a dozen Benadryl tabs still in his stomach. The antihistamine could have interacted with metoprolol, a drug Harold took for high blood pressure, causing fatal side effects. The medical examiner ruled his death accidental.
Deb wasn’t buying it. Lorie, her sister-in-law, clearly recalled Harold’s telling her about three weeks before his death that he didn’t like Benadryl because of its side effects. Not to mention the fact that no Benadryl packaging was found in his apartment. And the “cremate me” note. And that he’d told the social worker about De Ellen pressuring him to take out a life insurance policy and name her the beneficiary. Finally, a “questionable death” investigation was opened by a Gatesville lieutenant named David Inocencio, joined about a month later by Texas Ranger Jason Bobo. But Deb got the impression that Lieutenant Inocencio wasn’t seriously considering foul play.
Three years earlier, after watching the Brockovich show, Deb had contacted Janet. She was largely responsible for putting De Ellen behind bars. But Janet never replied. So now, with Deb’s frustration growing, she tried her again—and got a response.
As the women talked on the phone, comparing notes, they came to see that the deaths of their loved ones were strangely intertwined. Among Harold’s effects were a photocopy of a picture of De Ellen and Don and a photocopy of the “sister” card from De Ellen to Sandy. How had that ended up in Harold’s apartment? Janet theorized De Ellen had been trying to prove her innocence to Harold, showing him she loved Sandy. By comparing the image of a three-hole punch along the sides of the pages, Janet determined that the copy of the card and copy of the picture of De Ellen and Don had come from her confidential 2009 presentation to the parole board. Who could have given them to Harold? An attorney? A member of De Ellen’s family?
The biggest shock for Deb was learning where all his money had gone. Harold had cashed out all his annuities, and numbers associated with Jamaican scammers dominated his calls in his last few months. Victims are congratulated for winning the Jamaican lottery or a new car, then told to send money to process their winnings. Between November 15, 2010, and July 3, 2012, Harold had used Western Union to wire $202,996.75 to five people in Jamaica. More money went to scammers in Florida, Colorado, and Hawaii. When he refused to pay, the death threats began. The weekend of his mother’s funeral, Harold had barricaded himself in his apartment for three days, believing a sniper was on top of the nearby firehouse, ready to kill him if he left his apartment. When the social worker visited, she noticed that he kept a baseball bat close at hand as he opened his door.
The investigators talked to a female neighbor who had seen Harold the night before his death. She said he looked ashen. She swore that Harold had called out her name sometime in the night before his death, but she didn’t look out her window because “it did not seem like something Harold would normally do.”
Ranger Bobo also checked out De Ellen’s daughter, Michelle, the one who’d been setting up websites for her mother and other inmates. A week before Harold’s death, she’d traveled to Gatesville and visited her mother on both Saturday and Sunday. Five days later, Michelle flew from Austin to Dallas and stayed Friday night with her father, Robert Gober, who lives in Keller.
She returned to Gatesville the following day, the day Harold died, to visit her mother in prison. Harold’s good friend Charles, the one he was supposed to have coffee with, was at the prison, too. After having seen his buddy’s corpse that morning, he’d gone to visit his wife, Carlene—who, it should be noted, was one of De Ellen’s closest friends in prison and, on the night she murdered her husband, had to be admitted to a hospital after ingesting a dangerous mix of barbiturates and diphenhydramine. At the prison, Charles gave De Ellen and Michelle the news about Harold’s death.
According to Robert’s statement to Ranger Bobo, when his daughter Michelle spent the night at his house, she didn’t mention that she’d visited her mom twice the weekend before. And after that weekend, she didn’t say a word to him about the death of her mother’s great benefactor until Ranger Bobo started asking questions. In fact, he’d never even heard of Harold until that point.
Assigned De Ellen’s power of attorney, Michelle did make an attempt to collect on Harold’s estate for her mother. But the money was all gone.
A year after Harold’s death, ranger Bobo and Lieutenant Inocencio finally interviewed De Ellen. Bobo assured De Ellen that she wasn’t in any trouble, that there “is nothing to indicate that his death was anything other than natural.” The recorded interview is a disturbing look at the psyche of De Ellen, a con artist who would tell someone she loved her, even as she was plotting her murder.
De Ellen praised Harold as a great friend. “I was all that he had,” she said. Then, in the next breath, she suggested he’d been a child molester. That must be why his children wanted nothing to do with him. “I lived with a whole house of child molesters,” De Ellen said, “and none of them will admit that they are child molesters.”
De Ellen said the idea that she would have lived with Harold when she got out was ridiculous. For more than a decade, they’d chatted with a sheet of Plexiglas between them. “I would have never had a contact visit with him or anything like that. … I just wouldn’t have,” she told the investigators.
Harold never gave her “substantial” money, she claimed. She denied he was “incompetent by any stretch of the imagination,” and then described him as delusional at times. She admitted that he had made her his sole heir. “I didn’t think too much about that because he didn’t have anything,” she said—a statement clearly contradicted by her letters to Harold.
De Ellen provided some interesting details, mentioning that Harold often drank “Japanese” and noni juice, any kind of herbal remedy that would make him look younger or grow more hair. (The bright green material in his stomach was never identified.) She said that he had terrible allergies, that he took Claritin and Allegra.
Ranger Bobo and Lieutenant Inocencio danced around the manner of Harold’s death: “A bad heart … not as healthy as he led you to believe …” De Ellen asked, “Why can’t you just tell me how he died?” For some reason, though, the investigators didn’t tell her about the huge dose of diphenhydramine.
They questioned her about a Valentine’s Day card De Ellen had sent Harold two days before he died: “My Heart Belongs to You.” Why send a Valentine’s Day card so early? She insisted several times it wasn’t a valentine, just a notecard she had handy—protesting too much.
“I noticed you’re single now. Look, I got a single daughter, you know? There aren’t any single good-looking men here.”—De Ellen Bellah to Lieutenant Inocencio, February 12, 2014
“How would you benefit with Harold not being here on this planet?” Ranger Bobo finally asked her.
“Oh! There is no benefit to me for him not being here,” she said.
Except that she thought she’d receive an annuity valued at $164,000, plus whatever he had in various bank accounts. And her daughter had tried to collect for her. But Jamaican scammers had beaten her to the money.
Three days after interviewing De Ellen, Lieutenant Inocencio took his own life, raising the question of whether he was truly able to investigate the case properly. (The Texas Rangers declined to make Ranger Bobo available for an interview.)
A week later, the inquiry was closed. It had been just an accidental death of an old man who’d bankrupted himself through poor decisions.
In late 2014, De Ellen came up for parole for the second time. Both Deb and Janet filed protests. Parole was denied, and De Ellen was given another five-year setoff.
Harold’s old friend Charles died in May 2017, after several years in memory care, according to a relative. His prison wife and her kids inherited his estate. His death leaves Deb with more questions that will probably never be answered. Charles, it turns out, lied to investigators, saying he’d known Harold for only a few months. Charles had known Harold for years and usually stayed at his apartment when he came to visit his prison wife. Had he spent the night with Harold before he died?
From the beginning, assumptions made about Harold’s death colored the investigation. Records show that Harold’s phone was used after his death to call his voicemail. “That was important and they missed it,” Deb says.
The “cremate me” note, especially, haunts Deb and Dallas. They think whoever gave their father the diphenhydramine wanted the evidence destroyed. “I think he was tricked into drinking something,” Dallas says. “But I don’t know how they got him to write that note.” Or did he? There’s no indication it was ever fingerprinted or examined by a handwriting expert.
De Ellen is up for parole again next month. Judy says her sister is in poor health. “De Ellen is innocent,” she says. “She was railroaded by a jealous sister. I pray every day she will be released in November.”
But failure to accept responsibility for her crime or to show remorse, and her attacks on the parole board, will work against her. So will Janet Holley and Deb Berner, two self-taught detectives bound by their belief that they know what kind of woman De Ellen Bellah really is.