The Kentucky Fried Chicken Murders

I was turned onto this case a few months ago by a friend who is also, like me, very much into true crimes and justice in and of itself. Neither of us had heard of this case and the more we looked into it, including watching a documentary on it, the more we were a little bit puzzled. Yesterday I did a blog on the JonBonet Ramsey case in which I stated that it is my belief due to the mistakes made in the investigation from the beginning that case will never be solved. This is another case in which appeared to be the same.  However, while the case is still considered open today due to the fact that according to the state there is at least one perpetrator that has not been linked through DNA on the loose, there are two people serving life sentences for this case.  Are they the right people?  I will leave that for you to decide.

It is only on the rare occasion in my blogs where you will hear me speak of the race of the victims or the perpetrators.  For the most part that takes unconscious effort.  People are people, period! In this case, this portion here is the only place you will hear race discussed and this is simply because over recent years it has been called into issue.  Now, I am not someone who lives in a bubble and believes that race issues do not exists.  I absolutely know that they do.  I also believe that the media perpetrates a lot of the issues.  I believed this in the O.J. Simpson case and I fully believe it in the more recent police cases of Michael Brown in Missouri and in the strangulation case of Eric Garner in New York.  We were all told how Brown and Garner were killed by white officers.  For me, they were both men, who happened to be black, who died at the hands of people who happened to be white. Was race an issue with the officers?  Maybe it was but I do not need to be told constantly their races, I can see what their races are with my eyes. Does that mean that I do not think that people are framed or arrested based on their race?  Absolutely not because I know that it does happen.  However, race always seems to be made an issue when there are different races involved and sometimes it seems when you cannot claim race, you can claim religion.  And, these claims come from all sides and all races.  But again, I will mention it here because there have been a few articles, and even what I would call a hate website, that are sure to point out that in this case the five victims were all white and the two men convicted for their murders are black.  For me, especially if I am to believe the prosecution in this case and their theory, race is a non-issue.  Now, if I wanted to make it one, as many often try to do, I could ask why there were no people of color working at the Kentucky Fried Chicken, at least on the night in question. Reality of it is, again if we believe the theory of the prosecution, in which at least one jury apparently did, this was a simple case of burglary that turned into murder.  However, I doubt even the prosecution can stand by the word "simple."   With that said... on with the story.....

On the night of September 23, 1983 at a Kentucky Fried Chicken in the town of Kilgore Texas a woman went into check on her mother, Mary Tyler, at about 11:30 pm.  She immediately became suspicious when the doors were unlocked, even though the restaurant was supposed to be closed.  She called her stepfather, Bill, who went to the scene and the police were called.  Nothing seemed right.  The cash register was empty and the trash that was normally taken out at the end of the night was sitting by the door, but there was no-one inside the building.  One by one officers began combing the scene and individually gathering evidence.  

The following day,about 15 miles away, near an oilfield the bodies of David Maxwell(20), Joey Johnson (20), Monty Landers (19), Mary Tyler (37) and Opie Hughes(38) were found.  Except for Opie all of the bodies were together, face down with bullet wounds to their heads.  Opie was found a few yards away, also with a bullet wound.  It was determined later that they had all been shot at least twice, except for Johnson who was shot at least three times.  

This was a time, although I am unsure just how out of those times we are, where jurisdiction always came into play and playing well with others did not, when it came to law enforcement.  The restaurant was in one county while the bodies were found in another and neither department wanted to share information with the other, yet they both wanted to claim to have control of the case.  Eventually, although I am sure some say too late the Texas Rangers put Capt. G.W. Brooks in charge of overseeing the investigation.  However, even that would not necessarily make the departments share like good little children.  

Although through my research (and I have honestly forgotten from the documentary) I am uncertain why, early on the names Romeo Pinkerton and his cousin, Darnell Hartsfield came up.  There were flyers distributed looking to talk to these men as well as another man named Elton Winton. You will hear the names Pinkerton and Hartsfield again but mysteriously Winton's name is never mentioned again beyond this flyer as far as I can tell.  Pinkerton and Hartsfield were cleared as suspects. As I recall from the documentary they both had alibis that checked out. One of them was listed as being incarcerated at the time(although research does not specify which one of them and I do not recall which one) and the other one was confirmed by witnesses.  They were soon dismissed as suspects.

There was not a lot of evidence to be had at either the KFC or the scene where the bodies were shot and obviously found and in 1983 there was even less that could be done with what was found.  In the beginning it was believed that one of the key things was a ripped fingernail found on one of the victims.  This was a time before DNA but it did not stop crazy people from coming out of the woodwork proclaim new "scientific" theories.  One of which had stated that a fingernails were unique just as fingerprints are to specific people. But, listening to this man was not the first mistake made in this case, let alone the first mistake dealing with the fingernail.  The first mistake dealing with the fingernail had to do with the fact that investigators claimed, and apparently were convinced then, and for a very long time there after, years in fact, that this ripped fingernail belonged to the perpetrator.  So they go out looking for suspects with ripped fingernails and lo and behold they found one by the name of James Earl Mankins Jr. They were convinced they had their man!  He had the ripped fingernail and although the son of a local resident who's father was a State Representative, Mankins had several issues with the law, mainly dealing with drugs.  Mankins stayed on their scope for many years.  He was finally charged with the murders in 1995 but just before his pre-trial hearing started charges were dropped for lack of evidence.  I will go more into Mankins in a bit but remember that fingernail... you know, the one they found on a victims body?  Yeah well despite that being the key to solving this case quite a while later they discovered that the fingernail in question belonged to one of the victims.  Yeah seems they had some awesome investigative and medical examination work going on down there in Texas in 1983.

As far as Mankins goes there was a lot of speculation. Of course there was the issue because he was the son of a prominent man and with that comes favors and money, so obviously they needed to have a good solid case that did not have holes in it, especially against this guy. Somehow, the investigators did not believe the ship of integrity on the case had sailed when they initially charged him. Actually it seems that they have never come to that conclusion despite a multitude of issues. After ten more years of the case going cold, once again arrests were made in this case.  In November of 2005 cousins Darnell Hartsfield and Romeo Pinkerton were arrested and charged with murder. These are the same two men who had been cleared by alibis in 1983.  So how did that happen, especially when one of the men were reportedly in jail.  The story goes that the report of him being in jail was false and he had actually been released two days prior and the records were not updated. Granted you are talking about a time before the Internet so it is not like you could go onto a website and punch in a name and know that they are updated on a regular basis like you can today. However, even then if they truly were looking into an alibi to confirm someone was in jail if their later claims are true that he had already been released then they did not do a very good job of checking.  If I recall correctly it was a county jail in which he was in (I could be wrong) and checking that alibi should have been extremely easy. By 2007 when their cases went to trial the prosecution tried to get around all the mistakes that were made in this case as best as they could.  As far as the jail alibi it was simply put off on the jailers that had not updated things properly and as far as it taking them until 2005 to discover things, a lot of that they admitted to having tunnel vision when it came to James Mankins.  They really had little choice but to admit and shoulder some of the blame for how the investigation had gone but reality of it is that they took much less blame, shifted more than they should have, and totally dismissed a lot more when there really were few excuses for the things that happened. By the time they were arrested in 2005, neither Hartsfield or Pinkerton were hard to find, this time they were both in jail.  Pinkerton was serving time for unrelated drug charges but Hartsfield was a different story. He was reportedly in jail serving a life term for aggravated perjury, that was connected to this case. I had never heard of anyone serving a life sentence for perjury, ever and it seems that while everyone wants to report it, few want to give the details behind it.  From piecing things together it apparently stemmed from my understanding at a grand jury hearing but I was never able to determine just what he supposedly perjured himself with nor how or why he got a life sentence for it.

Both men initially plead not guilty of course, as most defendants do. Both men were charged with capital murder and were facing the death penalty.  Pinkerton's trial began in August of 2007 but apparently after a few weeks he was convinced that it was not going to end well and he decided to take a plea deal (why was one offered at this point especially if it was going so apparently well for the state???) and received 5 life terms to be served concurrently, meaning all together. A year later Hartsfield went to trial and was found guilty.  He was sentenced to 5 life terms but to be served consecutively, meaning one after another. Come on people... this is Texas... they are known for having a fast lane for executions, why was one man, already apparently (or given the impression he was) losing get to plead out in the middle of trial and another get life for the execution style killing of five people in this manner? 

Up until now I have only touched on a few of the multitude of issues in this case.  So what were all the issues and how was the prosecution able to secure convictions on two men and yet still proclaim the case as being open?

This investigation started out of the gate going bad and really never seemed to stop.  Of course the fist issue was one that practically all scenes have.  There is always the possibility that a crime scene can be tainted simply by the people who discover the crime before the police were called.  In this case it was the husband and daughter of Mary Tyler, a worker at the restaurant.  Just the fact they would have walked around looking for the employees as well as other things before and just after calling the police could be an issue and one that most investigators have to work around.  Mary's daughter, Kim had checked and noticed that the cash register till was empty and that was unusual. Although it may seem that this was normal, and I am no way trying to implicate Kim in anyway what so ever, but the fact she was the one to discover this gave defense attorney's a little leverage.  Obviously she and her step-dad are leaving their DNA and fingerprints around the restaurant and hers would be on and near the register as she innocently was checking for things.  However, Kim apparently had issues with stealing money and/or stolen checks during this time, or at least sometime before 2007 when the case went to trial.  It was also testified to at trial that Kim and her mother were having issues and that May had mentioned to at least one person that she was not happy with the people that Kim was associating with.  Of course Kim was only 17-18 at the time of the crime so some of that can be easily dismissed as being a teenager and could have been easily overcome.  However, in this case it was just one more thing the defense could add to its arsenal when building a reasonable doubt case.  Then next issue, and a much bigger than the first, became when no one was officially put in charge of the case and several different officers went into the restaurant searching, collecting evidence and filing reports and yet none of them ever consulted with each other.  

Officer Danny Pirtle testified that he was one of the first officers on the scene but that it was three weeks before he was put on as lead investigator on the case.  He claimed that he walked around the restaurant and he had collected two KFC hats and a note to a victim from his girlfriend to take in as evidence.  His notes reflect the same.  At trial in 2007 the prosecution had two pieces of evidence that they said were key and linked Hartsfield and Pinkerton to the crime. Those items were a box (of what sort was never confirmed)and a napkin. Both of those items purportedly had blood matching the defendants on them. A huge problem arises when it comes to these items.  First, neither Pirtle nor another first responding officer saw them at the scene.  Pirtle testified that he could not recall when he was given knowledge of those items or who in fact had collected them.  It also did not help that apparently by the time the trial commenced at least ten rolls of film from the crime had been ruined.  However, the prosecution claimed that these items were found at the scene and collected and years later when DNA testing was available they were a match to Hartsfield (a hint perhaps of some sort as to what may have led to his perjury charge ???). 

The big surprise in the trial came when the prosecution announced that one victim, Opie Hughes, had been sexually assaulted and semen DNA had been tested.  Well, first that DNA did not match either defendant (nor apparently the victim's husband). Secondly, by their own admission the clothes of the victims had been held in evidence but the chain of evidence for nearly all the evidence was broken, meaning they were unable to prove who handled what evidence and when.  The prosecution had held knowledge about the sexual assault even from the families of all the victims and expected this to be a bombshell.  In a sense it was, but then again, there was no connection to either Hartsfield or Pinkerton.  So of course the prosecution had a problem, but waiver they did not.... they let the jury know that they did indeed have the right man in court but that there was obviously a third man out there roaming free.  They admitted to interrogating the men to find out who their accomplice was but as both men proclaimed their innocence they said anyone else had been with them, hence never named another person.  

At the end of my research of this case I was left puzzled. If you read my blogs here, I hope you feel that at the end of a case I try to have a fair assessment both to the defendants, the prosecution and the jury. There have been cases in which someone that I felt was clearly guilty was acquitted in a case in where I did not feel even the prosecution had proved their case.  There are cases in which again, someone I felt was clearly guilty, was found such but that I felt the ways and means to get that guilty verdict was not something that should have been allowed and could end up being more detrimental to the justice system and people in the future.  And then there are cases like this. Truthfully, I have no real firm opinion on whether Hartsfield and Pinkerton are guilty or not simply because I do believe that this case was lost practically before it began.  Now, obviously there was a jury that disagreed with that and believed the theory given by the prosecution but that does not mean that I have to agree.  The only real evidence that they had against these men was the blood on the napkin and the box that at least two responding officers claimed to not see at the scene and the fact they claim that Pinkerton confessed to two cell mates.  Well remember James Mankins? They supposedly had several people ready to testify that he too had confessed to them and was known to be bragging about committing the crime.  I first question, why if these men were guilty that in all these years, before, during and after the court process no other name has been brought up since the prosecution claims there was a third person.  The defense attorneys in this case attempted to imply that evidence was planted.  This is often a common defense and for the most part falls flat on the surface just out of the gate.  But, this is a case in which you have to wonder.  First, these men were cleared initially, one because he supposedly had a clear alibi for being in jail at the time. They both had issues with law enforcement over the years so their DNA was in the system for years as well as the fact that they were accessible to law enforcement. However, it is also reasonable to believe that the supposed third person involved in this case would also have their DNA in the system because for the most part people who commit crimes like this do not stop absent being in jail (again, DNA would be in system) or being dead.  If the third supposed person is dead and Pinkerton and Hartsfield are guilty and were there that is even more reason for them to name the third person.  I try to not criticize investigators on how evidence was collected in old cases because no one knew in 1983 that something called DNA would ever come into play.  I understand there was always likely a lot of cross contamination when it came to the handling of evidence but on the other hand, perpetrators did not know the advances that science would make either.  Criminals today are more likely to wear gloves themselves as well as wiping down areas to cover tracks than they were before DNA. I am mindful when I watch shows like Criminal Minds or CSI to see who does and does not wear gloves either when committing crimes or processing them.  You often hear that investigators in old cases preserved evidence in a way that they would hope that science would catch up, and that sounds all good, especially say in the late 1980's when the ideas were approaching, but even then they had no idea the proper way to preserve things.  In this case, they did not keep the chain of evidence unbroken and did not even preserve film from the crime scene properly. I just simply do not see the evidence the prosecution present as being enough to convict these men, especially when you look at all the evidence as a whole and all of the mistakes made.  Was this a case of investigators wanting to say they solved this case after 25 years?  It was apparently a thorn in their side and a case always looked back at as being unsolved.  Was this a case they felt they had to solve at all costs for their reputation as well as to give the family closure?  I fear we will never know the answer to that. 


  1. In reading about true crimes, I came across your blog and decided to read it. I enjoyed it as I am always reading about this topic. These particular murders took place about 10 miles from where I was raised and still live. I was 10 when this happened and even then I remember how gruesome it was. Over the years, people have talked about the crime and given their theories. I can say, from my experience, there was a lot of frustration from the police, community, and families. There is no doubt that people wanted "closure" in this case, and perhaps it didn't take much for a jury to convict a couple of career criminals just so they could put this to bed. I do agree that the case was handled poorly, and the reason for Texas Rangers (lawmen not baseball team) to get involved. I think the case hinges on the DNA found on Opie. This is where investigators should focus most of their efforts because they need to pin that down. Either to rule in or rule out. Most people believe the third perp. Is a relative to the two men and that is why they didn't give up a name. I don't agree with that. So, efforts to find the source of th DNA is important. I read a report that the sample was found on the outside of her pants. ?????? Is that an error on the report? How often are investigators running the DNA sample through codis or other databanks? If it is from. A common criminal then eventually you would think it would match. If not, there are other databanks in which they may get a match. Anyway, I believe this is how the case will get solved or at least produce new leads. I enjoyed reading your post, you seem to be a well informed researcher. Thanks, Doc.

  2. A long time ago I think 1995 I was sitting around with some co workers in Beaumont, Texas. One of them mentioned this. But curiously that person said something about a "devil's recipe" involving meth was allegedly in a safe in the manager's offive. I really doubted it, but has anyone else heard of this?

  3. Yep. I heard it. I lived in Kilgore at the time, just 2 miles from the KFC. I was raised around there. And yes that was mentioned within the first few days and discussed by most of the people I ran with....not the most upstanding people of the community I might add. James Earl Mankins name was whispered by many. But this was Kilgore....unsolved murders ,murders called accidents,and murders that just seemed to be forgotten ,were what we grew up with....our norm none of us even gave second thought to this case ever being solved or anyone being convicted of was East Texas ya know. I have long since moved away, and upon hearing 2 black men ( already in jail ...easy pickings)... had been accused...I just had to sigh and remember....this was Kilgore. This was the crime that escaped and reached beyond East Texas...even after 25 years it just wouldn't since them boys got nothing to lose...but do keep the case open ..hell you never know ...someone might confess...gotta have an out to cover our asses. Just in case...this is Kilgore ya know.


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