John Wehlage

Armed With Lessons From a Dallas Serial Killer, Families Push for Reforms in Texas Law

Bills before the state Legislature this session would subject precious metal buyers to more scrutiny and protect assisted living residents.

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Shannon Gleason Dion often holds a gold necklace with a guardian angel medallion when she testifies before the Texas Legislature. Her mother, Doris Gleason, wore an identical amulet before she became the ninth of 18 known victims of a man accused of being one of Texas’ most prolific serial killers. But Doris Gleason’s medallion, fashioned by an Italian craftsman with a workshop on Florence’s Ponte Vecchio, is long gone: Her killer, police say, quickly disposed of it, and other victims’ jewelry by selling them to a storefront precious metal buyer.

Billy Kipkorir Chemirmir, Gleason’s accused killer, faces 18 pending capital murder charges in Dallas County for a string of robbery murders that occurred from mid-2016 to March 2018. According to police reports, indictments and interviews, Chemimir snuck into some of the same senior apartment complexes over and over where he both robbed and killed residents for years, His crimes were finally uncovered after a pair of women, both in their 90s, survived his attacks and described him. Before that, many of the robberies had been dismissed as older folks misplacing valuable items  – and the deaths as natural.

Shannon Dion is the leader of a group called Secure our Seniors Safety, made up of daughters, sons and other relatives of victims of a Dallas serial killer who have gone to the legislature to seek reforms that they hope will save other lives.

Dion and other victims’ relatives are now pushing for the state Legislature to close loopholes that they say gave Chemirmir cover and helped him destroy evidence as he continued to kill for two years. Dion joined with three other grieving daughters in July 2019 to form a group they call Secure our Seniors Safety. They knew that their mothers had received no warnings about crimes in their complexes. And police told them that the killer used gold and silver buyers to get rid of the items he’d stolen. Soon, they began telling their stories to local legislators and craft reforms to address those issues.  “I still get goosebumps talking about the horror of the experience; learning your mother was robbed and then being told that your mother was murdered,,” Dion says about her group’s efforts..“We decided our mother’s friends had to be protected better than they had been.”

Bills now making their way swiftly through the House and Senate (House Bill 3123 and Senate Bill 1132) would beef up inspections of gold and silver buyers, which generally buy precious metal for cash and melt them down to be used to make new items. The shops are already required to photograph items they buy, keep them for 11 days and record seller IDs. Any complaints can prompt an inspection under the Office of Consumer Credit Commissioner. But only two out of thousands of Texas locations were inspected in 2020. At least some of the buyers who purchased Chemirmir’s allegedly stolen jewelry failed to keep images of all of the items he sold, as required, police say. In testimony on the bill, Jon Hoffman, a Plano robbery detective whose work led to a breakthrough in the serial killer case, didn’t mention Chemirmir specifically but testified that more state inspections might compel such businesses to record and retain digital images of the items purchased and records of the sellers’ identities. The House Bill, though facing revisions requested by wholesale jewelers who seek to be exempt from the requirements, seems likely to pass. 

Other House and Senate bills aim to boost reporting of crimes, disclosure of crime information to residents and improve security and accountability in senior living complexes across Texas. Senate Bill 1133, sponsored by Dallas state Senator Nathan Johnson, would create a voluntary incentive and inspection program under which developments could opt to beef up background checks, log visitor IDs, and meet other criteria to win a special certification. House Bill 3095, by Dallas-area Representative Julie Johnson, would hold senior living communities liable for the deaths of residents in certain circumstances, such as if they failed to report crimes. The bill would also require them to perform criminal background checks for employees and report any criminal activity to police. Both bills have gotten push back from opponents, including owners of assisted living facilities, who have expressed reservations about the scope of the requirements and the impact on operating costs.

From her own experience, Shannon Gleason Dion believes any bill that makes senior living facilities safer would save lives. Her mother Doris was the seventh of eight recognized murder victims at the Tradition-Prestonwood, a luxury independent living complex in the Dallas suburbs. Yet Gleason and other residents had received no warnings about robberies accompanied by sudden deaths there. “In my neighborhood, if there are multiple robberies in a month. We would talk about it and be made aware of it,” Dion said. Dion filed a public information act request after her mother’s death and was shocked to see multiple reports about other robberies there. “The fact that my mother opened her door [to a killer] because she thought she was safe is very difficult.”

Former Dallas Cowboys player Cliff Harris, whose mother-in-law was among the murder victims, is among those who have urged legislators to make reporting and safety requirements mandatory for senior developments. Harris has testified about how Miriam Nelson, 81, called management immediately when an intruder, posing as a maintenance man, tried to enter her home at an upscale senior living complex in Plano. They failed to promptly summon police and Nelson was murdered three days later, allegedly by a man who matched the description she’d provided. She’s been named as the 17th of Chemirmir’s 18 murder victims, according to indictments filed in Collin and Dallas counties.

As the debate on broader safety reforms continue, Secure Our Seniors Safety has already won an important early victory for another bill related to the duties of medical examiner’s to inform relatives whenever a cause of death is revised – as so many were in the case of Chemimir’s alleged victims. In most murder cases so far tied to Chemirmir, it took a year or more before people like Shannon Gleason Dion were informed either by police or medical examiners that their elderly relatives died from murder, and not of natural causes, while others never received a call from officials at all. 

For Cheryl Pangburn, the unsettling news that mother could also be a serial killer’s victim arrived in an even more jarring way. She was at a hair salon in March 2019 when she spotted a Facebook message from a high school classmate, who wrote that she was sorry to learn that Cheryl’s mother’s death was on a list assembled by police investigating Chemimir. At the time, Pagburn still assumed that her mother, Marilyn Bixler, had died in September 2017 of natural causes  She had never been told that  the Collin County Medical Examiner had quietly changed Bixler’s cause of death in August 31, 2018, from “natural” causes to “undetermined” and that her mother’s death was being investigated as  as a murder. 

“Had I been given a phone call or sent a letter it would have prompted some questions, Pangburn says. “Never being contacted, I knew nothing about it.” During that long delay, she discarded or gave away her mother’s belongings that could otherwise have been tested for DNA. Chemirmir has never been charged with Bixler’s murder, though he allegedly robbed and tried to kill another woman in the same complex, according to a Collin County indictment.

House Bill 723 and Senate Bill 864 have already passed and the new law is expected to be signed by the governor soon and will be named for Pangburn’s mother: “Marilyn’s Law.”