Tom Fox/The Dallas Morning News via AP, Pool

Dallas Serial Killer Verdict Shows Justice Is Scarce for Elderly Victims

A judge declared a mistrial this week in the murder trial of Billy Chemirmir, leaving the families of more than 20 victims waiting for answers.

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Billy Chemirmir, clad in a suit and mask and with his eyes downcast, spent last week at the criminal defense table at the Dallas County Courthouse. It was a rare taste of freedom for the father and former home healthcare worker since he was arrested in March 2018 for the murder of a North Dallas widow whom he’d allegedly stalked and smothered after meeting at a local Walmart. She was the last of what Collin and Dallas County prosecutors claim in indictments were at least 20 victims of a years-long robbery spree targeting vulnerable seniors who wore valuable jewelry and lived alone. Eighteen of those victims were murdered, indictments against Chemirmir claim; the other two survived.

But scores of witness statements and hundreds of pieces of evidence were not enough to convince 12 jurors. On Friday, after less than two full days of deliberations, the foreman sent a note: ​​“We are hopelessly deadlocked, 11-1.” Soon after, the judge declared a mistrial. For the moment, Chemirmir and his defense team can declare victory. 

The prosecution presented dozens of exhibits, but their case was hampered by an embarrassing and shocking underlying fact: Chemirmir targeted elderly women and most of the murders he’s accused of—like nearly all unattended deaths of seniors in the Dallas area—weren’t initially investigated as potential homicides. 

Yet the prosecution’s evidence in the Harris case alone seemed compelling: Chemirmir had been caught by police minutes after he allegedly dumped an ornate red jewelry box taken from Harris’ bedroom into a dumpster. He was caught with her gold locket and ring, a large collection of the $2 bills she often gave as gifts, and a set of keys that fit the front door of the house where the murdered woman’s body was found. Chemirmir had recently sold rings, lockets and other jewelry identified as belonging to Brooks and Bartell, too, according to testimony and exhibits presented at trial.

Over the course of four days, prosecutors presented detailed witness statements and more than 400 exhibits about Chemirmir’s activities at the trial, which was streamed on YouTube. They used an FBI analysis of cell phone data and records of jewelry sales to tie Chemirmir to three crime scenes: The quiet brick house where Lu Thi Harris was smothered to death on March 20, 2018; the two-bedroom condo where an intruder wearing green plastic gloves attacked Mary Bartell and pressed a pillow to her face until she blacked out on March 19, 2018; and the Richardson home where Mary Brooks was killed and robbed of entire safe full of jewelry on January 31, 2018 (like Harris, Chemirmir first met Brooks at a Walmart, prosecutors said).

Chemirmir, a Kenyan immigrant who has lived in the Metroplex for more than a decade, has always insisted he has never killed anyone and pled not guilty to capital murder in Harris’ case. However, hours of interrogation videos played in court last week showed that he had admitted to police that he suddenly acquired and then resold thousands of dollars in jewelry that formerly belonged to elderly ladies who died suddenly under nefarious circumstances. In none of those conversations did Chemirmir ever name anyone else who supposedly helped him acquire so much valuable stolen gold and gems: He sold more than $91,000 worth of items to the Diamond and Gold Exchange in a North Dallas Strip Mall from 2015 to 2018.

Yet nearly all of the 18 murders now attributed to Chemirmir in indictments initially remained identified as homicides because they involved robberies or thefts from seniors who were already 80 or 90 years old. Records and interviews previously reviewed by the Observer show that many crime scenes received little attention; and most of his alleged victims were never even autopsied. In many cases, family members first learned two or more years after the fact that their relatives had not died of natural causes.

One of the most shocking moments in the November 2021 trial came when Dr. Jeffrey Barnard, chief medical examiner for Dallas County, admitted that his office almost never orders autopsies for seniors. Instead, thousands of so-called “unattended deaths” (generally deaths outside a hospital with no doctor present)  the office receives each year are handled by phone—even if the cases involve robberies or burglaries. Otherwise, the workload would be overwhelming, he said. “No office can handle that, so you have to make decisions about which cases rise to the level that it should be examined.”

Barred from the courtroom partly because of COVID-19, a large group of victims’ family members gathered last week in a special room on the 10th floor of the courthouse to watch the trial together. The mistrial Friday came as a blow. “All of us felt so defeated we just wanted to isolate,” said Mary Jo Jennings, whose mother Leah Corken was murdered in August 2016. “It feels that mom has died all over again.”

In the end, a verdict may only buy a few more months for Chemirmir, who according to indictments began to kill and rob elderly victims in April 2016—more than two years before his arrest. Dallas County officials continue to hold Chemirmir in jail and have promised to retry him in early 2022 both for the Harris murder as well as for another homicide.

Dallas prosecutors are not seeking the death penalty against Chemirmir—a decision announced prior to the trial. More capital murder charges are pending against Chemirmir in Collin County, where a spokesman for the district attorney declined comment on whether the office plans to seek death or not.

Ellen French House’s mother, Norma French, is among those identified among Chemirmir’s two dozen victims in total based on indictments and on related wrongful death suits filed against independent senior living centers where many victims lived. “This case represents my mother’s case and at least 24 other mothers,” House said. “We are encouraged that the prosecutors will try his case again and we are confident that the jury will convict. We’re all devastated by this.”

Top image: Defendant Billy Chemirmir listens to motions and language being discussed and sent to the jury after one juror is hanging up the deliberations in his capital murder trial at the Frank Crowley Courts Building in Dallas on November 19, 2021.