Former Harris County prosecutor Kelly Siegler
(Photo credit: Steve Ueckert/Houston Chronicle via AP)

Kelly Siegler: The Cold Case Killer

Kelly Siegler is a true-crime celebrity. Did she frame an innocent man for murder?

by and

(Photo credit: Steve Ueckert/Houston Chronicle via AP)

This is Part 1 of a three-part series originally published by The Intercept. Read Part 2 and Part 3 on our site.

Only a few bones remained and there was no clear cause of death.

In the realm of murder cases gone cold, this was a challenging one—even for Kelly Siegler, a veteran prosecutor from Houston, Texas, with a nearly perfect conviction record and an evangelical fervor for solving cold cases using circumstantial evidence.

There were a few facts to start with. Twenty-nine-year-old Margie Pointer had disappeared in 1987. What was left of her was found in a ravine near Alamogordo, New Mexico, 17 years later. Despite the best efforts of a local cop haunted by the case, it remained unsolved. The Alamogordo Police Department needed help, and Siegler, star of the true-crime reality show Cold Justice, was there to answer the call.

Siegler arrived in town with her co-stars, Yolanda McClary, a former Las Vegas crime scene investigator, and Johnny Bonds, a retired Houston homicide detective. They had their work cut out for them, but there was an additional hurdle: “The statute of limitations for second-degree murder has run out,” Siegler explained at the start of the episode. “So our job this week is to see if the evidence warrants a first-degree murder.”

“A first-degree murder in New Mexico has to be committed in a willful and deliberate way,” she went on. “Since we don’t have a crime scene or any DNA, we’re gonna need to find witnesses who can show that it was committed in a willful or deliberate way.”

In other words, determining what happened to Pointer wasn’t the aim so much as ensuring they landed on a scenario that would make her alleged killer eligible for punishment.

In the world of Cold Justice, identifying new suspects isn’t what Siegler and her team are there to do. Instead, they arrive in town with the objective of wrapping up a cold case within a week. They always have a couple of suspects in mind, individuals the local cops have previously investigated. In Alamogordo, they quickly latched onto Pointer’s former co-worker, a man with whom, rumor had it, she was having an affair. The day Pointer went missing, he showed up at a friend’s cabin 4 miles from where her bones were later found with a hurt thumb and a scratch on his cheek. In the absence of a body, cause of death, or any other physical evidence, these injuries convinced Siegler that she knew how Pointer had met her demise.

At the Alamogordo Police Department, Siegler reenacted her theory of the murder. She and Bonds demonstrated how Pointer could have been strangled to death and her attempts to fight back could have produced the injuries found on their suspect. With his hands around Siegler’s neck, Bonds explained that Pointer would have tried to pull the killer’s thumb off her throat. Siegler, pulling his thumb with one hand, reached toward his cheek with the other. “Scratch, scratch,” she said. Bonds said it would take 15 to 20 seconds for Pointer to black out and at least another minute to kill her.

“A minute and a half of consistent pressure without letting go, never changing your mind,” Siegler said. “How is that not deliberate?”

“All right, sounds good,” the police investigator said. They decided to take it to the district attorney.

The DA was less convinced and declined to seek an indictment. Siegler and the investigator returned looking crestfallen. Bonds sunk his head into his hands.

“Here’s the good news: Your case is strong, your case is great,” Siegler told the investigator. “It might be circumstantial, there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s ready to go right now. But she doesn’t want to do it yet.”

The episode, titled “Sunspot Highway,” aired in July 2014 as part of the show’s second season. Although Cold Justice had been running for less than a year, Siegler had already attracted a devoted following, and the Alamogordo DA’s decision did not go over well. Fans were convinced that Pointer’s co-worker had killed her and Siegler had figured it all out. “This is a slam dunk case for everyone except the DA,” one viewer wrote on the show’s Facebook page. “WTF is with that idiot DA,” another wrote. “You guys handed her the killer on a silver platter and she refused to charge him!”

That a case so lacking in direct evidence could convince Siegler’s fans of the man’s guilt was a testament to her skill in crafting a narrative, whether for a TV audience or a real-world jury.

Kelly Siegler, second from right, poses with the rest of the cast of Cold Justice. (Courtesy of NBCUniversal)

As an assistant district attorney in Harris County, Texas, Siegler was known for her courtroom theatrics. She once famously straddled her colleague atop a bloody mattress at trial to reenact for jurors how the defendant had stabbed her husband 193 times. Siegler’s flair for the dramatic was perfect for TV, while her reliance on circumstantial evidence allowed her to spin bare facts into a compelling theory that might or might not be supported.

While Cold Justice often boasts about its track record—it has helped bring about 49 arrests and 21 convictions over six seasons, the Oxygen network reported in May—the show has also weathered a series of defamation lawsuits. Many of the cases Siegler assembled eventually fell apart precisely because there was too little direct evidence to convict whomever she identified as the killer.

Siegler’s TV career has not suffered for the controversies. In September, she took the stage before a cheering crowd in Orlando, Florida, as one of the headliners at CrimeCon, an annual conference for true-crime fans and creators. She was there to promote two shows. Not only had Cold Justice begun taping its seventh season, but she would also be starring in a new series, Prosecuting Evil With Kelly Siegler. The program, which premiered on November 18, takes her back to her home state to examine “the most harrowing homicides and toughest trials in Texas history—all told with Kelly Siegler’s unique insight and unparalleled access.”

Prosecuting Evil will revisit some of Siegler’s old Harris County cases, offering fans a behind-the-scenes look at the celebrity prosecutor’s “superhero origin story,” as one of her fellow speakers put it. “Both of our shows are about reality. There’s no faking,” Siegler told the crowd. “We’re the real deal.” She waxed nostalgic for her years in the district attorney’s office. “All those big cases,” she said, “no one’s ever told those stories.”

On paper, Siegler’s record as a Harris County prosecutor is far more impressive than the stats boasted by the Oxygen network. Over her two decades in Houston, Siegler handled more than 200 trials, securing more than 60 murder convictions and 19 death sentences. But the stories behind some of those convictions raise serious questions about their integrity. While Siegler’s formula for closing cold cases might make for great television, it has left a trail of wreckage in its wake.

As Siegler’s TV star has been rising over the last decade, a parallel reality has been playing out in Texas courts, where allegations of prosecutorial misconduct have tarnished Siegler’s reputation. Appellate litigation in murder cases handled by Siegler has exposed a history of withholding exculpatory evidence from defense attorneys, including in death penalty cases. One prominent criminal defense attorney has called on the Harris County District Attorney’s Office to review all of Siegler’s convictions.

Some of the most disturbing evidence of Siegler’s conduct is documented in the files of a case that has largely gone unnoticed: the 2002 conviction of Ronald Jeffrey Prible. Prible was sent to death row for the murder of a Houston family. The evidence tying him to the crime was entirely circumstantial. He has maintained his innocence for more than 20 years.

In 2020, a federal district judge overturned Prible’s conviction on the basis of Siegler’s suppression of evidence, ordering the state to retry or release him within six months. Instead, Texas fought the order, persuading the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to reinstate Prible’s death sentence on procedural grounds. The court did not address Siegler’s actions. Prible appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, but in June, the justices declined to intervene.

Today, Prible faces execution despite the fact that the case against him has unraveled. A monthslong investigation by The Intercept—including a review of thousands of pages of court records—shows that Prible’s case contains numerous hallmarks of wrongful convictions, from a shockingly inept police investigation to unsupportable junk science peddled by prosecutors at trial.

But particularly alarming is the way Siegler weaponized a network of confidential informants to construct her case against Prible, as the federal district judge found.

The star witness was a man named Michael Beckcom, who testified that Prible confessed to the killings while they were imprisoned together in southeast Texas. Beckcom, who was doing time for the audacious murder of a federal witness, was part of a ring of informants at the same lockup in Beaumont, each trying to game the system in an effort to shave time off their sentences. Several informants offered information to Siegler before they had even met Prible, according to a petition challenging his conviction filed in federal court. The petition details how Siegler encouraged Beckcom to extract details from Prible that would help her convict him and hid the extent of the informants’ involvement at trial.

“American criminal law has essentially created an underground market in which we permit the state to trade leniency for information.”

To Harvard law professor Alexandra Natapoff, author of “Snitching: Criminal Informants and the Erosion of American Justice,” the role of informants in Prible’s case is emblematic of a deeper problem that corrupts the criminal legal system. “American criminal law has essentially created an underground market in which we permit the state to trade leniency for information,” she said. Prosecutors have wide discretion to avail themselves of informants who have an obvious incentive to lie about what they know—a leading cause of wrongful convictions.

“Because so much of these negotiations and transactions take place under the table, the likelihood that anyone will ever find out is extremely low,” Natapoff said. “And because we reward police and prosecutors for arrests and convictions, we have a baked-in, dysfunctional incentive for them to use bad witnesses, bad evidence, over and over again.”

Court records reveal that Siegler repeatedly used informants in murder cases despite reasons to doubt their credibility. Details of the Beaumont snitch ring only came to light after Prible and another man Siegler sent to prison realized that she had relied on the same network of informants in both their cases. Despite strict limits on communication between incarcerated people, the two men, whose cases were otherwise unrelated, managed to connect the dots.

Siegler not only gained a reputation as a prosecutor who was willing to help informants seek sentence reductions, but she also advocated for them even when she didn’t consider their information reliable, court records show. Taken together, the records paint a damning picture of a prosecutor who cut corners and betrayed her professional obligations in order to secure convictions in weak or shaky cases. At best, Siegler was reckless in her use of informants and careless about scrutinizing the information they provided. At worst, as Prible’s lawyers argue, she actively conspired to use dubious testimony from a ring of snitches to win a conviction despite knowing the case wouldn’t otherwise hold up—framing an innocent man for murder.

Siegler has denied any wrongdoing. She declined to be interviewed for this investigation. “A second grader could see that you are biased and in no way inclined to listen to the truth or appreciate what really happened with these prosecutions,” Siegler wrote in response to questions from The Intercept. “I took an oath to seek justice and justice is what these defendants got.”

Gregory Francisco lifted his garage door before sunrise on Saturday, April 24, 1999, and immediately smelled smoke. As he rushed across the street toward the home of his neighbor Steve Herrera, Francisco could see it too, billowing from the turbines on the roof and curling out from the garage doors.

The night before, Herrera had invited Francisco to one of his regular get-togethers to drink beer, play pool, and listen to music inside the two-car garage. Francisco didn’t make it, but as far as he could tell, things looked like they usually did: The music was on, and the garage doors were raised to shoulder height. By the time Francisco headed to bed around midnight, the gathering appeared to be winding down.

Now, however, as Francisco rang Herrera’s doorbell, he could hear music blaring—“maxed out,” he later testified. No one answered, so he rushed to a side door, which was hot to the touch. Francisco kicked it open. Inside the garage, he found Herrera face down on the floor between the pool table and a washer and dryer. Francisco yelled for Herrera to wake up, but then he saw blood. His neighbor was dead.

Firefighters were the first to arrive on the scene. In a den just beyond the garage, they made a grisly discovery: Herrera’s girlfriend, Nilda Tirado, was slumped on a smoldering loveseat. Next to her charred body was a can of Kutzit, a volatile solvent; on the floor was a red gas can. The walls were covered in soot, and the couple’s big screen TV had melted.

First responders found the children in the bedrooms. In one, Herrera’s 7-year-old daughter, Valerie, was face down on a bed; Tirado’s 7-year-old daughter, Rachel, was nearby on the floor. In the master bedroom, firefighters found the couple’s 22-month-old daughter, Jade. The medical examiner determined that Herrera and Tirado had been killed before the fire was set, each shot once through the back of the neck in what she called an “assassin’s wound.” The children, whose airways were full of soot, had died from smoke inhalation.

Word of the murders spread quickly. Relatives of Herrera and Tirado gathered outside the brick home as investigators processed the scene. The house was tidy, and there were no signs of forced entry or a robbery gone wrong. Herrera’s wallet, with approximately $900 inside, was found in the back pocket of his shorts. No weapon was found, nor any shell casings, which led investigators to believe a revolver had been used to shoot the couple. They gathered bottles and cans from the garage to process for fingerprints but failed to preserve what appeared to be blood stains on the wall and washing machine—evidence that could have been left by the perpetrator.

Curtis Brown, a detective with the Harris County Sheriff’s Office, led the investigation. Court records reflect it was a less than robust inquiry. At trial, Brown confirmed that he spoke to just four people the day of the murders, including Herrera’s brother Edward and his brother-in-law Victor Martinez. Those interviews led him to Jeffrey Prible, who had been a friend of Herrera’s since grade school. From there, Brown looked nowhere else.

According to Edward, Herrera and Prible were at the house playing pool Friday night and had paged him looking to score an eight ball of cocaine. Edward and Herrera were both dealers, Edward told investigators, and Herrera was a regular user. Edward said he tried to find some but never did.

Martinez had been at Herrera’s that night. He told Brown that he picked up cigarettes and a 12-pack of Bud Light on his way to the house, arriving around 10 p.m. Later, with the beer almost gone, Herrera and Prible loaded into Martinez’s white Ford Escort, and the three men made their way to Rick’s Cabaret, a nearby strip club. Prible was friendly, Martinez said, and nothing seemed off. After several drinks, the men headed back to Herrera’s around 2 a.m. They smoked a joint outside before Martinez headed home. Prible and Herrera went back into the garage to continue playing pool.

On Saturday afternoon, Brown and Deputy Ramon Hernandez made their way several blocks west to Prible’s home. Prible, then 27, had been honorably discharged from the Marines in 1995 and was living at his parents’ place along with his 7-year-old son. The deputy said Prible was shocked to learn about the murders. He agreed to go down to the sheriff’s station to provide a statement.

Prible’s statement largely mirrored Martinez’s. After Martinez left, Prible said, he and Herrera played pool until Tirado came into the garage, fixing Herrera with a “look” that Prible took as a sign it was time to wrap things up. He said Herrera drove him home around 4 a.m. Prible went straight to bed and slept until early afternoon. He was hanging around the house, playing with his son, until the cops came knocking.

The deputy later testified that he believed Prible’s statement to be “truthful.” Nonetheless, the cops asked Prible to take a polygraph, the results of which indicated deception. They read Prible his rights, and he sat down to provide a second statement. There was something he’d left out, he told them: He and Tirado were involved in an affair and had sex in the bathroom after the men got home from the club. He failed to mention this, he said, because he worried it would “ruin” Tirado’s reputation.

Prible provided a DNA sample and let the cops photograph him naked. They did not find any soot, burns, or other wounds on his body. Investigators searched Prible’s parents’ house, collecting the clothes he’d worn Friday night, which had no traces of blood, smoke, or any accelerant. They collected firearms, magazines, and ammunition. They found paperwork related to a .38 revolver but didn’t find the gun. DNA collected from Tirado was soon matched to Prible, but given his story about their sexual tryst, there was an explanation for that.

On Monday, police took a statement from Cynthia Garcia Flores, a childhood friend of Tirado’s. It was the first in a string of statements that raised new questions, not only about Prible, but also about Herrera—and what the two were up to in the weeks before the murders.

Flores said Herrera had told her husband that he and Prible were involved in a bank robbery and Herrera’s take was $12,000. Herrera had paid her husband, Vincent, for a “job” with some of the cash from the heist. Vincent said Herrera used the money to pay him for cocaine. Another woman, who said she’d been having an affair with Herrera, told police that a month before the murders, Prible handed Herrera a bag full of money. And Edward, Herrera’s brother, said that he’d seen both Prible and Herrera with large amounts of cash.

As it turned out, Prible had robbed six banks since March. The robberies went down the same way: Prible donned a ball cap and drove his mother’s car to a bank carrying a stack of manila envelopes and a note for the teller. One read, “This is a robbery,” while later iterations included a warning that he had a gun or a bomb, though he never brandished a weapon. Prible would instruct the teller to put the cash in an envelope and wait 15 minutes before “doing anything,” he later told a detective with the Houston Area Bank Robbery Task Force, which had dubbed the serial robber the “15-Minute Bandit.”

The robberies were part of an absurd scheme Herrera and Prible had devised to come up with enough money to buy their own nightclub. Prible would rob the banks, and then Herrera would launder and grow the cash by buying drugs that he would sell for a profit. “After we bought one club, we would then open some more,” Prible told a task force investigator. “I trusted Steve. … I thought he could use his drug connections to make us a lot of money. Steve was a smart guy when it came to things like that.”

In all, the robberies netted the friends about $45,000. In the wake of the murders, the cash disappeared and has never been found.

On May 21, 1999, Prible confessed to the robberies. Three months later, he was sentenced to five years and shipped east to the federal correctional institution in Beaumont.

The investigation into the murders of Herrera, Tirado, and the three children went cold.

The day after Christmas in 1999, the Houston Chronicle published a glowing profile of a star prosecutor at the Harris County District Attorney’s Office: 37-year-old Assistant District Attorney Kelly Siegler. Titled “One shrewd cracker-barrel lawyer,” the article traced her evolution from a small-town girl from Matagorda County to a gifted prosecutor who’d shot through the ranks to “symbolize the aggressive and colorful spirit of a powerful office in a county that sends more people to death row than anywhere else.”

Born Kelly Renee Jalufka, Siegler grew up in tiny Blessing, Texas, “a wart of a town on State Highway 35 … surrounded by rice farms,” as Texas Monthly described it in a 1977 feature highlighting her mother’s homestyle cooking. Siegler’s father, known as Big Billy, ran a barbershop and worked as the local justice of the peace; he “went shoeless and held court between haircuts,” the Chronicle reported. Siegler played high school basketball and was valedictorian of her graduating class. At the University of Texas at Austin, where she graduated early after studying international business, she was known in her dorm as “the hick.”

Siegler joined the DA’s office straight out of law school in 1987. As an intern in the office’s family criminal law division, she had come face to face with domestic violence cases, which fueled a desire to seek justice for victims. The issue was personal for Siegler, who was just a child when she urged her mother to leave her abusive stepfather and watched helplessly as the system protected him. “I grew up in a world where ladies walked around all the time with black eyes,” she later said in a clip from Cold Justice.

Siegler arrived at the DA’s office as legendary District Attorney Johnny Holmes was becoming famous for seeking the harshest possible punishments. Before long, she was making her mark as an overachiever. Evaluations contained in her personnel file show that Siegler quickly gained a reputation as “a real trial tiger,” in the words of then-supervisor Chuck Rosenthal, who would eventually replace Holmes as DA. “I have seen her try a murder case based solely on circumstantial evidence and get a life sentence from the jury,” another supervisor wrote.

Siegler won her first death sentence in 1992. Her mother sat in the courtroom as Siegler urged jurors to send an alleged skinhead with a low IQ named Brian Edward Davis to death row for a crime he committed when he was 22. Despite her victory, Siegler cried and was sick to her stomach after the trial. “He was like every boy I grew up with,” she told the Chronicle.

But if she had any reservations about seeking the ultimate punishment, there was no hint of it in her record. Siegler was repeatedly lauded for securing convictions when the evidence was thin, or as Rosenthal put it, for her ability to make “a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.” Investigators and police detectives sent letters to Holmes praising her talent. “No average ADA would have gone to trial under the heading ‘Murder,’” one letter read. “‘Luckily, you don’t have an average ADA in Kelly Siegler.’”

Jurors were won over by Siegler’s folksy appeal and knack for weaving compelling stories from circumstantial evidence. She spent a ton of time preparing her witnesses—and it showed. Siegler credited her humble roots for helping her relate to jurors. “I practice every argument and time it out like I’m in that barbershop,” Siegler told the Chronicle. “I figure if I can talk to a jury like I’m explaining it to Daddy and his buddies, then I’m doing OK.”

At the start of the new millennium, Siegler was at the top of her game. Holmes, who retired in 2001, had transformed the DA’s office, putting Houston on the map as the most aggressive death penalty jurisdiction in the country. Siegler was both a product of the office and a trailblazer: a woman who thrived in a good ol’ boys club while pushing the boundaries of prosecutorial performance. She estimated that she’d won “at least 80 percent of the 150 felony jury trials” she’d handled, according to the Chronicle, although co-workers said the number was “much higher.” If there was anyone who could resurrect the cold case murders of Herrera and Tirado and win a conviction, it was Siegler.

It’s not entirely clear when Siegler first decided Prible was guilty of murder.

Brown, the lead detective, testified that he first brought his file on the murders to her office in late 2000. But it was another detective who helped Siegler revive the cold case: Harris County DA’s investigator Johnny Bonds, who would later become Siegler’s co-star on Cold Justice.

Like Siegler, Bonds started his career as an overachiever. Once the youngest Houston Police Department officer ever assigned to the homicide unit, he was immortalized in “The Cop Who Wouldn’t Quit,” a 1983 book chronicling his quest to solve a triple murder. After leaving the police force, Bonds did short stints working private security and home remodeling but quickly returned to detective work. In 1989 he joined the Harris County DA’s Office.

On March 1, 2001, Bonds received a fax from a Dallas-based DNA analyst named Bill Watson, who had examined forensic evidence submitted by the sheriff’s department, including the blood, hair, and saliva samples taken from Prible. The fax was a copy of Watson’s original two-page report from 1999. His findings were not revelatory. Scrapings taken from beneath Tirado’s fingernails had yielded only her DNA. A pair of white tennis shoes belonging to Prible was tested for blood, but Watson found none.

Still, one part of the report interested Siegler. Two male DNA profiles had been obtained from semen collected from Tirado’s body. Vaginal and anal swabs showed sperm that came from Herrera. Sperm from an oral swab was linked to Prible.

In his statement divulging the affair, Prible told detectives that Tirado had performed oral sex on him in the bathroom, which would explain the presence of sperm in her mouth. But Siegler was skeptical. Although Prible said the two had been “messing around” for some time, friends of Tirado’s rejected the notion that she was cheating on Herrera with Prible. Flores, the friend who told police about Herrera’s involvement in the bank robberies, said she’d known Prible since middle school and he gave her the creeps. Another friend said Tirado shared this opinion. “Nilda told me that she always thought Jeff was creepy,” the woman told detectives.

When these statements were first collected in 1999, the DA’s office did not consider the evidence strong enough to form the basis of a murder case. But with Siegler in charge, things changed. By the summer of 2001, Siegler had concluded that the DNA evidence from the oral swab could only be the result of sexual assault. In the absence of any other physical evidence against Prible, this would be a linchpin to her case.

In a probable cause affidavit, the DA’s office laid out the evidence against Prible, describing the bank robbery scheme and noting that Prible was the last person known to have seen Herrera and Tirado alive. The affidavit mentioned the weapons and paperwork recovered from the home of Prible’s parents; records from a local firearm retailer showed that Prible had purchased a .38 Taurus revolver in 1998, yet this weapon “has yet to be found among the defendant’s possessions.” A firearms examiner said that a projectile recovered next to Tirado’s body was “consistent with a .38 caliber.” The affidavit suggested that Prible shot Herrera and Tirado with the .38 Taurus, then successfully got rid of it.

Finally, the state cited the DNA evidence taken from sperm on the oral swab and the woman who said Tirado found Prible “creepy.” She “does not believe the complainant was having any sort of affair with the defendant based on what she thought about him.”

On August 29, 2001, a grand jury indicted Prible for capital murder.

Opening statements in the State of Texas v. Ronald Jeffrey Prible Jr. took place on October 14, 2002, at a courthouse in downtown Houston. Presiding over the trial was District Judge Mark Kent Ellis, a former Harris County prosecutor-turned-defense attorney who was elected to the bench on a Republican ticket. Siegler was accompanied by Vic Wisner, an ex-cop and veteran of the DA’s office with whom she’d teamed up in previous death penalty cases.

Siegler kicked off the state’s case with a provocation: “‘What kind of a man can go in a house and take out a whole family and come out clean?’” she began, over an objection from Prible’s lawyers. “‘That kind of person is a bad motherfucker—and I’m that kind of motherfucker.’ Those are the words of this defendant. … That’s what this man said about what he did on April 24, 1999.”

Prible’s words, Siegler told jurors, had been revealed by a man named Michael Beckcom, who was incarcerated at the federal prison known as FCI Beaumont. “And I’m going to stand here today and tell you he’s a vile, disgusting man himself,” she said. “He’s going to make you sick to your stomach.” But his testimony was crucial. This man would describe how he befriended Prible at Beaumont—and how Prible ultimately confessed to the crime.

Siegler previewed the state’s other key piece of evidence: the DNA taken from sperm found in Tirado’s mouth. A forensic expert would prove that Prible assaulted Tirado just moments before he shot her, set her on fire, and left her children to die, Siegler said. That’s the kind of man Prible is, she declared. “And he’s guilty of capital murder.”

The trial lasted two weeks, with the first several days focused on the fire and the deaths of the three little girls. Amid repeated warnings from the judge, who urged people in the courtroom to control their emotions, prosecutors introduced autopsy photos showing soot and mucus on the children’s faces, emphasizing their struggle to breathe before they died. Yet basic elements of the fire remained unclear, including precisely how or when it was set. Also puzzling was the missing murder weapon. Despite the affidavit arguing that Prible had used a .38 revolver, the same ballistics expert now testified that the weapon had likely been a 9 mm pistol.

But perhaps the most confounding testimony came from Brown, who said that he’d never considered any other suspect apart from Prible, a fact Siegler saw fit to reiterate. Yet the detective could not explain why his investigation justified such a singular focus. He didn’t pay attention to Prible’s interrogation, he said. Nor did he remember the names of anyone he interviewed in the aftermath of the murders.

Among the people Brown apparently did not recall was the most critical witness for the defense: a 12-year-old girl named Christina Gurrusquieta, who lived next door to Prible’s parents. She told police that she had seen Prible and Herrera arriving before dawn on April 24, 1999. Although there was no record of her eyewitness account in the police reports—Brown said he did not document their conversation—Gurrusquieta’s testimony lent credence to Prible’s claim that Herrera had driven him home around 4 a.m.

Gurrusquieta had turned 15 by the time she took the stand. She said she knew both Herrera and Prible; Herrera used to curse at her and her siblings when they played kickball and accidentally hit his car. In the early morning hours of April 24, she said, she got out of bed to use the bathroom and spotted the two men from her window, which faced the front of the house. It had to be after 1 a.m., since that was when her parents came home after working at the Mexican restaurant they owned. Gurrusquieta and her sister waited up for them on Friday nights. That night, Prible and Herrera “were just standing outside beside Jeff’s dad’s truck talking. And then I saw Jeff walk into his house and I seen Steve leave.”

Siegler did her best to pick apart Gurrusquieta’s account. “Is it possible, Christina, that the night you’re remembering was Thursday night instead of Friday night?” No, Gurrusquieta said. Did she “look at the clock to write down or memorialize forever what time it was when this all happened?” No, Gurrusquieta said. “Because a 12-year-old little girl would never do that, right?” Siegler said.

Siegler asked Gurrusquieta to read part of Prible’s statement aloud. “I then asked Steve to take me home. It was about 4 a.m.,” she read. So if Herrera did drop Prible off, Siegler said, “you wouldn’t have been awake to see if Jeff snuck back out of the house to get back over to Steve’s house anyway, would you?”

If it seemed like a stretch for Prible to have left Herrera’s place after a night of heavy drinking only to return to murder the whole household, Siegler and Wisner didn’t push this scenario very hard. Instead, they left the timeline vague. Jurors sought clarity during deliberations, asking the court to read back testimony about what happened when. The jury also seemed intrigued by Gurrusquieta, requesting more detail on when she was first interviewed by Brown.

But in the end, the alibi provided by Gurrusquieta was no match for the two witnesses at the crux of the state’s case: Beckcom, the jailhouse informant, and Watson, the DNA analyst.

A 41-year-old former bodybuilder who once managed a Gold’s Gym, Beckcom was a smooth talker, fit and confident in his prison uniform. Siegler was upfront about Beckcom’s incentive to testify, asking him to describe his deal with the state. “We have an understanding that if I testify truthfully to this court that you will reciprocate by calling my federal prosecutor,” he said. The prosecutor would file what’s known as a Rule 35 motion to Beckcom’s judge. Under the federal rules of criminal procedure, the judge could reduce Beckcom’s sentence if he was satisfied that Beckcom had provided “substantial assistance” in the Prible case. But he had to be truthful, Siegler emphasized, or else no deal. Right, Beckcom said.

Beckcom testified that he’d gotten Siegler’s name from his cellmate at Beaumont, Nathan Foreman. After getting in touch with Siegler in the fall of 2001, Beckcom met with her and Bonds. She seemed skeptical of “another inmate maybe spinning a yarn,” Beckcom said. But after he laid out everything he knew in a letter, Siegler was convinced.

Beckcom said he’d met Prible through his exercise partner at Beaumont. Prible used to stop by while they worked out. One day he struck up a conversation with Beckcom directly. “I was sitting on the bleachers in the rec yard just catching some sun, listening to my radio, and Prible approached myself and Nathan Foreman,” Beckcom said. According to Beckcom, Prible was seeking advice on his case. Before long, they were discussing it every day, while also making plans to go into the asphalt business together.

Beckcom said that Prible’s account evolved over time. At first, he said, “I didn’t do it.” He conceded that his DNA had been found on the female victim but said everyone knew they were having an affair. Did he say anything about a weapon? Siegler asked. Yes, Beckcom said. Prible said the cops were looking for a .38 caliber revolver he owned but that he’d sold it. That wasn’t even the murder weapon, Prible told him. Instead, he intimated that he’d successfully gotten rid of the weapon, telling Beckcom, “Asphalt’s good sometimes for hiding things.”

Eventually, Beckcom decided to get as much information as he could from Prible, thinking he could use it to his advantage. After becoming aggravated by Prible insisting on his innocence, Beckcom said, he told him, “I know what you did. … I don’t care.” After that, Prible spilled everything. The details Beckcom shared on the stand could only have come from Prible, Siegler told the jury. “How would Mike Beckcom know all the things that he does know unless the killer told him?” When Beckcom asked Prible how he got in and out of the house without being seen, he said Prible pointed to his time deployed as a Marine. “It’s a typical high-intensity, low-drag maneuver,” he said, in what was presumably special ops speak.

“It was over money,” Beckcom said Prible confessed. Herrera “fucked me out of my money and then he was going to kill me, so I handled my business.”

To illustrate the level of trust that had developed between the informants and Prible, Siegler displayed a photograph taken at the Beaumont visiting room in November 2001. It showed Prible with his mother, Beckcom with his mother, and Foreman with his parents. “He called us his brothers and said he loved us,” Beckcom said. Still, Prible was aware they might betray him. At one point he told them, “You’re the only ones that could convict me,” Beckcom said. “If you do that you’ll have to live with it. I’m prepared to die.”

He used those words? Siegler asked. “He used those words,” Beckcom said.

Prible’s lead attorney, Terry Gaiser, asked Beckcom if he had ever lied under oath. “Yes, I have,” Beckcom answered. In fact, Gaiser continued, hadn’t a federal judge in California explicitly found that Beckcom lied in a different case? “That’s correct,” Beckcom said. Yet Gaiser did not elicit further details about Beckcom’s apparent history of perjury.

If Beckcom’s testimony filled the gaps in the state’s case against Prible, Watson, the DNA analyst, gave prosecutors the tools they needed to conjure a final harrowing image of Tirado’s death. “Have you thought about what Nilda went through in the last moments of her life?” Siegler asked the jury. According to Siegler, DNA had unlocked this story.

Watson, 36, had spent two years as a forensic analyst for the Fort Worth Police Department and one year at the Dallas County Medical Examiner’s Office before moving to a lab called Gene Screen. In his years testing swabs for the presence of semen, Watson testified, he’d found that anal and vaginal swabs could retain usable quantities of sperm for roughly two to three days. But he couldn’t recall ever getting even a partial male profile from an oral swab, even in cases where the evidence was submitted quickly.

Watson drew a damning—and highly speculative—conclusion from this: Given the large amount of sperm on the swab, Tirado had not had a chance to eliminate Prible’s semen by spitting or swallowing before she was shot. Would the evidence “be consistent with the male depositing the semen in Nilda’s mouth moments, if not seconds, before she was killed?” Wisner asked. “It certainly would be consistent with that,” Watson said.

In his closing, Wisner exaggerated Watson’s testimony for maximum effect. “There is no way in the world that that semen wasn’t deposited either moments before or seconds after Nilda died,” he said. Prible shot Herrera, then “forced Nilda to orally copulate him at gunpoint and executed her as soon as he finished. As horrific as that sounds, that is the only logical conclusion that you can draw from that evidence.”

Siegler was even more dramatic: “She left this world with his penis in her mouth, knowing her husband was dead, hoping to God that her babies would survive the nightmare that is Jeff Prible.”

On October 23, Prible was convicted of murder. Two days later, jurors sentenced him to death.

It was another signature Siegler victory. “Her ability to do what few others can is a continual amazement to some, but not to those who watch her work,” her supervisor wrote in her next performance review. But while her colleagues in the DA’s office celebrated, others watched with a growing sense of alarm. For one man sitting in a Beaumont prison cell staring at a life sentence, the secret to Siegler’s success was starting to come into focus—and the picture looked eerily familiar.