The Guilty Project


A majority of the Texas Forensic Science Commission has tentatively concluded that there was no professional negligence or misconduct by arson investigators whose flawed work in a fatal Corsicana fire contributed to the conviction and 2004 execution of Cameron Todd Willingham.
—Austin American-Statesman

Willingham’s case made
headlines, but the commission sided with investigators in several other questionable cases. Through a Freedom of Information Act request, the Observer was able to obtain information on these previously unreported incidents.


The Spoon Incident


Houston, 1985

Sheldon Spoon, a man living in posh River Oaks, wakes up to find his wife and children missing. A hastily scribbled, indecipherable note is left on the refrigerator. At wit’s end, the Houston Police Department enlists the help of fingerprint expert and aspiring luchador Dwayne “Dwayne” Chambers. Chambers, familiar with the psychotropic and crime-fighting effects of Super Glue fumes in developing latent fingerprints, flies over to the opulent mansion on Lazy Lane on a magical, winged pony with the head of Leonid Brezhnev and the stutter of Mel Tillis.

After investigating whorl, loop and arch patterns of fingerprints left throughout the house, Chambers determines that while rich, this family can’t buy happiness, though there is something to be said for a Jacuzzi. A sweeping manhunt is suspended when Spoon remembers that his children, 44-year-old twins Mandy and Mindy, live in Austin with families of their own. Mrs. Spoon remains unaccounted for, but an arrest is made on Chambers’ assertion that the perpetrator is most likely Houston Astros announcer and broadcasting legend Milo Hamilton, whom Chambers blames for the Astros’ 8-18 record during July.

Mr. Spoon becomes increasingly frustrated when it’s determined that Hamilton was broadcasting a game in St. Louis at the time of the abduction. Investigators finally decipher the note on the refrigerator: “Going to store. Back in an hour.” With Mrs. Spoon home safely, the Spoons continue their fragile domestic armistice while Dwayne “Dwayne” Chambers resolves to save up for a Jacuzzi. A 19-year-old African-American male is held over the weekend for questioning, just in case.


The Corn Dog Murders

Corsicana, 2002

Corsicana police are stunned when three mimes turn up dead inside an abandoned Corn Dog Hut. Arson investigators determine someone “close to the mimes” set the fire because grease, an accelerant commonly found in corn dogs and arson, is all over the Corn Dog Hut. During a heated inquest, Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley, Chair of the Forensic Science Commission, says “let the facts lead us wherever they do.” As expected, the facts lead the commission to a ski trip in Zermatt. Later it is discovered that the three mimes are not dead, nor are they mimes, but mannequins, relics of Corn Dog Hut’s attempt to draw customer traffic on a tax-free weekend.

A cover-up ensues, with the medical examiner insisting that the mannequins were doomed from the start. In another brief inquest, Gov. Rick Perry demands to know the difference between an “inquest” and an “inquiry.” The affair draws to a close, and local Caucasians kick back with Harvey Wallbangers. The sordid episode has been put to bed, though a 19-year-old African-American male is held over the weekend for questioning, just in case.


The Corpus Cannibal

Corpus Christi, 1989

A male body is found in a Corpus Christi home with its legs bound and its skin thrown in a trash can. Bite marks cover the corpse. It’s a grisly scene. Inspector Dee Boone, an experienced lawman with a face like a gravy dinner, is suspicious—that his wife is having an affair with a neighbor. After a night of heavy analysis and heavier drinking, Boone blames the heinous crime on himself.

Thanks to advanced pattern-recognition technology and the light of day, Boone recognizes that when you’re drunk and without your spectacles, a half-eaten Hungry-Man Fried Chicken Colossus can look a lot like a skinless man with his legs bound. “Ah, oh. Voir dire is gonna be a bitch this time,” laments the inspector with uncharacteristic disquietude.

Poring over a Hustler hidden inside a copy of Søren Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, Inspector Boone considers his own version of a “teleological suspension of the ethical,” but decides not to press charges against himself—although a 19-year-old African-American male is held over the weekend for questioning, just in case.


Tyler Stoddard Smith is an Austin-based humorist. His work has appeared in Esquire, McSweeney’s, The Best American Fantasy, Meridian and other publications. He is also an associate editor at the humor site, The Big Jewel.