On February 22, 2016, J. C. “Claude” Wilkerson, a former death-row inmate from Houston, was charged with kidnapping a woman and keeping her chained up as a sex slave in his Gateway home, near Grand Junction Colorado.
Wilkerson, 62, is in custody at the Mesa County Detention Facility, facing a number of charges including: first degree kidnapping, sexual assault, false imprisonment, and harboring a minor.
August 1, 2016, Wilkerson appeared in court, where he was offered a plea deal which has not been released to the public at this time. Needing more time for the defense to review and negotiate the deal, the case has been reset until October 14, 2016.
Regarding Wilkerson’s new charges, it is alleged a teenage runaway helped Wilkerson abduct the 26 year old victim, who was kept as a chained captive for four months. According to the woman, Wilkerson told her he was a serial killer and he repeatedly forced her to have sex with him. She told authorities Wilkerson kept her legs chained when she was not chained to the bed.
The victim said Wilkerson treated her like a pet and she was forced to have sex when she did something he did not like. The teenager, who assisted Wilkerson in the abduction, told police they used diesel engine cleaner to make the victim pass out. The victim was kept hostage in Wilkerson’s home in a remote area of Colorado. Neighbors told authorities Wilkerson didn’t attract a lot of attention and he lived like a recluse.
Back in 1978, Wilkerson and three of his associates were involved in an abduction and triple murder In Texas. During this time period, Wilkerson bragged about being involved in organized crime and claimed to be the personal bodyguard of Don Fantich, one of his three victims.
Through several police investigations Wilkerson and Fantich were very well known to the Houston authorities. The three Texas murders and the investigation that followed appeared in the “Retired Badge” a couple of years back. The Death of a Houston Gangster – by Earl D. Musick, Retired Badge – April/May 2014.
In that case, Wilkerson and two of his associates were tried and each received the death penalty. One associate accepted a plea bargain agreement, avoiding the death penalty. The following information covers some of that police investigation and explains why the confessed murderers went free when their sentences were reversed.
On Monday, January 23, 1978, Gina’s Jewelry Store at 7815 Long Point Drive in Houston, Texas closed its doors around noon and Georgina Rose the store’s proprietor was missing. The Houston Police Department (HPD) was called and police officers discovered the store’s inventory, worth about $200,000, was missing.
It appeared the store had been robbed and the Houston Police Robbery Division (Robbery) started a detailed investigation into the missing shop proprietor. During the investigation, police learned that Dr. William S. Fitzpatrick, a prominent Houston doctor, was also missing. He had left his office just before noon on that same Monday and never returned.
Dr. Fitzpatrick’s car was found Tuesday at #8 Rollingwood Drive, the home of Donald Charles Fantich, who owned the jewelry store property. The doctor was a known associate of Mr. Fantich, who was also last seen Monday morning. Fantich’s silver 1974 Mercedes was also missing, along with about $10,000 from his home safe.
Twenty-four hours had passed since Ms. Rose, Dr. Fitzpatrick and Mr. Fantich went missing and it was unknown if they were dead or alive. Robbery investigators worked around the clock with Robbery Captain Leroy Zoch personally heading up the investigation. Detectives M. D. Beale Jr., Walter Burkham, Joe Williams and Ed Steininger were assigned to the case, along with Lieutenant Jack Fulbright.
Investigators knew ever too well in cases like this that “time is of the essence” and J. C. Claude Wilkerson immediately became a person of interest. Witnesses reported seeing him at the jewelry store near the time of the robbery and he was also seen driving Mr. Fantich’s silver Mercedes on the day of the disappearances.
Wilkerson denied both allegations and was taken before a Harris County grand jury where he claimed to also have been abducted by the men holding the hostages. The Harris County District Attorney’s Office, Special Crimes Bureau was now involved in the investigation with prosecutors Don Stricklin and Mike Henton working with Detective Jerry W. Carpenter and Detective Earl D. Musick.
Three days had passed and there was still no information regarding what might have happened to the three missing persons. Wilkerson freely answered police questions always denying any knowledge of what happened to the three missing persons. The more he talked, the clearer it became that he knew something about this incident.
At the time of the investigation, Wilkerson was suffering from an infection and he claimed to be concerned for his own personal safety. He was asking for protection and Assistant District Attorney Mike Henton arranged for a hospital to treat his infection and he was admitted under an assumed name.
While he was in the hospital, police questions became more and more accusatory and just before midnight Thursday, Wilkerson told police he no longer wanted to answer any more questions. He asked for his lawyer Fred Daily and questioning was then stopped.
There was enough evidence to hold Wilkerson as a material witness. So, on Friday, after his release from the hospital, Wilkerson was brought to Captain Zoch’s office where a hold could be obtained before placing him in jail. Captain Zoch asked Wilkerson if he still wanted his attorney and if he was still refusing to answer any further questions.
Before the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling it was common practice for the police to later approach a suspect and verify his desire to have a lawyer. This ruling basically changed the law: “….when an accused has expressed a desire to deal with police only through counsel, the accused is not subject to further interrogation until counsel has been made available to him, or unless the accused himself initiates further communication, exchanges or conversation with the police.” U. S Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren Edwards v. Arizona, 451 U.S. 477, 101 S.Ct. 1880, 68 L.Ed. 378 (1981).
On Friday, January 27, 1978, it had been four days since anyone had seen Ms. Rose, Dr. Fitzpatrick and Mr. Fantich. Captain Zoch and Detective Burkham were talking to Wilkerson in the captain’s office with the door open when Detective Musick passed by in the hall. Wilkerson saw Detective Musick and he asks Captain Zoch if he could talk with Detective Musick. Wilkerson knew the detective from two previous investigations and felt he could trust him.
While talking to Detective Musick, Wilkerson requested a meeting with Pat Fantich, the wife of Don Fantich, before talking about the missing persons. Wilkerson insisted he be allowed to talk with Ms. Fantich alone, but he agreed to allow the conversation to be recorded and transmitted to an adjoining room. Detectives Musick, Burkham and Beale then took Wilkerson to the Special Crimes offices, where this could be arranged.
After the meeting with Ms. Fantich, Wilkerson told Musick he was ready to tell what he knew about the missing persons and where they might be found. He claimed not to know if they were still alive. In his story to Detective Musick, he described how two of his associates had abducted Mr. Fantich at his home and then lured Dr. Fitzpatrick to the location. His two associates were Mark R. Cass and David Allen Roeder.
The abductors made Mr. Fantich open his safe and then bound him with duct tape. Tissues were placed over his eyes and his head was wrapped with the tape, covering his mouth and eyes. When Dr. Fitzpatrick arrived at the Fantich home, he was also abducted at gunpoint and bound with duct tape. Once tape was over the two victims’ eyes, Claude Wilkerson joined the robbers and took them in Don Fantich’s car to the jewelry store.
While at the jewelry store, Georgina Rose was taken hostage and she was also bound with duct tape. Wilkerson, Cass and Roeder then cleaned out the jewelry store’s inventory. During this episode Don Fantich recognized Wilkerson as one of his abductors, creating a major problem. Now the robbers had to decide what to do with their three hostages.
The hostages were taken to an apartment on Sherwood Lane where David Roeder and Robert Avila were renting an apartment. Avila was not originally part of the planned robbery and abduction but became involved in the plot when he came home and saw the hostages. Avila agreed to watch the three prisoners and then participated in the plan to get rid of them.
Wilkerson told Detective Musick he had last seen the hostages alive on Tuesday, the day police were questioning him about being seen at the jewelry store and driving Don Fantich’s car. He said the plan was to get rid of them since they knew he was involved.
Even though it was Friday, four days after the abduction, Wilkerson said they may still be keeping them in the Sherwood Lane apartment. He told investigators the hostages were kept sedated with medicine they seized from the doctor. While checking this apartment Detective Musick and Lieutenant Fulbright arrested Robert Avila and took him to the Homicide Division for questioning.
At this point, Detective Carl Kent and his partner Detective Earl H. Haring became involved in the investigation. They obtained a confession from Robert Avila and he agreed to show investigators where the victims were buried in Shiner, Texas.
Wilkerson gave a detailed confession but because of Edwards, the confession was later ruled invalid since the police had questioned him after he invoked his right to a lawyer. The Court would not make their ruling until 1983, while Wilkerson was on death row. Wilkerson vs. State, 657 S.W. 2d 784 (Tex. Crim. App. 1983).
Tuesday, the day after the hostages were abducted, the captives were moved from the apartment on Sherwood Lane to the Bernard Roeder farm, just 5 miles east of Shiner, Texas. This 97 acre farm belonged to David Roeder’s parents.
At the farm, the hostages were kept sedated, blindfolded and bound until a grave was prepared. Once the grave was ready, the captives were marched out and lined up near the grave. Avila, Cass and Roeder had agreed they would each shoot and kill one hostage on a given command.
According to Cass, all the hostages were shot several times and they fell into the grave. Cass said while the assassins were talking, Don Fantich somehow climbed out of the grave and ran up an incline. Cass pointed out how he had shot him again and then drug him back to the grave.
When the three bodies were recovered from the grave it was learned Don Fantach had been shot a total of 10 times. Dr. Fitzpatrick was shot 13 times and Ms. Rose was shot 12 times. They were then covered with lime and buried in the common grave. They packed the ground by driving Fantich’s car over the grave and leveling the area around the grave. Limbs were placed over the grave to camouflage the area.
Wilkerson, Cass and Roeder were all tried and sentence to die by injection. In exchange for the State not seeking the death penalty, Avila pled guilty and received a life sentence. He would be the lone murderer to not have his conviction overturned.
Wilkerson became front page news in 1978 because of the triple murders in Texas. Now, over 38 years later, he is front page news again for the abduction and rape of a woman in Colorado.
Wilkerson became a free man when the Court ruled the evidence gathered against him was in violation of a guaranteed Constitutional right (Edwards). The Court of Criminal Appeals followed Edwards and ruled that the illegally obtained information had to be excluded from the trial. This doctrine is referred to as “the fruits of the poisonous tree”.
Unfortunately, our system of justice sometimes protects the guilty, while protecting the rights of the individual. In this case a confessed murderer went free to commit other serious crimes because he was denied his right to a lawyer.
Did justice fail? The families of Georgina Rose, Dr. William Fitzpatrick and Don Fantich must believe that justice did fail. However, police officers take an oath “to respect the Constitutional rights of all persons” (Police Officers Oath of Office). The 6th Amendment to the Constitution guarantees an absolute right to a lawyer for the criminally accused. If police violate this right, any evidence gathered after the violation is inadmissible in prosecuting the accused.
The right to an attorney when accused of a crime is an important Constitutional right and it must be protected for the good of society. Imagine a suspect dying while being arrested or in the custody of a police officer and because of the current political atmosphere, the police officer is charged with murder or several other serious possible felonies. How important is the police officer’s sixth amendment right to have a lawyer present to advise him?
During this election year there has been an awful lot of discussion about the importance of protecting our Constitutional rights, especially the right to bear arms. Unfortunately, we cannot pick certain rights to follow and other rights to ignore.
The memories of this investigation will remain with me forever, along with the memories of friends I worked with. Unfortunately some of those friends are no longer around, but their memories live on. I hope you have enjoyed reminiscing with me about my memories of a very interesting investigation. These memories are but another of many stories from the Houston Police Department as I remember it.