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Betty Lou Beets: The Black Widow of Texas

Irene Pence's Buried Memories tells the story of the Texas husband-killer whose crimes resulted in her execution.

"My time is running out and the state of Texas will pick up where my husband left off," said Betty Lou Beets in a 1999 statement—lethal injection looming just around the corner. At the time, Betty Lou had served 14 years on death row, fervently petitioning for a life sentence. With her execution, she would become the second Texas woman to receive the death penalty since the state's resumption of capital punishment in 1976. Between 1972 and 1976, the death penalty was outlawed in the United States. 

"While the Texas law enforcement out there did nothing to help me," she continued. "It is now legal for them to finish the job."

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Married six times, Betty Lou is referring to the abuse she suffered at the hands of her five husbands (she married one man twice). In 1985, she was convicted of murdering the fifth and final man she married, Jimmy Don Beets. She was also suspected of killing her ex-husband, Doyle Wayne Barker. The remains of both men were discovered on Beets' property. But were her actions committed in self defense (and as the result of post-traumatic stress), or were they of a colder, greedier nature?

betty_lou_beets
  • Though Betty Lou Beets appealed to Governor George W. Bush to spare her life, her plea was denied.

  • Photo Credit: Murderpedia

There were few moments in Betty Lou Beets' life in which she was not at the mercy of an abuser. After a troubling childhood, a 15-year-old Betty Lou married Robert Branson in 1952, and became a first-time mother the next year. Saddled with wifely responsibilities and the rigors of child-rearing, Beets longed for the teenage freedoms her friends enjoyed.

Those freedoms never came for Betty Lou, but she certainly sought them out on her own terms. Even with six children—her last child with Robert, Bobby, was born in 1966—she would stay out late into the night, drinking and flirting at local bars. Her behavior deepened the rift in her already strained marriage and, after 17 tumultuous years, the couple finally split.

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Robert wouldn't be Betty Lou's last husband—or her last toxic relationship. At 33, she tied the knot with Billy York Lane, which jumpstarted an on-and-off romance full of betrayal, jealous games, and domestic violence. One 1970 fight even ended in near-fatal wounds after Betty shot Billy in the back twice. While she cited self-defense, Billy's report of a blindsiding assault raised doubts about her credibility. Much to everyone's confusion, Betty's charges were promptly dropped, her minimal fines were paid. Though the two had split by this point, they briefly remarried in 1972. The second marriage lasted about a month.

Next came Ronnie Threlkold, whose boozing didn't jibe with Betty Lou's emotional highs and lows. At his ex-wife's trial years later, Threlkold would testify that he, too, was once a victim of her physical attacks: she had allegedly tried to run him over with her car.

Ronnie was the last of Betty Lou's husbands to escape their marriage alive. The next man, Doyle Wayne Barker, was shot and killed in 1981—then buried in Betty Lou's yard. She married Jimmy Don Beets soon thereafter, Betty Lou's final husband. Then, in 1983, Betty Lou reported to police that Jimmy Don was missing. He would remain missing until 1985—when acting on a tip, police scoured Betty Lou's property. First, they found Jimmy Don's remains wrapped in a sleeping bag and buried inside a garden wishing well. Then, they found Doyle's remains buried in the yard. Both had been violent prior to their deaths. His corpse remained undisturbed until 1985. Police had been searching for

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Betty was charged with Jimmy Don's murder. She was never tried for Doyle's death. During the course of her 1985 trial, there was no mention of the abuse Betty had suffered throughout her life. After being convicted for Jimmy Don's murder—the court ruled she'd wanted his pension and insurance money—and a succession of failed appeals, Betty was handed a definitive execution date in 1999. She died by lethal injection in February the following year.

Author Irene Pence covers the entire case in her book Buried Memories, chronicling Betty Lou Beets' earliest years through her 2000 execution. The following excerpt takes readers into the night of Doyle Wayne Barker's death, offering a chilling glimpse of a woman undone, and the lengths she went to protect herself.

Read on for an excerpt of Buried Memories, and then download the book.

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Buried Memories

By Irene Pence

Buried Memories

By Irene Pence

On a rare, crisp evening in October 1981, Betty collected branches that had dropped from the hundred or so trees covering her large lot.

The year-round residents enjoyed this time of year. Summer crowds were gone, having shied away from the colder lake water. However, with fewer visitors, restaurants and stores were nearly empty.

Betty stacked the branches safely away from her trailer and struck a match.

“Let’s hope this takes off the chill and keeps away the bugs. They’re the only bad thing about living near the lake.”

Her daughter, now Shirley Thompson, nodded in agreement, remembering seeing curtains of webs spun over windows and doorways. She always hated to walk near the outlet to the lake that was at the rear of her mother’s property because spiderwebs smothered the area. Lake authorities disallowed insecticide spraying over the water for fear of harming fish, so insects reigned supreme. Shirley watched a fat-bodied spider scamper off a branch as the flames threatened it.

Smoke curled upward and the wood crackled and popped. Shirley stretched out her hands toward the flames. “That feels good. I’ve always loved a bonfire and the smell of burning wood.”

Except for Shirley’s voluptuous figure, she looked nothing like her mother. She possessed her father’s dark coloring and wore her straight black hair in braids, tied with tiny ribbons. She had driven down from her house in rural Van Zandt County to talk with her mother about Barker, hoping she would listen to her. Finally, she said, “Mama, what are you going to do about Wayne? I just hate to hear how he’s treating you.”

“I’m going to kill him,” Betty said stoically.

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Shirley laughed. “No, don’t talk silly. I mean, really what are you going to do? You’ve got to leave him or he could really hurt you.”

“So you think I want to take this shit?” Betty asked.

“Mama, you’ve got to divorce him. That’s all there is to it.”

Betty remained silent for a moment, then said, “Hell, I can’t do that. The trailer’s in his name. If I divorce him, he’ll get the damn trailer and I’ll be stuck with an empty lot. What good would that do me?”

“Then buy a trailer. You told me you made good tips at the Cedar Club. If you start a little nest egg now, in a few months you might have the down payment. In the meantime, you could get a restraining order against him.”

“I don’t relish getting put out in the damn cold with winter coming.”

“Of course not. But you don’t mean you’re really going to kill him. What if you got caught?”

“I won’t get caught. Hell, I’ve planned every detail enough to see to that. Look over there,” Betty said, turning to an open space in the trees behind them. “See that hole?” Betty pointed to a mound of loose soil that had been freshly turned.

“What about it?”

“That’s where he’s gonna be. No one will ever find him.”

“You dug that yourself?”

“No. Of course not. I was talking real nice to one of the construction guys who was fixing the street in the next block. I told him I was building a barbecue pit and needed a hole dug. I said, ‘I bet it wouldn’t take you but a few minutes to dig something about four feet deep with that big backhoe of yours.’ He said he guessed it wouldn’t, and offered to come by after work. I told him I’d have a cold one waiting for him. ’Course like most men he said he was hoping I’d have something warm waiting for him.” She laughed and gave Shirley a little jab with her elbow. “I couldn’t risk a toss in the bed, not with Wayne coming home about the same time. So I thought, what the hell, I’d pay him twenty dollars. I didn’t want to get messed up with anyone else right now.”

“So somebody knows you had a hole dug?”

“Yes, but he’s not the type to put two and two together. If he does, I’ll just have something warm waiting for him.”

  • Photo Credit: Murderpedia

Shirley stood looking out her living room window, awaiting her mother’s arrival. She could picture her taking off in her orange-and-white Chevrolet pickup with Bobby, her youngest brother, in tow. By now they’d be bumping over the two-lane road to Shirley’s house.

When Betty and Bobby walked through her front door, Shirley felt disappointed. She’d hoped her mother would have changed her mind. After Betty confirmed that Bobby would be spending the night, she took off for her trailer after staying only an hour.

The rest of the day, Shirley thought of nothing other than her mother’s plan. She still wanted to believe it wouldn’t happen.

Betty stood outside in the hall, listening to Wayne’s quiet snoring. She entered in the dark and went to her nightstand where she kept her loaded .38-caliber Colt revolver. Its antique-ivory handle had darkened with time, making the intricately carved design harder to appreciate.

She plucked her gun from the top drawer, then pulled back the sheet and quietly climbed into bed. The couple belts of Jim Beam she downed earlier helped toughen her resolve.

No houses adjoined her yard, but the Bensons lived two lots away, and she didn’t know if they were light sleepers. Hell, she hardly knew them at all. 

Betty tried to think how she could stifle the sound of the gunshot. When she plumped her pillow, she had the solution. She picked up the pillow and held it over the gun now aimed at Barker’s skull. The gun felt heavier than solid stone. Her hand shook as she took a deep breath and squeezed the trigger. A blaring, ear-splitting eruption exploded into the bedroom. The surrounding metal of the trailer made the noise even louder, making it sound as though she were inside a steel drum. Wayne’s body jerked as if in shock, and she realized that the pillow had only thrown off her aim. Barker let out a sharp groan, making Betty afraid she had merely awakened him. Quickly, she recocked the gun and fired again. His body momentarily stiffened, then relaxed on the mattress. She fired a third time, and waited.

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After the ricochetting sound of the explosion dissipated, the trailer became as quiet as a tomb. A warm sticky liquid cascaded over Betty’s fingers, and the stench of blood and gun powder filled her nose. She touched his blood-soaked neck to check his pulse ...

Betty Barker’s nightgown clung like Saran Wrap as sweat and Wayne’s blood ran down her body. She lacked remorse or guilt over Wayne’s murder. In fact, she felt relieved to be rid of him. Now, no one could take her trailer.

Crawling out of bed, she turned on the light. The entire room glistened blood red. The sheets were crimson, blood had splashed on the walls, dribbled down the headboard creating ruby stripes, then puddled onto the floor. The back of Wayne’s head held matted hair, but blood poured though the open star-shaped wounds of burst skin.

She went to the bathroom, eager to wash the smell of Wayne’s blood from her hands. Gun powder smudged her right hand. Hiking up her nightgown, she took it off and stuffed it in the basin of cold water to soak, then threw on an old T-shirt.

She lacked remorse or guilt over Wayne’s murder. In fact, she felt relieved to be rid of him.

Back in her bedroom, she headed for the closet. Pulling out two sheets of green plastic that a new chair had come wrapped in, she tried to tuck the plastic over and under Wayne’s body until the blood stopped seeping through onto the sheets. Then she hauled out a blue canvas sleeping bag and fully unzipped it. Little by little she rolled Wayne’s body onto it. His weight made everything take much longer than she had anticipated. Once his body lay encased in the bag, she zipped it and slowly rolled him to the edge of the bed. It was like moving a massive chunk of blue granite. She inhaled deeply to give herself strength, then gave him a healthy push. He tumbled off the bed and landed with a thud.

Nervous energy fueled her. She tossed clothes and shoes out of her closet, then inch by inch dragged him inside. She pushed and shoved, sticking him back far enough so she could slide the door shut.

She took another look at the room and groaned, then began spraying Lysol generously on the headboard, walls, and floor. Not wanting the blood to set, she scrubbed all the surfaces quickly and thoroughly. She spent much of the night washing sheets, towels, and night clothes. Repeatedly, she rinsed blood out of towels until the water ran pink, then threw them into the washing machine. With everything finally cleaned, she stood under a steaming hot shower, trying to scrub away every last trace of Barker. Now both mentally and physically exhausted, she went to bed and fell soundly asleep.

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After making all the late phone calls, Shirley slept until noon. She awoke to find a note on her pillow from Larry telling her that on his way to work, he would drop Bobby off at a friend’s house to spend the night.

She strolled into the living room and was shocked to see her mother lying on the living room sofa.

Without moving, Betty said, “It’s over. I did what I told you I was going to do.”

Shirley couldn’t believe her mother’s nonchalance. They might as well have been exchanging recipes. Shirley stood frozen, and unable to speak.

Betty stoically related every detail of the murder from her problem with the pillow to stuffing his body into her closet.

Shirley’s mind dashed back to the recently dug hole in her mother’s backyard. She had actually noticed it a week before her mother had told her about it. At the time, she wondered why it had been dug, but wouldn’t have imagined Betty’s reason for its being there. Somehow an unwritten rule hung over the family that you didn’t question Mama. Betty had the knack of giving a look that said, “You better obey.” She loved her mother, but she feared asking questions that would make her angry. Lately, it didn’t take much to set Betty off into one of her strange moods.

Shirley tried to rationalize Betty’s actions by remembering her mother’s stories about Wayne Barker abusing her. Maybe a judge would consider killing a wife abuser self-defense. But what if he didn’t? What if Betty got arrested and went to prison? Shirley couldn’t consider such horror. If I don’t help her bury the body, wouldn’t Mama be more apt to get arrested? she thought.

In a small voice, Shirley asked, “Have you figured out what you’re going to do?”

“Somehow I’ve got to get his body into the barbecue pit,” Betty said wryly, with no humor in her voice.

Betty Lou Beets
  • Photo Credit: Murderpedia

“By yourself?” Shirley asked.

“How else? He’d be awful heavy for me to carry, but I suppose I can drag him. I’ll figure something out. Don’t worry about it. It’s not your problem.”

Shirley already felt tangled in her mother’s web and worried how the petite woman would get Wayne’s big, heavy body out to the grave by herself.

“Mama, I’ll help,” she said, suggesting the last thing she wanted to do.

Betty sat up and turned around to look at her. “You don’t have to, you know. In fact, I’m not sure I want you to.”

“I couldn’t stand for anything to happen to you.”

Betty smiled affectionately at Shirley and reached out to take her hand. With little hesitation, she said, “Okay, but we have to do it like this. You can never tell a soul. Got that? Not Larry, not your sisters, not anybody.”

“I won’t,” Shirley said. “No one will ever find out. I’d be too afraid for anyone to know. What’s next?”

“Tell Larry that Wayne and I got into a big brouhaha and I’m scared shitless of him. Say I don’t want to be home alone tonight in case he comes back and wants to hurt me again. Then you come over after dinner and we’ll wait ’til dark before we stick him in the ground.”

Shirley leaned against the wall and nodded sadly. She wanted the whole matter to disappear. How could her own mother involve her in a murder? Worse yet, what would her mother do to her if she didn’t help? She already knew what had happened to Wayne.

For the rest of the day, Betty lingered at Shirley’s house and talked. She couldn’t stop rambling on about shooting Wayne. While Shirley wanted to forget, her mother continued talking as if needing the discussion as a catharsis.

“If someone saw what looked like a grave it might attract attention,” Betty said. “And I don’t want any of those damn dogs in the neighborhood comin’ over and digging him up. Tomorrow, we’ll go to Seven Points and get some cinder blocks. We can build a patio over him and no one will ever know he’s there.”

Want to keep reading? Download Buried Memories now. 

Buried Memories

By Irene Pence

During trial it became apparent the lengths Beets would go to save herself. Beets had received helped from her daughter Shirley after she murdered Doyle Wayne Barker but she also involved her son Robert Branson in her second murder. Robert would testify on trial that his mother had informed him on her intention to kill her husband at the time, Jimmy Don Beets. Robert was forced to leave the house but returned two hours later to find Jimmy Don dead with two gunshot wounds. Similarly to Shirley, Robert helped his mother conceal the body but they went to greater lengths to avoid drawing any links back to Beets. Robert helped his mother put some of Jimmy Don’s heart medication on his fishing boat and then abandon it so it would appear as if Jimmy Don had fallen overboard and drowned. At the time of trial, Beets pleaded not guilty and claimed that her children had committed the murders. Her children admitted to their involvement in concealing the murders and despite her argument, Beets was found guilty; perhaps blood isn’t thicker than water.

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Featured photo: Wikipedia

Published on 12 Jun 2018

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