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Debra Shelden

Other Nebraska Guilty Plea Cases
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Sometime during the night of February 5, 1985, 68-year-old Helen Wilson was sexually assaulted and killed in the Beatrice, Nebraska, apartment where she lived alone. Relatives had visited her on February 5 and left her at the apartment in the evening. Her body was found in the apartment at 9:30 a.m. the next morning by her sister. Wilson had been raped, stabbed, and suffocated to death. A significant amount of cash was found inside the apartment.

Semen was detected on swabs collected from the victim’s body during the autopsy, a cutting from the carpet below her body, and a cutting from her nightgown. Blood stains were also identified on the victim’s clothing and bedding. Investigators found three fingerprints in her house, including one on a knife and two on a door frame.

The Beatrice police department opened an investigation, but no arrests were made. There were possible suspects, but blood tests failed to link them to the crime. Among those eliminated was Bruce Allen Smith, who was located in Oklahoma City. There Oklahoma City Police laboratory technician Joyce Gilchrist—later fired for her involvement in years of forensic fraud—tested Smith’s biological sample and eliminated him as a suspect.

Not long after, Burdette Searcey, a former investigator for the Beatrice police department who was working as a farmer, began his own independent investigation. He interviewed a number of former confidential informants who assisted him in identifying several people who frequented the area of Wilson’s apartment—Joseph White, Thomas Winslow , Ada Joann Taylor, Cliff Shelden, Mark Goodson, Beth Johnson, Debra Shelden, and Charlotte Bishop.

Searcey believed Wilson had been murdered by more than one person and he suspected White, Taylor, and Winslow were involved.

In 1987, Jerry DeWitt became sheriff of Gage County and hired Searcey as a deputy sheriff. In January 1989, DeWitt and Richard Smith, who was the Gage County attorney, gave Searcey, assisted by sheriff’s deputies Gerald Lamkin and Wayne Price, permission to begin a formal investigation into the Wilson murder.

Searcey’s most important witness was a woman named Lisa Podendorf, who claimed that at 7:30 a.m. on February 6—while police cars were parked at Wilson’s apartment—Taylor confessed to her that she and White had committed the crime. Podendorf also claimed that the evening before the crime, she saw a car containing Taylor, Winslow, White, and Johnson parked near Wilson’s apartment.

Searcey credited Podendorf’s statement even though police did not arrive until after 9:30 a.m.—two hours after Taylor supposedly confessed while police cars were there, and even though Searcey had previously verified that Johnson was with her parents on the night of the crime and so could not have been in any car with Taylor, Winslow, and White.

On February 13, 1989, Searcey interviewed Winslow, who was in jail on an unrelated felony assault charge. Searcey had interviewed Winslow in 1985 while conducting his personal investigation. At that time, Winslow claimed he was at work on the night of the crime, but Searcey had determined that was false. Now, Winslow admitted he had lied about his whereabouts and claimed he had loaned his car to Taylor, White, and Cliff Shelden on the night of the crime. When Searcey wrote a report of this interview, he omitted any mention of Shelden because Searcey had previously determined that Shelden was in the hospital that night and couldn’t have been in the car.

Searcey also interviewed Bishop, who, like Podendorf, claimed that the day after the murder, Taylor admitted being involved. Bishop’s memory was poor, however. She claimed she saw police at the apartment on the night of February 5—well before the crime was ever discovered.

On March 14, 1989, Searcey finalized an arrest warrant for murder Taylor and White. Taylor was arrested in North Carolina, where she was living, on March 15. White was arrested that same day. When questioned on March 16, White denied any involvement in or knowledge of the crime.

On March 14, Searcey, Sheriff DeWitt, and Deputy Smith had gone to Lincoln, Nebraska to take another statement from Winslow after Searcey told him he would persuade the judge to release Winslow on his assault charge on a non-cash bond.

At first, Winslow claimed that on the night of February 5, 1985, as he was driving his car around Beatrice with Taylor and White, he heard Taylor and White discussed robbing an old woman. Winslow said that Taylor and White dropped him off at Bishop’s apartment and returned his car the following morning. When Searcey told Winslow that a witness reported seeing him getting out of his car along with Taylor, White, and Johnson at Wilson’s apartment building, Winslow admitted that was true. He said he didn’t mention it because he did not want to be connected to the crime. He continued to deny involvement.

When Searcey said he did not believe Winslow, there was a break in the interview for 44 minutes. When the interview resumed, Winslow said that he, Taylor, White, and Johnson went into Wilson’s apartment. He said that Taylor and White attacked Wilson, and that he panicked and left with Johnson.

Years later, Winslow claimed that Searcey showed his approval or disapproval of certain responses through body language. “He would move his papers and slap them down on the table when he disapproved. And when he approved, he would move them closer to him. And he would smile and gesture,” Winslow said.

On March 16, 1989, Searcey went to North Carolina and interrogated Taylor about her admission to local law enforcement that she was present at the crime. Taylor said she made the admission only after North Carolina police told her she was there. During her interrogation by Searcey, Taylor had difficulty recalling basic facts, such as the time of day of the crime and the type of building in which Wilson lived. She said several times that she had a personality disorder that was not being treated, that she abused drugs and alcohol in 1985, she had previously attempted suicide, and she intended to inflict bodily harm on herself. She also said she could not remember “much of ‘85 at all” and that she once believed that White was her father, even though White was only a year older than her. Taylor said that a man named “Lobo,” an alias later established for White, committed the murder. Taylor also stated that another male was involved, but she did not remember the identity.

When Searcey asked Taylor to admit that she had confessed to Podendorf and Bishop, Taylor initially denied ever talking with anyone about the murder. However, after taking a break in the interrogation, Taylor agreed that she might have discussed the Wilson murder with Podendorf and Bishop.

Taylor also agreed to a number of suggestions offered by Searcey, including that she wrote a letter to Cliff Shelden admitting her role in the crime, that the murder was committed in an apartment building and not a house, that White performed a trick with money during which he ripped money in half (a torn half of a $5 bill had been found at the scene), and that there was an additional person named “Beth” present during the murder. Taylor was unable to name any others present. Taylor waived extradition and was taken to Gage County Jail where she was charged with murder.

In subsequent interrogations, Searcey suggested details of the crime to Taylor, including supplying a photograph of Winslow in a lineup. Taylor’s account of how the event happened shifted each time that she told her story and she now identified Winslow as a participant in the crime.

On March 17, 1989, Winslow was arrested for murder and taken to the Gage County Jail. At that time, Winslow recanted his previous statement that he was a witness to the Wilson murder and instead said that Taylor and White came to his apartment with blood on their clothes. Winslow also said that Johnson may have witnessed the Wilson homicide. Confronted with his shifting statements, Winslow said, “This story is the true one and if you don’t want to believe it that’s fine. I’ll go back to my cell, I feel better now because it’s off my chest.”

On March 19, 1989, Johnson told Searcey that on the night of February 5, 1985, she spent the evening watching television with Taylor, Winslow, and Bishop at Bishop’s apartment. Searcey also obtained a statement from Mark Goodson, who said that in 1985, Taylor admitted to him that she and White had murdered Wilson.

Blood from Taylor and Winslow were tested, but neither had the type B blood found at the crime scene.

On March 24, 1989, Searcey and Beatrice police Sergeant Ralph Stevens interviewed Debra Shelden. According to Stevens’s report of the interview, she said her husband, Cliff Shelden, told her that he received a letter from Taylor admitting Taylor’s involvement in the murder. Stevens’s report said Debra Shelden said she did not read the letter and that the letter may have mentioned White. However, Searcey’s report of the interview quoted her as saying that she had read the letter and that it said Taylor and White committed the murder.

On April 12, 1989, after three and a half hours of interrogation, Cliff Shelden gave a recorded statement claiming that he received a letter from Taylor three to four months after the murder in which Taylor admitted to participating in the crime with Winslow and White. Cliff Shelden also said that Winslow had told him about the Wilson murder, and that Taylor, White, Winslow, and Debra Shelden were present.

Searcey’s report of the interview said Cliff Shelden said James Dean may also have been involved, although a transcript of the interview made no mention of Dean’s name.

On April 13, 1989, Searcey and another deputy interviewed Debra Shelden a second time. In the recorded portion of her interview, she said she was present at the Wilson murder with Taylor, White, and Winslow. She said she was watching the assault when White pushed her causing her to hit her head and begin bleeding. After the interview, Debra Shelden was arrested for murder.

On April 14, 1989, she was interviewed a third time and said Dean was also present at the Wilson murder. The following day, April 15, Dean was arrested for the murder. He denied any knowledge of the crime and his blood type was O—different from the blood found at the crime scene. Dean asked for a lawyer, but the deputies continued questioning him anyway and no lawyer was summoned.

On April 16, Searcey, DeWitt, and Deputy Smith interviewed Dean for more than two hours. Dean’s requests for a lawyer were rebuffed again. During a three-hour interrogation on April 17, Dean was told that Taylor, Debra Shelden, and Kathleen Gonzalez, who lived in the same apartment building as Wilson, had implicated him in the case.

Dean was arraigned on April 17 and appointed a defense lawyer. However, Searcey and other officers, including Sheriff DeWitt continued to talk to him outside the presence of his lawyer numerous times. Dean later said he was told that if he did not cooperate, he would get the electric chair.

On April 24, Debra Shelden pled guilty to aiding and abetting second-degree murder.

On May 2, 1989, Dean had a consultation with Deputy Price, who, in addition to being a deputy sheriff, was the Gage County Sheriff’s office psychologist. During this meeting, Dean again denied any involvement. But after Dean took a polygraph examination and was told he was being deceptive, Dean began to doubt himself. Price told Dean that he was subconsciously aware of his role in the Wilson murder and that “continuing supportive therapy” would help him to recall his repressed memories.

In subsequent therapy sessions with Price, Dean was shown photographs and videos of the crime scene. He also was taken to Wilson’s apartment.

On May 8, 1989, Dean, accompanied by his lawyer, gave a recorded statement saying he was present at the Wilson homicide along with Taylor, Winslow, White, and Debra Shelden. He could not recall why they went to Wilson’s apartment, and he did not remember seeing anyone harm her. Dean said he could not remember anyone else being present, but that it was possible there were others. Asked why he was admitting involvement, Dean said, “Well I, I feel that I remembered it in my sleep. I obviously had some kind of a subconscious block or something I don’t know what it was for sure and I couldn’t remember and I thought I was telling the truth naturally and I said I was not there.”

Two days later, Dean gave another evolving statement, saying he went to Wilson’s apartment with Taylor, Winslow, White, and Debra Shelden and that Taylor, Winslow, and White grabbed Wilson in a “gentle manner.” Then Dean said someone slapped Wilson, but he could not remember who it was. And then, Dean agreed with Searcey’s suggestion that Wilson was being “violently mistreated.”

At the same time, Dean also said, “I can’t remember, you know, like I said, I got this all [in] a dream, you know, and I’m just telling you bits and pieces of what I can tell you, like you guys wanted to know, you know.”

On May 17, 1989, Dean was interviewed yet again with his lawyer. In this interview, Dean stated that he witnessed Taylor, Winslow, and White sexually assaulting Wilson. Dean also added remembering seeing another person in the doorway of the apartment. Although Dean gave a physical description, he could not remember the gender or name of that person. Dean claimed he thought the other person was a woman and that he had “an idea” who she was, but he did not want “to put a wrong name in there and get you guys in trouble.”

That same day, Dean pled guilty to an amended information charging him with aiding and abetting second-degree murder.

On May 24, 1989, Searcey interviewed Dean again and Dean now said that he remembered that Kathy Gonzalez was in the apartment and that she had been injured during the assault on Wilson. That same day, Debra Shelden was interviewed again and she now said she remembered that Gonzalez was present and had a bloody nose. Shelden said she did not know Gonzalez and had forgotten about her until she had a nightmare. After Searcey showed Shelden a picture of Gonzalez, Shelden said Gonzalez matched the characteristics of the woman she saw in her dream.

On May 25, 1989, Gonzalez was arrested in Colorado. When arrested, she said she had been “worried about this for four years.” But she repeatedly said she could not recall being present during the Wilson murder. On May 26, during an interview with Price in Beatrice, Gonzalez asked Price to hypnotize her so that she could recall being present, but Price refused. Price told Gonzalez that another witness charged with the crime had implicated Gonzalez. When Gonzalez asked Price how she could refresh her memory, Price told Gonzalez that she would remember if she relaxed and that her memories might return to her in dreams. When Gonzalez asked what would happen if she still did not remember anything, Price said it would be “up to a court to decide.”

Price also told Gonzalez that if she were “there and not participating,” it would be “a very different situation” than if she were “there participating.” When Price asked Gonzalez whether White would implicate her if it meant saving himself, Gonzalez said he might.

Price told Gonzalez since she had been implicated by two others, there was “a good chance” that she was blocking it out of her memory. “We don’t want you held responsible for anything you didn’t do and you know I have no idea of what [White] or [Taylor] and Winslow are going to say about you,” Price said. He said he would work with her to help her recover her blocked memory.

Meanwhile, Gonzalez’s blood test results came back showing that she had type B blood—the same type found at the crime scene, but that it differed by one genetic marker from the crime scene blood. Dr. Reena Roy mailed Searcey a lab report which included the analysis. The report said that one of the genetic markers in Gonzalez's blood (Gc-2–1) differed from one of the genetic markers that Roy identified in the type B blood (Gc-1) that was found at the scene of the murder. Even so, Dr. Roy would later testify in a pre-trial deposition Gonzalez “cannot be excluded as the donor of the blood group B in many of the bloodstains that I found.” While noting that “her Gc-2–1 did not match with the Gc-1 that I found,” Dr. Roy explained that if “there are two people's blood mixed, she certainly cannot be excluded...”

Even so, Searcey told Gonzalez the test results showed a match to her blood.

On June 7, 1989, Dean, during another interview, said that while he was riding along with the other suspects to Wilson’s apartment, someone mentioned robbery. Dean also said that Gonzalez suddenly appeared in the hall in front of their group as they made their way to Wilson’s apartment.

On June 16, Gonzalez took a polygraph examination and was told the results showed deception.

On June 23, Dean amplified his statement again, saying the group planned to rob Wilson and that Gonzalez got injured during the struggle. On July 16, Dean said that he, along with Taylor, Winslow, White, and Cliff Shelden had a conversation a week prior to the murder during which they discussed money from an old woman.

On July 16, Dean supplied further new information in an interview with Lamkin in the presence of his counsel, including that Dean, Taylor, Winslow, White, and Cliff Shelden had a conversation a week before the Wilson homicide discussing stealing money from an old lady. He also said he saw Gonzalez bleeding in Wilson’s apartment, saw White carrying a stack of money in his hand, and heard White tear a five dollar bill in half.

On September 1, 1989, Taylor pled guilty to causing the death of Helen Wilson intentionally, but without premeditation. On October 5, Gonzalez entered a plea of no contest to the charge of aiding and abetting second-degree murder.

On November 9, 1989, a jury convicted White of first-degree murder after Taylor, Dean, and Debra Shelden testified and implicated him in the crime. Gonzalez testified that she had lived in the same apartment building as Wilson at the time of the crime, and that White had raised the idea of committing a burglary with her. The defense and prosecution stipulated that the blood found at the crime scene was “similar to that of Kathy Gonzalez” and that White and Winslow could not be excluded—a statement that, years later, Dr. Roy said was wrong. Winslow had refused to testify.

On December 8, 1989 Winslow entered a no contest plea to a charge that he did “aid, abet, procure or cause another to cause the death of Helen Wilson intentionally, but without premeditation.”

White was sentenced to life in prison. Winslow was sentenced to 50 years in prison. Taylor was sentenced to 40 years in prison. Dean, Shelden, and Gonzalez each received 10-year prison terms.

Gonzalez, Dean and Shelden served approximately four and a half years before they were released. The defendants became known as the “Beatrice Six.” Appeals in the case were repeatedly denied by Nebraska courts, until late 2007, when White and Winslow finally obtained DNA testing on semen from the crime scene.

Prosecutors said the results matched the profile of Bruce Allen Smith, the man who been a suspect in the days immediately after the murder, but had been eliminated by testing performed by later-disgraced lab analyst Joyce Gilchrist. Smith could not be prosecuted—he had died in Oklahoma in 1992.

Based on the test results, White’s attorney filed a motion to vacate his conviction. The motion noted that Taylor had recanted her trial testimony as false. In addition, Lawyers for White and Winslow said that Shelden and Gonzalez also recanted their trial testimony.

On October 15, 2008, White’s conviction was vacated and he was released. Two days later, Winslow was resentenced to time served and released. Taylor was released on parole November 10, 2008. Charges were dismissed against White the same day. They had each served more than 18 years.

Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning joined the defendants and Gage County Attorney Randy Ritnour in seeking to clear them entirely. Beatrice Police Chief Bruce Lang said the DNA results had led to a reinvestigation of the case, and “there is no doubt in our minds that Bruce Smith is the lone perpetrator of this crime.”

On January 26, 2009, White’s five co-defendants were pardoned by the state, clearing their names entirely. They were the first six people exonerated by DNA evidence in Nebraska .

In 2011, White was killed in a construction accident in Alabama. The state of Nebraska agreed to pay $500,000 in compensation. White received $25,000 before his death and his estate received $475,000.

A federal civil rights lawsuit filed against Gage County was dismissed twice and the dismissal reversed both times. In July 2016, following a trial of the lawsuit, a jury awarded $7.3 million each to Winslow, Taylor, and White’s estate; $2 million each to Dean and Gonzalez; and $1.8 million to Shelden.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date:  Before June 2012
Last Updated: 2/10/2020
State:Nebraska
County:Gage
Most Serious Crime:Accessory to Murder
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:1985
Convicted:1989
Exonerated:2009
Sentence:10 years
Race/Ethnicity:White
Sex:Female
Age at the date of reported crime:26
Contributing Factors:False Confession, False or Misleading Forensic Evidence, Perjury or False Accusation, Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:Yes