The last time anyone remembered seeing 68-year-old Freda Heyn alive was on November 3, 2003 at the post office in Oldfield, Missouri. When family members finally reported her missing from the rural trailer where she lived on November 7, police found the inside of the trailer in disarray and with blood spattered on the walls, floors and ceiling. There was no sign of Heyn.
Christian County Sheriff’s Detectives began questioning residents who lived near Heyn’s trailer, including 36-year-old Paula Hall. Hall had been romantically involved with David Epperson, who was renting a house from Heyn’s son-in-law. The house was about a mile down the same road where Heyn’s trailer was located. At the time, detectives said they became suspicious of Hall because when they questioned her, she said, “I have no idea why anyone would want to kidnap…and harm Freda.”
DNA tests on blood samples taken from the crime scene matched Heyn’s DNA and also revealed the DNA of an unidentified male.
The investigation stalled until April 2004 when hikers in the Mark Twain National Forest, about 10 miles south of Oldfield, discovered a skull washed out of a gully by a huge rainstorm. Dental records were used to identify it as Heyn’s. The rest of her skeleton was never found.
In 2006, Epperson was arrested on an unrelated charge of assaulting a woman and required to give a DNA sample. When authorities discovered that Epperson’s DNA matched the unidentified male DNA found on a smashed squirrel figurine and a kitchen table leg in Heyn’s trailer, he was brought in for questioning.
Epperson gave various accounts, but it was not until his second interview and only after being assured by detectives that they did not believe he was involved in the murder that Epperson implicated Paula Hall. The detectives were suspicious of Paula Hall allegedly because one of her six ex-husbands had been overheard saying that at about the time Heyn disappeared, Hall’s former brother-in-law, Billy Wayne Hall, had come to her house with blood on his clothes and angrily telling her that he would never help her again.
During this second interrogation, after a detective had brought up Hall’s name more than 20 times, Epperson finally said that at about 9:30 p.m. on November 3, he returned to his rented home and found Hall doing laundry. Although their relationship had ended, Epperson said he paid Hall to clean his house. Their relationship had ended acrimoniously because Epperson believed Hall had provided sanctuary when Epperson’s daughter ran away from him and prevented them from reconciling.
Epperson said that shortly after he arrived, Hall’s former brother-in-law, Billy Wayne Hall, arrived at the residence with Heyn, who was bleeding from the head. Epperson said Billy Wayne Hall was carrying a handgun and said, “I got her.”
Epperson said that as Heyn stood on the front porch, Paula Hall picked up a golf club and struck Heyn in the back of the head. According to Epperson, Heyn fell to the ground and Paula Hall struck her several more times until she was dead.
Epperson said he and the Halls then left the body on the ground by the house and drove to Heyn’s trailer where they attempted to clean up the blood from the beating inflicted there by Billy Wayne Hall. Epperson said his blood was there because he gashed his finger on broken glass while cleaning up. Epperson said he and Billy Wayne Hall cut up Heyn’s body and disposed of her head in the forest while the rest of her body was taken to a farm and fed to hogs.
Epperson, Paula and Billy Wayne Hall were charged with murder in October 2006. Epperson was allowed to plead guilty to a charge of evidence tampering in exchange for his testimony. The murder charge against him was dismissed and he was placed on probation.
After a change of venue was granted due to widespread publicity about the case, Paula Hall went on trial before a jury in adjacent Taney County in January 2009, represented by criminal defense attorney Rita Sanders, a former police officer turned attorney. Hall’s family had retained Sanders after a public defender recommended that Hall plead guilty in return for a 30-year prison term. The family provided $2,500 for an investigator and Sanders represented Hall without charge for the next seven years.
Epperson told the jury that Hall had killed Heyn because Heyn had caught Epperson and Billy Wayne Hall cooking methamphetamine and they feared she would alert authorities.
Lisa Bonham, a woman who was in the same lockup cell with Hall after Hall was arrested, testified that she overheard Hall tell others in the lockup that she had killed Heyn.
Forensic pathologists testified that Heyn had suffered a skull fracture, but they could not link the head wound to being struck with a golf club.
On February 4, 2009, the jury convicted Paula Hall of second degree murder and she was sentenced to 20 years in prison.
In 2011, Hall was granted a new trial after the trial judge ruled that prosecutors had failed to disclose to the defense that Bonham had been convicted of passing bad checks, forgery and violating probation in Christian County. Prosecutors also failed to disclose that Bonham had charges pending in Greene County at the time of Hall’s trial. Additionally, the judge found that the prosecution had failed to disclose that it had reduced Bonham’s five year probation sentence to 120 days (with time already served) and asked Greene County prosecutors for leniency for her charges in that county.
Prosecutors appealed the ruling and the Missouri Court of Appeals upheld the granting of a new trial in 2013. On May 30, 2013, Hall was released on bond pending a new trial. By that time, murder charges against Billy Wayne Hall had been dismissed for lack of evidence.
Sanders represented Paula Hall when she went on trial a second time in September 2013. Greene County Circuit Court Judge Michael J. Cordonnier, who was appointed to hear the case because the judge in the first trial had retired, heard the case in Taney County Circuit Court without a jury.
On October 8, 2013, Cordonnier acquitted Hall and found that Epperson, a longtime meth user, cooker and seller, “has not, and has no intention of telling the truth.” In a written opinion, Cordonnier said Epperson had told so many different versions that were inconsistent with the physical evidence—“so many inconsistencies, on matters of material importance, that for want of space they cannot be recounted.”
Cordonnier also rejected the testimony of Rebecca Lalley, who was in the Christian County Jail with Paula Hall and said that Hall had confessed to taking part in the murder. Lalley, the judge noted, had many of the facts wrong—from the name of the victim to the location of the crime to an incredible statement that Hall’s mother was a professional golfer and that the golf club used in the murder had been given to Hall by her mother. Lalley also claimed Heyn’s body had been disposed of in the forest after being run through a wood chipper.
Moreover, the judge noted that another incarcerated witness, Tommy Pettit, testified that he went to Heyn’s home with Billy Wayne Hall and there was a dead body in the kitchen. Pettit said they took the body to Epperson’s house where he and another man named Clinton Ward cut it up and took it a hog farm “up north” for disposal.
Pettit claimed that a woman named “Deb” or “Debbie” was at the home and that she had ordered Pettit to cut up the body. The prosecution contended that the woman was Paula Hall, although Pettit had failed to identify Hall in a photographic lineup, had described the woman as very large and at least 5 feet, 5 inches tall (Paula Hall was about 130 pounds and 5 feet, 2 inches tall).
Judge Cordonnier found that Pettit was a chronic meth user with an extensive record of convictions who was facing numerous charges that were dismissed or resulted in probation in exchange for testifying against Hall. Pettit’s wife, Diane, testified that her husband told her about killing and dismembering Heyn. The judge said he believed that Tommy Pettit had told her those stories, but that didn’t mean the accounts were truthful.
Judge Cordonnier found that Pettit’s testimony of seeing Paula Hall at the home when Heyn was killed was worthless and noted that at the time of the crime, Epperson had been dating a woman named Debbie.
“By his own admission, Mr. Pettit has been high for years,” the judge ruled. “The likelihood of Tommy Pettit telling the truth he may remember is very slim.”
In acquitting Hall, the judge also noted that two pathologists had testified that their examinations of Heyn’s skull showed some indentations on the front and a fracture on the side, but that neither could rule out that the fractures were the cause of death or had been caused after the head was discarded in the forest.
– Maurice Possley