Last summer I got an email from a man whose reputation, and voice, preceded him. His name is Eric Nadel, and as the veteran commentator for the Texas Rangers baseball team, he’s a Texas sports icon. He has a lifetime contract announcing games for the franchise and has joked that he hopes to outlive it. He was contacting me about a man who’d written to him nearly 10 years ago, who he’s gotten to know pretty well, a man named Wendell Lindsey, who is serving life in a Texas prison for murdering his daughter in a cockeyed scheme to collect insurance money.

It wasn’t unusual for Nadel to get letters from Texas prisoners — among the few comforts they’re allowed (if they can afford it) is a transistor radio purchased from the prison commissary. As a result, there is a lot of listening to baseball games as the summers drag on in the sweltering confines of the state’s prisons. Nadel told me that he’s gotten a decent number of letters over the years and always writes back. He asks his pen pals what they’re in for and gets detailed responses in return. But the response he got from Lindsey was a first: Lindsey insisted he was innocent. Nadel wanted to talk to me about that.

On the phone, he laid out the basics. Lindsey had taken his two young daughters, ages 9 and 10, to fish at a popular spot near Fort Worth. As they were preparing to head home, Lindsey’s oldest fell face first into the water. Lindsey didn’t know how to swim, but he jumped in to try to rescue her. He was unsuccessful, and his daughter drowned. At first everyone thought it was a tragic accident. But that soon turned into a homicide investigation and then a murder charge. Lindsey was convicted and sentenced to life based largely, it appeared, on a host of dubious claims about the science of drowning.

Lindsey was out of appeals, but thanks to Nadel’s resourcefulness, he had a new and well-regarded Dallas attorney on his side. They were exploring the possibility of filing a junk science writ — a mechanism of Texas law that allows prisoners convicted on the basis of unreliable forensic science, or scientific understanding that has since evolved, to challenge their convictions.


Wendell Lindsey, right, with Eric Nadel in Amarillo, Texas, on Oct. 4, 2014.

Photo: Courtesy of Wendell Lindsey

I’ve been writing about wrongful convictions for 20 years, and I’ve done a lot of reporting on junk forensics, but this was the first time I’d encountered a case in which the science of drowning was called into question. A year after Nadel first contacted me, I can now say that of all the cases I’ve investigated, Lindsey’s ranks among the most dramatic and confounding I’ve seen. There is certainly junk science, and plenty of it: Self-professed experts in the mechanics of drowning were unequivocal in backing the state’s contention that the only way Lindsey’s daughter could have drowned that day was if Lindsey had forcibly held her under the water until she died.

But that’s not the only thing that went sideways. There was a lackluster police investigation built on a foundation of flawed assumptions. There were witnesses with serious credibility issues — chief among them, Lindsey’s estranged second wife, Linda, who painted an elaborate picture of Lindsey as heartless and capable of murder. As it turns out, she was a serial bigamist who was never legally married to Lindsey, and a private investigator had tied her to at least two fake Social Security numbers. There were allegations that the local medical examiner’s office changed its manner of death determination in order to satisfy police, a bumbling defense attorney who managed to make the case even more convoluted, and prosecutors who carried on an injudicious relationship with Lindsey’s surviving daughter after she testified at trial on behalf of the state.

And then there was Lindsey. Hapless at best, he had a long history of making poor decisions, particularly when it came to finances — a history that was often criminal and made his decision to buy life insurance on his daughter seem particularly suspicious. Prosecutors would argue at Lindsey’s 1991 trial that he was obsessed with Linda, and plagued by financial problems, so he intentionally drowned his daughter as part of a plot to woo Linda back into his life.

Over the last year, I’ve asked Lindsey countless questions — in letters, on the phone, and in person — many of them frankly antagonistic, in an effort to get at the truth of what happened at the lake that day. To his credit, Lindsey has answered each at length, at times offering up details of his life that I hadn’t even asked about. He is a prolific letter writer. He’s sent me so many that I had to create a lengthy index to keep them all straight. And in nearly every communication, Lindsey comes back to one thing: He did not kill his daughter. And he’d like a second chance to prove it.


Map: Soohee Cho/The Intercept

1Water’s Edge

The day that Jeanette Lindsey died, the water in Lake Worth was a frigid 53 degrees.

Around noon that Tuesday, February 27, 1990, Wendell Lindsey ditched work and picked up his daughters, Jeanette, 10, and Darlene, 9, from their grandparents’ home in Azle, Texas, a small community northwest of Fort Worth. Their grandmother Bonnie Porter homeschooled them on the property, which featured a stock pond where they would often go fishing. Lindsey and the girls had made plans for an outing to do just that.

They packed into his 1977 Lincoln and headed out, first going to Trinity Park in Fort Worth near the city’s zoo. Lindsey thought there were too many people already trying to fish there, so they watched the ducks and goofed around at the playground before returning to the car. They stopped at Taco Bueno for a burrito and then headed back toward Azle. But instead of going directly home, the trio ended up at the Fort Worth Nature Center and Refuge, a large park and wildlife preserve where the Trinity River feeds into Lake Worth. It was a popular spot, a place to fish or canoe, hike or bird watch. They pulled into a turnout off the road and headed down a short path to the water’s edge, fishing gear in hand.

At first, they were fishing right off the bank, but they weren’t getting any bites, so they walked down the path to a spot where a large tree had fallen and was partially submerged in the water. They made their way out onto the trunk and fished from there.

Exactly how long they were there isn’t entirely clear — Lindsey recalls that it was more than an hour — but it was 4:30 p.m. when he checked his watch, just 30 minutes before the park would close its gates. If you’re inside the park after closing, there’s no getting out until morning. Lindsey asked Darlene, who was already standing on the bank, to go up to the car and grab some paper towels from the back seat so they could clean the mud from their shoes before leaving. He was watching her walk to the road, he would later say, when he felt the log shift slightly under his feet. He turned toward Jeanette in time to hear her let out a scream before falling face first into the icy water.

By the time Lindsey was able to haul Jeanette out of the lake, her hair was tangled with decaying organic debris, her pupils were dilated, and her lips were blue. She was dead.


Wendell Lindsey and his daughter Jeanette at the zoo in Fort Worth, Texas.

Photo: Courtesy of Wendell Lindsey