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.
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.
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.
It’s unclear how long it took, but a car did come down the road. There was a Hispanic couple inside. Lindsey recalls hearing a car door close and seeing a man looking down toward the water. Darlene asked them to call an ambulance. The couple took the winding road to the park’s visitor center at the top of the hill, where Letty Alamia, a biologist who worked there, was in the parking lot getting ready to leave. They approached her “frantically,” she recalls, “saying something in Spanish. And since I spoke Spanish, I said, ‘Well, what’s the matter?’” They kept repeating one word, “ahogando” — drowning. “They weren’t very coherent, and they just kept saying that word,” she told me. “And I said, ‘Who? What? What’s drowning?’” A girl, she believes they said. She got on her two-way radio and called a colleague, John Karges, another biologist. She told him that she was going to follow the couple to the water. He said he would be right behind her. No one called 911.
Lindsey was on the bank, wet from head to toe, shaking, and cradling Jeanette in his arms.
When the party arrived at the lake, Lindsey was on the bank, wet from head to toe, shaking, and cradling Jeanette in his arms. He appeared to be in shock, the park employees would later tell investigators. The Hispanic couple drove off; no one remembers when they left, and no one would ever see them again — so no one questioned them about what they saw in the water that day. Lindsey was crying out, “Oh, my baby! My baby drowned!” Alamia recalls. She and Karges didn’t know what to do. Lindsey did not know that there wasn’t an ambulance on the way. Alamia recalls suggesting to Lindsey that maybe they should try mouth-to-mouth or CPR. But, she said, Lindsey wouldn’t move or let go of Jeanette. “So, then we tried to call for help.”
They tried to use their two-way radios to contact the city’s park police, but the radios weren’t working. Alamia ran up the road to a small neighborhood nestled within the park (the neighborhood, Lakeland, had been there since before the city bought the property). She knocked on one door, but no one was home. At a second house, she was allowed in to use the phone. But instead of calling for help directly, she called back up to the Nature Center office and asked the secretary there to do so. (At the time, there were no protocols for how to handle emergencies at the park, Karges told me; they would be crafted not long after Jeanette’s death.)
It would be another 20 minutes before a first responder finally arrived, a park police officer by the name of Mike Alexander. He’s a state game warden now — somewhat of a legend within the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, he once broke up a group of poachers in East Texas who retaliated by torching his house. By the time he got to the lake, Alexander remembers, Jeanette had no pulse. He asked if anyone had tried CPR. No, they said, because Lindsey wouldn’t let them. That was odd, Alexander thought, but otherwise he found nothing suspicious about the scene. Soon others would come — firefighters, paramedics, and another park officer. They wrested Jeanette away from Lindsey and rushed her by ambulance to a nearby hospital.
Jean Bergquist — the girls’ mother and Lindsey’s ex-wife — remembers walking into the hospital, distraught. She spotted Lindsey and Darlene sitting next to a chaplain. “And I said, ‘You killed my baby!’” she remembers yelling at Lindsey. “Because that’s what I felt, because I thought, you had her, and you didn’t watch her. And Darlene immediately jumped in my face and said, ‘Daddy didn’t have anything to do with it, he tried to save her.’”
Darlene would later testify that she didn’t remember doing that.
But while no one at the scene — not Alamia, Karges, or Alexander — was initially suspicious that anything other than a tragic accident had occurred, the second park officer to arrive, Will Harty, wasn’t so sure, according to Alexander. (Harty was unavailable for an interview for this story.) Among the things that bothered Harty, Alexander remembers, was that when he tried to question Darlene at the hospital, he said that Lindsey got angry and snatched her away. (The chaplain who was with Lindsey and Darlene at the time would later tell investigators that Lindsey did not seem mad.) “That was just the start of it, I guess,” Alexander told me.
The next day, Detective C.W. Riley would get the case.
Three days after Jeanette died, Lindsey went to the Fort Worth Police Department to provide a statement to Riley. He described going to Trinity Park and Taco Bueno before arriving at the Nature Center. He talked about fishing from the fallen tree and sending Darlene to the car for paper towels. And he said that while he was watching to make sure Darlene stayed out of the way of any passing vehicles, Jeanette fell into the water.
Lindsey said he immediately jumped in and made his way over to where he thought Jeanette was. The water was turbid and silty, and he was having trouble with his footing —the lake bed was slippery, and the muddy bottom had a way of sucking in your feet like quicksand. That area of the lake was known as Mud Flats. Lindsey found Jeanette and tried to grab her, he told Riley, but it felt like she was struggling against him. He lost his grip and couldn’t see where she was. He found her again — he grabbed her leg, he thought — and tried to pull her toward the shore. But again, he lost his grip and then his footing. He fell under the water. When he stood up, the water was getting close to chin level. He kept moving forward, using his arms below the surface to feel around for Jeanette. Finally, he found her and grabbed her — either around her arms or neck, he said — and walked backward toward the shore where he pulled her up onto the bank. She was dead.
Riley’s secretary typed up the statement and Lindsey signed it. Although Riley would testify that Lindsey had told him that he did not know how to swim, this was not included in the signed statement.
The same day, Riley met park officer Will Harty out at the scene of the drowning. Harty had called a couple of days earlier to say that he was suspicious of Lindsey’s story, Riley wrote in his report, because the water was quite shallow by the tree Lindsey said they’d been standing on. Members of the fire department’s water rescue unit joined Riley and Harty at the scene to take some measurements. Donning a dry suit, which divers and surfers wear in cold water for insulation, one of the firefighters waded out into the lake. It wasn’t at all muddy, he reported, and he had no problem with his footing. Working with a firefighter standing on the tree, he stretched out a tape measure to determine the depth of the water at several locations.
That Jeanette drowned in the shallowest water measured that day would be accepted as fact by all of the state’s witnesses.
Their conclusions, while crucial to the case, were based on fragmentary, occasionally inscrutable information. According to Riley’s testimony, the men judged that at the point where the fallen tree disappeared under the water line (between 8 and 10 feet out from the shore), the lake was 17 inches deep. (The firefighter in the water testified that it was actually 18 inches deep at that point.) At another point 16 feet out from the tree, the water was 40 inches deep, Riley said, and at 24 feet out, it was 60 inches deep. Someone at the scene took photos of this exercise — you can see a floppy tape measure extending from the firefighter in the water to one standing on the tree; others depict the firefighter in the dry suit at various depths. In one, the water is up to his hips; in another, it comes to mid-chest; in a third, it’s up to his shoulders.
Using these measurements as a guide, investigators would ultimately conclude that the water was roughly 17 inches deep where Jeanette drowned. But how they determined that the drowning occurred at this depth is unclear — and impossible to reconstruct given their scattershot documentation. Riley never took Lindsey or Darlene to the scene to demonstrate what happened. Nor did he ask Lindsey to make a diagram to aid the investigation. When I asked Riley about this, he said that Lindsey refused to accompany him to the lake that day. (Lindsey denies this. He says Riley never asked him to go and that he certainly would have. There is no mention of Lindsey refusing to go to the lake in the official police report.) At trial, Riley testified that he didn’t have Lindsey diagram the scene because he’d never done that before in an investigation. “I cannot recall one,” he said.
The assertion that Jeanette drowned in the shallowest water measured that day would be accepted as fact by all of the state’s witnesses.
Riley called Linda Lindsey.
Two days later, she came in to see the detective. A blonde who wore her hair teased up in a classic ’80s do, Linda worked as an administrative assistant at Alcon Labs, a medical company specializing in eye care products, which is where she met Lindsey, who was a laboratory technologist in research and development. The two began dating in early 1989. Just months later they married. In her interview with Riley, Linda described Lindsey as obsessed with her, and chronically in debt. At first, he lavished her with gifts, she said. They bought a new Ford Bronco (it was repossessed within months) and a Stingray motorboat. Lindsey knew how to swim, she said, and she’d taught him how to water ski. He had been violent toward her and she wanted to leave him, she said, adding that he’d abused prescription drugs and she’d heard he was using crystal meth. She told Riley that Lindsey favored Darlene over Jeanette and had told her that Jeanette was “just like her whore mother.” Lindsey had warned her not to try to leave him, Linda said. “Don’t make me sorry,” he allegedly told her. They had finally separated over Super Bowl weekend — roughly a month before Jeanette died.
Judging by the police report, Riley accepted Linda’s account at face value. Aside from Darlene — who explained to Riley what happened “on the day of the accident,” as she put it — there is no record of Riley interviewing anyone who could corroborate Linda’s inflammatory claims. Riley did not interview the girls’ mother and Lindsey’s ex-wife, Jean, or her husband, both of whom were still close to Lindsey. According to Jean, the allegations weren’t true: Lindsey did not know how to swim, he loved his daughters, and he’d never been violent toward either of them, she told me. As the case moved forward, Jean defended Lindsey in the newspaper — even as Linda was bashing him to the same reporters.
Instead, it appears that Riley looked mostly at Lindsey’s finances as a form of corroborating evidence about his character. Lindsey knows his financial mistakes and misdeeds made him “look suspicious,” he told me. He had a fairly lengthy history of passing hot checks, and he’d used his mother’s Social Security number to get the credit to buy the boat and the Bronco. When he worked briefly as an insurance agent, he said he pocketed some of his customers’ premium money. And he had stolen a couple of expensive microscopes from work — he was using them for home experiments on the effects of microwaves on bacteria, he told me — and then sold them. “I saw an opportunity to make some money there,” he said, “so I did it.”
Riley then learned that Lindsey had told the State Farm agent that he wanted to use the insurance policies on his daughters as a way to save money that could be put toward their college education. The agent told Riley that with that type of policy, you could surrender it for cash, but the proceeds wouldn’t be enough to pay for school.
According to the police report, nearly two more months would pass without any additional investigation. Then, on May 10, Dr. Marc Krouse, Tarrant County’s deputy chief medical examiner, ruled Jeanette’s death a homicidal drowning. The following day, Riley filed an arrest warrant for 33-year-old Wendell Lindsey.
It would be more than a year before Lindsey went on trial. Beginning in late August 1991, the trial lasted an exhausting three weeks — largely, it seems, because Lindsey’s attorney, Patrick Short, was longwinded and at times nearly indecipherable when questioning witnesses. Between the lines of the transcript, you can see that he might have had a decent defense strategy, but he was hardly deft at carrying it out.
“Are you suggesting to the jury that this scratch right here is a scratch?” Short asked the medical examiner, referencing an autopsy photo. When questioning Lindsey, who would take the stand in his own defense, he offered: “So, what you’re telling the jury is what you remember, at least of what you remember, or what you don’t remember is what you remembered or didn’t remember pretty much at the time?” Juror Tim Vokes summed it up for me: “The defense was pretty bad.”
(Representing himself, Lindsey would later argue in one of his appeals that Short’s performance was constitutionally deficient. The claim was denied.)
Opposing Short were two seasoned prosecutors, David Montague and Elizabeth Cottingham. Cottingham would go on to become an assistant U.S. attorney in Austin, where she still works. Montague would stay on with the Tarrant County District Attorney’s Office. Upon his retirement in 2008, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram ran a flattering article about his career. He had a reputation as a “champion of children,” the paper reported, prosecuting child abuse cases and starting the office’s Crimes Against Children Unit.
The foundation of the prosecutors’ case against Lindsey rested in part on the points emphasized in Riley’s decidedly thin investigation: Lindsey’s financial distress and fixation with Linda — plotting to collect an insurance payout in order to win her back. The evidence of Lindsey’s financial issues was pretty straightforward, and Linda testified without any meaningful challenge to the incriminating behavior she’d previously attributed to Lindsey.
But perhaps the key evidence that sealed Lindsey’s fate was the testimony of state witnesses who claimed expertise in the science of drowning and were unambiguous in the assertion that there was no way Jeanette could have drowned on her own. Among them was Sarah Forsyth, an aquatics coordinator and instructor at Texas Christian University. Good swimmers don’t just drown, especially not in shallow water, she told the jury. And Jeanette’s family — including Darlene — had classified her as a good swimmer.
Cottingham asked Forsyth to assume that a 10-year-old was standing on a log and fell into shallow water. What would the child do? she asked. “Stand up,” Forsyth replied. When the child fell, she would have her hands out in front of her, not only making it impossible that she would land on her face — and thus get mud in her mouth, ears, or nose — but also making it easy for her to find the bottom, get her bearings, and push back up out of the water.
“When you fall on the floor, do you forget to stand up?”
The alleged rarity of finding organic material in the ears, nose, mouth, or lungs of a person who has drowned in silty lake water was an ongoing theme throughout the testimony of the state’s experts. Paramedics and firefighters who tried to revive Jeanette at the scene commented on the water and debris in her system — “chunks of mud” as one of them put it — saying they hadn’t encountered that in other drowning cases.
Forsyth said the fact that Jeanette had screamed suggested she was aware that she was going under and would likely take a breath beforehand — meaning it would not make sense that she would ingest lake water. Forsyth added that a person who was drowning would never be in a horizontal position, make any forward progress through the water, or struggle against a rescuer, as Lindsey’s explanation of what happened would suggest. “It just wouldn’t be possible,” she said. “It wouldn’t happen.”
Would a struggle be “consistent with [a] person sitting on top of the drowner?” Cottingham asked. Yes, Forsyth said, and that would explain why mud was found in Jeanette’s mouth. For that to happen, she said, “you’d have to have your face smushed into the mud.”
None of the witnesses considered whether the temperature of the water could have had any significant impact on the situation. In fact, a firefighter who was at the scene opined that the water was “real nice” the day Jeanette drowned — minutes after testifying that when he returned three days later to take depth measurements, he had donned a dry suit before wading in. That way, he said, “when the water is real cold, we don’t get cold.”
Short, Lindsey’s attorney, tried to push back to little effect. When he asked Forsyth if she was saying that there was no way a child would fail to stand up after falling in the water, she retorted, “When you fall on the floor, do you forget to stand up?”
Forsyth also questioned why Lindsey just sat on the bank with Jeanette in his arms rather than try to initiate CPR. Lindsey had taken a CPR class back in 1976, prosecutors noted. And, Forsyth declared, a person would never forget how to administer aid no matter how much time had passed since their training. Short pointed out that Lindsey was likely in shock — as park employees and first responders at the scene had suggested. But that wouldn’t matter, Forsyth said, agreeing with Cottingham that in an emergency situation, a person wouldn’t “allow themselves the luxury of shock.”
Driving home the state’s theory about the intentional nature of the drowning was Krouse, the medical examiner. “There is absolutely no way this is an accidental drowning,” he testified — put simply, the autopsy evidence was not consistent with Lindsey’s story. “In what way?” Montague asked. “In the description of the — virtually the entire event,” Krouse said.
And the debris and musty water in Jeanette’s system caused him concern. In total, he removed some two tablespoons of material from Jeanette; a normal amount would be “maybe a teaspoon or so,” he said. The muddy material in both of her ears was odd too: Sure, he would expect to find debris in one ear if a person was trying to save her, but not in both.
On cross-examination, Short made some headway. He asked Krouse whether his assessment relied on what he was told by police about the depth of the water where Jeanette drowned. Not at all, Krouse replied, though he acknowledged that he hadn’t been to the scene himself and had only reviewed photos taken several days later. What he knew about the alleged depth “came drifting down the grapevine somewhere,” he testified. His conclusion about what happened to Jeanette was based on the assumption that the water was quite shallow, he said, no more than up to her chest. He admitted that he would have to “re-examine” his conclusion if the water were deeper.
But Short also undercut himself, bolstering the state’s case. He pressed Krouse about how certain he was that Jeanette’s death had been intentional. “On a percentage, Dr. Krouse, scale of zero to a hundred based on what you know right now, would you tell the jury what the percentage on the manner of death that you believe your percentage is right now?”
“My certainty on manner of death?” Krouse asked. “One hundred.”
I spent nearly a year trying to get an interview with Short. He brushed me off at every turn.
In court, Short was firm: Jeanette’s death was a tragic accident and nothing more. The state knew that, he argued, but aggressively pursued Wendell Lindsey anyway. The proof was in the timing, he said.
Not long after Jeanette died, her maternal grandmother, Bonnie Porter, took Lindsey and Jean to see a civil lawyer in order to initiate a lawsuit against the city of Fort Worth, claiming that negligence on the part of the Nature Center employees was the proximate cause of Jeanette’s death. There were no emergency procedures in place, and after park employees were alerted that someone was drowning, no one called 911. Had they done so right away, Jeanette might have been revived.
Notice of the lawsuit was filed with the city on April 11, 1990, well after Krouse performed Jeanette’s autopsy and during a point at which the police seemed to have shelved their inquiry into her death. Yet, just weeks later, Krouse would rule her death a homicide and Riley would seek an arrest warrant for Lindsey. The timing was too coincidental, Short would argue to the jury. “Now, what’s the best way … to stop a civil lawsuit for negligence against … the city?” he asked. “Indict somebody for murder.”
Ultimately, the lawyer handling the civil case, Lowell Dushman, declined to follow through with the suit, at least in part because he felt that Lindsey bore some responsibility for what happened to Jeanette. Dushman testified at trial that he decided to ditch the case sometime after Lindsey was arrested. “It wasn’t the kind of case we wanted,” he said.
Still, there was evidence to suggest something odd was afoot. For starters, there was Jeanette’s death certificate, which Krouse signed on March 1. Where the form required a manner of death to be declared, Short pointed out, it looked like the document had been altered — like someone had changed the ruling from “accidental” to “pending investigation.”