Vicki Ann Garner lost her life in her home at the hands of a convicted murderer who was on parole – I had worked many murders in the past as an officer, and some as a new Crime Scene Investigator, but this was my first as lead CSI.
Vicki was a client of our local mental health authority in Tyler, Texas, (The Andrews Center) where she was a client; Vicki had intellectual disability disorder, what we used to call mild mental retardation. Vicki worked daily, had friends and her own apartment, and by all accounts, she was well liked by those around her; she had a loving and supportive family as well.
None of us who worked the case knew Vicki while she was alive, however some of did get to know Vicki’s family during preparations for the case being brought to court. We learned that Vicki was born June 15, 1958, and that she was independent, and resourceful. She loved life on her own, and worked to have her own apartment. Vicki had a group of friends in the complex, and she made friends wherever she went.
The parolee who took her life was a burglar and a drug abuser who was suspected of several recent burglaries in Vicki’s complex by residents who knew him from the Andrews Center, where they had worked with him. They were sure he was the burglar, but we had nothing to tie him to the offenses other than their feelings.
His name was Robert Charles Ladd, and he had been out of prison, on parole, for about four years after serving about a third of a 40-year prison term for the murder of a Dallas woman and her two children. At the time, I didn’t know him, or his history. I had worked a burglary a couple of doors from Vicki’s apartment a few days before her death, and he was named by the burglary victim as the believed suspect, but we had zero evidence at the time to arrest him.
At around 6:45 a.m. on September 25, 1996, the Tyler Fire Department responded to a fire at Vicki’s apartment. They forced open the front door, which had been locked, and found a lot of smoke in the house, and a small fire In the bedroom off the living room. Shortly thereafter, they found Vicki’s partially burned and lifeless body on the floor of her bedroom, beside her bed.
The fire department works their own arson cases, but fires involving bodies go to the police department, and I was subsequently dispatched there to process the crime scene.
I had worked at least one fire death prior to that; an elderly woman who had died after dropping a cigarette into her bed. I had worked dozens of deaths as an officer, and a few while trying as a CSI, but this one stuck with me like few others have, and it does to this day.
Vicki’s body was face down on the floor, and she was unclothed below the waist. Her arms were stretched out in front of her, and her hands were tied together with a cord from the home. She had a belt around her neck, and there were ligature marks on her ankles that matched another cord from inside the home. She had obvious signs of head trauma; we later found a bloody hammer in the living room, under her couch, presumptive test for blood on the head of the hammer showed positive for the presence of blood.
The fire was deliberately set, the suspect used part of her bedding that had been between her legs and on her lower back to fuel it.
The fire department had forced their way in, and opened some windows to vent the smoke, so the point of entry was unknown.
An autopsy determined that she died from manual strangulation, and it showed she had been beaten in the head with a weapon consistent with the hammer we found; the hammer found would later be tested, and the blood on it belonged to Vicki.
During a detailed search of the apartment, it became clear that she had items stolen from her as well, and in a search for latent fingerprints, I found a palm print from a kitchen cabinet, but the front part of the house was covered with soot, so nothing else as far as fingerprints could be done except in that kitchen area. A fingerprint belonging to Vicki was also found in the kitchen, on a bottle of soda.
Detectives immediately coordinated with the FBI’s Violent Crimes Task Force, of which we were teamed up with often, and together they found that a man pawned two items missing from Vicki’s home, a combination television/videocassette recorder and a telephone. We were able to match the pawned TV to an owners manual found at the home, so since you have to have a valid ID to pawn an item in Texas, we had a suspect. The man who pawned the items told investigators he received the items from a drug dealer, who lived less than a mile from Vicki. Detectives visited the man, who had another of Vicki’s telephones and her microwave oven. He stated that he traded five “rocks” of crack cocaine to Robert Ladd for the items.
The microwave oven and phone was recovered and I was able to get a single, very good latent fingerprint off of the microwave, on the bottom area, an area consist with someone carrying the oven as apposed to an area you would expect an everyday user to touch. This latent, along with the palm print found at the home, both belonged to Ladd.
Detectives and Agents now had enough to get a warrant for Ladd, and he was arrested with some of Vicki’s jewelry. Later, A sexual assault exam performed at Vicki’s autopsy would later find Ladd’s semen in her.
As mentioned above, Ladd had a previous conviction for capital murder out of Dallas County. Turns out , he strangling and stabbed a woman to death and set her body on fire. This victim’s two children, a 3-year-old and 18-month-old died of smoke inhalation when he burned their mother; If memory serves me, she was his cousin. Ladd was sentenced to 40 years in prison for that offense, but was released on parole in 1992.
Evidence presented at Ladd’s trial showed that he was a former employee and client of the Andrews Center where Vicki had worked, and that he had worked there at the same time as her, and it was the believed that he intentionally targeted those he knew from the center. Physical evidence sealed his fate in this case, and a Ladd was found guilty of capital murder by a jury in August 1997 and sentenced to death.
He had been scheduled for execution in 2003, but he received a stay the morning he was set to die from the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals due to claims that he was mentally retarded.
After about seven years, the courts finally ruled that Ladd failed to prove that he was mentally retarded, the finding was affirmed in subsequent appeals.
Ladd, was executed by lethal injection on 29 January 2015 in Huntsville, Texas.