Kenneth McDuff’s career with Texas prisons spanned three decades
Waco – Old time lawmen don’t look back on the days of their most dramatic success with anything other than an eye of clarity; there is no real romance in the kind of hard work it takes to clean up the messes left by sociopathic criminals. There is no glamour available in sticking the needle in a condemned man’s arm and consigning his soul to eternal perdition, only the precise process of building a case that won’t cave in when the big, bad wolf huffs and puffs.
And then, in the interest of public health and common decency, the law goes to work cleaning up the mess the crooks left behind.
In a casual interview regarding the true nature of tracking down what, exactly, Kenneth McDuff did with his victims’ bodies – where did he leave them like a sack of garbage after a twisted picnic – retired Texas Ranger Matt Cawthon reacted to a question about the condemned serial killer’s last words.
“How much store do you put by Kenneth McDuff’s last words?”
“What were they? What did he say?”
Asked in the execution chamber at The Walls in Huntsville if he had any last remarks, McDuff reportedly said, “I am ready to be released. Release me,” as the lethal cocktail flowed into his veins on November 17,1998.
Colleen Reed, kidnapping and murder victim
Only days before, McDuff had agreed to tell a team of crime scene investigators exactly where he left the remains of Colleen Reed, 28, a popular Lower Colorado River Authority accountant McDuff and his fall partner had kidnapped at an Austin car wash where she was scrubbing her Mazda sports car late at night. Witnesses said they heard her scream as they watched a Thunderbird matching the description of McDuff’s car speeding away the wrong way on one-way 5th Street.
It had taken six years to persuade the killer, the only person to ever serve time on Texas’ Death Row twice, to give up the precise locations where he left the bodies of six women – most of them prostitutes – after he made parole in October, 1989 during the height of the release of prisoners from Texas penitentiaries due to overcrowding by order of a federal judge.
McDuff was tried and convicted, sentenced to death, for the murders of Ms. Reed and Melissal Northrup, a convenience store clerk he snatched from her job at the corner of New Road and I-35 in Waco.
According to Cawthon, McDuff was most concerned that the guards not interfere with his comissary privileges, and he negotiated leniency for his newphew, who was doing time for a federal drug dealing conviction, in return for his cooperation.
Ms. Reed’s final resting place was diagrammed in a thick and overgrown stretch of river bottom land at Falls on the Brazos, near a bridge, where Cawthon and a team of law men dug holes in frustration for hours, shovels in hand, trying to follow the diagram.
“We weren’t getting anywhere. Finally, we got a maintainer in there and it was slicing five or six inches off the top with each pass; but we still weren’t finding anything.”
That was when the Inspector General of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice Institutional Divison made the most unusual arrangement to have McDuff brought to the scene, heavily shackled and wearing a baseball cap in the back seat of a Ford Taurus.
Retired as of 2011, John Moriarty is a New York cop with 22 years experience as an investigator at TDC, 10 of them in the top job of inspector general. He authorized McDuff’s excursion from his place on death row at Ellis 1 – a never-before happening not since repeated. He was one of a team of 10 appointed by Governor Ann Richards to track down violent parole violators and repeat offenders accused of very vicious crimes.
“He (McDuff) was never allowed out of the car,” said Cawthon. As he sat surveying the scene, the searchers stood in a group around the car and explained the problem. McDuff pointed with his chin, and said, “You see that sapling over there? Make a pass with that thing and see if she’s not buried there.”
As the blade bit into the brush and dirt on it first pass as directed by the serial murderer who liked to torture and slowly kill his victims, it exposed the top of Ms. Reed’s skull where it lay in a shallow grave.
“It broke it open,” said the Ranger.
At the time, he told an Associated Press reporter they had deferred their efforts while they made a decision on how to complete the excavation.
“He knew exactly where he left her. That’s how psychopathic he was. He played those killings out over and over in his mind. He enjoyed it.”
And then the moment passed, and the three of us, two law men and a retired crime reporter, looked around ourselves and came back to our senses. In the bright morning sunshine of the filling station’s coffee area, we resumed being who we are today.
Three little old men with gray whiskers and grandbabies made the shy acknowledgement that, yes, evil is as disturbing as can be. It was hard to meet our companions’ eyes.
That’s how much store a man who was there puts in the last remarks of Kenneth McDuff, serial killer.
In the end, McDuff was glad to go away – forever.