LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — Lisa Hill became a widow at age 21 when her young husband was shot and left to die in the New Mexico desert after he was kidnapped by two fugitives.
Two decades later, Hill says she is finally on the verge of getting justice for a killing that seemed overshadowed amid a crime spree that authorities say left at least three others dead and made headlines around the country. The two inmates had broken out the Bryan County Jail in Durant, Oklahoma, and began a cross-country rampage that included another kidnapping and multiple robberies and car thefts.
With the men subsequently locked up for other crimes, the investigation of the New Mexico killing sat dormant until Hill’s recent efforts. Thanks to her urging, a New Mexico district attorney has secured indictments against Michael Dale St. Clair and Dennis Gene Reese on charges of capital murder and kidnapping in the death of 22-year-old Timothy Keeling.
The indictments were first disclosed to The Associated Press by Reese in a phone call and confirmed by online court records. Both men have discussed the case with the AP in a series of phone calls and letters.
Hill’s efforts included driving more than 800 miles from her home in Texas to hearings in Kentucky related to a killing there. She also met with Reese at a Kentucky jail about a year ago. After talking to Reese, she started a series of phone conversations with prosecutors in New Mexico and Kentucky.
“I began asking questions and never realized or knew at the age of 22 that I would need to follow up myself with the judicial system and push things through,” the 42-year-old Hill said in an interview last week.
New Mexico warrants for the extradition of St. Clair from Kentucky’s death row and Reese from the Oklahoma State Penitentiary should be finished by the end of the month. The two men could face the death penalty in New Mexico if convicted of Keeling’s slaying.
“Should they spend time in jail in New Mexico? Absolutely!” Hill said. “Should they be given the death penalty? Absolutely!”
Reese and St. Clair had long been suspected in the death of Keeling. Reese, 52, has admitted his role in the death but says he didn’t pull the trigger. The 55-year-old St. Clair denies the charges.
“I told him it would never be OK … that I forgave him, but it would never be OK,” Hill said of her conversation with Reese. She has remarried and works as a mental health caseworker.
In a phone call to The Associated Press, Reese said he doesn’t plan to contest extradition.
“It ain’t no use to fight it,” said Reese. “I’m guilty. I just want to get it over with.”
However, St. Clair’s attorney in New Mexico said his client plans to fight the charges.
“Michael is taking a very active role in his defense,” Stephen McIlwain said.
In letters and phone calls with The Associated Press over the last four years, St. Clair has admitted to four slayings in Oklahoma for which he is serving time, but repeatedly denied killing Keeling.
“I didn’t shoot that boy in New Mexico,” St. Clair said in 2010 phone call. “They tried to hang it on me, but I didn’t do it.”
Their run began when they broke out of the county jail in Durant, Okla., on Sept. 19, 1991. At the time, St. Clair was serving four life sentences for murder and Reese was awaiting trial on charges of strangling and beating a woman to death.
What happened after the breakout is detailed in court testimony, documents and interviews with St. Clair and Reese. The most recent interview with Reese came in June, when he called The AP in response to a letter sent almost 18 months ago.
The pair stole a truck from a jail employee, then another truck when the first vehicle ran out of gas. They fled to Texas and boarded a Greyhound bus that took them to Denver, where they came across Keeling outside a grocery store.
St. Clair and Reese posed as buyers interested in purchasing Keeling’s truck, then kidnapped him. Reese drove as Keeling sat next to him and St. Clair held a .357 magnum revolver in the passenger seat.
During the drive, Keeling showed Reese and St. Clair pictures of his 18-month-old niece and talked about his life. As they approached Clayton, N.M., a small crossroads town, St. Clair told Reese he had to urinate and told Keeling to get out with him.
Reese said St. Clair shot Keeling twice before returning to the truck.
“He told me … that shooting people was like shooting dogs,” Reese said in a phone interview. “Once you killed one, the rest was easy.”
Reese said he was afraid to protest the shooting.
“I know Michael; he would have shot me just as quick as he shot everybody else,” Reese said. “He needed me to drive; that’s all. I didn’t ever have the gun.”
St. Clair and Reese headed east through Texas, stopping in New Orleans for a few days before taking Keeling’s truck north through Tennessee, where law enforcement has identified them as the main suspects in the death of two store clerks. Later in Kentucky, they kidnapped and killed distillery worker Frank Brady near Elizabethtown after ditching and burning Keeling’s truck.
Reese fled the scene. Police caught him in Las Vegas several months later, where he almost immediately admitted to his role in the deaths of Keeling and Brady.
Police caught St. Clair not long after Brady’s death and since then, he’s been fighting charges, convictions and attempts execute him.
The probe of Keeling’s death sat dormant as Kentucky and Oklahoma prosecuted the men for other crimes. District Attorney Donald Gallegos, whose territory covers Clayton, N.M., said initial decisions not to pursue the case were made before he took office.
Gallegos said Hill’s efforts prompted him to pull the file, which had been marked dismissed, out of a cabinet, and start the investigation anew. The indictments were issued in April.
Now, Gallegos has the responsibility of returning St. Clair and Reese to New Mexico to stand trial. Gallegos he hasn’t decided whether to seek capital punishment, which is a possibility since the crime took place before a 2009 moratorium on the death penalty.
“If things go the way I think they’ll go, they’ll never serve time in New Mexico,” Gallegos said. “But, my job is not to seek convictions, it is to seek justice.”
Reese said he’s just waiting for New Mexico officials to pick him up.
“I wish I could change what happened, but I can’t,” Reese said.
That’s of little comfort to Hill.
“Closure will never really come. When you know someone like Tim, when someone like him touches your life, closure never really comes,” Hill said. “Instead, you just learn to cope.”