Melissa Trotter was the nineteen-year-old daughter of Sandy and Charles Trotter, the cousin of Texas State Senator Jerry Patterson, a community college student, and a school bookstore employee. Melissa did not return home as expected on the night of December 8, 1998. Her parents began searching immediately.
Melissa's 1997 emerald green Pontiac Sunfire was found at 2 AM, parked in the Montgomery College lot. Her cell phone and some of her schoolbooks were still in the car. Her Winnie the Pooh backpack was not in the car, nor were the books she had been using to study for her final exams. She missed her afternoon history final. She missed her evening work shift.
The State's Case
According to the State's theory of the case, Melissa Trotter was already dead by the time she was to be at work, and dead at the hands of Larry Ray Swearingen. Her body, however, would not be found until twenty-four days later. On January 2, 1999, several hunters came across her clothed remains in the western portion of Sam Houston National Forest, near the western shore of Lake Conroe. She had been strangled with one leg cut from a pair of pantyhose. The ligature was still knotted around her neck.
By the time Melissa's body was discovered, Larry Swearingen had been in jail for twenty-two days. He was the primary suspect in her disappearance. The police had arrested him for outstanding traffic warrants on December 11, just three days after Melissa went missing.
At his trial, the State presented a circumstantial, but substantial case for murder. With respect to the attempted rape and kidnapping charges, however, the evidence was wispy thin.
On December 6, Swearingen met Melissa Trotter and talked with her at length. She gave him her phone number, and they made plans to talk again the next day.
Later that evening, while using his truck to help transport some furniture, Swearingen commented to Bryan Foster and William Brown that he was going to meet a young lady named Melissa for lunch. He bragged that if everything went right, he was going "to have Melissa for lunch." Swearingen called Melissa from Foster's house and talked with Melissa about meeting her for lunch and helping her study for an exam.
On December 7, Melissa paged Swearingen. He called her back. She apparently canceled or postponed their lunch date. His co-workers teased him about being stood up. He explained she was taking a test. He appeared to be angry the rest of the day.
On December 8, several witnesses saw Melissa sitting with a male, possibly Swearingen, in the Montgomery College library between 11:30 AM and 1:30 PM. The two of them were sitting by the computers and chatting amicably. Melissa's biology teacher saw her leave with a male shortly after 1:30 PM.
At 2:05, Swearingen returned a page from his friend Sarah Searle. He told her that he would have to call her back because he was having lunch with a friend.
Around 3:00, Swearingen's landlord saw Swearingen's truck arrive. Not long thereafter he saw Swearingen's truck leave. Because the truck had tinted windows, the landlord could not see who was in the truck.
At 3:03, Swearingen placed a cell phone call that utilized a cell tower near FM 1097 in Willis, Texas. The State argued the call was consistent with Swearingen driving from his rented mobile home to the Sam Houston National Forest where Melissa's body was found.
At 4:30, Swearingen placed another cell phone call picked up by a different cell tower near Willis. The State argued the call was consistent with Swearingen returning to his home after dumping Melissa's body in the Sam Houston National Forest.
When Swearingen returned home, he was again observed by his landlord. Swearingen in fact spoke briefly with the landlord.
By 5:30, Swearingen left again, this time to pick up his wife Terry from his mother's house.
Terry Swearingen would later testify that when she and her husband returned home, she noticed their home was in disarray. She noticed also a pack of Marlboro Light cigarettes and a red lighter on top of the television. Neither she nor her husband smoked. Melissa Trotter, however, smoked Marlboro Lights and used a lighter similar to that found in the Swearingen's home.
That same evening, Larry Swearingen called Phyllis Morrison, an ex-girlfriend. Swearingen told her that he was in trouble and that the police might be after him.
On December 9, when the Fosters (Melissa's parents) heard that Melissa was missing, they called Swearingen. Swearingen claimed he did not remember the last name of the girl with whom he had met the day before. When Mrs. Foster reminded him her last name was "Trotter," and that a girl named Melissa Trotter was now missing, the phone went dead.
On December 11, Swearingen told an acquaintance that he anticipated being arrested by Montgomery County authorities.
Also on December 11, Swearingen noticed a patrol officer observing him. Swearingen sped away, leading the officer on a high-speed chase. The chase ended in front of the home of Swearingen's mother and stepfather. Swearingen was arrested on several outstanding warrants. While being placed in handcuffs, he asked that his hands be placed in front of him rather than behind. He explained that his wrist and ribs were sore because he had been in a bar fight the week before. Following his arrest, law enforcement authorities observed and photographed red marks on his neck, cheek, and back.
On December 17, two neighbors of his mother and stepfather collected numerous pieces of torn paper from their street. The papers turned out to be Melissa Trotter's class schedule and some health insurance paperwork her father had given her.
On January 2, Melissa's body was discovered in the Sam Houston National Forest. The location was heavily wooded, secluded, and remote. The police had previously searched the area three times without finding the body. They explained later that they would have had to walk within twenty feed of the body before seeing it.
Larry Swearingen was familiar with the area where Melissa's body had been found. He had driven a date around the vicinity just a few months earlier in his red pickup.
Melissa was laying on her back in a pile of bushes. Her right arm was above her head and slightly to the left. Her sweater, shirt, and bra were pulled up under her arms, exposing her breasts and back. Her jeans were still on. The fly was closed. The right rear pocket was torn downwards, exposing red underwear beneath. A note was in one pocket. The note had been given to Melissa by a friend on the day Melissa disappeared.
Melissa had creases on her back from her neck to her waist. The creases could have been caused by her body laying on the forest debris for an extended period of time.
There were no scratches on her exposed skin as one might expect had see been dragged through the brush.
One shoe was on and the other was off, laying nearby. There was no soil on her shoes, as one might expect had she walked to that spot. The implication was that she had been murdered elsewhere and carried or dragged to the spot where she was found.
A piece of hosiery was knotted around her neck, as a ligature. The hosiery was one leg from a pair of pantyhose. Swearingen's landlord would later testify that he found the remainder of the pantyhose in Swearingen's mobile home as he was cleaning the trailer for another tenant. Terry Swearingen, Larry wife, would later testify that the pantyhose belonged to her.
Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Joye Carter conducted the autopsy on 3 January. That was one day after Melissa's body had been discovered, 25 days after she had disappeared, and 22 days after Larry Swearingen had been arrested. She did not estimate a time of death. She did not note any evidence of sexual assault. She did not note any defensive wounds or evidence of restraint.
During Swearingen's trial for capital murder, Dr. Carter would testify that death was caused by asphyxia due to ligature strangulation. The lack of defensive wounds, such as broken fingernails and the difficulty of tying an elastic nylon around a struggling victim, suggested that the Melissa may have been unconscious when the ligature was applied.
The neck appeared to have suffered a sharp-force injury that would have been inflicted before death while the blood continued to circulate. Although there was subsequent animal activity and teeth marks at that same area of the neck, a cut with a knife could not be ruled out.
The left side of Melissa's face was much darker and more decomposed than the right. That would be consistent with her having sustained a bruise on the left side of her face. Animals are drawn to blood and a bruise would collect blood close to the skin's surface.
Melissa's tongue had a deep bruise, possibly caused by a bite. Such a bite would be consistent with Melissa being struck under the chin or biting down while being strangled.
There was no evidence of penetration of the vagina, anus, or mouth. There was, however, discoloration on the vaginal wall. That discoloration could have been a bruise caused during sexual intercourse within three days of death, possibly on the day of death. Dr. Carter had not mentioned that bruise in her autopsy report.
Based on the state of decomposition, including the presence of fungi that take several weeks to develop, Dr. Carter estimated Melissa Trotter's death occurred 25 days prior to the discovery of her corpse. That matched exactly the date of Melissa's disappearance. Dr. Carter had not estimated a time of death in her autopsy report.
Melissa's stomach contents included a French fry-like form of potato, some chicken, and a small amount of greenish, vegetable material.
The State claimed the stomach contents were consistent with the tater tots Melissa had had eaten while at Montgomery College. The State claimed further that chicken was consistent with Chicken McNuggets Melissa might have purchased at the nearby McDonald's. Dr. Carter testified that a person's stomach will usually not empty in less than two hours, and that any food within the stomach at death will remain there.
Criminalist Sandra Musialowski, from the Texas Department of Public Safety, testified that several fibers recovered from Melissa's jacket were consistent with fibers from Swearingen's jacket.
Criminalist Musialowski testified also that several fibers found on Trotter were similar to seat material from Swearingen's vehicle. A few other fibers found on Trotter were similar to fibers from the headliner of Swearingen's truck and from the carpet in his home.
Criminalist Musialowski testified also that three hairs found in Swearingen's truck were microscopically similar to Melissa's hairs. Those hairs still contained the anagen root, indicating they had been forcibly removed.
Officer Ivan Wilson, also from the Texas Department of Public Safety, testified regarding a paint fleck found on Trotter's clothing. He testified that the quantity was "an insufficient amount to do all the testing that I normally do." The fleck, however, was similar in appearance to paint on Swearingen's red pickup.
A Luminol test conducted on the seats of Swearingen's truck indicated that they had been wiped down with Armor All. Two empty containers of Armor All wipes had been found in the garbage at Swearingen's home.
While Swearingen was in jail awaiting trial, a cellmate asked him whether he had committed the murder. Swearingen replied, "Fuck, yeah, I did it." Swearingen added that he was just trying to avoid the death penalty.
Larry Swearingen provided substantial assistance to the State of Texas in their effort to convict him. On three occasions, he clumsily attempted to fabricate exculpatory evidence. These clumsy efforts were used against him at trial.
Swearingen's first clumsy effort was claiming that his house had been burglarized.
Part of the circumstantial case presented against Swearingen at his trial was that his house was in disarray when he returned there with his wife. His wife noticed the disheveled state of their home as well as the strange cigarettes and the strange lighter. Apparently in an effort to explain the tumultuous state of his home, Swearingen contacted the police and reported a burglary. He falsely claimed to have been out of town from 11:00 AM on 7 December through 7:30 PM on 8 December. He also falsely claimed that someone had stolen his VCR and his Jet Ski. The police, however, found no sign of any prying mechanism on the doors or windows to his home. His Jet Ski was located at a repair shop where Swearingen had dropped it off for maintenance.
Swearingen's second clumsy effort was asking a friend to provide an alibi for him.
On 9 January, When Swearingen's friend, Elyese Ripley, visited him in jail, Swearingen asked her to say that she had been with him on the day Melissa disappeared. He asked her to say that they had gone to the Texaco-McDonald's restaurant near Montgomery College.
Swearingen's third effort was by far the most clumsy. While in jail awaiting trial, he attempted to compose an exculpatory letter from a mystery woman.
Swearingen foolishly decided to write the letter in Spanish, a language with which he was clearly less than fluent. He relied heavily on an English-to-Spanish dictionary. The resulting letter was so garbled and so ungrammatical that precise translation was impossible. The State's translator, Geneveva Perez, attempted an "official" translation. She testified that the letter "was written with all verbs in the infinitive form." She was forced to add comments "about certain words that actually didn't mean what they were intended to mean." She agreed that "three or four Spanish-speaking people would have different interpretations." Nonetheless, she was able to discern a fictional narrative. That narrative was of somebody name Ronnie who took Melissa Trotter to the forest and strangled her.
Ms. Perez' best-effort translation follows immediately.
LarryI have information that I need to tell you about Melissa and Wanda. I was with the murderer of Melissa, and with the one that took Wanda from work. I am not sure what he did with Wanda, but I saw everything that happened to Melissa. He was talking to her in the parking lot. They went to school together is what he told me. "We drove for awhile, and then we went and had breakfast. I began to talk about sex when she said she had to go home." He hit her in the left eye, and she fell to the floor of her car. He took her to the wood and began to choke her with his hands at first, then he jerked (jalar is slang) her to the bushes. He cut her throat to make sure that she was dead. Her shoe came off when he jerked (slang) her into the bushes. Her jabear (cannot make out/ no such word in Spanish) was torn. I am in love with him, and I don't want him in jail. The man in jail doesn't deserve to be in jail, either. To make sure that you know, I am telling you the truth. She was wearing red panties when R.D. murdered her. He choked her with his hands first, but he used A piece of rope the truck from his truck; he had a piece of black rope that he used in his boat to anchor it, or something, he said. When he dragged her from the car, he put her in the shrub on her back. I know that I should turn him in, but he told me that he would kill me, too, and I believe him. He has told about this murder to 3 other women in the past, will tell you that he smokes, and he smoked with her at the college at 2:30 and drove a blue truck. His hair is blonde and brown and lives here. His name is Ronnie, but that is all I can tell, if you want more information, say it on paper and I will continue to write, but I want to come in.Robin
According to the State, this purportedly anonymous, exculpatory letter included details of the crime that could have been known only to the person who murdered Melissa Trotter. Those details included the fact that Melissa was injured on the left side of her face, that her neck was cut, that one of her shoes had fallen off, that she was laid on her back among the bushes, and that she was wearing red underwear.