Killer Grandma

The sun had been down for more than an hour over Cedar Creek Reservoir outside Gun Barrel City, Texas when a couple of fishermen discovered a fishing boat drifting empty near the Redwood Beach Marina. They pulled it ashore and discovered a fishing license belonging to Jimmy Don Beets, along with a life jacket and nitroglycerine pills.
 
Lil Smith, owner of the marina, contacted the Coast Guard, called Beets’s home and eventually spoke to Betty Lou Beets, Jimmy’s wife. Betty Lou, 46, arrived at the marina, positively identified the boat and Jimmy’s fishing license.
 
High winds prevented authorities from mounting a search that night, but early in the morning on August 7, 1983, search and rescue personnel from the Coast Guard and the Parks and Wildlife Service began an unsuccessful three-week search for Beets, a 26-year veteran of the City of Dallas Fire Department.
 
A deputy for the Henderson County Sheriff’s Department told Betty Lou on the first day of the search that because the reservoir was being used for speed boat races that day, the high level of activity on the water would aid the search.
 
With circumstantial evidence that Jimmy had likely suffered a heart attack, fallen overboard and drowned, the police tabled the investigation into his disappearance, despite the fact that investigators were puzzled by the fact that Jimmy’s eyeglasses were also found in the bottom of the boat. They should have been in the water on his face, they felt.
 
But feelings are not evidence and at that time in the investigation authorities had no reason to suspect foul play. Drowning is an extremely rare way to murder someone simply because there are many easier ways. In 2015, the FBI reported just 14 of the nearly 16,000 murders were committed by drowning.
 
After the search by hundreds of volunteers proved fruitless, Betty Lou began inquiring about whether she could collect Jimmy’s city-paid life insurance and retirement benefits.
 
Unfortunately for her, Betty Lou was repeatedly thwarted in her attempts to get her hands on Jimmy’s money. She was disappointed to find that as his spouse — they had been married a little under a year — she was his beneficiary, but because Jimmy was not legally dead, she would have to wait seven years before collecting the $100,000 life insurance and $1,200 monthly pension.
 
A year or so after Jimmy disappeared, Betty Lou sold the boat despite the fact that it was not titled in her name and had been Jimmy’s property before they were wed. Around the same time, the house Jimmy owned — that she had unsuccessfully been trying to sell — mysteriously went up in flames and was destroyed. Betty Lou attempted to collect on the homeowner’s insurance, but the insurance company delayed the payout because of the strange circumstances of the fire.
 
While that claim was pending, she hired an attorney to petition the court to have Jimmy declared legally dead and to be appointed executor of his estate. Jimmy apparently did not have a will. At the time, under the circumstances by which Betty Lou was appointed administrator, Texas law prohibited distribution of a decedent’s estate for three years.
 
In the spring of 1985, Rick Rose, an investigator with the Henderson County Sheriff’s Department began looking into Jimmy’s disappearance once again after he received a tip that “there may be possible questions concerning the cause of death” of Jimmy Don Beets.
 
As it turns out, the tip came from Betty Lou’s daughter-in-law, whose husband had helped his mother dispose of Jimmy’s body after she shot him in the back of the head as he slept.
 
The ensuing investigation revealed that Betty Lou was a cold-blooded killer who had a tendency to dispose of her unwanted husbands through murder. While searching for Jimmy’s body on the Beets homestead, investigators found the remains of Betty Lou’s third husband, Doyle Wayne Barker, who had, according to Betty Lou, simply up and left after a year of marriage. Barker was also shot in the head.
 
beetssummaryThe police investigation also found that in 1972, Betty Lou had pleaded guilty to assault for shooting her second husband while they were separated. He survived, they divorced, but after she pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor assault charge, they remarried for a time.
 
Betty Lou went on trial for the murders in 1985. The chief witness against her was her son, Robbie Branson, who recounted how his mother told him that she was planning to kill Jimmy.
 
“She said she wanted me to leave and she didn’t want me to be around when she shot and killed him,” Robbie testified.
 
Robbie took a motorcycle ride for a couple of hours, and when he returned, Jimmy was “gone.” He never saw Jimmy’s body, but Robbie helped his mother move a body-sized package wrapped in a sleeping bag out to the wishing well in the front yard, cover it with peat moss and watched as his mother planted flowers atop the body.
 
About three months afterward he confided the incident to his common-law wife because “it was just bugging me,” but that he waited two years to talk to authorities “because I was protecting my mother.”
 
Under cross-examination, Robbie denied the defense’s contention that he was actually the killer.
 
“I never killed a man,” he said. “She’s lying now, saying I killed him when she killed him.”
 
Betty Lou took the stand in her own defense and pointed the finger at her son. Jimmy and Robbie had been arguing over the 19-year-old’s decision to quit his job and came to blows, she claimed. While she was in another room, she heard the shot and ran in to find her husband dying from a shot to the head.
 
“I told him that if he was alive, he would understand that we had to bury him in the front yard to protect Robbie,” she said.
 
Betty Lou could not explain how her other husband’s corpse ended up buried beneath a shed in the back yard. She suspected her second husband had committed that murder, however.
 
The jury believed Robbie and convicted Betty Lou of capital murder. She was sentenced to death and disappeared into the Texas prison system, becoming the third woman on Texas’s death row.
 
In 1990, Betty Lou became an issue in the presidential campaign when then-Gov. George W. Bush refused to spare her life. She had become something of a cause celebre because she was not only a grandmother on death row, but had claimed to have been abused by all of her husbands. She could not produce any proof, however, to support her claims.
 
The Rev. Jesse Jackson wrote to Bush, saying a reprieve “would demonstrate your compassionate conservatism and that you are willing to do what is right even in the face of potential criticism from your constituents.”
 
Ignoring the pleas of anti-death penalty advocates, Bush signed the death warrant and 62-year-old Betty Lou Beets became the 121st person to be executed during his term as governor.