Crime File

The Railroad Killer – III The Surrender, Prosecution and Verdict

He used all kinds of household items as well as rocks and axes to kill over 15 people across the United States and Mexico, and was hard to catch because he was always on the move and had no fixed address. But there was one thing that was common to all murder scenes – proximity with the railroad. HEMRAJ SINGH tells the story of the infamous Railroad Killer.

Finally, staying in touch with Resendiz’s sister, Manuela, in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and placing reward money on his arrest paid off. On July 10, 1999, Resendiz’s sister contacted FBI. Like Resendiz’s wife, his sister also feared the bounty hunters, who just wanted to get hold of Resendiz, dead or alive, for the bounty money. Resendiz’s sister told the FBI team that her brother had called her and she did not want him harmed. The FBI assured her that if Resendiz surrendered himself to the authorities he would be treated humanely and would be brought to justice in accordance with the law.

However, the job of persuading Manuela to get in touch with Resendiz and ask him to surrender was undertaken and performed well by a young Texas Ranger named Drew Carter. Carter knew that Resendiz idolized his sister, and if there was someone who could talk Resendiz into surrendering, it was Manuela. She feared that her brother might be harmed by the bounty hunters or might die at the hands of the FBI agents.
By this time the FBI had discovered that Resendiz had gone across the border to Mexico and was most probably hiding somewhere around the town of Ciudad Juarez.

Carter maintained a friendly rapport with Manuela, and explained to her that under the circumstances the fairest deal that could be offered to a vicious serial killer of the kind her brother had turned out to be could be three things: 1) his personal safety in prison; 2) visiting rights to his family and close friends; and 3) a psychological evaluation. Carter did not promise anything more than that because he knew that was the best that could be offered. Manuela agreed to the deal, and on July 12 she received a written assurance and agreement by way of a fax from the office of the District Attorney in Harris County. One of their relatives acted as a messenger between Resendiz and his sister and carried the message to Resendiz in Mexico.

Resendiz agreed to surrender on those terms, and on July 13, in the presence of Manuela and Carter, Rafael Resendiz surrendered to the Texas Rangers at a Texas border crossing on a bridge connecting Zaragosa, Mexico, with El Paso County. The FBI, keeping its word to Manuela, allowed Resendiz to walk across the border into the custody and took him in with a minimal arrest team. Resendiz was, thus, arrested without the use of force and without any untoward incident.

In custody, Resendiz was interviewed at length by Mark Young, and during these interviews Resendiz confessed to a total of 13 murders, four of which the authorities had not yet connected to Resendiz.

On March 23, 1997, in Ocala, Florida, the body of Jesse Howell (19) was found by the railway tracks. He had been beaten to death with an air hose coupling whereas his fiancée, Wendy Von Huben (16) had been raped and strangled to death, and was buried in shallow grave some 30 miles away in We Hope, Florida. Resendiz confessed to the double homicide.

On July 19, 1991, one Michael White (33) was found dead in the front yard of an abandoned house in San Antonio. The victim had been bludgeoned to death with a brick. The murder had remained unsolved for a long time until Resendiz confessed to killing White in September 2001. Resendiz described the crime scene by drawing a map for the investigators. He claimed that he had killed White for being a homosexual. The detectives re-investigated the case in the light of Resendiz’s confession, and concluded that he had indeed killed White.

On March 26, 1986, the body of an unidentified African-American woman was found in an abandoned farm house on Weichold Road, east of San Antonio, Texas. She had been shot with a .38-calibre handgun four times. The body was found in advanced stage of decomposition. It had lain undiscovered for at least three weeks, but could have been there for as long as three months. Her age was estimated to be somewhere between 18 and 25, and at five feet eleven inches, the victim was quite tall for a woman. The woman remained unidentified though she was believed to be from Florida and her first name possibly was Norma.
Her murder had remained unsolved until Resendiz confessed in 2001 to killing her over an argument. He said that he killed her for insulting him. He also claimed to have killed her boyfriend and having dumped his body somewhere between San Antonio and Uvalde in a creek. However, since the body of the boyfriend was never found, the claim remained unsubstantiated. Resendiz claimed to have killed the man because he was a practitioner of black magic.

The easy surrender of Resendiz did not fail to surprise a large number of people, for nobody thought Resendiz was unaware of the fact that if convicted in Texas, electric chair was a very real possibility, also because Harris County, where Resendiz was to be tried for the murder of Dr. Benton, held the national record for awarding the death penalty. And the agreement that Resendiz had entered upon with the office of the District Attorney did not promise any leniency of any sort. The Dallas Morning News wondered in its editorial thus: “Mr. Resendiz faces a long legal process. Some questions surrounding the surrender itself need to be answered – why did he not merely ‘lose himself’ in Mexico? Or, given Mexico’s policy against extraditing alleged murderers to the United States because of the death penalty here, why did he not simply surrender to Mexican authorities? Once those questions are answered, surrender may turn out to be as interesting as the manhunt itself.”

The only possible explanation could be that Resendiz, like his sister and wife, feared the bounty hunters, who had already started gathering around him. While the nation was speculating about his reason for surrender, Resendiz was spending his time in a 60-square-foot cell maximum-security prison in Harris County with just a cot, a toilet and a wash basin to support his unglamorous life.

It is largely speculative, but part of the reason why Resendiz tamely surrendered to Texas Rangers might be that Mexico had its own set of questions for Resendiz from occurrences similar to those for which Resendiz was behind the bars in the US. There had been a few killings in Ciudad Juarez, where Resendiz had his family, and he visited the place quite often. There were railroads and there were many dead women found in close proximity of the railway tracks. The crime scenes in many cases looked like the ones left behind by Resendiz in the US.

Jury selection began on in late March 1999 in Houston, Harris County, Texas. Resendiz, however, did nothing to make it easy for any side, including his own. Not only did he turn a hostile side to the prosecution, but also refused to cooperate with his own legal team. To begin with, he plainly refused to be tested by the psychiatrist appointed by the court though he acquiesced later. Then he refused to accept a changed venue despite his legal team’s claim that he was almost certainly not going to get a fair trial in Houston due to the hugely prejudicial atmosphere.

Resendiz was charged with the murder of seven in all, but was tried and eventually convicted for only one – that of Dr. Claudia Benton. A part of the steering column of Dr. Benton’s vehicle was found bearing Reszendiz’s fingerprint and the fragments of the same steering column were also found in the house of Resendiz’s girlfriend. Resendiz’s fingerprints were also found at many places in the vehicle itself, which was recovered a few days after Dr. Benton’s murder.

Resendiz’s trial was presided over by District Judge William Harmon. County District Attorney John Holmes, Jr., assisted by Devon Anderson, acted as the chief prosecutor, Allen Tanner and Rudy Duarte were appointed defence lawyers for Resendiz by the court. The defence team knew that the State had a very strong case against Resendiz on merit. So, they pushed the plea of insanity.

Several adjournments had to be granted because Resendiz did not submit to psychiatric examination by several court-appointed psychiatrists. He later relented. Then the defence took the plea that Resendiz was unlikely to get a fair trial in Harris County, as the general sentiments against Resendiz made the environment prejudicial. So, the defence pleaded that the trial be shifted to a different place. The defence pleaded in the motion: “Publicity has been inflammatory and unfair and has created such hostility towards the defendant, and prejudiced the opinions of members of the community to such a degree, that it is unlikely that a verdict can be solely reached on the evidence presented at the trial.” But the motion failed because Resendiz himself opposed it.

After several pre-trial adjournments, the trial finally began on May 8, 1999. Promptly, Judge Harmon slapped a gag order stopping the lawyers from talking to the press as freely as they would have liked to. For a week the jury saw a number of witnesses examined and a pile of evidence presented before it from both the sides. At the centre of the trial was the issue as to whether Resendiz was sane enough to be criminally culpable for the murder of Dr. Benton.

The psychiatrist examined by the defence opined that the defendant was schizophrenic and could not tell right from wrong on account of his delusions that his victims were evildoers whereas the psychiatrist for the prosecution was of the opinion that despite defendant’s warped view of the mankind, he knew very well what he was doing.

Over twenty witnesses were presented by the prosecution, the most damning of all being the 23-year-old girlfriend of victim Christopher Maier. Left for dead after brutal rape and bludgeoning, she was the only surviving victim of Resendiz. She gave a detailed account of the savage assault on her and her boyfriend on August 27, 1997. After killing her boyfriend and before bludgeoning her, Resendiz had said referring to her boyfriend, “You don’t have to worry about him anymore.”

Prosecution closed its case by bringing to the notice of the jurors that extremely brutal nature of the killings and the airtight case was backed by incontrovertible evidence against Resendiz, including the clinching DNA evidence.

Defence had little to argue. All they could do was plead for mercy, and ask the jury to consider that Resendiz “had a problem”, and that “he turned himself in”. That did nothing to move the jurors, and after 10 hours of deliberation, on May 17, 1999, the jury pronounced Resendiz guilty of first-degree, pre-meditated murder, and sentenced him to death.

On June 27, 2006, Resendiz was executed in Huntsville, Texas, by lethal injection. In his last statement Resendiz had asked for forgiveness.

After the execution, George Benton, the husband of deceased Dr. Benton, reportedly said in a voice atremble with emotion that Resendiz “looked like a man … and walked like a man. But what lived within that skin was not a human being”.

Forgiveness is not always easy to concede or beget, even in death.


Leave a Comment