Anniversary of an Ax Murder
By Sonia Duggan
Forty years ago, Friday, June 13, 1980, a Fairview housewife killed a Wylie middle school teacher in such a horrific way that some will never forget.
Candace Montgomery, 30, wielded a 3-foot-long ax she found in the garage at the home of Betty and Allan Gore on 410 Dogwood Drive in Wylie, striking Betty 41 times while daughter Bethany slept in her crib in another room.
It was bloody and it was brutal, and it put the small town of 3,700 on the map as being home to one of the most heinous crimes in Collin County.
If you’re a Wylie newcomer, or anyone under the age of 50, the crime may not spark memories, but ask around town, or stop by the library and check out “Evidence of Love,” or better yet, watch the 1990 movie “A Killing in a Small Town,” but be prepared for a Hollywood version of the story.
Was it premeditated? Probably not. But by all accounts, the story of how the couples met at a Lucas church seem ordinary until you read accounts of how Candy convinced Betty’s husband to have an affair, all the while pretending to be his wife’s friend.
The day of the murder Allan was out of town on business, but after being unable to reach Betty on the phone repeatedly, he grew worried and summoned neighbors – three different times – to check the house. The third time, they broke in and discovered the baby, crying and filthy, after hours of being alone, and a butchered mom.
For two days, Candy was not a suspect and went about life as normal, even caring for Betty’s 5-year-old daughter Alisa that Friday night.
The murder trial attracted local and national media and a courthouse filled with spectators – mostly women – every day who simply wanted to know why she did it. In the end, it didn’t turn out as anyone expected. Candace Montgomery, now known as Candace Wheeler, lives as a free woman in Georgia today after being acquitted by a jury of nine women and three men. The Gore children, Bethany and Alisa, were left with a lifetime of unanswered questions as to what prompted another woman to kill their mother in such an inhumane way.
The devil is in the details
Princeton resident Steve Deffibaugh was a 31-year-old crime scene investigator with the Collin County Sheriff’s Department when he was paged that night in 1980. When he called to check in, he was told it was a homicide, so he quickly checked his camera and film supply and headed out the door.
Deffibaugh said, as an investigator, his typical approach was to shoot his way in and shoot his way out of a crime scene with his camera.
“It’s easier when you have to testify,” he stated.
The former investigator, in fact, did testify at the trial which brought him some notoriety then, and in the years that followed. He’s been interviewed many times about the Gore case and featured on Investigation Discovery, a documentary style program about true crime.
After an extensive career in law enforcement and fire service, today Deffibaugh serves as a church deacon, Princeton councilman, member of the Marine Corps League and volunteers in numerous civic and church organizations.
He is often asked to speak to criminal justice classes as a guest lecturer. Often, at the request of the students, he brings along a PowerPoint presentation of the decades old Gore crime scene, a good tool for explaining what to look for when investigating.
After looking through the presentation with Deffibaugh myself, this could have easily been an episode of the TV drama “CSI,” only in the end the show could just as easily have been an episode of another TV drama: “How to Get Away with Murder.”
In 1980, Wylie Police Chief Royce Abbott had been on the job only 13 days when the murder happened. Although the Police Department took the lead, there were multiple departments involved including: Collin and Dallas County Sheriff’s Offices, Collin County Criminal District Attorney, Texas DPS Criminal Investigation Services, Southwestern Institute for Forensic Sciences, Dallas County Medical Examiner and the Texas Rangers.
Deffibaugh rushed to the Gores’ house that night but said, “Unfortunately, news media, neighbors and crowds were already there by the time I got there.”
The former investigator detailed how he approached the crime scene to me. He started at the mailbox with a photograph of the exterior with the name and house number, followed by an interior shot showing the mail that had been delivered that day, but never picked up.
The front photo of the Gores’ house didn’t exactly look like a crime scene, because instead of crime scene tape, which the PD did not have, Deffibaugh said, “Wylie PD put regular packing tape across the front door.”
Inside the house, the former investigator said, “There were a lot of people, including neighbors. We had to run those people out.”
Photo by photo, Deffibaugh described each scene, often pointing out obscure, yet important details of the crime.
There was a small amount of blood on the front porch. Inside, there was a blood streak on the entryway floor and some blood on an interior door frame. In the bathroom, there was evidence the killer showered but left some obvious clues. A green bath rug in front of the tub had heavy bloodstained footprints. In front of the sink, critical evidence was destroyed, says Deffibaugh, when the PD rolled up a clear bath mat and “ruined two perfect footprints.”
In the bathtub, there was blood on the gold tile walls, on a gold bath mat and around the drain. The drain also held human hair mixed with dog hair from the Gores’ two dogs.
Investigators would later tie the drain hair to that of Candy Montgomery and the dogs. Candy confessed to showering after bludgeoning Betty with an ax, an act that was often talked about in the years that followed.
Another photo shows a baby’s room with a crib and a rocking chair where Bethany slept while her mother fought for her life.
Other photos reveal small details including Deffibaugh’s photo of the thermostat.
“This affects how the body reacts when decomposing,” he said.
On the bureau in the master bedroom, a $20 bill was sitting in a box, evidence, said the former investigator, that it wasn’t a robbery.
“A good thief wouldn’t have left anything like that,” he said.
On the Gores’ bed lay a book about exploring England which Betty had been reading in preparation for a planned summer trip. Inside the book was a letter Betty had written that afternoon to her mother. In the letter, Betty wrote about how busy she was, but she had such a good friend named Candy taking care of Alisa. In fact, Alisa was at church camp that week in Lucas along with Candy’s daughter. Because Allan was out of town, plans had been made for Alisa to spend the night at the Montgomerys’ home, which prompted Candy’s trip to the Gore house that day to pick up Alisa’s bathing suit.
Photos of the dark paneled living room show the home of a busy family. Toys were scattered, a basket of folded laundry sat near a chair, and fabric was left in a sewing machine mid-stitch. Deffibaugh points out a red business card for Candy’s side business on the end table, Betty’s coffee cup near the sewing machine, and a copy of The Dallas Morning News dated June 13, 1980. There were two small spatters of blood on the corner of the newspaper near an announcement for the movie “The Shining,” ironically a movie about an ax murder.
The coffeepot also appears in a photo, evidence that it was never shut off and burned coffee was in the pot.
Another angle of the living room shows the wide doorway which led to the utility room at the back of the house. Blood was all over the walls, on the freezer, and on the door leading to the garage. Photos of the linoleum floor in the utility room show three dots in one photo, and those same dots with a tape measure open in another photo.
“You can tell she (Candy) was wearing a pair of thongs (flip flops),” Deffibaugh said. “The tape measure tells you exactly what size they were. It was a small foot.”
Those photos were followed by a picture of a three-foot-long ax, the weapon used to kill Betty. The blade appears to be half hidden under the freezer. Nearby, a pair of sunglasses with a missing lens and one sandal lay on the floor, both indicators of a struggle.
A sandwich baggie placed over the handle of the ax looks uncharacteristically out of place for a crime scene investigation. The small baggie, much like the rolled bath mat, was simply a foiled attempt by an inexperienced individual to preserve evidence. An easy solution, said Deffibaugh, would have been to station an officer at the front and back doors so evidence would be protected
“The JP was Buddy Newton,” he said. “He put a small plastic sandwich bag on the handle of the ax. He also put plastic bags on the front door and back door (knobs).”
The reason for the presence of the Justice of the Peace, Deffibaugh explained, was because Collin County did not have a medical examiner, so the JP was the one summoned to pronounce a person dead, and in some instances, request an autopsy.
Photos of the utility room floor showed, he said, “slide marks and a footprint on a chair below a window indicating the body had been moved.”
Several photos of the freezer show blood smeared on the white exterior in what looked like a failed attempt to clean it up. The blood pattern, Deffibaugh said, puzzled investigators from SWIFS but it was later explained during the trial after Candy testified she tried to wipe down the freezer.
“She left a perfectly good bloody thumbprint (on the freezer) probably from trying to balance,” he said.
The multiple photos of the victim are gruesome. According to Deffibaugh, and the autopsy report, Betty was struck 41 times with an ax, 28 of them in the head. Near Betty’s body lay a dog bowl and copies of kid’s books, most likely knocked to the floor in a struggle.
“All the chop marks happened while Betty was lying near the ironing board,” he said. “From the wounds, in one spot it looks like the ax might have gotten stuck.”
There was a footprint under her left thigh, he said, which was another indication the body had been moved.
A closeup photo shows Betty was missing her right eye, which, according to Deffibaugh, appeared to have been purposely chopped out, something he noted was more common among same sex couple murders.
Over the next few weeks following the murder, investigators would learn about Candy’s affair with Allan that had ended months earlier. Deffibaugh said that although Allan broke off the affair with Candy, maybe she wasn’t ready for it to end.
During the trial, Deffibaugh said they returned to the crime scene to try and do a rebuttal. He added that due to an officer picking up the other sunglass lens, he never found where it landed, which would have been helpful in determining where the assault started.
“She (Candy) probably started hitting her at the door of the garage, then fell into the utility room,” he said. “Self-defense ends then. Why would she keep hitting her?”
More photos in Deffibaugh’s presentation show autopsy photos of Betty’s head, hands, and legs, and miscellaneous evidence such as fingernails found at the scene.
“Her hands had the typical defense wounds,” he said. “She was trying to protect herself.”
In the beginning of the investigation, Deffibaugh said they did not have any suspicion of Candy.
“As customary, everyone in the house that day (working the case) had their fingerprints taken. You can at least eliminate them,” he said.
After spending the next two days investigating leads and trying to recreate a timeline, Candy was brought in for questioning June 15. Deffibaugh sat in on the interviews with Candy but says interrogation was led by Dallas County.
He did, however, take more pictures, this time of Candy.
“I always take pics of hands, feet, the whole body,” he said. In the process, he noticed three of her fingernails were shorter than the others.
That discovery prompted the Texas Rangers to take a trip to Betty’s birth state of Kansas. They arrived before she was buried June 25 and lifted up the lid of the coffin to check her fingernails, says Deffibaugh.
“We got an evidentiary warrant, submitted them, matching up her right little fingernail,” he said. “No two are alike.”
After that, Deffibaugh said they got a second evidentiary search warrant, submitted them, matching the bathtub hair to the suspect.
“Most criminal cases in the State of Texas are only supposed to have one,” he said. “We got two.”
A photo of Candy’s feet showed a cut on her toe, most likely from the crime.
“Some of Candy’s blood was mixed with Gore’s blood,” he said. “We just had DNA, not the technology then.”
The arrest warrant for Candace Montgomery was issued on June 27, 1980. By then, Candy had an attorney, a neighbor who was a civil attorney named Don Crowder.
Deffibaugh said the arrest happened at the McKinney courthouse that day, and because he was dressed in a suit and a tie, he was elected to arrest her.
“I read her her rights in front of a TV camera at the McKinney courthouse,” he said.
After the arrest, Deffibaugh said they had doctor examine her. They took pictures of her bruises, which the former investigator attributed to her “hitting with such fury with the ax.” Candy, on the other hand, said the bruises were from her dog jumping up on her, a fact that Deffibaugh found hard to believe after he went to her house to pick up her car and saw the dog.
“The dog was an old, overweight Basset Hound,” he said.
A few days later, Candy was out on $100,000 bond and went home to be with her husband Pat and daughter. She resumed life as normal, even attending church, until she was indicted.
Justice not exactly served
Despite the constant media attention, and the potential to have an impartial jury or trial, the trial happened in Collin County in October. The only venue change was from the newly built courthouse in McKinney to the former one in downtown because it had more space for spectators.
Deffibaugh said three of the people on the 12-person jury were personal friends of Candy or the attorneys.
“The foreman of the jury was Don Crowder’s daughters’ soccer coach,” he said.
The District Attorney at the time was Tom O’Connell and the District Judge was Tom Ryan.
Reports show before the trial even started, Crowder violated Judge Ryan’s “gag order” and was ordered 24 hours of jail time, and by the time the trial was over, he had racked up even more.
Despite the murder charges and the brutal way Betty was killed, Deffibaugh said the defense argued that additional photographs of Betty’s body would inflame the jury.
“Judge Ryan agreed and only allowed one photo,” he said.
As the trial went on, Deffibaugh said he and other department members tried to figure out how they (defense) were going to plea. “You need 10 days’ notice to plead insanity because you have to bring in forensic experts,” he said. “We looked at each other and laughed and said, ‘who’s going to believe 41 times with an ax?’”
Crowder, who had never tried a criminal case before, convinced the jury that Betty grabbed the ax after confronting Candy about her affair with Allan, which then forced Candy to defend herself – more than 41 times – with deadly force.
Some thought the prosecution did a poor job of presenting its case. When Crowder presented his closing arguments, United Press International (UPI) reported Crowder told the jury the prosecution had presented “not one word of evidence that refuted the testimony of self-defense.”
On October 30, 1980 the jury took just 4½ hours to acquit Candy of all charges, a verdict that stunned spectators, media, and those such as Deffibaugh who had worked the case.
“I’ll never understand the reason why,” he said