Buried alive on the Bolivar Peninsula

A Galveston beach scene from 1981. (Photo courtesy of the Galveston and Texas History Center, Rosenberg Library, Galveston, Texas)

Suzanne Clydene Knuth trudged home alone in the dark on April 4, 1980, after her car died in a Beaumont shopping center parking lot. The 23-year-old Lamar University student didn’t have far to walk, and the short distance probably didn’t seem like a big deal.

But as she approached an auto body shop, a newer-model Oldsmobile Cutlass pulled up to the curb next to her and a lanky man got out.

Dee Ann Barthell, a 17-year-old high school student driving to a local disco, watched the ensuing scuffle unfold.

“He had her by the back of the neck and by the hair,” Barthell later testified in a Galveston County courtroom.

Jerry Atkins, who worked at the auto body shop, heard the commotion and came outside to see what was going on.

“This guy was beatin’ up on her and she was screamin’ for help. I thought the guy might have a gun or it was a family argument and that’s not something I meddle in,” said Atkins, the last person besides her killer to see Knuth alive.

The attacker eventually forced Knuth into his car and sped away.

Around midnight, 32-year-old Chester Lee Wicker, a former Marine and out-of-work handyman, got his mom’s Oldsmobile stuck in the sand near Crystal Beach. His uncle, Bob Wicker, lived nearby and helped pull the car free. He noticed blood on the floor mats and smeared on his nephew’s shirt. Wicker said he’d cut his arm. His uncle didn’t ask any more questions.

Two days later, on Easter Sunday, Wicker posed for a family photograph with his wife and young daughter. Then he took his wife’s car and drove west, eventually arriving April 11 in El Centro, Calif., where he dropped in on another uncle. Five days later, he called his cousin from a town in northern Washington state, near the Canadian border. He told her he’d left his wife’s car in Los Angeles and hitchhiked north. But he wanted to come home. She wired him money for a bus ticket back to El Centro, where he arrived on April 20.

While Wicker wandered across the country, Barthell agreed to be hypnotized in hopes it would help her remember details about Knuth’s attacker. Initially, the teen identified a photograph of Knuth’s husband, Calvin. But after her hypnosis, she picked Wicker out of a photo lineup.

Unaware Beaumont police were closing in, Wicker decided it was time to come home. Less than 24 hours after arriving in El Centro, he boarded another bus headed for Texas. Before he left, he told his cousin he’d fled Beaumont because “he was in trouble and might have to go to prison.” After the bus pulled out of the station, Wicker’s cousin called the police.

Federal agents escort Chester Lee Wicker back to Galveston for his appeal hearing in 1985. (The Galveston Daily News)

Officers from Beaumont were waiting with handcuffs when Wicker stepped off the bus in Houston around midnight April 21. The next day, Wicker confessed to kidnapping Knuth and burying her body about 1.5 miles east of the Crystal Beach city limits, on property owned by Sun Oil.

“I got a shell and used it and my hands to dig a hole as long as she was,” Wicker said in his confession.

Investigators found Knuth’s body April 22 in a shallow grave. She was wearing only socks, a ripped blouse and a bra pulled up over her breasts. Wicker claimed Knuth tried to escape from the car as they drove down the Bolivar Peninsula, hitting her head when she jumped or fell out the door. He said he checked for a heartbeat and a pulse before digging her grave.

But the medical examiner found sand “throughout” Knuth’s lungs, evidence she was still alive when Wicker buried her. A Galveston grand jury indicted him on capital murder charges.

In October, District Judge Larry Gist, who came from Beaumont to preside over the trial in Galveston, ruled Wicker had been arrested illegally because the police at that time didn’t have probable cause to detain him. But the judge ruled Wicker’s confession admissible and ordered his court-appointed attorneys to prepare their defense. Two months later, Wicker appeared before a seven-woman, five-man Galveston County jury.

His lawyers challenged the hypnosis testimony and petitioned for a mistrial after court employees overheard jurors talking about the case—against the judge’s orders—during lunch at a local Mexican restaurant. But Wicker’s confessions left little for them to work with. He never took the stand in his own defense.

After listening to six days of testimony, jurors deliberated for four hours and 45 minutes before finding Wicker guilty of capital murder.

During the sentencing phase, prosecutors revealed Wicker had pleaded guilty to rape charges in 1971 and 1973 and to assault in 1977. One of the rapes, which also took place at Crystal Beach, bore striking similarities to Knuth’s murder. The victim, a woman from Alabama who was vacationing on Bolivar at the time of the attack, recounted how Wicker tied her hands behind her back, pushed her to the ground and pulled her shirt up. He didn’t succeed in raping her—but he tried.

Prosecutors asked for the death penalty after reading from a list of Wicker’s victims: “Remember Suzanne Cyldene Knuth in your deliberations and sentence Chester Lee Wicker to death so when you look in the mirror tomorrow morning you will know that no names will be added to this list.”

The jury took just two hours to agree to the death sentence, deciding Wicker deliberately killed Knuth and had a high likelihood of committing violent crimes in the future. One of Wicker’s defense attorneys called the verdict “not unexpected.”

Gist set Wicker’s execution date for Aug. 11, 1984. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals upheld the sentence in February, but the Supreme Court granted a stay on July 23. On Oct. 9, the high court cleared the way for the execution to proceed, in February 1985. Wicker continued to appeal his case, winning another temporary stay a week before his second execution date. The federal court in Galveston agreed to hear arguments from the ACLU claiming the testimony based on Barthell’s hypnosis session should never have been presented at trial. Prosecutors argued the teen’s eyewitness account made little difference in the outcome after Wicker confessed and led police to the body.

While admitting the unreliability of hypnosis, U.S. District Court Judge Hugh Gibson upheld Wicker’s sentence and set a new date with death.

Wicker died Aug. 26, 1986, by lethal injection. According to a short Associated Press report, he threw “a tantrum” in his cell earlier in the day but went calmly to the death chamber. He had just one witness present, a “friend and spiritual adviser” to whom he mouthed “I love you” as the lethal drugs began coursing through his veins.

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