Seawall attacker guts victim ‘like a fish’ in 1970 murder

A postcard from 1975 showing riprap in front of the seawall. (Photo courtesy of the Galveston and Texas History Center, Rosenberg Library, Galveston, Texas)

A postcard from 1975 showing riprap in front of the seawall. (Photo courtesy of the Galveston and Texas History Center, Rosenberg Library, Galveston, Texas)

After spending a fun night out, best friends Judy Mills, 21, and Susan Perry, 20, walked home together down the seawall at about 1 a.m. on Oct. 31, 1970. When they reached 22nd Street, they warily watched a man cross the street and start walking in the same direction, about 10 paces in front of them.

They slowed. He slowed.

Nervous, the girls kept walking until they had almost caught up with the man. When he was only about five feet in front of them, he whirled around. Before they could react, he grabbed both girls around their waists and the tangled trio tumbled over the seawall. Each girl screamed the other’s name as they fell. Perry managed to grab the edge with one hand, slowing her descent and wresting herself free from her attacker. After she dropped onto the granite boulders below, she spotted her friend lying motionless nearby. The man crouched over her.

Looking up, he calmly told her what he had planned: He would rape her first and then come back for her friend.

Perry ran toward 25th Street, the attacker’s feet pounding out a rapid staccato on the sand behind her. When he stumbled, she widened the gap between them. She knew she’d escaped when she reached the base of the stairs leading to the sidewalk. She scrambled up and flagged down the first car she saw.

The driver, AJ Rodriguez, knew both girls and immediately pulled over to help. While his friend took Perry across the street to the Golden Greek to call police, Rodriguez ran down to the beach to look for Mills. He found her, splayed half naked on the rocks where she had fallen, gasping for air. Her attacker had slashed her throat and cut a deep gash from her stomach to her chest. Rodriguez later testified she was cut “just like you would gut a fish.”

Medics rushed Mills to John Sealy Hospital where doctors pronounced her dead. Police took Perry to the station to help an artist make a sketch of the attacker. A few hours later, a detective patrolling on 21st Street near the courthouse spotted a station waggon that matched the description of a car mentioned in several recent complaints about a man exposing himself on the UTMB campus.

Leroy Haskell Willoughby (The Galveston Daily News)

Leroy Haskell Willoughby (The Galveston Daily News)

After his arrest, Haskell Leroy Willoughby, a 37-year-old welder working for Kelso Marine, refused to talk. Investigators found plenty to incriminate him: a pair of bloodstained shoes in his car and a bag of bloody clothes in an alley nearby. But Perry couldn’t pick him out of a lineup seven hours after the attack. Police meanwhile learned Willoughby was wanted in Austin for exposing himself to a minor. About 43 hours after the attack, Perry did pick Willoughby out of a second lineup.

District Attorney Jules Damiani quickly charged him with murder and announced plans to seek the death penalty.

The trial began April 27, 1971. Defense attorneys immediately tried to discredit Perry’s testimony, noting her initial inability to ID the attacker. They also noted Willoughby was the only man who appeared in both lineups Perry reviewed, suggesting she might have recognized him from the first attempt, not from the attack. Three other people driving down Seawall Boulevard at the time of the attack, one who saw the trio tumble over the edge and a couple who watched the attacker cross the street shortly afterward, also failed to positively identify Willoughby.

Still, police had the bloody clothes, which should have been a prosecutorial slam dunk. But as the trial’s second day began, investigators dropped a bombshell: the forensic team in Austin couldn’t type the blood, leaving prosecutors with no way to tie the items to Willoughby or the murder. They also had to admit Willoughby had a boil on his scrotum, which defense attorneys argued could have left the bloodstains on his clothes and the sheets in his hotel room.

In another setback for the prosecution, three witnesses called to testify about Willoughby’s actions shortly before and after the murder said they didn’t think him capable of such a violent act. Ron Nicholson, one of Willoughby’s coworkers from Kelso Marine, testified the two had gone to a club together the night of the murder, ending the evening with a stop at Betty’s Grill, at 39th and Ave. S. Shortly after they sat down at a table, Willoughby excused himself, saying he’d be right back. Mills and Perry were attacked about 30 minutes later. Nicholson said Willoughby appeared perfectly normal, although he never returned to the restaurant.

Pat Evans, the desk clerk at the motel where Willoughby lived, described him as a quiet man who didn’t cause trouble. Hilda Irene Jacobson, a waitress at another restaurant Willoughby frequented, described him as a “perfect gentleman.” She even admitted to going on two dates with him, during which he didn’t do anything wrong. When she saw him the morning after the murder, he seemed fine, except that he had a limp. He explained it by saying he had gotten drunk and wrecked his motorcycle the previous evening. Police said he injured his leg in the fall over the seawall.

Galveston County Sheriff's deputies escort Willoughby into the courtroom. (Photo by Travis Burgess/The Galveston Daily News)

Galveston County Sheriff’s deputies escort Willoughby into the courtroom. (Photo by Travis Burgess/The Galveston Daily News)

Defense attorneys tried to make the most of those positive accounts of Willoughby. They were the only ones. Six women took the stand and identified Willoughby as the man who exposed himself to them while they walked on or near UTMB. One woman said he grabbed her from behind when she was walking down Ave. I between 7th and 8th streets. She hit him twice in the face with her purse and he fled. Two coworkers from Kelso Marine testified Willoughby had a “bad temper” and one said he had seen Willoughby in a fight.

Despite the prosecution’s struggle to make a direct connection between Willoughby and the murder, the defense team dropped claims of their client’s innocence when it came time to make their case. They mounted an insanity defense instead, telling jurors Willoughby couldn’t be held accountable for his actions that night. Defense attorney Robert Coltzer claimed Willoughby had struggled since childhood with a mental illness that “compels him to a state of frustration, a state of excitement, a state in which he cannot control himself.” Coltzer claimed Willoughby could not tell the difference between right and wrong when he attacked women.

Willoughby had at one time been confined to the Austin State Mental Hospital in 1958 for treatment. A psychiatrist who treated him then testified Willoughby had a very severe case of antisocial behavior that fIlled him with “inner tension and hostilities.” Willoughby’s mother, Rena Milburn, testified he hadn’t caused any trouble except that sometimes he complained of headaches and would leave the house. Then police would come and say he’d been accused of exposing himself.

To counter the insanity defense, prosecutors produced three psychiatrists who testified Willoughby was mentally ill but not legally insane because he could tell the difference between right and wrong. One described his sociopathic disorder as a behavior problem, not a mental illness.

The jury deliberated for two hours and 10 minutes before finding Willoughby guilty. But jurors seemed to struggle with his punishment. Defense attorney Hulen Selman argued hard against the death penalty, insisting it wasn’t a deterrent to crime but would only serve as a “vendetta,” which they urged the jury not to pursue “in the defense of civilization.”

“This man will not be put asleep, he will be sizzled and fried,” an impassioned Selman told the jury.

Willoughby sat through the trial without ever showing any emotion, even when his own lawyers called him a “miserable, sick little man” and pleaded for his life.

Damiani told jurors putting Willoughby to death was the only way to ensure he didn’t hurt anyone else: “I can tell you that this man must be removed permanently from society for the protection of society. He’s not going to conform to society, in fact he’ll go out and do it again.”

The jury deliberated for another seven hours and 45 minutes before returning handing down a death sentence.

Willoughby spent three years on death row before the U.S. Supreme Court declared the death penalty unconstitutional, commuting his sentence to life in prison. In 1983, the Texas Parole Board considered releasing Willoughby, but Mills’ family and friends successfully lobbied the board to keep him behind bars.

4 comments to Seawall attacker guts victim ‘like a fish’ in 1970 murder

  • Brenda Cornitius-Hughes

    This pathetic man finally took his last breath in 2016 as he remained in TDJC custody. I’m saddened that my grandmother and two uncles couldn’t live to see this glorious day, but what relief it brought to my mother to hear that the murderer of her only sister was finally gone from this earth.

  • Alfred J. Paige

    Interesting article but some of the facts are in error. The ages of the girls, they were a few years younger, they had left the Bamboo Hut on the beach and were headed towards home, and OFC. Edward BENAVIDEZ was the first Officer on the scene who ran down to MILLS and tried to help, it was too late. OFC. RODRIGUES was the report writer. The next morning, OFC. J. BEGARA saw the bald headed suspect next to Sears Building (2300 Broadway) dumping items (turned out to be bloodied clothing) in a trash bin, and based on the description of the bald headed man the night before investigated and brought Willoughby in for questioning. There were no medics in 1970 in Galveston, transports only provided by the funeral homes.

    I looked into this case back in 2009, and personally spoke with Rodriguez, B. Swindell and E. Benavidez. Willougby was most likely sent to Galveston for medical treatment (Psych), just like Ed Bell (murderer and serial murder suspect).

    Fred Paige, Retired GPD

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