To give readers the best experience and valuable insight into how the criminal justice system works, included in part-2 of this series ‘Shots in the Dark’ is the exclusive audio interview between Homicide Detectives and suspect Brenda Nelson.
Cell Phone Records Investigation
Unbeknown to Brenda Nelson, the officers had ordered her cell phone records to verify the times she made various calls either prior to or after Perry Barefield went missing and when he was eventually found murdered.
Cell phone companies maintain records of cell towers that cell phone users communicated with when they make calls, thus allowing a person’s location to be tracked retroactively.
The distance of a cell phone near a particular tower can easily be determined by the amount of time it takes for a phone call to either receive a direct signal or return signal from the tower. Experts in the hi-tech field have said a cell phone user’s location can be specifically more pinned down through a process called “triangulation.”
Critics against police and prosecution of cell phone tracking declare the practice as “Junk Science.” According to American Bar Association article, Michael Cherry, CEO of Cherry Biometrics, a consulting firm located in Falls Church Virginia, Mr Cherry led the attack against the validity of cell phone tower tracking.
“It is junk science,“ Cherry said in the article.
“No one who understand the relevant science would ever claim that data from a single cell tower can reliably specify the location of a caller at the time a particular call is made,” Cherry explained during the ABA interview.
FBI and forensic investigators who are trained with towers to track cell phone calls insist they can place a suspect in a particular area because a cell phone, when making or receiving a call, usually selects the closest tower with the strongest signal, and that most towers have a range of no more than two miles.
“It’s not really junk science; it’s misinterpreted science,” said forensic expert Larry Daniel in a Washington Post article. Daniel, of Raleigh North Carolina, has consulted and testified for the prosecution and the defense in numerous cases. “I’ve seen proof of two individuals, subscribed to the same cell provider, standing next to each other and still get different towers,” said Jeff Fischbach, an LA California forensic expert.
Lisa Roberts of Portland Oregon walked free on a murder conviction in 2014 over the controversy of her cell phone tower information. A judge ruled the cell tower data was scientifically unreliable to pinpoint Roberts’ exact location when her spouse was murdered.
Communication experts have reported how some technologies can actually locate a person if the person carries an iphone. An iphone usually has a GPS transmitter which links to a ground station and these stations are subsequently transmitted to several satellites. Then the satellites can pinpoint your location where you are within 50 to 100 feet.
Edward J. Imwinkelried, law professor at University of California authored a treatise on scientific evidence. Imwinkelried said cell tower records are not completely worthless. “The records can tell you whether a person who has denied being in the coverage area of a particular tower at a given time was lying.”
Homicide Investigators felt confident Brenda Nelson was undoubtedly lying as to where she was located on the night her husband Perry Barefield was murdered. They pored over Nelson’s cell phone records with Houston Police CID investigator James Taylor, the officer who subpoenaed the records. Taylor had been thoroughly trained in tracking and triangulating cell tower calls.
Nelson’s cell phone calls showed the following:
- That she never called her husband’s cell phone (713-248-6113) at around 8:30 PM when she allegedly said she called on September 12, 2009.
- Though Nelson claimed in a second interview with police that after Barefield didn’t return home that she drove around the Astrodome area looking for him. After returning home around 9 PM, Nelson said she never left again, yet she awoke at 3 AM, and that she called Barefield’s phone again – and still she didn’t get an answer.
- Cell phone records disputed the aforementioned claims because the cell tower records showed Nelson made two calls before she left home presumably with her sleepy husband; once at 8:52 PM and 9:02 PM to a landline number at 713-734-8454. This number was located at Jason Miller’s home on Canterway street.
- At 9:37 PM, Nelson cell received a call from 713-734-4410 from a Chevron gas station payphone located at 13306 Cullen Blvd. Nelson’s cell returned calls to the payphone at 9:42 PM and 9:46 PM
Approximately 9:49 PM, Nelson’s cell made a call to 713-657-9474, a prepaid Cricket phone registered to Marquise Sykes. Nelson received incoming calls from Sykes’ number at 9:49 PM, 9:50 PM and 9:58 PM
In between those critical frequency of phone calls, Nelson either called or got a call from 713-514-4275, a Sprint phone registered to David Burnes.
Of all the calls made either from Nelson’s phone or the incoming calls to her phone between 9:38 PM and 9:55 PM, showed she was in close proximity to 14000 Mary Kay Lane where Barefield was found murdered in his truck.
“She’s not at home at 9 PM like she said she was because her cell phone calls kept hitting tower #305 near Mary Kay Lane where Perry was found,” Dillingham pointed out to Bonaby.
Homicide investigators were at the finish line. For almost two months they’d investigated numerous clues related to Perry Barefield’s murder and talked with several people.
Yet, the information they had at this point kept leading back to Brenda Fay Nelson.
Everyone else had been eliminated as a suspect. Based on cell phone records the investigators were convinced Brenda Nelson was either the actual killer or she had others conspire with her to pull off the deadly scheme.
“Here’s what happened, “ Dillingham said to Bonaby. “She already planned the murder because this is why she went to Jason’s house earlier in the day. She scoped the area out on Mary Kay Lane that day as well. When Perry woke up at home she said come ride with me. She drove Perry to the dead end of Mary Kay Lane. He was still asleep. She fabricated a reason to stop the truck to get out, maybe she needed to urinate, then someone came from hiding and fired the shots in the dark that killed Perry Barefield.”
Dillingham and Bonaby agreed to take a final shot at the title to see if the new evidence could sway Brenda Nelson to confess to murder. If Nelson didn’t confess the officers wanted to pin her down on the calls she made from her phone in the vicinity where her husband’s body was found.
The officers didn’t expound on the events surrounding the insurance policy because they hadn’t uncovered a sinister plot to prove Nelson hired a killer to murder her husband to reap the potential $300,000 payout.
Nothing beats a failure except for a good try.
On November 2, 2009, Brenda Nelson returned to the Homicide division for the fourth time to tussle with her opponents.
Dillingham: We want you to know we’ve worked hard on this case. You done everything we asked you to do. We thank you.
Dillingham politely rehashed the events which transpired during the investigation. He recalled Nelson’s activities throughout the whole day of September 12, 2009, the same day the victim allegedly went to the store to get a Black & Mild cigar.
Dillingham: What time you leave Jason Miller’s home on September 12, 2009?
Nelson: Around 5:20 PM or 5:30.
Dillingham: How many times you called Perry after he left home?
Nelson: I don’t remember.
Dillingham: Once you got home did you go out anywhere else?
Dillingham: Is it safe to say you had your cell phone with you all day that day?
Dillingham: I got your cell phone records. Your cell phone records show everyone you called and where you was when you made calls on September 12, 2009.
Dillingham: At 9:15 pm was you in the area of 610 Loop/Astrodome area?
Nelson: Yes, I was away from home
Dillingham: Was you anywhere in the area of Mary Kay Lane and Cullen Boulevard on the night of September 12, 2009?
Dillingham: Have you been on Mary Kay Lane?
Nelson: I don’t know where it is. I’ve never heard of it.
Dillingham broke off the direct questioning to tell Nelson that her story wasn’t adding up to the truth.
“Help me to understand. Places you said you was at, you wasn’t. Why your cell phone records show you in one place and you say you was at another.”
“I don’t know; I know I was in the Astrodome area because I went looking for Perry,” Nelson said.
Dillingham: Did you tell anyone Perry was shot in the head?
Nelson: No. The people at the funeral home told us where he was shot and when I called the morgue a person there said Perry was shot in the torso.
Dillingham: Was you in the area of 14000 Mary Kay Lane between 9:37 PM and 9:58 PM on the night Perry was killed? We’re talking about September 12, 2009?
Nelson: No. I wasn’t. I was not there.
Investigator James Bonaby took over the questioning.
Bonaby: When you have your cell phone and when you make calls those calls “ping” off towers.
Nelson: I know that.
Bonaby went straight to the pivotal points.
Bonaby: Your very first call to Perry’s cell phone was at 10:56 PM, not at 8:30 PM, like you previously said. When you made the 10:56 PM call to Perry’s phone you hit cell tower#296 near Astrodome off the 610 loop/ Main street .
Bonaby: When you made it home around 11:12:PM, you made another call to Perry’s phone at 11:31 PM. Your phone records doesn’t show you made a call to Perry’s phone at 8:30 PM.
Bonaby further told Nelson that she received incoming calls to her phone between 9:07 PM, 9:15 PM, 9:47 PM, 9:50 PM, and 9:58 PM., from various callers.
“We want to get into those calls to identify the people who called you,” Bonaby explained to Nelson.
Conversations between Nelson and the officers went back and forth about the dispute over the time frame of where Nelson said she was when her husband was murdered.
Bonaby: We know you called Jason on your cell phone before you left home at 8:52 PM, 8:55 PM and 9:02 PM – because your phone “pinged” off tower #164, which is near your home. It took you 14 minutes to get near the Astrodome area. And, then, once you made it to Southeast in the Bellfort and Cullen area, your phone start “pinging” off tower #356 near where Jason Miller lives. When your phone start “pinging” off tower #305, this is in the close area of Mary Kay Lane where Perry was killed.
Nelson: I was over there because I said I went to Jason’s house looking for him.
Bonaby: In your previous statement you never said you was out that night looking for Perry.
Nelson: I wasn’t looking at the time when I was going over here and there.
Bonaby: Did you go to Chevron Station on Cullen at Almeda Genoa?
Bonaby: Because we have a call to your phone from the Chevron pay phone.
Dillingham: Let me tell you what we can prove. We know Perry’s body was in his truck at 9:55 PM.
Dillingham: Between 9:37 PM and 9:58 PM – was you in the area where Perry’s body was found?
Dillingham: Why your cell phone records show you was? You have told us three different times that you was at home the night Perry was murdered.
Nelson: I was at home. I wasn’t there.
Dillingham: You didn’t call Perry’s phone at 8:30 PM – because it doesn’t make sense for you to call someone who is riding in a vehicle with you.
Dillingham tried a different tactic.
“This is the last time we’re gonna talk about this. The gig is up today. This is your chance to help yourself. Put it on the table Brenda. Put it on the table. We got the phone records, your different statements about where you was, and the phone records can put you near the murder scene.”
Nelson: So what you gonna do, lock me up. Me and Perry had problems. But I wouldn’t have taken his life.
Investigator Bonaby asked Nelson about other numbers that she either called or who was the person that called her on the night Barefield was murdered.
Bonaby: Whose number is 713-514-4275? Do you know a David Burnes?
Nelson: Yes. That’s Poppa. His name is David. I had called Poppa that night to speak to Jason.
Bonaby: What about Carolyn Howard, Michael Edwards and Marquise Sykes?
Nelson: No, I don’t know them.
Dillingham: Is there anything you want to add to this statement?
Dillingham: We gonna get you out of here. Haven’t I been respectful to you?
Dillingham: And you came down here voluntarily to talk to us, right.
Audio of the final interview
After The Interview
Brenda Nelson left the police station a free woman. But not for long. Sergeant Dillingham arrested Nelson later in the evening for Perry Barefield’s murder. Nelson’s bond was set at $100,000.
Nelson’s cell phone records opened up a pandora’s box of suspects. Detectives raced against the clock to track down David “Big Poppa” Burnes, Marquise Sykes and playboy Jason Miller.
Investigators made contact with David “Big Poppa” Burnes. Burnes met with the officers in Southeast Houston. Burnes admitted Jason Miller was a friend who often used his cell phone because Miller didn’t have a phone.
“What you know about Brenda Nelson?” Bonaby asked Burnes. “She’s Jason’s girlfriend,” Burnes replied. Burnes denied knowing Perry Barefield but he said he’d heard Barefield was Nelson’s husband and that Perry had been killed.
“What’s your cell number?” Burnes said his cell number was “713-514-4275.”
Bonaby explained to the suspect that on the night Barefield was murdered on September 12th – that Nelson’s cell number (713-252-3501) made out going calls and received incoming calls from his number. “She must’ve called Jason,” Burnes suggested. Burnes denied knowing Marquise Sykes and he further denied involvement in Barefield’s death.
Burnes agreed to take a polygraph on three occasions to clear his name but he failed to appear each time to take the test. “He knows something,” Bonaby said to Dillingham. Overall there was no solid evidence to arrest Burnes nor could police force him to take a polygraph test. Investigators never found Marquise Sykes who called Brenda’s number that fateful night.
“There’s at least two or maybe three people involved with Mr Barefield’s murder that haven’t been caught yet,” Bonaby said during an interview for this story.
Investigators discovered Jason Miller was in Harris County Jail on a parole warrant. Both officers were in for a rude awakening if they thought Jason Miller would squeal on Brenda Nelson because soon as Miller spotted the officers he immediately became furious, unleashing a nasty stream of profanity at Dillingham and Bonaby. Miller accused them of having him thrown in jail on a bullshit blue warrant. While Dillingham attempted to read Miller his Miranda Warnings, Miller talked louder as if trying to drown out the officer’s words.
Eventually Miller claimed that on September 12th 2009, he went to Bertha Gonzales’ house, a second girlfriend to Miller. He kept repeating that he had an alibi, telling the officers to call the Guillory family at 713-731-7435. Unable to get the suspect’s cooperation the investigators left the jail.
Homicide Sgt. Myron Dillingham and James Bonaby were certain that at least two or maybe three more people participated in the murder of Perry Barefield.
“We knew other people were involved in the murder based on Brenda Nelson’s cell phone records which showed the close proximity of the phone calls that Nelson made to different people shortly before and after Perry Barefield was murdered,” Homicide Investigator James Bonaby told investigative journalist and true crime tv documentary associate producer Clarence Walker, who is the author of Newsblaze’s Shots in the Dark – true crime story.
Following multiple resets and pretrial motions Assistant District attorney Maritzu Antu prepared to try the states’s murder case against Brenda Fay Nelson. Nelson hired attorney Woodrow Dixon III to defend her against what she called a ‘bullshit’ charge.
“I didn’t kill my husband,” Nelson insisted to her attorney. Veteran prosecutor Connie Spence assisted Antu with jury selection and Spence handled the questioning of certain witnesses.
Trial finally got underway in the Harris County Criminal Justice Center located downtown Houston at 1201 Franklin on November 2, 2007.
Prosecutor Antu skillfully peeled off layers of circumstantial evidence to unravel the intricacies of a murder plot set in motion and executed in the dark on Mary Kay Lane by accused killer Brenda Fay Nelson.
Antu’s theory of the circumstantial evidence suggested Nelson had her boyfriend Jason Miller, David “Big Poppa” Barnes and possibly a Marquise Sykes kill Nelson’s husband Perry Joshua Barnes to help Nelson collect $300,000. By collecting the money, prosecutors alleged, Nelson would resume her romance life with Jason Miller.
Although only Nelson went to trial, all three identified men, Jason Miller, David Burnes and Marquise Sykes, were never charged in the Mary Kay Lane murder but the court’s charge to the jury listed them as a party to the offense to show how Nelson’s cell phone records placed her near the murder scene when she made calls to the cell numbers that, in fact, identified the names of the three suspects from subscriber information.
Prosecutors called their first group of witnesses which included patrol and crime scene officers, Homicide Detective, paramedics, medical examiner, including the victim’s relatives to lay a fertile groundwork of evidence to build a conviction against the defendant.
Prosecutor Antu called Sgt. Dillingham to the stand. Dillingham recalled how Nelson told various inconsistent stories about her whereabouts on the night her husband went missing. Dillingham spoke of the dynamics of Nelson’s troubled marriage to the decedent.
Then, methodically, Antu walked Dillingham back to the beginning of the investigation when he first interviewed Brenda Nelson.
(Q) Antu: Did you ask Ms Nelson that on the night Mr Barefield disappeared if they were on good terms or bad terms?
(A) Dillingham: Yes, I did.
(Q) Antu: What she tell you?
(A) Dillingham: They were on good terms.
Dillingham further explained when he subjected Nelson to further questioning she eventually stated she wasn’t on good terms with her husband due to his infidelity.
To show the suspicious connections between the cell phone calls that Nelson made from her phone (713-252-3501) which was near cell tower #305 that covered the area of Mary Kay Lane where her husband was found murdered – prosecutor Antu asked Dillingham the following questions:
(Q) Antu: After the phone call that Nelson made on September 12, 2009 – which was near cell tower #305 – what time was it?
(A) Dillingham: At 9:37 pm
(Q) Antu: How long did the call last?
(A) Dillingham: 51 seconds outgoing.
Dillingham said the outgoing call Nelson made from her cell on (9-12-2009) – was to the number – 713-734-4110 – which was the pay phone at the Chevron gas station on Cullen Boulevard.
(Q) Antu: Did you find a number on Nelson’s cell record belonging to Jason Miller?
(A) Dillingham: Yes I did. Dillingham explained that his investigation led him to discover that Jason Miller had no cell phone. Dillingham said he discovered a landline number listed on Nelson’s phone records that belonged to Dorothy Miller, Jason’s mother. Jason lived with his mother.
(Q) Antu: What was that number?
(A) Dillingham: 713-734-8454
Prosecutor Antu’s intent was to show how Nelson’s lover Jason Miller had no cell phone and that Miller probably was the person who Nelson contacted at the pay phone on the night the victim was murdered.
(Q) Antu: Did Jason Miller have a cell phone on 9-12-2009?
(A) Dillingham: To my knowledge Mr Miller had no phone.
In response to the prosecutor’s line of questioning pertaining to the defendant’s inconsistent stories that she gave on at least three different occasions of her whereabouts the night Barefield was murdered, and whether she was at home when suspicious calls were made from her phone to other people, including the outgoing and incoming calls to the pay phone in question, Dillingham conceded to jurors that he became convinced Brenda Nelson was involved with her husband’s death.
Defense attorney Woodrow Dixon challenged Dillingham about the cell phone records which purportedly showed Nelson made suspicious calls on the night her husband was murdered.
(Q) Dixon: You’re not an expert on cell towers, is that correct?
(A) Dillingham: That would be correct.
(Q) Dixon: So … to indicate, the defendant’s cell phone records put her at your crime scene, wouldn’t actually be the case, correct?
(A) Dillingham: No
(Q) Dixon: You cannot say she was at your crime scene without calling it bluster.
(A) Dillingham: I have a layman’s opinion.
(Q) Dixon: Yes or No?
(A) Dillingham: No.
Defense Dixon suggested to Dillingham that when he questioned Nelson for several hours during the first two days after the murder occurred that the intense questioning could easily account for Nelson either leaving out details of events that transpired or, in the midst of grieving, she forgot key details altogether.
“That’s possible,” Dillingham said.
Honing in on cell phone tower #305 that covered the Mary Kay Lane area, Dixon asked Dillingham if tower #305 only limited its service to Mary Kay Lane. Dixon wanted to show the jury that tower #305 covered other sections near Mary Kay Lane that Nelson had traveled while possibly using her cell phone.
(Q) Dixon: Is tower 305 limited to just Mary Kay Lane?
(A) Dillingham: No
(Q) Dixon: If my client’s phone is pinging off tower# 305 – this does not necessarily mean she was on Mary Kay Lane, does it?
(A) Dillingham: Correct.
Dixon: Thank you, no further questioning.
Houston police (criminal intelligence division) investigator James Taylor testified about Nelson’s cell phone records and how the triangulation of Nelson’s cell phone calls actually proved she wasn’t at home when she made repeated calls to a pay phone and to other numbers on the night her husband Perry Barefield was murdered.
Taylor told jurors in response to Antu’s questioning that between 9:37 pm and 9:58 pm on the night the victim was murdered Nelson’s cell phone communication picked up within a narrow service area near Mary Kay Lane where Perry Barefield was murdered. This particular area was processed by Westpark Tower #305.
(Q) Antu: Once you obtained the records belonging to the defendant were you able to determine the historical location of the defendant’s cell phone at particular times.
(A) Taylor: Yes.
To disprove Nelson’s statement to police that when Barefield left home on September 12, 2009, that she first started calling his phone between 8:30 and 9:PM – Antu asked Taylor if Nelson’s phone records showed these calls. Taylor told the court Nelson’s phone records showed no such calls during that particular time.
(Q) Antu: At what time was the first call from Ms Nelson’s phone was made to Perry Barefield’s (713-248-6113) phone number?
(A) Taylor: 10:56 PM
(Q) At which tower?
(A) Cell tower #296 (Location where Nelson had been living with the deceased)
Antu’s next strategy was to show how cell phone records proved Nelson was in the vicinity of Mary Kay Lane after she previously denied being in that particular area.
(Q) Antu: When police asked Ms Nelson if she was near the area of Mary Kay Lane and Cullen Boulevard on the night of September 12, 2009, and when she denied being in the area, was Nelson’s denial consistent with her cell phone records?
(A) Taylor: No. Her cell phone was in the area.
“Pass the witness, your honor,” Antu said, in her legalese tone.
Nelson’s attorney attacked the validity of the cell phone evidence.
(Q) Dixon: What type of phone Ms. Nelson had on September 12, 2009?
(A) Taylor: Verizon.
(Q) Dixon: Was it a smart phone equipped with GPS?
(A) Taylor: I don’t know.
(Q) Dixon: What is the general range of a cell tower?
(A) Taylor: They are different; no size fits all.
Dixon persuaded the expert to admit how some cell calls can overlap onto other tower areas. Dixon’s inference was to show how a cell call can be made at one location yet the signal will not show up at the closest tower but instead the signal will ping off another tower located a good distance away.
Dixon’s ultimate goal was to show the jury that cell phone tracking wasn’t accurate as the police and prosecution believe, particularly when a call can be routed way across town to another tower if the closest tower don’t immediately pick up the signal when a call is made.
(Q) Dixon: Is it possible for a tower to pick up a call that is not closest to it?
(A) Taylor: Yes, sir.
(Q) Dixon: What is triangulation?
(A) Taylor: You can take three different tower signals and triangulate the approximation of a phone.
(Q) Dixon: Just because Ms Nelson’s cell phone was in a particular area bouncing from panel to panel in a bleed off area doesn’t mean she was at the crime scene, does it.
(A) Taylor: No sir.
“I have no further questions from this witness your honor,” Dixon told Judge Marc Brown.
A Harris County Medical Examiner testified Perry Barefield died from two gunshot wounds; one shot entered the torso; second shot was fired into Barefield’s head.
Perry Barefield’s family members, Cyndi Parker and Edward Bennett had similar testimony in regard to the past troubled events that occurred between Barefield and Nelson. “My brother said he was leaving Brenda because they wasn’t getting along – and he said Brenda threatened him,” Bennett told the court.
Mark Triggs, Nationwide Insurance Division Manager, testified Brenda Nelson and Perry Barefield were insured in 2006 with each other as beneficiary of their policies. Triggs said the policies lapsed when a closed bank account ceased the premium payments.
Triggs said Brenda Nelson renewed the policies on August 7, 2009.
Prosecutor Antu questioned Triggs about the recent policies.
(Q) Antu: How much was Brenda Nelson’s policy?
(A) Triggs: $150,000.00
(Q) Antu: Who was the beneficiary?
(A) Triggs: Perry Barefield.
(Q) Antu: Perry’s insurance policy was increased to $300,000 dollars, correct.
(A) Triggs: Yes.
Evidence showed Nelson made futile attempts to receive Perry Barefield’s life insurance money.
(Q) Antu: Did she have anybody else contact Nationwide Insurance?
(A) Triggs: We did receive a call in March 2010 from Nelson’s attorney regarding the denial of the insurance policy.
Dixon cross examined Triggs.
(Q) Dixon: Is it common for spouses to have different amounts of policies?
(A) Triggs: It can happen.
Referring to life insurance policies that Brenda and Perry had on each other in 2006 – in the amount of $150,000.00 each – Dixon asked Triggs about the expired policies.
(Q) Dixon: Do you happen to know why the 2006 policies lapsed?
(A) Triggs: A bank account was closed and we could not draft premiums to pay the policies.
Unable to score points to help Nelson’s defense, Dixon announced, “Pass the witness.”
Nelson’s Defense Attorney Woodrow Dixon called Sgt Brian Harris to the stand to prove Ernest Sonnier more likely murdered Perry Barefield because of Barefield’s evidence against Sonnier in the 1986 kidnap rape and murder could put Sonnier back in prison and halt the compensation money the state would have given Sonnier in a separate kidnap and rape that DNA evidence showed Sonnier wasn’t the rapist.
Ernest Sonnier had a perfect and compelling motive to kill Perry Barefield, Dixon speculated.
(Q) Dixon: Did Ernest Sonnier have motive to kill Perry Barefield?
Prosecutor Connie Spence objected, saying an answer from Harris “would call for a response based on hearsay.”
Judge Marc Brown sustained Spence’s objection.
(Q) Dixon: Without trying to sound critical of the job you do; is it possible you missed somebody?
(A) Sgt. Harris: In regard to…
Spence objected again, “that calls for speculation”
Again, Judge Brown sustained Spence’s objection to Dixon’s line of questioning.
“I pass the witness,” Dixon told the judge.
Prosecutor Connie Spence’s strategy was to flip the defense witness into a good witness for the prosecution. Spence would show when Brenda Nelson told Perry’s parole officer that on the night Perry allegedly went missing and that Perry had left the house to go talk with the guy named Sonnier was a complete fabrication to divert suspicion from her own guilt.
(Q) Spence: Were you involved in the investigation concerning Brenda Nelson and the killing of Perry Barefield?
(A) Sgt. Harris: No, not that portion.
(Q) Spence: When you met Brenda Nelson, was that on September 14, 2009.
(A) Sgt. Harris: Yes
In a polished narrative, Sgt. Harris told the court he interviewed Nelson about Ernest Sonnier on the same day she came down to the police station for an initial interview by Sgt. Dillingham regarding Perry Barefield’s death.
Harris said he wanted to know from Brenda Nelson if Barefield had told her about Sonnier’s involvement in the rape and murder of Cindy Rounsaville. Harris testified that before he could interview Barefield about Sonnier that Barefield was murdered.
(Q) Spence: Ernest Sonnier had a GPS device attached to his ankle, is that correct?
(A) Sgt. Harris: Correct.
(Q) Spence: Based on the GPS monitoring device, did it show that Sonnier was nowhere near 14000 Mary Kay Lane when Perry Barefield was murdered?
(A) Sgt Harris: That’s correct. He was nowhere near.
Attorney Woodrow Dixon argued Brenda Fay Nelson wasn’t guilty of murder. “There’s lots of reasonable doubt,” Dixon told jurors.
“The state wants you to convict Ms. Nelson because cell phone records show she was in the area for 21 minutes where her husband’s body was found.”
Dixon tried to debunk testimony given by Houston police expert James Taylor.
“He confirmed Ms Nelson’s phone ‘pinged’ off tower #305 for 21 minutes.“ Dixon said tower #305 was consistent with 14000 Mary kay Lane(murder scene).
Dixon further argued, however, that tower #305 was also “consistent with a bunch of other places.”
To counter police allegations that Nelson was a guilty killer because she gave conflicting statements to police about her timeline of whereabouts when she made calls to different numbers, Dixon insisted the effects of trauma can badly affect a person’s memory.
“A person’s mind plays funny tricks when confronted with a crisis; you remember things that didn’t happen and you forget things that did happen.”
“Ms Nelson had been told her husband was murdered and for eight hours she spent it in the police station where she had no time to process the news, no time to grieve a childhood friend.”
Dixon characterized Sergeant Dillingham as a cop hell-bent to have Nelson convicted.
“He wants Ms. Nelson convicted. He tried to bully her into a confession. He didn’t get one.”
Dixon continued. “Once Dillingham found the inconsistencies in Ms. Nelson’s statement, the investigation was on. He didn’t believe she was truthful, she must have done it.”
Pressing forward to heap more aspersions against the evidence presented during trial, Dixon valiantly challenged the state’s theory about the insurance policy.
“This is something thrown out there. You heard about the two-year contestability clause. The policy wasn’t going to pay. There was no motive here, no motive for money.”
Dixon reminded the jury of the insufficient evidence to prove Ms. Nelson could’ve committed murder under the prosecutor’s theories of law of parties.
“This law of parties is nothing more than speculation to reduce the burden of proof upon the prosecutor to show Ms. Nelson directed someone to murder her husband.”
During trial no witnesses testified Nelson participated with others like Jason Miller, Marquis Sykes and David “Big Poppa” Barnes to murder Perry Barefield.
“There are no witnesses to another party; it is not there, Dixon said, in a voice tinged with frustration.”
Appealing to the juror’s empathy, Dixon said the law cannot give Ms. Nelson back the two years she had been dealing with the loss of her husband.
“You can do the right thing and let her move on with her life and grieve her murdered husband by returning a not guilty verdict.”
State Evidence Argument
Prosecutor Antu stood up, shuffled court papers, then she ambled over to the podium to face the jury.
“Why do criminals lie?”
Out of the four separate statements Nelson made to police, Antu insisted Nelson lied upon lies. Antu said the words Nelson spoke in 2009 – “are the words to convict her of Perry Barefield’s murder.”
“While people lie,” Antu added, “cell phone records don’t. The truth is in the details; the circumstantial evidence don’t lie.”
“How could she have done it?” Antu posed the question to jurors.
“She became desensitized to the person (Perry Barefield) was to her. She had enough. She was moving out. She was done. She even picked an apartment where she would go. It was over between her and Perry.”
Antu further explained the law didn’t require her to prove a motive. “Motive was clear and convincing in the case,” Antu said.
Prosecutor Antu asked jurors to remember the suspicious dates of the insurance policies. Antu said that on August 10, 2009, an application was filed and the actual policy on the victim’s life went into effect, August 28, 2009.
“She bumped up Perry’s insurance policy to double of what hers was. Perry Barefield policy became $300,000 – ‘while Brenda Nelson’s policy stayed at $150,000.”
Antu’s strategy at this point was to show that after Nelson increased Barefield’s policy that he was murdered 14 days later!
“Perry Barefield wasn’t in the ground ten days and she began asking the insurance company for her money. She wants her money.”
“She almost committed the perfect crime. You cannot reward her for getting rid of the evidence; you cannot reward her for being a liar,” Antu exhorted.
“And, I ask you, Antu insisted, ‘to not reward her for almost getting away with murder. Convict Brenda Nelson of murder.'”
Following deliberations the jury found Brenda Nelson guilty of first-degree murder.
During punishment stage the prosecutor introduced prison records that showed Nelson was convicted of two counts of aggravated battery in Lake Providence Louisiana on October 20, 1986. Nelson was given ten years on one count and five years on the second count. She made parole in 1993.
Attorney Dixon urged the judge to be merciful with Nelson’s punishment. “She hasn’t been in trouble for over 30 years,” Dixon said, trying to make Nelson’s load a bit lighter.
Prosecutor Maritzu Antu asked the judge to sentence Nelson to a long term in prison, reminding the judge that Nelson drove her husband to where she knew he would be killed.
“From what you heard the defendant’s criminal history is violent,” Antu said.
“Anything you would like to say before sentence pronounced against you?” Judge Brown asked Nelson.
“I didn’t kill my husband. I don’t know who did. I am not a violent person,” Nelson lamented.
“I hereby sentence you to 40 years in Texas Department of Correction,” Judge Brown told Nelson.
A Texas appeals court subsequently upheld Nelson’s 40-years conviction on January 17, 2013.
Brenda Nelson (inmate# 01752813) is currently serving her sentence at Texas Department Correction Murray Unit in Gatesville Texas. Parole records show Nelson isn’t eligible for parole until 2031.
Editor’s Note: Sgt. Myron Dillingham remains with Houston City Police. Investigator James C. Bonaby was later promoted to Sergeant With Houston Police. Finally he retired from the City on December 6, 2014. Bonaby now works as a Sergeant with University of Houston College Police Department.
Crime Reporter Clarence Walker can be reached at: [email protected]