WHAT HAPPENED AT THE LAKE: A Father Took His 10-Year-Old Fishing. She Fell in the Water and Drowned. It Was a Tragic Accident — Then He Was Charged With Murder.
LAST SUMMER I got an email from a man whose reputation, and voice, preceded him. His name is Eric Nadel, and as the veteran commentator for the Texas Rangers baseball team, he’s a Texas sports icon. He has a lifetime contract announcing games for the franchise and has joked that he hopes to outlive it. He was contacting me about a man who’d written to him nearly 10 years ago, who he’s gotten to know pretty well, a man named Wendell Lindsey, who is serving life in a Texas prison for murdering his daughter in a cockeyed scheme to collect insurance money.
It wasn’t unusual for Nadel to get letters from Texas prisoners — among the few comforts they’re allowed (if they can afford it) is a transistor radio purchased from the prison commissary. As a result, there is a lot of listening to baseball games as the summers drag on in the sweltering confines of the state’s prisons. Nadel told me that he’s gotten a decent number of letters over the years and always writes back. He asks his pen pals what they’re in for and gets detailed responses in return. But the response he got from Lindsey was a first: Lindsey insisted he was innocent. Nadel wanted to talk to me about that.
On the phone, he laid out the basics. Lindsey had taken his two young daughters, ages 9 and 10, to fish at a popular spot near Fort Worth. As they were preparing to head home, Lindsey’s oldest fell face first into the water. Lindsey didn’t know how to swim, but he jumped in to try to rescue her. He was unsuccessful, and his daughter drowned. At first everyone thought it was a tragic accident. But that soon turned into a homicide investigation and then a murder charge. Lindsey was convicted and sentenced to life based largely, it appeared, on a host of dubious claims about the science of drowning.
Lindsey was out of appeals, but thanks to Nadel’s resourcefulness, he had a new and well-regarded Dallas attorney on his side. They were exploring the possibility of filing a junk science writ — a mechanism of Texas law that allows prisoners convicted on the basis of unreliable forensic science, or scientific understanding that has since evolved, to challenge their convictions.
I’ve been writing about wrongful convictions for 20 years, and I’ve done a lot of reporting on junk forensics, but this was the first time I’d encountered a case in which the science of drowning was called into question. A year after Nadel first contacted me, I can now say that of all the cases I’ve investigated, Lindsey’s ranks among the most dramatic and confounding I’ve seen. There is certainly junk science, and plenty of it: Self-professed experts in the mechanics of drowning were unequivocal in backing the state’s contention that the only way Lindsey’s daughter could have drowned that day was if Lindsey had forcibly held her under the water until she died.
But that’s not the only thing that went sideways. There was a lackluster police investigation built on a foundation of flawed assumptions. There were witnesses with serious credibility issues — chief among them, Lindsey’s estranged second wife, Linda, who painted an elaborate picture of Lindsey as heartless and capable of murder. As it turns out, she was a serial bigamist who was never legally married to Lindsey, and a private investigator had tied her to at least two fake Social Security numbers. There were allegations that the local medical examiner’s office changed its manner of death determination in order to satisfy police, a bumbling defense attorney who managed to make the case even more convoluted, and prosecutors who carried on an injudicious relationship with Lindsey’s surviving daughter after she testified at trial on behalf of the state.
And then there was Lindsey. Hapless at best, he had a long history of making poor decisions, particularly when it came to finances — a history that was often criminal and made his decision to buy life insurance on his daughter seem particularly suspicious. Prosecutors would argue at Lindsey’s 1991 trial that he was obsessed with Linda, and plagued by financial problems, so he intentionally drowned his daughter as part of a plot to woo Linda back into his life.
Over the last year, I’ve asked Lindsey countless questions — in letters, on the phone, and in person — many of them frankly antagonistic, in an effort to get at the truth of what happened at the lake that day. To his credit, Lindsey has answered each at length, at times offering up details of his life that I hadn’t even asked about. He is a prolific letter writer. He’s sent me so many that I had to create a lengthy index to keep them all straight. And in nearly every communication, Lindsey comes back to one thing: He did not kill his daughter. And he’d like a second chance to prove it.
THE DAY THAT Jeanette Lindsey died, the water in Lake Worth was a frigid 53 degrees.
Around noon that Tuesday, February 27, 1990, Wendell Lindsey ditched work and picked up his daughters, Jeanette, 10, and Darlene, 9, from their grandparents’ home in Azle, Texas, a small community northwest of Fort Worth. Their grandmother Bonnie Porter homeschooled them on the property, which featured a stock pond where they would often go fishing. Lindsey and the girls had made plans for an outing to do just that.
They packed into his 1977 Lincoln and headed out, first going to Trinity Park in Fort Worth near the city’s zoo. Lindsey thought there were too many people already trying to fish there, so they watched the ducks and goofed around at the playground before returning to the car. They stopped at Taco Bueno for a burrito and then headed back toward Azle. But instead of going directly home, the trio ended up at the Fort Worth Nature Center and Refuge, a large park and wildlife preserve where the Trinity River feeds into Lake Worth. It was a popular spot, a place to fish or canoe, hike or bird watch. They pulled into a turnout off the road and headed down a short path to the water’s edge, fishing gear in hand.
At first, they were fishing right off the bank, but they weren’t getting any bites, so they walked down the path to a spot where a large tree had fallen and was partially submerged in the water. They made their way out onto the trunk and fished from there.
Exactly how long they were there isn’t entirely clear — Lindsey recalls that it was more than an hour — but it was 4:30 p.m. when he checked his watch, just 30 minutes before the park would close its gates. If you’re inside the park after closing, there’s no getting out until morning. Lindsey asked Darlene, who was already standing on the bank, to go up to the car and grab some paper towels from the back seat so they could clean the mud from their shoes before leaving. He was watching her walk to the road, he would later say, when he felt the log shift slightly under his feet. He turned toward Jeanette in time to hear her let out a scream before falling face first into the icy water.
By the time Lindsey was able to haul Jeanette out of the lake, her hair was tangled with decaying organic debris, her pupils were dilated, and her lips were blue. She was dead.
Darlene was up at the road when she heard her sister scream. She turned around and rushed back toward the water. She could see her father in the lake. “He was trying to find her, he was kind of scooting in the dirt and trying to feel around to see if he could find her,” she told Fort Worth Police Detective C.W. Riley roughly two weeks after Jeanette drowned. The water was up to the middle of her father’s chest, she said. She thought he was sitting down. Lindsey yelled for her to go back up to the road to flag down help. “That road just seemed like it never ended for me,” she told me. “Nobody was coming.”
It’s unclear how long it took, but a car did come down the road. There was a Hispanic couple inside. Lindsey recalls hearing a car door close and seeing a man looking down toward the water. Darlene asked them to call an ambulance. The couple took the winding road to the park’s visitor center at the top of the hill, where Letty Alamia, a biologist who worked there, was in the parking lot getting ready to leave. They approached her “frantically,” she recalls, “saying something in Spanish. And since I spoke Spanish, I said, ‘Well, what’s the matter?’” They kept repeating one word, “ahogando” — drowning. “They weren’t very coherent, and they just kept saying that word,” she told me. “And I said, ‘Who? What? What’s drowning?’” A girl, she believes they said. She got on her two-way radio and called a colleague, John Karges, another biologist. She told him that she was going to follow the couple to the water. He said he would be right behind her. No one called 911.
Lindsey was on the bank, wet from head to toe, shaking, and cradling Jeanette in his arms.
When the party arrived at the lake, Lindsey was on the bank, wet from head to toe, shaking, and cradling Jeanette in his arms. He appeared to be in shock, the park employees would later tell investigators. The Hispanic couple drove off; no one remembers when they left, and no one would ever see them again — so no one questioned them about what they saw in the water that day. Lindsey was crying out, “Oh, my baby! My baby drowned!” Alamia recalls. She and Karges didn’t know what to do. Lindsey did not know that there wasn’t an ambulance on the way. Alamia recalls suggesting to Lindsey that maybe they should try mouth-to-mouth or CPR. But, she said, Lindsey wouldn’t move or let go of Jeanette. “So, then we tried to call for help.”
They tried to use their two-way radios to contact the city’s park police, but the radios weren’t working. Alamia ran up the road to a small neighborhood nestled within the park (the neighborhood, Lakeland, had been there since before the city bought the property). She knocked on one door, but no one was home. At a second house, she was allowed in to use the phone. But instead of calling for help directly, she called back up to the Nature Center office and asked the secretary there to do so. (At the time, there were no protocols for how to handle emergencies at the park, Karges told me; they would be crafted not long after Jeanette’s death.)
It would be another 20 minutes before a first responder finally arrived, a park police officer by the name of Mike Alexander. He’s a state game warden now — somewhat of a legend within the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, he once broke up a group of poachers in East Texas who retaliated by torching his house. By the time he got to the lake, Alexander remembers, Jeanette had no pulse. He asked if anyone had tried CPR. No, they said, because Lindsey wouldn’t let them. That was odd, Alexander thought, but otherwise he found nothing suspicious about the scene. Soon others would come — firefighters, paramedics, and another park officer. They wrested Jeanette away from Lindsey and rushed her by ambulance to a nearby hospital.
Jean Bergquist — the girls’ mother and Lindsey’s ex-wife — remembers walking into the hospital, distraught. She spotted Lindsey and Darlene sitting next to a chaplain. “And I said, ‘You killed my baby!’” she remembers yelling at Lindsey. “Because that’s what I felt, because I thought, you had her, and you didn’t watch her. And Darlene immediately jumped in my face and said, ‘Daddy didn’t have anything to do with it, he tried to save her.’”
Darlene would later testify that she didn’t remember doing that.
But while no one at the scene — not Alamia, Karges, or Alexander — was initially suspicious that anything other than a tragic accident had occurred, the second park officer to arrive, Will Harty, wasn’t so sure, according to Alexander. (Harty was unavailable for an interview for this story.) Among the things that bothered Harty, Alexander remembers, was that when he tried to question Darlene at the hospital, he said that Lindsey got angry and snatched her away. (The chaplain who was with Lindsey and Darlene at the time would later tell investigators that Lindsey did not seem mad.) “That was just the start of it, I guess,” Alexander told me.
The next day, Detective C.W. Riley would get the case.
THREE DAYS AFTER Jeanette died, Lindsey went to the Fort Worth Police Department to provide a statement to Riley. He described going to Trinity Park and Taco Bueno before arriving at the Nature Center. He talked about fishing from the fallen tree and sending Darlene to the car for paper towels. And he said that while he was watching to make sure Darlene stayed out of the way of any passing vehicles, Jeanette fell into the water.
Lindsey said he immediately jumped in and made his way over to where he thought Jeanette was. The water was turbid and silty, and he was having trouble with his footing —the lake bed was slippery, and the muddy bottom had a way of sucking in your feet like quicksand. That area of the lake was known as Mud Flats. Lindsey found Jeanette and tried to grab her, he told Riley, but it felt like she was struggling against him. He lost his grip and couldn’t see where she was. He found her again — he grabbed her leg, he thought — and tried to pull her toward the shore. But again, he lost his grip and then his footing. He fell under the water. When he stood up, the water was getting close to chin level. He kept moving forward, using his arms below the surface to feel around for Jeanette. Finally, he found her and grabbed her — either around her arms or neck, he said — and walked backward toward the shore where he pulled her up onto the bank. She was dead.
Riley’s secretary typed up the statement and Lindsey signed it. Although Riley would testify that Lindsey had told him that he did not know how to swim, this was not included in the signed statement.
The same day, Riley met park officer Will Harty out at the scene of the drowning. Harty had called a couple of days earlier to say that he was suspicious of Lindsey’s story, Riley wrote in his report, because the water was quite shallow by the tree Lindsey said they’d been standing on. Members of the fire department’s water rescue unit joined Riley and Harty at the scene to take some measurements. Donning a dry suit, which divers and surfers wear in cold water for insulation, one of the firefighters waded out into the lake. It wasn’t at all muddy, he reported, and he had no problem with his footing. Working with a firefighter standing on the tree, he stretched out a tape measure to determine the depth of the water at several locations.
That Jeanette drowned in the shallowest water measured that day would be accepted as fact by all of the state’s witnesses.
Their conclusions, while crucial to the case, were based on fragmentary, occasionally inscrutable information. According to Riley’s testimony, the men judged that at the point where the fallen tree disappeared under the water line (between 8 and 10 feet out from the shore), the lake was 17 inches deep. (The firefighter in the water testified that it was actually 18 inches deep at that point.) At another point 16 feet out from the tree, the water was 40 inches deep, Riley said, and at 24 feet out, it was 60 inches deep. Someone at the scene took photos of this exercise — you can see a floppy tape measure extending from the firefighter in the water to one standing on the tree; others depict the firefighter in the dry suit at various depths. In one, the water is up to his hips; in another, it comes to mid-chest; in a third, it’s up to his shoulders.
Using these measurements as a guide, investigators would ultimately conclude that the water was roughly 17 inches deep where Jeanette drowned. But how they determined that the drowning occurred at this depth is unclear — and impossible to reconstruct given their scattershot documentation. Riley never took Lindsey or Darlene to the scene to demonstrate what happened. Nor did he ask Lindsey to make a diagram to aid the investigation. When I asked Riley about this, he said that Lindsey refused to accompany him to the lake that day. (Lindsey denies this. He says Riley never asked him to go and that he certainly would have. There is no mention of Lindsey refusing to go to the lake in the official police report.) At trial, Riley testified that he didn’t have Lindsey diagram the scene because he’d never done that before in an investigation. “I cannot recall one,” he said.
The assertion that Jeanette drowned in the shallowest water measured that day would be accepted as fact by all of the state’s witnesses.
Roughly two weeks went by without further developments in the case. Then, on March 12, Riley got a call from State Farm Insurance. An adjuster was calling about Jeanette’s death. Riley learned that just eight days before Jeanette drowned, Lindsey had taken out identical $50,000 life insurance policies, with additional $50,000 accidental death benefits, on each of the girls, along with a policy on himself. On the policies for his daughters, Lindsey listed himself and his estranged wife, Linda, as beneficiaries.
Riley called Linda Lindsey.
Two days later, she came in to see the detective. A blonde who wore her hair teased up in a classic ’80s do, Linda worked as an administrative assistant at Alcon Labs, a medical company specializing in eye care products, which is where she met Lindsey, who was a laboratory technologist in research and development. The two began dating in early 1989. Just months later they married. In her interview with Riley, Linda described Lindsey as obsessed with her, and chronically in debt. At first, he lavished her with gifts, she said. They bought a new Ford Bronco (it was repossessed within months) and a Stingray motorboat. Lindsey knew how to swim, she said, and she’d taught him how to water ski. He had been violent toward her and she wanted to leave him, she said, adding that he’d abused prescription drugs and she’d heard he was using crystal meth. She told Riley that Lindsey favored Darlene over Jeanette and had told her that Jeanette was “just like her whore mother.” Lindsey had warned her not to try to leave him, Linda said. “Don’t make me sorry,” he allegedly told her. They had finally separated over Super Bowl weekend — roughly a month before Jeanette died.
Judging by the police report, Riley accepted Linda’s account at face value. Aside from Darlene — who explained to Riley what happened “on the day of the accident,” as she put it — there is no record of Riley interviewing anyone who could corroborate Linda’s inflammatory claims. Riley did not interview the girls’ mother and Lindsey’s ex-wife, Jean, or her husband, both of whom were still close to Lindsey. According to Jean, the allegations weren’t true: Lindsey did not know how to swim, he loved his daughters, and he’d never been violent toward either of them, she told me. As the case moved forward, Jean defended Lindsey in the newspaper — even as Linda was bashing him to the same reporters.
Instead, it appears that Riley looked mostly at Lindsey’s finances as a form of corroborating evidence about his character. Lindsey knows his financial mistakes and misdeeds made him “look suspicious,” he told me. He had a fairly lengthy history of passing hot checks, and he’d used his mother’s Social Security number to get the credit to buy the boat and the Bronco. When he worked briefly as an insurance agent, he said he pocketed some of his customers’ premium money. And he had stolen a couple of expensive microscopes from work — he was using them for home experiments on the effects of microwaves on bacteria, he told me — and then sold them. “I saw an opportunity to make some money there,” he said, “so I did it.”
Riley then learned that Lindsey had told the State Farm agent that he wanted to use the insurance policies on his daughters as a way to save money that could be put toward their college education. The agent told Riley that with that type of policy, you could surrender it for cash, but the proceeds wouldn’t be enough to pay for school.
According to the police report, nearly two more months would pass without any additional investigation. Then, on May 10, Dr. Marc Krouse, Tarrant County’s deputy chief medical examiner, ruled Jeanette’s death a homicidal drowning. The following day, Riley filed an arrest warrant for 33-year-old Wendell Lindsey.
IT WOULD BE more than a year before Lindsey went on trial. Beginning in late August 1991, the trial lasted an exhausting three weeks — largely, it seems, because Lindsey’s attorney, Patrick Short, was longwinded and at times nearly indecipherable when questioning witnesses. Between the lines of the transcript, you can see that he might have had a decent defense strategy, but he was hardly deft at carrying it out.
“Are you suggesting to the jury that this scratch right here is a scratch?” Short asked the medical examiner, referencing an autopsy photo. When questioning Lindsey, who would take the stand in his own defense, he offered: “So, what you’re telling the jury is what you remember, at least of what you remember, or what you don’t remember is what you remembered or didn’t remember pretty much at the time?” Juror Tim Vokes summed it up for me: “The defense was pretty bad.”
(Representing himself, Lindsey would later argue in one of his appeals that Short’s performance was constitutionally deficient. The claim was denied.)
Opposing Short were two seasoned prosecutors, David Montague and Elizabeth Cottingham. Cottingham would go on to become an assistant U.S. attorney in Austin, where she still works. Montague would stay on with the Tarrant County District Attorney’s Office. Upon his retirement in 2008, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram ran a flattering article about his career. He had a reputation as a “champion of children,” the paper reported, prosecuting child abuse cases and starting the office’s Crimes Against Children Unit.
The foundation of the prosecutors’ case against Lindsey rested in part on the points emphasized in Riley’s decidedly thin investigation: Lindsey’s financial distress and fixation with Linda — plotting to collect an insurance payout in order to win her back. The evidence of Lindsey’s financial issues was pretty straightforward, and Linda testified without any meaningful challenge to the incriminating behavior she’d previously attributed to Lindsey.
But perhaps the key evidence that sealed Lindsey’s fate was the testimony of state witnesses who claimed expertise in the science of drowning and were unambiguous in the assertion that there was no way Jeanette could have drowned on her own. Among them was Sarah Forsyth, an aquatics coordinator and instructor at Texas Christian University. Good swimmers don’t just drown, especially not in shallow water, she told the jury. And Jeanette’s family — including Darlene — had classified her as a good swimmer.
Cottingham asked Forsyth to assume that a 10-year-old was standing on a log and fell into shallow water. What would the child do? she asked. “Stand up,” Forsyth replied. When the child fell, she would have her hands out in front of her, not only making it impossible that she would land on her face — and thus get mud in her mouth, ears, or nose — but also making it easy for her to find the bottom, get her bearings, and push back up out of the water.
“When you fall on the floor, do you forget to stand up?”
The alleged rarity of finding organic material in the ears, nose, mouth, or lungs of a person who has drowned in silty lake water was an ongoing theme throughout the testimony of the state’s experts. Paramedics and firefighters who tried to revive Jeanette at the scene commented on the water and debris in her system — “chunks of mud” as one of them put it — saying they hadn’t encountered that in other drowning cases.
Forsyth said the fact that Jeanette had screamed suggested she was aware that she was going under and would likely take a breath beforehand — meaning it would not make sense that she would ingest lake water. Forsyth added that a person who was drowning would never be in a horizontal position, make any forward progress through the water, or struggle against a rescuer, as Lindsey’s explanation of what happened would suggest. “It just wouldn’t be possible,” she said. “It wouldn’t happen.”
Would a struggle be “consistent with [a] person sitting on top of the drowner?” Cottingham asked. Yes, Forsyth said, and that would explain why mud was found in Jeanette’s mouth. For that to happen, she said, “you’d have to have your face smushed into the mud.”
None of the witnesses considered whether the temperature of the water could have had any significant impact on the situation. In fact, a firefighter who was at the scene opined that the water was “real nice” the day Jeanette drowned — minutes after testifying that when he returned three days later to take depth measurements, he had donned a dry suit before wading in. That way, he said, “when the water is real cold, we don’t get cold.”
Short, Lindsey’s attorney, tried to push back to little effect. When he asked Forsyth if she was saying that there was no way a child would fail to stand up after falling in the water, she retorted, “When you fall on the floor, do you forget to stand up?”
Forsyth also questioned why Lindsey just sat on the bank with Jeanette in his arms rather than try to initiate CPR. Lindsey had taken a CPR class back in 1976, prosecutors noted. And, Forsyth declared, a person would never forget how to administer aid no matter how much time had passed since their training. Short pointed out that Lindsey was likely in shock — as park employees and first responders at the scene had suggested. But that wouldn’t matter, Forsyth said, agreeing with Cottingham that in an emergency situation, a person wouldn’t “allow themselves the luxury of shock.”
Driving home the state’s theory about the intentional nature of the drowning was Krouse, the medical examiner. “There is absolutely no way this is an accidental drowning,” he testified — put simply, the autopsy evidence was not consistent with Lindsey’s story. “In what way?” Montague asked. “In the description of the — virtually the entire event,” Krouse said.
There was a small scratch on the side of Jeanette’s nose and some redness around her jaw that Krouse said could only be consistent with being held down by another person. According to Krouse, the marks could not have resulted from someone trying to save a person who was drowning — or, presumably, from contact with some sort of vegetation or debris underwater. “I can’t think of much else other than a human finger that would do that,” he said. He rejected the notion that Jeanette could have scratched herself while struggling beneath the surface.
And the debris and musty water in Jeanette’s system caused him concern. In total, he removed some two tablespoons of material from Jeanette; a normal amount would be “maybe a teaspoon or so,” he said. The muddy material in both of her ears was odd too: Sure, he would expect to find debris in one ear if a person was trying to save her, but not in both.
On cross-examination, Short made some headway. He asked Krouse whether his assessment relied on what he was told by police about the depth of the water where Jeanette drowned. Not at all, Krouse replied, though he acknowledged that he hadn’t been to the scene himself and had only reviewed photos taken several days later. What he knew about the alleged depth “came drifting down the grapevine somewhere,” he testified. His conclusion about what happened to Jeanette was based on the assumption that the water was quite shallow, he said, no more than up to her chest. He admitted that he would have to “re-examine” his conclusion if the water were deeper.
But Short also undercut himself, bolstering the state’s case. He pressed Krouse about how certain he was that Jeanette’s death had been intentional. “On a percentage, Dr. Krouse, scale of zero to a hundred based on what you know right now, would you tell the jury what the percentage on the manner of death that you believe your percentage is right now?”
“My certainty on manner of death?” Krouse asked. “One hundred.”
I spent nearly a year trying to get an interview with Short. He brushed me off at every turn.
4HOUSE OF CARDS
IN COURT, SHORT was firm: Jeanette’s death was a tragic accident and nothing more. The state knew that, he argued, but aggressively pursued Wendell Lindsey anyway. The proof was in the timing, he said.
Not long after Jeanette died, her maternal grandmother, Bonnie Porter, took Lindsey and Jean to see a civil lawyer in order to initiate a lawsuit against the city of Fort Worth, claiming that negligence on the part of the Nature Center employees was the proximate cause of Jeanette’s death. There were no emergency procedures in place, and after park employees were alerted that someone was drowning, no one called 911. Had they done so right away, Jeanette might have been revived.
Notice of the lawsuit was filed with the city on April 11, 1990, well after Krouse performed Jeanette’s autopsy and during a point at which the police seemed to have shelved their inquiry into her death. Yet, just weeks later, Krouse would rule her death a homicide and Riley would seek an arrest warrant for Lindsey. The timing was too coincidental, Short would argue to the jury. “Now, what’s the best way … to stop a civil lawsuit for negligence against … the city?” he asked. “Indict somebody for murder.”
Ultimately, the lawyer handling the civil case, Lowell Dushman, declined to follow through with the suit, at least in part because he felt that Lindsey bore some responsibility for what happened to Jeanette. Dushman testified at trial that he decided to ditch the case sometime after Lindsey was arrested. “It wasn’t the kind of case we wanted,” he said.
Still, there was evidence to suggest something odd was afoot. For starters, there was Jeanette’s death certificate, which Krouse signed on March 1. Where the form required a manner of death to be declared, Short pointed out, it looked like the document had been altered — like someone had changed the ruling from “accidental” to “pending investigation.”
And then there is the account of C.W. Riley, who told me in an interview this spring that Krouse made his determination early on, but then changed his mind after the detective went to see him. Riley said he couldn’t remember whether Krouse initially ruled Jeanette’s manner of death “accidental” or “undetermined,” but he is certain that he asked Krouse to reconsider his findings. It wasn’t uncommon for the county’s pathologists to change their minds when “new stuff pops up,” Riley told me. But there wasn’t any new medical evidence in Jeanette’s case. I asked him what new information there was for Krouse to consider. “I just told him that I had my suspicions,” Riley said. “And he said he would review it and get ahold of me.”
On the stand, Short did not ask Krouse whether he had initially ruled Jeanette’s death an accident. When asked by the prosecution whether the civil lawsuit had any bearing on his final determination, Krouse said, “Absolutely not.”
In an interview, Krouse told me that he would never revisit a case based on a cop’s request. “That’s total bullshit,” he said of Riley’s account. “I don’t let police tell me what to rule.” He stands by his ruling and insists there was no doubt that Lindsey killed Jeanette. “The evidence was overwhelming,” he said. “It’s like I’ve told juries before, this is my opinion. I could be wrong — but I’m not.”
Lloyd White isn’t so sure about that. Also a veteran pathologist, he worked with Krouse in the Tarrant County medical examiner’s office for nearly nine years. He told me that changing manner of death determinations to comport with what the district attorney’s office wanted was not uncommon. If the DA’s office wanted to prosecute a person, the ME’s office was happy to help that along, he said. White provided several examples of cases in which this had occurred, and while he couldn’t recall an instance in which he knew that Krouse specifically had changed a determination, he said the chief medical examiner often did so, and Krouse was his right-hand man.
“They were saying whatever the DA’s office wanted them to say.”
Once White realized that things like this were happening, he said, he made sure to sign all of his work in green ink, so it would be clear if his original reports had been altered — for example, by use of a signature stamp on a revised report. They would change reports or “take over the case from the pathologist who had actually done the autopsy and write the rest of the report,” he says. “They were saying whatever the DA’s office wanted them to say.”
I followed up with Krouse, asking if he would address White’s allegations. In an email, he replied only that they were “not deserving of a response.”
I’ve gotten to know White through my reporting over the years, so I asked him to look over Krouse’s work in the Lindsey case. He reviewed the autopsy report, photos, and other related paperwork, as well as Krouse’s trial testimony, and he thinks Krouse got it wrong. “Here is one of Krouse’s statements: There is absolutely no way this could be an accident,” he read to me over the phone. “Where do you come up with that? What kind of an objective, medical, scientific observation is that?”
In fact, White said he could find nothing inconsistent with Lindsey’s story of an accidental drowning. “There’s absolutely nothing there that couldn’t be caused by therapeutic intervention” — actions taken by medical professionals to save Jeanette’s life — “and/or something that happened in an accidental drowning or when [Lindsey was] recovering her” body from the water. And, he noted, there was no objective basis for the contention that the water was very shallow where she fell in. “It’s just presupposition on top of unsupported opinion,” he said. “The whole case is a house of cards.”
“They made a big deal out of this mud business,” White added, but there was nothing in medical literature or pathology textbooks that would support the assertions that the amount of debris found in Jeanette’s body was abnormal or it was unusual to find mud in both ears. I asked Krouse about this. He said he didn’t know if there was research to support either observation.
Krouse told me that the district attorney’s office consulted two outside pathologists from Florida about the case and that they agreed with his findings. In a pair of short letters sent to prosecutors back in 1991, the pathologists did write to say that they agreed with his determination — in part, one of them wrote, because the water was so shallow, and Jeanette was supposed to be a good swimmer. The other doctor wrote that he and several of his colleagues had reviewed the case information and agreed with Krouse’s findings. He did not enumerate the reasons why. At trial, Short called his own pathologist to counter Krouse. But, as is typical, prosecutors made sure the jury knew the expert had been paid a generous fee for his testimony.
I also wanted a drowning expert to review the testimony of Sarah Forsyth and the first responders. According to the Innocence Project, nearly half of DNA exonerations to date involve faulty forensic science, but none have dealt with the science of drowning. After some research, I found Dr. Justin Sempsrott, an emergency physician, lifeguard, and co-founder of Lifeguards Without Borders. He agreed to review the case.
Sempsrott started as a beach lifeguard when he was a teenager. When he later went to paramedic school, he realized that what he was being taught about drowning didn’t comport with what he was seeing at the beach. He started doing research that he continued throughout medical school. For years, he says, the information being taught about drowning was bad and outdated. That began to change in 2002, when a Dutch doctor convened the first world conference on drowning — which Sempsrott described as a game-changer, the start of the “modern drowning understanding renaissance.” Sempsrott is among a small group of medical-legal drowning experts who testify in civil court cases, but this was the first time he’d been contacted about an old criminal case. He was interested in doing the review, he told me, “because what we in the drowning research community knew to be ‘fact’ in 1991 is completely wrong.”
At 53 degrees, it bordered on what experts call “extreme cold water,” which has a significant impact on the body.
And, he said, little Forsyth testified to as “fact” was actually true. “The long and the short of it is that I think it was a bogus case,” Sempsrott said. It is not true that competent swimmers don’t drown in shallow water, nor that someone who falls into shallow water will always stand up. “That’s just crazy,” he said. Nor is it the case that a person will always drown in a vertical position — “we know that people drown in all sorts of positions.” And, he said, there is nothing scientifically significant about finding mud in the ears, mouth, or lungs of a person who has drowned. “It was bad science” being peddled from the witness stand, he said.
Forsyth did not respond to numerous interview requests sent to an email address obtained via a background check. Attempts to reach her by phone were similarly unsuccessful.
Of course, Sempsrott can’t say with absolute certainty what happened at the lake that day, but he identified important factors that the experts at Lindsey’s trial all but ignored — including the fact that the water was so cold. At 53 degrees, it bordered on what experts call “extreme cold water,” which has a significant impact on the body. It can cause “cold shock response,” where a person hyperventilates after hitting the water. That alone can cause death, Sempsrott said — it renders a person unable to help themselves.
No one appears to have considered the possibility of Jeanette hitting her head on something underwater, which could also have impacted her ability to rescue herself. (In Jeanette’s autopsy, Krouse noted the presence of two small areas of bruising on her head.) If Jeanette became stuck in the mud, that could explain her struggling against Lindsey as he tried to pull her out, Sempsrott said, and even after she was unconscious, she could appear to be moving, a phenomenon known as “hypoxic convulsions.” In other words, there is science to explain each of the things Lindsey said happened in the water that day — the very things the state and its experts said made him a murderer.
IF THE MEDICAL and drowning experts who testified at Lindsey’s trial were wrong, then that left just one witness whose testimony fully supported the notion that Lindsey was a killer: his second wife, Linda. She painted him as cold, calculating, and violent, and provided him with a motive to kill his daughter. Her credibility on the witness stand was crucial, and yet there was reason to doubt her veracity, evidence that jurors never heard.
According to public records, she has been married at least 12 times since 1973, some of them overlapping. When she married Lindsey, she was still married to her previous husband, a man named Doug Henson. And once Lindsey went to jail, she married Henson again — before she and Lindsey divorced.
She painted him as cold, calculating, and violent, and provided him with a motive to kill his daughter.
Lindsey says that Linda told him she had been married twice before, and that it wasn’t until they were splitting up in early 1990 that he got wind that might have been untrue. A co-worker at Alcon Labs told Lindsey that she had overheard Linda talking on the phone about her past and suggested it was something he might want to look into. He did, hiring a private investigator in March 1990 — just weeks after Jeanette’s death — to inquire into Linda’s past as part of his plan to file for divorce. He got the investigator’s report in mid-April. It suggested that Linda had used multiple Social Security numbers and revealed records related to six marriages, but only one divorce. According to the report, Linda had created financial problems for at least two of her husbands.
After Lindsey was arrested, his ex-wife, Jean, released the report to the media. “If the police department’s case for homicide is largely based on Linda Lindsey, she’s totally unworthy of belief,” Jim Bearden, the private investigator, told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. “I have no doubt that our report was just scratching the surface.” For her part, Linda denied that she’d been married six times. “That’s simply not true. I feel like I’m on trial here,” she told the paper. “But I don’t care what anybody else says about me. I’m not the guilty one.”
At trial, Short tried to get information about Linda’s character into evidence before the jury, but the judge wouldn’t allow it. Short was only allowed to question her while the jury was out of the room. Linda denied ever using fake Social Security numbers but ultimately acknowledged six marriages — though she swore she’d personally seen all of her divorce decrees. Short asked her whether she had married Doug Henson twice. After all, at the time she testified, she was using Henson’s last name. No, she said. Had she ever been married to anyone other than those six men? No, she said.
Both of those answers were untrue. Public records show she had indeed married Henson twice by the time she testified, and she’d actually been married at least seven times. The seventh marriage was to a man named Gary Oswalt. Oswalt has died, but according to his widow, Judy, he had gone to high school with Linda. Oswalt and Judy were dating, and close to getting engaged, when Linda suddenly popped up with a tale of woe. She convinced Oswalt to leave Judy and marry her. Just three months later, Oswalt showed up on Judy’s doorstep: He’d found out that Linda was already married — and when that husband came back around, Judy recalls Oswalt telling her, Linda took off with him instead. “It was very much a ‘Peyton Place.’” She told me that Linda was manipulative and not to be trusted. That sentiment was echoed by the relative of another husband. “She caused a lot of trouble in our family,” the relative said.
Bruce Anton, the Dallas defense lawyer who recently took on Lindsey’s case, said it was a mistake for the court not to allow the character evidence before the jury. Linda “arguably cast herself in a false light as Wendell’s wife when she knew she was not legally married to him,” he wrote in an email. “Had Wendell’s attorney made that argument I believe the court would have been obligated to admit that evidence and asking her about it may have opened the door even wider.”
I left several messages for Linda before she finally called me back. She told me I was “harassing” her, “disturbing” her life, and that I would be in a lot of trouble if I didn’t stop calling her. I got the feeling she would hang up on me at any second, so I dove in, asking why she hadn’t told the truth about her marriages. She was not pleased. Nonetheless, she talked to me for nearly 45 minutes. She denied being married more than six times by the time she testified at Lindsey’s trial. When I asked her about Oswalt, she told me that I was “entering an area that is certainly none of your business.” She admitted to bigamy, and then denied it — before saying that she’d actually been married to Doug Henson three times, not just two. But none of that had anything to do with her testimony and her “grievance” against Lindsey, she told me (during our conversation, she referred to him as “that ape” and “Mr. Infidel”). When I said that her testimony about her husbands had to do with her credibility, she responded, “My credibility is nothing of your business or concern!”
Later in the conversation, Linda dropped a bomb: When I asked what made her think Lindsey was guilty of killing Jeanette, she exclaimed, “Because he told me!” She proceeded to offer a detailed account of sitting on a couch with Lindsey in the home they shared while married. She asked him what had happened out at the lake, and he admitted to killing Jeanette. “I had to do it,” she said he told her. I asked why she never testified about this alleged confession. She said she did; then said she was “prompted” to say Lindsey had confessed; then said she told prosecutors and cops about the exchange, and she couldn’t help it if there wasn’t record of it in the police report or she hadn’t been asked about it on the witness stand.
Ultimately, she said that even if she had made statements about Lindsey that were “inflammatory, you know, exaggerations, things like that,” it didn’t really matter. “Is that going to overthrow the whole case? Are you kidding me? Come on, girl.”
DARLENE REMEMBERS WHEN she found out that her father had married Linda. She was surprised — he hadn’t told her or Jeanette anything about the relationship. She was not impressed. “She was a real high-maintenance type of woman,” Darlene said. She’s pretty certain Linda was a “snake in the grass.”
But she still isn’t buying Lindsey’s story.
Darlene has had a hard life — she first married at 14 and later got involved with drugs and in trouble with the law — but she’s always persevered despite the trauma she’s lived with since her sister’s death. “I’m doing good for myself, despite all odds,” she told me. She insists that her father killed her sister — at least that’s how she remembers it. When she turned back from the road after hearing her sister scream, she said, she saw Jeanette kicking around in the water “right underneath” Lindsey. That’s not what she told detective Riley back in 1990, but she says that’s because she didn’t tell anyone anything for quite a while.
At trial, Darlene largely testified in line with the statement she provided to Riley — in which she talked about the “accident” that happened the day Jeanette died. She said that after she heard a “scream and a splash,” she ran back toward the water, which was up to her father’s chest. She described him as sitting and using his arms to feel around for her sister. She acknowledged during cross-examination that she couldn’t see clearly through the silty water, and that if it was deep enough, Lindsey could have been standing. She also said that she was confused about what happened that day.
But on redirect examination, Cottingham was able to tease out a damning detail that Darlene never told investigators: that she once told her grandmother Bonnie Porter that she had seen her father sitting on Jeanette in the water. Short objected to the questioning, calling the statement hearsay. Montague argued that it was being offered not for the truth of the matter, but as a way to impeach Darlene. It isn’t uncommon for prosecutors to seek to impeach a witness with a prior inconsistent statement — but regardless of whether the jurors are supposed to take it as fact, they often do, because the suggestion is clear: This was the truth and all the other things she had told police and testified to were not. The judge allowed it. For at least one juror, Tim Vokes, this was key testimony, the thing he remembers most about the trial. “That, for whatever reason, stays with me.”
Although it appears that Darlene’s opinion of her father’s guilt has wavered over the years — Lindsey said that when she last visited in 2016, she told him she hoped he could ultimately prove his innocence — she is now resolute, and nothing would change her mind, she told me. “I’ve done years and years and decades now of looking and searching,” she said. “I know what I’d seen. I know I was traumatized, but it’s there in my brain.”
Jean Bergquist, Darlene’s mother, is also firm: She is certain her ex-husband is innocent. And she believes that it was her mother, Bonnie Porter, who set in motion the criminal case against Lindsey. Lindsey had a good relationship with the Porters until some point not long after Jeanette died. Then Bonnie’s attitude changed. Jean told me that her mother, who died in 2001, was extremely close to Jeanette and devastated by her death. “I love my little girls to the moon and back, but my mother worshipped her. And I believe she took it out on [Lindsey] because he was the one that took her out there and had the accident,” she said. “If it had been my husband who I am married to now, he would’ve been to blame; if it had been me, I’d probably have been to blame.”
Jean believes that Bonnie brainwashed Darlene into thinking her father was guilty — she testified as such for Lindsey’s defense — and she remembers listening in on a phone conversation her mother had with Riley not long after Jeanette’s death. “He said, ‘Mrs. Porter, we find that this is an accident, that’s what we believe, and we’re going to go ahead and close the case,’” she recalls. “And my mom said, ‘Hell no.’ She said it wasn’t an accident” and he had to keep investigating. (Riley told me that he doesn’t remember the exchange.)
Jean also thinks prosecutors unduly influenced Darlene. “They showered her with gifts,” she told me, including dolls and an Easy-Bake Oven. Darlene agrees that Cottingham and Montague were very kind to her. She recalls going to the movies with them and visiting Cottingham’s apartment. She says that Montague took her and her cousin on overnight fishing trips to a lake house he owned. She recalls these outings as happening after her father’s trial. “They were both really good to me.” Jean said she knew about the outings and was upset by the fact that they happened without her permission.
I sent letters to Montague to arrange an interview for this story; when he didn’t respond, I went to his home to try to talk with him. He had just arrived when I rang the bell. He had a long ponytail and rough hands, the kind you get from doing a lot of gardening. He was wearing a Life is Good T-shirt with a stick-figure guy and his dog sitting by a campfire. “Happy Hour,” it read. He said he’d gotten my letters but didn’t want to talk — the only reason to do so would be if this were a wrongful conviction case, and it wasn’t. He recalled Lindsey’s financial distress and Krouse’s conclusions about Jeanette’s death. He said the aquatics expert, Forsyth, was called simply to remind the jurors about “common sense”: that when you fall in the water, you “just stand up.” When I said I had been told that wasn’t accurate, Montague fixed me with a flat stare. He knew that Lindsey had maintained his innocence, he told me, but that didn’t mean anything because Lindsey was a “con man and a liar.”
Montague said he took Darlene out fishing once but doesn’t remember any overnight trips — and he didn’t see anything wrong with maintaining a relationship with her. He’d often stayed in touch with victims of child abuse whose cases he’d prosecuted, he noted.
In an email, Cottingham wrote that she remembered being in touch with Darlene after the trial. One of Darlene’s relatives had asked her to do so because they thought she would make a good “role model,” she wrote. She did not remember buying Darlene dolls or an Easy-Bake Oven, going to the movies, or going on any outings with both Montague and Darlene.
But she did remember Darlene’s family reaching out at some point after the trial to say they were traveling through Austin and would like to see her. It was possible the family dropped by her apartment for a visit, she wrote. Cottingham added that even if she hadn’t been asked to keep in touch with Darlene, she would have done so anyway. “Both Darlene, and the horrible events which caused us to meet each other, touched my heart,” she wrote.
The situation is troubling to Daniel Medwed, a law professor at Northeastern University whose research focuses on wrongful convictions and the role played by prosecutors. While he said it made sense that a prosecutor might “develop a personal allegiance” to a victim and witness like Darlene, “I’m always worried when it feels as though there is a relationship between the prosecutor and the victim that goes beyond the professional and veers into the personal, because I think it could affect prosecutorial discretion and judgment.”
“This is a relationship that is too close for comfort.”
If the relationship was happening while they were preparing for trial, or while it was ongoing, that would raise a specific set of questions — particularly around witness coaching. “Coaching can take the form of suggestive questioning during pretrial prep — ‘Oh, don’t you remember this? Are you sure? Didn’t this happen?’” Medwed said. But it can also be more indirect, “like lavishing gifts or creating a relationship where they want to please you.”
In the context of a murder case, however, even having a relationship that develops post-trial is concerning — precisely because there is a good chance that there will be additional litigation: a motion for a new trial, an appeal, or an evidentiary hearing in which witnesses have to testify again. “It seems like bad judgment — to say the least — to become friendly with witnesses in a homicide case,” Medwed told me, adding that this also raised questions about exactly when the relationship developed. “It’s not as if, out of the blue after trial, they called up this family and said, ‘Let’s go to the lake.’ Common sense suggests that seed was planted early in the relationship and it might have only blossomed later … but it points to a more fraught and complicated relationship pretrial than we would like,” he told me. “This is a relationship that is too close for comfort.”
Lindsey said it wasn’t until some years after he was convicted that he heard rumors about the prosecutors’ relationship with Darlene, so he never had an opportunity to have it investigated or raised as an issue on appeal.
ONE MORNING IN early January, I met up with Eric Nadel, the Texas Rangers commentator who’d first told me about Lindsey’s story, at the Fort Worth Nature Center. I had asked Lindsey to make a diagram of where he and the girls went fishing the day Jeanette drowned. Using the diagram, trial testimony, and an actual map of the property, I was able to locate the spot — or at least close to it. It was chilly outside, and the winter landscape and gray sky felt foreboding.
Both Nadel and I wanted to see what the water was like. It was certainly cold, which I learned almost immediately after wading out into the lake; one of my rubber boots sprang a leak and my foot was enveloped in icy water. Just steps from the shoreline, my feet were quickly sucked into the muck. I had to work to pull them out, and nearly fell over more than once.
When Nadel and Lindsey began corresponding, Nadel peppered Lindsey with questions about his case. All of Lindsey’s responses “seemed plausible,” he told me. In 2014, after communicating with Lindsey for several years, Nadel wanted to “look him in the eye” and size him up. He traveled to Amarillo to meet Lindsey. He believed him.
I wanted to meet Lindsey too. Last winter, I drove up to the Alfred Hughes prison in the small town of Gatesville, Texas, where Lindsey is now housed.
Inside a large visiting room, I sat across a picnic table from Lindsey, who is now 62. He was dressed in standard white prison scrubs. I pressed him with questions about his case, including why he thought Linda would say all those bad things about him if they weren’t true. He said he didn’t really know for sure but guessed it had to do with his poor financial decisions and the fact that he’d listed her as a beneficiary on his daughters’ life insurance policies. He’d done that after they had already separated, which at least suggested that the prosecution’s obsession theory might have had some basis to it. He says he can’t explain why he listed Linda, but she was furious when she found out.
In audio of a phone call they had before Lindsey was arrested for murder, Linda goes on and on about how angry she is to be dragged into the investigation and how it’s a drag on her life. She threatens to kill Lindsey if he doesn’t do something about it. “She really got pissed off at me,” he recalled. “I think that was a little revenge factor there, motivated her to do that.”
“I didn’t get her out of the water in time. I was there, I was her parent.”
Lindsey has repeatedly told me that Linda’s contention that he was obsessed with her simply wasn’t true — though he admits he was smitten, at least at first. She was sexy and smart, and she liked baseball and war movies. Linda provided prosecutors with a trove of love notes she’d received from him, presumably as a means to back up that part of her story. I sent copies of the notes to Lindsey. He says he wrote most of them early on in their relationship and during a period of separation after a fight in the fall of 1989 (Lindsey admits that he pushed her onto a bed and spit on her while they argued). It wasn’t long after Jeanette died that he initiated divorce proceedings. If he was so intent on winning Linda back, he asks, why would he do that? When he received the private investigator’s report, he was resolute in his decision. “I had no idea at all about these previous marriages and so forth,” he told me. “I was kind of bumfuzzled by it all, when I read the report. It just blew me away.”
Lindsey said there were things that didn’t come out at trial that he feels are important, including information about the insurance policies. Part of what was so damning was the timing: He had applied for the policies just days before Jeanette drowned. But he said that what the jury didn’t know — even though he says he explained this to his lawyer — was that he had been shopping for insurance for months and had talked to several insurance companies before settling on State Farm. He is adamant that he took out the policies as a means to save up some cash for his daughters’ education — even if that might have been an ill-advised financial plan.
He is still somewhat bewildered by his circumstances. If he could go back in time, he says, he would never have gone to the Nature Center that day. “I wish I’d have just said, ‘Hey kids, we can’t go fishing today, sorry, we’re just going to go back to the house.’ But that’s not the way it went down,” he told me. “I didn’t intentionally drown Jeanette, but I feel responsible for it because I feel like I let her down. I didn’t get her out of the water in time. I was there, I was her parent. I was there to protect her, to look after her, and I let her down.”
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