Billy Joe Wardlow, 45, was executed by lethal injection on 8 July 2020 in Huntsville, Texas for the robbery and murder of a man in his home.
On Sunday, 13 June 1993, Wardlow, then 18, drove to the home of Carl Cole in Morris County in northeast Texas. He disconnected the phone lines from the outside then knocked on the door. There was no answer. He returned two more times during the night, then again, with Tonya Fulfer, between 5:00 and 6:00 a.m., but when he knocked on the door, there was still no answer.
The couple waited outside the house until the lights came on. This time, Cole, 82, answered Wardlow's knock. Wardlow told him his car was broken down and asked to use his phone. Cole reached over and handed him a cordless phone through the door opening. Wardlow tried it, informed Cole that it was dead, and asked to use a different phone. Cole answered "no" and began to close the door. Wardlow then drew a semiautomatic pistol, chambered a round, and ordered Cole inside. Cole then lunged at Wardlow and latched onto his arm. Wardlow shook Cole off and then shot him between the eyes. He then went inside and found the victim's wallet. He wrapped the body in a blanket, stuffed it in a closet, and locked the door. He and Fulfer then fled in the victim's truck, which had the keys in it.
The couple drove to Wardlow's mother's house to pick up some personal items. They then left the state.
The victim's son, Charles Cole, arrived at his father's home in the late afternoon. He observed that his father's pickup truck was missing. He noticed blood on the steps in front of the door. He guessed that his father had injured himself and gone for help, and attempted to call nearby hospitals. When he found that the phones were dead, he went to a neighbor's house and phoned Morris County Sheriff Ricky Blackburn. He then returned to his father's house. The home appeared to be undisturbed, but Cole, his billfold, and his keys were missing.
Blackburn arrived shortly after. He discovered a broken pair of glasses, a partial set of dentures, and a small amount of blood in the carport near the door. Authorities also discovered that the phone lines had been disconnected from the outside. Blackburn then put out an alert and forwarded the registration number of Cole's pickup to the National Crime Information Center.
At around midnight, Morris County Deputy Sheriff Bill Barnard discovered the victim's checkbook at a turnaround on a small backroad in Titus County. It appeared to have been dumped there, along with some other items.
A Texas game warden and a Texas state trooper went to the house with Charles Cole before dawn on Tuesday. They did a thorough search of the house and found the victim's body in the closet.
In Nebraska, Wardlow traded the victim's truck for a Ford Mustang and $8,000 cash.
The couple was apprehended in South Dakota on Wednesday, 16 June. A .45- caliber semiautomatic pistol was found under the passenger seat of their Mustang.
While in the Morris County Jail, Wardlow wrote two notes to Sheriff Blackburn, who he had known for about eight years. In these notes, he confessed to killing Mr. Cole, who he knew, during the course of a premeditated armed robbery. "The intention was to get him to let me use the phone and once inside, I would rob him," he wrote. His two notes differed on a few matters, most notably, on his intention of killing the victim. In the first note, "I pushed him off and shot him right between the eyes. Just because he pissed me off. He was shot like an executioner would have done it." In the second note, Wardlow stated that he killed Cole by shooting wildly during the course of the physical struggle with him.
At Wardlow's trial, which was moved to neighboring Titus County, the medical examiner testified that the victim was shot with the pistol that was found on the suspects at the time of their arrest. The weapon was fired from a distance greater than three feet.
Wardlow's mother, Lynda Wardlow, testified that the morning before the murder, she noticed that her .45-caliber semiautomatic pistol was missing from her home, along with some ammunition.
Dorothy Smith, who worked as a live-in caregiver for Cole's sister, who lived on the same street, testified that she saw a young couple matching Wardlow and Fulfer's description talking in front of the sister's house at about 6:30 a.m. on 14 June. Smith saw them walk toward Cole's house and stop at a van parked in the driveway next to it. As they stood looking in the back of the van, Smith saw a gun handle sticking out of the man's back pocket. The man then walked under Cole's carport out of her sight, and the woman followed. A minute or two later, Smith heard a gunshot and saw the woman run out from under the carport, stop quickly, and bend over. Smith testified that she thought the man had shot a snake behind Cole's house, and she returned to her housework, unconcerned. About five minutes later, she saw Cole's pickup back out of his carport and drive away.
At age 18, Wardlow had no previous felony convictions, but evidence of previous criminal behavior, including an arrest for fleeing from a deputy and a report of taking a vehicle for a test drive and not returning it, was presented at his punishment hearing. Furthermore, evidence was presented that he hid a heavy metal bar in his jail cell and wrote several letters to Sheriff Blackburn and jailer Patsy Martin in which he threatened to harm various people.
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