Neighbor Shooting Thermal Scope Video Helps Solve Murder Of Texas Choir Director
Kathy Blair was found dead in her bed days before an elderly couple was killed in eerily similar circumstances.
A beloved choir director went to bed and was brutally killed as she slept. Video shot by chance and a friend’s memory would provide police with key clues and help solve the senseless slaying.
Shortly after noon on Dec. 6, 2014, Joseph Hargis, 23, returned from a night spent at a friend’s home and found the bloodied body of his mother, Kathy Blair, 53, in her bed at their home in Austin. She had been savagely stabbed multiple times. Drawers from a jewelry cabinet in the bedroom had been emptied.
“I think someone broke in and killed my mom,” Hargis told a 911 dispatcher.
While investigating the crime, detectives were unable to find DNA or fingerprints, but they did observe a bloody shoe print. Detectives looking into the promising lead were able to determine both the brand and size of the shoe. They also tracked the killer’s footprints through the house, including to a table where whoever left the marks had ignored pricy electronics, leading police to believe the jewelry robbery may have been staged.
Days after Blair’s murder, her neighbor, Rob Leef, contacted police and told them he had thermal scope video that could be helpful to the investigation. According to Leef, shortly after 1 the morning of the murder, he was testing the scope, which shows only heat radiation, on deer running through the neighborhood. He inadvertently captured video of a man’s form exiting a vehicle and walking down the street toward the victim’s home.
Police reviewed the footage and determined the man in the footage appeared to be tall and had a distinct walk. They were also able to note the make of the mystery man’s vehicle based on the shape of its grill and headlights.
One week after Blair’s killing, an elderly couple, Sidney Sheldon, 85, and 83-year-old Billie Shelton, were beaten and strangled to death at their residence located around 5 miles away from choir director Blair’s home. Billie Shelton also had suffered stab wounds to the face. As with the Blair case, a small jewelry box in the couple’s residence had been emptied.
“Nighttime burglaries are extremely unusual,” says Derek Israel, a retired detective with the Austin Police Department who worked on the case. “This is Texas. People have guns and they’re allowed to shoot you when you come in the house and burglarize it at night.”
The similarities in the murders raised red flags. “For two such burglaries to happen in such a short period of time,” Israel said, it made him and other investigators “firmly believe that we’re looking for the same person in both these cases.”
Police got a big break after one of Blair’s friends recalled Blair had been creeped out by a handyman who had done some work at her home the previous spring. Detectives learned the worker, Tim Parlin, was a convicted jewel thief who was out on parole. He was also a member of the same church the Sheltons attended.
A search of a motel room where Parlin was living turned up jewelry and a pawn shop receipt from a gold nugget pendant he had pawned the same day as Blair’s slaying. Detectives obtained surveillance video at the business, which showed Palin driving a Toyota Camry, the same make of car observed in the thermal video shot by Blair’s neighbor. Detectives found blood in the area around the passenger-side seat of the vehicle, and tests later confirmed the blood belonged to Blair.
According to Det. Israel, when detectives brought Parlin in for questioning and confronted him with the evidence, he told detectives he didn’t commit the crime, but said he knew the man who did: his friend, Shawn Gant-Benalcazar.
Detectives learned 30-year-old Gant-Benalcazar lived in Galveston but cell phone data showed he had been visiting Parlin in Austin when the three murders occurred. Galveston, who had no prior criminal record, was brought in for questioning.
Austin Police Department Detective Kerry Scanlon, now retired, watched Gant-Benalcazar walk to the bathroom at the station during a break. “It just hit me right there in the hall, ‘Oh wow, this is the guy that was in the video.’”
Scanlon says Gant-Benalcazar had a similar gait to the man seen in the video recorded by Blair’s neighbor. Also damning: He had shoes that were the same brand and size of the shoe impression left in blood at the Blair crime scene.
After detectives confronted Gant-Benalcazar, he claimed he was frightened of Parlin, who he claimed was threatening his family and demanding he break into Blair’s home while she slept. He then admitted Blair woke up during the burglary and he stabbed her in the neck, police video shows.
Gant-Benalcazar was arrested and charged with Blair’s murder, but he refused to provide police with any information about the Sheltons. Because of insufficient evidence linking him to the couple, he was only tried and convicted for murdering Blair.
Parlin was also arrested and later found guilty of all three murders.
Both men were sentenced to serve life in prison.
For more on this case, stream See No Evil: "Body Heat" on Max.
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