By AMANDA KIMBLE
ERATH COUNTY (December 31, 2016) – A little more than six months after being appointed to serve the 266th Judicial District, District Attorney Alan Nash saw his first three murders.
Days away from the start of his second four-year term, the district attorney spoke to The Flash, reflecting on his whirlwind career in public service. Prior to taking up the fight to uphold the laws of the state of Texas, Nash had a successful run as defense attorney, civil litigator and shareholder with Coan and Elliot, PC.
He was sworn into office on a six-month appointment on July 4, 2012, filling the office previously held by Jason Cashon and John Terrill wasn’t Nash’s first time as an elected official. He served the citizens of his hometown on the Stephenville City Council.
Cashon was sworn in as district judge on the same day Nash took over the district attorney’s office. Terrill, who retired in 2008, assists prosecutors on occasion.
July 4, 2012, was no doubt a ceremonious day but it was almost immediately overshadowed by tragedy. Nash’s first memories in the district attorney’s office will forever be marred by death. Investigator Sammy Slatten was killed in an automobile accident in Parker County on July 7, 2012.
“It was a tragedy,” Nash said. “And, for a while, there was a vacancy. We didn’t have an investigator for some time.”
Marty Baker signed on as investigator in January 2013.
Less than a month later, death came knocking again. This time, it was the murder of Erath County resident Jeff Sewalt, who was found shot to death in his home.
“I had never seen a dead body, or been to homicide crime scene, before February 1, 2013,” Nash said. “Suddenly I had to deal with experiencing that for the first time, not being a trained lawman.”
Within hours, two more men were dead. Former Navy SEAL Chris Kyle and his close friend Chad Littlefield were the victims of a double slaying. They were killed on February 2, 2013, at Rough Creek Lodge, a hunting resort located at the Erath and Somervell County line.
Three murders in a year – much less a 24-hour period – is virtually unheard of in Erath County. Nash had never seen such violence. The 266th Judicial District is no stranger to murder, there have been several over the years and there are always violent crimes to prosecute, but the courthouse is more commonly host to plea agreements with suspects facing drug-related offenses and felony DWI (driving while intoxicated) case.
And, as quickly as the three men had been killed, the county was transformed into a mecca for media outlets from across the nation and around the globe seeking the latest on the slaying of Kyle, the “American Sniper.”
While television viewers were tuning into news of the death of Littlefield and Kyle, the district attorney’s office was caught in a balancing act and equally focused on the first murder of the year. Nash was intent on bringing Sewalt’s killer to justice and ensuring the victims, his friends and family were not sidelined by the capital murder case that came hours later.
“We were very sensitive to the fact that Mr. Sewalt’s family was grieving just as severely as Mr. Littlefield and Mr. Kyle’s families,” Nash said. “National media was focused on Chris Kyle and Chad Littlefield and made no mention of Jeff Sewalt, and I am sure it made his death even harder for those who knew and loved him. I am also sure there was a part of them that was concerned that all of our attention was going to be on what the rest of the world saw as the bigger case.”
Only hours separated the untimely deaths, but Nash was determined from the beginning to try the case against Doud first.
“The crime occurred first and we worked the case first,” he said.
A jury found Troy Doud, a now 50-year-old acquaintance of the slain Sewalt, guilty of murder in August 2014. He was sentenced to life in prison.
“That’s the investigation and prosecution I am most proud of,” Nash said. “It was the most challenging case of my career (to date). The sheriff’s department did an excellent job of bringing together a significant amount of circumstantial evidence.”
Circumstantial evidence is oftentimes not enough for a jury, but it was stacked against Doud.
Investigators obtained surveillance video from the time just before and after the murder showing Doud following Sewalt toward the victim’s home. Cell phone records pointed to Doud’s proximity to the scene of the crime despite his claims he was nowhere near it. A car title – the subject of a dispute between the two men that witnesses said Sewalt had in his possession a short time before he was killed – was found at the murderer’s home.
In pursuing his first murder conviction, Nash had as much to prove to citizens as he did himself.
“The murder of Jeff Sewalt was harder to explain (than the case against Routh),” Nash said. “There was no confession and no murder weapon. The motive was not proportional to the act. It never is – murder is rarely driven by logic – but I still don’t understand murdering someone over $16,000.”
Nash spent more of his personal time on the Doud case than the Rough Creek Lodge murders, too. The investigation of the deaths of Littlefield and Kyle was handled by some of the most seasoned and savvy investigators from the local area and across the state. The Rough Creek incident was horrific, but the investigation presented an open and shut case against suspect Eddie Ray Routh.
But, the capital murder case was huge. Perhaps the biggest the county has ever seen – and hopefully will ever see.
“Momentous,” is the first word that comes to mind when recalling the case against Routh. Nash is aware that his role in the case is something that will likely become part of tombs of local history, but he credits a strong team of lawmen from the Erath County Sheriff’s Department, Stephenville Police, officials between here and Lancaster, the Texas Rangers and Department of Public Safety with the investigation.
“My role in the investigation was supportive” he said.
There were telephone calls. Lots of calls – CNN, NBC, Fox News, The New York Times… Everyone, everywhere wanted to know more about the case.
“In the first couple of hours, I didn’t really realize what a frenzy the murders would create,” Nash said. “When we got to Lancaster – where Routh lived and was arrested – there were local news channels with camera crews waiting. Suddenly, I realized it was a much bigger deal than I initially understood.”
But, the freshman prosecutor hadn’t signed on for hype and fanfare.
“I became DA on the heels of a number of high profiles cases in which the prosecutor sought out media attention, such as in the death of Trayvon Martin,” Nash said. “We were getting a lot of calls, but we weren’t taking them. From the beginning, I made sure it was understood that the investigation and case against Routh would be revealed to everyone at the same time, inside of the courtroom.”
Aside from an early-hour press conference that told the names of the victims, suspect and a few basic facts of case, media outlets were given no information until the start of the capital murder trial, The State of Texas V. Eddie Ray Rough. The proceedings began two years and one week after the murders of Littlefield and Kyle, on February 9, 2015.
An audience of journalists, television news cameras and broadcasters had the attention of the entire nation focused on Erath County. Finally, the story began to slowly unfold.
Kyle, who was known for supporting his fellow veterans, reached out to Routh, a former Marine, and paid the ultimate sacrifice. He and Littlefield took Routh to Rough Creek Lodge for an afternoon of bonding and target practice. Instead, Routh shot the unsuspecting friends and fled the scene in Kyle’s pickup truck.
The evidence would show Routh was a man wrought with issues, but it failed to show he suffered Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as he often claimed. Records show his military service was for the most part uneventful.
The trial would also reveal a side of Routh the craved attention, one that at points seemed to revel in the attention his horrific crimes brought.
The prosecutions witness list included a long list of experts, law enforcement officials and evidence that could not be ignored. The jury and gaggle of spectators watched the high speed pursuit Routh, saw crime scene photographs, watched the defendant’s video-taped confession to the crime and listened to telephone calls between him and others during his time in the Erath County Jail.
Nash said being able to tell it in a court of law rather than a court of public opinion is still a source of pride. He credits committed police officers, investigators and professionals within the justice system with protecting the integrity of the case.”
“Nobody outside of law enforcement, litigants and the immediate families knew the circumstances of the crime,” he said. “Days before the trial, a third-rate news site aired animation of what it claimed was the crime and it was so ridiculous. That’s when it really gelled with me that nobody really knew the facts of the case, anything about the crime scene or the evidence we had against Routh.”
In the end, it was more than enough. Routh was guilty, and like Doud before him, he given a life sentence.
But there were four victims in 2013. The discovery of the body of a fourth victim who met an untimely end also went unnoticed outside of Erath County. Keith Lynn Wood was killed on October 7, 2013, but his body was not discovered until more than a month later, on November 14.
Wood was a colorful character with a “checkered past.” The investigation into his whereabouts began sometime after Wood’s father called to say his son hadn’t been around and must be dead. Eventually, someone would admit to seeing him dead at a home on Stephenville’s east side.
The witness, a young lady known as “Rabbit,” was with her boyfriend, Juan Reyes, following Wood’s murder. The two men had a verbal altercation, shared some hits of methamphetamine and argued again. Reyes, who would later claim self-defense, fired his pistol on Wood, killing him with a shot to the chest.
“Reyes and his girlfriend went out to a farm in the Proctor area and buried Mr. Wood’s body,” Nash said, adding Rabbit led police to his body more than a month later. “That’s where detectives with shovels revealed a fairly well preserved body wrapped in tap and a shower curtain.”
Reyes was sentenced to 40 years in prison.
Looking back now, Nash simply says 2013 was a strange year for Erath County.
“Homicides don’t happen here very often, but as far back as I can remember, they seem to happen in groups,” he said, adding there has not been a local murder since. “There have been deaths that occurred as the result of intoxication assault, but nothing so violent as 2013.”
Still, there has been no shortage of work. Nash said in the 266th Judicial District indicts 20 to 30 cases each month. There are always meth cases, others involving charges for driving while intoxicated and sexual assault remains a persistent problem.
A constant concern for the local justice system and question from citizens is the gap between drug sentences and sexual assault convictions. Many community members continue to ask why the district attorney’s office can put a drug offender away for life while child predators and other sexual offenders receive a lighter sentence. The answer is not a simple one.
“When you look at the disparity of drug dealers versus sexual assault, it’s not a matter of relative evil,” Nash said. “The cases hinge on the provability of the crime.”
In most cases involving the conviction of accused drug dealers, their crimes have been caught on video as the result of a narcotics investigation. Possession cases often start with a traffic stop and the discovery of controlled substances inside of the vehicle.
“Those facts are undeniable,” Nash said.
Meanwhile, sexual assault cases often rely on the testimony or outcry of a young child who must explain something he or she doesn’t understand. Sometimes the story change and a lot of cases the word of an adult is easier for jurors to relate. In other cases, the lack of hard evidence leads to probation in an effort to avoid an acquittal and keep an eye on the suspected offender.
“Those cases, sexual assaults of children, involve horrible accusations and the normal juror wants proof beyond a reasonable doubt,” Nash said. “I understand the perception that we are more aggressive on drug offenders, but that is a perception based on an outcome and not an action.”
Defense attorneys know when they get a sexual assault case, there’s a chance of an acquittal, but they’re also aware juries rarely turn a cheek to hard evidence.
“We have examples sexual assault cases with solid evidence, such as DNA, a confession or a witness, and in those rare cases, juries have handed down 99-year sentences.”
Once such case involved the 99-year sentence handed down to Richard Wayne “Hillbilly” Hammer in October 2014, which was affirmed by appellate courts.
As prepares to finish out his fifth year in office and being sworn into this second four-year term on January 3, Nash can say he’s been a player in a number of “significant successful prosecutions.”
“I am blessed to get to work with law enforcement officials who are determined to keep Erath County safe and rural,” he said. “When bad things happen like violence and meth, we don’t accept them as our norm.”
Nash also said he didn’t realize working with police would be one most enjoyable aspects of his job or something he would experience daily. The lawmen partner on investigative efforts when felony crimes occur and preparing for trial, as well as the preparation of arrest warrants. Nash said he also always makes himself available for question, offering a legal perspective citizens’ constitutional rights.
“Working with rank and file lawmen is one of the coolest things I get to do,” he said.
Finally, Nash said while some may think victories only come in the form of guilty verdicts and maximum sentences, plea agreements and probationary terms also offer satisfaction. He said about 85 percent of the caseload result in plea agreement.
“In every case, the 85 percent and those we take to trial, the purpose is to find a punishment that will stop the offender from violating law, deter others from committing similar crimes and provide some level of justice for victims,” he said.
Nash also said he has a lot of faith in the local probation office and has seen a great number of successes with young and first-time offenders who never offend again.
“I believe that is really something that we – as a community – should be proud of,” he said. “We want drug dealers, sex offenders and murderers to go away for a long time, but there are others who deserve a second chance.”