Erath County victims services hosted its 18th annual Tree of Angels Tuesday night, a ceremony honoring victims of violent crimes.
Susan Woods, a woman who was killed in 1987 by Joseph Hatley, was remembered during the ceremony with Lt. Don Miller and Sgt. Russell Ford with the Stephenville Police Department speaking about the murder investigation.
Woods' father discovered his daughter's body on July 28, 1987, partly submerged in a bathtub inside her Stephenville home. Investigators working the case determined she had been dead for two to three days. According to the medical examiner, Woods died of asphyxiation due to either strangulation or drowning.
“I remember looking at our victim and I remember looking over into the bedroom and I knew that there had been a struggle,” Miller said. “Anybody who was associated with Susan Woods got their fingerprints taken, their palm prints taken and got interrogated. I knew when I got those handprints, I had the killer.”
Despite an intense investigation by detectives originally assigned to the case, the mystery of who killed Woods, who was 30 at the time of her death, remained unsolved until 20 years later when Miller reopened the cold case files.
After re-examining much of the evidence, Miller became convinced that new DNA technology could solve the murder.
“Back in ‘94, I had some FBI friends who told me there's going to be a big, huge databank come open in the future and it's going to have every criminals' fingerprint in that system. Now it's 2006 and I think, ‘I wonder if they ever got that computer program up and running,'” Miller said.
He took several fingerprints lifted from the crime scene to the Texas Department of Public Safety Lab in Austin and ran them through the automated fingertip identification system. They were a perfect match to Hatley's.
The findings were a shock to Miller, who said Hatley was never a suspect.
"I always knew the case was solvable," Miller said. "But Hatley was never on our radar."
Miller found out that Hatley had been accused of sexually assaulting a 16-year-old girl just 18 years prior.
“I had the case file ready and I started reading. I read that file and I knew we had a killer. The things that happened to that young lady, I knew it,” he said.
On June 6, 2006, Hatley was found in Round Rock and was brought to the police station.
While Ford was interviewing him, Miller noted that Hatley was “calm, cool, collected and calculating.”
“You would have to be pretty upset to your stomach if you knew you had killed a woman 19 years ago in Stephenville and all of a sudden, you got two Stephenville detectives wanting to talk to you about that case,” Ford said. “He didn't show any emotion. I don't think he even showed any fear. It was like he was trying to interview us. He wanted to know what we knew, what evidence we had so that he would have some plausible explanation for what it was, so he did not show any remorse. Ultimately, we ended that interview without a confession.”
In the end, Hatley pleaded guilty to Woods' murder one week before his trial was set to begin.
“It took years for technology to catch up with us. It was a long, tiring case but bringing justice, not only putting him up but now everybody knows what happened. Nobody knew what a monster he was. Nobody. He didn't give us anything but in hindsight, we didn't need anything. We didn't need to talk to him. We had him.”
Roy and Cindy Hayes knew Woods and Hatley and attended Tuesday's ceremony.
“We (Hatley and I) were really good friends in first grade,” Roy said. “We played football together, knew each other for years. To the day I found all of this, I thought he was a good guy.”
Hatley was sentenced to 30 years in prison, but was released in 2017 after serving only 11 years.
“Scott Hatley was my cousin, my first cousin, who killed my best friend,” Cindy said. “You think you know people.”