Twenty-five years ago, in the small East Texas town of Kilgore (better known as the home of the Kilgore Rangerettes), in September 1983, five people were abducted from a Kentucky Fried Chicken.
They were all discovered dead the next day, along an oil field road about fifteen miles from the KFC where they had been abducted the night before. Investigators have been working for two-and-a-half decades to find the killers. A good attorney friend of my parents’ has been working with the victims’ families for years and years. This case has consumed lives and, unfortunately, made history.
And this week, Darnell Hartsfield, 47, goes on trial for his part in the infamous murders. The trial was moved to Bryan, about 150 miles southwest of Kilgore, because of the publicity.
If the investigators are now correct about who they say did these horrible killings, one of the men has been sitting in prison for the bulk of the investigation. Darnell Hartsfield was arrested three days after the murders on an unrelated aggravated robbery charge. That charge earned him 25 years in prison, where he has been languishing while the investigation turned cold in the KFC murders.
I moved to Jacksonville, a tiny East Texas town very near Kilgore, two years after the murders—I was ten. I don’t remember the moment I heard about these killings—but I do recall knowing about them for as long as I can remember.
For most everyone who lived in East Texas, those killings represented this sad, pointless mystery that would likely never be solved. Routinely at breakfasts at the local cafes—or high school football games—the subject would come up. And everyone would describe their six degrees of separation from the people involved in the case—and their theories regarding who might have done such an unspeakable crime.
But in this new day and age of DNA testing, investigators finally announced a break in one of the state’s oldest unsolved murder cases. They arrested and charged two men—and recently said that DNA confirmed a third man was involved, although they refused to release any further details.
The second man arrested and charged in the murders was Romeo Pinkerton, Hartsfield’s cousin. In a secretly recorded conversation with a fellow prisoner, Pinkerton reportedly hinted he knew of that third person, but the identity of the man remains unknown.
Pinkerton took a plea deal midway through his capital murder trial, avoiding a possible death sentence by accepting five life prison terms. Pinkerton's deal did not compel him to testify against Hartsfield.I hope, for the sake of the five victims’ families—and for the investigators who never let this one go—that the right men are in custody and that they identify and track down the third man involved. After 25 years, these people deserve to have the door closed on at least this portion of this murder case that has haunted East Texas for so long.
This is not a case I’m following as part of my job as a producer at CBS News/48 Hours—but as a small-town girl who grew up in East Texas, within miles of where these lives were taken 25 years ago, I can assure you I’ll be following it closely.