Double murder trial starts Monday
Bethena Brosz saw her future in the stars. The 19-year-old poet and honor student from Denton aspired to be an astronomer.
But her dreams were cut short in the early morning hours of May 2, 2001, when she and her friend, 21-year-old Ronald Whitehead of Dallas, were shot and had their throats cut in a remote field near The Tribute golf course in The Colony. Both died.
Fifteen months later, Steven Michael Woods Jr., 22, a former transient and drug dealer from Dallas’ Deep Ellum area, will become the first of two men charged in the slayings to be tried for capital murder in Denton County. If convicted, he could face death by lethal injection.
Opening statements begin Monday. "I am confident that we are well prepared and ready to go forward," First Assistant District Attorney Lee Ann Breading said.
Police said the killing of Mr. Whitehead, who was a Deep Ellum drug dealer, was motivated in part because his LSD sales were cutting into Woods’ business. Ms. Brosz was just in the wrong place at the wrong time, police said. The case is the first in nine years in which Denton County has sought the death penalty. The trial is expected to last about a week, officials said.
Prosecutors have not yet determined whether they will offer 24-year-old Marcus Rhodes, the co-defendant in the case, a deal in exchange for his testimony, Mrs. Breading said. Rhodes, the son of Dallas CPA Sam Rhodes, also could face death if convicted. He surrendered to police three days after the killings and told police he saw Woods kill Ms. Brosz and Mr. Whitehead, according to a Denton County arrest warrant affidavit.
Woods was arrested months later in northern California. He has said he was not at the scene. He will plead not guilty, said Jerry Parr, his attorney. "It’s our position that Mr. Rhodes was the trigger person here and he is the person responsible for these murders," Mr. Parr said. Rhodes’ attorney said Mr. Parr is reversing the facts. "We think the evidence bears out that [Woods] was the prime guy," attorney Jim Horton said.
Police found backpacks belonging to the victims in Rhodes’ car and found the two guns used in the killings at his parents’ home in the Lake Highlands neighborhood of Dallas. Rhodes’ fingerprints were on both guns, Mr. Horton said. Woods’ were not, according to his attorney. Mr. Parr said his client is as prepared as possible to face trial. "It’s hard to be prepared, but I think that Mr. Woods is confident that justice will prevail," Mr. Parr said.
Families of the victims are bracing for the trauma of reliving their loved ones’ deaths. "It’s a difficult time for all of us," said Chuck Brosz of Rowlett, Ms. Brosz’s father. Ms. Brosz’s mother, Janet Shires, has said her daughter, the youngest of four children, had plans to move to Colorado and study astronomy. She was also an avid poet. Mrs. Shires said in a previous interview that she received word shortly after her daughter died that three of her works would be published, but her daughter would never see them in print. Mrs. Shires did not return calls for comment for this story. Mr. Whitehead’s family declined comment.
At the time of The Colony slayings, Whitehead, Woods and Rhodes were part of a close-knit group of drug dealers and users who hung out in Deep Ellum, officials said. Whitehead’s friends called him "Miles," which was short for "miles and miles of smiles." Hours before the killings, Ms. Brosz left her mother’s house in Denton and went to Deep Ellum with Mr. Whitehead, who was a new friend from her job in Carrollton, said her mother, Janet Shires.
Around midnight, the two met friends, including Mr. Woods and Mr. Rhodes, at a Deep Ellum bar, where many of them took LSD, the friends said. Ms. Brosz did not use drugs that night, officials said. Deep Ellum regulars who saw Ms. Brosz that night remember thinking she looked out of place. "She kind of didn’t belong," said Allison Rothermel, who has been subpoenaed to testify. "You knew she was a good person. She just had that ‘I’m really smart’ look."
Between midnight and 2 a.m., Ms. Brosz and Mr. Whitehead left with Woods and Rhodes, said David "Sammy" Samuelson, who was at the bar that night and has also been called to testify. Rhodes and Woods returned to the bar at about 3:30 a.m., Mr. Samuelson said. About 7 a.m., a passerby in The Colony spotted Mr. Whitehead and Ms. Brosz lying alongside her car on the shoulder of Boyd Road. They had suffered multiple gunshot wounds and had their throats cut.
Woods has a history of juvenile cases in other states. He grew up in Michigan. Steven Woods Sr., who lives in Bowling Green, Ky., said his son had a "rough childhood." "I’m an alcoholic, and I did a lot of drugs and beat my wife," Mr. Woods said. "Steven was always a nervous child — scared to even open his mouth." His mother declined comment. Mr. Woods said he went on a drinking binge when he received news last June that his son was wanted in connection with the shooting deaths. "I feel sorry for my son and I am deeply hurt," he said. "I can’t go back in time. For six months I drug that through my head: If only I could change the way I was. But I can’t do that. I pray every day," he said. "I’ve accepted that he might get the death penalty, and that’s going to hurt."
Jury recommends death sentence in slayings
DENTON - A former drug dealer was handed a death sentence Monday in the slayings last year of two people in The Colony. It took a Denton jury about an hour to recommend the death penalty for 22-year-old Steven Michael Woods Jr. Woods was convicted Friday of capital murder in connection with the shooting and slashing deaths of 21-year-old Ronald Whitehead of Dallas and 19-year-old Bethena Brosz of Denton. Sentencing is set for Wednesday in the 367th District Court in Denton.
Family members, who declined comment, wept and embraced after the punishment verdict was read. Woods did not react. Several of the jurors declined comment as they left the courthouse. Assistant District Attorney Michael Moore, who led a team of three prosecutors, said the state was pleased. "This is a just outcome,” he said. “We are not by any means celebrating this outcome, but we hope the families can begin healing now.” During his closing argument, Mr. Moore said, “Ron and Beth had the right to grow up, to get married, to spend holidays with their families, and he took that away."
Jerry Parr, the lead defense attorney in the case, said Woods sealed his fate by bragging to acquaintances about the slayings. He said the heinous nature of the crime helped the jury decide to recommend the death penalty.
Mr. Whitehead was shot six times in the head. Ms. Brosz was shot twice in the head and once in the knee. Both had their throats cut. They were left along a remote road near The Tribute golf course, where passersby discovered them hours later. Ms. Brosz survived 36 hours before she died.
Before resting their case Monday, prosecutors continued to establish that Woods, who was a transient and drug dealer in the Deep Ellum area of Dallas at the time of the killings, has a history of violence. A witness testified Friday that Woods, known by some as Halo, helped plot the March 2001 killing of Beau Sanders of Dallas.
Derek Adame, another attorney representing Woods, spoke candidly to the jury about the horrific nature of the slayings. But he said his client would not be a future danger to society because he will spend the rest of his life incarcerated. “Halo has two problems that make him a future danger: freedom and drugs,” Mr. Adame said. “When you convicted him on Friday, you eliminated those two problems.” Mr. Adame compared the jurors’ decision to the one Woods made to kill Mr. Whitehead and Ms. Brosz. “Think of how horrible, brutal, heartless this action was and understand that you don’t have the same luxury [as he did], to rely on your feelings, because you’re better than him,” Mr. Adame said. He implored jurors to “use [their] heads” in the case.
Mr. Moore argued that whether jurors listened to their hearts or their heads, justice called for the death penalty. Prosecutors painted Woods as the mastermind in the slayings, saying he fired the eight shots that killed Mr. Whitehead and Ms. Brosz. Mr. Whitehead was lured to the place where he died on the promise of a drug deal. Ms. Brosz was killed there because she was an eyewitness, according to testimony in the case.
Just before the defense rested its case Monday, a witness testified that Woods was an undisciplined child who mutilated himself, set fires and expressed suicidal and homicidal tendencies as a teenager. Robin Nealy, a Plano therapist who reviewed records of Woods’ criminal history and treatment, said he was denied nurturing and discipline as a child. Woods left home before finishing high school. He has said in interviews that he traveled to Chicago, New York, and then Dallas in search of quality drugs and punk-rock clubs that sold alcoholic beverages to minors. After arriving in Dallas in 1999, he quickly gravitated to Deep Ellum, where he told people he wanted to start an organized crime syndicate. He assembled a group of four young men who are now charged in two separate slayings that authorities say he plotted.
Marcus Rhodes, his co-defendant in The Colony slayings, is in custody and could also face the death penalty.
Judge hands killer a death sentence
Steven Michael Woods Jr. was sentenced to death Wednesday by a state district judge who called him depraved and "totally devoid of conscience." A Denton County jury convicted Woods, 22, of capital murder last week and recommended on Monday that he receive the death penalty for his part in the May 2001 slayings of two people in The Colony. The case has been automatically appealed. The court will appoint attorneys to represent Woods in the appeal, District Judge Lee Gabriel said.
Woods, a former drug dealer in the Deep Ellum area of Dallas, was the mastermind in the shooting and slashing deaths of 21-year-old Ronald Patrick Whitehead of Dallas and 19-year-old Bethena Brosz of Denton, according to testimony in the case. Before reading the sentence, Judge Gabriel told Woods his decision to kill was irresponsible and that it was based in a desire for bloodlust and for power. "Unfortunately, no matter what the jury does or what the system does, we can’t resurrect those two children and we can do very little to comfort their families and for that I am very sorry," she said. Asked whether he had any statements before being sentenced, Woods quietly said, "No."
The death sentence is the first in Denton County since 1994, when James Lee Clark, a jail parolee was convicted of killing two teenagers just outside Denton. Clark is scheduled to be executed Nov. 21.
On Wednesday, Woods sat still as Mr. Whitehead’s father and Ms. Brosz’s mother addressed him.
"Steven Woods, I have prayed for justice every day since that first day in ICU when I didn’t even know who you were," said Janet Shires, who testified last week that she had to look at her daughter’s feet in order to identify her after the shootings. "Bethena was barely five feet tall," she said. "She could not have stood against murderers with guns and knives. I believe the death penalty is the just punishment that you have earned for yourself. I plan to be there myself." Ms. Shires told Woods that he failed to completely destroy her daughter. "Five lives were saved when seven of her organs were donated," Mrs. Shires said. "The truth and power of Bethena’s loving and giving spirit will live on in this world."
Ronald Whitehead told Woods that he had robbed him of his only son and taken his opportunity to have grandchildren. "Mr. Woods, I am a man of few words," Mr. Whitehead said, his voice quaking. "I can’t begin to put into words what you have taken from my life and my family. All I have left of Ronnie are memories — wonderful memories — and pictures. You have left a trail of evil everywhere you have been in your life," Mr. Whitehead said. "You are a cancer in this society, and society has isolated the disease. You will see me and my family one more time, for the justice that the people have imposed on you."
Woods lured Mr. Whitehead to a remote area of The Colony on the pretense of doing a drug deal, then shot him six times in the back of the head and cut his throat, according to testimony in the case. Ms. Brosz was with Mr. Whitehead at the time and was killed because she was an eyewitness, prosecutors said. She survived for 36 hours after being shot three times and having her throat cut.
Woods’ co-defendant, Marcus Rhodes, 24, is expected to stand trial sometime in the fall. If convicted, he could also face the death penalty. His attorney has said he will plead not guilty.
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