With summer winding down, Beth Marie Bramlett—like many students of Axtell High School—crowded into Trading House Lake, a lush blue-water reservoir in Waco, Texas, for an end-of-the-season bash. It was August of 1982 and Bramlett, 17, was preparing to begin her senior year. As the party was in full swing a brawl ensued. Later, in an unrelated incident, a teenager who was playing with a pistol fired a shot into the air. Shortly after, Bramlett decided it was time to go home.
She started walking on Hall Drive when Johnny and Teresa Wood offered her a ride. En route to Bramlett’s home in nearby Axtell, the car ran out of gas. Shortly after 1:00 a.m. the pair dropped her off on the side of Wilbanks and Hall Drive and returned to the party. Once there, Teresa saw her father, Talmadge Wayne Wood. Wood, according to investigators, told Teresa not to hang out with Bramlett. Wood then threatened to “kill” his daughter if she didn’t arrive home before he did.
As Teresa raced home, Bramlett remained stranded. Then she saw Talmadge Wood’s car on the road and she flagged him down, according to Detective Fuller.
Bramlett never made it home.
Days later a fisherman discovered her body— shot once in the chest, and twice in the head— sprawled in a ditch near abandoned railroad tracks.
“Everybody knows each other,” Gail Souders, Bramlett’s childhood babysitter, told The Daily Beast of Axtell. The town, which had a population of about 500 people in the early 1980s, still remains small with roughly 2,000 residents according to census data. Upon learning of Bramlett’s death Souders, like others in the town wondered, “how could something so horrendous happen in our small quiet town to one of our own?”
Part of Axtell’s tight-knit community, Bramlett was a quiet girl who as a teenager became known for riding her buckskin horse “Coco” at rodeos in the area. Lisa Lynn Warren Gray, Bramlett’s best friend, also recalled her love of music. As teenagers, the duo listened to April Wine’s 80s rock hit, “Just Between You and Me,” on repeat.
“We'd sing that at the top of our lungs,” recalled Gray, in a Facebook message to The Daily Beast. “One of the biggest lessons I learned from her death was never leave someone or end a conversation without telling people you love them.”
The Waco Citizen, in an effort to aid the investigation, listed Bramlett's murder twice in their “Crime of the Week” column to no avail. Short on evidence, the McLennan County Police Department had several leads but the quest to solve the murder stalled. As the small town reeled from her death, weeks passed and it seemed the case might go unsolved.
Then, in October, authorities thought they caught a break.
That month Jimmy Dean Roe turned himself in to local police and confessed to killing Bramlett with Carlos Castro as his accomplice, according to a police report.
“He said he had gone and spoke to the Lord and the Lord told him to confess to these murders,” said a detective with the Kerrville Police Department, who declined to be identified in an October 29th interview with The Waco Citizen.
Roe claimed to have extra-sensory perception or ESP, and told police he had clairvoyant abilities.
“He sometimes dreamed of the people being killed and that the person doing the killing was him,” according to a follow-up police report by the Waco Police Department, who concluded that Roe was hallucinating. “He was just making up the story, for some type of recognition on his part or trying to get famous on someone else’s doings.”
Both men were arrested but authorities concluded their story was fake. Charges were dismissed after Roe failed to answer basic questions about the chain of the events leading to the murder. After that, the case went cold for decades before media attention sparked renewed interest by investigators in the McLennan County Sheriff’s Office.
Now, 36 years later, authorities have finally solved Bramlett's murder.
As interest in the case reignited last year, investigators turned their attention back to Wood. There had long been hushed conversations in the town about his violent behavior.
According to investigators, in the 1960s and 70s, Wood was suspected in being involved with his sister’s disappearance and uncle’s death in a mysterious house fire. He was never arrested or charged in connection with either case. Wood, according to Sheriff McNamara, also had a history of domestic abuse and on at least one occasion beat and tied up his wife before showing photos of her bruises to his neighbor.
Four months after Bramlett’s murder, Wood broke into a widow’s home a week before Christmas, shooting the woman and her son. The pair survived and Wood, who claimed self defense, was sentenced to 10 years' probation. The next year, he attempted to kidnap an elderly woman at gunpoint at Richland Mall, McNamara said. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison. Released in 1994, Wood continued to have brushes with the law and in 2014 died of natural causes. With Wood dead, investigators say people began to come forward once Bramlett’s case was reopened.
“There is no question in our mind that he did it,” said McNamara, who said that authorities have found physical evidence that links Wood to the murder.
Authorities interviewed more than 60 people, who reported seeing Wood’s clothing covered in blood early on the morning of Bramlett’s death.
According to McNamara, on the night of the party, Wood reportedly instructed Teresa to discard two guns. Authorities are searching search a stock tank near his home in an effort to retrieve them.
“The silt on the bottom is probably six or seven feet deep,” McNamara said. “We had a master diver probably in there an hour at the bottom of that tank in 18 degree weather.”
McNamara expressed relief about solving the case but lamented,“I wish we were able to do it while he was alive. But people were hesitant to talk about him.” The resolution has brought some closure and still, more questions.
“She wasn't able to experience graduation or the dream or hopes that she had— it was cut short,” said Sharon Hawthorne-Brown, who wrote a poem honoring Bramlett in Axtell High School’s 1983 yearbook. “I wonder what she would be doing? What kind of life would she had have?”
In a report by the Associated Press earlier this month, Bramlett’s mother told investigators that she was thankful that they “never gave up.” In a Facebook message to The Daily Beast, Denise Smith, Bramlett’s younger sister—who was 12 years old at the time of the murder—shared fond memories of her late sibling.
“When I was born she would get me out of my baby bed and walk around with me saying that I was her baby,” said Smith. “There is a time when big sisters become annoyed with their little sisters because they are always having to tag along. Me and my sister were finally getting to the stage where she wanted me there.”
Smith, who said she’s found “peace,”added, “there is no such thing as closure or justice. It hurts maybe even more now then back then.”