There are some stories a reporter never forgets and one of the biggest ones on my list was the murder 20 years ago today of Sheila Mayfield of Jasper.
Not only was it a senseless murder, but this time it had happened to someone I knew, someone I had written about just a few months earlier at the Jasper Appreciation Days Baby Show. The following is reprinted from the June 8, 2005, Turner Report, with much of that based on columns I wrote for the Carthage Press. A longer version later appared in my 2008 book The Turner Report.
When did you first know you had a prize-winning baby?
When you have covered baby shows for more than two decades, you know the automatic response that comes each time the mother of the champion baby is asked that question..."I knew it the minute he (or she) was born," or words to that effect.
The mother of the grand prize-winning baby at the annual Jasper Appreciation Days Baby Show in August 1993 felt the same way about her little baby boy.
There was only one empty seat in the Methodist Church that day as I squeezed past people and sat down beside an old friend, whose high school accomplishments I had chronicled a few years earlier.
"Is that a prize-winning baby?" I asked, already preparing for the questions I would have to ask the mother of the winning infant after the show ended.
"Of course," the mother said, the smile never leaving her face
A few moments later, it was time for her baby's category, 0-3 month-old boys. After the judges evaluated the babies, my friend's baby. Clayton Mayfield, took first place, making him eligible for the grand prize.
Unfortunately, it was about that time that the boy began getting a little fussy. "He just hadn't had his nap," his mother said. She gave him the bottle, but that didn't work. She took him out of the room and into the church's nursery where he fell into a deep sleep. When it was time for the winners in all the age categories to be judged for the grand prize, the mother had to wake the baby. "I didn't know what he was going to be like when he woke up," she said.
He was an angel. Her little boy charmed the judges a second time and earned the grand prize.
Photo after photo was taken of the champion and his mother. You had to tell her to look up if you wanted her face to be in the photo. She couldn't take her eyes off the champion baby.
One of her champion babies.
"I've got another one at home," she said.
It would not have mattered a bit to her if her son had not picked up any award. Sheila Mayfield already had her prize, the trophies were just the icing on the cake.
That was the last time I saw Sheila. On Jan. 11, 1994, she lost her life in an act of senseless violence. Sheila, her sister, Shelly Wells, and her grandmother, Velta Ball, were returning from a Miami, Okla., hospital where Sheila and Shelly's mother, Peggy Gordon, was recovering from surgery. They were less than one mile from the Missouri state line when a rock was thrown from the overpass, crashing through the windshield of the car and killing Sheila instantly.
Her grandmother was able to reach over, grab the steering wheel and bring the car to a stop to prevent further tragedy.
Two teens were arrested for the murder. One, 15-year-old Benji Trammel, pleaded guilty, was sent to a juvenile correctional facility, was released when he turned 18, and the crime was removed from his record.
It was a long road to justice where the other killer, Paul Wessley Murray, was concerned.
More than five years passed before Murray finally pleaded guilty to murder in the second degree. He was initially charged with first degree murder after Oklahoma officers found a notebook in his school locker which depicted the same scenario which had claimed Sheila Mayfield's life. Later, the charge was downgraded to second degree murder, to get Murray to enter his plea and to finally bring the case to a close. Even then, it couldn't have brought much satisfaction to Sheila's family.
Murray entered an Alford plea, meaning he conceded there was enough evidence to convict him, but he was not saying he was actually guilty.
As a part of the plea agreement, as The Carthage Press reported in John Hacker's story in the Feb. 2, 1999, issue, Murray's sentence was to be reviewed in 120 days and if he maintained good behavior during that time, his sentence would be reduced from 15 to only five years in prison.
I never had the chance to follow up on what happened to Paul Murray after those 120 days. By the time June 1999 rolled around, I was on the unemployment line, still two months away from becoming a middle school English teacher...and Paul Murray was walking the streets again. No five-year sentence, just the four months. This despite the fact that at the same time he was pleading no contest to the murder charge, Murray had pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor marijuana charge and to driving while intoxicated.
Murray was released after four months despite a pre-sentence investigation which said he remained a "danger and a threat to the community and himself."
If the death of Sheila Mayfield had not taken place, and he not been arrested, Murray told those who conducted the pre-sentence investigation, "I might have done something really bad."
As of mid-summer 1999, Paul Murray was a free man. His brushes with the law did not end. On March 12, 2002, he pleaded guilty to a public intoxication charge. Four months later, he was stopped and charged with not wearing a seat belt. On March 10, 2003, it was failure to pay child support.
Finally, and no information is available from court records as to what ended up sending Murray to prison, it was determined that he had violated the terms of his parole and he was sent to the Oklahoma State Reformatory in Granite on Sept. 11, 2003.
Next month, with just a little more than two years behind bars, including the original four month shock time, for a murder that kept prize winning baby Clayton Mayfield from ever getting to know his mother, Paul Murray may be set free again.
The Oklahoma Department of Corrections website says his parole hearing will be held in July, but it does not give a specific date.
When he was a senior at Quapaw High School, Paul Murray drew a picture in a notebook of a rock being thrown through a car window and someone dying from the impact. After he sketched that plan, he followed through on it.
Sheila Mayfield's family had to wait five years to see him put behind bars, then four months later, he was free again, as if nothing had happened. This miscarriage of justice must not happen a second time.
Since I wrote this column, Murray has been in and out of prison. The last time I checked, a few months back, he was still in an Oklahoma prison. I tried to check earlier tonight, but the website was down.