February 16, 1995
Huntsville, Texas
Billy Conn Gardner is executed for fatally shooting a robbery victim

On May 16, 1983, a gunman obscuring his face with a stocking entered a back room of the Lake Highlands High School cafeteria while Thelma “Katie” Row (64) was counting receipts for the day. The man tossed a paper grocery bag on a table and demanded Row fill it with the day’s deposits. Row complied though the man grabbed the bag before all the money had been put in, then he shot Row with a .357 pistol. Her liver was punctured and she died of her injuries 11 days later. The robber fled taking approximately $1,600.

While the shooting occurred during school hours, no students witnessed the event.

Several school employees were able to give a description of the robber as a slender man in his 20s or 30s with “reddish brown hair and a goatee.” Witnesses in the cafeteria also described the man as wearing “faded-out blue jeans and a blue work shirt” or a “lightish-blue, grayish-blue work shirt.” A school custodian later noted he had seen Billy Conn Gardner standing outside doors the gunman entered and fled from, wearing “jeans, a light blue shirt, and white painter’s cap,” and a stocking was visible beneath the back of the cap. The custodian was positive this man was Gardner as the two had known each other for 15 years.

Two months after the shooting, Gardner sold a .357 pistol. The buyer, knowing the type of gun used in the shooting, was concerned and brought the weapon to police. It was positively matched to the murder weapon.

Cafeteria employee Paula Sanders, who had witnessed the shooting, told police she had mentioned to her husband Melvin the cafeteria handled thousands of dollars of receipts in the back room daily. Melvin was questioned and, after threats of prosecuting both men, admitted to approaching Gardner to assist in the robbery. Melvin believed he would be easily identified and the pair agreed Gardner would steal the money while Melvin drove the getaway car.

During trial, the jury was instructed to keep in mind Melvin was an accomplice and his testimony against Gardner could not be the only factor in conviction; the jury had to consider additional evidence against him as well. The jury found Gardner guilty and recommended the death penalty.

Gardner and his family professed his innocence and attempted to appeal his conviction, but without success. Gardner’s final statement before he was executed by lethal injection were, “I forgive all of you and I hope God forgives you all.” After the execution, Gardner’s sister Betsy Gray told reporters: “My brother spent a life of crime. I’m not standing here telling you he’s an angel because he’s not. I’m telling you he got put to death for a murder he didn’t commit. … He did not die easy. He died very hard. That man felt pain. A veterinarian treats your dog more humane when you put him asleep. … Once again, the state of Texas has committed cold-blooded murder. They are mass-murdering people here [referring to the number of executions carried out in Texas which typically exceed those of other states] almost as bad as if we’re in a war.”

Sources:
“History: Shooting of Lake Highlands cafeteria worker remembered.” Advocate. March 2014. Accessed: February 16, 2020. https://lakehighlands.advocatemag.com/2014/03/history-shooting-lake-highlands-cafeteria-worker-remembered/
Billy Conn GARDNER, Appellant, v. The STATE of Texas, Appellee. No. 69235. Court of Criminal Appeals of Texas, En Banc. March 25, 1987. https://www.courtlistener.com/opinion/1675818/gardner-v-state/
“Condemned killer put to death for 1983 murder.” The Victoria Advocate. February 17, 1995
“Man executed for ‘93 [sic] Dallas-area slaying.” Austin American-Statesman. February 16, 1995
“Death row inmate loses appeal.” The Galveston Daily News. October 14, 1987
“Death doesn’t stop cafeteria labors.” The Odessa American. May 30, 1983

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