A Murderer Walks Free
July 9th, 1984 was the last time anyone saw 26-year-old Dorothy Jean (Butcher) Purcell, or as her friends knew her “Dottie”. She was last seen the Four Seasons Nursing Home at 3800 Englewood Lane in Odessa, where she worked as a licensed vocational nurse.
She’s good natured, quite, and according to police interviews, well-liked by all her co-workers. One of her co-workers, Rita Evans, director of nursing at Four Seasons Nursing Center, reported that she was quite and did her work well. She tells reporters that she didn’t look like the picture that was put out as her “missing person” picture. “Her hair was lighter and her face was thinner when she worked here”, Rita said. Dorothy was quite enough that many of the nurses questioned didn’t really remember her but everyone who did was surprised to learn that she was missing. Dorothy’s mother, Jean Etheredge, had a hard time convincing authorities that her daughter was missing at first. She was 26-years-old and an adult, and in the eyes of the law an adult has every right to go missing if they want. It was three weeks before information regarding her disappearance was sent out to the public. According to investigators after running into a lack of leads they were forced to reach out to the community for help in locating the missing woman.
The thing is Dorothy had a four year old daughter that she adored, Amanda Jean Purcell. Dorothy’s mom, Jean, had custody of the missing woman’s four year old daughter and she knew how much Amanda meant to her. Jean doesn’t believe that her daughter would just disappear. When she missed her daughters birthday in August she knew it wasn’t good. Jean said “if her mother had been capable, she would have been here for her birthday.” Dorothy’s mother knows her daughter well, “Next to money, what my daughter liked most was wheels. She never would have abandoned her paycheck, and she never would have abandoned her car.” Jean had found her daughters car in the Ector County Coliseum parking lot and she also found out that she never picked up a paycheck from work. “She was a very warm, loving, caring person,” Jean said, “but she had a lot of emotional problems.” It was obvious that Dorothy’s mother was already thinking the worst in October of 1984 when she spoke to reporters. She’s quoted as saying “I believe the Lord simply used circumstances she go in to take her.”
On December 5th, 1986, three years after she went missing, a skull and other remains is found in norther Crane County by a quail hunter, just northwest of the city off FM 1601. Positive identification of the remains are made through x-rays and dental records. They belongs to the woman who was reported missing in July of 1984, Dorothy Jean Butcher (Purcell).
When her family learns of the positive identification they are happy to finally be able to lay her remains to rest. They always knew went “Dottie” went missing that she was “with her maker”. The reaction to the news about her daughter may have seemed odd to some but Dorothy’s mother is very religious and her family had already mourned her passing when she first went missing in 1984. They always knew she had gone to be with her maker, according to Jean. They were just very glad to close that chapter of the story and truly grateful they were able to lay her remains to rest.
Although no cause of death had been determined at the time, her case was thought to be considered a homicide.
In December of 1987 two former Odessans are arrested and charged with murder in connection with Dorothy’s 1984 death. Ricky Lynn Davis, 28, Jerry Grey Shelton, 30, were arrested in Houston on warrants issued by Municipal Judge J.E. Weatherly. The arrests were the result of a three year investigation. In January of 1988 Jerry Grey Shelton was indicted while the other man arrested in connection with Dorothy’s murder, Ricky Lynn Davis, was left in the Ector County jail. At first it was a little curious as to why only one of the pair who were arrested ended up being indicted and facing trial, but soon after the trial began it was made clear.
In February of 1988 the trial for Jerry Gray Shelton, in the murder of Dorothy Jean Purcell, began. Assistant District Attorney, Howard Whiteworth was prosecuting and Mike Holmes was defending Shelton. Apparently Ricky Lynn Davis and Shelton were roommates in 1984. Davis testified that he helped Shelton dump the body of a dead woman in a field after Shelton had admitted to killing her during a late night lovers quarrel. The oil field worker, Ricky Lynn Davis, said that after they dumped her body in a field south of Penwell they sold her furniture and then left town in early July 1984.
Davis stayed with Shelton and Purcell, who were apparently a couple living together in an eastside apartment, occasionally. He said that he left the apartment about 9 p.m. one night in July after the couple had started arguing. He went to an area bar and then returned a little after midnight. When he got back to the apartment Shelton was sitting on the couch, drinking a beer and watching TV. Davis said his friend seemed to be acting “kinda funny”. At some point Shelton told his friend that he had killed Purcell and wrapped her body in a rug in the bedroom. When Shelton first asked Davis to help him get rid of her he refused but eventually gave him and helped him load her body into the back seat of her car and carried her into an oil field about 16 miles south of Penwell. Davis and Shelton had both previously worked in oilfields in the area and after helping to get her body to the location, he-Davis, then waited in the car. He testified that he didn’t know what Shelton did with her body after that and he didn’t know how he had killed her.
Davis didn’t even recall exactly what day it was that the incident occurred, just that it had happened a few days after July 4th. Jean Etheredge, Dorothy’s mother, testified to having seen her daughter for the last time on this earth the morning of July 9th, 1984. “I saw her for 30 minutes that morning and never saw her again,” she said. The man who found the remains, James Brown of Odessa, said that he and two other friends were out quail hunting when they came across the skull and scattered bones on a ranch south of Penwell. The discovery was made November 22nd, 1986, but it wasn’t immediately reported to authorities. It was when he mentioned it while having lunch with Ector County Sheriff Bob Brookshire December 5th, 1986. Brown said “We didn’t think a whole lot about it and continued to hunt the rest of the day”. Really dude?
After Davis and Shelton were arrested. Davis admitted his role in Purcell’s disappearance and showed officials where he and Shelton had dumped the body and the pair was charged with murder. Davis’s murder charge was dropped in exchange for his testimony against Shelton as well as the charges for the theft of Purcell’s furniture.
Jerry Gray Shelton told the court that when he left town in mid-July to look for work in Wyoming, Purcell was alive. Shelton told the story that Davis resented Purcell because she had rejected several sexual advances he had made toward her when the three lived together in 1984. He goes on to say that the last time he saw Purcell was on the morning he left Odessa with his brother-in-law, a former Odessa resident, Scott Turner. Shelton said that Purcell had a heroin problem and that same morning she had gone with a friend to “score some drugs” in Midland. Shelton was to meet Turner for a ride to Wyoming to look for work in the oil fields there. He waited as long as she could until he finally just took Purcell’s car to meet Turner at the Ector County Coliseum parking lot where he left the vehicle.
It comes out during the trial that Shelton was physically abusive to Purcell. He admitted to punching Dorothy once in the face in March of 1984 during and argument about her car. That argument sent Dorothy to the Medical Center Hospital for treatment where she was treated for a black eye and a cut lip. She told hospital workers that Shelton had hit and kicked her.
In 1985 Shelton spend 20 months in prison in 1985 on a sexual assault of a child conviction in Jim Wells County. He may have avoided prison time but he violated his parole by failing to report to his probation officer.
The trial only lasted two days. It took the jury a little over four hours to deliberate. The District Judge, Tryon Lewis said “a lack of remorse and serious past criminal record” was cited in the sentence of life that was handed down. A sentence that when pronounced, produced no reaction at all before Shelton was led back to the Ector County jail.
Dorothy’s mother, Jean Etheredge, could be heard releasing a sign of relief when she heard the sentence.
“The Lord has answered my prayers. I asked for justice and it has been served.”
Then the worst happens. The Eighth District Court of Appeals in El Paso reversed Shelton’s murder conviction on February 25th, 1988, saying that an accomplice witness had testified in the first trial without the jury being made aware that the testimony needed to be corroborated by the state. In December of 1989 a second trial begins for Shelton. When Ricky Lynn Davis can’t be found by the prosecution to testify the judge is forced to drop all the charges against Jerry Grey Shelton in the murder of Dorothy Jean Purcell. He can never be charged again in the murder and goes free December 12th, 1989.