Janice Willhelm's adult children challenge official ruling of suicide in mysterious death in small Texas town
09/21/2017 5:22 pm PDT
The cold smell of death hangs like a dark cloud over the oaks of South Texas.
In a modest farm house, a distraught husband finds his dead wife in a pool of blood. But is it suicide, or is it murder?
Cops say Janice Willhelm pulled the trigger and killed herself. But her children Jennifer and Wayne say No Way.
A Texas-sized drama, with the patriarch dead from what's called a suicide, his daughter dead from an alleged suicide. Oil wells popping up everywhere, and questions over who owns the oil leases: The children, the ranch hand or the pretty banker down the road?
Centerville is a one-stoplight town about halfway between Dallas and Houston. And right off the highway there's a 7.5-acre farm planted with intrigue.
The farm had been in Janice's family since before the Civil War. This is where she grew up and raised her children.
"My mom was a very artistic, loving individual," said Jennifer Davis, Janice's daughter. "She was constantly trying out new art projects.
Janice was a registered nurse and once worked at the infamous Parkland Hospital in Dallas, where President John F. Kennedy was pronounced dead.
"She was a head charge nurse in ICU and CCU at Parkland Hospital for a couple of years and then went into home health care," said Jennifer.
After Janice left Dallas, she returned to Centerville and took a job at a nearby hospital. That's where she bumped into an old high school boyfriend, Gerald Willhelm.
"Gerald was there reportedly with his wife, who was having a stroke," said Janice's son Wayne Robeson.
"They ran into each other in the hallway and my mom remembered him from when they were teenagers, and I guess sparks flew and they started dating immediately while he was still married," said Jennifer.
Jennifer and Wayne say they were less than thrilled when their mom hooked up with the married ranch hand.
"Gerald knew our grandfather, who for many years was the largest employer in Leon County, and I can't help but think he thought he was going to get something, and by latching on to our mother, my instincts told me that he was a very shady person," said Wayne.
Others might agree.
Gerald's stepdaughter from his first marriage confirmed to Crime Watch Daily that he eventually divorced his first wife, but not before allegedly taking tens of thousands of dollars earmarked for her children.
"What her youngest daughter told me, Gerald supposedly brought paperwork from the bank in which it was at, in Madisonville, Texas, and persuaded her to sign him onto a joint account," said Wayne. "Later the same day, based upon the dates of bank records, he withdrew all of that money except for a very small amount that was less than $100."
Not long after, Gerald married Janice. Jennifer says the bloom fell off the Texas rose rather quickly.
"They didn't sleep in the same bed. She would sleep in her recliner," said Jennifer.
Why does Janice's daughter Jennifer think her mom soured on her sweetheart?
"I feel my mother had a large amount of fear towards Gerald, and she also -- I think she had anger towards him, and I really feel that it has to do with my grandfather's death," said Jennifer.
Morris Robeson's death was just the beginning of a series of mysterious deaths in Centerville.
Janice's son Wayne Robeson says his grandfather Morris died from a gunshot wound to the back of the head. Janice inherited the farm.
Wayne took us to the room where his grandfather died.
"Supposedly he was sitting here in an upright position and he shot himself behind the head, sitting on the bed with a long-barreled .38-caliber pistol revolver that had a six-inch barrel," said Wayne.
You heard right. Wayne says his grandfather shot himself in the back of the head with a long-barreled gun. He says a neighbor who just happens to be a highway patrolman arrived on the scene and told him something seems wrong.
"He wanted to know the whereabouts of Gerald Willhelm," said Wayne. "He also told me that it was his opinion that the scene was not a suicide scene but a homicide scene."
Wayne claims a few months later that highway patrolman shot himself in the back of the head.
Fast-forward nine years. Now the grandfather's daughter, Janice, turns up dead by her own hand.
"I was sitting there in a chair asleep and I heard a big 'bang,' I woke up and she got blood running out of her neck," Gerald Willhelm says on a recorded 911 call.
Janice had numerous health issues she documented in a diary. She needed a walker to get around the house.
Gerald tells the 911 operator Janice couldn't afford her medication and even talked about ending it all.
911: "Was she talking about harming herself?"
Gerald: "Well, you know, that's the crazy part. She talked to the drug company today, she told that girl if she knew how she'd kill herself."
Gerald: "I didn't think anything about it because she, you know, she's hurting all the time anyway."
"He was talking about how my mother was out of pain medication and had been for a long time and that they could not afford it anymore, which I found very odd because she was on disability, which covered the majority of her medication," said Jennifer.
So to clear up their doubts, Jennifer and Wayne hired Dallas private investigator Avery "Skip" Ensley, a former police chief.
"I have worked lots of homicides and suicides, and I told the medical examiner, I said, 'You know, not only have I not ever seen anybody shoot themselves like this, I've never even heard of it,' and she agreed with me. She said, 'Well neither have I,'" said Ensley.
In crime scene photos too graphic to show in their entirety, the fatal shot appears to be point-blank range on the side of her neck.
"If she shot herself in this fashion, severing the seventh vertebrae, it would have ceased all movement, her hands would have dropped straight down, the weapon would have also dropped straight down. The weapon should have been on her chair or next to her chair," said Ensley. "Instead, it was eight feet away."
Eight feet away on the floor in front of her. Behind her was the spent shell casing from the .45-caliber gun.
"In the movies the weapon goes flying through the air when somebody shoots themselves," said Ensley. "In real life it doesn't happen that way."
In photos from the scene, Janice's hands were placed neatly underneath the blanket. If her spinal cord was instantly severed then someone had to put them there.
"When that occurs, all mobility ceases immediately," said Ensley. "Had she have been standing up she would have dropped in a pile. The weapon would have been laying on her or very close to next to her."
And to complicate matters, Janice was left-handed, and her family says cancer surgery prevented her from lifting her arm above her shoulder.
Ensley's conclusion: Someone else killed Janice.
"If she had have shot herself as they indicated, she would have had to have held the weapon upside down and she would have had her hand completely up over her head," said Ensley.
So if Janice didn't kill herself, then who did, and why?
Death seems to have become a frequent visitor to the tiny hamlet of Centerville, Texas.
Gerald Willhelm calls 911, claiming his wife Janice shot herself in the neck. The Leon County sheriff says it was suicide. So did the medical examiner.
But Janice's son Wayne Robeson says he thinks it could be murder.
"It seems more than probable that her executioner stood above her, firing the weapon downward. That's why the bullet casing went this direction," said Wayne.
Wayne and his sister Jennifer hired private investigator Avery "Skip" Ensley to investigate. And his conclusion will shock you.
"In my opinion, I've determined that Mr. Willhelm was more than likely the person who shot his wife," said Avery "Skip" Ensley.
In the farm house detectives find a clue on a cluttered bookshelf. Right there, next to a gun maintenance manual, do-it-yourself last will and testament software.
"We had found a couple of months later that a will had been probated, filed and probated, without our knowledge," said Jennifer Davis, Janice's daughter.
Janice purportedly signed the will a year and a half before she died. She wrote the kids out of the will, leaving the farm to Gerald Willhelm.
"We received a copy of the will and I noticed immediately that it wasn't our mother's signature," said Jennifer.
Looking closely at Janice's signature on the will, compared to the signature on a cancelled check and on a financial document: The "J" in Janice goes in the opposite direction than the "J" on the will.
"We sent the will to a handwriting expert and that handwriting expert, in addition to a law enforcement handwriting expert, both determined that the will was not only forged, but it was forged by the husband," said Ensley.
If that's true then why would Gerald allegedly kill his wife for the family farm? He certainly wouldn't get rich growing chickens and milking cows.
"The motive was money," said Wayne Robeson. "It was the oil wells."
Oil wells. Black gold.
"This is a Clayton Number 1-H well. The oil pool is a total of 431 acres," Wayne said.
A harvest of crude oil and gas potentially worth millions of dollars. Within months of Janice's death Gerald opened the farm for drilling.
How much was Janice's property there worth before they knew oil was on it?
"It was appraised at just over $100,000," said Jennifer.
According to oil lease documents, the well generated royalties of more than $400,000 in the first eight months.
"From these oil wells Gerald was receiving tens of thousands of dollars a month," said Jennifer.
Jennifer and Wayne took Gerald to civil court, claiming he forged the will.
"The will itself is a blatant forgery that an 8-year-old can identify quickly," said Wayne.
In the deposition, Gerald testified that the signature on the will is Janice's. Yet one of the witnesses to her signature, a woman named Deidre Kyle, told private investigator Ensley in an audio interview that she never actually saw Janice sign it.
Ensley: "Do you know if it was filled out when you..."
Kyle: "I don't remember, I really don't. I don't know if they had already, I think they had already signed it and just asked me to witness it."
Gerald also told a different story about the day Janice died. In the 911 call he said he didn't touch the body. But Gerald later admitted he placed a towel beneath her neck to sop up the blood.
"He also said that she was talking about shooting herself before she laid in her chair to take a nap, and he got in his chair next to her and also took a nap at the same time, allowing her to have a loaded .45 in her lap while she was sleeping," said Avery Ensley. "That didn't make any sense to me."
But wouldn't any lingering questions about whether Janice pulled the trigger have been cleared up by a check for gunshot residue on her hand?
"Mysteriously, the gunshot residue kit that was on Mrs. Willhelm's hand is now missing," said Ensley.
So the only one who could possibly answer the question Did Janice Shoot Herself? is Gerald.
But will that ever happen?
An ill wind blows across the farm that was in Janice Willhelm's family for generations.
Does her family still have any rights to the property?
"No," said son Wayne Robeson. "Basically they probated a will in county court not long after she died and after we did the affidavit of heirship, we were never contacted. We never knew about it. It was almost like they did it in secret."
Probating a will is a court proceeding that establishes that the will is valid. But Janice's children Wayne Robeson and Jennifer Davis claim their stepfather Gerald Willhelm forged the will, and their mom's suicide by gunshot: They believe Gerald might have pulled the trigger.
"I feel my mother was never suicidal. She did not have that in her, especially by a gun. She had a lifelong intimidation of firearms, so there's no doubt in my mind," said Jennifer.
The children believe the alleged motive for murder was so Gerald could drill for oil.
"When the oil wells started and then we had the forged will and then they continued to refuse to allow us to see information regarding her death, like the suicide note and things like that, it only increased and fueled that suspicion," said Wayne.
It's a dramatic accusation, but will Gerald ever defend himself against that claim? Unlikely. Because in a bizarre twist of fate:
"Gerald had been found dead," said Wayne.
The death certificate says he died from athersclerotic cardiovascular disease -- in layman's terms, a heart attack. His arteries were clogged.
Gerald's death means he can no longer clear up the family's doubts about Janice's alleged suicide, or shed light on numerous other mysterious deaths in a neighborhood now surrounded by oil wells.
"If you drew a circle of about three quarters of a mile around that house, you would find that the head of household of almost every home has died of a single shot, gunshot wound, above the shoulders," said Wayne.
"I fear for my life every day," said Jennifer. "I knew pursuing who is involved in my mother's death would cause me to be in danger. But I felt that if we did nothing, that I would be in just as much danger, if not more so."
It's an outrageous claim. So we attempted to speak with people in and around Centerville. But we didn't find any support for Wayne and Jennifer's accusations. And those we spoke with didn't seem to believe a murder spree was at play.
Neighbor John Brown says his firefighter brother was one of the first-responders to Janice's gunshot death. Does he think this was suicide or does he think this was a murder?
"Again, it was a suicide," said Brown. "In each circumstance."
Without a doubt?
"Yes ma'am," said Brown.
As they might say in Texas, Gerald "bought the farm." But who owns it now? Just two days after Gerald Willhelm died, his will was probated. And you will be shocked when you hear who Gerald left his estate to: A beautiful blonde bank employee named Christine Bain and a ranch worker named Deidre Kyle.
Remember, Deidre Kyle was the witness to Janice's signature on her will, the one who said the signature was already on there.
Gerald left the 7.5-acre farm to Deidre, and he left the oil leases to Christine, a woman he apparently knew for only a short while.
"Informants in town have told us that Gerald had some kind of relationship with her before our mother died, and after our mother died," said Wayne.
So did Christine just luck out and strike a gusher after striking up a friendship with Gerald, or is there something else?
We went to Christine's farmstead to get her side of the story. Her husband told us to get lost.
So we then visited her parents. They were more than happy to tell us her side. And it's not what you think.
What type of relationship goes from the bank where she was working to him signing over his mineral rights to her?
"Because he had no children, he had no one except one sister, and he felt like she was his daughter. That was the relationship between them, a daughter and daddy relationship. In fact Gerald's wife [Janice] was my cousin," said Christine's mother.
So that makes Janice Willhelm Christine's cousin?
Christine's mother just got off the phone with her, and Christine told her mother to tell us to contact her attorney and that if we tried to contact her she'd call police.
But to be fair, we had to try one more time to hear what Christine has to say. So we went to the bank where she works, and found her sitting in a car. She did not want to talk.
For months during our investigation we asked the sheriff to comment on Janice's suicide and all the other deaths Wayne and Jennifer believe are suspicious. But he wouldn't talk -- Until the day we tried to contact Christine. He called our producer to say if we tried to speak to her again he'd arrest us.
According to the sheriff, the death of Janice Willhelm is a closed case. And unless the family digs up new evidence that she was murdered, her death will forever remain filed under "S" for suicide.