Looking south down 14th Street from just north of Goodwin
THE LAST SIGHTINGS OF THE CHILDREN
The time: approximately 5:00 to 6:45 pm on Wednesday, the fifth of May, 1993.
The Key People
Steve Branch, eight years old, 50", 65 lbs, blonde hair. Last seen in blue jeans, white t-shirt on a black and red bicycle.
Chris Byers, eight years old, 48", 52 lbs, light brown hair. Last seen in blue jeans, dark shoes, and white long sleeve shirt. Last seen carrying his skateboard.
Michael Moore, eight years old, 49½", 55 lbs, brown hair. Last seen in blue pants, blue Boy Scouts of America shirt, orange and blue Boy Scout hat on a light green bicycle.
Melissa and John Mark Byers – mother and stepfather of Chris Byers.
Pamela and Terry Hobbs – mother and stepfather of Steve Branch.
Dana and Todd Moore – mother and father of Michael Moore.
Other key family members.
Ryan Clark – 13 year old brother of Chris Byers.
Dawn Moore – 10 year old sister of Michael Moore.
Witnesses in court (other than family) who described seeing the children that afternoon.
Narlene Hollingsworth - passerby
Debra O'Tinger - neighbor
Bryan Woody - neighbor
Door to door interviews and witness statements.
Otto Bailey, Junior and Otto Allen Bailey III - neighbors.
Ben Crafton - neighbor.
Debra and Robert "Jeff" Martins - neighbors.
Bobby Posey - neighbor.
Christopher Wahl - neighbor.
Kim Williams - neighbor.
The sources for piecing together a narrative of when and where the children were last seen are: door-to-door interviews, witness statements and court testimony. The first of these came as part of the police canvassing the area. Although the police were instructed to make thorough interviews during the door to door canvassing, often there were brief notes and many residents were marked simply as not home. Nevertheless, some interviews were substantive. Some of the seemingly more interesting statements in the door to door interviews were not followed up with witness statements.
The area covered in the canvassing is highlighted in light brown below. The witness statements were fewer in number and many of the relevant statements were not taken until months after the murders. The court testimony centered around the prosecution's narrative of the events, i.e., the defense did not attempt to introduce an alternative narrative on when the children were last seen.
The relevant and uncontroverted background facts are: the three victims went to school that day, getting out at 3 pm. Steve and Michael owned bicycles, Chris, a skateboard. The bicycles would later be found in a bayou not far from where the bodies were found (above map). The skateboard was unaccounted for. The victim's homes are between a three quarters of a mile to a mile and a quarter southeast from where their bodies were eventually found. Each of the following sightings took place in the children's neighborhood. This neighborhood is separated by woods and a bayou from where the bodies were found. Chris and Michael lived across the street from each other. These two did not play together often because of a feud between their parents. Steve's house was a quarter mile to the south of the other two.
Part 1. Last seen by Family.
With the exception of Dana Moore, the other family members of the victims only saw the victims individually or else well before the final sightings by the neighbors. Neighbors filled in more, albeit sometimes contradictory, details on the subsequent whereabouts of the children.
Pamela Hobbs, mother of victim Steve Branch, said she was with her son until Michael Moore came by asked to go out to play with him. This was before 4 pm and she warned them to come back before she left for work at five. Chris Byers dropped by her house briefly, watched some television and then left. No statement or testimony was taken for the whereabouts of Terry Hobbs, Steve Branch's stepfather until he is at his wife's workplace at 9:20 pm, informing her of the disappearance.
Ryan Clark, brother of victim Chris Byers, said he was asked to meet his brother and let him into the house at about 3:00. He never saw him and then had to take off for appearance as a witness in a court case at 4:00. He was taken to court by his stepfather, John Mark Byers. He got home at 6:00 to 6:30, but by then Chris was missing.
John Mark Byers (referred to as Mark), stepfather of Chris, gave the most detailed account of the events of that afternoon. His encounters with Chris were few, but critical. He said he got home from a medical appointment at about 3:10 and waited for Chris to let Chris in the house because he didn't have a key. Ryan appeared at "3:38." Mark waited with him until 4:00 when Mark took Ryan to the courthouse. He stated he left the courthouse about 5:00 to go to pick up his wife, Melissa, from her job in Memphis, returning at 5:20. He stated he found the lawn chair pushed up against the window and the window in the kitchen pushed in slightly, but a microwave cart had blocked Chris from entering.
As Mark took off to pick up Ryan from court, he said he found Chris dangerously skateboarding in the middle of the road about four or five houses south on 14th. He said he took him home, spanked him and told him to clean up the carport as punishment. He then took off to pick up Ryan. When Mark and Ryan returned home, Chris was gone.
Melissa Byers, mother of Chris, echoed the story of John Mark Byers, although at times it is difficult to separate out what she herself saw and what she was relaying secondhand. She confirmed that Chris was not home when she was brought home, she repeats how he had been skateboarding in the street (although this would probably have been secondhand), and how he was spanked and told to clean up the carport. She adds the detail that he was eating cookies during this time (potentially important for later time of death estimates). Many of the statements of John Mark Byers have been called into question by followers of this case who consider him a suspect. For this time period, Mark's statements concur with his wife's.
Dawn Moore, then 10 years old, is the sister of victim, Michael Moore. When their mother saw Michael heading north on 14th in the direction of Robin Hood Woods, she sent Dawn after him. Although she didn't find him, she related that she saw one white and two black teenagers coming out of the Robin Hood Woods. One of them made a suggestion that she interpreted as an offer of drugs. While her statement is not relevant to having seen the victims, it does corroborate the statement of Kim Williams (below).
Among the family members, Dana Moore, mother of Michael, had the final sighting. She said she saw Steve and Michael playing on bicycles shortly after school and that, later, she saw the three children heading north on 14th street. She described having seen her son on a bicycle, and Christopher Byers climbing aboard so that the three children were on two bikes.
From the Misskelley trial:
Prosecutor John Fogleman : How far down were they from where you were?
Six houses distant made this sighting at a distance of approximately 120 yards. In another statement she said she saw them as they rounded the curve, which would have been about 200 yards.
Dana Moore: Approximately six houses.
Fogleman: What time of the day was it?
Moore: Six o’clock.
Part 2. Last seen as presented in court.
The mothers of the victims testified in court as to the last time they saw their children. Also testifying were three area residents. It should be emphasized that the Robin Hood Woods that some say they witnessed the children enter, are a different set of woods from where the children's bodies were found. All of these sightings are all over a quarter mile away and across a bayou from the discovery site.
Narlene Hollingsworth, 42 years old, appears again and again in this case. Her nephew was a suspect. She placed one of the convicted (along with Narlene's niece) near the scene of the crime. She also gave an alibi to another of the convicted (which she recanted). Relevant to this topic, she stated she saw the children on East Barton near the school. She said this was at 4:30 in one statement, 5:30 at trial. She said she was driving in the children's neighborhood, leaving off her nephew, LG Hollingsworth (also a suspect), when she saw the three children on bicycles. She said she almost hit one of the children as he rode out into the street. She was called as a witness in the Echols/Baldwin trial. Her primary testimony was not regarding the timeline for the disappearance of the children, nevertheless, she was questioned about her encounter with them that afternoon.
The problems with her sighting are several. She said the kids were all on bikes; they had only two. She said she is certain one of them was wearing shorts and believes the other two were. None were wearing shorts. Significantly, she didn't mention one was in a boy scouts uniform, something that would probably be memorable. She remembered well the dark haired child who she described as being heavier set than the other two. In reality, the heaviest child was blond. Perhaps it is telling that she says she stopped her car and told the children they ought be at home even though it was only mid-afternoon. On the other hand, she did describe the bikes correctly, saying one had some black in it and the other was light green. As with other neighbors who were witnesses, she described the intentions of the children, how they met up and where they were planning to go. Like the others, she does not explain how she knew these intentions. At trial she said other family members were in her car at this time. No other family members mentioned this incident in their statements or testimony.
With so many errors, why not just dismiss this as a false sighting, and since it is not near the time the children disappeared, why bring this up at all? Narlene did testify in court to this and other matters, and her credibility was key to the prosecution's case. Of the key pieces of evidence in the Echols/Baldwin trial, her accounts were the only ones that were acquired before the arrests.
Debra O'Tinger, 19 years old, also intersects with this case at several points. She helped in the search on the morning of the sixth of May. On the first of June, she gave a statement to the police about rumors of cult rituals taking place in the nearby woods. Her 14 year old brother also reported these. At the end of June, she made a statement recounting having seen the three children the afternoon of the fifth; one of the last to have seen the children alive. Her house is located about two block lengths from the entrance to the Robin Hood Woods, but still a quarter mile from the woods where the children were found.
O'Tinger made one police statement and testified in both trials. On June 30th, 1993, Mrs. O'Tinger provided a one page handwritten statement to the detectives. In this statement, she wrote that she saw the three children in front of her yard at 1309 Goodwin Avenue "around 5:30 pm." She wrote that her husband got home at 5:40 and also saw the kids (No statement was taken). She recounted telling the children to get off of her lawn. By the time she left for a dinner appointment at six, she wrote, the children had gone into the woods. This is probably only a presumption as she did not mention seeing them going into the woods. This statement is brief; more details about this incident were brought out at trial.
At the Misskelley trial, O'Tinger said she saw the children in her yard "around six, close to six." She saw two children (one on a bicycle) pass then one more on foot. At this trial she said she did not know the kids, but was able to identify them later. Subsequently in her testimony she stated she knew Chris Byers because his brother had asked to mow her lawn last summer. (How this helped her know Chris Byers was not elucidated.)
From the Misskelley trial:
Fogleman: Do you know the boys? Did you know them?
O'Tinger: No, sir.
Fogleman: Were you later able to identify who the boys were?
At the Echols/Baldwin trial she said she knew the children, that they were around her house quite a bit. She added the details that she saw them for about a minute and that she had to wait for them to move to back out in her truck to leave. This conflicts with her previous statement that by the time she left, they had gone into the woods. The woods are not visible from her driveway. This time she stated she did not speak to them. She also said they had met up and had come from Goodwin Circle, meaning that she had either seen them before or else was adding in details outside what she witnessed.
O'Tinger: Yeah, I actually knew one of them because one of them's brothers had asked to mow my lawn earlier in the beginning, almost the summertime.
Fogleman: Do you know which of the boys that was?
O'Tinger: Byers, the little Byers boy.
From the Echols/Baldwin trial:
Fogleman: Um - on that date, did you um - well, first of all were you acquainted with any of the um - victims, Michael Moore, Stevie Branch, Chris Byers?
O'Tinger: They were around the house quite a lot.
O'Tinger: I didn't quite know them real well.
Fogleman: Ok, but you knew who they were when you saw them?
O'Tinger: I knew who they were, yes.
O'Tinger: Two little boys cut across the yard and one, they had met and they had went to - down on Goodwin Circle.
Bryan Woody, 20 years old, said he saw the victims from his car as they entered the southern set of woods from the end of 14th street between 6:30 and 6:45 pm. His statements are significant for several reasons. Among those who testified at trial, his is the last sighting of the children. He also placed the children heading in the general direction of where they were found. Finally, with shades of Orson Welles, he insisted he saw a mysterious "fourth child."
Spotlight: Woody Unplugged.
Bryan Woody gave three statements to the police and testified at trial. In one statement he said he just got off of work from Radio World at 6:15. In another statement he said he just got off of work from Don's Super Shine at 6:30. (The two establishments are connected.)
A summary of his testimony: He was heading home to 1823 Goodwin ". . .when I approached 14th Street on Goodwin, I saw four kids go into Robin Hood [woods], you know, right there where the road dead ends." Furthermore, he stated he was travelling 40 mph, then later amends this to 45 mph on a residential street. He testified he saw these kids for about five seconds. He goes on to say, "All of them had their backs to me, so I couldn't identify what any of them looked like. I could not tell the ages of the individuals I saw, they were just young." He said that one had spikey hair, like in a picture of Steve Branch that he later saw. He said Steve Branch was carrying a skateboard.
This might be fine, but. . . from what he said he would only have been able to see the children when he was crossing the intersection of 14th and Goodwin. Travelling at 40-45 mph, his car would move 59 to 66 feet in one second. Heading to 1823 Goodwin, he would have had to have seen these kids out of his driver's side window, for a maximum of less than one second and it would only be the maximum amount of time if for some reason he was speeding down Goodwin looking out of his window. "Right where the road dead ends" is approximately 40 yards from the middle of Goodwin. He says he didn't know these kids at the time and that he only made the association with Stevie Branch from his spikey hair and having seen his picture in the paper. Strangely, he did not mention knowing Chris in spite of going to John Mark Byers house to help in the search. His time of approximately 6:45 is 45 minutes later than the other sightings in the area.
A map depicting the last sightings of the children as presented in court is given below. This includes the sightings from O'Tinger, Woody, Dana Moore and Narlene Hollingsworth.
Less than one second from the back of kids he said he didn't know and had no reason at that moment to be concerned about, from forty yards distant while looking out of the window of a speeding car does not describe a firm observation. Many of these discrepancies went unchallenged in the trials.
Woody gave his statement several times to the police, once in an undated report, once on May 28th, 1993 and once on September 7. Also on September 7, the police re-interviewed Betty Lou Martins and her son, Robert Jeff Martins. In partial support of Woody's statement, they said they now remembered seeing four children, although in his initial statement Robert said he saw three. More on Bryan Woody.
Part 3: The door to doors and other neighborhood sightings.
In the door to door interviews, over thirty sightings of the children were reported that afternoon. Most of these were unremarkable and early in the afternoon. Some were later but indefinite in description "saw them," or "saw some boys." There were, however, six sightings from those who identified the children by name. They tell an interesting and consistent story. All of the door to door interviews who identified the children by name and who saw them after 5:15 are listed below.
Ben Crafton, 15 years old, 707 Wilson, stated he saw Branch and Moore on bikes Wed - 6:00 pm going toward Goodwyn - Kim Williams was with them. Like Kim Williams he did not mention Chris Byers being with them.
Kim Williams, said she saw Michael Moore and Steve Branch (but not Chris Byers) go into the Robin Hood Woods between 5:30 and 6:00 pm. Their bikes were left along Goodwin. She also said that she saw three older boys, two black and one white, later come out of Robin Hood. This is in agreement with Dawn Moore's statement.
On a memo regarding her statement, the police give alternative theories:
"Unknown who Kim saw. Has been mentioned that during cult activity some members blacken their faces. Also note victims had black boys that they also played with." [Kim Williams, undated note]
This would suggest that the police considered the possibility that Kim Wilson and Dawn Moore saw the defendants wearing black face and mistook them for being black.
Otto Bailey, Jr. and Otto Allen Bailey III, 32 years old and approximately 10 (fourth grade), 1202 WE Catt. Otto Allen Bailey III, in the fourth grade at Weaver, and his father stated they saw Michael Moore and Steve Branch (but not Chris) as they left for softball practice at about 6 pm. Otto Bailey, Jr. was described as a suspect by a neighbor and Otto Bailey, Sr. was interviewed as a suspect. Lylia (Lila) Bailey, the grandmother of Otto Allen Bailey III, also noted this sighting, although it is not clear whether she was passing along secondhand information. A possible discrepancy is the children were seen wearing backpacks. No backpacks were discovered with the children or described as missing. (More on the Baileys)
Bobby Posey, 12 years old, 1100 E. Barton, stated that Chris Byers stopped by his house after his father whipped him. Chris stated he was running away from home. Bobby Posey also stated that Mark Byers appeared and threatened to whip Chris again. No follow-up statement was taken from Posey.
Chris Wahl, 19 years old, 1114 E. Barton, stated he saw Chris Byers at about 6:45 to 7:00 pm at E. Barton and McAuley with a blond and a bike with red spray on paint heading towards Robin Hood. In a later statement, he said, "@ 7 I saw the Byers kid and the kid who lives accross the street on the street near his brother's house going towards Robin Hood." Both were described as on bicycles. Chris Wahl's brother lived on W. McAuley. West McAuley intersected E. Barton not far from Chris Wahl's house. Chris Wahl knew Chris Byers. He was named as a potential suspect and in turn, he named Mark Byers as a potential suspect.
A map with all of the sightings 5:15 and after is presented below. Included are sightings where the children were named along with the sightings presented in court. Some of the indefinite sightings such as "saw boys playing" or "two children" are probably spurious.
Part 4: An analysis of the final sightings.
The importance of understanding the last movements of these victims can not be stressed enough. If the children were abducted, it can give the sight of abduction. If the children disappeared into some neighbor's house, it could give the identity of the murderer. It can also help in defining whether the children were stalked and whether the murder was premeditated.
How the children got to the place where their bodies were found is unclear. The sightings presented here only partly resolve the matter. The final sightings are a quarter mile or more away and pertain to a different set of woods. Even accepting the prosecution's theory, we only have the children were heading in a general direction. Why they were headed that way is unknown. The prosecution presented the murders as premeditated and planned, suggesting the children were meeting their murderers.
Confounding the matter further, many of these reports have some problems, details that change over time, or those that are factually incorrect such as the wrong number of bicycles. This may be due in part to misremembered details or misattributed times, other aspects of the vagaries of memory, or false sightings. Several of the witnesses elaborated their stories with unknowable details, including the intentions of the children or what happened after they were seen.
There seems to be an inverse relationship between how well the children were known and whose statement was key to the prosecution's theory. Other than Dana Moore, all the others (six of them) who saw the children and identified them by name placed Michael Moore and Stevie Branch separate from Chris Byers. These statements reinforce one another.
What should be the final judgment on these sightings? Do those with discrepancies represent the normal amount of inexactness to be expected by witnesses, or did at least some of these people not see the children at all? Did they confuse another set of children with these? Were some of these witnesses merely interested in the limelight of a famous case? I am inclined to go with the strength of the neighbors who identified the children by name and not by more tentative means, such as knowing the brother of a victim.
A personal evaluation of the critical sightings.
Included are those sightings of the children after they left their houses if those sightings were presented in court or, if the witness identified the children by name.
Dana Moore. Good. Although at a distance of over a hundred yards, she knew the children and would certainly recognize her own son. This sighting is still distant from the woods.
Debra O'Tinger. Fair. A little shaky on some of the details including only seeing one bike and how well she knew the children. Her story changed over time and included details she couldn't know, such as them entering the woods. Unlike several of the other sightings, she says the children were near when she saw them.
Narlene Hollingsworth. Poor. In other circumstances, her statement would probably have been ignored because of the inaccuracies, and because it was not near the time or alleged place of disappearance. However, other parts of her testimony were critical for the prosecution's case.
Bryan Woody. Very poor. Nothing from his description of how he saw them makes it credible that he did see them or could identify them.
Kim Williams. Good. Ben Crafton confirmed she was with them, there were other sightings of Michael Moore and Stevie Branch together. Also supported by the statements of Dawn Moore.
Ben Crafton. Good. Knew children. Supports Kim Williams' statement and those statements who saw Steve Branch and Michael Moore together without Chris and those who saw Chris Byers without the other two. Another neighbor, Christy Blanchard, described "two of the boys" on bicycles and described their clothes correctly, supporting this sighting.
Otto Bailey, Jr. and Otto Allen Bailey III. Good. Supported by the statements of those who saw Steve Branch and Michael Moore together without Chris and those who saw Chris Byers without the other two. Supported by Lila Bailey. The presence of backpacks and different clothing is a problem.
Chris Wahl. Good. Knew Chris Byers. Supported by Bobby Posey who saw Chris Byers in this area. One difficulty is that his statement is ambiguous. Who did Chris Wahl see?
Bobby Posey. Good. Knew Chris Byers. The information that Mark Byers had whipped Chris was not generally known that evening. Supported by Chris Wahl, and indirectly by those who saw only Stevie Branch and Michael Moore together.
Overview of the area near the entrance to Robin Hood Woods.
So, what was the last sighting of the children?
The above is a somewhat simplified discussion of the last sightings of the children. In order to include only the most relevant sightings, I limited the sightings from the door to door surveys to those neighbors who identified the children by name. The above map also includes in gray other sightings: from the vague "saw some boys" to the more specific "I saw all three." Most of these sightings were not followed up to determine whether the neighbor who sighted the children had a specific reason to know it was the victims and not other neighborhood children.
There were other sightings, including ones that were potentially important. Jamie Johnson described seeing all three children that evening near the Mayfair Apartments. An estimate on what time they were there or information on how he knew it was the victims was not presented in his interview.
Some sightings are spurious. Sandra Nodini first described hearing the children cry for help near an entirely different bayou and then, in a later statement, described seeing the convicted in that same area, picking on one of the victims. The fact that the more specific and crucial information wasn't present in her first statement, the fact that there are many others who place the children elsewhere, and the fact that Nodini failed a polygraph are probably why she wasn't called as a witness. Cindy Rico offered a tantalizing tale of seeing the children near where the interstate crosses the bayou. This is in seeming conflict in location and timing when compared to other statements. There were other sightings far afield, including a mile south on Broadway. Limiting the sightings to those who could identify the children helped eliminate some of the more unlikely claims.
Furthermore, as can be seen with Debra O'Tinger's comments, the more times a story is repeated, the more it changes. In the above analysis, emphasis was given to the original stories of the witnesses.
Taking the sightings literally and at face value, the children would be making loops and backtracking. Any final determination of where the children were last seen has to negate some sightings as spurious. While any individual sighting and time should not be taken with a sense of exactness, multiple sightings do tend to reinforce one another.
There are multiple sightings of the children along Wilson, Goodwin, into the Robin Hood Woods and at the Bailey house along WE Catt. The large majority of these sightings had the children heading in the same general direction, north and to the west, in other words, in the direction of where they were eventually found, although still quite distant from the area. Most of these sightings were of Michael and Stevie alone. Using the progression of the children to the north and to the west and allowing for inexactness in time, the last sighting would be that of Otto Bailey, Jr. and his son in front of their house. They stated Stevie Branch and Michael Moore were headed along WE Catt in the direction of the Mayfair Apartments.
An Analysis of the Door to Door Interviews
Entering Robin Hood Hills, where the children were last seen as presented in court.