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Just Say You’re Sorry

To Solve a Young Mother’s Death, a Celebrated Texas Ranger Turns to Hypnosis

In Episode 2 of “Just Say You’re Sorry,” we dig into Ranger James Holland’s past and follow the twists and turns that lead him to Larry Driskill.

A police sketch of a face on a cream background layered on top of court documents

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In 2005, two teenagers hiking in a creek stumbled upon the body of a woman. The police used her tattoos to establish her identity: Bobbie Sue Hill, a 29-year-old mother of five. Her boyfriend said he’d seen a man abduct her, in a white van, in downtown Fort Worth, Texas.

But the case went cold, amid a rising wave of unsolved homicides. “Everyone thought it was never going to get solved, and that nobody cared,” one of her cousins, Cindy Elmquist, told me last year.

Almost a decade later, a detective named James Holland decided to try again. He was a member of the Texas Rangers, an elite statewide law enforcement group whose roots go back two centuries. The Rangers solve cold cases across the state, and Holland was building a reputation for getting suspects to confess.

But in the Hill case, he kept running into dead ends. So he turned to some novel methods.

He convinced the boyfriend, Michael Harden, to undergo forensic hypnosis, which remains legal in Texas, despite having been banned by many other states, due to concerns about its reliability.

After the hypnosis session, a sketch artist produced an image of the perpetrator, based on the boyfriend’s description. But there were reasons to doubt its accuracy — because another sketch had previously circulated in the case, and the two were very different.

The second episode of “Smoke Screen: Just Say You’re Sorry” is called “The Word of God,” and opens with a visit to the Texas Ranger Hall of Fame and Museum, to explore how the agency shaped Holland’s style of homicide investigation.

We interview Tim Dawson, who was also a suspect in Hill’s death, but responded to the Ranger’s interrogation style in a very different way from Larry Driskill, the man who ultimately confessed to the crime.

And we uncover the tragic circumstances in Bobbie Sue Hill’s life that led to her abduction.

Go deeper:

Transcript:

Before we start: a warning that this episode contains descriptions of violence. Please take care as you listen.

Coming up this time, on “Just Say You’re Sorry.”

Former Texas Ranger Victor Patton, 2022: “When people need help, the Rangers [are] who they call, and the Rangers are the ones that come and try to work things out for 'em.”

Texas Ranger James Holland, 2014, speaking to a crime witness: “Hey, let me say something upfront about this too. I don't care about prostitution. I don't care about drugs. All I deal with is murder.”

Former homicide suspect Tim Dawson, 2022, describing what he told Ranger Holland in 2014: “You need to resign and get somebody else on this case that truly has a care and a respect for the death of that girl. And whether she was a prostitute, or a senator's daughter, don't make a fucking difference.”

One of my earliest memories is from kindergarten: Mrs. Glock — you know, like the gun — is teaching us how to spell the name of the place we live. I can still hear the crowd of 5-year-olds chanting, “T-E-X-A-S.”

At some point my parents took me to the Alamo, where I stood in this old stone fortress and heard about how our Texan forefathers battled Mexico for independence.

Except they aren’t my forefathers: My mom is from Connecticut, and my dad is from Syria.

But I wanted to fit in. I paid special attention to all the things that ‘real Texans’ seemed to love: I bought pearl-snap shirts and ate barbecue and asked my parents to let me go to a Willie Nelson concert. I even became a fan of a statewide baseball team: The Texas Rangers. This was probably the first time I heard that name. Later on, I had a friend who was obsessed with the TV show “Walker, Texas Ranger.” He thought Chuck Norris, who played the main character, was the coolest person alive.

So even before I was aware that the Texas Rangers were a real police force, I knew the name evoked excitement and adventure and a sense of grandeur.

And this is probably one of the reasons why I was so riveted by Larry Driskill’s claim that he’d given a false confession to a Texas Ranger.

I’d always wanted to know more about the real Rangers. Now, I had to know more.

It’s about a three hour drive north from my home in Austin to Fort Worth. I had done that drive countless times, and always seen the same sign, just off the highway in Waco, before you get to the football stadium. It's at the top of a tall stone tower and reads: “Texas Ranger Hall Of Fame and Museum.”

This time, I pull over.

Maurice tape: So here we are at the Texas Ranger Hall of Fame and Museum in Waco, Texas.

I walk through some of the exhibits, past the 19th century guns and into what I realize is the actual Hall of Fame. I still can’t get over the fact that the Texas Rangers have a hall of fame at all. They’re not athletes or rock stars; they’re police officers. There's one saying in particular that you keep seeing here: “One Riot, One Ranger.” It kind of feels like an unofficial slogan.

Maurice: Could you speak to the origin of that phrase, “One Riot, One Ranger”?

I’m speaking to Christine Rothenbush, who works for the museum.

Christine Rothenbush: So, the story goes that there was a prize fight, a boxing match that was going to bring a whole lot of people, a whole lot of gambling, a whole lot of drinks and things, and you know, how those things would go.

She told me that this was an illegal boxing match, and the crowd was expected to get rowdy and out of control.

Christine Rothenbush: And the legend goes that when the town's mayor went to greet the Rangers off the train, only one stepped off and said, “Well, you only have one riot. You only need one Ranger.”

The Ranger in question was Captain William McDonald. He was President Theodore Roosevelt's personal bodyguard during a Texas visit, and he had a reputation as a man who would, quote, “charge hell with a bucket of water.”

But it wasn’t all heroics. Among the most horrific incidents in the historical record is from 1918, when the Rangers, along with U.S. cavalrymen went to a town called Porvenir, to investigate a raid on a nearby ranch. They took 15 unarmed males — some men, some just boys — lined them up and shot them. It became an international scandal.

Christine Rothenbush: You know, true Rangers were appalled by it and, uh, made sure that that was something that would never happen again.

Recently, there’s been a lot of debate about what the Rangers stand for. A couple of years ago, after the murder of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement, a major airport in Texas took down a statue of a Ranger. The statue actually had an engraving of those iconic words: One Riot, One Ranger.

But at the same time, this vision of the Texas Rangers as the good guys in literal white hats is still a big part of our culture here. The museum has a whole room of memorabilia from movies and television shows like “The Lone Ranger,” and my friend’s favorite: “Walker, Texas Ranger.”

The museum makes the case that there is a connection between the mythic Rangers of the past and the current force. And it really strikes me when Christine goes one step further. She says that their legendary past actually helps them do their work in the present.

Christine Rothenbush: One time there was a Texas Ranger and he was giving a presentation and he said, “You know, when I was a state trooper, nobody wanted my autograph. But you know, now as a Texas Ranger, people come up to me at the restaurants and they're like, ‘You're a Texas Ranger! Can you sign this?’”

But, he said, that also works well when you go into the interrogation field with a criminal, because they know the Texas Rangers get their man. And he said, “I've gone to talk to a criminal, and the cops are like, ‘You know, we've been at it for 12 hours. He's not talking.’ I walk in, and the guy confesses.

Maurice: Wow, they see the white hat, they see the badge.

Christine Rothenbush: They know: Uh-oh…I'm in for it now.

This brought me right back to the Texas Ranger I was looking into: James Holland.

And the way he relied on that special identity when he interrogated Larry Driskill.

A lot of the museum focuses on things you can see: guns, horses, cars. But Holland’s skill relies on things you can’t see: his mind and his voice.

He’s a master, and I want to know how he got there.

And what led him to Larry Driskill in the first place.

James Holland: I speak the word of God because people know when you put on this little silver peso that you tell the truth and you do the right thing.

I’m Maurice Chammah. And from Somethin’ Else, Sony Music Entertainment, and The Marshall Project, this is “Smoke Screen: Just Say You're Sorry.”

Episode Two: “The Word Of God.”

Last time, we heard how Larry Driskill was at work one day back in 2015 and met Texas Ranger James Holland.

James Holland: Hey this is Jim Holland from the Texas Rangers.

And then they went to the local sheriff’s office and Holland told Driskill about the case he was working on the murder of a woman back in 2005.

Larry Driskill: What the hell did somebody do to her?

Driskill left Day 1 of the interrogation, promising to return the following morning for a polygraph test. He went for dinner with his wife that night, at a barbecue restaurant, still under the impression that he was being treated as a witness to a crime. He had a couple of beers and said he slept well.

I’ve already told you he’s going to confess to murder, during Day 2. But before we get to how, exactly, that happened. I need to get to know the man doing the interrogation, James Holland. And I want to find out what led him to Driskill in the first place.

After that first time I interviewed Larry Driskill in prison, I couldn’t stop wondering about the Texas Ranger who put him there. I asked Holland for an on-the-record interview. He said no, politely enough. Months later, I asked again. Another no.

Whenever he declined my interviews, he did pick up the phone. Plenty of people in his position will angrily hang up on a reporter, but he was amiable, accommodating, even charming.

Without an interview, I had to do what journalists call a “write around.”

And so I went to the Texas Department of Public Safety and asked for his personnel file. Two-hundred-forty-five pages came back.

It’s not the best way to get to know someone, but it does paint a picture — of a teenager in Illinois spending his summers working as a lifeguard, before going onto college in Kentucky, playing football and majoring in political science. Then he travels to Texas, where he studies criminal justice and gets one of his first jobs. Not in law enforcement, but [in] information services.

And one of his clients was — wait for it — the Texas Rangers.

Another journalist who got to know Holland told me this was his first encounter with the Rangers, and that something about their work — and how difficult it is to become a Ranger — made his own private sector job seem boring.

But he had to start at the bottom. It’s common for Rangers to begin as state troopers who patrol the highways. It appears Holland was very good at this. In his evaluations, his bosses call him “dependable” and “enthusiastic.”

You can imagine him pulling you over and, with his square jaw and blue eyes, looking like a patrol officer right out of central casting.

Then, just hunting online for court records, I found this wild story: Around 2000, while off duty, Holland smells marijuana coming from his neighbor’s apartment. He pushes his way in and handcuffs her! The woman goes to court and says he should have gotten a warrant before entering, but a judge rules in Holland’s favor. Why? Because the woman was burning a joint, which could be seen as destroying evidence.

I mean, imagine busting your neighbor like that. Their next meeting in the hallway must have been pretty awkward.

In 2008, 13 years into his career in law enforcement, Holland makes it to the big leagues: He becomes a Texas Ranger.

Victor Patton: It's the pinnacle of criminal law enforcement as far as Texas is concerned, in my opinion.

I spoke with a retired Ranger named Victor Patton, who joined the force at the same time as Holland.

Victor Patton: When people need help, the Rangers is who they call, and the Rangers are the ones that come and try to work things out for 'em.

Patton remembers meeting Holland.

Victor Patton: I met him, I think for the first time, when we went to [the] new ‘Ranger School’ in Austin, Texas,

I’m definitely picturing the movie “Police Academy” here, but with cowboy hats.

After Holland graduated from Ranger school, he started working out of a small town, north of Fort Worth. Victor Patton told me he had this reputation as the kind of Ranger who would go that extra mile.

Victor Patton: He's tenacious. If he finds something that he believes is something, he'll follow it up until it is absolutely proven or disproven.

Family members of victims often complain of detectives who ignore them. But the mother of a victim in one of Holland’s cases described him to me as an “incredibly sensitive human being” who was deeply moved by her pain and wanted to do whatever necessary to bring the killer to justice.

Maurice: When we spoke before, the word that stuck in my mind was brainiac, that he's, um…

Victor Patton: That's an adequate description. Yeah.

Maurice: Like even compared to other Rangers?

Victor Patton: We have a lot of smart Rangers, you know, but yeah, I mean, Jim's — he's really good at what he did.

Throughout Holland’s personnel file, his bosses are constantly praising his talent for talking to suspects.

Victor Patton: Interviewing, interrogation, basically anything you do in life, is like playing a board game. If you know all of the rules involved in the game that you're playing and you can successfully navigate those rules to the desired outcome, then there's a good chance you'll be successful. And Ranger Holland knows ‘em backwards and forwards.

I had an old partner one time who said, “A fish would never get caught if he didn’t open its mouth.” He’s a heck of a fisherman!

In 2001, the Texas Rangers started a special program to solve cold cases. It still exists today. The number of old unsolved cases has been on the rise, and lots of law enforcement agencies just don’t have the resources to go back and reopen them. So it’s a natural fit for the Rangers, who have this reputation for swooping in and saving the day.

When a case has gone unsolved for a long time — witnesses, if they’re still living — become harder to find. Evidence can disappear or degrade. So often the best way to close one of these cases is through a confession.

Fast forward to 2015. Holland’s been given the assignment to go solve cold cases around Texas and he’s on a bit of a roll.

He starts working with the Parker County Sheriff’s Office, on a murder that had taken place nearly 10 years before.

This is what he learned: On March 6, 2005, around 11 a.m., two boys were hiking in a creek. They discovered a black plastic bag. It was taped up. Inside the bag, they could tell, was a body. I got the police report and drove to where it was first discovered.

As I got out of the car, I noticed how quiet this road was. It’s a residential area, but the houses are big and really spread out, with fields and wooded areas in between, so this particular spot is pretty isolated. I walked over to where the road turned into a little bridge.

Maurice: It's not a bridge in the sense that it raises up; it's just a little area where the road crosses over a creek. And so it's, there's a little area under like this bridge, where there are some rocks and water.

I started reading from the police report. It said that the two boys were out walking that day.

Maurice: And they found a black plastic trash bag, partially submerged in the water. And then one of them saw what he believed to be a human ear, and left the creek and ran northbound on Jenkins Road toward Hood Cemetery.

They fled to call 911.

Maurice: It's easy to imagine that they may have been kind of panicked, seeing what they realized might be a human body. And called the police and that's how everything kind of started.

The police report says that this body belonged to a young woman. She had been strangled.

She had a tattoo on her left shoulder: the letters “TL.” The sheriff’s office released this information to the media, and pretty quickly they got a call from a family member. Based on the tattoo, they identified her as Bobbie Sue Hill.

This was the woman in the photo that Holland showed to Driskill on that first day of the interrogation.

At the time of her death, she was 29 years old.

I want to be upfront here and say that I spent months looking for Bobbie Sue Hill’s family, and the few people I did manage to find did not agree to be recorded.

And honestly, why would they? Of course, I knew that this family would have been deeply traumatized by what happened, and most likely wouldn't want to rehash it all with me. But when I visited this spot, it forced me to consider their pain much more directly.

Maurice: This story that we're doing is really important because it leads to larger questions about how our police go about solving crimes and what is right and wrong when they do that. But as you tell that story, you also have to tell the whole story and visit the sites and see the spot where this woman was killed. But she didn't ask to be the linchpin of a narrative that gets you into policy questions. So, being here feels like a kind of violation. It's like being at somebody's gravestone, but you didn't know the person. And that makes me feel a little compromised or complicated.

I have spoken to two of Bobbie Sue Hill’s aunts and two of her cousins. They didn’t want to be recorded for this podcast, but they described her as this outgoing, fearless kid who could light up a room. One used the word “feisty.” They said she loved performing. She’d sing and put on little shows with her cousins.

Her dad wasn’t in the picture. She was raised by her mom, life was tough, and from a young age, she was desperate to leave home.

So she meets a guy in high school and drops out to marry him. Over about 10 years, they have five kids, and her cousins and aunts remember Hill really doting on them: Where other mothers let their kids play in the mud, she was the one wiping them off constantly. One cousin said Hill aspired to be a better mother than her own.

But at some point, she and her husband start to use various hard drugs. It’s unclear how this starts, but of course it’s not an uncommon story. According to the family, their relationship gets worse and worse and the kids are caught in the middle. And then tragedy strikes. Her husband goes fishing one day and is in a car accident, and he dies. She’s a widow, a mother of five, and not even 30 years old.

The husband’s family helps with the kids, but Hill spirals. We know she had another cousin who did sex work, and that might be how she got into it. But by 2004, she’s going by the street name “Dallas” and sleeping in seedy motels.

One of the saddest memories came from another cousin, who recalled doing drugs with her and seeing her in this pit of self loathing. He wrote: “She saw her flaws and didn't want to pass it on to her kids. She didn't believe she could be what her kids deserved. So she stayed away, seeking any means to numb her senses, memories and dreams.”

An investigator jotted down that in early 2005, just a few weeks before she disappeared, she called her oldest daughter. She asked her to talk to her family about whether she could live with them again. It seemed like she was ready to come home.

Instead, her family has to identify her body. At her funeral, according to a relative who attended, the oldest daughter gave a speech and said she knew her parents had found each other in heaven.

Apparently some in the family were convinced that law enforcement wouldn’t prioritize this case because she was doing sex work. But the records I have show that the police did drive around East Lancaster Street in Fort Worth, asking questions, piecing together who she knew, and where she stayed.

And then they got a break.

A key witness came forward and said that he actually saw her being abducted by a guy near East Lancaster. The abductor was apparently driving a white minivan.

Not long after this, it turned out that police in a nearby town were looking for a white minivan. The owner had claimed that it had been stolen by an alleged sex worker. This owner’s name was Tim Dawson.

Dawson kind of matched some of the witness descriptions. And he had a record of aggravated assault.

But this was all pretty circumstantial. Tim Dawson denied having anything to do with Bobbie Sue Hill’s murder. And the police didn’t push it any further with him.

They followed up with some other leads for the next couple of months but nothing stuck. The case went cold. And that’s where the original 2005 investigation ended.

When James Holland is brought in to reinvestigate the case in 2014, one of his first moves is to go back to Tim Dawson. If Dawson was more involved in Hill’s murder than he let on, then who better than James Holland to pull the truth out of him?

He’s easy enough for Holland to find. And, for that matter, easy for me to find. I call Tim Dawson, and he invites me over to his mother’s house for an interview. He lives in Weatherford, the main town in Parker County. When I arrive, he’s watering the lawn, wearing jeans and a collared shirt and really loud, colorful sunglasses.

Maurice: Tim? How are you doing?

Tim Dawson: How are ya?

Maurice: Good!

He is friendly, maybe a little jumpy — like he’s just drunk a pot of coffee. He offers me cookies and peach ice tea.

We go inside and start talking. He tells me that he was questioned about the murder initially. And then, nine years later, he meets James Holland.

Tim Dawson: Yeah. That's when he pulled up and he just said, “I need to talk to you about some things that, um, are being reinvestigated.” And he told me about his record being, uh, impeccable and only — I forget how many he told me he had solved — and, like a 100% of all the ones he had been assigned and all this stuff.

Dawson had worked as an investigator himself, for a federal agency, mostly environmental stuff. So he knew a bit about how this all works. He agreed to talk to Holland, and went with him to an interrogation room.

Tim Dawson: And, uh, then we get in there and start, uh, answering the questions. And you know, it's an interview room, you know. It's like all tape recorded and everything, you know, you know what's going on.

I have that tape here. The conversation gets pretty awkward when Holland starts disparaging the victim, Bobbie Sue Hill, and Dawson actually steps in to defend her.

Tim Dawson: She’s no better or no worse than anybody of stature, or anybody…

James Holland: That’s not true. She’s a prostitute working on the street strung out on meth. She had four kids and they were all being taken care of by someone else, but she was out being a prostitute.

If I had my choice of people to die, you know, and I had a school teacher who got kids or a husband…

Tim Dawson: That’s us though.

James Holland: ...or I have her…

Tim Dawson: I know, but that's society’s view.

James Holland: She put herself in that position.

Tim Dawson: Maybe. I don’t know anything she could have done to deserve that.

Tim Dawson: That's when I got mad about it. I said, “Uh, you know, that girl's parents love her, and loved her. And, you know, I'll do anything within my power to help you solve this case.”

“But if you're going about things that way, for that reason, you need to resign and get somebody else on this case that, uh, truly has a care and a respect for the, the death of that girl. And whether she was a prostitute or a senator's daughter, it don't make a fucking difference.”

Dawson tells me that after that moment, he starts to realize that he’s being treated as more than a witness.

Tim Dawson: That was about halfway through, when I kind of had that “aha” click that, uh, this guy's not my friend. You know, trying to put things in my mouth and, and say that I did things and just get me to take the, the charge. I think he said, uh, “illegal disposal of a corpse,” he said.

James Holland: Well that plea upfront could be improper disposal of a corpse. It could be a $500 fine.

Tim Dawson: For the sake of closing the case and giving you the wrong information, it’s just not within my makeup to do that.

Tim Dawson: And that's when I said, uh, “Well, you know, we've got something in common, me and you.” And he looked at me and went, “Huh?” I said, well, I said, “You didn't do it, did you?

He said, “Well, no.” I said, “Well, I didn't do it, right?” No. I said, “Well, you take the goddamn charge. You want it closed, the case closed so bad — you take the charge.”

We can’t fact check this. We don’t have that moment on tape. It may just be what Dawson wished he’d said.

Maurice: Do you think, when you look back, or even at the time [did you think] that Holland really thought you had done it? Or do you think that Holland knew you hadn't done it and just wanted you to take the charge?

Tim Dawson: That's what I think.

Maurice: The latter?

Tim Dawson: Yeah. And when I figured that out in my own head is when I got mad.

Yeah. That's when I got pissed off.

Maurice: Why do you think Holland gave up on you after that? Because he could have just as easily waited for you to cool down, come back a week later and then pushed you again, right?

Tim Dawson: When I say, “I'm done,” it's done. He knew then I was through with him, and he could ask whatever. You know what? I need to leave. I need to get it. It was like within five minutes, I was out of there. I said, “I need to go. You don't have anything else for me. I need to go.”

So Dawson was a dead end. There was no real evidence linking him to this crime, and he wasn’t going to be persuaded to confess.

But Holland has another lead. He’s managed to track down Bobbie Sue Hill’s boyfriend. The key witness that police spoke to back in 2005. The one who actually saw her abduction.

James Holland: Hey again, my name is Jim Holland with the Texas Rangers. I'm not gonna talk to you about any of your cases right now.

That’s tape of James Holland introducing himself to Bobbie Sue Hill’s former boyfriend, Michael Harden.

Harden is actually in jail at the time, in downtown Fort Worth, having been arrested on unrelated charges. So he’s probably used to being around cops, and he’s also, shall we say, not their biggest fan.

But Holland tells him: This isn’t about any charges you’re facing. It’s about your girlfriend who disappeared nine years ago and what you saw that day.

James Holland: Hey, let me say something upfront about this too. I don't care about prostitution, I don’t care about drugs. All I deal with is murder, right? And you're not a suspect, so all you're gonna do is provide me information.

Harden seems willing to play ball, and he tells Holland about his relationship with Bobbie Sue Hill.

Michael Harden: That was my girl, my girlfriend at that time.

Harden says she was his girlfriend. But Holland makes a bit of a misstep when he tries to drill down on their relationship.

James Holland: In 2005, she’s a prostitute. Yeah. OK. And you’re, you’re acting as her protector, or, I’ll use the ugly word, pimp. You kind of a pimp?

Michael Harden: No.

James Holland: OK.

Michael Harden: I wasn’t no pimp.

Harden says he met Hill in these circles of sex workers and drug users around East Lancaster Street. He saw a guy grab her purse and her stuff flew everywhere and he came over to help clean up. They were together for a few months. He did odd maintenance jobs, she did sex work, they lived hand to mouth. I’ve struggled with whether to use the “p” word, the one Holland uses, because I think it implies a certain amount of power that I’m not totally sure this guy actually had over her.

But in early 2005, one night, they were standing outside a gas station. She was at a payphone. She wasn’t making a call. She was advertising to men.

Harden saw a white van drive up and down the street numerous times. He felt a little suspicious, so when the van pulled up to them, he told Hill not to go. “That’s OK,” he remembered her saying. “I’ve got it.”

Despite the funny feeling he had about this guy, Harden told Hill to take the man to a secluded street nearby for a “date,” slang for sex work. Then, Harden walked over to the street himself to check on them.

Michael Harden: And next thing I know, about 20 minutes later, he jumped up in the front seat.

Harden says he saw the man come from the back of the van and jump into the front seat. Then wipe his glasses, before putting them on and throwing the vehicle into gear and speeding away.

Michael Harden: That was the last time I’ve seen them.

Pretty soon, after the abduction, the first investigation started. A cop found Harden and revealed that Hill’s body was found near that bridge, around 30 minutes away from East Lancaster.

During that first investigation, Harden described the man who took Hill, to a sketch artist.

This sketch was released to the public, but the records show it didn’t lead to any suspects.

So now, nine years later, Holland is clearly curious to see if Harden’s description of the man’s face has changed. He says he wants to use a technique called the “cognitive interview.” It was developed a few decades ago by psychologists. The idea is to get witnesses to carefully revisit their memories, focusing on smells and sounds. And walk through the events backwards.

James Holland: You know, it's not voodoo or anything like that. It's very simple. But it's based on how the mind works, but what I'd like to do is interview you in that fashion. And it's gonna take just a little bit, but the key thing in it is, is you have to cooperate and work with me.

Even Holland admits it sounds weird, but Harden is game.

James Holland: I’m gonna ask you a bunch of questions a bunch of different times, but no matter what, you keep your eyes closed and just kind of keep that empty thought. Cause I want to put you back in that place, OK? And this is gonna help me. All right? You believe that?

Michael Harden: I hope so, man.

Holland asks Harden to cast his mind back to 2005 — really place himself there.

And he asks him to look at the scene from an alternative vantage point.

James Holland: Look at that van. You’re up on the telephone pole. You're looking down at that van.

Holland then gets Harden to describe two key things: The van. And the guy who was driving it.

James Holland: OK. Stare at his face. You see him?

Michael Harden: Yeah.

James Holland: OK. And he's got an Army cut?

Michael Harden: Yes.

James Holland: And he's got his glasses on?

Michael Harden: Yes.

James Holland: Does he have any facial hair?

Michael Harden: Um, like a shadow, like a 5 o'clock shadow.

Harden is trying to dredge up every detail of that day that he can muster, but Holland evidently feels there’s more to pull from the recesses of his mind. And for this next part, Holland doesn’t actually have the requisite training himself. He calls his old friend Victor Patton, the one he’d gone to ‘Ranger School’ with.

Patton had been trained in something called “forensic hypnosis.” He’s going to hypnotize Harden to go even deeper into his memories.

So Patton replaces Holland and sets his own white Ranger hat on the table.

Victor Patton: In an effort to help you relax, in just a moment, I’m going to ask you to start counting backwards from 100. Just do that mentally to yourself. You don’t have to say it out loud.

The hypnosis starts with a few different relaxation techniques. I won’t play you all of them because, Number 1, I don’t want to actually hypnotize you on your way to work, although I totally could — and Number 2, it would take too long.

When I listened through to this tape the first time I actually found Patton’s voice to be pretty soothing.

Victor Patton: Michael, if you would imagine, that there’s a single grain of sand resting on the very top of your head. As it spreads slowly across the top of your head, and it leaves you with almost the feeling of a warm hug from a loved one.

It’s hard to see how we’re going to get from this feeling of a warm hug to questions about a violent abduction.

Victor Patton: Three, two…just completely letting go…one, zero.

Now that Harden is in this altered state, Patton asks him to describe the face of the man who took Bobbie Sue Hill again. It’s really hard to make out Harden’s side of the conversation — he’s basically mumbling — but again he recalls the man’s face.

Patton gets Harden to freeze that image in his head — hold it there forever so he never forgets.

Then he brings him out of hypnosis. After it’s over, they bring in an artist to draw a new sketch, based on this new description.

Although Harden’s basic story has remained the same, his description of the face has changed a lot between 2005 and 2014.

In 2005, the sketch shows a man with a wide, boxy face, prominent eyebrows, and a dark mustache. To me, he looks like he could be Latino.

But in 2014, it’s a thin pale face. The mustache has almost disappeared. And he’s gained a pair of glasses.

The van that the abductor was driving has also transformed. In 2005, it’s a minivan with lots of windows. But in 2014, it’s a big work van, with almost no windows.

So, a totally different face, a new pair of glasses and disappearing windows.

Holland releases the sketch and a description of the van to the media. An appeal for information goes out to the public.

Pretty quickly, Holland gets a bite.

Gene Burks: I’m Gene Burks. I live in Weatherford, Texas. I’ve lived in Weatherford now for about 25 years, and, I’m in the pawn shop business.

Weatherford has about 30,000 people. The usual stores and churches, all organized around a big, pretty square with an ornate courthouse. And then, down the road, is the pawn shop that Gene Burks owns.

Weatherford is also home to Tim Dawson. [And] as I mentioned before, but perhaps more significantly, the Parker County Sheriff's Office, which features a lot in this story.

Many small Texas communities, like this one, still have a local newspaper.

Gene Burks: We used to get the Weatherford Democrat newspaper delivered to my shop.

Gene Burks: I will say this, it's not the greatest paper in the world. Never was. My wife and I would take turns on who could find the first misspelled word. It’s usually on the first page.

It was back in 2015, that a copy of the Weatherford Democrat was sitting on the counter in Burks’ store.

Gene Burks: On the front page of the paper, there was a sketch of a man and I looked at it and I thought, That fella looks familiar.

This is the sketch of the abductor’s face, described by Michael Harden after hypnosis.

Gene Burks: During the day, a couple times I'd look over and I’d think, Who in the heck does that person look like?

Eventually it hit him.

Gene Burks: Just about before closing time. It dawned on me that the guy looked like Larry Driskill.

Remember that in addition to working for the county, Driskill was also the handyman for this local family, the Bradfords. Turns out Gene Burks used to live right next door.

Gene Burks: I just knew him as a doing handyman work for my neighbor.

Burks said Driskill also used to come into the pawn shop sometimes. So he showed the sketch to his wife.

Gene Burks: She's a cancer nurse and she sees lots and lots of people, and so she doesn't recognize anybody. And so I asked her, I said, “Does this look like Larry Driskill?” And she said, “Well, I don’t know.”

But Burks just couldn’t get it out of his head. Pawn shops keep customers’ addresses, so he looked up where Driskill lived.

Gene Burks: In the paper, it gave a description or told where they had found that girl.

Then he went to Google Earth. He decided to trace the distance between Driskill’s home and the spot where Bobbie Sue Hill’s body was found.

Gene Burks: It was 3,050 feet. And with it being that close, and it looking to me like Larry Driskill, that’s what prompted me to call.

Turns out there were two phone numbers listed in the newspaper along with the sketch.

Gene Burks: I didn't want the guys down at the sheriff's department to say, “Well, it’s that nutty ass pawn shop guy calling down here.” And so I never did know who Mr. Holland was or anything like that. And so that’s when I called and left a message on his voicemail.

Holland calls back and Burks tells him a couple things: The sketch resembles this guy Larry Driskill, and also, he’s pretty sure Driskill’s house isn’t far from where the victim’s body was found.

A few days later, Burks was laying in bed.

Gene Burks: And I had the Channel 5 news on and, they said it on the news, and I jumped up out of bed and ran to the kitchen and I told my wife, “Come in here. You gotta watch this.” And so she came back in there and we rewound the news, and it said that they had arrested him.

Gene Burks: Holy shit.

So that was the sequence of events that led Holland to Driskill. On their first day together in the interrogation room, Holland shows Driskill the sketch from the newspaper. Driskill doesn’t know about how this sketch came to be. He doesn’t know about the hypnosis of Bobbie Sue Hill’s boyfriend or his acquaintance at the pawn shop calling his name in. But he’s pretty sure of one thing:

Larry Driskill: I can tell you right now. That ain’t me.

Holland is convinced that Driskill is lying. He sees circumstantial evidence stacking up: the sketch, the fact Driskill drove a van, and the proximity of his house to where the body was found. Plus Holland is just really good at solving cases, so he has reason to trust his intuition.

But now he needs proof, and what better proof than a confession?

Next time, on “Just Say You’re Sorry.”

James Holland: No one in this room is trying to screw you over. No one is trying to fuck with you. But I told you yesterday, I thought you did it. I know today that you did.

We enter the Parker County Sheriff's office for Day 2 of Texas Ranger James Holland’s interrogation, when Larry Driskill’s life changes forever.

CREDITS

“Smoke Screen: Just Say You’re Sorry,” is a production of Somethin’ Else, The Marshall Project and Sony Music Entertainment. It’s written and hosted by me, Maurice Chammah. The senior producer is Tom Fuller, the producer is Georgia Mills, Peggy Sutton is the story editor, Dave Anderson is the executive producer and editor and Cheeka Eyers is the development producer. Akiba Solomon and I are the executive producers for The Marshall Project where Susan Chira is editor-in-chief. The production manager is Ike Egbetola, and fact checking is by Natsumi Ajisaka. Graham Reynolds composed the original music and Charlie Brandon King is the mixer and sound designer. The studio engineers are Josh Gibbs, Gulliver Lawrence Tickell, Jay Beale and Teddy Riley, with additional recording by Ryan Katz.


This series drew in part on my 2022 article for The Marshall Project, “Anatomy of a Murder Confession.” With thanks to Jez Nelson, Ruth Baldwin and Susan Chira.

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Maurice Chammah Twitter Email is a staff writer whose book, “Let the Lord Sort Them: The Rise and Fall of the Death Penalty”, won the 2019 J. Anthony Lukas Work-In-Progress Book Award. A former Fulbright and H.F. Guggenheim fellow, he has reported on a range of criminal justice subjects, including jail conditions, sheriffs, wrongful convictions, and art by incarcerated people.