Murder in the Lost Pines

The Rodney Reed Case

Nearly 20 years ago, police found the body of bride-to-be Stacey Stites dumped alongside a rural road north of Bastrop. Investigators cleared more than 20 suspects over the course of nearly a year as they searched for the killer. A chance DNA link between a Bastrop man named Rodney Reed, now 47 years old, and the victim would ultimately break the case and lead to a conviction.

But Rodney’s death sentence has brought little closure to those involved with the case. Rather, it set off an 18-year legal tug-of-war. The court battle waged by his defense has brought with it a slow drip of new evidence—leading many to question the inmate’s guilt and pushing an appellate court to postpone his execution earlier this year.

In a death-row interview, Rodney told KXAN he is optimistic the new evidence could push the state to grant him a new trial.

“They are trying to kill me for something I did not do,” Rodney said.

The convicted: Rodney Reed

Just down the road from the Bastrop County Courthouse, the tin-paneled roof is rusting over on the Reed family home these days. An empty rocking chair and barbecue pit sit beside the house. The front lawn is trimmed but cluttered with the odds and ends from the large, multigenerational, black family.

Most noticeably, a banner strapped across the front porch for the past 17 years reads, “Innocent Man on Death Row. Free Rodney Reed.” Rodney didn’t grow up here, his younger brother Rodrick said. They are among six brothers raised as military brats, moving throughout the country in their youth. For a period, the family settled in Wichita Falls where Rodney and Rodrick attended high school.

But despite all the shuffling, the Reeds still returned in the summer to the small Central Texas town where their grandparents planted roots.

“Bastrop is our home,” Rodrick said. “Life was pretty good back in mid-90s for us. Everything was going fine. Just a normal, average life, you know, working, spending time with each other, helping one another.”

Rodney was a subpar student, according to high school transcripts, but he excelled in athletics, boxing above all. He won the Texas Golden Gloves title multiple times and was invited to the 1988 Olympic trials, Rodrick said.

Rodney was a lady’s man, too.

“He had his girlfriends,” Rodrick said. “He always had quite a few women. He always had a way with women.”

Rodney told police he had several girlfriends in mid-1996, and a 19-year-old named Stacey Stites was one of them.

Rodney, who was 28 at the time of Stacey’s death, would tell police he first met her at a game room in the back of a Bastrop Diamond Shamrock station. He said they would go on to meet several more times. Sometimes they rendezvoused at a Bastrop State Park gazebo, other times at their mother’s house, he added.

Rodney said Stacey would sometimes call him on a pay phone at Long’s Market, a convenience store in downtown Bastrop. Police would note Rodney often walked the streets late at night around the convenience store, a point the prosecution would later use against him.

The last time Rodney claims he saw Stacey was early the morning of April 22. The two had sex, he said. One day later, authorities would find Stacey dead.

The Fiancé: Jimmy Fennel

One of Stacey’s sisters and her mother have never believed Rodney’s account. They say they knew Stacey, and she was deeply in love with her fiancé, Jimmy Fennell.

Fennell was born far from Bastrop in the remote West Texas town of Hale Center, high on the barren Llano Estacado.

In 1995, he met Stacey, about four years his junior, at the Smithville Jamboree, a small-town fair with bands and funnel cake and parade floats.

By the time Stacey graduated from Smithville High School, the couple was dating steadily and would soon live together.

Stacey’s mother, Carol Stites, described Fennell as a “nice guy,” who was in love with her daughter and distraught after she was killed.

By many measures, they had an average, middle-class life together in their red brick Giddings apartment. Fennell, a stocky cop with close-cropped hair and a thin moustache, coached a local little-league team. Stacey had a job at a grocery store in the neighboring town of Bastrop.

Stacey’s mother Carol Stites lived in the unit just beneath the couple. The three often gathered in Carol’s apartment, and Fennell would tell them about his day after work.

“Jimmy was a cop,” Carol said. “And, as I understand it, that was all he ever wanted to be was a policeman.”

Fennell was 23. He had moved up from a position as a Bastrop County jailer to a rookie police officer in Giddings.

On the afternoon of April 22, 1996, Fennell snacked on a leftover meatloaf sandwich in Carol’s apartment after work. Stacey and her mother were busy preparing for the upcoming wedding. It was a stressful but happy time, Carol recalled.

Stacey and Fennell were outside after dinner horsing around. Stacey was laughing and running up the stairs to her apartment around dusk, Carol said.

That would be the last time Carol would ever hear her daughter’s voice.

Fennell later told police he showered with Stacey, and she went to bed at about 8:30 p.m.

Fennell stayed up watching television – a show about lightning and storms on the Discovery Channel, he said. Meanwhile, Carol was one floor below watching a British mystery program she enjoyed.

Fennell said he fell asleep and didn’t wake up when his fiancee left for work in his maroon 1995 Chevrolet S-10 pickup truck early on the morning of April 23, the day Stacey was killed.

The Bride-to-be: Stacey Stites

Stacey was vivacious, beautiful and friendly, according to her sister, Crystal Dobbs. She had bright blue eyes, loved athletics and played basketball at Smithville High School. She had graduated just the year before.

Stacey had spent many of her younger years in the coastal town of Corpus Christi. In the Bastrop area, she worked at an H-E-B grocery store.

In mid-April, wedding preparations were taking up most of her off time, Dobbs said.

“She was going to be the first sister to do the full-blown wedding, and she wanted it to be perfect,” she added.

Stacey had taken a job in the produce department of a Bastrop H-E-B to help pay for the event.

“Stacey worked her little rear-end off trying to make enough money to get married,” her mother said. “Fifty cents an hour more so that she could pay off her wedding dress and her jewelry she had in layaway.”

At her funeral, Stacey would be buried in the wedding dress she worked so hard to afford.

Stacey would wake up at 2:45 a.m. to get to work on time 45 minutes later. Under cover of darkness, Stacey’s commute from Giddings snaked nearly 30 miles through the Lost Pines forest along Hwy. 290 and SH 21.

The trip, Fennell would tell police, worried her. She’d skip breakfast and drive to work with a glass of water in the car, so she wouldn’t have to stop along the route.

But on the morning of April 23, Stacey never arrived for her shift. By about 5 a.m. a manager contacted Carol and let her know Stacey hadn’t shown up.

Through the phone, the manager heard Carol yell out for Fennell. She then called the police.

The search for a killer

The sun had yet to rise, when Bastrop Police Officer Paul Alexander, making his usual patrol rounds, canvassed the Bastrop High School parking lot. As he scanned the area, he spotted a maroon Chevy pickup truck parked behind the vocational building.

The truck’s presence in the lot at about 5:20 a.m. was unusual enough for Alexander to approach it. He ran the license plate number and found it belonged to Fennell. It wasn’t reported stolen and didn’t appear as if someone had broken into it.

Alexander noticed a half-foot piece of a dark woven belt lying on the ground outside the vehicle, according to a police report.

Police fanned out across the town and around Lake Bastrop. A Department of Public Safety helicopter was hovering overhead by 2:15 that afternoon.

But by 3 p.m., the Bastrop police chief radioed the helicopter and told it to land. A passing motorist picking wildflowers had spotted a body on a rural route off FM 1441.

Stacey lay a few yards from the gravel road, face up on the pine straw beneath the looming loblolly pines. Her shirt was removed. Her work pants were pulled up, but the zipper broken. Her face, right arm and right shoulder had a bluish tint. Ligature marks striped her neck, and her H-E-B nametag rested in the crook of her knee.

The police report shows Fennell, accompanied by police officers Ed Salmela and Curtis Davis, later inspected his truck. They found “viscous body fluid” on the transmission hump, an earing and one of Stacey’s tennis shoes, among other articles.

Davis told KXAN he accompanied Fennell as a friend not in an official capacity.

Near Stacey’s body was the other end of the belt found that morning next to Fennell’s truck. Police soon learned it was the item used to strangle her to death. They also determined Fennell’s truck was used in the murder.

For a time, investigators considered him the prime suspect. According to police notes from the investigation, the couple’s apartment was the last place Stacey was seen, and Fennell was the last person to see her.

But what would motivate the newly-minted Giddings police officer—seemingly in love—to murder his fiancé?

Authorities tried to answer that question for months, but they never settled on Fennell. Texas Ranger Rocky Wardlow, the lead investigator in the case, examined the mileage logs of every Giddings police vehicle and local taxi records, but he couldn’t find any evidence of Fennell driving back and forth from Giddings to Bastrop the night of the murder. The lack of logistics was a key part of why authorities ruled Fennell out as a suspect, according to court documents.

In addition to Wardlow, John Barton with the Bastrop County Sheriff’s Office and David Board with the Bastrop Police Department helped lead the investigation.

Board declined to comment on the case beyond saying that his investigation reports should speak for themselves. Wardlow also declined to discuss the case, and Barton could not be reached for comment.

Investigators didn’t turn their focus to Rodney, until almost a year later when he became a suspect in a separate alleged sexual assault that occurred near Bastrop High School.

The alleged victim picked Rodney out of a six-picture photographic lineup as her attacker. Police then tested his DNA, which was previously obtained from a bed sheet in a separate alleged sexual assault that was dropped, according to Rodney’s defense. They got a match… Stacey Stites.

But during questioning, Rodney initially denied ever having seen Stacey beyond what he saw on the news. That denial was a mistake, he would later say in an interview with MSNBC.

Rodney was arrested and charged with aggravated sexual assault and capital murder April 4, 1997.

But investigators didn’t stop there. They ran Rodney’s DNA against several other alleged rape victims in the area, and they got matches.

Accusing Rodney Reed

Since the late 1980s, Rodney has been slapped with several allegations of rape and abuse.

Those allegations were used against him during the punishment phase of his trial. Rodney’s attorneys have said the jury’s exposure to that information likely played a role in his punishment.

“I don’t know how it could not have had an impact on the jury,” said Andrew MacRae, an attorney currently representing Reed.

Carol and Dobbs say the string of allegations is a clear indication Rodney is violent and was capable of killing Stacey.

In the sexual assault case that led police to link Rodney to Stacey’s murder, the woman who picked him out of the photographic lineup alleged he abducted, beat and attempted to sexually assault her.

The woman said she managed to break free. Court records show an indictment against Rodney is pending in Bastrop Court in that case.

Court records also show the mother of some of Rodney’s children filed charges against him in 1991, alleging he beat and raped her. Those charges were dropped weeks later.

In two other cases, Bastrop females were allegedly raped and beaten, but they were never able to identify their attacker. One alleges she was dragged beneath a Bastrop railroad bridge and raped. The other victim was 12 years old.

Rodney’s DNA matched the DNA found in those victims, and indictments against Rodney are pending for both cases in Bastrop County.

Rodney hasn’t been convicted of any sexual assault, other than Stacey’s. He has not been tried in most of the cases.

Rodrick decries the inclusion of the evidence and the way it portrayed his brother.

“All of the allegations of rape and all of this other kind of stuff, my brother has never been convicted of any of that and not charged with a lot of it that they talk about,” Rodrick said. “They did a very ugly job, a nasty job, on my brother, trying to character assassinate him.”

Rodrick and other members of his family, including Rodney’s mother and cousin, have said they knew about his secret affair with Stacey.

Rodrick says the affair was hardly secret at all. He says he even caught Rodney and Stacey together at their parent’s house.

So why didn’t the defense, using the many witnesses that allegedly existed, hammer home the point that Rodney and Stacey were in a relationship?

Flimsy defense

At the outset of the trial, Rodney’s defense team enlisted the help of a private investigator named Duane Olney and his wife, Pat.

The Olneys said they were tasked with digging up evidence for the defense, but right from the start they ran into trouble. The defense needed witnesses to prove there was a relationship between Rodney and Stacey, but the witnesses weren’t talking.

“People were afraid to come forward,” Olney said. “They were afraid of the police there. The whole law enforcement bunch up there were protecting a fellow officer.”

In one instance, Olney said he found a woman who claimed she knew about the relationship, and she was willing to testify about it. The next day, Olney said he showed up at the woman’s workplace with a subpoena, and she slammed the door so quickly it almost smashed his fingers in the frame.

Every time Olney pulled into Bastrop to work on the investigation, he picked up a tail, he said.

Lydia Clay-Jackson, one of Rodney’s trial attorneys, said she felt both an air of oppression and underlying racism in the town. The concept of a relationship between a black man and a white woman was taboo in Bastrop at that time, she said.

Olney and Clay-Jackson offered mostly anecdotal accounts of racism and intimidation. Bastrop, like that of many Texas towns, has some history of racism, but there are few records of hate crimes or hate groups existing there.

Clay-Jackson said one witness that testified was tainted by intimidation from a person claiming to be with law enforcement. On the stand, the witness “waffled” and gave unconvincing testimony.

“I think she was trying to give us something and trying to protect herself at the same time,” Clay-Jackson said. “We were able to interview people, but they were not willing to come and testify.”

The defense simply didn’t have enough time to prepare, said Bryce Benjet, an attorney with The Innocence Project, who has worked on Reed’s defense for about 13 years.

On paper, the defense had about a year to prepare, but by the time Rodney’s trial rolled around, far less than a year’s worth of work had been done, Benjet said.

After Rodney was arrested, his family went through a handful of attorneys but saw little progress on the case, Benjet said.

As 1998 rolled around, the defense brought on Clay-Jackson.

She and her co-counsel soon asked for a continuance. The judge, Harold Towslee, denied it. Clay-Jackson said the judge offered to pay for experts and additional investigators, but he wouldn’t budge on the start date for the trial.

All told, “no real work on the case—on Rodney’s behalf—was really done until the middle of January, and they started picking the jury two months later,” Benjet said.

All of these issues and many more have been included in the defense’s numerous applications for relief since the initial trial. They have all been denied by state and federal courts due to a lack of evidence, being procedurally defaulted and many other reasons cited in legal briefs.

There is also a legal argument that the defense was stuck in a “Catch-22,” as it tried to prove Rodney was in a consensual relationship with Stacey. The defense needed to prove the relationship existed to explain the DNA, but if the defense claimed a consensual relationship occurred, it could open the door for the prosecution to counter, says one legal expert.

Commenting generally on courtroom procedure, Mindy Montford, an Austin defense attorney and former prosecutor, said the defense in a sexual assault case has to be very careful if it wants to try to prove a sexual encounter was consensual.

“For example, if the defense is raising the issue that this is a consensual sexual act or conduct then the state might be allowed to bring in evidence that the defendant has committed other acts of sexual assault to rebut the defense’s theory that this was consensual,” Montford said.

Benjet said the argument came up after Rodney’s conviction but that it lacks merit. The defense did speak about such a relationship between Rodney and Stacey at the outset of the trial, but the prosecution didn’t use the outside allegations of rape during the guilt-innocence phase.

However, the prosecution was allowed to bring up rape and abuse allegations against Rodney during the punishment phase of the trial.

A juror who spoke with KXAN said those allegations provided further confirmation that Reed was dangerous.

Disgusting and disturbing

“It was a nightmare of a trial,” said the juror.

In all, the jury endured about six weeks of gut-wrenching testimony and graphic imagery before sentencing Reed.

Perhaps the most compelling evidence presented at the trial, the juror said, was forensic evidence found by Travis County Chief Medical Examiner Roberto Bayardo.

In particular, the juror said it was Bayardo’s finding that Stacey was sodomized at the time of her death that provided a more solid foundation for a guilty verdict.

“It is very disgusting and disturbing, but it is a fact that that is why he got convicted,” the juror said regarding the DNA evidence and findings of sodomy at the trial.

Rodney’s DNA figured prominently in the state’s case against Rodney. At closing arguments, Assistant Attorney General Lisa Tanner described it as the “smoking gun.”

With the DNA, coupled with the flimsy evidence of a relationship, the prosecution hammered the defense.

Tanner, citing Bayardo’s findings, told the jury that Stacey was dead within an hour of 3 a.m. Considering evidence from the investigation, that would make it logistically impossible for Fennell to have committed the crime, she argued.

In closing arguments, Tanner pointed the finger at Rodney, using everything from DNA evidence, to the position of the driver’s seat in Fennell’s truck, to Rodney’s habit of walking Bastrop streets late at night near his home.

The evidence was a “Cinderella slipper,” and Rodney was the only person it fit, Tanner said.

How could it be possible, Tanner asked jury, for the defense to say in its opening statement that it would prove a relationship between Rodney and Stacey existed and then fail to deliver, despite speaking with every “boyfriend, every coworker, every friend, every family member?”

“Folks, this secret affair was so secret that Stacey Stites didn’t even know about it,” Tanner continued. “That’s how secret it was, because it didn’t exist.”

The jury returned a guilty verdict and death sentence May 18, 1998.

The juror who spoke with KXAN is still confident in the decision.

Tanner declined to comment for this story. Two prosecutors currently handling the Reed case for the state, Bastrop County District Attorney Bryan Goertz and Assistant Attorney General Matt Ottoway, also declined to comment.

Life on death row

Rodney has had nearly 18 years in prison to ponder his case, his family and the outside world. He spends about 23 hours each day locked alone in his cell inside a super-maximum-security prison in the East Texas town of Livingston.

Life is a routine, Rodney told KXAN from behind a reinforced glass panel in prison. “They take you from one cage and place you in another cage,” he said.

Rodney expressed sadness at the recent death of his father, who died in March but saw Rodney’s execution postponed.

Despite being locked up, Rodney says he doesn’t feel out of touch with the outside world because he corresponds with his family and a few women, whom he calls his lady friends and “wildflowers.”

It’s the simple things Rodney said he misses: skipping a stone across water, walking barefoot on grass, looking at the stars.

Latest evidence

Rodney’s defense has steadily brought forward new evidence and claims to prove his innocence during his nearly 18 years of incarceration. Benjet says there are holes in the case that can’t be ignored.

Why did police allow Fennell to retrieve his truck within six days of the murder and then sell it? Why haven’t courts allowed more DNA testing?

Without the truck, the defense couldn’t conduct a necessary investigation. Also, police didn’t search the apartment after Stacey’s body was found, even though it was the last location Stacey was reported seen by any witness.

And court documents show there was a beer can found in the area near the body. Initial testing linked DNA found on the item to two local law enforcement officers, Ed Salmela – who helped Fennell inspect his truck after the murder – and David Hall, who was Fennell’s close friend and neighbor. That evidence was later deemed inconclusive and excluded from the case.

Hall couldn’t be reached for comment. Salmela committed suicide months after the investigation began.

Aside from the DNA evidence linking Rodney to Stites, no other physical evidence – not a single fingerprint or hair in the vehicle – matched Rodney.

The DNA found in Stites and on her chest did match Rodney’s, and those pieces of evidence would be part of a consensual relationship, the defense has argued.

And then there’s another side of Fennell.

The defense has offered evidence that Fennell was a jealous partner with a history of violence and racism. Fennell’s own ex-girlfriend accused him of being racist and short tempered, according to court documents.

When Fennell was administered a polygraph test during the murder investigation, he registered a deceptive response when asked if he killed Stacey, among other questions, but the polygraph evidence was deemed inadmissible during Rodney’s trial.

In a 2009 brief filed in U.S. District Court, Reed’s defense points to police and court records, noting several instances in which Fennell was accused of allegedly sexually assaulting, harassing and stalking women, some of them while they were in his custody.

After the murder, Fennell went on to become a Georgetown police officer and ran afoul of the law himself.

In 2007, Fennell was indicted on four felony charges including aggravated sexual assault, aggravated kidnapping, improper sexual activity with a person in custody and official oppression.

According to a Williamson County Sheriff’s Office affidavit, Fennell responded to a domestic dispute in Georgetown. During the response, Fennell took the woman involved in the disturbance away in his police car. She was allegedly drunk.

The woman later alleged Fennell raped her behind his police car. The woman told Fennell to stop and immediately called 911 after getting dropped off following the incident, according to court documents.

Fennell declined to be interviewed for this story.

Fennell’s attorney, Robert Phillips, said it’s important to note that Fennell was never convicted of rape or sexual assault. A plea agreement was reached, the sexual assault charges were dismissed and Fennell pleaded guilty to kidnapping and improper sexual activity with a person in custody.

Phillips said Fennell expressed remorse to him during the Georgetown trial, and Fennell has vehemently denied any wrongdoing in Stacey’s murder.

“[Fennell] stepped up and took his medicine on the day he was sentenced. It was a difficult thing, it is very difficult for a police officer to agree to go to the penitentiary under any circumstances because of the risk to his life,” Phillips said. “I found that frankly courageous.”

Fennell is serving a 10-year prison sentence in Venus, Texas, ending Sept. 12, 2018, according to Texas Department of Criminal Justice records.

In their habeas application, Reed’s attorneys point to Fennell’s past and prison sentence as evidence of a violent man who could have killed Stacey.

“Any doubt regarding Fennell’s character as a violent sexual predator has since been resolved,” they wrote.

Fennell also maintained a Myspace page that housed pictures of violence and police brutality, according to court documents.

The defense has also rebutted the findings of Bayardo, the medical examiner, with notable forensic pathologists. Bayardo has recanted key points of his findings, according to defense briefs.

Now, Bayardo claims, the prosecution misconstrued his estimation of the time of death, and there isn’t such clear evidence Stacey was raped or that Rodney’s DNA was present to indicate sodomy.

That revelation reminds Rodney of another case he’s followed in newspapers and on the radio in recent years. He cited the Michael Morton case as an example of how the justice system can err and a remedy can be years, if not decades, in the making.

Morton spent 25 years in prison for the murder of his wife in Williamson County before being exonerated with new DNA evidence in 2011.

Rodney’s case shares some parallels with the Morton case. Like Morton, Rodney is seeking additional DNA testing of evidence. Bayardo was also the medical examiner in Morton’s case, and he recanted a portion of his opinion regarding the time of that victim’s death, too.

Unlike the Morton case, Rodney said the investigation of Stacey’s death and his own trial were tainted by racism and corruption in the Bastrop Police Department.

Evidence at the scene of the crime points to Fennell as the killer, Rodney said.

“It just boggles the mind,” Rodney said. “The state’s protocol is to seek justice, not a conviction. Their job is to seek justice.”

Still, Rodney said the American criminal justice system is the “best,” but certain individuals in the system “tweak it for their (own) advantages.”

Stay of execution

Over the years, the defense has submitted more than a half-dozen habeas applications to secure a new trial for Rodney, claiming everything from prosecutorial misconduct to ineffective counsel and Brady violations.

To date, none of the defense’s applications for relief from state or federal courts have been accepted.

The defense’s latest application and evidence prompted the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals to stay Rodney’s execution just 10 days before the lethal injection was set to occur on March 5.

The appeals court is reviewing the new information the defense says “destroys” the state’s case against Rodney.

The new evidence includes opinions from a team of veteran forensic pathologists assembled by the defense.

The experts— Dr. Michael Baden, Dr. Werner Spitz and Dr. LeRoy Riddick—say the DNA evidence in Stites was not necessarily deposited at the time of her death, and it could have been left there days before she died.

The experts’ analysis also calls into question the state’s chronology of the crime.

The state based its case, in part, on a timeline in which Stacey was killed near 3 a.m.

Citing the bluish tint of Stacey’s face, arm and shoulder, the experts say Stacey likely died much earlier. The bluish coloration is called lividity, caused by the pooling of blood at the lowest part of the body after death.

After several hours, lividity becomes “fixed,” meaning the blood has congealed and tinted the skin. Once fixed, lividity won’t change when a body is repositioned.

When Stacey was found, her face, arm and shoulder showed signs of fixed lividity, but they were not the lowest points on her body. The defense’s experts say that could indicate the body was dead for several hours at a different location before being dropped in the woods.

“It is impossible that Stites was murdered and left at the scene in the two-hour time frame asserted by the State at trial,” Spitz said in the brief.

Baden said the lividity demonstrates that Stites was dead before midnight on April 22, when she was allegedly alone with Fennell.

The experts say that the evidence of sodomy could have been caused by a different medical reason and that merely moving the body or contamination by an examiner could have caused DNA to appear as evidence of sodomy.

Two new witnesses have also surfaced.

One of Stacey’s coworkers at H-E-B has said in a sworn affidavit that Stacey told her about the affair. The woman said she ate lunch with Stacey in the store’s break room, and just weeks before the murder, Stacey confided in her.

“She told her that she was sleeping with a black guy named Rodney and that she didn’t know what her fiancé would do if he found out,” according to a sworn affidavit. “She commented that she had to be careful.”

The woman said she never came forward with the information previously, because she didn’t trust Bastrop police. Later, she moved to California and didn’t want to return to Bastrop for anything related to the case. In November, she said she saw that Rodney had an execution date, and she “felt morally compelled” to tell someone about it, according to the court brief.

A man who also worked with Stacey recently said in a sworn affidavit that he saw Rodney and Stacey interact in a “positive, intimate manner.”

Timeline

Enduring pain

The defense’s new evidence hasn’t swayed Carol or Dobbs, Stacey’s mother and sister. They still believe the verdict was correct, and Rodney is the killer.

Both are also unconvinced of any secret affair between Rodney and Stacey.

Dobbs bases her opinion, in part, on her intimate knowledge of Stacey’s life. She was close with her sister. The two spoke on a weekly basis leading up to the wedding.

“If things were not right with them, I would have known it,” Dobbs said, regarding the relationship between Fennell and Stacey. “I questioned her about getting married so young, but she was determined to marry Jimmy.”

Carol also vehemently opposes the notion that her daughter was having an affair with Rodney.

“He is a liar,” Carol said. “Every year it is something else that he and Stacey are supposed to have done together. He’s had 18 years to make this crap up about her.”

And the new witness accounts of the alleged affair are claptrap, particularly those from H-E-B employees, Dobbs said.

There was a major reward from H-E-B available for tips leading to the killer during the investigation, Dobbs said.

“Now they have witnesses saying that they knew that Stacey and Rodney had been together. Do you find it odd that these people did not come forward back then, when there was a $50,000 reward being offered by H-E-B?” Dobbs said. “Supposedly these coworkers must have known there was a reward. But they are coming forward now? I find that very troubling.”

But while Dobbs and Carol firmly believe in Rodney’s guilt, another one of Stacey’s relatives has openly questioned the conviction.

Stacey’s cousin, Heather Stobbs, said she knows that speaking out on behalf of Rodney is “extremely painful” for Stacey’s immediate family, but it would be “horrible to put Rodney Reed to death and then find out that someone else, like Jimmy Fennell, actually killed Stacey.”

Certain facts in the case are too compelling to ignore, Stobbs said. But her involvement with Rodney’s family has put her at odds with Stacey’s mother and sister, who described Stobbs as a distant cousin who had little contact with Stacey during her life.

“The only reason that anyone talks to me or listens to me is because I have a blood relation to the victim,” Stobbs said.

Carol said she’s heard people making a big deal out of Stacey’s fingernails that were cut to the quick at the time of her death. The defense alluded to the possibility that the killer cut her fingernails to avoid DNA detection, a move a police officer like Fennell would know.

Stacey told her mother that she cut her fingernails short to avoid getting “gunk” under them while handling produce, Carol said.

Overall, Carol said she’s fed up with all of the media attention and sympathy for Rodney. Every time she’s reminded of the case, she’s reminded of the tragedy.

Within a seven-year span of Stacey’s murder, Carol lost her husband and son, and she’s disabled. She spends most of her time playing Freecell, chatting on Facebook and sitting with her two dogs at her home in Corpus Christi.

Carol can easily visit Stacey’s grave in that city, where she was buried in the wedding dress she worked so hard to afford.

It leaves Carol with little closure.

Nevertheless, Carol said she tries to move on. Her remaining daughters have done so, becoming successful adults with children of their own.

“People have lives. People have jobs. People have careers,” Carol said. “I’m very upset that my daughter died, but life goes on.”

Rodney’s family, on the other hand, has continued to fight for a man they believe is not a murderer.

Rodney’s brother, Rodrick, said the family was happy about the stay of execution, but the fight isn’t over.

“By no means is this trial over with. This war is not over… until we get him home,” Rodrick said. “And it is truly not over until we get the proper murderer of Stacey Stites to pay for this crime.”