A woman, who became an amateur sleuth in a bid to uncover the mystery of her best friend’s horrific death, has told of how her determination finally cracked the case, 23 years later.
Sheila Wysocki, 55, met Angela Samota – who went by the name Angie – at university in Dallas, Texas in 1982.
The roomates had different personalities – with Sheila cautious and ‘stand-offish’ at times and Angie ‘bubbly and beautiful’ – but the pair quickly became friends.
‘It turned out we kind of complemented each other... our family dynamics were pretty much the same. I didn’t have a father and she didn’t have a father and so that brought us together,’ Sheila explains.
But then came the tragedy that meant the friends would never see each other again.
Aged, 22, Sheila was about to head off to a college football game when she received a phone call from another student.
Angie was dead.
On October 12, 1984, the then 20-year-old had been raped and murdered in the home she lived in off-campus. The vivacious young woman had been brutally stabbed 18 times.
Reports revealed she was found lying naked and covered in blood on her bed, next to her giant stuffed rabbit.
Her legs were dangling over the side. Her eyes were still open when she was found.
An officer at the scene later said she was haunted by the memory of those blue eyes.
‘From that day to this one, I could close my eyes and see Angela,’ the officer said.
Sheila was devastated by the death, dropping out of college, retreating to the safety of her family home.
‘The murder happened and my entire life and security crumbled,’ she recalls.
‘I became fearful... You didn’t know if it was her boyfriend.
You didn’t know if it was an acquaintance that we all ran around with. So going out was off the table. I dropped out of college, I moved back home and I was done.’
Police had three suspects in the case. Angie’s boyfriend, an old ex from her hometown of Abilene, and another friend, Russell Buchanan, who had been at a bar with Angie and a mate the night she died.
DNA science was in its earliest stages at the time of the murder, but police were able to collect blood and semen samples from Angie’s body.
The blood type excluded the boyfriend and the ex from the scene of the crime – but Russell was a match. While he passed a lie-detector test about the night in question, Sheila was asked by the police to take him to dinner in a bid to gather evidence.
She agreed and went there wearing a wire, as undercover officers sat at tables nearby.
‘I thought I was having dinner with a murderer,’ Sheila recalls. ‘I wasn’t brave, I was just doing what I thought was right.’
But nothing incriminating came from that meeting – and just six weeks after Angie’s murder, the case went cold.
Sheila tried to move on. She moved to a new town, fell in love and started a family – but she never forgot the horror that had befallen her friend.
Watching the OJ Simpson trial on TV, Sheila learned about how DNA technology was being used to crack cases.
‘I was pregnant with my second child and I remember sitting in bed and watching the trial thinking, “Oh, so there’s this thing called DNA,”’ Sheila says. ‘I thought, “Well, we got a little hope here.” I knew we had semen. I knew we had fingernails and I knew that we had a blood type.’
Sheila tried reaching out to an organisation that tackled cold cases but since she wasn’t in the police, they wouldn’t work with her. It wasn’t until 2004, that a vision of her friend prompted her to try again.
‘I was lying down reading my book, when all of a sudden I saw Angie exactly the way I saw her the very first time I ever met her, walking down the hall, the same vibrant face,’ Sheila explains.
‘The very first thing I did was pick up the phone because I knew it was time. One of the relationship things that Angie and I had was she would call me when something happened.’
Sheila made hundreds of calls to the police to try and persuade them to reopen the case.
‘I’m a little obsessive when people don’t return a phone call. I’m the type where if you don’t return a call, I’m going to start calling even more,’ Sheila admits.
‘I started calling more and more and more. And I kept getting blown off each time.’
That’s when she made a decision – to become a qualified private investigator herself in order to be taken more seriously by the police.
She qualified in 2005 and the following year her persistence finally paid off.
Dallas police tasked detective Linda Crumb with reopening the files, and sending off the DNA found at the scene for analysis.
A backlog in the system meant the results took two years to come through, which ruled out any of the previous suspects.
But then they discovered a match. Donald Andrew Bess, a convicted rapist serving a life sentence at Huntsville Prison in Texas.
Sheila was shocked.
‘I could feel my world turning upside down. For 23 years, in my mind, Russell Buchanan was the murderer,’ she later admitted.
‘And in one split-second, everything I thought I knew was no longer correct. I had made it my life goal to get this man behind bars and suddenly I felt so guilty.’
In 2010 Bess was convicted of Angie’s murder and sentenced to death. An appeal against the death penalty was unsuccessful and he remains on death row.
While Sheila struggles to feel a sense of ‘closure’ as her friend is still gone, she set up her own detective agency in 2011 and has helped many others chasing justice for their loved ones.
‘No families should go through nightmares trying to do the right thing,’ she says.