AUSTIN, Texas — Passions are running high as Rodney Reed faces an execution date in Texas on Nov. 20. A jury found him guilty of the rape and murder of a young woman named Stacey Stites. She died in 1996.
Still on death row, Reed’s case has drawn international attention, with calls for a for a stay of execution and for a new trial as many of his supporters say he was wrongly condemned to death. Still, appellate courts have upheld his conviction.
In our four-part podcast series, we’ll examine the case and hear from people on different sides of the question – did Reed kill Stacey Stites or did someone else?
We will draw no conclusions on our own; our job is to report the story as clearly as we can and hear from the people who are most directly involved in the case.
Bastrop County, Texas, is an anomaly, a county that’s held to its rural roots despite being only about 30 miles from the bustle of the state capital city, Austin.
Famous for the pine tree forests, the location is photogenic – the Internet Movie Database lists more than 100 movies filmed there over the years, from indies to blockbusters.
Almost everyone shops at the big H-E-B grocery store. And it’s here that this story begins.
It’s early in the morning on April 23, 1996, when 19-year-old Stites fails to show up for her job in the produce department. She's a punctual worker who chose to work the early, early morning shift for extra pay to help cover the cost of her wedding. She’s going to marry a police officer from a nearby town. His name is Jimmy Fennell. They share an apartment together, and on that morning she is to drive Fennell’s red pickup truck to work, leaving the house around 3:30 a.m.
Two hours later, Stites still has not shown up for her job, but Fennell’s red pickup truck is found abandoned in the local high school parking lot.
Stites is missing.
Then, the news the family dreaded at mid-afternoon – someone picking flowers off a highway in the pine forest finds her body. She was partially clothed and appeared to have been strangled with her own belt. Later, DNA from an unknown male was found in her body.
The rest of the story would play out over several decades – the suspects, the trials and the death sentence. We’ll get to all of that in this series, but in this episode it's time to step back and learn more about the young woman found in the forest.
Her sister, Debra Oliver, spoke with KVUE TV reporter Kris Betts.
Oliver: “So growing up we were definitely the closest of the sisters. We were the ones that fought because she borrowed my shirt, ruined it and that kind of thing. We shared a room. But after I graduated, they moved to Smithville. Stacey was the athletic one and I was the smart one. She always played basketball and volleyball and was into sports. She participated in ROTC. So we were both always very active. I was more of the student council and she was more of the sports. My favorite memory at this point is, right before she was killed, she came up in February and it was just the two of us. I was already married, but my husband left for the night so we could hang out. And we just hung out and did what sisters do and talked, watched movies and were just together. So, that’s probably my favorite memory at this point. My last conversation with her before she was killed was that she was getting married. I was the maid of honor and she called to let me know that the appointments were made, and we were getting our nails and hair done. I just found shoes and it was a horrible forest green dress, which I’m sure was going to look lovely, but I found shoes to match it. So, we were kind of finalizing all the details of her wedding.”
Betts: “What was it like when she met Jimmy, what would she tell you about Jimmy?”
Oliver: “She really liked Jimmy a lot. She was in ROTC so she was very much drawn to that idea. They met at the Smithville jamboree – whatever those small-town festivals are. He was working security and that’s how they met, and you know, they just clicked.”
Betts: “How is your mom doing now?”
Oliver: “She doesn’t do well with this at all. It definitely takes a toll on her. She is very frustrated with the fact that Stacey has gotten lost in all of the story. Stacey doesn’t have a voice and the only way to have a voice is to do these interviews, which is heart-wrenching. It’s a horrible traumatic experience, so let’s relive it over and over and over again, so it’s really, really tough to do these.”
Betts: “And your mom and Stacey were pretty close?”
Oliver: “My mom and Stacey were definitely very close. They were probably the closest of all the sisters. Absolutely, she was the baby.”
Law officers began interviewing suspects and taking DNA samples from virtually everyone who knew Stacey, even causal friends and acquaintances. But it was her fiancé, Jimmy Fennell, who would become the prime suspect.
Oliver: “So did we suspect him? Well of course, you always suspect them, but it never added up. How did he get back to Giddings? What was the motive? It never added up. We came up and visited him afterwards, and it just never quite made sense. Quite honestly, at the end of the year, I really thought it was going to be a cold case, I did. I didn’t think they were ever going to find anyone. They tested everyone and anyone who had remotely had contact with her at any point, I mean hundreds. They exhausted it. Everyone keeps saying this was a small town. No, it wasn’t a small-town investigation this was the Texas Rangers, Texas attorney general. They completely took over and investigated this and it was exhaustive. When all of this happened, Jimmy was the person I was most drawn to. You know, we were the ones who sat in the corner and held each other’s hand and cried. I don’t know if a lot of people know that we buried her in her wedding dress and we put the ring on her finger. It was just his parents and I there to see that.”
Fennell would go on to fail two polygraph tests, but the DNA found on Stacey didn’t match his, and he was exonerated.
But in the minds of those who know and support Reed, suspicions about Fennell’s involvement in Stacey’s death have never gone away.
The case goes cold for about a year, then a new suspect emerges: Reed.
But how was Reed tied to Stacey’s murder?
In Episode 2, we hear from a woman who says Reed attacked her just months after the murder of Stites – Linda Schlueter.
Schlueter: “The next thing I know he has me by the back of my hair slamming my face in the steering wheel. I punch him backwards and I open the door. I screamed so loud I peed my pants.”
One woman’s ordeal that took the case in a new direction. That’s on our next episode of Texas Crime Files – Rodney Reed, which will be released on Wednesday Nov. 6.
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