Elroy Chester, who terrorized Port Arthur during a crime spree that included multiple rapes, burglaries shootings and at least five murders, was executed at the state prison in Huntsville on Wednesday, June 12.
Chester paid the ultimate price for a rampage that began shortly after he was paroled from a Texas prison in 1997 and culminated in the 1998 murder of Port Arthur firefighter Willie Ryman III. Chester killed the firefighter when Ryman came to the rescue of his two nieces while Chester was raping the teen girls in their home.
According to criminal records at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, “While in police custody, Chester confessed to this crime, two other murders, and three attempts to commit capital murder. Chester stated that he committed these offenses because he was out his mind ‘with hate for white people’ due to a disagreement with a white staff member over a disciplinary report during a previous TDCJ incarceration.”
In addition to his confessions, Chester further damaged his cause at trial. Transcripts from the sentencing hearing show that against the advice of his attorney, he decided to testify on his own behalf and launched into a rambling and inflammatory rant wherein he claimed variously that he hadn’t acted alone in committing his many crimes, and that if sentenced to death he would have his “homeboys” on the outside commit additional crimes in his honor, and that he should’ve killed additional victims – including a 10-year-old who had survived his attack, and a police officer who had previously arrested him for burglary. The jury was convinced and decided in a matter of minutes that Chester should die.
A flurry of last-minute appeals to the federal 5th Circuit of Appeals and a “Hail Mary” attempt to the U.S. Supreme Court centered on whether Chester was mentally retarded, but his IQ was measured at 77, exceeding the threshold level a previous court decision had established. Further, “the court found that the specifics of the various crimes to which (Chester) confessed, including the use of masks and gloves, his practice of cutting exterior phone lines before entering homes to burglarize, and his deliberate targeting of victims ... showed persuasively that the applicant was capable of forethought, planning and complex execution of purpose.”
The Supreme Court rejected Chester’s final appeal moments after the scheduled 6 p.m. time, clearing the way for the execution. A contingent of Port Arthur firefighters and others in law enforcement gathered outside the Walls Unit along with a handful of anti-death penalty protesters to await the execution.
Law enforcement officials including District Attorney Tom Maness called Chester’s crimes the worst in Jefferson County history. Port Arthur Police Chief Mark Blanton, who worked the case as a detective, called Chester “sheer evil.”
Among the crimes Chester eventually confessed to committing during this period were the burglary and the homicide of John Henry Sepeda, killed as he awoke in bed while Chester was robbing his home; the murder of Albert Bolden, the killer’s common-law brother-in-law, for setting Chester up on a date with a woman who turned out to be a transvestite; the burglary and homicide of Etta Stallings, also shot to death in her bedroom while Chester robbed her home; and the murder of Cheryl DeLeon, a former co-worker Chester was accused of sexually harassing years before he ambushed her outside her home and shot her in the head.
Tim Smith, a 30-year law enforcement veteran who knew Chester and ultimately heard him confess to his crimes, had been a cop in Port Arthur. He busted Chester when he was a small-time criminal throughout the ’80s.
“I had known him for quite a long time,” said Smith, who added that Chester was always getting busted for breaking into houses.
“He wasn’t very good at it,” Smith said of Chester’s burglary skills, but it was his overall savvy, both on the streets and in his dealings with the police, that separated him from other criminals.
Ironically, the paths of the criminal and the cop would cross again more than a decade later when Chester was being investigated for the Ryman murder and requested to speak with Smith.
“That’s how I got involved, from going down there and talking to him then,” Smith said, adding that when Chester was on trial, his defense team argued that he was mentally retarded and couldn’t be executed for his crimes. Smith never bought it.
“That was an issue his lawyers tried to raise, but he’s not. In fact, he’s very street smart, much more so than say you and I are. He knew when to snitch on people and when he could use that to get out of trouble. He would break into a house, get caught, and then usually fess up to it or tell on someone else.”
Smith, now the chief investigator for the district attorney’s office, said he never thought Chester would turn into the cold, callous, murderous tyrant he became.
“I always knew him as a thief and a burglar, but I never knew him to be violent … before all this.”
Smith said between the timing of the event and the heinous nature of the crimes, it was a very surreal moment in time in Jefferson County.
“This happened around the same time as James Byrd, so you heard nothing of this Chester case nationally,” Smith said, “But this was so bizarre; he pled guilty to all these crimes and testified. He threatened to kill people while he was on the stand. He threatened to kill me in open court… he’s just mean, and he’s bitter at the world.”
That bitterness ended at 7:04 p.m. on June 12 when Elroy Chester was pronounced dead.
James Shannon can be reached at (409) 832-1400, ext. 249, or by e-mail at james [at] beaumontbusinessjournal [dot] com.
Jennifer Johnson and Fred Davis contributed to this report