Second Trial Starting for Infamous Texas KFC Murders

When Darnell Hartsfield saw the inside of a Texas prison cell for the first time in 1984, it was for an aggravated robbery he committed the previous year.

But prosecutors contend the Tyler man was involved in a far more heinous crime just three days before his arrest for that September 1983 robbery.

Hartsfield, 47, goes on trial this week for his part in one of Texas' oldest unresolved mass murder cases — the slayings a quarter-century ago of five people abducted during a robbery at a Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant in East Texas.

Prospective jurors were to gather Monday at the Brazos County Courthouse in Bryan, where Hartsfield faces trial on five capital murder charges.

Hartsfield's cousin and co-defendant, Romeo Pinkerton, took a plea deal midway through his capital murder trial last year, avoiding a possible death sentence by accepting five life prison terms.

Hartsfield apparently is not negotiating a plea, said State District Judge J. Clay Gossett.

Pinkerton's deal did not compel him to testify against Hartsfield.

The five victims were found dead along an oilfield road about 15 miles from the KFC restaurant in Kilgore where they were abducted during a holdup the previous night, Sept. 23, 1983.

Killed were David Maxwell, 20; Mary Tyler, 37; Opie Ann Hughes, 39; Joey Johnson, 20; and Monte Landers, 19. All but Landers worked at the restaurant.

At Pinkerton's trial, lead prosecutor Lisa Tanner disclosed for the first time that DNA evidence confirmed that a third person was involved and that one of the victims was raped.

Tanner said Pinkerton hinted in a secretly recorded conversation with a fellow prison inmate that he knew of that third person. He hasn't identified him, she said.

The Texas Attorney General's Office announced in December that KFC Corp. had reinstated a $25,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the third person. The restaurant company had issued a similar reward after the slayings but the reward never was claimed.

The attorney general's office has declined to say whether the renewed reward offer has generated tips, citing the continuing investigation and the judge's order barring everyone involved in the case from talking about it outside the courtroom.

Without elaborating, prosecutors said earlier this year they would not seek the death penalty for Hartsfield, who since 1995 had been serving a 40-year sentence for drug dealing. Hartsfield was convicted three years ago of perjury in a KFC-related case and given a life sentence.

Pinkerton had been to prison at least five times and had been out of prison just two days when the crime occurred.

DNA technology not available until recently showed Pinkerton's blood was found on a napkin at the scene. Hartsfield's blood was found on a box of cash register tapes.

Pinkerton's lawyers challenged the evidence at his trial, eliciting testimony that showed the crime scene had been contaminated and evidence gathering 25 years ago wasn't as sophisticated as it is today. The few crime scene photos that weren't ruined during faulty processing don't show the napkin or box of register tapes, and testimony from investigators described a crime scene that had been left unprotected and trampled before detectives could preserve it.

A retired Texas Ranger testified at Pinkerton's trial he saw the box and the napkin but didn't collect either. A former FBI agent hired as a special investigator in the long-stalled case found the items among evidence that had been kept. The retired agent, George Kieny, subjected them to DNA testing and those results ultimately led to the arrests of Pinkerton and Hartsfield.