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Person of Interest ED BELL in the First I-45 Murders

Edward Harold Bell, in a Texas prison cell for the cold blooded killing of 28-year old Larry Dickens in 1978, denied a request by The Police News for an interview in connection with the murders of Debbie Ackerman and Maria Johnson in 1971. Police named Bell as a "person of interest" in the killings of the two Galveston girls and a noted criminal profiler says that he saw striking similarities in their murders and the deaths of other area girls. Galveston Police Detective Fred Paige has renewed interest in the case by his vigorous pursuit of developing information that has come to light with the discovery of the Ed Bell connection. Here is what investigators know happened within a five month period that they think they may tie to Bell. June 17, 1971, Colette Wilson, the daughter of an Alvin dentist went missing from a bus stop where she had been dropped off by her school band director. Her nude body was eventually found with a gunshot wound to the skull near the Addicks Reservoir in west Houston. Her body was only 35 yards from where a man looking for buried treasure a few days earlier had stumbled upon the body of 19-year old Gloria Ann Gonzales, a bookkeeper who lived on Jacquelyn Street in Houston. Gonzales was last seen near her home on October 28, 1971, about three weeks before her body was found. She was killed by a blow to her head and she had also been shot. August 4, 1971, Rhonda Johnson and Sharon Shaw, both 14, were last seen by a Galveston resident at 62nd Street and Avenue L. In early 1972 their bodies were recovered from the waters of Taylor Bayou in Jefferson County. November 9, 1971, Allison Craven, 12, vanished from her apartment in the Almeda Mall area of Houston. Her mother said she had left Allison at home alone for about an hour while she ran errands. Friends said that she was poolside for a short time but said she was returning to her apartment because she was cold. Instead she vanished. Three months later human arm and hand bones and some teeth were found in a nearby field. Her skeleton, missing the same bones was found in a field in Pearland. November 15, 1971, Maria Johnson and Debbie Ackerman, both 15, disappeared from near a 4th Street Ice Cream shop at the Port Holiday Mall near the Chateau Lafitte Apartments where Johnson lived. They were talking with two friends who were opening the shop that morning and remarked to the friends that they were going to Houston shopping. As the two friends entered the ice cream shop they notice Ackerman and Johnson talking to someone through the driver’s side window of a white van. Then they ran around to the rear of the van and climbed in. They were found two days later floating in Turner’s Bayou in Texas City. Both were partially disrobed, their hands and feet were bound, they had been raped several times and each had been shot twice in the head. Four years later, September 6, 1974, Georgia Geer, 14, and Brooks Bracewell, 12, had skipped school and were seen hanging around a Dickinson convenience store. They were found in a swampy area near Alvin in Brazoria County. They had been beaten to death. So, why all the sudden interest in Edward Harold Bell? Because Bell was known to be in the area where all of these murders were committed. 1. Bell owned a surf and dive shop in Galveston. 2. It is reported that Ackerman and Johnson visited the shop on occasions. 3. It is also believed that Rhonda Johnson and Sharon Shaw had visited Bell’s shop. 4. The last time Ackerman and Johnson were seen alive, they were getting into a white van. This was reported by friends who knew them personally, not tips from strangers. Bell drove a white van. 5. Bell was known to have a residence in southwest Houston as well as Galveston, within a short drive to Addicks Reservoir where the bodies of Collett Wilson and Gloria Gonzales were discovered. 6. At least four of the victims were shot. We know that Bell would shoot and kill because he did it in Pasadena right out in broad daylight. He was convicted of murder after gunning down 28-year old Larry Dickens who confronted him as he was exposing himself to minor children in front of his home. He shot Dickens with both a .22 caliber pistol and an M-1 Carbine rifle as Dickens mother watched from their home across the street. 7. Police have determined when and where Bell purchased the .22 pistol. It and the M-1 Carbine are still in custody of authorities. 8. About a year before he was arrested for the murder in Pasadena, Bell was arrested on Jones Drive in Galveston in a road rage incident. In that incident he brandished an M-1 Carbine during a confrontation with another motorist. He was arrested for Disorderly Conduct, a misdemeanor. 9. Bell had a propensity for exposing himself to young girls. He had been arrested on several occasion in Galveston on various charges, one in which he exposed himself to two teenage girls in Bacliff. That incident occurred just prior to the disappearance of Bracewell and Geer in Dickinson. Additionally Bell was known to have had several different vehicles during this time period and worked for a Volkswagen dealer in Texas City sometime during 1974. Detective Paige and other investigators understandably are reluctant to explain some details of the case and to elaborate on what new information or evidence they may have developed. Paige did say that “After your last article (The Police News) I received several good leads including one from Equusearch and several from Galveston residents and family members of victims.” The Police News has also been in regular contact with noted Criminal Profiler and Crime Scene Analyst Glenn Owens in Texarkana. Owens is a former civilian criminal investigator for the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Division and has been involved in several nationally publicized, high profile criminal cases. About Bell he said, “This guy obviously was attracted to very young girls 12-13-14 years old and he had fantasies that he had been living with many, many, many years and what he wanted to do with them. It’s all about control. Even in police schools they talk about how these people want to control their victims, so they will tie them up and they may do some minor torture to them or some severe torture to them. Some of them are very sadistic. It’s all about control and fear, and being the master,” Owen continued, “It appears to me that authorities have no idea where Bell was from 1978 to 1992. Yes he was in the hills of Panama for a time and he may have been in Colorado for a time and he may have been on some property he owned in different locations. On the other hand he could have been traveling through the greater Houston area, his old hunting grounds where the young girls are ripe for the killing and he’s familiar with the area. At this point we have NO idea how many young victims may have fallen prey to this potential organized serial killer.” We were disappointed that Bell declined an interview with us. He had been locked up in the Jester IV Unit at Richmond, Texas which is the Psyche Unit. Prisoners there are not allowed interviews with the media. However, as our request was in the process he was moved to The Ellis Unit in Huntsville which is a medical unit. When he arrived there, prison officials presented our request to him which he promptly declined. What would we have asked him had we got the opportunity? Here are a few things which we thought would have been revealing. 1. How did you abduct these girls? 2. What did you say to them? 3. What exactly did you do to them? 4. Where did you throw them? 5. Did you keep any souvenirs, clothing or jewelry? 6. Draw it for me, explain it to me describe them to me. According to profiler Owens these types of killers remember everything. “Unless they have some kind of dementia or Alzheimer’s they will remember every minute detail. If she had a freckle on a certain part of her body, he will remember it.” Do we think that there was a remote possibility that he would have confessed to us that he had killed any of these girls? No, we would not have expected him to, but why not? Bell is 67 years old now. If he did do some of these murders and he was ever brought to trial, it would most likely be on capital murder charges, and it would probably be years before he would even be brought to trial. If he were convicted and sentenced to die by lethal injection, there is little, if any chance that he would be executed before he died of old age. So why not get it off his chest if he did, in fact, do the crimes? But here is another hill that would have to be climbed by prosecutors if Bell or anyone else were to ever confess. The state would still have to present evidence that would support the case against him. A confesconfession is not good enough in a murder case. It is doubtful that much of the evidence gathered 25-30 years ago would stand up to scrutiny now. Besides that, many of the original investigators are dead as are witnesses and family members who may have been important to the case. Authorities have seven more years to make their case. Bell becomes eligible for parole in 2013 after serving 20 years of his 70-year sentence. Ariel Ackerman, the wife of Debbie’s brother, Daniel, told The Police News, “In the wake of this tragedy were left two families scarred by the bitter grief of a child’s death. One year ago in July, Debbie’s mother died peacefully in her home after 35 years of unanswered questions. She never stopped trying to find the evidence that would bring her daughters killer to justice.” Debbie’s mother, Dee Ackerman established a scholarship fund in 1996 as a memorial to her husband and daughter. Debbie’s father Joe was a native Texan from Hallettsville and had worked for the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston for a number of years before retiring in 1989. He died in Galveston on August 28, 1995. Dee Ackerman passed away on July 7, 2005 at her home in Galveston. Until the very end of their lives, both parents kept their memories of Debbie alive. A large color portrait hung over the living room sofa and there were other pictures throughout the home. They visited Debbie’s grave twice a week and kept her room just as she had left it on the last day that she was home. They died never knowing the mystery of who murdered their only daughter. SIDE NOTE: There is a Daily News Photo item of Jamie Wagner (L) and Debbie Ackerman at the7th annual Polar Bear Water Ski Races on Offats Bayou in March 1971. 5718 Avenue S in Galveston was Doug’s Surf and Dive Shop in 1971, another popular place among the surfing crowd and where Debbie Ackerman and Maria Johnson frequented. Convicted killer Ed Bell was co-owner. * Detective Convinced, Imprisoned Killer Murdered Six Area Girls. Thirty five years ago this month, the parents of two 14-year old Webster girls went to the Webster police station near the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston, and reported that both their daughters were missing. They explained to the desk officer that Rhonda Johnson and Sharon Shaw had left home after breakfast that morning promising to return at 1 p.m. that afternoon. It was August 4, 1971 when the girls got a ride with a family friend for the 40-mile ride from Webster to the Wix Ski School, located at 62nd and Avenue L on the banks of Offatts Bayou in Galveston. The girl’s parents were neighbors. By dinner time the girls had not returned home. Neither of their parents had received a phone call from them explaining their absence. They began to call friends and neighbors. No one had seen or heard from them. They called the neighbor who had driven them to Galveston. The neighbor had not seen them since dropping them off at the skiing school and surf club that morning. During the investigation by the Webster Police Department, it was discovered that Rhonda and Sharon did not stay long at Wix that day. The ski boats were not running due to the waters being too choppy. Raymond Wix, who owned the school with his wife Johnnie, told Webster Police Lt. David Colburn that the girls were only there briefly; that they picked up a couple of bathing suits and headed off walking towards 61st street, a block away. Lt. Colburn reported back to Webster Police Chief J.C. Norman that the trail ended with the girl’s leaving Wix Ski School. Five months later, on January 2, 1972, two young men riding in separate boats on North Taylor Lake near the community of Shoreacres in southeast Harris County, discovered a skull in the marsh in Taylor Bayou a tributary of the lake. One of the men retrieved the skull from the water, wrapped it in a towel and took it home. The next morning he called the Harris County Sheriff’s Department in Houston and reported his find. The skull, with part of the jaw missing, turned out to be that of Rhonda Johnson. In the days and weeks that followed, several massive searches were made of the Taylor Lake and Bayou areas until February 17 when a man in one of the search parties found another skull in the mud on the banks of a drainage ditch that emptied into Taylor Lake. A pathological examination of the skulls and bones found during the searches established that the bones were those of Rhonda Johnson and Sharon Shaw. In the May and June issues of The Police News, we reported that Galveston Police Detective Fred Paige, who has been conducting a dogged investigation into the murders of young girls during this era, had developed information which convinced him that a man currently in prison on a murder conviction, was responsible for the deaths of two other teenage girls, Debbie Ackerman and Maria Johnson, both 15-years old and both from Galveston. Paige is now linking their deaths with the deaths of Rhonda Johnson and Sharon Shaw, even though a Webster man was arrested and convicted for the murder of Johnson in 1973 At the time, there was a Dairy Queen at the corner of 61st and L Streets, which later became Robert Hicks U-Haul. Across the street from Dairy Queen was Jerrico’s Surf Shop, a popular place where swimmers, skiers, and surfers shopped. Most everyone from Wix Ski School was customers of Jerrico’s. Straight across Offatts Bayou, visible from the Wix pier on Avenue L, was a popular swimming pool, also a place where this same crowd of water sports enthusiast gathered. It was called Conway Pool and is still there today. To get to Conway Pool from Wix, one would merely go a short distance south on 61st Street to Heards Lane, a block or two west to Bayouvu Drive and back north a couple of blocks to the pool. Also on the south bank of Offatts Bayou, and near Conway Pool, was another popular place where young people went to take sailing lessons offered by Galveston College. Coach Lloyd Kelly, who conducted the sailing lessons, lived downstairs on the waters edge, in a two story house with his son Kyle. His many sailboats were docked at the pier outside the backdoor of his home. Lloyd Kelly’s place was another popular place for the restless and adventure adventuresome youth drawn to the water for excitement, romance and summer fun. And that included Rhonda Johnson and Sharon Shaw, two pretty, big-eyed girls with the physical attributes of adult females, but the status of children in the view of the larger segment of society. Living upstairs in Lloyd Kelley’s house was the man whose name we continue to run across as we investigate the murders of these girls, Edward Harold Bell. He and his wife Debbie rented the upstairs from Coach Lloyd Kelly. It also included Debbie Ackerman and Maria Johnson who were last seen driving away from a Galveston ice cream shop with a stranger in a white van. That was on November 15, 1971, just three months after the disappearance of Rhonda Johnson and Sharon Shaw. Their bodies were recovered two days later in Turner Bayou, between Texas City and Dickinson. Their hands and feet had been tied with rope, they were partially disrobed, and they had been shot to death. Debbie and Maria were also water sport enthusiasts. Debbie was a skier and regularly participated in the annual Polar Bear Water Ski Races on Offatts Bayou. “They used to ride in my boat,” said Johnnie Wix. On one occasion she was driving the boat pulling a local skier, Bubba Forrester, and Debbie and Maria were in the boat watching him ski barefoot. Forrester was a trick skier, performing various acrobats while skimming across the water at break-neck speeds. He and Maria had dated at one time. All of these kids traveled in the same circles. They skied at Wix Ski School or at least hitched rides on or behind one of the Wix high-speed boats that ran from the pier at 6211 Avenue L. They all went to the Dairy Queen, they all went to Jerrico’s Surf Shop on 61st, they all went around to Coach Kelly’s sailboat docks, they all went to Conway Swimming Pool, and they all hung around Doug’s Surf and Dive Shop which was two blocks off 61st Street on Avenue S and in which Ed Bell was part owner. The original owner of the shop was a man by the name of Doug Pruns, described by some as “A Galveston Original.” Pruns made quality surfboards and sponsored a Surf Club involving 27 teenage boys and girls. Until recently he had never being contacted by police in the investigation of Debbie Ackerman, Maria Johnson, or any of the other missing and slain youths. “One of the first things he told me was that he always expected the police to come speak with him back then because Debbie and Marie were spending a lot of time at his Surf Shop,” said Detective Paige. According to published reports, after the discovery of the two girls skeletal remains in Taylor Bayou, the Webster Police Department enlisted the aid of the Special Crimes Units of the Galveston and Texas City Police who were engaged in probing the murders of three teenage girls who had been found bound and shot or strangled in a bayou between Texas City and Galveston over the past month. According to news reports at the time, the officers, armed with photos of Sharon and Rhonda, canvassed the entire area of the Seawall Boulevard and the 61st Street Bridge, as well as the neighborhood around the surfing club. They questioned scores of men, women and young people who frequented the areas daily, but none could recall having seen Rhonda and Sharon. They did locate one girl, who was known by the yellow convertible she drove, who knew the girls well. She said that she had seen them at about 9 o’clock that morning on Seawall Blvd. They asked her if she was going to Webster and could they have a ride with her. The girl told them that she would be going to Webster at about 11 o’clock and that that if they would meet her at the 61st Street Bridge they could ride back with her. She told investigators that she was there at eleven but the girls did not show up. By the time this sweep was taking place, the bodies of Debbie Ackerman and Maria Johnson had also been discovered, yet Doug Pruns said that no investigator had ever been in his shop or questioned him about any of these girls, and this is the shop that was coowned by Ed Bell. So far, Paige’s investigation has established sufficient reason to believe that Rhonda Johnson, Sharon Shaw, Debbie Ackerman and Maria Johnson were all traveling in the same circles and probably knew each other. It is reasonable to believe that each of them also crossed paths with convicted killer Ed Bell who not only was part owner of Doug’s Surf and Dive Shop where the girls went, but he and his wife Debbie lived on Bayou Vu Street where the Conway Swimming Pool and Lloyd Kelly’s Sailing School were located. What about Michael Lloyd Self, the man that Webster Police arrested and who was convicted of murdering Rhonda Johnson? Detective Fred Paige says without reservation that Self was framed by some rogue cops that forced a confession and committed crimes themselves while making a case against Self. In his confession to then Webster Police Chief Don Morris and Assistant Chief Tommy Deal on June 9, 1972, Self said that on August 4, 1971, the day the girls went to Galveston, he met Rhonda Renee Johnson walking on El Comino Real in Webster and picked her up. They supposedly went to the Clear Lake Yacht Club where they met Sharon Shaw and the three went to Taylor Lake where they parked and drank beer. According to his confession, Self tried to elicit sex from one of the girls. She rebuked him and a fight ensued. Self said he grabbed a coke bottle and beat the girls to death. “One of the problems I have with the confession,” says Detective Paige, “is that no one saw the girls in Webster on August 4 and the autopsy report indicated no trauma of any kind to their skulls.” During the early 70’s, the City of Webster and their police department was wrought in political turmoil. As it turns out, the Mayor at the time of the girl’s murders was Charles Johnson, Rhonda Johnson’s grandfather. There are reports that Rhonda may have been living with her grandparents at the time. In May of 1972 some, who were there at the time, say Mayor Johnson got fed up with the Webster Police Department’s inability to find the killer of his granddaughter so he “gutted” the department, firing everyone. He immediately hired Texas Highway Patrol Officer Don Morris as his new Chief of Police and another Highway Patrolman, Tommy Deal as the new Assistant Chief of Police. Both were Troopers in the Beaumont area. Morris in turn, hired one of his old buddies, George Marshall as a Sergeant. They became the new Webster Police Department. Within nine days of Morris and Deal taking over the police department, they arrested Michael Self and charged him with murdering the Mayor’s granddaughter. This is nowhere the end of this story. We will take it up again in our September issue. For now we will report that during the time that Police Chief Don Morris and Assistant. Police Chief Tommy Deal were investigating Michael Self and making their case against him for the murder of the two girls, they themselves, were robbing banks all across Texas. They were both later convicted in a series of bank robberies. Tommy Deal is still serving his sentence in the Federal Penitentiary in Cincinnati, Ohio. The killing of young girls in the Galveston County area continued until the arrest of Edward Harold Bell in August 1978 for the murder of Larry Dickens in Pasadena which we reported in our May edition. He is now serving a 70-year sentence in the Texas penitentiary for that murder plus 10 more years for Indecent Exposure connected to the murder. Detective Fred Paige told The Police News in preparation for this story, “I am convinced that Edward Harold Bell killed Rhonda Johnson and Sharon Shaw in August of 1971. I am also convinced that he killed Debbie Ackerman and Maria Johnson in November of 1971. I also believe that he killed 12-year old Brooks Bracewell and 14- year old Georgia Geer of Dickinson in September of 1974, and others.”