The late afternoon of March 25, 2012, a voice crackled over the police scanners that perch on the coffee tables or hang on the belts of many residents in San Saba: an ambulance was headed out to Harkey Pecan Farms. Scanner chatter is a rich source of gossip in this tiny Central Texas city of 3,099, and ears perked up that Sunday as paramedics and law enforcement officers rushed four miles west of town to Harkeyville, where a 1927 red-brick house sat among three hundred acres of pecan orchards. The Harkeys had long been one of San Saba’s most prominent families, and their property sat next door to a stretch of pastureland owned by another notable native son, the actor Tommy Lee Jones.
Sheriff Allen Brown was already out on patrol when the 911 call came in. He sped down U.S. 190 in his white truck, passing neatly tended rows of pecan trees and the cattle auction barn, then crossed the San Saba River and rumbled down the caliche road to the two-story house. He knew the house well; since the early sixties, generations of San Sabans had attended the church suppers and cookouts hosted there by Bonnie Harkey, the family’s matriarch. Bonnie, her white puff of hair always freshly coiffed, was a fixture of San Saba’s social scene, known for never missing a Sunday school class or a meeting of the garden club. Her pecan-based desserts were legendary, often earning her first place at the county’s pecan food show and a front-page mention in the San Saba News & Star. But she was now 85 and increasingly frail; it was common knowledge that she was suffering from dementia and required the attention of a caretaker. Six months earlier, she had been diagnosed with an aortic aneurysm, and it was only a matter of time, everyone knew, before it claimed her.
But when Brown arrived at the house, he found a puzzling scene. Bonnie’s caretaker, a fifty-year-old redhead named Karen Johnson, was sprawled facedown just inside the front door, atop the floral doormat. Her reading glasses were resting on the floor beside her head, and she was cool to the touch. The paramedics who arrived five minutes later quickly determined she was dead. What had happened to Karen? And where was Bonnie? Karen’s eleven-year-old son, who had found her and called 911, stood on the front porch clutching a cordless phone. He had been playing video games in another room, he said through tears, and hadn’t heard any commotion. There was no sign of a struggle, except for a broken fingernail on Karen’s right hand. Brown wondered if Karen had died of natural causes and if Bonnie, confused upon discovering her body, had simply wandered off.