The Murders that rocked a Texas town by Anita Dickason
I never know where or when I will come across a new mystery. A bookstore was undoubtedly an auspicious place when I visited The Tolstoy & Co. Bookshop in Clifton, Texas. The owner, Paula Perschke, had hosted a promotional event featuring my books.
I had an opportunity to chat with individuals who lived in and around Clifton. One individual I met was Jan Zuehlke, Ph.D., who mentioned Clifton had its own mystery. Of course, such a comment was guaranteed to grab my attention.
She went on to explain about the murders of two women in 1985 that still haunt the small community.
The Murders That Rocked A Texas Town
Dr. Zuehlke and her daughter Lara Zuehlke, an award-winning writer, had followed the twists and turns of the bizarre case, collecting articles and material relating to the murders. Under the pen name J.L. Bass, the mother/daughter team co-authored No Motive in Murdoch. Published in 2018, the fictional story was inspired by their extensive knowledge of the Clifton murders.
Intrigued by Dr. Zuehlke’s comments, I delved into articles, news stories, and videos about the crimes and controversy surrounding the conviction of Joe Bryan, the husband of one of the victims. An author can tidy up all the loose ends and brilliantly solve the crime in fiction. True crime is seldom as clear-cut or has a convincing outcome. As a retired police investigator, I discovered a case riddled with red flags.
In 1985, two murders stunned the 3000+ residents of Clifton. In June, a seventeen-year-old high school sophomore, Judy Whitley, was murdered. In October, a popular fourth grade school teacher, Mickey Bryan, was killed in her Clifton home.
On June 19, 1985, Judy Whitley left her home to walk to a grocery store, then disappeared. The next day, her body was found in a field near the store. She had been raped and strangled. Dennis Dunlap, a Clifton police officer, soon became the prime suspect. Dunlap was hired a few months before the Whitley murder. When a rumor surfaced that Judy had a diary, the police planned to search her grandmother’s house. The night before the scheduled search, the house mysteriously exploded, burning down. Not long after, Dunlap was fired and left town. It was also reported physical evidence disappeared from the police locker room.
On October 15, 1985, Mickey Bryan failed to show up for work. Alarmed, the elementary school principal, Rex Daniels, called the Bryan home, but no one answered. Knowing Mickey’s husband, Joe Bryan, the high school principal, was at a conference in Austin, he calls Mickey’s parents. They discover Mickey’s body in a blood-spattered bedroom. She had been shot multiple times.
Jewelry, money, and a revolver were missing. A cigarette butt found in the kitchen led investigators to initially believe someone had broken into the house. The missing pistol was assumed to be the murder weapon since it was loaded with snake shot, the same type of ammunition that killed Mickey. The investigation failed to turn up any witnesses, blood-stained clothing, the missing gun, or other evidence.
That is, until Mickey Bryan’s brother, Charlie Blue, came to town with a private investigator he hired. Blue borrowed Joe Bryan’s car. Blue and his private investigator drove around, talking about the case. They stopped alongside the road to let the investigator relieve himself. Blue opened the trunk, looking for something the investigator could use to wipe the mud off his shoes. They found a box with a flashlight. Spots on the lens appeared to be blood. Investigators confiscated the flashlight. Their search failed to turn up any other evidence, and they didn’t impound the vehicle. Instead, it was returned to Charlie Blue, who parked it at the Bryan home before leaving town. The car was out of Joe Bryan’s possession for four days.
Forensic tests on the flashlight determined the red specks matched Mickey Bryan’s blood type. A piece of blue material on the lens was similar to bits of blue plastic found at the murder scene. Joe Bryan told the police the last time he saw the flashlight, it was on his dresser.
A calendar with pictures of bare-chested men was also found in the trunk prompting investigators to suggest Joe Bryan was leading a secret life and was gay. Joe Bryan claimed it was a gag gift. However, the allegations changed the perception of Joe Bryan in the small town, and some questioned whether he killed Judy Whitley. There were other issues with the missing money and an incident at the Austin hotel that made it appear Joe Bryan lied. Eight days after the murder, Joe Bryan was arrested for killing his wife.
Charlie Blue hired a private attorney, Garry Lewellen, to act as a special prosecutor and assist the district attorney. Lewellen took over many of the district attorney’s duties during the trial. The prosecution’s case hinged on the flashlight and the testimony of Robert Thorman, a blood splatter expert with a reported forty hours of training. Thorman’s analysis linked the flashlight to the crime scene. Thorman asserted the killer was holding the flashlight when the shots were fired. His testimony connected Joe Bryan to the murder.
The cigarette butt, a significant piece of evidence indicating the presence of a stranger in the house, was discounted by Joe Wiley, the Texas Ranger in charge of the case. Wiley said the butt stuck to his boot when he walked into the house, though this was never reported in his 25-page report.
After speaking to his wife late in the evening, the prosecution claimed Joe Bryan drove 120 miles through heavy rain and fog, killed his wife, ditched the blood-stained clothes, gun and jewelry, and drove back to Austin but left a flashlight in the trunk. Joe Bryan reportedly had an eye condition that made driving at night difficult. The witness who drove Joe Bryan’s car back to Clifton the day after the murder testified the interior was clean.
Joe Wiley, the Texas Ranger, brought up the motive, the insurance policy. Charlie Blue had already filed a restraining order blocking Joe Bryan’s access to his wife’s financial assets, a reported $300,000.
Joe Bryan was found guilty and sentenced to 99 years in prison.
Dennis Dunlap, the suspect in the Judy Whitley murder, committed suicide in 1996. In 1999, the Clifton police department claimed Dunlap was responsible for the Whitley murder and closed the case. After his death, reports surfaced that Dunlap had a history of stalking women. The police allegedly placed Dunlap in Clifton the night Mickey was murdered. An ex-wife claimed Dunlap admitted to killing Whitley and being with Mickey the night she was killed.
In 2016, the Texas Forensic Science Commission reviewed the testimony of Robert Thorman, the blood splatter expert and ruled his testimony was unreliable. Thorman subsequently submitted an affidavit admitting his conclusions were wrong. In addition, new forensic tests on the flashlight identified the specks were not blood as claimed by the prosecutors during Joe Bryan’s trial.
Despite the mounting evidence of judicial irregularities, a faulty investigation, faulty forensics, a new suspect, and prejudicial allegations, the Court denied Joe Bryan’s petition for a new trial. On March 31, 2020, after his eighth attempt for parole, Joe Bryan was released.
Did Joe Bryan receive a fair trial? Did the presence of a special prosecutor paid by Charlie Blue compromise the Court’s integrity? Did the investigators contaminate the crime scene? Was the chain of custody for the evidence defective? Was the flashlight indeed the “smoking gun” or nothing more than a red herring? Did the accusations about Bryan’s sexual preferences taint the jury pool? Did the Texas legal system fail to ensure—innocent until proven guilty?
John Grisham, #1 New York Times bestselling author and attorney specializing in criminal defense and personal injury litigation, believes Joe Bryan is innocent. Grisham weighed in on the issue during an ABC 2020 episode titled: *The Principal’s Wife. He stated, “I was struck by the really incredible sloppy science that was given to the jury.” Grisham went on to write The Guardians, a #1 New York Times bestseller, released in 2019. While fiction, the novel is based on Joe Bryan’s story.
Was Joe Bryan wrongfully convicted?
Throughout the trial and subsequent years in prison, Joe Bryan has proclaimed his innocence. Since his release, he has continued his efforts to clear his name.
Many individuals believe Joe Bryan is innocent, including the lawyers with **The Innocence Project of Texas. An organization dedicated to providing investigative and legal services to prisoners believed to have been wrongfully convicted.
***Patricia Whitley is convinced Dennis Dunlap killed her sister and Mickey Bryan.
****However, Penny Blue, Mickey’s sister, is adamant Joe Bryan killed Mickey.
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Links used in this article:
- https://www.kcentv.com/article/news/local/thirty-years-later-why-judy-whitleys-sister-believes 1985-clifton-murders-are-connected/500-612355599
Anita Dickason is a retired police officer with a total of twenty-seven years of law enforcement experience, twenty-two with Dallas PD. She served as a patrol officer, undercover narcotics officer, advanced accident investigator, tactical officer, and first female sniper on the Dallas SWAT team.