As Hollyn Williams and Lindsey Roan cleaned out their mother’s apartment, things just didn’t add up.
Williams had found their mother, Martha Williams, dead on the floor of her luxury senior living apartment in Plano, Texas, just north of Dallas in March 2018. Police and medical examiners decided she had died of natural causes.
Over the following week and a half the sisters began going through the apartment, packing and cleaning. Yet things seemed strange in nearly every room.
In the bathroom, a necklace and ring they didn’t remember belonging to their mother. On a counter, a pair of black Ray-Ban sunglasses that were not her style. In the dining room, a mess of open and empty jewelry boxes – not the careful way their mother organized her precious heirlooms.
While cleaning, Roan had a strange feeling about the bedroom, and decided to turn over her mother’s pillows. On the back of one, she saw the imprint of a face and a deep and dark bloodstain. She brought it into the other room to show her sister, frozen in fear.
“I knew exactly what it was,” Roan remembered this week. “I couldn’t suck in enough air.”
The next day, in one building over from their mother’s apartment, another woman was found dead and a third survived an attack from a man she said tried to smother her with a pillow.
Police arrested Billy Chemirmir, a Kenyan immigrant to the United States, after tracking him to a Dallas apartment complex the day after. As he was handcuffed, police found cash and more jewelry from yet another victim, and quickly realized there could be even more cases.
A serial killer had been at work among the elderly, preying on some of the most vulnerable people in America.
VShemirmir was convicted of capital murder this week for the second time in Dallas county, and was sentenced to life in prison without parole for the death of Mary Brooks, an 88-year-old woman who was found dead in January 2018.
He is accused of smothering at least two dozen elderly women in north Texas, which places him among the deadliest serial killers in the history of Texas and the United States.
Chemirmir says he is innocent of all the crimes he’s accused of. He told the Dallas Morning News earlier this year that he would never go to prison. He was convicted and began serving a life sentence several weeks later.
In some cases, police say, he went from door to door at independent living apartments, pretending to be a maintenance worker. In other cases, like with the death of Brooks, he stalked women at a Walmart store before following them home and forcing his way inside.
Prosecutors say he would shove them on to a bed or the floor, pushing a pillow over their faces to smother the women to death, then he’d then rifle through their cabinets and drawers to steal jewelry, cash and other precious items.
But throughout the string of deaths and thefts, officials attributed each to natural causes. Smothering deaths, Dallas county medical examiner Jeffrey Barnard tested this week, leave few signs for an untrained eye. Many police officers who responded to crime scene after crime scene assumed the dead were old people who must have died from a heart attack, not homicide.
It wasn’t until Mary Bartel survived an attack in March 2018 the day after Roan found her mother’s bloodstained pillow that the investigation began in earnest. Jurors this week heard how Bartel remembered the man wearing green gloves as he forced his way into his apartment.
“Don’t fight me,” she remembered him saying. “Lie on the bed.”
She tried reaching for an emergency alert button but couldn’t press it before he slammed a pillow on to her face and she lost consciousness. A pacemaker in her chest kept her alive until a neighbor arrived and called 911.
Police in Plano began investigating the attack on Bartel and found a suspicious person report linked to Chemirmir at two area senior living communities. They set up a sting operation at his apartment in Dallas and arrested him the evening after the attack on Bartel.
Chemirmir was gripping cash and jewelry as they put him in handcuffs.
Police had seen him throwing a red jewelry box into a dumpster before they arrested him. When they pulled it out of the trash, they found a name: Lu Thi Harris. When police arrived at Harris’s home, they found the doors locked. They forced their way inside and found her dead on the floor of her bedroom.
Investigators then began combing through hundreds of death cases and reports of missing jewelry, matching them to records from Chemirmir’s phone. Medical examiners evaluated each case, changing death certificates from “natural causes” to “homicidal violence” or “undetermined”.
Chemirmir was indicted with 22 counts of capital murder. Several other cases have not yet been brought before a grand jury for indictment. In April, he was convicted of killing Harris and sentenced to life in a Texas prison without parole.
Now prosecutors have tried a second case to give Chemirmir a second life-in-prison sentence. That way, the district attorney told families, if one gets reversed on appeal the other will stick. The other 20 cases will probably be dismissed.
The investigation only began after Chemirmir’s arrest, with his cellphone records and hundreds of police reports of thefts and deaths in several north Texas cities. At the time, none of those deaths were suspicious – except to the families who always wondered why precious items from their mothers’ luxury apartments had gone missing.
Those families have banded together in the years since, creating informal support groups – a sisterhood, many of the daughters call it. During breaks in the trial this week, they compared notes and recalled details of each of the cases. Many carried with them subtle reminders of their mothers’ lives.
“This was Mom’s,” said Loren Smith, whose mother Phyllis Payne was killed in May 2016, touching the red and black blazer she wore.
“Aw,” said Mary Jo Jennings, whose mother, Leah Corken, was killed in August 2016, pulling at a gold necklace with a globe pendant. “This was Mom’s. Dad bought it for her in Brazil.”
So many other heirlooms are gone forever. Chemirmir sold many of the items he stole within hours online or at a Dallas gold and silver exchange shop, where they were probably quickly melted down and sold for their bulk value.
Those shops were the target of one of several laws passed after the slayings, primarily due to a lobbying group founded by the victims’ families. Secure Our Seniors’ Safety, their non-profit, pushed to strengthen regulations on cash-for-gold shops in Texas and for stronger security measures at senior living communities.
Those regulations – which would have required simple measures like staff background checks, visitor check-in and mandatory reporting of crimes to residents – faced strong opposition from senior living groups, and were blocked in the state legislature.
Now, with two convictions for Chemirmir, the president of Secure Our Seniors’ Safety said the group will return to the Texas capitol in 2023 to push for those stricter security laws.
“Senior living establishments advertise fine dining and luxury living. Security must be a priority,” said Shannon Dion, whose mother, Doris Gleason, was killed in October 2016. “It is time to care for those who cared for us.”
Due to Texas evidentiary rules, only some of the women Chemirmir allegedly killed can be mentioned during his trials. This week, for the first time, Martha Williams was among them.
Lindsey Roan sat in the front row and listened as an FBI cellphone expert told jurors that his analysis suggested Chemirmir was at her mother’s apartment complex for an hour and a half the day she died, then immediately left for the cash-for-gold shop he frequented in Dallas.
“It’s a hard pill,” Roan said after the testimony. “My mother has been validated, but it doesn’t make me feel better for everybody else.”
Eleven other capital murder charges against Chemirmir in Dallas, including in Williams’s death, will be dismissed now. Five others in another county still stand, but it’s unclear whether those prosecutors will take any to trial.
“Death follows the touch of Billy Chemirmir,” lead prosecutor Glen Fitzmartin told jurors in closing arguments on Friday. He said Chemirmir used skills as a home healthcare worker to target the most vulnerable members of society. “These are individuals who have a routine, a routine that Billy Chemirmir was looking for.”
Jurors took just 25 minutes to decide he was guilty. He didn’t appear to react after the verdict. Families in the gallery sobbed and comforted each other as a judge sentenced Chemirmir to life in prison without parole.
“It’s not over,” Dion said, emphasizing that her group’s legislative efforts would continue. “How many more women were killed in a building where they thought they were safe? We have more work to do.”