Nearly 20 years after the murder of college student Melissa Trotter rocked Montgomery County, dive teams are out searching for more evidence in the county's only death row case.
The renewed search efforts come weeks after word of an abandoned confession plot between Larry Swearingen - who was convicted in Trotter's slaying - and Houston serial killer Anthony Shore threatened to cloud the case and pointed to the possibility of more evidence.
"We're trying to be thorough and check off all the boxes," said Montgomery County District Attorney Brett Ligon. "We don't anticipate finding anything 20 years later."
Search efforts led by Montgomery County Precinct 1 Constable Philip Cash, at Ligon's request, kicked off on Monday at an undisclosed location. So far, investigators did not indicate finding any new evidence but the hunt was still ongoing Thursday morning.
"We were hopeful something could be found but we weren't really expecting anything," Ligon said.
After years of slow-burning appeals and quiet courtroom wrangling, Swearingen's case rocketed back into the limelight last month after a flurry of unexpected developments. First, the confession plot with Shore. Then, a filing snafu and a cancelled execution. Next, a DNA testing agreement and a lake-bottom search.
Through it all, Trotter's family has yearned for justice.
"I'm frustrated," said Sandy Trotter, the slain teen's mother. "But I am convinced this is all in God's timing."
On the day of Melissa Trotter's appearance in December 1998, she and Swearingen were spotted together in Montgomery College library. Afterward, a biology teacher saw the 19-year-old leaving the school with a man.
Hair and fiber evidence later showed that she'd been in Swearingen's car and home the day she vanished.
The killer's wife testified that she came home that evening to find the place in disarray - and in the middle of it all were Trotter's lighter and cigarettes. That afternoon, Swearingen placed a call routed through a cell tower near FM 1097 in Willis - a spot he would have passed while heading from his house to the Sam Houston National Forest where Trotter's decomposing body was found 25 days later.
Swearingen was convicted and sentenced to death in 2000, but since then has repeatedly evaded the state's harshest punishment through a series of dogged appeals, many focusing on efforts to insure DNA testing.
Both he and Shore had execution dates set for this fall, but judges called them off not long after news emerged of the pair's alleged confession scheme.
Hours before he was scheduled to die on Oct. 18, Shore won a 90-day stay after prosecutors said the four-time killer admitted to an abandoned plan to confess to Swearingen's crime.
Over the years, Swearingen has consistently professed his innocence. Shore, on the other hand, has consistently admitted to the 1992 killing of Maria del Carmen Estrada - for which he was convicted - as well as the gruesome strangulations of 14-year-old Laurie Tremblay, 9-year-old Diana Rebollar and 16-year-old Dana Sanchez.
Officials first found out about the possibility of a last-minute confession attempt back in July, when a death row cell search uncovered materials relating to Trotter's killing - including a hand-drawn map marking the supposed location of more evidence - stashed in Shore's cell.
The day before his scheduled execution, Shore told investigators he'd only considered confessing to get his friend off, and not because he'd actually committed the additional crime. The multiple murderer also agreed to answer questions about other cases, and a judge greenlit pushing back his first scheduled execution date.
At the time, Swearingen also had a death date on the calendar - for Nov. 16 - but that has since been called off as the result of a filing error after the Montgomery County District Clerk sent notice of the execution to the wrong office.
And while prosecutors in Harris County reset an execution date for Shore, Montgomery County prosecutors have not filed for a new date in the Swearingen case. Instead, they've agreed to more DNA testing in a final effort to clear the water in the two-decade-old case....Read more