Let’s Kill Mom: Four Texas Teens and a Horrifying Murder Pact
By Donna Fielder
Seventeen-year-old Jennifer Bailey, her thirteen-year-old brother David, and Jennifer’s sixteen-year-old boyfriend Paul Henson Jr. conspired to kill Jennifer and David’s mother, Susan. How, exactly, it all went down is still disagreed upon, but Susan was stabbed to death after returning home from work. The three teenagers tried to escape by driving from Texas to Canada but literally ran out of gas. All three pled guilty to get reduced sentences (in this case, avoiding the death penalty), but Jennifer and Paul are likely to remain in prison for life.
Maybe it’s because of the notoriety of the 1954 Parker-Hulme murder case (filmed as Heavenly Creatures in 1994). Or maybe it’s because I’d previously reviewed Bob Mitchell’s book The Class Project: How to Kill a Mother, about a pair of teenage sisters who drowned their mother in a bathtub in 2003. Or maybe it’s just because the killers here were such high-school clichés of disaffected youth: listening to emo music, playing Dungeons & Dragons, pretending to be vampires, practising Wiccan rituals and reading books on devil worship. Whatever the reason, I wasn’t as shocked by the murder of Susan Bailey as I suppose I should have been. To be sure, it was a terrible crime, and it’s hard to understand kids who kill, but it’s not something I couldn’t get my head around.
I believe Donna Fielder was a local reporter who drew on her coverage of the case to write this book. It’s not bad, though there are some places where the editor (if there was one) was taking a nap. I also questioned dramatizing the actual murder, attempting to describe it from Susan’s point of view. This is especially problematic given that the three people involved each have different accounts of what happened. Did Susan really think to herself “Oh God! Her children were killing her! Why?” Or were her last thoughts more along the lines of “Oh God, I didn’t think things had gotten this bad.” I don’t think it makes any sense to speculate.
What I liked about Fielder’s approach is the emphasis placed on the perspective of Susan’s mother, whose journals are quoted from throughout. The catastrophe of having her daughter killed by two of her grandkids presented her with an awesome moral challenge, and I give credit to her for making the right decision in the end and basically giving up on Jennifer. That’s hard on any parent, or grandparent. But if your kids are shit, you just have to make a break.
Another thing I thought worked well was adding separate chapters on Fielder’s three visits to the killers in prison at the end as an epilogue. Given her pretty clear judgment on culpability in the matter, and indeed barely restrained anger at the killers for how they repaid their hard-working mother “with violence and death,” she remains fair in her reporting of these interviews, and we’re left to make our own minds up on the question of crime and punishment.
The question of why kids kill is raised in one chapter, which leans heavily on Michael D. Kelleher’s book When Good Kids Kill. It’s a point that often comes up for debate in reference to school shootings. Parricide doesn’t gather as many headlines, but it’s a phenomenon that has proven equally hard to come to any firm conclusions about. What stands out for me is the way that some kids are able to stand up to the usual storm and stress of their teenaged years quite well, while others have far less tolerance for authority and a greater sensitivity to perceived slights. It doesn’t take much to tip them over the edge. Indeed, it might be something so trivial that bystanders aren’t able to see it at all. Then, when the kid snaps, we’re all left to wonder why.
Noted in passing:
The teenaged trio were picked up in South Dakota in part because Yankton, the town they were driving through, had a teen curfew of 11:30 and it was the wee hours of the morning. I did a double-take at this. There are towns with teen curfews in the U.S.? Is that constitutional?
People were amazed at the kids’ “plan” of escaping to Canada with no money, no jobs or marketable skills, and no friends or family to help them out. Is Canada seen as that much of a land of milk and honey? Even when Jennifer hated the cold of Minnesota so much? Never mind the fact that Canada isn’t some criminal sanctuary, since extradition treaties exist and their arrest would only have been delayed by a bit.
Investigators were gobsmacked when Henson revealed that he was having sex not only with Jennifer, but a younger student at the same high school, and that they would have threesomes and sometimes the two girls would have sex together while he watched. I can understand their incredulity. Jennifer was an above-average looking young woman, and the third girl (whose identity as a juvenile is protected) is described as being pretty. Paul Henson, on the other hand, was a really ugly guy. He also had limited social standing at school (other kids saw him as a weirdo), clearly wasn’t that bright, and lived in a mobile home with his dad. I have a hard time figuring the attraction out. He was over six feet tall though, so it may just have been another case of the well-documented priority, amounting almost to a fetish, that many women place on height when it comes to mate selection.
Everyone comes to Jesus in prison. I guess if you’re a believer you can see this as natural: we only look for help when we are at our lowest, and we find salvation and forgiveness in the Lord. Cynics are more likely to see it as coping or manipulation. Jennifer claimed to have been born again almost immediately after she was caught, and one of her jailers perhaps put it best: “Maybe she was really looking, but I think she was one of those people who was not going to find what she was looking for.”
The abuse excuse is just knee-jerk claiming of victim status now, isn’t it? After her arrest, Jennifer would complain of a “mentally abusive” home, whatever that meant. I really rolled my eyes though at how her father, who seems to have been absent from his children’s lives for the most part, was later said to have suffered post-traumatic stress disorder due to his kids killing his ex-wife. Because of this PTSD he was no longer able to work, and so couldn’t even contribute anything to Jennifer’s or Dave’s prison accounts.
4 thoughts on “TCF: Let’s Kill Mom”
They don’t sound particularly bright.
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They really weren’t. I mean, they weren’t very old but you’d still expect them to have a little more on the ball than this.
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How does this compare to Let’s Be Cops?
It doesn’t. This is true crime! We’re operating on an entirely different level here.
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