Scott Reese Willey

Billy Joe Wardlow finally ran out of time.

The murderer was executed by the state of Texas last week, 25 years after he killed a man and stole his truck.

I was a relatively young reporter when I first met Billy Joe.

I was a reporter for the Mount Pleasant Daily Tribune in Mount Pleasant, Texas.

Billy was on trial for his life.

He and his girlfriend had been accused of killing 82-year-old Carl Cole of Cason, Texas, in cold blood on the morning of June 14, 1993. Then they stole his old pickup truck and headed for the Canadian border. They traded the truck in Nebraska for a car and were eventually arrested in South Dakota the following day.

Billy faced a capital murder charge in connection with the theft of the truck and the murder of Cole.

During his trial, the prosecutor said Billy had shot Cole in the head because Cole had dared to stand up to him.

Billy had confessed to authorities that Cole’s defiance “pissed” him off, so he shot him, an investigator testified.

Billy was only 18 at the time.

He and girlfriend Tonya Fulfer rolled Cole’s body up in a blanket and stuffed it unceremoniously in a closet.

They told authorities they had only planned to steal Cole’s pickup truck. They could have done it without shooting Cole. The keys were in the truck, a common occurrence in rural Morris County, Texas, where everyone leaves keys in vehicles and doors unlocked.

I was about 35 when Billy and Tonya were brought to trial in 1995 in Titus County.

The trial had been moved to Titus County in order to give Billy a fair trial.

I was the only reporter at the trial, it being two hours away from Dallas and Texarkana, the only other daily newspapers that covered Titus County happenings.

I only bring this up because I remember thinking at the time that I had to capture all the important details because it would one day serve as a record of what happened at the trial.

Billy’s family attended the trial. I remember his mother talking to me in the hallway during breaks. She asked me to report that her son was really a good kid who had committed a single, horrible error of judgment. She said he had been a volunteer firefighter.

Yet, despite a possible death sentence, Billy didn’t seem to care a whit about the outcome of the trial.

I know. I sat right behind him the entire time.

He and I would talk during breaks. He wasn’t allowed to leave the table he shared with his defense attorney unless it was to eat or use the restroom. Guards took him by the arm anywhere he went.

Billy sat there the entire trial scribbling in a yellow legal pad.

What was he writing, I asked during one break.

Notes to his attorney, he confided. Notes that would set him free. Notes that proved the witness was a liar.

But the notes never came up at trial. That is to say, I never saw his attorney read the notes, slap the legal pad down on the desk, jump to his feet and exclaim “I object!” or something like that.

Billy also made faces at the jurors, grimacing and gnashing his teeth and generally giving them the evil eye.

It upset the jurors, who told the judge, who warned Billy that he would be bound and gagged if he didn’t stop.

Billy stopped.

“Why would you intimidate the people who are going to decide whether you live or die?” I asked him during the next break.

Titus County hasn’t had a death sentence in 100 years, he explained to me.

“Shouldn’t you do everything in your power to make sure they don’t hand down a death sentence or even a life sentence?” I asked him. “I mean, don’t help them become the first jury to do so.”

But Billy felt confident he would get life in prison at best.

He really didn’t seem to care if he spent the rest of his life in prison.

I was astounded.

“Think of what you’ll be missing,” I whispered to him during another break. “Girls, movies, going to the beach with your buddies, beer parties, marriage, family, children,” I said.

Billy figured he would get off on a technicality and would still have all those things.

Besides, he explained to me, inmates on death row tend to have about 14 or 15 years of appeals.

I was amazed at how nonchalant he was.

He also had no remorse. It was evident in his actions in court, and the jurors took note. The prosecutor (boy, I wish i could remember his name) certainly pointed it out during the sentencing portion of the trial — that part of the trial in which Billy had an opportunity to basically tell the jurors he was sorry for his actions.

But Billy was defiant.

So he was sentenced to death.

"What are you going to do now?" I asked him as soon as the judge banged his gavel, ending the trial.

"I'm not worried," he said with a shrug.

But I remember his ashen face. I remember his mom crying

What a tragic waste of life.

He had figured on spending 14-15 years on death row if he were sentenced to death. Instead, he spent two and a half decades.

Billy was put to death at age 45.

I had planned on attending the execution, but COVID-19 came along and ruined that.

I wanted to talk to Billy one last time. I had so many questions to ask him. Did he finally feel remorse? Is he sorry for what he did? Does he wish he could go back in time and change things? What would he like to tell his mother? What would he say to Fulfer if he could speak to her? Or to Cole's family and friends? What would he want my readers to know?

What would he tell Jesus?

Contact Scott Reese Willey at swilley@fbherald.com.

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