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Hung jury in ’89 murder case - Odessa American: Courts

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Hung jury in ’89 murder case

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Posted: Thursday, July 19, 2018 10:40 pm

The former 1989 cold case involving the fatal stabbing of a 15-year-old girl will remain open for now, as the jury deliberated for more than seven hours without reaching a verdict.

Thompson Ward Stricklen Jr., 55, is accused of fatally cutting open the throat of 15-year-old Wendy Burdette in 1989. He was indicted in 2015 on the charge of murder after semen found inside of Burdette matched his DNA, but that wasn’t enough to convince the entire jury.

The jury deliberated for more than seven hours until District 358 Judge W. Stacy Trotter declared a mistrial at 9:45 p.m. Thursday night.

Burdette’s father, Larry Burdette, was present at the trial, and said he was very disappointed in the outcome.

“I think they really did a good job, it’s just that some of the people weren’t convinced,” Burdette said.

The accusation against Stricklen came from the semen inside of Burdette matching his DNA, but in an audio recording of an interview between Stricklen and Odessa Police Department detectives, he denied killing Burdette, saying he never killed anyone.

But this wasn’t the first time Stricklen had appeared in the investigation. He had previously reached out to OPD detectives in the first few months following Burdette’s death, telling them he was told to collect money from her for a man named Jim Atkins, who reportedly told Stricklen that Burdette owed him $5,000 for drugs he provided her.

This story didn’t match the following interview more than 25 years later. Stricklen told officers in the audio recording that he remembered having sex with a prostitute during that time period who may have been Burdette, but the investigators weren’t buying it.

“What are the odds of the person you collected from being the prostitute?” OPD Detective Brandon Ford asked him during the interview.

“I don’t know, pretty astronomical I guess,” Stricklen said.

Prosecutors brought up other suspects during the trial, including Eddie Rojas, who was reportedly seen with a knife in the area where Burdette was killed. Former OPD Detective Ted Hughes testified to interviewing Rojas following Burdette’s death, and told Hughes he didn’t think he killed her, but he didn’t remember. Rojas was not charged as, there was no physical evidence to charge him with murder.

Stricklen’s attorney, Jason Leach, brought up to Ford during cross-examination that investigators had previously been contacted by Rojas more than a year after the investigation, claiming he had known her and that he had heard her yelling from a hotel near where she was killed. Investigators later went to the location Rojas claimed to be at and determined he would not be able to see or hear Burdette from where he was, Ford said.

Hunter Lake was another suspect brought up during the trial. Former OPD Detective Ted Hughes, who initially worked on the case, said he interviewed Hunter Lake, who was reportedly seen leaving with Burdette on the night of her death, and returned from a party they were at without her, in a shirt covered in blood. But they never found the shirt, Hughes said, and had no evidence to convict him.

Another man named Douglas Johnson or “Cowboy John” was reportedly with Lake at the time, but he had hanged himself months after her death, Hughes said.

Stricklen’s attorney, Jason Leach, told the jury during closing remarks the prosecution had not proved Stricklen was guilty beyond all reasonable doubt, and brought up Rojas’ previous interactions with investigators.

“Can you rule that out?” Leach asked the jury. “I don’t think you can.”

Prosecutor Bill Prasher brought up the DNA evidence linking Stricklen to Burdette’s death in his closing statements.

“None of these individuals they’re talking about have any connection to the crime scene. One person does,” Prasher said, pointing to Stricklen. “Do justice for Wendy, do justice for this community, find him guilty.”

Since the case was declared a mistrial, Stricklen will either be retried at a later date, or offered a plea deal.

Burdette’s father said he remains hopeful Stricklen will be convicted.

“The DNA proves that he was part of the process, and I think he should have to pay for it,” Larry Burdette said.

Odessa, TX

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