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We remember anniversaries for a lot of reasons. Most of them are good. We commemorate the birth of our loved ones and celebrate them with birthday parties. Candles, cake, presents. We recall wedding anniversaries and celebrate with a nice dinner and presents. We even remember the anniversary of our graduation from high school and college, although most of us don’t really celebrate those.
Tuesday, February 6, 2018 was an anniversary in our family, a bad one.
Twenty years ago Billy was murdered.
Most everybody around Port Arthur, Texas knew him by his given name – Willie. He was born Willie Arnold Ryman III, named after his father and grandfather. Because his dad went by Bill, people in our family called him Billy.
Billy was only a year and a half younger than me but, as we grew up, that was enough for him to be my little cousin. Billy, his younger brother Barry, their sisters Kim and Karla, and their mom Shirley “Babe,” frequently joined by their dad, spent time every summer, and again at Thanksgiving, visiting our grandmother. Like most kids, our relationship varied from near-hate to virtual brotherhood, but was usually somewhere in between.
We had a lot of fun, roaming the fields southeast of Malden; shooting BB guns; visiting Mrs. Rhodes store for candy and soda; and playing football on the gravel road in front of Granny Corn’s home.
It was a great time to be boys, and we enjoyed every minute of it.
As the years went on our lives grew apart, as lives do. I kept up with him through family conversations. He was doing well. Billy and his sister, Kim, had joined the fire department, and both were liked and respected and considered among the best firefighters in their area. For his hard work, dependability, and heroism, Billy was named Firefighter of the Year two years in a row…the last two years of his life.
On February 6, 1998, Kim, who was a single mother, was on duty at the fire station. She asked her off-duty brother to check on her teen aged daughters, who were home alone. Kim had tried repeatedly but hadn’t been able to reach them by phone.
If Billy had known what was going on in the house when he pulled into the driveway, he might have done things differently, but he didn’t know, and it probably wouldn’t have stopped him anyway. Knowing Billy, it would have made him get there faster.
Earlier, Elroy Chester, who was on probation at the time, had arrived at Kim’s house and found the door unlocked. One of the girls was getting ready to watch TV when she heard the door opening. She looked up to see evil entering. Chester aimed his gun and said, “I bet you wish you’d locked the door, don’t you?” When her sister got home from a date, Chester told her, “Come inside or I’ll blow her head off.” He bound the girls with duct tape and assaulted both of them. It was clear that he planned to kill them.
Sometime around then, Billy and his girlfriend pulled up.
I was told that Chester was pointing the gun at a girl’s head when Billy opened the door. He rushed in to help his nieces and Chester shot him. Billy grappled with the man and Chester ran out of the house as the firefighter collapsed. Outside, Billy’s girlfriend locked the car door and Chester fired several shots into the vehicle. None of the shots hit the girl.
Shaking off his confusion, Elroy Chester realized he had left two of his victims alive to bear witness against him. He returned to the house but found that the girls had managed to loosen the tape enough that they could make their way into their mother’s bedroom and lock themselves in. He tried to force the door but one of the girls had retrieved the pistol Kim kept for home defense. She fired it and Chester ran away.
Billy’s selfless act had saved his nieces’ lives. There was nothing they could do to save his.
When the police questioned Elroy Chester he confessed to a six month crime spree. From August 1997 to February 1998, Chester committed three sexual assaults, two dozen burglaries, and five murders, and attempted five more. Billy was only 38 when he became the last person Chester killed.
One can only imagine how many lives were devastated by the criminal about whom Port Arthur Police Chief Mark Blanton would later say, “In my 37 years as a policeman, I’ve never met a man so evil in my life.”
As mentioned earlier, Elroy Chester admitted to killing Billy. He also confessed to killing 78-year-old John Henry Sepeda and 87-year-old Etta Mae Stallings during burglaries. He told police he stalked Cheryl DeLeon, 40, and beat her to death. He also acknowledged shooting his 35-year-old brother-in-law, Albert Bolden Jr., in the head.
With DNA evidence to tie him to the rapes; ballistics to match the gun to all five murders; and proof the gun was stolen in one of the 25 burglaries attributed to him, it took the jury only 12 minutes to find Elroy Chester guilty.
When the day for his execution came, as he was waiting for his sentence to be carried out, Chester said that he didn’t want relatives of his victims to have “hate in your heart for me.”
As Billy’s father and siblings waited, Chester added, “Don’t hate me. I’m sorry for taking your loved one.” He said, “Elroy Chester wasn’t a bad man. I don’t care what anybody says. A lot of people say I didn’t commit those murders. I really did it.”
Moments later, Chester told the warden to proceed and began humming what some described as a church hymn. He then took several deep breaths, yawned, and fell gently to sleep.
Elroy Chester was pronounced dead 27 minutes after the lethal drug was administered…fifteen years after he took Billy’s life…fifteen years after Billy thought of nothing but protecting the lives of people he loved as he rushed in to face an armed killer.
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