Mary, Mary, Not So Contrary: The Laws of Probability and the Mary Morris Murders

Posted: August 4, 2013 in Uncategorized

At what point does coincidence become so unlikely as to constitute a prima facie case for connection? 
In a three day span in October 2000 two Houston residents named Mary Morris were murdered,
and nearly fifteen years later
detectives are still trying to determine if the cases are linked. Although the murder of identically-named victims evokes the plotline of the classic science fiction film The Terminator, at the current time
a time-traveling cyborg
is the only possible perpetrator of these baffling crimes
that has been definitively ruled out.


As was her custom, at 6am on the morning of Oct. 12th, 2000,
Mary Henderson Morris departed for her job at the Chase Bank in Houston’s Spring Valley;
it was the last time the forty-eight year old loan officer would be seen alive. 
At approximately 5pm in a remote area of Harris County
the driver of an off-road vehicle spotted the burned out hulk
that had once been Henderson Morris’s Chevy Lumina; although smoke had been reported in the vicinity
at 10:20am the fire department had attributed the sighting to burning leaves
and thus declined to investigate.
Although the isolated drainage site where the car was found is only three miles distant
from the Baytown ranch Henderson Morris shared with her husband Jay,
the area is in the opposite direction Henderson Morris would have traveled on her way to work.
Described by her daughter Marilyn Blaylock as “one of the nicest people you’d ever want to know,”
Mary Henderson Morris had absolutely no enemies—her five-year marriage was reportedly blissful
and her fifteen year tenure at Chase Bank both intellectually and financially rewarding.
Being well-liked and well-respected by all who knew her, however,
did not spare this beloved mother and successful career woman
from a ghastly demise—for reasons that investigators could not yet fathom someone had saturated her car with accelerant and set the vehicle ablaze with Henderson Morris entombed inside. 
The fire was so intense that visual identification of Henderson Morris’s remains was impossible;
the medical examiner used tooth fragments to confirm the identity
of the charred corpse—attempts to establish the exact time and cause of Henderson Morris’s death
were futile. The only items missing from the crime scene
were the victim’s purse and wedding ring;
police doubted robbery was the motive for the slaying, however, as the remainder of Henderson Morris’s jewelry had been left at the scene.

The motive for her murder was not the only mystery plaguing the investigation into Henderson Morris’s death;
detectives have never been able to determine her whereabouts between 6am,
when Henderson Morris was last seen,
and 10:20am, when the smoke from her burning vehicle was mistakenly attributed to burning shrubbery.
The last earthly hours of Mary Henderson Morris
remain as shrouded in shadows as the the identity of her killer.

In an odd twist, the most intriguing lead in the case was
delivered not to law enforcement but to the press;
the day after Henderson Morris’s murder an unknown man reportedly called The Houston Chronicle
and uttered a single cryptic pronouncement:
“They got the wrong Mary Morris.”
At the time the phantom caller’s tip seemed nonsensical, but a subsequent event may have clarified the meaning
of the enigmatic message—three days later a second Mary Morris,
Mary McGinnis Morris, age thirty-nine,
was found murdered in her car. Two Marys Morris slain within three days; had a bumbling hitman dispatched the wrong Mary Morris?

The two Marys Morris had never met;
and although both women were sturdily-built brunettes of a certain age
there was one aspect of the Marys’ lives that diverged sharply—Mary Henderson Morris was bereft of enemies,
but there was not one but two men who may have had reason
to want Mary McGinnis Morris dead.


A recent transplant from West Virginia, McGinnis Morris’s seventeen-year marriage
to her husband Mike had begun to sour upon the couple’s arrival in Houston
two years earlier—their union was rocked by allegations of infidelity,
and Mike’s inability to secure gainful employment created financial pressures
which further frayed their tenuous bond. 
Sadly, marital discord was not the only vexation in Mary McGinnis Morris’s life;
troubles were a’brew at her place of employment as well.
A nurse practitioner, McGinnis Morris was the medical director of Union Carbide,
a company notorious for killing four thousand Indians during a poison gas leak in Bhopal in 1984. 
Karmic implications aside,
McGinnis Morris had initially loved her job; in early 2000, however,
the company had hired a male nurse named Duane Young with whom she reportedly clashed. 
Although the severity of this dispute varies upon the telling,
according to Mike Morris the situation had become so heated his wife
asked him to purchase a gun for her protection. This firearm, registered to Mike Morris,
was customarily ensconced under the driver’s seat of Mary McGinnis Morris’s car.

On the Friday before her death the situation at Union Carbide,
whether blood-stoked vendetta or minor personality conflict,
reached a climax;
McGinnis Morris reportedly found the words “death to her” scrawled on a desktop calendar in her office.
Understandably distraught,
McGinnis Morris was allowed to leave work for the day, and when Duane Young arrived at the office later that afternoon he was fired.
On Sunday, October 15th,
her last day on earth,
Mary McGinnis Morris performed a hodgepodge of banal errands, a typical Sunday with the most atypical of endings.
She visited the post office, purchased groceries,
and stopped by the Union Carbide office
to administer a flu shot to Laurie Gemmell, a close friend and co-worker. 
This was not the only contact McGinnis Morris would have with Laurie Gemmell that day.
At her last stop, an Eckerd drug store,
McGinnis Morris called Gemmell and said she’d spotted someone who was “giving her the creeps.” 
Although McGinnis Morris believed the alleged creeper
was an associate of her workplace bête noir, Duane Young,
Gemmell claims her friend did not seem unduly alarmed at the time; in an interview with The Houston Chronicle
Gemmell later described McGinnis Morris’s demeanor as “matter of fact.”
According to Gemmell,
before ending the call McGinnis Morris said she intended to go back to Union Carbide to log out of the computer system before heading home.

Twelve minutes after the culmination of her conversation with Laurie Gemmell
a 911 call was placed from Mary McGinnis Morris’s cellphone;
neither a transcript nor the call itself has ever been released to the public,
but the recording is widely believed to bear witness to Mary McGinnis Morris’s last moments on earth.
“Anybody that’s ever heard that tape has just had their blood chilled listening to it,”
a detective on the case later remarked. “It’s a very chilling, disturbing call.”

When McGinnis Morris failed to arrive home that evening
her husband Mike reported her missing;
the next day a wrecker driver spotted her Dodge Intrepid on West Little York street,
less than twenty-five miles from the secluded woodland where Mary Henderson Morris’s car had been set alight
four days earlier.
The car’s blood-spattered passenger-side door was open,
and the corpse of Mary McGinnis Morris lay inside, a single gunshot wound evident on her battered skull.

Unlike the smoking heap of bone fragments and melted steel at the Henderson Morris crime scene,
McGinnis Morris’s vehicle had been left unburned;
yet although the evidence present at the scene had not been incinerated
the odd tableau in the car
failed to present a straightforward blueprint of McGinnis Morris’s demise.
despite having been brutally beaten,
Mary McGinnis Morris’s death had been staged to look like a suicide,
and forensic tests later confirmed she’d been shot with her own gun.
There was also evidence that McGinnis Morris been gagged, and defensive wounds bore mute testament to her valiant struggle against her assailant.

Upon investigation
the curious circumstances surrounding Mary McGinnis Morris’s murder grew only murkier. 
Two hours after her frantic 911 call
phone records indicate Mike Morris made a four minute call to his wife’s phone. 
At this juncture Mary McGinnis Morris was ostensibly dead,
her last agonized gasps forever immortalized in the emergency service recording;
with whom, pray tell, was Mike Morris conversing?
When questioned by investigators Mike Morris admitted making the call
but claimed the phone had never been answered—frantic to find his missing wife,
he allowed the phone to ring for four minutes
in hopes she would eventually pick up, he alleged.
When detectives advised him that this was an impossibility—the phone records clearly confirmed
the call had been answered—Mike, in the manner of grieving husbands nowhere,
lawyered up and refused to assist in the investigation of his dearly-departed wife’s demise.

Detectives’ suspicion that Mike Morris was somehow involved in his wife’s death
solidified when they discovered Mary McGinnis Morris possessed a hefty life insurance policy
courtesy of Union Carbide;
Mike Morris, they learned, had almost a quarter of a million reasons to want his wife dead.
Their marriage had, by all accounts, been troubled;
had Mike sought to rid himself of a troublesome spouse and solve his financial woes in one fell swoop?
The McGinnis Morris marriage certainly wouldn’t be the first unhappy union to end
with the roar of a gunshot
and a hastily-staged suicide scene.

To some investigators,
the murder weapon utilized in McGinnis Morris’s slaying seemed especially damning;
as a detective on the case later noted,
“How would someone know she had a gun in her car?
If she had been killed by just anyone with a gun, that would be one thing,
but she was killed with the family gun.”
A curious circumstance indeed.

The noose of suspicion around Mike Morris’s neck appeared to tighten: the sole item determined to be missing
from the McGinnis Morris crime scene was a single
piece of jewelry—a ring McGinnis Morris was known to habitually wear;
months later, however,
a friend spotted Mike Morris’s daughter from a previous relationship wearing this very same ring.
When confronted with this discrepancy
Mike claimed he’d found the ring at home after his wife’s murder
and had simply forgotten to inform detectives of this fact;
a strange oversight, to put it mildly.

Yet although there appeared to be a fair amount of circumstantial evidence indicating Mike Morris’s
involvement in his wife’s death
investigators still had far more loose ends than solid answers.
Was Mary McGinnis Morris’s feud with coworker Duane Young simply a McGuffin,
his “death to her” scrawl merely a poorly-timed empty threat?
And why was her death staged to look like a suicide despite the obvious grisly trappings of murder?

Moreover, despite their best efforts
detectives had failed to solve one of the central mysteries of the case:
what, if any, was the relationship between the two Marys’ murders?
Without answers to these questions the case against Mike Morris was as dead as the heroes of the Alamo,
and the investigation thus plodded on,
as inexorable as the blazing sun on the arid Texas plains.

The investigation’s final development of note
occurred six months after the Marys’ murders: Mary Henderson Morris’s husband Jay,
still benumbed with grief,
discovered two thousand dollars’ worth of phone calls had recently been billed
to his dead wife’s calling card.
Police eventually tracked the calls to a sixteen year old girl
who claimed to have found Henderson Morris’s phone card in a discarded purse at a convenience store in Galveston,
roughly an hour’s drive from Houston.
The teen still had possession of the card, but claimed she’d given the purse
in which it had been found
to a neighbor. When police retrieved the purse in question from the teen’s neighbor,
however, Mary Henderson Morris’s family unequivocally declared
that their loved one had never owned such a purse.
Had Henderson Morris’s killer transferred the dead woman’s calling card to a decoy purse
before abandoning it at the minimart? And if so, to what end? If the decoy purse offered a clue to the killer’s identity
detectives were unable to decipher it—yet another once-promising lead
that fizzled lamentably into nothingness.

The shenanigans with his dead wife’s phone card
were not the only telephonic travails Jay Morris endured after his wife’s murder.
After the crime the distraught widower began to receive strange calls on his unlisted home phone number;
the male caller would ask to speak to Mary
and Jay, flustered anew with each call,
would simply say his wife was not home. Eventually, on the advice of law enforcement
Jay told the mysterious caller he had a number where Mary could be reached
and then relayed the phone number of the Harris County Sherriff’s Department. Upon hearing this news
the phantom caller said simply “Oh, yeah, right,”
and never called again. Investigators were able to trace these calls to a nearby apartment complex
but the lead went nowhere, another dead end in a case which at times
seemed to consist solely of false leads, red herrings and pixie dust.

Eventually the two murders,
Mary Henderson Morris’s with no suspects,
and Mary McGinnis Morris’s with too many suspects,
began to grow cold. Despite the intriguing tip to The Houston Chronicle   the police
have never been able to definitively ascertain whether the Marys’ murders are linked—it’s quite possible,
detectives believe, that while plotting Mary McGinnis Morris’s murder her killer
learned of the fortuitously timed random murder of Mary Henderson Morris
and raised the specter of an imaginary hitman
to muddy the investigative waters.
There was, however, a single clue which seemed to give credence
to the involvement of a hired gun—Mary Henderson Morris’s wedding ring was missing
yet her other jewelry left intact;
and hired assassins often sieze a victim’s wedding ring as proof the deed has been accomplished.
Thus the hit-gone-awry theory,
like all other theories, motives and suspects in the Mary Morris murders
remains locked in an investigative netherworld—unable to be unequivocally ruled out
yet lacking in sufficient evidence
to be proven beyond a reasonable doubt.

In 2002 the Marys’ murders were profiled on an episode of Unsolved Mysteries,
and speculation about the case teemed on the show’s message boards.
Duane Young, the male nurse with whom Mary McGinnis Morris skirmished,
has been a persistent and vocal presence in these venues. Unhappy with his portrayal in the media,
Young claims to be an innocent naif set up as a patsy in his co-worker’s murder.
Mike Morris and Laurie Gemmell, he alleges,
conspired to make his minor employment-related spat with McGinnis Morris
appear to be a viable motive for murder—another possible scenario
in a case which has no shortage of them.
Young’s protestations of innocence eventually became so contentious the Mary Morris murders
are now topic non grata
on the main Unsolved Mysteries  message board. I have no opinions regarding Mr. Young’s guilt or innocence,
but I do find it fitting that this multifaceted Texas murder case
may have its very own Lee Harvey Oswald.

Fifteen years later, the inability of investigators to solve these brutal crimes
torments the families of both Marys Morris,
who have not only suffered the loss of a loved one but been denied long-sought answers
to the many questions surrounding the Marys’ deaths.
Although detectives are unsure if the Marys’ murders are connected there is no denying that in death,
the two Marys and their families have become inextricably linked. 
After meeting at the taping of a Mary Morris-themed episode of The Montel Williams Show,
Mary McGinnis Morris’s sister Stephanie Loar
and Mary Henderson Morris’s daughter Marilyn Blalock
became fast friends. 
“She’s the only person I know who’s ever been through anything like this,” Blalock said of Loar. “It’s not a good thing to have in common, but we know what the other is going through.”
United in their grief, Blalock moved across the country to Bridgeport, Connecticut to be near Loar.
“She lost her mom but gained a family,” Loar told a reporter from The Exponent Telegram. “We lost a sister but gained her family.” That something good could spring from the horrific murders of two innocent women
is a testament to the resilience of the human spirit and the boundless capacity of the human heart; regardless of whether their murders are ever solved the Marys will live on in those who knew and loved them.

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