Debera Martinson was a woman after my own heart. Cautious to the point of paranoia, her luxurious North Dallas home—recently purchased for $200,000, a stratospheric sum in 1980—serving as both a showplace and a prison.
Debbie, twenty-eight, and her husband Don, age thirty-two, had grown up together in Spring Valley,
a blue-collar suburb of Houston;
the pair had begun dating in high school.
Although Debbie had worked as a nurse to support the family while Don Martinson attended Baylor Law School
she’d given up her career after the birth of the couple’s son the previous year.
While Don Martinson worked the long hours necessary to establish a law practice
Debbie, a homemaker par excellence,
whiled away her days doting on fifteen-month old baby David and keeping an immaculate house.
“I think she was probably very lonely; she was left alone so much.” Martinson neighbor Marty Dale, Dallas Morning News, April 2nd, 1980
Although the Martinsons’ financial situation was enviable
according to Debbie’s friends
the state of the couple’s union
was perhaps less so: an article in D Magazine portrays
as a petty tyrant intent
on throttling his wife’s social life with the family purse strings,
so heartless he forced Debbie to live in penury
and banished her beloved pets from the family home.
“[Debbie] could never go out and eat with us because she didn’t have enough money; they lived in a $200,000 house and she couldn’t afford to spend $3 at El Fenix.” Debbie’s former coworker Beverly Smith, D Magazine, September 1981
Although Don Martinson’s depiction as an uncaring husband is contested by his
law partner and business associates
there is one fact upon which all parties agree—Debera Martinson was a fearful person.
A compulsive checker of door and window locks,
Debbie lived a life permeated with dread,
certain violence and mayhem
lurked around every corner. And violence, as it turns out, did await—on March 31st, 1980 Debbie’s nightmares took human form and ended her fears forever.
“She had a horror of dying like this; Debbie Martinson would open a door to nobody.” Martinson family friend who requested anonymity, Fort Worth Star Telegram, April 7th, 1980
The morning of Debbie’s death Don Martinson left home at 7:15am en route to jury duty;
upon his return at 6:45pm he was greeted by the wails of baby David,
disconsolate in his crib—Debbie was nowhere to be found.
After he comforted his son Don Martinson went looking for his wife and stumbled instead upon a map to murder:
beginning in the doorway of the master bedroom
a line of Debbie’s clothing had been neatly laid out—blouse, bra, pantyhose, panties and skirt—the sequence culminating in Debbie’s nude corpse positioned on the carpet.
Cold to the touch, her body lay next to a smear of human feces,
a macramé plant holder wound tightly around her neck.
On the room’s floor-to-ceiling mirror
the killer had left a message scrawled in Debbie’s pale pink lipstick: “NOW WE ARE EVEN DON.”
“This is one of the strangest cases I’ve ever seen; we don’t know what the implication of the note is, but we have several theories.” Dallas County Detective Gerald Robinson, Beaver County Times, April 2nd, 1980
Debbie’s life was over, but the indignities inflicted upon her were not. After calling law enforcement Don Martinson went into seclusion, refusing to speak with detectives;
certain his silence was indicative of guilt the Dallas media exploded in a frenzy of speculation.
The city was still reeling from the high-profile murder trial of Cullen Davis, a wealthy oil magnate—when word spread Don Martinson had hired one of Cullen Davis’s criminal defense attorneys his guilt seemed a foregone conclusion.
“We don’t know what is evidence and what isn’t—to be ridiculous, we don’t even know if the dining room table is evidence, if it belongs there.” Dallas County Sergeant Bill Parker on the difficulty of investigating Debbie’s murder without Don Martinson’s cooperation. Dallas Morning News, April 4th, 1980
The first forty-eight hours of a homicide investigation are the most critical,
but this deadline came and went and still Don Martinson continued to stonewall detectives.
The delay in speaking to law enforcement,
according to his attorney, was due to Martinson’s grief at his wife’s death;
regardless of the reason for his silence
it did the investigation into Debbie’s murder no favors.
The note left by the killer seemed to imply Debbie had been slain in retribution for her husband’s misdeeds,
but without Don Martinson’s input
detectives were unable to determine if the message was a legitimate clue or merely staging.
“I made numerous attempts in the past two days to contact the husband about his wife’s habits but have had no luck in talking with him.” Sergeant Bill Parker, The Seguin Gazette-Enterprise, April 4th, 1980Finally, five days after his wife’s death,
Martinson, criminal defense attorney in tow,
deigned to sit
for a two-hour interview with investigators.
Martinson denied having any enemies
or disgruntled clients at his law office—the benign nature of his civil practice was unlikely to engender litigants’ wrath, he claimed.
At detectives’ request Martinson then
compiled and delivered a list of workmen who’d visited the Martinson home in the weeks before the crime; the family had moved into the palatial manse at 16818 Deer Park Drive only two months before the murder,
and delivery drivers and handymen were frequent callers as they settled into their new abode.
“[The murder] couldn’t have had anything to do with his law practice—no way. It’s just not the kind of practice that sparks that kind of feeling with people.” Donald Martinson’s law partner Robert Fanning, Dallas Morning News, April 2nd, 1980
The medical examiner’s report was a bombshell.
Although the lack of forcible entry at the scene
seemed to indicate Debbie had known her attacker
the results of her autopsy
indicated that attacker had almost certainly been
someone other than
Don Martinson—Debbie’s time of death was estimated to be sometime between 10am and 1pm,
when Martinson was corralled in the courthouse with other potential jurors;
he’d been dismissed at 3:30pm, at which point his wife was already dead.
“Mrs. Martinson wouldn’t have taken her clothes off for God.” Unnamed Debera Martinson confidante, Fort Worth Star Telegram, April 20th, 1980
Although Debbie hadn’t been vaginally raped the medical examiner found semen in her mouth and her wrists and ankles bore traces of adhesive—she’d been bound with tape, although the assailant had removed the bindings from the scene.
Debbie still wore her expensive wedding ring and watch,
and her hair was in curlers—a meticulous dresser, she clearly hadn’t been expecting visitors.
Though the evidence at the scene implied Debbie had been slain in a sex crime
rather than a domestic homicide
in the Dallas newspapers, at least, the die had been cast.
Even with the emergence of a more plausible suspect the local media would continue to look askance at Don Martinson.
“In domestic murders I think the spouse is the first suspect about sixty per cent of the time; I just didn’t want anyone taking advantage of Don while he was in such an emotional state.” Don Martinson’s attorney Phil Burleson, D Magazine, September 1981
As investigators from the Dallas Police Department perused the list of workmen recently dispatched to the
Martinson home one name caught their attention:
Donald Wayne Hemphill, age thirty,
a twice convicted sex offender
freshly sprung from federal custody.
Hemphill’s criminal record kicked off in 1972
with an arrest for indecent exposure in Oklahoma—he’d forcibly held a woman down and masturbated on her. Given a two year sentence,
Hemphill was apparently unrehabilitated
by his sojourn behind bars—in 1974 he was sent back
to serve a three year term
after being convicted of sexual indecency
and assault with threat of rape;
wielding a steel bar, Hemphill was in the process of attacking a Tulsa store clerk when a customer happened by and saved the day.
“I’ve done a number of bad things in the past, but murder is out of my ballpark.” Donald Wayne Hemphill, Fort Worth Star Telegram, May 21st, 1980
After being paroled on the attempted rape charge the two-time loser relocated to Texas, but apparently the change of scenery did not occasion a change in Hemphill’s ability to stay out of jail—in 1976 he was convicted of extortion after posing as an FBI agent in a bid to fleece a local car dealer;
a three year sentence in federal prison followed.
When first paroled in 1978 Hemphill made quite the show of dedicating his life to God,
joining Valwood Baptist Church and marrying Bible-thumping divorcée Jan McMeans,
but not even Jesus could keep him on the straight and narrow—nabbed in flagrante delicto masturbating in the parking lot of the Richardson Public Library, his parole was swiftly revoked.
“[He’s] a starer. You could feel him looking at you after you walked off.” Donald Wayne Hemphill’s neighbor Helen Ward, Dallas Morning News, April 14th, 1980
God hates the sin but he loves the sinner:
Hemphill’s new wife and the congregation of Valwood Baptist Church
stood by him when he was shipped back to prison to finish his sentence on the extortion charge.
Upon his release the following year
Hemphill obtained a job installing television sets for JC Penney,
lying about his criminal record on his employment application.
He had been on the job only a few weeks when he was sent to the Martinson residence to install a television set.
Hemphill first visited the Martinson home
on March 10th and then again on March 14th;
affixing the aerial was apparently a herculean task—on his second visit
Hemphill spent most of the day ensconced in the Martinson’s attic yet was still unable to complete the installation.
“[Detectives] came across a man with a record like mine and felt they had a likely suspect.” Donald Wayne Hemphill, Fort Worth Star Telegram, May 13th, 1980
Debbie had mentioned the friendly JC Penney repairman
to several friends and her father,
for Hemphill’s (self-professed) hard-knock upbringing
and cancer-stricken mother-in-law.
Claiming he needed time to procure the proper tools,
Hemphill was scheduled to return
to chez Martinson for a third time on March 22nd
but hadn’t shown up—March 31st, the day of Debbie’s murder, Martinson had been on the first day of a scheduled five-day vacation from work.
“I had just started a new life—just because my past isn’t good doesn’t mean that a man can’t change.” Donald Wayne Hemphill, The Galveston Daily News, May 14th, 1980.
With a week elapsed since the crime and DNA technology a decade in the future Dallas PD did their best to build a case against Hemphill but evidence was scarce;
with the passage of seven days the other residents of Deer Park Drive
were hard-pressed to remember details of the day Debbie was slain.
Detectives could find only one witness
who remembered spotting a stranger in the neighborhood on the day of the crime:
twelve-year old Jodie Fried had espied a mustachioed man wearing a white eyepatch
loitering near the Martinson home midmorning.
According to detectives,
although she was unable to pick anyone out of a photo line-up Miss Fried did gesture towards Hemphill’s image and say, “This looks like the man.”
“The good Lord knows I didn’t do it.” Donald Wayne Hemphill, Fort Worth Star Telegram, May 13th, 1980
Fellow JC Penny employee Ray Neeley confirmed Hemphill did in fact sport an eyepatch on occasion,
and a forensic document examiner was able to verify a match
between the printing on Hemphill’s JC Penney application and the note scrawled on the mirror.
The fact that Hemphill and the victim’s husband
both shared the first name (“Don”) emblazoned in lipstick at the crime scene was deemed coincidental;
Hemphill had staged the message in an attempt to misdirect the investigation towards Don Martinson’s business associates, detectives believed.
“Would [Hemphill] risk his new life . . . by signing his crime like a high school sophomore on the town water tower?” Journalist Mary Candace Evans, D Magazine, September 1981
Many in the Dallas County DA’s office felt the case against Hemphill was too weak to prosecute—a neighbor at his apartment complex
claimed to have seen Hemphill
on the morning of the crime,
furnishing him with a partial alibi.
Hoping his arrest
might shake loose
more evidence Dallas police arrested Hemphill on April 12th,
in an early-morning raid as he slumbered beside his pregnant wife.
“We are still hoping more witnesses who may have been reluctant will come forward.” Sergeant Bill Parker, Fort Worth Star Telegram, April 16th, 1980
The pastor and congregants of Valwood Baptist Church were unwavering in their support, staging a garage sale to pay Hemphill’s legal fees and extolling his born-again transformation in the press.
Despite his history of sexual assault
the Valwood congregation was certain of Hemphill’s innocence;
the intractable nature of sexual deviance was no match for the healing power of Jesus Christ, they averred.
With criminal profiling still in its infancy
the pattern of escalation often exhibited by sex offenders had not yet become common knowledge—the fact that Hemphill had not murdered his other victims was evidence of his innocence, his supporters maintained.
“I think they ought to investigate more in detail before they arrest a man for a thing like this; something like this can wreck a man’s life.” Donald Wayne Hemphill, The Deseret News, May 14th, 1980
Interestingly, the media coverage of Hemphill’s arrest dripped with skepticism—despite the autopsy results journalists seemed unwilling to veer from their negative slant toward Don Martinson.
Hemphill was treated with kid gloves in the press,
his claims of religious conversion taken at face value—the twice-convicted sex offender
was portrayed as something of a folk hero,
an everyman aligned against “heavy-moneyed people” susceptible to Don Martinson’s influence.
Valwood pastor Joe W. Mosely was so pleased with Hemphill’s favorable media coverage
he successfully nominated Star Telegram reporter C.C. Risenhoover for the 1980 Texas Baptist Communications Award.
“[S]ome police officers and reporters who followed the case think murder is just not Hemphill’s style.” Journalist Mary Candace Evans, D Magazine, September 1981
It’s unclear if the subsequent events were engineered by dumb luck or divine intervention,
but the case against Hemphill fell apart during the grand jury proceedings:
Hemphill’s coworker Ray Neeley recanted his eyepatch testimony,
stating that while he may have seen Hemphill wear a patch on occasion he wasn’t certain enough to swear to it.
Even more devastating for the prosecution’s case,
the forensic document examiner backtracked from his previous declaration of a match
between Hemphill’s writing and the lipsticked note.
The sample on the mirror was too small to make a definitive determination,
the expert now claimed—he could confirm the writing was consistent, but nothing more.
“All glory to God!” Wife Jan McMeans Hemphill reacting to the collapse of the case against her husband. D Magazine, September 1981
Tween neighbor Jody Fried’s avowal Hemphill was the man she’d spotted near the Martinson home the morning of the murder was unwavering but insufficient;
although she identified him in the courtroom her failure to pick Hemphill out of the photo lineup
undermined the prosecution’s case.
In the days before criminal forensics circumstantial evidence was king,
and proving guilt without the benefit of DNA
was a far more daunting proposition—on May 14th the grand jury declined to issue an indictment.
Bible in hand, Hemphill left the courtroom on the arm of his
four-months pregnant wife, thanking the Almighty and pledging to sue the Dallas Police Department for false arrest.
“I knew the Lord would see to it that this would be over with; our life revolves around our Church and our God—whatever Don has done in the past, God has forgiven him for that.” Jan McMeans Hemphill, Dallas Morning News, May 13th, 1980
Despite the exultant media
coverage Hemphill was unable
to reclaim his job with JC Penney,
his history as a sex offender
ineligible for employment;
he instead went to work as the janitor at Valwood Baptist Church,
his lawsuit against the Dallas PD
abandoned at the behest
of forgiveness enthusiast
Jesus H. Christ.
“I was really gung-ho about bringing a lawsuit against the police but the Lord put a conviction on me not to sue.” Donald Wayne Hemphill, Fort Worth Star Telegram, July 30th, 1980
And here this story should end,
Debbie Martinson’s murder
but the innocent handyman
his arrest a textbook example
of the dangers
of tunnel vision and
sloppy police work. Donald Wayne Hemphill’s propensity for sexually terrorizing women was in the past; with Jesus, life is a giant Etch-A-Sketch—any sin no matter how heinous
can be easily erased with a flick of His divine wrist.
With God, anything is possible.
“I try not to feel bitter because the Lord doesn’t want us to feel that way; anytime I start feeling bitter I ask the Lord to help me.” Donald Wayne Hemphill, Fort Worth Star Telegram, May 21st, 1980
On May 23rd, 1981—almost exactly one year after Hemphill was no-billed by the grand jury—a twenty-seven year old Fort Worth woman was ambushed after leaving a nightclub;
the attacker pounced as she exited her car in front of her home.
Brandishing a knife and holding a towel on his lower face to prevent identification,
the assailant forced the terrified woman into his car and
drove to a secluded location where he demanded she perform an “unnatural sex act,” old-time media parlance for fellatio.
The attacker then proceeded to vaginally rape the victim, and upon completion of the act she was thrown from the car naked, left lying in the road as her rapist motored off with her clothes and purse.
Fort Worth detectives had no leads in the case, but the rapist’s torment of his victim was not yet complete;
the attacker began to harass the traumatized woman with obscene phone calls.
Investigators placed a trace on the victim’s phone line;
the first spate of calls originated from various payphones in the Fort Worth area,
but eventually the attacker got lazy and called from—you guessed it—his home,
the Donald Wayne Hemphill residence.
“Don’t struggle and you won’t get hurt.” Hemphill to his Fort Worth victim, Fort Worth Star Telegram, June 5th, 1981
Despite his towel swaddling the victim had no problem picking Hemphill out of a lineup; he was arrested on June 2nd, 1981, ten days after the crime.
This time the Valwood Baptist Church declined to trumpet Hemphill’s Christian credentials in the media
or host a rummage sale in his honor—evidence of his guilt was overwhelming.
Looking at a life term as a thrice-convicted sex offender
Hemphill opted to plead guilty in exchange for a thirty-five year sentence with parole eligibility in eleven years.
When Hemphill acknowledged his guilt and apologized to the victim at his sentencing hearing
no mention of his religious conversion
or his wingman Jesus Christ was uttered.
“I’m sorry.” Donald Wayne Hemphill’s apology to his Fort Worth victim, Fort Worth Star Telegram, February 4th, 1982
Although Hemphill’s rape of the Fort Worth victim
tended to buttress his guilt in Debera Martinson’s murder the conviction would be inadmissible in a homicide trial
(unless, of course, Hemphill took the stand in his own defense—an unlikely move
on the part of such a seasoned con).
And so with no new evidence
the investigation into the crime the Dallas media dubbed “The Lipstick Murder” languished, much to the anguish of Debbie’s father John Woodson.
“I would give up my house and everything I own if I thought it would help find the man who killed Debbie.” John Woodson, Wilmington Morning Star, March 14th, 1982
Don Martinson married a receptionist at his law office approximately a year after Debbie’s murder;
he has never spoken to the press about the crime,
deflecting all inquiries to his lawyer.
In the face of her widower’s silence John Woodson became his daughter’s de facto champion in the media,
always handy with a quote for the retrospectives published the first few years after the crime.
Devastated by Debbie’s death,
the grieving father became consumed with his quest to hold someone accountable for her murder,
putting up a 10K reward for information despite his meager financial circumstances.
Eventually Mr. Woodson was fired from his longtime job,
his focus on his daughter’s case eroding his efficacy as an employee.
The years marched on, Donald Wayne Hemphill safely incarcerated in the Texas penal system;
eventually the media mentions of the once-sensational Lipstick Murder faded away, superseded by newer crimes.
Debbie’s father John Woodson died in 1991, her most vocal defender gone, her death still unavenged.
“I hope I live long enough to hear the man who killed my daughter say he did it; I won’t be satisfied ‘til he’s dead.” John Woodson, Dallas Morning News, February 22nd, 1982
Donald Wayne Hemphill may have disappeared from the media but he failed to disappear from planet earth, unfortunately;
although I can’t find the exact date in any newspaper archives
he was apparently paroled on the Fort Worth rape by 1994 and back on the prowl—in March of that year
the Valwood Church’s poster boy for redemption was again arrested,
charged with aggravated sexual assault and kidnapping in Abilene.
By July he was back in prison serving fifty years,
chipping away at his life sentence on the installment plan.
Hemphill is eligible for parole on the Abilene charges in 2019, at the age of sixty-eight;
the status of the investigation into Debbie’s murder is unknown.
“It’s always the victim that’s overlooked.” Debbie’s father John Woodson speaking a universal truth, Fort Worth Star Telegram, May 13th, 1980
Texas has a stellar record for preserving decades-old evidence,
but even if the crime lab has discarded the semen sample found in Debbie’s mouth
touch DNA can almost certainly harvest epithelial cells from the clothing trail at the crime scene.
Obviously there’s an infinitesimal chance Donald Wayne Hemphill is not Debbie’s killer,
but with modern technology the question can now be definitively answered—and Texas death penalty statutes,
praise Jesus, were in full effect at the time of the crime.
If Hemphill did kill Debbie I hope he’s obsessing about a reinvestigation into the case as frantically as Debbie used to obsess about home intruders.
It saddens me there’s no one advocating for Debbie in the press or pressuring Dallas PD to reopen her case;
it’s almost as if she’s been forgotten.
When I get up tonight in the wee hours of the morning to check my door and window locks (as I always do)
I’ll think of Debbie and send a plea out into the universe that she finally receives the justice she deserves;
she could never rest easy in life, but may she finally rest easy in death.