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Families face man charged in killings of 22 elderly Texans

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Posted at 4:57 PM, Oct 14, 2022
and last updated 2022-10-14 17:57:59-04

DALLAS (AP) — A week after the second conviction of a man charged in the deaths of 22 elderly women, family members of those he is accused of killing gathered at a Dallas courthouse Friday to face him.

In Ellen French House’s victim impact statement, she told Billy Chemirmir, who was wearing a striped jail uniform, that she wanted him to see two photos of her mother: one of Norma French alive, the other after the 85-year-old was killed.

“This is my beautiful mother,” House said as she displayed the first photo. “This is my mother after you pried her wedding ring off of her finger that she couldn’t even get off.”

For most of the families, Friday may be their only chance to face Chemirmir in a courthouse. After trying Chemirmir in two of the deaths and obtaining two sentences of life in prison without parole, Dallas County prosecutors have said they will dismiss their remaining 11 capital murder cases against him. Prosecutors in neighboring Collin County haven’t yet said if they will try any of their nine capital murder cases against him.

Chemirmir, 49, received his second sentence of life in prison without parole last Friday after being convicted of capital murder in the smothering death of 87-year-old Mary Brooks. He was already sentenced to life in prison without parole for an April conviction in the death of 81-year-old Lu Thi Harris.

Authorities say he preyed on older women, killing them and stealing their valuables. Time after time, their deaths were initially determined to be from natural causes, even as family members raised alarm bells about missing jewelry. He has been charged in deaths over a two-year span.

Loren Adair Smith told Chemirmir that at 91, her mother, Phyllis Payne, was still a “vibrant, active, loving, amazing woman” who was “still living a fabulous life” when she was killed.

“You stole my mom, my best friend,” Smith said. “And for what? A bit of jewelry? A bit of silver?”

She said she and her brother were convinced their mother would live to be 100. “We just wanted time, and you stole that time from us,” Smith said.

As the family members spoke, emotions ranged from forgiveness to anger to an expressed desire for Chemirmir, who has maintained his innocence, to confess. Several family members said they still have nightmares about the way their loved one died.

It was a woman’s survival of a March 2018 attack that set Chemirmir’s arrest in motion. Mary Annis Bartel, then 91, told police a man forced his way into her apartment at an independent living community for seniors, tried to smother her with a pillow and took her jewelry.

Police testified they found Chemirmir the next day in the parking lot of his apartment complex holding jewelry and cash, having just thrown away a large red jewelry box. Documents in the jewelry box led them to the home of Harris, who was found dead in her bedroom, lipstick smeared on her pillow.

Prosecutors presented evidence at Chemirmir’s trials that he and Harris had been at the same Walmart just hours before she was found dead.

After Chemirmir’s arrest, police across the Dallas area reexamined deaths, and the charges against him grew. Many of the victims’ children have said they were left perplexed by the deaths at the time, as their mothers, though older, were still healthy and active. Four indictments were added this summer.

Most of the victims lived in apartments at independent living communities for older people. One woman who lived in a private home was the widow of a man Chemirmir cared for while working as an at-home caregiver.

As the victims’ children began finding each other, they formed Secure Our Seniors’ Safety, which has worked to pass legislation surrounding the safety of older people.

Lindsey Watkins told Chemirmir that she was just 18 when she went to check on her grandmother, 82-year-old Helen Lee, after she didn’t show up for church and found her dead.

“What you’ll never understand is that her jewelry was the least valuable thing that you stole,” Watkins said. “Her life was worth just a few thousand dollars to you. But it was worth everything to me.”