TV & Movies

It Took Investigators 23 Years To Correctly Identify Helen Wilson's Real Killer

HBO's Mind Over Murder revisits the 1985 case of the "Beatrice Six."

Originally Published: 
Bulletin board of photos and clippings from Helen Wilson’s murder, as seen in HBO's 'Mind Over Murde...
Courtesy of HBO

HBO’s original six-part documentary series, Mind Over Murder, revisits the 1985 rape and murder of Helen Wilson, a beloved 68-year-old grandmother in the small town of Beatrice, Nebraska. At the center of the complex story is a group of individuals known as the “Beatrice Six,” who eventually confessed to the crime, but in a bizarre turn of events, they were all exonerated by DNA evidence more than two decades later. In 2009, authorities revealed Helen Wilson’s killer to be Bruce Allen Smith, one of their 10 original suspects who officials wrongly cleared early in the investigation, raising questions about the reliability of confessions and memory in criminal cases.

On the night Wilson was killed in February 1985, Smith had been drinking in a local bar before leaving for a party around midnight, per the Beatrice Daily Sun. After threatening to rape a fellow attendee at that event, he was thrown out and threatened to “get even,” according to testimony. At approximately 3:30 a.m. on Feb. 6, someone drove Smith back to Beatrice, and that’s when he’s believed to have entered Wilson’s apartment building to commit the alleged sexual assault and murder.

Among the additional evidence that landed Smith on an early suspect list, a convenience store clerk reported seeing him covered in blood the next morning. Meanwhile, a wallet he was suspected of stealing was also found near the crime scene. Law enforcement traveled to Oklahoma — where Smith had returned to days after the murder — to retrieve DNA samples from him. The Oklahoma State Crime Lab tested his DNA, but due to limited resources at the time, the lab wrongly determined he was not a match to blood and semen found at the crime scene. (The Oklahoma lab’s analyst later faced accusations of falsifying evidence.)

Based on a tip from a 17-year-old informant, investigators turned their attention to Joseph White, Thomas Winslow, Ada Taylor, Debra Shelden, James Dean, and Kathy Gonzalez, aka the “Beatrice Six.” Following a series of reported psychological manipulation and coerced confessions, White was found guilty of first-degree murder in late 1989, and the other five were convicted for aiding in the alleged crimes. Meanwhile, Smith died of AIDS in Oklahoma City in 1992, following several run-ins with the law, including a 1981 arrest for rape and a two-year stint in the Oklahoma State Penitentiary from 1987 to 1989 for burglary. He was 30 years old at the time of his death.

Then, in 2008, law enforcement began reviewing Wilson’s homicide case, and within three months, they determined the Beatrice Six were innocent. Through their review of the evidence and new DNA testing, officials conclusively identified Smith as the person who raped and murdered Wilson in 1985. “I’m proud that because of [law enforcement] efforts we know the truth,” Nebraska Attorney General John Bruning said during a press conference, noting that Smith had acted alone. “Nobody has any doubt that this was the killer.”

After collectively serving 77 years in prison for a crime they did not commit, the “Beatrice Six” was exonerated in 2009. The same year, White, who later died in a 2011 work-related accident, filed a civil rights lawsuit, and the group was ultimately awarded $28.1 million in damages. Although, as Wilson’s grandson makes plain in Mind Over Murder, even now, “not everybody believes the same story” of what really happened to his grandmother in 1985.

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