Murder in the Suburbs
Good Luck Penny
On Wednesday, March 6,1996, a cold front blew into Austin from the north. Before she had a chance to bring her plants in from the back porch, Penny Scaggs, a housewife of 35 years, sat down at her piano to relax after dinner, and was startled by a noise. Her husband, Roger, had just left home to return to his office, and when Penny turned around at the unexpected sound of approaching footsteps, a galvanized steel pipe crushed her right cheek bone, breaking her jaw. When Roger returned home from the office at 9:15pm and called 911, the emergency medical technicians arrived to discover Penny covered in blood, lying near the piano with her throat cut so deeply that resuscitation was not even attempted.
Around 5:30pm that same afternoon, Penny had called her husband, CEOof American Physician Services Systems (APS), interrupting a meeting with APS Vice President Jackie Fife to ask him to come home for dinner. Roger had already been home for lunch that day and said he was planning to work into the evening, but Penny was able to persuade him to come home to their neighborhood overlooking Barton Creek Mall in southwest Austin. Earlier that evening, Penny had asked a friend to pray for Roger, because she knew he was anxious about the presentation he was preparing for the APS board of directors for the following day. For the year prior to March 6, Roger had been away on business more often than usual, and had returned from a business trip only the day before. What Penny suspected but did not know for certain was that Roger's increasing absence was due as much to the affair he was carrying on with a 28-year-old APS secretary as it was to his business responsibilities. Penny had spent the previous weekend away at a women's retreat with the couple's church. She was eager to enjoy a quiet dinner at home with her husband.
Roger poked his head into Fife's office to tell her he would be back later in the evening to finish up his preparations for the board presentation, and then left for home.
What followed shocked the Scaggs' upscale neighborhood and close-knit church community and, as the trial of Penny's accused killer unfolded, went on to capture the interest of the entire nation.
According to Roger Scaggs, he went directly home, ate dinner with Penny, changed from his business suit into the blue jeans, plaid shirt, denim jacket, and loafers that he was seen wearing later in the evening, and was back in his office by 7:30pm. Network logs from APS indicate that a document was saved and printed out from his computer at 8:14pm, and when Fife arrived the next day, his completed presentation was waiting on her desk. Scaggs says he then drove home and found Penny lying on her left side on the floor between her canary yellow baby grand piano and the piano bench.
After calling 911, Scaggs immediately phoned his close friends and neighbors, the Colemans. He informed Diana Coleman, who considered herself Penny's "soul mate," that he had found Penny lying on the floor in a pool of blood. Diana Coleman expressed concern that Penny may have hemorrhaged due to lingering health problems from a bout of pneumonia six months prior. "No. It looks like she's been beaten up," Scaggs replied. According to Coleman's husband Arthur, Diana's first thought was: "Oh my God, he's finally killed her."
Diana Coleman, whose husband was at a church meeting, called to ask her neighbor, Col. George Wehling, former commander-in-chief of Bergstrom Air Force base, to accompany her to the Scaggs' home. Together, Wehling and Coleman crossed the street and knocked on the Scaggs' door and rang the doorbell several times, but no one answered. Fearing that Scaggs may have been in danger himself, Wehling instructed Coleman to wait at the door, which was paneled with beveled glass, and to watch for any movement inside the house. There was a full moon but the cold front had blown in enough cloud cover to make it a dark night. Wehling decided to walk around the shadowy east side of the house to check the backyard.
On his way around the side of the house, Wehling heard the sirens of approaching police and fire engines. As he turned to head back to the front yard to meet them, he saw Scaggs strolling up casually, emerging quietly as if from nowhere and startling Coleman as she waited at the front door.
Police and fire personnel asked Scaggs what had happened. According to Wehling, "he just kind of muttered that he thought she was dead. That was really strange to me, to act that way." Wehling immediately had the sense that Scaggs was faking. "He acted like he was going to collapse and I gave him a hand." Since the police would not allow Scaggs back into his home, Wehling put his arm around Scaggs' shoulder and helped him into a chair which had been supplied by another neighbor. He noticed that Scaggs did not appear to have a drop of blood anywhere on him.
The carnage police found inside the house was a stark contrast to Scaggs' own bloodless exterior. Penny had been beaten in the head and stabbed repeatedly in the neck and upper body. The den where she lay, however, appeared almost completely undisturbed, save for a few spatters of Penny's own blood on the piano and the blood collecting under Penny's already cool, dead body. On the kitchen counter next to a sink filled with dirty dinner dishes and dry breadcrumbs, in a small, watered-down pool of what later proved to be Penny's blood, police found one of the two diamond necklaces that Penny wore daily. In the master bathroom, Penny's jewelry chest had been emptied into the bathtub, and its drawers had been thrown on the floor. Roger Scaggs' fingerprints were later lifted from two of the plastic drawers. Not a drop of blood was found in the bathroom and police found no other blood or useful fingerprint evidence anywhere else in the house, leading crime scene expert Bob Henderson to conclude that "whoever dumped the drawers out did it before the murder or after the cleanup."
The story that follows was gleaned from trial proceedings, court documents, and interviews with all the principles in the case, save for Scaggs himself, who declined to be interviewed. Diana Coleman's comments come indirectly through her husband and from her comments at the trial. Penny's three sisters always spoke in concert to the various press entities covering Penny's death and were interviewed for this story on a speaker phone which rendered their already similar voices indiscernible from one another. For this story, quotes which are not individually attributed will be identified simply as "the sisters."
Good Luck Penny
Born Lou Anne Erhle on November 3, 1941, "Penny" got her nickname on the day she was born -- from the nuns at St. John's Hospital in Tulsa, Oklahoma, who recognized her father as the man who sold and serviced the penny gumball machine in the hospital lobby. Her sister Sharon was born in 1946, and twins Marilyn and Carolyn were born in 1950. Penny's hard-working parents were successful entrepreneurs, including her mother, whom the sisters characterize as an "active partner" in their father's many wholesaling ventures. Her parents were also Southern Baptists and the family attended church together three times a week.
At 19, Penny met and married Roger, then 21, while they were both still at college in Tulsa. When Roger graduated and joined the U.S. Air Force as a lieutenant, Penny chose to drop out. Roger's tour of duty had the couple moving 12 times in 13 years, including a two-year stint in Tokyo during the Vietnam War where Roger performed specialized computer work and Penny acted as his secretary. Being an Air Force wife made Penny "virtually a professional packer and mover," according to her sisters, who relied on Penny to pack and move them with utmost efficiency during their own college years.
Penny was an avid collector who had amassed hundreds of ceramic gnomes which she displayed throughout the house, and more than a thousand dolls which she kept in specially made, lighted cabinets. She was a calligraphist as well, and often made gifts of framed Bible verses written out in calligraphy.
Penny's active faith in the teachings of the Bible led her to strive for an exemplary life of service. Everyone who knew her describes her as "the kind of person who just loved to help." Or as one friend commented: "If she knew of a need, she would meet it."
Penny was well-liked and her faith was infectious. When the Scaggs moved across the street from the Colemans in 1984, Arthur Coleman was a self-described Jewish boy from Brooklyn for whom "Jesus Christ was a curse word." Coleman says that without his knowledge, "Penny just began praying for me," and within a year he had chosen to convert to Christianity and was baptized, a transformation which he credits primarily to Penny's influence.
Penny's faith in Biblical teaching led her to create a role for herself as the subservient wife -- a role that has largely gone the way of the old wringer washer in post-feminist America. By all accounts, the Scaggs' home was a shrine of cleanliness and order, although the sisters say it wasn't always so. "She and Roger clashed in personality in some ways in their early years of marriage," they say, but Penny labored to make the marriage work. "Roger was a very meticulous person and she became much more particular and organized because that was what Roger expected and required of her."
Striving to be the perfect "Proverbs 31" spouse, Penny first studied, and then in the early Eighties began teaching, a course based on the book, Creative Counterpart, by Linda Dillow, which provides "Biblically based" guidelines for wives. The primary precept of the book is that a husband should love his wife and a wife should respect -- and obey -- her husband. If both sides of this equation are fulfilled and both partners love and follow Christ, the book's guidelines promise to facilitate a happy marriage.
For example, Creative Counterpart suggests that even if a wife suspects that her husband may be out until the wee hours of the morning because he is having an affair, she should still meet him at the door with dinner prepared at whatever hour he arrives home because it is best not to "meet an insult with an insult." Eventually, Penny expanded the course to include her own household tips, such as her suggestion that women who did not enjoy ironing could mitigate the chore by doing it in front of their favorite television show. Over the years, hundreds of women took Penny's nine-week course, many repeating it two and three times.
While no one interviewed for this story wanted to say an unkind word about Penny, her adopted daughter Sarah, now 26, reluctantly admitted that her mother could be "very controlling of both me and my father, and if either one of us did something that she didn't like, she had her ways of either subtly or not so subtly making you feel like shit until you did it her way." Even the Scaggs' neighbor, Col. Wehling, who stresses that he liked Penny, had to admit that Penny's approach could cut both ways. "Whenever I would look over there and [Scaggs] was climbing up a ladder going on the roof, Penny would be standing there holding the ladder for him. If he needed something, she went and got it. If I gotta go up on the roof and clean my gutters, I'm lucky if I can get my wife to hold the door open," Wehling jokes. "So, I think Penny was a little bit overbearing on that kind of thing. Although I admired that in someone else's wife, it would drive you bats."
Penny's sisters say that knowing her habits as well as they did, several seemingly trivial details struck them about the scene of Penny's murder. Younger sister Carolyn recalls that in later years Penny had relaxed some of her cleaning routine and would occasionally play hymns on the piano before doing the dishes after dinner, but only if Roger was not home. If Roger was home she would do the dishes immediately and not play the piano because her playing distracted him. Dr. Roberto Bayardo, chief medical examiner for Travis County, confirms that the contents of Penny's stomach at the time of her death -- a cup of carrots, beans, and barley -- were undigested, suggesting that she was killed within an hour after eating. Therefore, the sisters take the fact that Penny's body was found in front of her piano and the fact that dirty dishes were still in the sink as proof that she was killed shortly following dinner and after Roger had told her he was returning to work.
According to Dr. Vincent DiMaio, chief medical examiner of Bexar County and a consultant to the District Attorney's office on this case, Penny was attacked from behind, possibly while sitting at the piano, and struck with a galvanized steel pipe that had exposed threading and a cap at one end. The first blow struck her right cheek, breaking her jaw and leaving an open wound with abrasions consistent with pipe threading, but not rendering her unconscious. The second blow came while Penny was attempting to evade her attacker, turning her head and holding up her right hand. She suffered a bruise to her wrist as the second blow landed on her right jaw, breaking it again and leaving a long bruise over the right side of her face and ear. With the force of the blow, her earring cracked into two pieces, which flew to opposite sides of the room. At this point, Penny would have been either unconscious or losing consciousness and falling down. Three more "glancing" blows of the pipe cracked her skull at their impact points but did not crush it. With her head on the floor, the death blow was delivered to the back of her skull, shattering it completely. Two more blows were then rendered across the top of her head, leaving two wide, parallel gashes straight through the bone.
Henderson, an outside consultant hired by the prosecution,suggests that the bludgeoning certainly occurred on the far left side of the piano, because of the pattern of blood spatter found there at the hinge of the propped-open piano top. But Penny was found in front of the piano, lying on her left side, with her head pointing to the left side of the piano, her knees slightly drawn up and her feet touching the piano pedals. The piano bench was scooched up directly behind her body, as if she had been playing and had simply fallen over.
In other words, following the attack with the pipe, her body was moved several feet and a specific scene was contrived. The book of sheet music which Penny always used while playing hymns sat open in its normal position on the piano, except that it was upside down.
Despite her mortal wounds, it is possible that Penny was still breathing, which may have triggered the second wave of attack. After moving her body, the killer came at Penny with a long, thin French carving knife, which was later discovered missing from her own knife block, although no bloody footprints or fingerprints were found between the den and the kitchen, so it is likely that the killer had both the knife and the pipe at the ready when the killing began. Lying on her left side, she was stabbed through the right side of her neck and out the left. The knife was pulled out of her neck so violently that it slashed outward, opening up her throat from right to left. She was stabbed twice above and once through her breastbone, and on all three stabs the long knife poked out of her back. Finally, she was stabbed straight through her left shoulder. None of these stab wounds resulted in any significant bleeding, however, because Penny's blood pressure had already ceased as a result of her head wounds. The few short, straight blood spatters found above the keyboard of the piano may have come from blood projecting off the knife during the stabbing. Henderson also suggests that a single blob of Penny's blood found several feet away on a coffeetable may have shot off the end of either the pipe or the knife. No other blood evidence was found in the den.
The Devil in the Details
While APD secured the murder scene and began its investigation, Roger Scaggs moved from the chair in his front yard into the home of his neighbors, the Bradys, where he sat wrapped in a blanket while talking with police. APD's Officer Thomas Sweeny said he twice observed Scaggs look up to see if police were watching him and then began "fake crying." Meanwhile, neighbors and friends converged on the house to offer their support but were kept at bay by the police. At 9:30pm, APD homicide detective Sgt. David Carter was heading for home after a long shift when he received a page to meet Scaggs at the police station to take his statement.
According to Penny's sister Sharon, Scaggs is a "man of great method." Everyone seems to agree that Scaggs, now 59, is meticulous in his mode of dress, somewhat formal in his manner, and sometimes detached in his interactions with people. His hobbies include ham radio and hunting. Starting with his commission in the Air Force, Scaggs has always been in positions of authority in his work, and was one of 10 elders at First Evangelical Free Church. Neighbors and family members describe Roger as an egotistical and self-centered man. "He was the least well-liked of the brothers-in-law," say the sisters. Scaggs' neighbor Wehling describes the evening that Roger successfully earned his private pilot's license and Penny organized an impromptu party at their home: "There were chairs all around in there, in the den, and Roger said, 'Now, everybody tell a little experience pertaining to me getting my pilot's license.' After a short period of time I said, 'I better go check on the dog,' and another neighbor got up too. We went outside and looked at each other and just said, 'Can you believe that?'"
However, Scaggs was not made of stone. Penny's sisters say that until Sarah was adopted, Roger collected Playboy magazines and kept them in leather bound volumes. He was a "strongly sexually oriented man," they explain, adding that he liked Penny in the "shortest skirts" and had a wandering eye for younger women. When asked if it surprised her to find out that her father was having an affair with Vanessa Ferguson, Sarah just laughed and said, "No. No." She refused to comment further on the subject.
As is standard police procedure, the room where Detective Carter took Scaggs' statement was rigged with a hidden video camera. Carter says he began the questioning with no information other than the time of the 911 call and the fact that Scaggs' wife had been murdered in their home. He adds that he is trained to be sensitive to crime victims and so was cautious about not offending Scaggs with undue suspicion or callous questioning.
Approximately midway through the interview, however, Carter noticed that Scaggs was "distant in some ways" and that he was "trying to emphasize certain points" in his story which aroused Carter's suspicion. "I made a conscious decision to begin employing an investigative technique," Carter reveals. A review of the videotaped police interview shows that Scaggs, only an hour and a half after he had called 911, sat calmly, without fidgeting, and spoke clearly and with a great recollection for detail. An hour into the three-hour interview, Carter asked Scaggs to speculate about Penny's murder and got this response:
"I've thought about it, of course. If somebody came around the back and that back door, it's dark back there, is the most likely one to be unlocked because she goes in and out a lot during the day ... I've always kind of harassed her about it when I come home and I said, 'Dear, you forgot to lock this back door.' ... And like I say it's quite dark and I would suspect that there's, in the back of our house, there's kind of a wooded area off to the side and someone could come around there very easily and not be seen and then get into our backyard quite easily. Once again, this is all just supposition on my part. I try to be very careful not to let people in the front door, and to keep the front door locked, and Penny will crack the door when somebody is there or she'll yell through the door or just tells them whatever. So I mean, it's conceivable that somebody came to the door and she told them to go away and they went around to the back. I mean, of course, it would have been just [coughing] somebody wandering down the street. I don't know, I suspect because of where she was laying. Just a minute..."
At this point in the interview, Scaggs put his head in his hand and asked for a glass of water. While Carter was out of the room, Scaggs appeared to tear up and then gather himself together and the interview resumed.
"Anyway, the only thing I can figure out is that somebody slipped in that back door. Maybe it was unlocked and they slipped in and I suspect she was playing the piano because she has two pair of glasses, a separate pair that she keeps around the piano, to see the music. And I do recall when I walked in there I was so shocked. When I looked around there was a pair of glasses on the piano bench and there was another pair on the floor not far from where she was laying, so I suspect that somebody walked up behind her and grabbed her. Whatever, I don't know. It's the only thing I can figure out because otherwise she wouldn't have been in there, I think, unless, I think, she was playing the piano. I mean, if she was going to read or something, she generally does that in another room. You know, she was real focused and sitting there, and her back is kind of to that area, would be to that area, when she does that and that's the only thing I can figure out. ... The only other thing I've thought of, and of course I didn't go through the house, but she wears a lot of, not a lot but, well, she wears some pretty big diamond jewelry. She has a nice big wedding ring with a big center stone, stones all around it and a couple of necklaces and you know that would've, I mean, I don't know, I'm just trying to figure out if she had come to the door and told someone to go away you could've seen all that stuff sparkle or something."
Carter admits that he didn't note Scaggs' grammatical shift from the past tense to some projected future and then back again until after reviewing the videotape several hours later. But by the time the interview was completed, Carter knew that Scaggs would either have to be eliminated or established as a suspect.
"It is not likely that you would come up with a complete scenario and great details, and very soon after the event, on what must have been the worst day of your life," Carter explains.
Scaggs left the police station after his interview and Carter, at 1:30am, began trying to piece the puzzle together. Scaggs had told Carter that he had left home, gone back to work and then come home an hour and a half later to find his wife dead. "I said to myself, if this person had killed his wife then something would more than likely need to be disposed of. The [murder weapon] itself, an item of clothing." An hour later, Carter decided to retrace Scaggs' steps between his home and office. "Where would you put something like that? I thought of about a hundred places. There were infinite places," he says. Then Carter realized that Scaggs' story only allowed an hour and 15 minutes to make the five-minute drive to his building, park, walk up to his office, print out a document, and get home, meaning there were a limited number of time-efficient places to discard evidence. "I considered driving through the Barton Creek Mall parking lot because it's kind of in-between [Scaggs' home and office]. But someone like that wouldn't want to go somewhere he was not comfortable with." So, Carter drove out to the APS building on Capital of Texas Highway to "get a feel for the building" and decided to look around for the building's Dumpsters. Because the Dumpsters were in the lowest section of the parking lot, Carter didn't find them and thought they might be inside the loading dock of the building. He checked the locked doors and noted that there was a security system which would have electronically logged all comings and goings. At around 3am, Carter, tired and cold, decided to call it a night.
It was also around 3am on that Thursday morning, March 7, that the phone rang at Sarah Scaggs' house. Penny and Roger's only child Sarah, then 23, was asleep with her boyfriend, then 51, president of General Diagnostics, where Sarah works. She was startled by her father's announcement that he would be coming to Sarah's house for a "family conference" along with family friends Steve and Pat Muller.
"I knew right then and there," says Sarah, a forensic psychology student at Southwest Texas State University. "I knew my mom was dead. I remember waking [my boyfriend] up and I said, 'My mom's dead.' And they hadn't told me or anything. I just knew that there was no other reason in the world they would be coming to my house without my mother. I thought she'd had some complications with pneumonia. Never in my wildest dreams did I think somebody had killed her."
Sarah recalls that when her father knocked on the door, she answered it and he said, "She's dead," and then broke down and sobbed. She says she asked "a thousand" questions before she understood what had happened, and then had a realization. "I told him sitting on the couch that very night, 'They're gonna think you did it. 86% of homicides are committed by a spouse or someone in the family. You're gonna be the first person that they look at and they're gonna think you did it.'"
As a teenager, Sarah admits that she was a thorn in her parents' side. Penny did not approve of Sarah's friends or her penchant for wearing black clothing. "I think she would have preferred for me to have bows in my hair and hang out with the preppy little kids," Sarah says. Despite Sarah's strict 11:00 weekend curfew, Penny still worried that her daughter was out getting into trouble. Sarah's best friend Jody tells of a time in 10th grade when she walked into the Scaggs' home wearing all black and a bolo tie in the shape of an ankh. Penny "pulled me aside and said 'Have you become a satanic?'"
At age 15, Sarah's differences with her parents came to a head and Sarah was sent away to a Christian girls' "farm" in New Boston, Texas, near Texarkana, where, according to Sarah, she worked 12 hours a day in the fields and spent four days a week in Pentecostal-type religious worship, complete with people speaking in tongues. "Those people were even more religious than my parents," Sarah says. Because she was allowed little contact with her parents, Sarah says she isn't sure whether or not they understood the extremity of conditions at the farm. In one instance, Sarah got a case of poison ivy but because the farm didn't believe in medicine, she went untreated for weeks as it spread all over her body and eventually landed her in the hospital. Sarah graduated a year early from school and was able to leave the farm at age 17, at which time she moved back home for a year and entered Concordia Lutheran University.
By age 21, Sarah had moved out and was working as a waitress at Exposé, a strip club, and partying the nights away with her now former boyfriend who bartended there. Because she spent most nights at her boyfriend's house, Penny and Roger were pressuring her about "living in sin" and she decided to get married. Although Penny and Roger did not like her boyfriend, they paid for a lavish wedding. But the marriage wouldn't stand. Thirty days later, Sarah had already left her husband.
"When I got divorced, my dad was there for me a lot more than my mom was," Sarah says. "My mom was really angry at me for spending all of the money. And my dad was pretty supportive of me. He would never yell at me, he would always just get that disappointed look in his eye. And growing up and stuff, he was never the one that would ever yell at me. We would never get into knock-down, drag-out fights like my mom and I would. And I'm sure I do a lot of things that would frustrate any parent. But my dad was always patient with me. He was always there for me no matter what I did. And my mom was too. But after I got divorced, my mom was so angry with me that, you know, she could barely stand to talk to me. And my dad would call and take me to lunch and help me whenever I needed help."
In fact, Sarah remains loyal to her father. She admits that she knew about his affair with Vanessa Ferguson -- saying she figured it out for herself after running into Ferguson one or two times when she met her father out at restaurants -- but she doesn't seem to disapprove. The Statesman quoted Sarah as saying: "He wasn't unhappy with [my mom], but she thought sex was a duty. That's what she taught. So he's got a woman he loves and a woman who doesn't think sex is a duty. He's got the best of both worlds."
There were others, too, who surmised Scaggs was having an affair with Ferguson, the daughter of local attorney Geoffrey Ferguson. Ednoa Harrell, building manager for the office park where APS is located, was embarrassed having to retell knowledge she gained about Scaggs through sheer nosiness. Like many others in the building, Harrell had heard rumors of an affair between the two. On Valentine's Day in 1996, Harrell noticed a bouquet of two dozen red roses delivered to the front desk of the APS offices with a card addressed only to "Vanessa," which piqued her curiosity even more. Two days later, Harrell happened to see Scaggs pulling out of the Barton Creek Mall parking lot and decided to follow him. Scaggs drove directly to Sarah's house and Sarah pulled into her driveway at the same time. According to Harrell, they both got out of their cars and greeted each other warmly. Scaggs and his daughter then walked across the street and opened the door of Ferguson's car and Scaggs hugged and kissed Ferguson while the three of them stood and talked. After a minute, Sarah got back in her car and drove away, and Ferguson and Scaggs went into Sarah's apartment and closed the door. Sarah Scaggs, however, flatly denies that this event ever took place and says that not only did she not facilitate her father's affair, but that she only met Ferguson twice in passing prior to her mother's death.
During Sarah's teenage years, sources close to the family say they went so far as to write to the farm in New Boston, without the Scaggs' knowledge, to alert the administrators of their concern over Sarah's relationship with her father. According to Penny's sisters, on the Halloween when Sarah was 14, Scaggs took her to Victoria's Secret and bought her a bra and corset, and dressed her in high heels to take her trick or treating. "It appeared that she was his girlfriend instead of his daughter," they say.
However, Assistant District Attorney Buddy Meyer says he was unable to substantiate the allegation of an improper relationship, and Sarah completely denies it.
When Penny's sisters were awakened from sleep on March 6 to the news of Penny's murder, they quickly met up to drive together in one car to their elderly parents' home to break the news in person. The sisters -- Marilyn Meucke, Carolyn Pittenger, and Sharon Fox -- all live with their respective husbands near one another and their parents in North Texas. Marilyn's elementary-age son was scheduled to fly to Austin two days later for spring break with his beloved Aunt Penny and Uncle Roger. Trips up in Roger's plane and on Roger's boat were planned, which Marilyn is adamant would never have been the case if she and her family did not love and trust both Roger and Penny without reservation. Nevertheless, when Carolyn's husband, William Pittenger, got in the car with the others, he immediately said, "It was Roger," to which Sharon's husband, Jim Fox, replied, "I thought so too, but I was afraid to say it out loud."
The three families arrived at their parents' house and, sitting on the end of their bed, told them Penny had died. Penny's mother immediately said, "Was it a car wreck? Was it the airplane?" but Penny's father said only: "It's Roger."
Made Me Touch Her
The next day, the Scaggs' pastor, Rob Harrell, made a visit first thing in the morning with Scaggs and Sarah at the Mullers' house where Scaggs was staying. When Harrell asked Scaggs if he wanted to talk a little about Penny, Scaggs declined. "I guess what we do now is start making plans," Scaggs offered. Harrell asked him if he was emotionally ready to begin talking about funeral arrangements and Scaggs said he was. In fact, says Harrell, Scaggs wasn't showing any distress at all.
At the funeral home, reports Harrell, the funeral director asked Scaggs if he knew what kind of dress Penny would need, due to her injuries. Scaggs replied that she would obviously need something with a high neck, because of the cuts to her throat. Sarah was distressed by this news, because she had no idea that a knife had been used in the murder.
In fact, Scaggs himself should not have known because he says -- in the part of his story which most deeply offended Penny's family -- that he saw her body only from the back, and never picked her up or even turned her over. In the version of events which he related to Sgt. Carter, he walked into his house from the garage where he parked his car and looked around for Penny. He noticed the dirty dishes in the sink because "she's very fastidious and neat and always does up the dishes. I thought, 'That's kind of funny.' Then I saw her head and immediately stopped. It was really horrible. She was laying in blood and her face was all bloated and bruised. She was laying on her left side. I leaned down a little bit and I almost threw up. I immediately ran back and picked up the phone to dial 911. EMS made me go back in and touch her ... it was pretty horrible. It was clear she was not alive. Then they made me get out of the house."
According to the first emergency medical technician on the scene, Everett Thomas of the Austin Fire Department, the lacerations to Penny's neck were not visible to the three technicians who were attending her body until they turned her over on her back. That is why, Thomas says, the team began preparations for CPR, including pulling out the "heart start" machine, before they noticed the wounds and decided that resuscitation would be fruitless.
"I don't believe that he would have known the extent of her injuries any other way than having been the one who committed the offense," says prosecutor Buddy Meyer.
Friday morning, Sgt. Al Eells of APD met with a search team at a holding facility for Browning, Ferris International (BFI) which had confiscated the two Dumpsters from Scaggs' office and was holding them for the police. The Dumpsters were both full to bursting with construction trash, landscaping debris, and hundreds of identical, full garbage bags, each closed with a twist-tie. Armed only with the knowledge of Penny's wounds and the fact that jewelry might be missing from the scene, Eells and his assistants went about picking each item out of the Dumpsters one by one.
In Eells' Dumpster, under the two-by-fours and broken pallets, were garbage bags which he removed but did not open. Below four feet of garbage bags was a layer of sod and leaves, sticking up from which was one lone garbage bag. To Eells, this garbage bag appeared different than the rest. It was a different color and sheen, was only half full, was not closed, and was farther down in the Dumpster than the rest of the bags. His photo technician took several pictures of the bag before he opened it. Eells then gingerly pulled back the edge of the bag to reveal the pipe and knife that were used to kill Penny, along with her wedding ring, tennis bracelet, and V-shaped diamond necklace, five surgical-type latex gloves, and three paper towels. Minute drops of Penny's blood coated every item found in the trash bag.
While Eells was searching the Dumpster, Scaggs was meeting for a follow-up interview with Sgt. Carter. At Carter's request, Scaggs was riding in the sergeant's police car to travel the route that he had taken between his office and home on the evening of March 6. As soon as they got in the car, Carter says, Scaggs turned to him and said, "There's something I think you need to know," and proceeded to admit to Carter that he was having an affair with Ferguson. Scaggs said that Ferguson was the only one who could corroborate that he had come back to the office that evening, because she was the only one there when he returned. And in fact, the electronic security records from the APS offices indicate that Ferguson was, indeed, at the building that evening. However, no such records exist for Scaggs because, as an executive, he had a private, unmonitored entrance to the building.
The Other Woman
Although she never admitted it to anyone, it seems that Penny had begun to suspect Scaggs' relationship with Ferguson some time in the fall of 1995, when Penny came down with a case of pneumonia that eventually landed her in the hospital. Scaggs was out of town for most of her illness, visiting Penny only once in the hospital and providing little comfort or assistance to her in the weeks before she was admitted. Penny spent her convalescence with her sisters in North Texas and, according to sister Sharon, Roger Scaggs instructed his wife not to come back "until she could take care of him and the house."
The sisters say Penny had become much more tense, particularly around Roger, in the six months prior to her death. Coleman, the Scaggs' neighbor, reports that in her loneliness with Roger so frequently out of town, Penny told Coleman to call any time because her husband "doesn't even know she's on the place."
Just before Christmas 1995, the Scaggs were at the Coleman's home preparing gifts when Roger said he was feeling antsy and wanted to go to the mall. He didn't return home until the middle of the night. Coleman says he and his wife later discussed "strong suspicions that he was having an affair because he told us at 20 minutes to 11 that he was going shopping, and the stores were closed." After Roger left, "Penny said to Diana in a strange kind of way, 'I wonder where we'll all be next year.' We knew that things were not the rosy kind of picture that Penny wanted to portray."
In January 1996, one of the hundreds of friends Penny made through her church connections -- Mary Lowery -- met Penny and Pat Muller for lunch. She noticed Penny seemed down and asked what was wrong.
"Her whole Biblical teaching was taking care of the person you loved, doing whatever you could to help that person," Lowery recalled. "She was upset that [Scaggs] was not there when she needed it. She had talked about his absences before. She had wanted to travel and accompany Roger but he said he could get his work done faster if she didn't go. In January, she was more hurt and upset than on prior occasions. Penny is not the type of person who would sit down and say, 'I'm so upset. He didn't do this, he didn't do that.'"
Lowery had a hunch, though. "I asked Penny if there could be somebody else in her relationship with Roger." Penny seemed upset but changed the subject.
"You have to understand that the idea of having an affair in this family had a great deal more significance than it would in many others," explains Arthur Coleman. "You've got to remember, it's her whole ministry, their whole lives. Marriage is viewed as a three-person contract which involves two people and God. They were so much tied into the Biblical concept of marriage, the idea of infidelity was not just a little fling. It was a real violation of the concept of marriage itself."
It is also worth noting that divorcing Penny would have caused her husband to lose his position as a church elder, among other likely public embarrassments. And Diana Coleman says that Penny would never have consented to a divorce in any case. "Penny lived what she taught. It went against everything she believed in," insists Coleman. "Her ministry would have been over."
According to the sisters, during a videotaped interview Sgt. Carter conducted with Vanessa Ferguson, Ferguson admitted spending the weekend prior to Penny's death -- while Penny was away at the women's retreat -- at the Scaggs home with Roger. "Penny was in denial about how serious the problems really were," admits Sharon.
You Know Me
Six hundred people turned out for Penny's funeral on Sunday, March 10, but only a handful made the trek to North Texas the following day to attend her burial, which Scaggs had told Pat Muller he didn't want to pay for or attend. (Eventually, however, he did both.) The Colemans were among those who made the trip and, although the family had agreed to dress casually for the event, were shocked when they saw that Scaggs chose to wear a red, white, and blue leather jacket with an eagle across the back.
"I don't remember any sorrow, any regret, any anything. The jacket was outrageous. It screamed 'I'm free!'" says Arthur Coleman.
But Scaggs would not remain free much longer. Fingerprint analysis revealed Scaggs' fingerprints on the fingertips inside two of the latex gloves found in the Dumpster. One of the gloves, found inside-out, had a small drop of Penny's blood on the outside and Scaggs' fingerprints on the inside.
The day after the funeral, Scaggs invited the Colemans to dinner with him and Sarah at their home. According to Diana Coleman, she told Scaggs: "They say you shouldn't make any major decisions for the first year."
"Oh no," she says Scaggs replied. "You know me. I'm not going to wait any year. By that time, I'll be married again two or three times over."
Scaggs was arrested on Friday, March 15, and spent the next four days in jail before he posted bond.
The night of Scaggs' arrest, Sarah received an unexpected visitor -- Vanessa Ferguson. Sarah says she had only seen Ferguson once before, 10 months before, on her father's birthday when Sarah met Scaggs at a crowded restaurant and found him already talking to two women whom he introduced as co-workers. At her father's request, Sarah helped the women get a table and then went on to have a private dinner with her father. Later, Sarah says, she figured out that he was having an affair with Ferguson and confronted her father about it. Then, on the night her father was arrested for the murder of her mother, Sarah got a knock at the door. When she opened it, she found Ferguson in a panic. When asked if she even recognized Ferguson, Sarah replied: "Yeah, I knew who she was. I just don't know how I knew." Sarah then related this story:
"She shows up on my door and she was all excitable and really hyper. And she wanted me to go away with her, like out of town. And I was like 'I can't go out of town!' I was like, 'My aunts are coming into town,' and I was like, 'What the hell?' And she was like, she wanted to go out to the boat or something. She said, 'I just need to talk to you for a little while.' And I was like 'what?' And I was like, 'I can't leave with you!' And she was just like, I mean, I'm sure she was all stressed out.
"I think she did come in my house," Sarah continued. "And Bob [Sarah's boyfriend] was there and we were both just looking at her like she was nuts, you know. She was very bizarre that night. And, I don't know. I can't remember. I guess she left. I don't think she was there very long.
"She came by while my father was in jail a second time, right after I'd gotten off of work. Right after Bob came home and she wanted to go have margaritas. And I was like, 'No thank you.'"
When asked if these episodes aroused any suspicion in her regarding Ferguson's possible role in her mother's death, Sarah was circumspect. "I hate to speculate about anything I don't know about because it's been done to death on me and I know how bad it makes me feel. Especially if it's not the truth. She could have just wanted to get away from the publicity. Her parents, I think, are kind of prominent and she could have just wanted to not embarrass them. It could have been innocent reasons or not. I don't want to speculate."
On March 17, two days after Scaggs' arrest, Sarah told Penny's sisters about Roger's affair, and about the incident with Ferguson at her door. Sharon says that after hearing the news she found it hard to stand. And Sarah says that's when the sisters turned against her father.
"My aunts were really supportive of my dad up until the point where they found out he had an affair," Sarah says. "Once the prosecutor started feeding them all these theories and stories they were completely blind to any evidence that we put on. I don't care what any of them testified to, they didn't immediately think, 'Oh my God, it was him.'"
The Scaggs case took two and a half years to come to trial -- finally beginning on Oct. 26, 1998 -- in part because the most damning evidence was DNA and fingerprints, which are subject to varying interpretations and expert opinions. When the trial finally began, it aired live nationally on CourtTV, and was featured nearly every day on the front page of the American-Statesman. Much of the interest in the case came because Scaggs hired for his defense the most highly acclaimed defense lawyer in the Austin area, and one of the best in the state, Roy Minton.
Minton joined Charles Burton and Perry Jones in 1963 to start the law firm which is now a powerhouse in Austin political and courthouse circles. Minton made a name for himself succesfully defending clients such as Attorney General Jim Mattox in an official misconduct suit and University of Texas regent Frank Erwin for a drunk driving indictment. Minton gained his reputation as an unbeatable opponent, however, defending murderers such as James Cross, who was convicted of killing two UT co-eds in 1965 but skirted the death penalty with Minton's assistance. Cross is no longer in prison. The sisters estimate that Minton's legal fees in the Scaggs case topped $500,000, but Minton's partner Randy Leavitt scoffs at that figure, suggesting $50,000 to $200,000 is more in the ballpark. Either way, Scaggs hired the best defense he could afford.
Clearly, Minton is a master of courtroom theatrics. During his cross-examination of medical examiner Bayardo, Minton shocked the courtroom and brought Penny's sisters to tears when he picked up the murder weapons -- the lead pipe and the knife -- to re-enact the violence of the murder. Though the performance was obviously designed to contrast a madman's behavior with Scaggs' stellar reputation and stoic demeanor, the lasting effect was to paint a picture of utter brutality, which ultimately was pinned on Scaggs.
Throughout the trial, Sarah stuck by her father and even Penny's sisters say that they continued to exchange birthday cards and Christmas gifts with Scaggs until his birthday in June 1998. They say he seemed surprised when they entered the courtroom in October 1998 and would not meet his eyes. Sarah was also visibly upset by the sister's cooperation with the prosecution, sitting next to her aunts on some days of the trial, and on others not acknowledging their presence. For their part, the sisters say they consider Sarah a victim and would welcome her back to the family with open arms at any time.
In the years before the trial, Scaggs lost many of his supporters, including the Mullers and the Colemans, although some of his friends -- APS Group president Ken Schifrin and former president Jack Murphy, and church friends Gail and Wayne Gibson -- stuck by his side. Schifrin testified that the Roger he knew could not have killed Penny. However, the Roger that Schifrin knew likely would not have done many of the things which came out in the trial.
Among the most shocking revelations for friends and family were the stories told by a manicurist and a tanning salon attendant about Scaggs and Ferguson, who continued their relationship after Penny's death. Sue Bowen, a manicurist at Tips and Toes nail salon, testified that Scaggs came to her in October 1996 to have acrylic tips put on his nails, during which time she, another manicurist, Ferguson, and Scaggs chewed the fat. Scaggs said his "previous" wife was "anal" and told the women that Penny had even ironed his underwear. "That's why she's the previous wife," Bowen joked, and she says they all laughed. "We thought she was the ex-wife," Bowen added contritely from the witness stand.
Stephanie Miles, former manager of TanCo tanning salon, said that Ferguson and Scaggs visited the salon every other day for months, during which time she got to know Scaggs. She said that Scaggs invited her to go with him and Ferguson to a "swingers convention" in California, but she declined.
Because the Scaggs had led such exemplary lives, for the most part, it was difficult for the prosecutor to present much evidence to suggest that Scaggs was anything but a man in midlife having an affair. The sisters brought forward a story of an argument between Scaggs and Penny that they witnessed in 1989, which became so heated that they felt compelled to step between the couple to make sure that Scaggs did not strike his wife. However, they said, they never saw another incident like it before or since, and no other evidence of a quarrelsome or violent relationship between the Scaggs was presented during the trial.
The person with perhaps the most damning information regarding Scaggs and his possible motivation for killing Penny never took the stand. Vanessa Ferguson skipped town on her subpoena to appear as a material witness in the trial and, to date, has not reappeared. Due to her absence and her inability to testify on her own behalf, evidence such as the fact that Ferguson spent the weekend at the Scaggs' home prior to Penny's death and the story of her appearance at Sarah's door were never presented in court. The videotape of her interview with Carter was also not presented. However, Ferguson's own high-powered, Austin-based attorney, Joe Turner, was present at the trial.
Also missing throughout the guilt-or-innocence phase of the trial was Sarah Scaggs. She would not cooperate with prosecutors, and although they could have called her to the stand, they chose not to.
The defense also argued that Scaggs used surgical gloves like the ones found in the dumpster on a regular basis for messy chores such as changing his oil and cleaning his airplane. They suggested that he could have used the gloves for some benign task after which the killer fished them out of his trash. Although the defense team never actually articulated in court that Scaggs was framed for the murder, that explanation was strongly implied.
After eight hours of deliberation, the jury of eight women and four men found Scaggs guilty. In the sentencing phase of the trial, the prosecution called Sarah to the stand, and she testified that her father had always been "patient" with her. When asked by Minton how she would take it if her father were sent to prison, she answered, "I'll be okay," but she was clearly upset. Because the murder was not committed in conjunction with another crime, it is not considered capital murder, for which the death penalty is the ultimate punishment. The maximum sentence for murder in the state of Texas is 99 years, which the prosecution had sought. After a two-and-a-half-hour deliberation, the same jury sentenced Scaggs to 32 years and a $10,000 fine. In conjunction with Vanessa Ferguson's attorney Joe Turner, Minton's law firm is currently compiling its request for an appeal of the decision.
In an interview with the Statesman following the trial, juror Priscilla Boston commented: "He was probably really, really miserable in his marriage, and he had almost 35 years of it. He deserves a spot of happiness before his life is over," and added that he still might make a good grandfather if he gets out of prison by age 75, when Scaggs will be eligible for parole.
The Perfect Murder
Jury foreman Dale Loyd, who admitted during jury selection that he himself had cheated on his wife in the past, expressed after the trial to the Statesman that in his opinion Scaggs "just snapped." Penny's sisters disagree. "We think he definitely was thinking about it, planning it. He got involved in this affair and got by with it because nobody in the church or the office was aware of it. He had both lives and they existed together. When Penny got sick it hit him that if she dies that would solve all his problems." In support of their theory that Scaggs planned the murder is the fact that the galvanized steel pipe used in the attack was not the type of thing the Scaggs just kept laying around the house. (Prosecutors, however, say they could not track down where the pipe came from.)
"He knew she would fight a divorce," the sisters continued. "She would want to do counseling. Her ministry was based on that. Penny really thought that, 'If I can look as attractive as young women are, be everything he wants me to be, he'll come back to me.' And her ministry would be self-fulfilling. She was a godly woman, but she was not perfect. Her faith blinded her. Her own piety made her repulsive to Roger. At that point he began to plan what he believed was the perfect murder."
When asked if they ever sensed in Roger the makings of a violent nature, the sisters said: "No. And we don't think he has a violent nature now."
They say the violence of the murder was calculated to make it look like a madman had killed Penny. However, they do admit that the nature of the crime itself suggests some deep-seated emotion. "I think there was underlying real hatred," Marilyn conjectures. "He was, I believe, angry and attempting to destroy her and almost wipe her image off the face of the earth."
Although the sisters say their "faith was shaken to the core" by Penny's murder, they say in working through their grief with their families, they have come closer to God. They took as proof of God's continuing devotion to Penny the fact that evidence was discovered and that Scaggs was found guilty on national television.
Arthur Coleman was also impressed that Scaggs "received a stripping" on television, and he says he has more trust in God now than ever before. "I have a real peace about it. It may not be the answer we expected, but I now feel more confident in God's control and really in his love for Penny and for us because as we see through it, we see that it's the only way it could have worked out. If it had continued on -- Roger's affair and then a divorce -- it would have absolutely destroyed Penny's ministry, everything she was living for. This is consistent with God's plan, taking her out of that situation to be in a much better place. And yet Roger didn't get away with it."
With additional reporting by Louisa C. Brinsmade.
|Sgt. Al Eells was incorrectly referred to as Al Eels when this article was published. The Chronicle regrets the error.|