What Did Happen to Ruth Bettis?

1982 slaying remains unsolved

Ruth Bettis (l) was last seen in 1982, leaving her job at Sugar's in her 1969 VW Beetle with an unknown male.

Texas' Department of Public Safety last week issued an increased reward – to $6,000 – for information that leads to the arrest of the person(s) responsible for the 1982 murder of Ruth Elizabeth Bettis, a 19-year-old college student whose body was found sexually assaulted, strangled, and shot that Nov. 25 in a pasture near Sprinkle Cutoff Road, in what's now Northeast Austin, just east of Dessau Road. Bettis, who went by "Gibson," was last seen alive the night before at Sugar's, a popular gentleman's club on Highland Mall Boulevard, where she was working to help pay for school at Southwestern University in Georgetown. Witnesses saw Bettis get into her blue 1969 Volkswagen Beetle, parked outside the club, with an unknown male. The Beetle was found the following day "a short distance" up on Sprinkle Cutoff.

A spokesperson for DPS declined to comment on the reason for the increased reward, or the specifics of the case beyond the brief details already provided, allowing only that the department "send[s] out numerous press releases on unsolved cases" and "our goal is to solve them all." But the case itself has been of particular interest to me over the past 13 months, since Bettis' name showed up in the state's motion in limine in advance of its trial against Mark Alan Norwood for the 1988 murder of Debra Baker.

A motion in limine is a pretrial request both sides file to limit or prevent certain evidence from being brought, and individuals familiar with that case speculated that Norwood's attorneys would attempt to use the Bettis murder to implicate Norwood's onetime friend and workmate Louis Homer "Sonny" Wann in Baker's slaying. (And, retroactively, one would presume, the 1986 murder of Christine Morton, for which Norwood was also convicted.) Wann, who died at his home in Tennessee in Septem­ber 2015, was a known quantity to local law enforcement officials, with a lengthy track record, and his ex-wife and estranged daughter both testified quite negatively to his character at Norwood's trial.

Indeed, Wann's connection to Bettis' murder does seem to substantiate itself when one considers that the pasture where her body was found was located on the dairy farm that belonged to Wann's in-laws, and that in a 2011 interview with Austin Police detectives Richard Faithful and Mark Gilchrest, Wann knew who Bettis was; that she was "little" ("a boyfriend of hers once told me she was 5'2""); and that she had family who owned an appliance store in Cameron Vil­lage, where he said he once bought an icebox, washer, and dryer. "I was just getting ready to go over there and it started raining," Wann told investigators about his plans for the day that Bettis' body was found. "I had just got me a new .44 Mag with an 8 3/8-inch barrel and ... I was thinking about going over there and going target practicing."

TCSO Det. Jim Anderson said he’s still unable to piece together any course of events between Bettis leaving Sugar’s and her body being found the next day.

Wann also told Faithful and Gilchrest during that interview that he believed "it was a police officer that did that." And indeed, in 1989 Travis County Sheriff's investigators brought at least two cops in for questioning – one then active and one who'd been retired – because the retired cop was considered a suspect. The investigation had largely stalled after six years, but a tip passed from the federal Drug Enforcement Administration to TCSO noted that the two cops were at Sugar's the night that Bettis disappeared. According to a story that ran in the Statesman on Jan. 25, 1989, the retired cop was sitting with Bettis at the club, and the second officer arrived separately. The first officer and Bettis then left the club, a source confided, and the second left "minutes later." Neither had charges brought against them, and the officer still working in 1989 was never put on leave. "At this point, we have no reason to suspend the officer or put him on restricted duty or anything," said Ray Sanders, the police chief at the time. "The officer is still on the street. The last that I heard on it is that [sheriff's deputies and prosecutors] had interviewed him, and our Internal Affairs detail is monitoring it."

That would prove the last significant development until 2007, when TCSO Det. Jim Anderson picked up the investigation. Anderson said last Friday while on the road to West Texas that he has six boxes of paper files and zero solid and active leads about who may be responsible for Bettis' murder. He said he's been able to extract fingerprints and DNA samples in the decade since he got handed the case – scientific evidence not available to investigators in 1982 – but that the individuals associated with said fingerprints and DNA all proved "justifiable at the time." Anderson said he never interviewed Sonny Wann, but recalled his interview with APD.

"I couldn't rule him out," he said. "It's possible. But other people are possible, too." He said he's still unable to piece together any course of events between Bettis leaving Sugar's and her body being found on Sprinkle Cutoff the next day. "A lot of people in the sheriff's office have looked into this case," he said. "We need someone to come forward."

This story has been updated. Wann sat for an interview with two detectives from APD, not a deposition.

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Ruth Bettis, Sonny Wann

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