Beware of Betty Lou Beets, the Texas Black Widow

She was known as the Texas Black Widow, and the reason was clear as day – she killed her husbands. That’s right, husbands – plural. Betty Lou Beets killed at least two of her five husbands; the remains of both men were discovered on her property. Beets had three husbands prior to them, most of whom Betty tried to take out. It seems as though with age, she grew less and less remorseful.

Betty Lou Beets / Protesters / Betty Lou Beets / Betty Lou Beets.

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The woman was clearly bad luck when it came to the men in her life. But once you get to know her story, you will probably wonder what many other people have been wondering: was it self-defense or cold, hard greed? You be the judge…

Raised in a Shack in North Carolina

Betty Lou Dunevant was born in 1937 in Roxboro, North Carolina, as the second oldest of four children to tobacco sharecropper parents. Both of Betty’s parents were heavy drinkers who put parenting on the bottom of their list of priorities. They lived in a shack with no windows, electricity, or running water.

Betty Lou smiles while holding a doll.

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A serious bout of measles when she was five left Betty with permanent hearing loss. She later claimed that she had to teach herself how to read lips. There were no special education classes at the time, so she was forced to get by without any hearing aids or any kind of support. She managed to make it through to the ninth grade, but not out of choice…

An Unfavorable Childhood (to Say the Least)

Men were not Betty’s favorite people. She later claimed that when she was five years old, the same year the family moved to Danville, Virginia, she was sexually assaulted by her father and several other male relatives. Then, in 1949, Betty’s mother was institutionalized after a psychotic break.

The house at night.

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12-year-old Betty was then forced to drop out of school to take care of her two younger siblings. While her mother eventually recovered and returned home, she had another breakdown the following year. Betty was depressed and figured that the only way out of her miserable existence was by getting married. By age 15, she found her first husband.

At Least She Had the Looks

Betty wasn’t blessed with a good family or good fortune. She did, however, have looks. Despite not being able to hear well, she looked good. Her big mane of dyed blonde hair, big blue eyes, wide smile, and even features caught the eyes of many men. At 5’2” and 115 pounds, Betty didn’t have trouble finding male attention.

A portrait of Betty.

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Betty Lou Beets eventually got married six times to five different men. The first three had their own issues with Betty – some violent and abusive – but the fourth and fifth husbands didn’t make it out alive. According to Betty “sympathizers,” all her marriages were plagued with sexual abuse and domestic violence, which Betty only revealed after her ultimate conviction.

Robert Branson: The One That Lasted the Longest

Betty was 15 when she met and married Robert Branson in 1952. Ironically, her first marriage from her teenage years was the one that lasted the longest – 18 years. A year after their wedding, Betty became a mother after giving birth to her first child, Faye.

Officers take Betty to court.

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Betty’s life fell apart after Faye’s birth. Early in her marriage, Betty tried to take her life. She and Branson decided to separate, and not long after, the 16-year-old mom was hospitalized after a suicide attempt. Whether it was due to post-traumatic stress or post-partum depression (or both), it isn’t really clear.

A Mother of Six by Age 29

The couple was separated for about six months before they decided to work things out. Betty then got pregnant and gave birth to their second daughter, Connie, in 1954. That year, they moved to Mesquite, Texas.

A picture of Betty Lou with her friends.

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While living in Texas, Betty gave birth to four more kids: Shirley in 1959, Phyllis in 1962, Richard in 1964, and Bobby in 1966. By the age of 29, she was a mother of six children, and she was feeling very restless. Since she married at such a young age, she felt as though she never had the chance to go enjoy herself.

The Only One She Didn’t Try to Kill

Betty tried to make up for lost time. Keeping the home and raising six kids was not her main interest. She started hanging out in bars, flirting with men, and acting like the teenaged girl she never got to be. She also started experimenting with alcohol for the first time.

Betty Lou sits in prison remembering the past.

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Her husband was fed up and divorced her in 1969, after 18 years of marriage. Betty later told reporters that she was deeply in love with her first husband and was utterly devastated when he left her. Maybe it was true, considering he was the only one she never tried to kill…

Single and Ready to Mingle

Something Betty eventually claimed, though, was that Branson abused her. There are no official reports of it since she never called the police on him back then. She also admitted that she drank heavily after he left, but she blamed it on the stress of suddenly being a single mother to six kids at the age of 31.

People are drinking at the bar of a nightclub.

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When he left her, the mother of six was financially gutted and a basket case of emotions. She didn’t have much schooling or skills, so she figured she needed a man to take care of her. All the while, Betty was racking up a criminal record, including public lewdness and shooting her second husband…

Billy Lane: The One She Married Twice

At the age of 32, Betty found herself with six kids and very little income. Although Branson sent her child support, it did little to alleviate her poverty… and loneliness. After all, being a mom wasn’t her biggest priority – escaping from reality was.

A man is placing an engagement ring on a woman’s finger.

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The next man who came into Betty’s life was Billy Lane, with whom she hooked up quickly – only a few months after her divorce from Branson. Things started to look up a bit when Lane came into the picture, but four months in, she had already got a restraining order on him.

The One She Shot Twice

They married in 1970, but they ended up getting divorced that same year. Despite the divorce, they just couldn’t stay away from each other. Lane was the one Betty married twice – they remarried in 1972, but the couple fought often, sometimes in very extreme ways.

A view of two cartridges.

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Shortly after their divorce, the pair got into a real brawl. Lane punched her in the face, resulting in Betty’s broken nose. So, what did she do? Well, she shot him twice. Some sources say she shot him twice in the side of the abdomen, but others report the bullets being in the back of his head.

He Was the “Lucky” One

Lane ended up with nerve damage, but Betty helped him recuperate and taught him how to walk again. Betty was acquitted and was going to be tried for attempted murder, but Lane dropped the charges. He signed an affidavit in which he admitted that he had threatened to kill her first.

A surgical ward in the morning hospital rounds.

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While the attempted murder charges were dropped, she still faced charges of aggravated assault. And still, Betty must have found the move romantic because the two remarried! Within a month, they were divorced again. In the end, Lane is considered to have been the “lucky” one since he came out relatively unscathed, unlike Betty’s following husbands.

Ronnie Threlkheld: The One She Took Her Time With

Betty was slower to jump the gun when it came to her third marriage. In 1973, shortly after her third divorce (to her second husband), she met Ronnie Threlkheld in a bar in Dallas, Texas. He was a salesman, and the two hit it off immediately.

The exterior of a club.

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They dated for five years before finally getting married in 1978. But their relationship was just as rocky as the previous ones and marred with violence. Within a few months, Betty tried to kill her husband… again.

The One She Ran Over

This time, she tried to run him over with her car. Surprisingly, Threlkheld declined to press charges against his wife, but he was definitely warier around her. Betty started working as a topless dancer in 1979 and was charged with public lewdness and spent 30 days in jail.

A portrait of Betty Lou.

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When asked later about the charge, all she said was that she was working in a topless bar – she wasn’t actually topless. Whatever really happened, Threlkheld had had enough of Betty, and they divorced a year later. Both Threlkhold and Lane (the ones who got away) eventually testified at her murder trial.

Doyle Barker: Unlucky Husband No. 4

Within weeks of her divorce from Threlkheld, Betty moved on to husband number four. Betty was now 42, raising her last son Bobby who was nearing middle school. All five of her other kids were already on their own or living with their father.

The sons of victims of Betty Lou talk to press.

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Betty did what she always did when she was single – she looked for another man. She met Doyle Wayne Barker, a tall and handsome roofer whom people called Wayne. He was a hard worker and the typical “nice guy.” In October 1979, Betty married Barker, and they settled into Cedar Creek Lake, near Gun Barrel City, Texas, in a brand-new trailer.

The One That Went Missing

The two had lots in common and enjoyed nights out at the local watering hole, also called the Seven Points bar. Seven weeks after their wedding, they were already separated. Betty would tell her grown daughter Shirley that her husband was just as abusive as the rest.

Texas Rangers are standing outside the police station.

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Despite their separation, they went on to have a turbulent, on-and-off relationship. That is, until 1981 when Barker suddenly went missing. Betty told people that they just had a fight, and he had stormed out in a rage. But many were skeptical of that claim since Barker left his truck behind and had no other transportation.

The Truth Eventually Came Out

Betty insisted that Barker had left his truck behind so she could sell it. Well, that was the story she told everyone. The truth eventually came out – that she shot him to death with a .38 and buried him under a storage shed in her yard with the help of her daughter Shirley.

A view of the yard where the body was buried.

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But none of this would come to light until the death of Betty’s fifth and final husband was exposed. It’s not like it took that long, either. Just eight months after Barker disappeared, Betty got married for the last time…

Jimmy Beets: The Last One

Of all her husbands, Jimmy Don Beets was the most successful. By the time he married Betty, he was recently retired after a long career as a firefighter. He received a $1,200 monthly pension and was financially comfortable. He would go fishing in his spare time and did handyman work around the house.

A portrait of Jimmy Don Beets.

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Beets was also well-liked with his friends and in the community. Betty met Beets at a bar where she was working as a waitress; when she saw him, she was immediately attracted to him. She was also impressed that he was already retired, despite being the same age as her.

He Dug His Own Grave

Betty and Beets dated for six months before marrying in August of 1982. Although Beets owned his own home, he moved into Betty’s trailer after they got married. He liked that her property backed up onto the lake – for his fishing boat.

A view of a trailer house during sunrise.

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But he didn’t really get to enjoy it all that much. Not long after their wedding, Betty asked him to build her a “wishing well” in their front yard. A doer, he agreed to make the well, and started digging into the Texan soil. He just didn’t know that he was, in fact, digging his own grave.

With the Help of Her Son

Betty’s eldest son Robby, who was 19 at the time, was housesitting when Beets, Betty, and Bobby (the youngest son) were on a road trip back East. Robby left the trailer in a mess and was trying to make up for it, so he helped out with digging the well.

A portrait of Betty Lou from prison.

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What Beets didn’t know was that his wife had decided to kill him and collect his life insurance and pension. The plan was to bury his body in the well. And she wasn’t worried about telling people about it, either. Robby, for one, was in on it.

My Husband Is Missing

On the evening of August 6, 1982, Betty told Robby to get out of the house. When he came back two hours later, he found Beets dead with two gunshots to the back of his head. Robby then helped his mom bury the body in the well.

An interior view of a dug well.

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That night, Betty called the police to report her husband missing. She told them that he had been home earlier in the day and that he may have gone fishing. Although her voice didn’t sound at all upset, there were no bright red flags; the police took her statement at face value.

Staging the Scene

Beets was listed as a missing person, and no foul play was suspected… at first. However, a week later, the first indication that something fishy was really going on occurred. The day after the call to the police, Robby helped his mother remove the propeller from Beets’s fishing boat.

A view of the propeller in a wooden boat.

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Meanwhile, Betty staged the rest of the scene – she scattered his heart medication, his glasses, and his fishing license around the boat. Robby then powered the boat to a spot near a bridge, jumped out, and left it to drift along in the water.

Six Days Later…

Six days after he went missing, on August 12, two men fishing on Cedar Lake saw a boat sitting by the Redwood Beach Marina. They noticed that the boat was without a driver, and it looked like it was going to crash into some of the boats at the dock.

Two men are fishing, sitting in a small boat at dawn.

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The men were concerned, so they rowed over to the boat to get a closer look. That’s when they saw that the boat’s engine had been pulled out and one of its propellers was sheared off. They also found the fishing license, the glasses, and the tablets from a prescription vial.

But He Was a Strong Swimmer…

Once they saw the name on the prescription label, they knew it was their friend. Both men knew Beets well and had gone fishing with him in the past. It was all very suspicious because their friend was a skilled mechanic who would surely have been able to maneuver the boat to shore with a missing propeller.

Two men on a motor boat.

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Moreover, Beets was an exceptionally strong swimmer. Not to mention the fact that there was a life preserver on board. He wouldn’t have drowned. But then again, the heart medication tablets suggested that Beets might have had some kind of heart episode.

Searching the Lake

Maybe he wasn’t able to swim to the shore, the men figured. They started yelling out for someone at the marina to call the police. Now that his boat was found (as Betty had expected), the question was whether Beets had drowned…

A man uses binoculars to search the lake.

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Cedar Creek Lake was huge – 340,000 square acres and 20 miles of shoreline. A search ensued for Beets, including a group of Beets’s firemen friends who drove down from Dallas to search for their friend. That day happened to be the annual bass fishing contest, with 100 boats in the lake.

A 13-Day Hunt

What was supposed to be a contest turned into a massive search party. Still, there was no sign of their buddy Jimmy. Eventually, helicopters and small planes offered help from above. The Red Cross arrived on the scene, too, offering food and drinks to those working hard on the mission.

Soldiers are searching the area.

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The search of the lake lasted for 13 days, until it was called off. Meanwhile, Beets’s father and his son (from a previous marriage) suspected foul play. Something simply didn’t make sense – the details of the (staged) scene didn’t add up.

Meanwhile, Betty Wanted to Move On

It turns out, Beets’s father and son weren’t the only ones who thought something was strange. Privately, some of the other searchers wondered if Beets was even in the lake at all. The lake was warm enough that if there was a dead body, it should have floated to the top by now.

A picture of Betty with her friends.

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Even after the search was officially called off, Beets’s friends and fellow firefighters kept looking, praying for a miracle. Then they heard that Betty wanted to have a memorial service for him just one week into the search. It was shocking, and definitely not something a grieving wife would typically call for.

Two Years Later…

While the entire community was hoping Beets would be found alive, his wife was ready to memorialize him and move on with her life. It was another reason to believe that something wasn’t right in this scenario. And those who felt that way were eventually proven right.

A man holds a sign that reads ‘’Exterminate That Black Widow.’’

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It took two years before the truth came out. One day, a confidential informant called the police to tell them that Jimmy Beets’s death was no accident. The Henderson County Sheriff’s Department then quietly began looking into the claim. They eventually found enough evidence to move the case forward.

Betty Lou Beets, You’re Under Arrest

On June 8, 1985, three days before Betty was set to collect her late husband’s life insurance policies, she was arrested and taken to the Henderson County Jail. Once she was sitting behind bars, law enforcement secured search warrants on her home and property.

Two mugshots of Betty Lou.

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This time, the search was easy. It didn’t take long to find out what everyone secretly feared. Beets didn’t drown at all, and he was never in the lake to begin with. Investigators found his corpse on Betty’s property, in the well that Beets himself dug, covered with moss and flowers.

Finding the “Missing” Husband

After unearthing the body, detectives moved to the back of the property. That’s where they found, underneath a storage shed, the remains of Betty’s fourth husband, Doyle Wayne Barker – the one that went “missing” years ago.

Bullets sit on a desk.

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It appeared that both her fourth and fifth husbands were killed in the same way: with a .38 caliber gun. Yet, while Barker had been shot three times, Jimmy was only shot twice. Investigators were able to determine that both men were asleep when they were killed, offering only a little bit of solace to the grieving families.

A Guilty Conscience

After the bodies were located, two of Betty’s kids came forward with some more shocking news. Their guilty consciences got the best of them, and they confessed that their mother didn’t act alone. They revealed that Betty confided in them ahead of both murders about her plans.

A boy holds poster that reads ‘’Texas Justice.’’

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Shirley admitted to helping her mom bury Barker’s body back in October of 1981, whereas Robby told detectives that his mother asked him to leave the property because she was planning to kill her husband that night. He then told the authorities about the well and the staging of the boat.

A Capital Offense

Part of the plan was for Betty to act like a bereaved widow, and for two years, she pulled it off. But the truth always comes out one way or another. On July 11, 1985, Betty Lou Beets was indicted for the murder of Jimmy Don Beets, a capital offense.

Demonstrator protests against the execution of Betty Lou.

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Prosecutors believed that Betty’s sole motivation in murdering Beets was money. Aside from his $1,200 monthly pension, he had multiple life insurance policies worth $125,000. Betty refuted these claims, though, saying that she didn’t even know these policies existed until 18 months after he died.

Her Question Speaks Volumes

At trial, Betty testified that Beets’s parents told her about the insurance policy; if they hadn’t told her, she never would have known. Then there was Denny Burris, a chaplain from the Dallas Fire Department, who told a different story.

Betty Lou’s attorney talks to press.

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Burris told the court that he met with Betty several times after Beets’s disappearance, and he said that she had only one question for him: “If they don’t find Jimmy Don, what kind of benefits will I be eligible for?” Her question spoke volumes. Burris also mentioned other things in his testimony…

Deny, Deny, Deny

Burris claimed that Betty was so busy entertaining friends when he tried to meet her for the first time that he had to reschedule. It all suggested that she wasn’t upset at all. At first, Betty denied any involvement in her husbands’ deaths, claiming that she had no idea how their bodies landed in her yard.

A crying Betty Lou sits in prison.

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A few days later, at a bail reduction hearing, Betty insisted that she didn’t shoot or hide the bodies. Even though she was eligible for bail in the Barker murder case, she was denied bail in the Beets murder case. She had to remain in jail until the trial was held.

She Blamed Her Kids

From jail, Betty held interviews with reporters. After all, it’s not every day that a woman is charged with the murders of two husbands. She told reporters that she was actually relieved to be arrested. She said that while she didn’t kill either of them, she did know about their deaths and just never reported them.

James Beets talks to the press outside court.

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Betty pleaded not guilty, convinced that the jury would believe her side of the story. Apparently, she thought the jury would be sympathetic to the fact that she blamed one of her sons for killing her fifth husband and her daughter for the death of her fourth.

Her Boyfriend Believed She Was Innocent

Betty went further to insist that she would never have hurt Beets – that no one had ever been as good to her as he was. Her boyfriend at the time of her arrest, Ray Bone, testified in court, too. He told jurors that he believed she was innocent, considering how nice she was to him and how well she treated him while they were living together.

A picture of Betty Lou.

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He also mentioned, though, that she never wanted him – or anyone else, for that matter – to mow the lawn. In the end, the jury didn’t believe Betty’s side of the story (or her boyfriend’s).

Sentenced to Death

On October 11, 1985, Betty was found guilty of capital murder. Three days later, she was sentenced to death. Then, the Court of Criminal Appeals reversed the capital murder conviction, stating that committing murder for life insurance or pension benefits doesn’t count as murder for remuneration under Texas law.

Protesters stand outside the Texas prison.

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That said, Betty couldn’t be guilty of capital murder. It resulted in a 6–3 ruling, and the court stated that murder-for-hire cases could only be prosecuted as murder for remuneration. But then the prosecution came back and requested a rehearing of the case.

The First Woman in Texas

In 1984, the state of Texas executed a man for killing his son for the purpose of insurance money. In 1989, the Criminal Appeals Court then reaffirmed the capital murder conviction. Betty was back on Death Row. She became the first woman in Texas, since 1963, to get an execution date.

The lethal injection death chamber at the prison.

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The judge gave Betty her execution date: November 8, 1989. Betty was told that she would “be taken to a room at some hour before sunrise as provided by law to be injected with a lethal substance or substances as provided by law.”

Headlines and Opinions

Betty left the court without comment, saying that she would communicate from her prison cell by letter. While her daughter Faye felt “sick” by everything that was going on, Beets’s son James told reporters he was happy she was going to be executed, hoping it would allow his father to rest in peace.

A kid protests against Betty Lou’s execution.

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It took the whole decade of the ‘90s for the appeals process to take place. Meanwhile, news headlines were being published and opinions were being made. Those who supported Betty believed that she was driven to kill by years of abuse.

The Battered Wife Defense

Betty started making new claims as she sat in prison waiting for her execution. She claimed that if the jury knew that she was a battered wife, she wouldn’t have been given the death penalty. She was even able to find support from members of the Texas Council on Family Violence.

Prison cells line a hall at the death row unit.

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One member named Bree Buchanan believed that Betty was suffering from battered woman syndrome as well as post-traumatic stress disorder (Betty blamed her lawyer for never brining this up in the trial). Then there were the louder opinions – the ones that blamed no one but Betty herself.

Where’s the Proof?

No doubt, Betty survived a horrible childhood, but the once helpless child grew up to become a woman who clearly wasn’t afraid to stand up for herself. While it may be true that she was in abusive marriages, she failed to report them, and thus no proof existed.

An exterior view of the Huntsville Unit in Texas.

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If anything, it seemed like she was the aggressor in her relationships. Her daughter Faye hoped that her mother’s life would be spared, but her brother and sister’s testimonies against their mother made it nearly impossible that Betty would be spared.

Three Days Before Her Execution

One problem with using the battered woman defense was the fact that she never confessed to the murders. If she had no idea of their murders, how could she claim that she did it in self defense? At the time of the trial, battered women’s syndrome wasn’t a widely recognized defense.

A holding cell for death row inmates.

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Two days before her execution, the chairman of the Texas Board of Paroles and Pardons declared: “Beets had never confessed or showed remorse for her actions and did not show enough evidence that domestic violence caused her to commit the crime.”

Goodbye, Betty

Betty was executed by lethal injection on February 24, 2000. She declined her opportunity for a final meal and had no last words to declare. She also refused to make eye contact with those who came to witness her execution.

A lethal injection death chamber at Texas prison.

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She did, however, smile at her family members who stood off to the side. She left behind five living children, nine grandchildren, and six great-grandchildren. She would have been 63 years old two weeks following her death, making her the oldest inmate to be executed by the state of Texas since 1982.