A Conversation With a Killer

One-on-one with a woman responsible for the death of Laura Lee Crane.

by Linda Blackwell Simmons

The day began cold, but the sun finally appeared, making that Friday morning, January 30, 2004, mild and pleasant. It was 11:15 a.m. The parking lot at the Tom Thumb grocery store at Hulen and Bellaire, just southwest of downtown Fort Worth, was active with shoppers stocking up for the weekend, going to and from their cars. One woman, 77-year-old Laura Lee Crane, retired director of the Starpoint School at TCU, lived near Tom Thumb, and Friday was her regular shopping day. She was still in her car when a man approached and opened the driver’s door. “Slide over,” he said. She complied. That man was Edward Lee Busby. A woman accompanied him — Kathleen “Kitty” Latimer. Kathleen owed someone money for drugs, and they wanted to get out of Fort Worth — fast — and needed a car to do so. Busby drove, Kathleen sat in the back, and Mrs. Crane in the front passenger seat. They headed up Interstate Highway 35, but not before they stopped at the back of a vacant house near Airport Freeway and Beach, where they put Mrs. Crane in the trunk. Two days later, on Sunday, Feb. 1, they were pulled over in Oklahoma for a traffic violation. The following Tuesday, Mrs. Crane’s body was found down an embankment off an Interstate Highway 35 service road near Davis, Oklahoma. An autopsy showed she had died from asphyxiation. Busby was convicted and sent to death row at the Polunsky Unit in Livingston, Texas. Kathleen pleaded and is serving a life sentence at a women’s prison in Gatesville, Texas.

I had just moved to Fort Worth in 2005, and I remember Busby’s trial. The media covered it, but little was written about Kathleen. Who was she? How did she come to be in that situation that Friday morning? After she pleaded, she became invisible. Not long ago, I began an online search. There was little. I learned that in 13 years she has never granted an interview. After going through many obstacles with the Texas criminal justice bureaucracy and writing Kathleen three times to assure her that I had no motive to hurt anyone, she finally granted a one-hour interview. Before my visit, I spent the better part of two days at the Tarrant County Courthouse, reading Kathleen’s depositions and Busby’s trial transcripts, trying to learn more about her. 

Early on March 21 of this year, a sunny Tuesday morning, I got in my car and started the two-hour drive to the Mountain View facility at Gatesville, one unit of the women’s prison, just southwest of Waco. I was given strict instructions on what to bring — well, mostly what not to bring. I had a notebook, a pen, a camera and a wireless recorder. No iPhone, no laptop. I was searched, checked in, and instructed to wait in a visitor’s area.

Soon Kathleen appeared across from me, behind glass, with a small opening so we could hear each other. No phones were necessary. She appeared nervous, but she soon realized that I, too, was nervous. Her smile was gracious, her voice low, and she looked older than the one picture I had seen in her file. This is her story.

Good morning, Kathleen. I hope it’s okay if I call you Kathleen. And thank you for deciding to see me. Since we only have one hour, I want to get right to my questions. How did you meet Busby? And would you describe that Friday morning back on Jan. 30, 2004, and how you happened to be at that particular Tom Thumb grocery store. How did you get there? Where had you been the night before?

JB, that’s what I called him, and I had not slept for almost two weeks. We were high on crack cocaine most of that time. We’d been staying at a motel at Lancaster and Riverside since mid-2003. That’s when I first met him. One day I was standing in my hotel door, and a truck pulled up. JB stepped out. He was talking and laughing with the guys — the “dope boys.” I saw him looking at me — asking the others who I was. He walked over and we started talking. I let him come in, and we started getting high together. He was charming, saying all the right things. He never asked me to pay for the drugs. I had gotten into a life of drugs, and he had plenty of ’em. That began our on-and-off relationship. After about a month, he asked me to move to the Northside with him, a place called Cowboy Motel on 28th Street. Not even one day passed before he asked me to help with money, pimping me out. In late 2003, we moved back to an apartment on Vickery.

That Friday morning, JB and me got a ride with this guy to the west side of town. I think he was taking us to get a car; I can’t even remember his name. I can’t remember why we stopped at the grocery store. JB went inside, and this guy who had the car tells me to get out, so I get out and he takes off. I knew JB would be so mad. Now we were carless. I went into the store to find him. I was crying. The manager comes over and asks me if I’m okay. I say yes and go outside and sit down. I remember there were black benches up close to the door. I think JB got kicked out of the store, and pretty soon I hear that loud whistle, that familiar sound he always did when he wanted me to come. He was getting in the car with this older white woman, and he told me to get in the back. I asked him what he was doing, and he told me to shut up. I’ll never forget what Mrs. Crane did. She turned to me and said, “Hi, darling,” and then turned back to JB and said, “What would your mother say if she knew you were doing this?” She was calm.

Tell me about JB.
He was mean. For a while in 2003, we had an apartment at Vickery and 287, just a little efficiency. I paid the rent. The manager was nice. He would let us go for weeks without paying. Then JB got arrested right before Christmas 2003, for stealing bicycles I think. Then right after Christmas, he got out. The apartment manager told him to leave, and he did, but then in the middle of the night, I woke up to him on top of me, hitting me. The next day I went up to the Northside and stayed with a friend at the Peppermint Motel on 28th Street. I don’t even know if it’s still there.

Then a week or so later, I moved down to Joshua, and even applied for a job at Dollar General. I was clean. I felt good about my interview. I figured I’d get the job. But one night a neighbor woman came over and asked if I wanted to do some cocaine. I did, and after that, I hitched back up to Fort Worth and forgot about the life I might have had in Joshua. The drug drew me back to Lancaster and Riverside where JB found me. So many times I’ve thought, If only I hadn’t answered the door the night my neighbor came over. So many what ifs.

What happened after you left the Tom Thumb parking lot? And on the ride to Oklahoma?
I don’t remember everything. I was so out of it. We went to a station, Fast Track, I think, over by Beach and 121. JB told me to go inside and get as much money as I could from the ATM using Mrs. Crane’s card. He said, “Kitty, don’t be stupid.” When we left there, he pulled somewhere off Beach behind a deserted house. He told me to get out, and then he got Mrs. Crane out and walked her to the back of the car. He opened the trunk and told her to get in. I stood there staring, and he told me to get back in the car unless I wanted to get in there with her. Then we left and went up North I-35 and stopped at a few more stores. At the second one, JB told me to go inside and buy some duct tape. I bought the duct tape and two scratch-off tickets. I remember he kept honking the horn for me to hurry up.

We got a room at a motel, and then went together to look for some crack cocaine. JB had talked to the motel clerk and asked her where the “hood” was. We didn’t find anybody with any crack. Later, I do remember when the policeman stopped us. I think it was for a traffic stop; I looked up at the policeman and said, “Just get me out of the car.”

What responsibility do you hold for Mrs. Crane’s death?
A lot. I hold a lot of responsibility. There were so many times I could have told someone, done something. But I didn’t. How did I ever get caught up in such ugliness in hurting so many people. I turned 53 years old this year, and I feel like my whole life has been one big mistake after another.

Earlier this year, a federal court allowed an appeal to move forward that questions whether Busby is eligible for the death penalty — the rationale being that he’s mentally impaired and had insufficient legal help at his trial. What is your response?
He’s not mentally nothing. Just plain mean. About five years ago, an investigator came and asked me about JB. Does he know how to read and write, things like that. JB may not have finished school, but he definitely knows how to read and write. In fact, he has beautiful handwriting. To think he has all these people fooled.

Where do you think it all went wrong?
Things didn’t really start going crazy until about 1990-91. I wasn’t that young. Alcohol started my troubles. I had plenty of it working at bars. But then I got into cocaine. It draws you in fast. They call it a poor man’s dream and a rich man’s nightmare.

Why did you plead instead of going to trial? Tell me about your defense.
I didn’t want to put my mother or anybody else through that. I had a court-appointed attorney. I think I saw him maybe two or three times at the most during two years. There were witnesses who could have been interviewed about JB’s abuse, but I never heard it come up.

Let’s go back in time a little bit. Tell me about your family and where you grew up.
I was born in Biloxi, Mississippi. Then after high school, I moved to New Orleans and worked at a bar, then on to Houston, where I worked at a bar called Cloud 9. And I was very much a part of the Houston Ship Channel life. I worked in clubs that catered to foreigners that came in from all over the world. Then I moved to Fort Worth in 2002 and lived a bit with my mother and sister on North Riverside.

Do you have visitors who come to see you?
No, no one. I have a daughter who is 32. But she got into drugs and is now serving time at the Lockhart facility here in Texas. I have a son, age 27, but I’ve had no contact with him since he was six. He doesn’t come to see me.

Describe a typical day here at Mountain View. Have you made friends here with any of the other inmates?
We get up early for chow. I stay active. I got my first certification in Braille. Took me 1 1/2 years. We transcribe textbooks for schools. We are very proud. We are one of the best in the country.

How do you deal with the boredom, the isolation, the lack of privacy? Describe your surroundings.
We are creatures of our habitat. We adapt. I don’t get into trouble. We have a dorm with 34 beds, and each inmate has a cubicle with red brick walls up to about chest high. I spend lots of time on the floor writing and doing my devotionals. Our toilets and showers all have curtains in front of them.

Have you experienced violence?
Not really. I have a small group of friends and a whole lot of acquaintances. They call me “Mama Kitty.”

What’s been the hardest part in losing your freedom?
Not being there when my mother died. (She begins to cry.) I miss my dad. He died in 2008. I remember he used to tell me we are given many choices, but it’s our decisions that make us who we are.

You are eligible for parole in 2034. You will be 70 years old at that time. Are you hopeful for the future?
I never lose hope. My choices were so bad back then. I’m not the same person now. For the first time in my life, I feel like I’m worth something with my Braille work. I have a skill. If only I knew then what I know now.

Busby’s depositions and trial transcripts tell his own story:

“Kitty wanted me to get her a car. She was walking the streets. Me and Shawn picked her up at Valley View Motel on Lancaster. I love Kitty, I always will. She wanted to leave Fort Worth. She said, ‘You don’t love me — look at how all these white people stare at me, like I’m trash.’ [Kitty, herself, is white.] So when I come across this old lady at that grocery store, I told her to scoot over, that we just wanted a ride. I remember she had some envelopes in her hand. Kitty found $12 in her purse. I remember the lady had on a black sweater and black pants with a red shirt and black gloves. She was so sweet and nice. We stopped at a store. Then we stopped at a deserted house off the highway and put the lady in the trunk. The lady asked me why we was doing this. She stayed calm. She talked to us a lot. Then up closer to Oklahoma, we stopped at another store. Kitty went in and bought some electrical tape. She said, ‘Tape her whole head up.’ I prayed with the lady. Kitty was the brains behind it.”

After the interview with Kathleen and after reading Busby’s documents, I contacted the prosecutor, a detective who interviewed Kathleen, and also Steve Humble of the Squire Shop, a men’s clothing store adjacent to the Tom Thumb. Humble spotted the pair as they headed toward the grocer. “I was getting my mail outside my store that morning about 11 a.m., when I saw this very blonde woman walking fast. I said, ‘Good morning,’ and she looked at me and said, ‘Good morning.’ Then I noticed she was trying to catch up with a man about 30 yards away, a man I made eye contact with as he was testing the door to a car parked close to my store. He stopped when he saw me. Then they took off toward
Tom Thumb.”

Other than Busby and Kathleen, no one will ever really know what happened during those 36-48 hours in the final weekend of January 2004. Even after piecing together information from those involved, reading the depositions and trial transcripts, and interviewing Kathleen, it’s still a guess. There was no evidence linking Kathleen to the duct tape — only Busby’s fingerprints were found. Who was the leader, and who was the follower? Suzanne Escalante, a police officer who worked the Eastside during the months prior to the murder, says, “I dealt with those two a lot on my beat. JB was very confident and had issues remembering to call me officer, not babe or sweetie.

Kathleen had a broken arm and other injuries from being assaulted, but she would always say a ‘john’ did it. We all knew it was JB. Others on the street would tell me about Kathleen getting assaulted by him and how he was a jerk. Kathleen was always respectful to me.”

Two lives crossed paths with another on that fateful Friday morning. The one who should not be forgotten is Mrs. Crane who was, by all accounts, beloved by all. The provost at the time, William Koehler, was quoted in TCU’s Skiff newspaper saying the university was saddened by her tragic death. “Mrs. Crane had a profound impact upon the lives of many children and families through her work at Starpoint. She will be missed tremendously.” In a recent conversation I had with Mr. Koehler, he added, “Her death was more than tragic. It was devastating to those at TCU who knew her personally, but it was her students who suffered the most. Her leadership at Starpoint was invaluable. She loved her students, and they loved her.”

Busby and Latimer, in their separate interviews, did agree on one thing, and that was they needed transportation. The question lingers — why did they not take the car and leave Mrs. Crane behind? The answer may never come.