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Too Many Suspects

Dead at 25, cursed by being too pretty

By Ken Raymond
Staff Writer

COMANCHE — All the kids know Mary’s house.

You can see it there, just down the lane. It’s the brick one near the school, the one with the big picture window that stares out at the street, watching as you pass.

That’s the one. The scary house, the haunted house.

The one where Mary died.

For almost a generation, the house has been a source of frisson and fear for the people of Comanche. Some guests refuse to go inside. Others balk at entering the bedroom. And no wonder.

In that room, back behind that staring window, Mary Pewitt, 25, was stabbed to death — some say mutilated — in her own bed.

She is Comanche’s only cold case.

Her killer is the bogeyman.

A tough luck kind of life

Most folks in Comanche are long-timers, people whose families put down roots in the boom years of the early 1900s, when new oil wells rose around the cattle town like a series of steely watchtowers. The bust in the 1980s whittled away at the population, and it’s been in decline ever since.

Under ordinary circumstances, few strangers come to the town, which boasts a population of about 1,500. U.S. 81 runs through it, but there’s not much to encourage outsiders to stay.

Although at least six churches dot Comanche’s landscape, Harold’s Club is the lone bar. Set about 50 feet from the feed store, right next to the lawyer’s office and not far from the railroad tracks, it’s the best place in town to get a cold Budweiser. It may be the only place.

If you’d been at Harold’s on June 3, 1988, you would’ve seen Mary Pewitt serving drinks, a job she’d been doing for 13 days. And if you happened to be a typical American male, you probably wouldn’t have been able to look away.

Pewitt, as her mother says, was cursed by being too pretty too soon. An early developer, she’d always attracted male attention — but she was too young to make wise decisions and too stubborn to let her parents shield her.

By 25, she’d been married three times and divorced twice. Her current husband, from whom she was already estranged, was in jail the night she died. Stan Pewitt was accused of stealing about $3,500 of her parents’ property.

The bar job wasn’t her first choice of careers, but she had two young daughters to feed, and her options were limited. At her previous job, working at a nursing home across the street from her house, she’d been crushed by an overweight Alzheimer’s patient, damaging her back.

Between that, a breast enlargement and a hysterectomy, she’d undergone seven operations in about as many years. The ordeals weakened her, and although she remained a fighter, she wasn’t as tough as she used to be.

She needed her full strength that night in June.

‘She’s all covered in blood’

On June 3, Pewitt left her two daughters, Kira and Amber, ages 7 and 6, with her parents, David and Elizabeth Morgan.

She hadn’t seen her mother in awhile; they’d argued the last time they talked. This day was about reconciliation, at least in part, and when Pewitt drove away, her mother thought they’d had “a great, great visit.”

That night, Pewitt worked at Harold’s. About midnight, the bar shut down, and Pewitt drove to the owner’s house to drop off the receipts. Soon after, she arrived at her house at 611 S 10th St., where she met up with a male friend.

They watched television for awhile, and he left about 12:45 a.m.

That was the last time she was seen alive.

Shortly before 6:30 a.m., Elizabeth Morgan pulled up outside Pewitt’s house. She and a friend were on their way to a Take Off Pounds Sensibly meeting, but she needed to drop off her grandchildren first.

Pewitt didn’t answer the door.

Amber, Pewitt’s youngest daughter, ran over to the picture window and climbed on top of an integrated brick planter, peering through the blinds.

“She got off, and she was just white as a sheet, and she said, ‘I can’t wake my mama, and she’s all covered in blood,’” Morgan said.

Morgan hurried inside the house. Her daughter, wearing only a patterned white T-shirt and ankle-high socks, had been stabbed about 30 times, mainly in the neck and upper chest. Her hands bore defensive wounds, evidence that she’d tried to fight back.

“I could feel her stomach, and it was warm,” Morgan said, “so I thought maybe she was alive.”

She wasn’t. Pewitt was gone.

‘Too many suspects’

Any homicide investigation looks closely at the victim’s husband, wife or lovers, and this case was no different — except for one thing.

“There’s probably too many suspects,” said Ray Homer, the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation special agent who is trying to find the killer.

Comanche police and Stephens County deputies and district attorney’s investigators initially worked the case. They looked at Pewitt’s husbands.

First up was Ricky Tidwell, whom she’d married at 16. The union lasted less than a year.

David Morgan said he saw Tidwell pull up outside Pewitt’s house one night not long before the slaying, but he does not think Tidwell was involved.

Tidwell could not be reached for comment. His mother told The Oklahoman he was out of town when Pewitt died.

Next came Tim Allen. They stayed together for several rocky years but apparently had some contact even after they split up.

Police reports allege Allen and his new wife beat up Pewitt in her back yard earlier in 1988, Homer said. Sometime after that, Morgan said, Pewitt stabbed Allen in “the hand with a knife.”

In a telephone interview, Allen confirmed that she’d stabbed him but couldn’t recall why.

“She had a pretty good temper,” he said. “She wouldn’t mind popping me. I never hit her back.”

Her third husband was jailed before the slaying. Pewitt’s parents said he physically abused her.

“He blacked her eye, and I owe him one,” David Morgan said, making a fist. “I ain’t give it to him yet, but I owe him one.”

Stan Pewitt could not be reached for comment.

Mary Pewitt had other male friends, including the one she was with the night she died. Working at the bar, she was a target for the drunken affections of men, including itinerant laborers who’d come to town that summer to repair damage from a powerful storm.

Add in random strangers, local criminals and jealous wives or girlfriends, and the list of suspects is endless.

“Anyone’s capable of murder,” said David Morgan, Pewitt’s adoptive father. “Anyone in this town’s capable of murder.”

Pain and obsession

So who killed Mary Pewitt? And why?

The first question continues to haunt Comanche. If the killer was an out-of-towner, then he stalked into the community like an avenging demon, furiously stabbing Pewitt again and again before making a silent escape, bloody but somehow unseen.

If the killer was a local, then he may still be living among them, sitting beside them on a church pew or at the high school football game, laughing with them over a beer at Harold’s — all the while concealing a terrible secret behind a mask of false innocence.

The Morgans have their suspicions, but they do not have proof and stop short of accusing anyone. Elizabeth Morgan hopes she never knows for certain. She’s already had a full share of pain; she doesn’t want any more.

David Morgan, though — he may be obsessed with learning the truth. His wife says he changed after Pewitt was killed, becoming bitter and angry, and while he walks with a cane, he is still a formidable man with fists like canned hams. Fury rises in him at thoughts that the killer is free, and his eyes fill with tears at the memory of his loss.

“You know, a parent’s responsibility doesn’t end in death,” he said. “I’ve found that out. You’ve got to keep plugging.”

For him, that meant going back to college after Pewitt’s death to earn a degree in criminal justice. And it means he’s still investigating, trying to piece together decades-old evidence on a lonely quest for justice.

As for why Pewitt was slain, well, that’s anyone’s guess.

“The motive is somewhat of a mystery,” Homer said. “Obviously, the money from that night’s (bar) receipts was not the issue. She’d already deposited that with the owner. There was no obvious burglary.”

Nor were there any signs of sexual assault.

What seems certain, however, is that the attacker had a grudge.

“A knife is very personal,” Homer said. “To stab someone ... with a knife and watch them bleed and basically to slash them and cause their death, that’s a very personal, rage-induced crime.”

Hope for a solution

Did Pewitt anger someone that fateful summer night? Had a series of smaller incidents built to a murderous crescendo? Or was Pewitt simply a surrogate for a maniac with a hatred of women?

We may soon know. The killer may have left some evidence behind.

OSBI technical investigators recovered fingerprints from inside Pewitt’s house. So far, they have not been linked to anyone in particular, but they have been entered into the FBI’s Automated Fingerprint Identification System, which could find a match at any moment.

Perhaps more importantly, Homer also has a sample of what could be the killer’s DNA. He won’t reveal where it came from — Pewitt’s body or elsewhere in the crime scene — but if it pans out, it will be a solid piece of evidence.

Identifying the killer can’t happen fast enough for David Morgan. He knows his daughter was no saint, but that may have made him love her even more.

“She was kind of a whole lot like me, I think,” he said. “She didn’t like people to be run over. She’d fight you in a holy minute, but she’d do anything in the world for you. “She was good, and she was bad. She was just human.”

Contributing: Robin Kickingbird in the News Research Center