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Man convicted of '83 Texas KFC mass murders

A man previously convicted of perjury in the long-unsolved case of five people abducted from a Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant in Texas 25 years ago now has been convicted of those murders.
Image: KFC murders, Darnell Hartsfield
Darnell HartsfieldTexas Attorney General's Office / AP file
/ Source: The Associated Press

A robber who had been convicted of perjury in the long-unsolved killings of five people abducted from a Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant 25 years ago was convicted of murder Tuesday.

Darnell Hartsfield, 47, of Tyler, was found guilty on all five counts in one of the longest unresolved mass murder cases in Texas. He received five automatic life sentences, which State District Judge Clay Gossett ordered be served consecutively. Prosecutors chose not to seek the death penalty.

The jury deliberated less than two hours on a case that took years of bad leads to get to trial and was moved more than 100 miles from where the killings occurred because of publicity. One earlier suspect was absolved when a fingernail originally matched to him turned out to be that of a victim's.

The victims — four workers and a friend — were abducted from the restaurant in Kilgore on Sept. 23, 1983, during an apparent robbery. They were driven about 15 miles to a remote oilfield road and fatally shot; their bodies were found the next morning.

DNA evidence
David Maxwell, 20, Mary Tyler, 37, Opie Ann Hughes, 39, and Joey Johnson, 20, worked at the restaurant about 115 miles east of Dallas. Monte Landers, 19, was a friend who was visiting Maxwell and Johnson as the store was closing for the night.

DNA evidence linked Hartsfield to the restaurant.

"You just can't argue with DNA," said juror Juanita Pixley. "It was there. I had no problem with the decision."

The trial judge earlier Tuesday allowed testimony from a former convenience store clerk who was robbed three days after the KFC slayings. Hartsfield pleaded guilty to that robbery, and prosecutors argued the two robberies were noticeably similar.

She identified Hartsfield as the gunman and described him ordering her and a co-worker to lay face down on the floor. The KFC victims were found face down on the oilfield road.

"It was a match in a pool of gasoline the jury had," Hartsfield's lawyer, Thad Davidson, said after the verdict.

Third person unidentified
Lisa Tanner, an assistant Texas attorney general who was lead prosecutor, called the verdict gratifying.

"I just want peace in my life," Maxwell's widow, Lana, said. "I don't get to go back. That would be closure. I know I'll see him some day."

Hartsfield's cousin pleaded guilty last year and is serving five life terms also.

Prosecutors have said DNA tests show a third person was involved in the abduction and slayings, but that person never has been identified.

Hartsfield has been serving a life sentence on a perjury conviction for telling a grand jury he wasn't at the restaurant on the night of the abductions. He also has six earlier felony convictions.