By Sharna Johnson: CNJ staff writer
In the early afternoon hours of Saturday, June 19, 1993, concerned neighbors reported hearing a scuffle and a woman’s screams coming from a duplex at 406 S. Avenue B in Portales.
Police entered an unlocked front door to find 21-year-old Catherine Elizabeth Kelton dead in a partially filled bathtub, an injury to her head and the tie to her bathrobe around her neck.
Police missed the Eastern New Mexico University sophomore’s killer by mere minutes. He fled out the back as they entered through the front of the house.
The death was ruled a drowning and asphyxiation.
Nicknamed the “Bathtub murder” by the media, the case became high profile as police zeroed in a suspect, a 22-year-old Tulia, Texas native studying physical education on a football scholarship at ENMU, Tommy Wayne Willis.
The day after the slaying, Willis’ campus residence was searched. He was questioned and within days, he was arrested and charged with Kelton’s murder.
Police said Willis had gone to Kelton’s house that day under the guise of settling a drug debt. Instead, he attempted to rob her of her cash and drugs. During the robbery, he hit her in the head and when she screamed, he killed her to silence her, they said.
Willis pled guilty to second-degree murder two months after his arrest, but withdrew his plea the following year, telling the court he was innocent but had pled guilty only to avoid the stiffer penalties of first-degree murder.
Then-District Attorney Randall Harris responded by dismissing the second-degree case. A district judge reinstated Willis’ plea of not guilty as Harris initiated a renewed first-degree capital murder case against him, this time armed with DNA evidence he hadn’t had before.
“We had developed a tremendous amount of evidence (by then)… We had a 99.9 percent hit that his DNA was on her clothing,” police Capt. Lonnie Berry recalled.
Berry noted there were several homicides that year, unusual for the small town, and detectives worked tirelessly putting together evidence for successful prosecutions.
Willis appealed the move by Harris to seek the death penalty and the case went to the New Mexico Supreme Court.
The court ruled evidence supported Willis was robbing Kelton and he killed her to prevent her from reporting his crime to police, thereby meeting the criteria for the death penalty.
State v. Willis is still cited by legal authorities as landmark case law that clarifies the aggravating circumstance of a victim killed because they are a witness to a crime. It is one of seven factors justifying the death penalty until last month, when the governor signed a repeal of the death penalty in New Mexico.
Faced with the Supreme Court’s ruling and the new evidence against him, Willis again pled guilty to second-degree murder, and five years after Kelton’s death, was sentenced to serve 28 years in prison for murder, robbery, aggravated burglary and false imprisonment.
State law required Willis serve at least 85 percent of his sentence.
“No one was happy about it and we did what we had to do,” Harris said, explaining he offered Willis the plea because though he believed he could prove Willis was responsible for Kelton’s death, the case had already gone on a long time, and brought much pain to the Kelton family.
“I hope I did the best I could for the Kelton family. I’m frustrated because I hope the Kelton family can somehow move forward,” he said.
“It’s a tragedy and I’m sure for the Willis family it was a tragedy. His history didn’t support what happened. But at the end of the day what he perpetrated was the ultimate crime of murder.”