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Trail To Nowhere 

For decades, the Spencer family sought justice for Judy. But what if they got the wrong man?

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click to enlarge Judy Spencer's grave at North Lawn Cemetery, Dent County, Missouri, in January 2016 - PHOTO BY NICHOLAS PHILLIPS
  • PHOTO BY NICHOLAS PHILLIPS
  • Judy Spencer's grave at North Lawn Cemetery, Dent County, Missouri, in January 2016

At trial, when prosecutor Ted Bruce assigned sinister meaning to Nash's words, perhaps nothing rankled more than Nash's statement to a trooper that "Judy is an alcoholic, and when she started drinking, she usually got really drunk and would get in a car with anybody." In his closing argument, Bruce called it "a terrible thing to say."

But once Weiss and his team dug into the case files, they learned something the jurors hadn't: Nash wasn't the only one to say it. The statement was echoed in 1982 by multiple people who had no reason to lie. Far from damning Nash, the lawyers believe, it might be key to understanding Judy's fate.

Eight of Judy's peers — friends, colleagues, ex-suitors and acquaintances, all younger than 27 — mentioned her heavy drinking when interviewed by highway patrolmen right after the murder. She would "drink to extremes," they said, or drink "until she passed out" or get "extremely intoxicated." This group included her best friend, Janet Edwards, who had spoken to Judy about cutting back.

In fact, as a couple, Judy and Nash had made a pact to quit drinking. But on the last night of her life, she lapsed. She drank two Coors Light bottles on the way to a podiatrist appointment in Pulaski County, two Coors Light cans on the way back and one Busch bottle at Edwards' apartment before Nash caught her fibbing.

When Nash then angrily told Judy, "This will be the last time you lie to me, bitch," he meant it not as a death threat, but rather as a break-up threat. Even Judy herself — the only person to hear the comment — took it this way, because she walked back into Edwards apartment and said, "I guess that it's over this time."

And she didn't act afraid of him. If anything, she seemed eager to work things out — or at least, to keep arguing. She washed out the hairstyle he didn't like, then drove home to the house they shared.

Upon her arrival, "they began to argue about her drinking," Nash told investigators, adding that Judy "became mad," changed clothes and drove back toward Edwards' apartment. While she was en route, Nash called Edwards to say "how much he loved Judy and was worried about her being arrested for drinking," according to Edwards' statement to the patrol.

Once Judy returned to Edwards' place, venting her feelings, she told her friend "it was over for Doc and her, as they hadn't fought like that since they had quit drinking." She asked Edwards to accompany her to Houston; Edwards stayed home. Judy took a Busch bottle for the road.

Walking to her car, Judy ran into Edwards' neighbor, Christine Terrill, and invited her to Houston. Terrill declined, she later said, "because she was aware of Judy's reputation when she was drinking." By the time Judy drove away for good at 8:30 p.m., she'd consumed roughly five beers over five hours.

She wasn't drunk; the body breaks down one beer per hour. But Judy's autopsy showed something significant: a blood-alcohol content of 0.18.

That's more than twice Missouri's legal limit. Clearly, Judy's drinking continued after she left for Houston.

The Busch bottle in her car could have been the same one she'd grabbed from Edwards' apartment. But what about the Busch can in her car, and the other five Busch cans found at the Bethlehem School? Were they hers, or someone else's?

"Who was she drinking with?" asks Weiss. "Nobody has ever explained that."

The state never nailed down a precise time of death, but the blood alcohol content finding means that, at whatever moment Judy died, she was drunk. And when Judy was drunk, she became unpredictable, according to her peers.

Jo Ann Brookshire, a hospital colleague and former roommate, told the patrol that if Judy was drinking, it was not unusual for her to hook up with a stranger or drive along "seldom-traveled" country roads by herself.

Phillip Edwards, who said he dated Judy off and on for four months, recalled that on a recent winter night, Judy had called asking for help. She was intoxicated and lost on Route DD without any gas.

Dave Tiefenthaler, who said he dated her for a month, told the patrol, "When she was drinking, one minute she loved you and wanted to get married, and the next minute, she would be hitting you."

Deanna Hubbs, another hospital colleague, said that "when she gets drunk she often leads men on, then makes them stop."

Clay Scott, her high school sweetheart, said, "If Judy was drinking, there was no telling who she might have been with."

None of this, Weiss clarifies, is meant to imply that Judy was a bad person. "The point is not to trash the victim," he insists. "This is a horrible crime. Obviously, she didn't deserve it. The point is to show it wasn't Doc."

Weiss is aware his legal briefs won't endear him to the Spencers. Yet, he says, "if I were the family, I would want to know for sure who the real killer is. It could've been a real random thing: Her car runs into a ditch, somebody picks her up."

Weiss says it's natural for a family to fixate on one suspect and start filling in holes to make their theory work.

"I'm not blaming them," he says. "I just don't think Doc did it."

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