In the foreboding corridors of Texas’ death row, condemned men spit out a name with a mix of loathing and disgust: Richard “Blue” Tabler. Such a reputation among fellow prisoners condemned to death speaks volumes about his disregard for life and prison norms.
On my True Crime Reporter® Podcast, I delve into Tabler’s quadruple murder and his illegal use of a contraband cell phone to threaten a powerful state senator.
“He was a very strange individual, as well as being a serial killer. Something wasn’t right with him,” recalled John Moriarty, the former Inspector General who investigated Tabler. “You would not be more than two minutes talking to him, and you could tell that if this head was a leveling tool, it was a bubble off.”
Tabler exposed a shocking lapse in prison security shortly after he arrived at the maximum security Polunksy unit that contains death row.
He used a smuggled cell phone to make threatening cell phone calls from inside death row to then-Senator John Whitmire, the Chairman of the powerful Criminal Justice Commit.
Now Houston mayor-elect Whitmire plans to tackle violent crime. “I know your daughters’ names,” Tabler said in the first of a series of cell phone calls to Whitmire. “I know how old they are. I know where they live.” He then named the women, their ages, and addresses.
The call “scared the hell out of me,” said Mr. Whitmire, and it should have.
Mr. Tabler had been convicted of capital murder for the brutal slayings on Thanksgiving weekend in 2004 of two men and two teenage girls in Killeen, Texas.
Tabler’s journey to death row began after his release from a California prison in 2004. He quickly fell into drug dealing at Fort Hood, now named Fort Cavazos, the Army’s largest military post.
He befriended Timothy Payne, an 18-year-old private from Missouri who later participated in Tabler’s murder plots.
Dressed in an Army uniform, Tabler would flash a counterfeit military identification card at the main gate at 5 AM and spend the day pedaling drugs to soldiers.
“I think he liked playing roles,” said Tim Steglich, a former investigator for the Bell County Sheriff’s Department who investigated the homicides. “He used that military ruse. It’s kind of a rush.”
Tabler and Payne frequented Teazers, a raucous topless bar near Fort Hood. But the manager banned Mr. Tabler for harassing dancers, stoking his rage.
On Thanksgiving weekend, Mr. Tabler lured the manager and his friend to a 2 AM rendezvous in a remote parking lot, promising to sell stolen stereo equipment for $1,500. Tabler needed money to pay a drug dealer for his supply. It was just a ruse to rob the pair, and when they couldn’t produce cash, Tabler shot both as they sat in the front seat of their car.
Tabler pilfered through the car for the money and turned angry when he found nothing. He ordered Payne to get his video camera and start rolling tape.
Tabler pulled the manager out of the car and squatted beside his body. Suddenly, a gurgling sound came from the wounded man’s mouth, and he raised his hand. In an impromptu moment, Tabler looked into the camera and said, “Who’s got the power now?” He squeezed off a round point blank into the groaning man’s head–so close that a mist of blood splattered Tabler’s gun and Payne’s shirt.
Early into his investigation, Steglich received a shocking revelation from the Killeen Police Department that Tabler was one of their drug informants and a possible suspect. When Tabler discovered that he was in the crosshairs, he decided to eliminate two teenage dancers at Teazers who had expressed their suspicions.
Tabler and Payne lured the topless dancers, an 18-year-old woman, and a 16-year-old runaway, to a state park with the prospect of selling them cocaine for a trip to an Austin strip club. Instead, Tabler carried out a bone-chilling execution of the pair.
In a twist, Tabler threatened to launch a deadly attack against the Bell County Sheriff’s Department headquarters, where Tim Steglich was assigned. “He truly wanted to talk to me,” Steglich recalled.
But once he was arrested, and inside the interrogation room, Tabler squared off to match wits with Steglich.
Steglich had artfully used psychology to extract a confession from the accomplice of notorious serial killer Kenneth McDuff. An elite U.S. Marshal who witnessed that interrogation was amazed by Steglich’s calm and low-key approach.
Tabler was no match for Steglich. “About eight hours into the interview about the murder of Teazers’ manager, Tabler put up a timeout sign. I was standing right next to him and violating his space. Tabler was getting nervous, and he said, timeout, I shot him.” recalled Steglich. “So I reminded him of his rights again. He says, no, I don’t want a lawyer.” And added, “I also had a list of eight more people that I was going to kill.”
Departing for death row after his capital murder trial, Tabler shocked Steglich when he yelled out, “Hey, no hard feelings.”
Tabler’s accomplice, Army Private Timothy Payne, received a life sentence for his role in killing the strip club manager and his friend. Now 37, he will become eligible for parole in 2044.
On death row, Tabler continued to make threats even though investigators caught him making the cellphone calls and after police arrested his mother for buying minutes for the phone.
Tabler persuaded a Methodist prison chaplain to smuggle letters out of the prison that threatened Whitmire.
Prison administrators across the nation face an unwinnable game of Whack-a-Mole as each phone seizure leads cunning prisoners to develop more sophisticated smuggling methods.
Corrections officers at the Polunsky Unit recently found 30 new Samsung Galaxy cell phones and chargers concealed inside a hollowed-out beam that arrived with a donated load of wood. The shipment came from a Home Depot in Houston, bound for the prison craft shop. Investigators for the Inspector General arrested a couple who paid for the shipment. Janette Pizana and John Charles Godoy were charged with Engaging in Organized Criminal Activity and introducing a Prohibited Item in a Correctional Facility.
“It’s an epidemic nationwide,” warns John Moriarty. “They can call a victim or run a criminal enterprise from inside the prison.”
Tabler, now age 44, awaits his date with the executioner. Sources say Tabler is the most hated man on Texas death row. Condemned inmates complain that Tabler irritates them by incessantly talking. The sound of his voice grates on their nerves like a crow that caws all the time.
The prison system prohibited Tabler from conducting an interview. I received a typed letter from him stating, “The young man that did this horrible crime back in 2004 is not the same man that you want to interview here at the Polunsky Unit’s Death Row. I just made a mistake and poor judgment, and there is not a day that goes by that I don’t beat myself up over it and wish that there was a rewind button so I could return to that night and walk away or be like Jesus and raise the dead, but I cannot.”
I can’t know a man’s heart. Still, a prison source remains highly skeptical, “on multiple occasions, Table announced that he repented with variations of faith-based evidence. He keeps reinventing the “apostle Richard” repeatedly.”
The religious claim reminds me of an old saying I heard while covering the prison system. “Jesus Christ must certainly live in the penitentiary because everybody finds him when they get there.”
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