It remains Gilmer’s and Upshur County’s greatest unsolved mystery.
It destroyed lives, damaged friendships and gave Gilmer national exposure of the unwanted kind. And a pretty young girl who is the subject of the case remains missing, presumed dead.
Kelly Dae Wilson, then 17, vanished without a trace after leaving her job at NTV (Northeast Texas Video), a prominent, now long-since closed, video rental store located on the north side of the courthouse square, in a building Kinsman Home Health Care now occupies.
She disappeared that Jan. 5, 1992 night. This past Thursday was the 20th anniversary of her disappearance. It remains an open, though “cold” case.
She was on her way to make a deposit for the business at the drive-through window of Gilmer National Bank, then located in what is now the Upshur County Tax Assessor-Collector’s Office.
Someone did make the NTV deposit, but the grainy film from the surveillance camera was not sharp enough to show if it was Kelly or not. It also appeared that there was a second person in the passenger seat of the vehicle.
Her car, with a tire slashed, was found parked at the store by her stepfather, Robert Carlson, who notified Gilmer police. All her personal property, including her purse, remained in the car. Only her keys were missing.
A young man, Michael Biby, was eventually arrested on a misdemeanor charge of criminal mischief in the tire-slashing incident, but was never connected to the girl’s disappearance.
On the morning of Tuesday, Jan. 7, my second day on the job as editor of The Gilmer Mirror, Gilmer Police Sgt. James Brown contacted The Mirror and other media, asking our help in notifying the public that the girl was missing, and asking anyone with any information to contact the Gilmer Police Department.
Hundreds of volunteers directed by Sgt. Brown spent thousands of man hours searching backwoods to see if they could find her body.
Dozens of tips, all of them turning out to be false, were followed.
Sgt. Brown became obsessed with the case and spent hundreds of hours on his own time tracking down leads, outside of his regular police duties.
A former law enforcement officer, who is now retired and asked not to be identified, said “we (Gilmer Police and the county Sheriff’s Office) never worked harder on any case than we did on that one.”
He also said that “three people know what happened to Kelly Wilson, and two of them are still alive.” He did not identify who they were.
The case took a bizarre turn in late January, 1994, when a grand jury indicted Sgt. Brown and seven others, most members of the Eugene Kerr family, with the murder of Kelly Wilson while performing satanic rituals.
Several children had been seized by Child Protective Services amid allegations of child abuse, including sexual abuse, against their parents.
CPS workers persuaded the Upshur County District Attorney’s Office to bring in a special prosecutor to handle the multiple cases. They brought in Galveston attorney Scott Lyford.
While in CPS custody, some of the children allegedly told them that they had witnessed the murder of Kelly Wilson.
Lyford went to the county Grand Jury and got the indictments against the eight.
Brown was at a training class at Texas A&M University when he was arrested.
As the story progressed, wilder and wilder stories circulated about the case. A satanic cult was allegedly operating in Gilmer.
Lyford set up a special team of investigators to work with the case.
Information was allegedly coerced from the Gilmer children, as well as some of those indicted in the disappearance.
The children were allegedly “led” and programmed to tell the stories the investigators wanted.
Some of the defendants were allegedly offered life in prison, rather than the death penalty, if they would confess to the killing.
A report at the website FindCarrieCulberson.com, entitled Kelly Wilson Rumors Fly, summarized the situation that had developed in Gilmer.
The Internet report stated that “the investigation into the 17-year-old’s 1992 disappearance . . . turned into a ‘sideshow,’ in the words of one state official.
“Investigators working on little but hearsay created a mythology about a satanic cult, leading to what some describe as a modern witch hunt.
“They indicted a whole family and even a police investigator, destroying his law enforcement career, straining his marriage and prompting death threats. They backed down only when fed-up community leaders asked the state for help.
“The Texas Attorney General, finding no evidence any of the charges were true, instead uncovered suggestions that the whole cult theory was the product of coercion by overzealous investigators—even to the point that they physically restrained children to elicit allegations of satanic activity.”
(Sgt. Brown was in a recent marriage at the time he was indicted. They spent most of their first months together under the strain of the charge, and were eventually divorced. Brown also suffered a stroke.)
The Attorney General’s Office dismissed all the charges of alleged murder.
The AG’s Chief Special Prosecutor, Shane Phelps, said that the Lyford investigation had effectively destroyed any chance of solving the disappearance.
He said it was hard on the parents, because the hysteria surrounding the satanic allegations caused the search for Kelly to be forgotten.
“Our chances would have been much better had all that not happened,” Phelps said.
The case was broadcast on Dateline NBC years later.
In addition, the news program Inside Edition sent a team to Gilmer, and newspapers such as The Dallas Morning News, Fort Worth Star Telegram, Houston Chronicle, and Chicago Tribune sent reporters. The New York Times interviewed local reporter Phillip Williams. CNN-the Cable News Network interviewed local people.
This was in addition to coverage by The Gilmer Mirror and other local newspapers and TV stations.
There was a book in the works in 2001, by former Gilmer Police Sgt. Bill Hamner, Witches in Our Midst, which contained “a true story of how the criminal justice system was used, abused and citizen civil rights destroyed and ignored in a small East Texas town, as told to the author by former Gilmer Police Chief Al McAllister,” according to the promotional blurb on the Internet.
The blurb further states that “Local elected officials stood idly by, doing nothing to correct the obvious wrongs being committed, except for a courageous police chief who sacrificed his career by ‘doing the right thing.” The resulting ruined reputations and tormented lives are being played out in civil court suits to this very day.” Copyright on the book, which apparently was never published, is 2001.
In 2001, Brown and the Kerrs filed separate civil lawsuits against Lyford, the CPS workers involved, and Lyford’s “investigative team,” Brooks Fleig and Steve Baggs.
Their respective suits were dismissed by a federal district court on what were essentially grounds of “qualified immunity”—government officials cannot be sued unless certain grounds can be met, such as denial of civil rights.
Meanwhile, Kelly Wilson is still missing, 20 years after her disappearance. She is presumed dead, but a body has never been found and no valid charges have ever been made in connection with the case.
In researching this article, the author was told many times by different people that “it’s a shame there has been no closure for Kelly’s family and friends.”