On October 3, 1996, 16-year-old Heather Rich, a high school cheerleader, was raped and shot to death before her body was thrown into a Texas creek. Three teens, 2 of whom Heather knew, were arrested 2 weeks after her body was found.
All 3 perpetrators were charged and convicted of murder. One received life in prison with the possibility of parole after 30 years, one got a life sentence plus 99 years, and the other got life with the possibility of parole after 40 years.
Heather was the 3rd of 4 children both to her parents, Gail and Duane Rich. She was a horse rider, a talented musician, and a "naive girl with a big heart". She was a sophomore and excelled academically.
Despite her outward personality being the perfect teen, her friends said that she was a "very troubled" teenager. In the late summer of 1996, she began exhibiting troublesome behavior at school and at home. Her ex-boyfriend said that she was restless because of the lack of things to do in Waurika, Oklahoma. Just a few days before her murder, she was suspended from school for being drunk on the sidelines as a cheerleader.
Late the evening of October 2, 1996, Heather left her home without her parents knowing to meet 17-year-old Joshua Bagwell, a senior at her high school. He had been drinking heavily with friends 19-year-old Curtis Gambill and Heather's ex-boyfriend, Randy Wood. Heather and Bagwell were left alone for about an hour, and when the other 2 guys returned, they found the 2 of them naked and completely drunk. Bagwell claimed they engaged in consensual sex. However, during the trial, Wood claimed that the 3 drunk men took turns sexually assaulting the largely incapacitated 16-year-old.
Wood sexually assaulted Heather, and then Gambill began raping her. During this, she woke up and began screaming and crying.
When she woke up, rightfully terrified, Gambill feared that she would accused them of rape. He decided that they had to kill her, and persuaded the other men to help him. According to Wood's testimony, Gambill pointed his shotgun at him and told him to dress Heather, and then they carried her into his grandfather's truck. They drove around for about an hour, heading to Texas to avoid the murder being traced to them.
Once they arrived, Gambill told the other guys to get Heather out and put her on the side of the road. Then, Gambill shot her several times as she lay on the ground. Then, Bagwell took one of Heather's shoelaces to tie a rock to her body. They threw the teen's body over the guard rail into the creek, and tried to conceal the bloodstains at the murder scene by kicking and throwing soil across the ground.
Heather's mother, Gail, reported her missing when she realized that Heather was not there on October 3. Investigators initially believed that she had run away because of an argument she had recently got into with her parents, but her mother knew something was wrong.
Heather's body was found in the Red River by a rancher and his daughter on October 10. Due to decomposition and the gunshots to her face, she was unrecognizable. Her father was able to identify her by the ring she had received as a gift on her 16th birthday before dental records confirmed the body was Heather's.
The autopsy revealed that she was shot 9 times total, one to the back of her head and eight into her lower back, waist, and pelvis. The medical examiner believed that she was shot while lying face down, and said her death was likely instantaneous.
Because nobody had been charged with the murder at the time of her funeral on October 14, 1996, her family did not allow anyone besides immediate family to touch her coffin during the service. They strongly suspected that the killers were not strangers to their daughter, and her mother said she promised her beloved daughter that "whoever did this to her would never touch her again."
14 investigators were assigned to Heather's killing. The FBI assisted the case, as it was likely she was transported across state lines against her will. Originally, Heather's friends and other peers of the area were pretty quiet, but by the 2nd week, police were able to narrow in on one of her friends from the cheerleading squad, where the name Joshua Bagwell came up. When he was questioned, he said he was hanging out with Randy Wood that night, playing dominoes and drinking whiskey.
Joshua Bagwell was born on December 21, 1978. His parents were extremely wealthy landowners in southern Oklahoma, but their busy work schedules left them away from home more often than not. He was a senior at Waurika High School and had recently been given 6 new cars. He was known as being snobbish and pampered, and his extreme wealth made him a bit of an outcast among his peers. He and Curtis Gambill became friends because of their interest in guns, alcohol, camping, and fishing.
He was rarely disciplined at home, and before he would be charged with murder, he had been arrested for driving drunk and resisting arrest. Heather was impressed by his wealth, and admitted that she started flirting with him so she could secure a seat in his new car during the homecoming parade. He was the one she snuck out to see on that fateful night, as it was supposed to be their first date.
Randy Wood corroborated Bagwell's story. As he was Heather's former boyfriend, Gail Rich had already questioned him about her daughter's whereabouts. Wood moved around a lot as a child with his mother. He attended numerous different schools, and by 1996, he and his mother were one of the poorest families in Waurika.
By 3rd grade, Wood was smoking weed and stealing money. He did not allow his poverty to define him, however. He was the captain of the football team and had dated Heather for 5 months. They went to church together, talked on the phone constantly, but they were often mistaken as close friends because they didn't have sex. When Wood heard Heather skinny dipped at a party, he broke up with her. The week after Heather's body was found, he was crowned homecoming king.
During the investigation, police learned that the bullets used to kill Heather came from a distinct brand, only sold at one store in the town. Questioning the store's owner, they determined that Joshua Bagwell had been the buyer. The store owner was adamant that Bagwell was in the store with a younger male, which is how police came to find out that he had been spending a lot of time with a 19-year-old high school drop out.
Curtis Gambill was born on February 24, 1977. He was living with his 64-year-old grandmother in Terral, Oklahoma. He was known for his short temper and some sadistic tendencies, like forcing boys to fight one another in his presence. He had been incarcerated in a youth detention center, but escaped. He had also briefly been committed to a psych ward at the age of 17.
In the week before Heather's murder, he was depressed due to his best friend's suicide on September 25.
Gambill was arrested on October 24 and questioned for 8 hours. He agreed to a polygraph test, and allowed investigators to subject his gun to ballistic fingerprinting. Once the police learned that his gun was the one used to kill Heather, he confessed to being a participant in the murder, but named Bagwell and Wood as active participants in the crime. He claimed they were acting on Wood's orders because he was mad that his ex-girlfriend had sex with Bagwell and not him.
The other 2 men were arrested on October 24. Bagwell admitted to nothing, and his family hired a team of high profile lawyers for his defense. On the contrast, Wood agreed to provide a written statement and confessed to being a participant in the murder, but claimed Gabill had been the instigator of everything and had actually shot and killed her. His polygraph test corroborated his written statement.
Gambill went to trial on October 15, 1997. But shortly after the trial began, he accepted a plea bargain. He plead guilty to being the person who actually took her life in exchange for not receiving the death penalty. He was sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole after 30 years. As a part of his plea deal, he agreed to testify against Bagwell.
Bagwell's trial began in February of 1998. He denied any involvement in her murder, claiming that he had only had consensual sex with Heather. He claimed that any talk of killing her was a joke, or so he thought, and he believed they were driving her across state lines to sober her up before she returned home.
At his trial, Gambill reneged his previous agreement with prosecutors and changed his story. He minimized Bagwell's role in the crime and corroborated his claims that Wood was the mastermind and the one who actually killed Heather. Against the advice of his lawyer, Wood testified against Bagwell. He testified that Gambill was the orchestrator of the murder and that he killed Heather, but Bagwell was a knowing, active participant in the act.
Bagwell testified in his own trial and said he was not even present when the other 2 discussed killing Heather, and blamed Wood for killing her. He tried to argue that Wood had motive because she had sex with him. He also claimed that he walked away from the crime scene to pee, and so he wasn't involved with that, either. The only thing he admitted to was not disclosing knowledge after the fact.
Luckily, the jury did not believe the rich-boy's testimony, and he was convicted of murder on Valentine's Day of 1998. He was sentenced to life in prison, and sentenced to an additional 99 years for conspiracy to commit murder.
Wood was tried for capital murder later the same year. He plead not guilty to Heather's murder, stating that he had not intended for Heather to die, and that he had not physically taken her life. However, he was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison. He would be eligible for parole after 40 years, in 2036.
"There's not a day that goes by that I don't think about her," Wood said. "I punish myself worse than anything in this prison ever could." He had requested to meet with Heather's parents before his trial to explain himself. He asked for Heather's parents' forgiveness, who said they'd forgive him for the hurt he caused them, but not for Heather's death. "Only Heather can do that," they said.
Both Wood and Bagwell have appealed their convictions, though they were both rejected. In 2002, Gambill and Bagwell, along with 2 other inmates, briefly escaped from jail. They held a civilian hostage at a gas station, surrendered hours later and were returned to prison 9 days later.
In 2016, Wood got married to a woman from New Zealand. They had corresponded through letters, but gradually turned into a romantic relationship. She even traveled to Texas to meet him face-to-face, and moved to Texas to be closer to him. She campaigns for those under the age of 18 not to be tried as adults within the state. She hopes her husband will be released before his parole eligibility date, but plans to stay with him regardless.
All 3 of the perpetrators are serving their time in Texas prisons. Gambill is in Huntsville, Bagwell is in New Boston, and Wood is in Wichita Falls.
I feel like whenever there are stories like this, where a group of people kills someone, there's always that one perpetrator you are supposed to feel bad for. And I understand it. He may have wanted nothing to do with it, but the fear of a rape charge and 2 men who didn't want to get caught make you do something you don't want to do. But I don't know... I don't think there's anything I'd be scared enough of to kill an innocent person. You can feel bad for him a little bit, but a week later, Heather's mother asked him point blank if he knew where her daughter was, and he lied. He can say he regrets it forever, but he was 17. He knew better than what he did.
It is also kind of crazy that Gambill, the one who likely actually pulled the trigger and the one who raped her unconscious body that led to her waking up got the shortest sentence. Bagwell seems like the worst of all time and I'm glad he's in prison forever, but between Gambill and Wood, it is pretty crazy that Wood will go a full 10 years longer without the possibility of parole despite being younger and, likely, less involved.
I feel so terrible for Heather Rich, and the fear she must have felt during the last hours of her life. To sneak out to go on a date, something that so many teens do, to drinking a little too much, to being sexually assaulted by 3 people, 2 people she knew quite well, thrown into a truck, put face down on the side of the road, shot, and thrown into a creek... I just can't imagine. I hope that she was too drunk to know what was going on so she didn't have to spend her last hours in immense terror and fear.
RIP, Heather Rich.