Karla Faye Tucker was born November 18, 1959, in Houston, Texas. “As a little girl, I remember that we were a family,” Karla said when I asked about her background.
“We lived in a middle-class neighborhood and went to the bay house where we water-skied and fished. But that period didn’t last very long. My parents fought a lot and divorced each other several times.”
As her parents’ turmoil increased, Karla’s life began unraveling. Her first experience with drugs came when she was seven or eight. “I caught (my older sisters) smoking pot and threatened to tell our parents,” she told the Gatesville Messenger in 1998 (January 30). “But they gave it to me and then said I couldn’t tell because I was doing it, too.”
Karla remembered one brief encounter with what seemed to be a normal life. “At school this little girl would talk to me. I remember seeing something really different in her. It was like a genuine love for people. But her parents didn’t want her hanging around with me because they thought that I was just a bad, bad child.
“Somewhere along the way, she talked her mother into letting me go to church with them. I think they must have been very conservative because they wore something on their heads and had to wear dresses. We sat on the front row. At some point, she was down on her knees and really praying in the Spirit. I thought, ‘What is going on here?’ Everybody came and laid their hands on her. I don’t remember doing anything wrong that night, but they never would talk to me again. Why didn’t they reach out to me? Why did they cut me off?”
Life at home was rapidly deteriorating. Any chance of a normal childhood disintegrated. “Back then there was a lot of drugs and sex. My sisters ran around with older people. One of their friends was in a biker club. He came to see my sisters; and when he found out they weren’t there, he took me off on his motorcycle. He asked me if I wanted to shoot some heroin. I think he was going to molest me.
But he shot me so full of heroin that I got sick and he wasn’t able to do anything. He ended up dropping me off at some apartments. That was the beginning of me shooting dope.” By the time Karla was in seventh grade, she was heavily into drugs and dropped out of school. “I got kicked out as much as quit,” she said. When her parents divorced for the last time, she chose to live with her mother, Carolyn Moore. Life with her mom was unrestricted, with little or no adult supervision.
“There were a couple of things my mother did that made me wonder, ‘Don’t you see what you are doing to me? Why don’t you notice this and come to me and ask what is going on?’” In spite of inner turmoil and confusion, Karla wanted to be just like her mother. When Karla was only 14, she followed her mother into prostitution.
Road To Death Row
When Karla was about 16 years old, she met Stephen Griffith. In a Houston Chronicle article published on the day of Karla’s execution, Griffith described their relationship:
“I was 19 years old. I had a Harley-Davidson, worked six months a year, and made $20,000. I thought I was on top of the world. Me and a bunch of buddies pulled into a local park. We were hanging out and partying. Karla Faye and one of her friendswere over there smoking a fat, pink joint. I hollered over and introduced myself. That’s how we met.”
About a year later, they married. “We got along fairly well,” Griffith said. “We fist-fought a lot. I’ve never had men hit me as hard as (Karla) did. Whenever I went into a bar, I didn’t have to worry because she had my back covered. She was tough.” For fun, the couple collected guns, joined a motorcycle club, and played tackle football without protective gear.
“I saw things in her that no one else did,” Griffith said. “That girl had so much potential. She could talk to anyone and make them feel at ease. She was charismatic. Even when she was on drugs and could hardly walk, she was beautiful.” Griffith himself had serious substance abuse problems. Still, he described Karla as a “pretty good wife”—she cleaned the house, got him off to work on time, and fixed his meals.
When Karla announced she was leaving Griffith to work out her “wild streak,” he feared the worst. “When we split, I told my friend she was going to get killed or kill somebody.”
Once separated from her husband, Karla continued downward in her life of drugs and prostitution. Periodically, over a span of several years, she was one of the groupies following the Allman Brothers Band. In 1981, she met Jerry Lynn Dean when he was involved with her best friend and roommate, Shawn. From the beginning their relationship was turbulent. The animosity between them developed over the next two years. By 1983, Karla was living with a man named Danny Garrett in a tumultuous household where drugs, sex, and physical fights were the norm. She was the group’s leader.
On June 11, 1983, Karla, her sister, and their friends decided to celebrate her sister’s birthday with a weekend bash. From Friday through Sunday, they sat around the house shooting heroin, smoking cocaine, and popping massive quantities of other illegal drugs.
It was then—high on drugs, sleep-deprived, and talking about old grudges—that Karla and Danny decided to drive over to Jerry Dean’s apartment and case it out in the hope of stealing his motorcycle. They weren’t expecting him to be home. However, Jerry Dean and Deborah Thornton, who had just met that afternoon at a party, were asleep in the bedroom. At about 3:00 a.m. on June 13, 1983, Danny and Karla silently entered the apartment.
Something went horribly wrong. Instead of stealing a motorcycle, Danny and Karla murdered two people. Just weeks after Karla’s marriage to Stephen Griffith officially ended in divorce, Karla Faye Tucker was charged with the pickax murders of Jerry Lynn Dean and Deborah Thornton.
The Karla who testified in court was dramatically different from the woman who had committed a heinous crime months earlier. While awaiting trial, Karla had come to have a faith in Jesus Christ and His redemption.
A remarkable change in her had taken place. The cold-blooded killer who had hidden from authorities became a repentant and emotional woman who confessed to the murders she had committed, testifying during the punishment phase of her trial that even being pickaxed herself would be insufficient to atone for her crime.
“When I share that I was out of it on drugs the night I brutally murdered two people, I fully realize that I made the choice to do those drugs. Had I chosen not to do drugs, two people would still be alive today. But I did choose to do drugs, and I did lose it, and two people are dead because of me.”—Karla Faye Tucker in her letter to Governor George W. Bush and the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, January 1998 If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” (2 Corinthians 5:17)
February 3, 1998, 6:25 p.m., Walls Unit, Huntsville, Texas. With the strength and poise of a gymnast, Karla leapt up on the gurney and whispered a prayer:
“Lord Jesus, help them to find my vein.”
Then, strapped to the table, she looked toward the small window and spoke her last words.
“Can Warden Baggett hear me?”
After being assured that yes, the warden was nearby and was listening, Karla went on:
“I would like to say to all of you? The Thornton family and Jerry Dean’s family? That I am so sorry. I hope God will give you peace with this.”
“Baby, I love you,” she told her husband, Dana. “Ron, give Peggy a hug for me. Everybody has been so good to me. I love all of you very much. I’m going to be face to face with Jesus now.”
“Warden Baggett, thank you so much. You have been so good to me. I love all of you very much. I will see you all when you get there. I will wait for you.”
After her final words, she licked her lips and, according to witnesses, appeared to be humming softly as she waited for the lethal injection.