Stepson of slain Central Texas woman arrested

March 29, 2012 5:43:37 PM PDT
The stepson of an elderly Texas matriarch whose family is fighting over ownership of lucrative pecan farmland is accused of paying the woman's grandson to kill her, authorities said Thursday.

Bruce Harkey is charged with criminal solicitation to commit capital murder for the alleged plot that left 86-year-old Bonnie Harkey and her caretaker, 50-year-old Karen Johnson, dead in Central Texas. He was jailed on $500,000 bond.

Bonnie Harkey's buried body was found Monday about 200 miles from the San Saba County pecan farm where she lived. Johnson had been found dead a day earlier at the older woman's home.

San Saba County Sheriff Allen Brown said authorities believe money was a motive in the case, but he declined to comment further. Bonnie Harkey's adoptive grandson, Carl Wade Pressley, 28, and his common-law wife, Lillian King, have been charged with murder in the caretaker's death and remain jailed. They're also alleged to have kidnapped Bonnie Harkey, but haven't been charged in her death.

The Harkey family owns hundreds of acres of pecan farmland in Central Texas. Relatives have fought a long battle in court over who would inherit that land upon Bonnie Harkey's death. Bruce Harkey, 59, said in interviews with The Associated Press before he was arrested that he had long ago worked out a deal to purchase Pressley's share of the inheritance. It's not clear if that deal could be legally enforced.

After his arrest, Pressley told authorities that he had met with Bruce Harkey last week, according to criminal affidavits. Harkey allegedly offered Pressley $500 to "make her gone this weekend," with a follow-up payment of $55,000 after Bonnie Harkey's death, one affidavit said.

Pressley told authorities he and King then set up a plot to kill Bonnie Harkey at her home in the farming community of Harkeyville, near San Saba, a town that hails itself as the "Pecan Capital of the World." Relatives have said the community was named for the Harkey family.

Pressley did not "give second thought" to Johnson, another affidavit said. The plan was for Pressley to hide inside his grandmother's home and wait for King to call the home phone, the affidavit said. When the phone rang, King was to ring the home's doorbell.

That was a signal for Pressley to "take out" Johnson, after which he "proceeded with his plan to kill his grandmother," according to the affidavit.

Bonnie Harkey's body was found in Hilltop Lakes. A friend of Pressley's, Jason Sandlin, said Pressley had recently moved to the Leon County community.

Leon County Sheriff Jerry Wakefield said Thursday that authorities there were still preparing a case against Pressley and King.

Bruce Harkey could not be reached Thursday, and his attorney in a separate case did not return a message seeking comment. But in interviews before his arrest, Harkey told the AP he last saw Pressley last Friday before driving to visit his brother in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

He accused Pressley of wasting Bonnie Harkey's money on a new pickup truck, tires and other expenses as the woman's health and mental capacity began to deteriorate.

Pressley, who was adopted decades ago by Bonnie Harkey's stepdaughter, had struggled financially and has a lengthy criminal record, including convictions for harassment, misdemeanor assault and probation violation.

"Carl ran through money like water," Bruce Harkey told the AP. "His grandmother threw hundreds of thousands of dollars away on that boy. She's the only woman who ever nurtured, ever cared for him, provided for him, gave him everything in the world that he wanted."

Local attorney Darrel Spinks, who was declared the guardian of Bonnie Harkey's estate a year ago, said the family pecan farms were highly productive and could fetch as much as $5,000 an acre on an open market. He said the family owned about 200 acres, short of Bruce Harkey's estimate of 500 acres.

It's not clear who will take control of that property now.

The will of Bonnie Harkey's late husband, Riley Harkey, appears to grant control of most of the farmland to Bruce Harkey and his brother until their deaths, Spinks said. Bonnie Harkey wrote a separate will that left her home and some other property to Pressley.

Bruce Harkey has said in interviews that he and his brother paid Pressley upfront in exchange for his inheritance. Spinks said he was told the same thing. But it's not yet certain that the agreement can stand, particularly if Bruce Harkey or Pressley are convicted of being involved in Bonnie Harkey's death, Spinks said.

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