ABC 13 Unsolved: Beloved father murdered in his car 34 years ago

SANTA FE, Texas (KTRK) -- At the intersection of Avenue Q and 4th Street in Santa Fe, overgrown prairie grass covers the ditches. A chain link fence borders a ranch house on one corner. Horses graze in a nearby field.

The intersection looks almost the same as it did on May 29, 1983, when Royal Cumby Jr. was pushed out of his car, after he was shot five times.

In Santa Fe, there are two unsolved murders. This is one of them.

Royal Cumby Jr. was an achiever. A successful oilman, he was married more than 25 years to a wife who adored him. The couple had three children together, then a grandson.

"He was an amazing man, a wonderful father, just never met a stranger and never made an enemy," says Carol Gaylord, Cumby's daughter. "I remember him as a workaholic. He was not only an engineer at Amoco Oil, he also did bookkeeping for small businesses."

The Cumbys lived on 10 acres in the country. Royal bought the land so his kids could raise their own families there one day.

"Things were safe. We really didn't fear robberies and definitely not murder," Gaylord says.

Royal started the first recycling center in Galveston. Every week, with Carol and his two sons, he drove a big truck, picking up cans and bottles curbside. People depended on him.

"I just think that was his small way of trying to save our planet," Gaylord says. "Plus, it instilled that into me and my brothers."

The 46-year-old father loved all his children, but the bond between Royal and Carol, his only daughter, was special. He was her biggest cheerleader and advice giver. The two were known as the adventurous ones in the family. Gaylord remembered their trip to Acapulco.

"I wanted to parasail so badly. I was about 15 years old. And my mom was like, 'Absolutely not.' She was not going to have anything to do with that," Gaylord recalls. "And then the very last day, my dad woke me up and we snuck down to the beach and he let me parasail."

Memorial Day weekend in 1983, this happy life ended. Gaylord was 21 years old.

"I remember what my mom was wearing. I remember the chair she was sitting in. I remember dropping to my knees when she told me."

Royal was shot five times in the back while driving his wife's car. It was Sunday evening. He stopped into the office to pick up something and was on his way home when he was killed.

There was one witness. A woman driving behind Royal saw two men in the car with him. The man in the backseat was the likely shooter, police say. The second man was in the front passenger seat. To this day, authorities don't know if Royal picked up the men or if they forced their way into his car.

After they shot Royal, the men drove off in his 1981 Chevy Monte Carlo. The witness followed them, but turned back to help Royal. Someone called 911. By the time paramedics arrived, Royal was dead. His Chevy was found abandoned in La Marque around 10 p.m., three hours after he was killed.

"It was probably still light out. I mean that's strange. It kind of shows there wasn't any regard, not too much worry of getting caught," says Detective Butch Pean with Santa Fe police.

Pean has been working Royal's cold case for the past year. He opened the evidence file to show ABC13 a video more than three decades old, showing a reenactment of the murder, acted out by police partnering with Eyewitness News.

"There are just so many working pieces to (the case). The challenge is trying to go back to 1983," Pean says. "Trying to pick it up from where the investigators left off."

That's exactly what Pean is doing now. He's spent the last 12 months rereading three binders full of police reports. In January, he resubmitted Royal's bloody pants and shirt to a crime lab. DNA technology has made huge advancements since 1983. If Royal tried to fight off his killer, that person's DNA could be on Royal's clothing.

"We're pretty confident we can get a resolution for this case. We have a lot of stuff being processed for DNA," Pean says.

Over the past 36 years, police have interviewed a long list of suspects, but a possible motive continues to baffle investigators. Royal wasn't robbed and he didn't have enemies.

"He was a pretty straightforward guy. He didn't have any ties to criminal activity, nothing like that. It's unfortunate, but we don't really have a motive at this time," Pean says.

"I honestly feel like, knowing my dad, that he was trying to help them. He was trying to give them a job," Gaylord says. "Maybe they wanted more. I don't know. My dad was the type, if he saw people hitchhiking, he'd give you a ride."

For more than three decades, Gaylord has buried her pain and tried to block out what happened.

Then, 11 days before the 35th anniversary of her father's murder, another tragedy rocked Santa Fe.

Eight students and two teachers were shot and killed down the street, inside Santa Fe High School. Carol's best friend's son was among the dead. Thirteen others were injured.

"That was one thing with the shooting that I could relate to, having someone just ripped from your life like that," says Gaylord.

The day it happened, families gathered at the United Methodist Church. Gaylord went there too, to help anyone who needed it. She went the next day and the next day. She hasn't stopped showing up since. Gaylord is now the full-time director at the Santa Fe Resiliency Center, born that day in the back of the church.

"I felt, I don't want to call it a calling. I'm not sure if that's what it was, but it was something I felt like I needed to do," Gaylord says. "Being here has made a lot more connections for me to my dad. It kind of came to the surface a lot more. I found myself talking about his murder more than ever."

Gaylord has learned to process her deep grief by connecting with those who are trying to do the same. Her focus isn't on finding her father's killer. She trusts detectives will do that in time. Her focus is on healing. Gaylord has found the strength to talk about her dad again, remembering his smile, his drive and his love.

"I'm a Christian and I know that whoever this is, even if he's not found and he doesn't serve time, his judgement day will come and that's a comfort to me," Gaylord says.

Detective Pean says he thinks about Royal Cumby Jr. every day. About how one family's future was changed on that quiet road in 1983.

"It's difficult. Looking through some of the evidence, it's kind of like going back into a time machine," Pean says. "We really want to get some closure on this case and get some justice for the family. It's hard."

If you have any information on what happened to Royal Cumby Jr., call the Santa Fe police department at 409-925-2000.

Crime Stoppers is offering a reward of up to $6,000 to anyone who provides an anonymous tip that leads to solving this cold case. You can submit a tip by calling the Crime Stoppers hotline at 1-800-252-TIPS or contact Texas Rangers at 1-800-346-3243.

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