Every now and then, a criminal case comes along that’s truly stranger than fiction. Today we’re exploring one such story — a compelling mystery from the turn of the millennium, equal parts outlandish and intriguing. We’ll be going through all of the facts, and the prevailing theories on how two normal women met horrific, unexplained ends.
These are the Mary Morris Murders: a duo of cases which gave investigators in Texas a bad case of deja vu. Two women with the exact same name turned up dead, in similar fashion, within days of each other. But were these two violent deaths a case of incredible coincidence, or was there something even more sinister going on?
The Death of Mary Lou Henderson Morris
Early in the morning of October 12th, 2000, Mary Lou Henderson Morris left her home in Baytown, Texas, to drive to work. The 48-year-old was a loan officer at Chase Bank in Houston, about a thirty minute drive from her house. That day, the bank would have to go short-staffed: somewhere between her home and office, Mary disappeared.
Her coworkers started calling around, but nobody knew where she was. The last person who had seen her was her husband, Jay Morris, when she left the door at 6am. Later that day, he would receive the worst news imaginable: Mary’s Chevy Lumina had been found, burned out and abandoned by the side of a remote road, about three miles from their home (in the wrong direction from Houston). There was a body in the front seat.
The remains were so badly burned that identification would take some time (ultimately relying on dental records), but it was safe enough to assume it was Mary Morris. Her condition also made it impossible to determine a cause of death. Suffice to say foul play was suspected, but even more puzzling was the motive.
Mary had no enemies that anyone knew of, and a robbery seemed unlikely: there were pieces of jewelry melted onto the remains, meaning the killer wasn’t bothered about taking them with them. The only things missing were her purse and wedding ring. Neither Jay Morris nor Mary’s ex-husband seemed likely suspects, as they were compliant from the outset, leaving the authorities stumped.
And things were about to get twice as perplexing…
The Death of Mary McGinnis Morris
Just four days after the death of Mary Morris, Mary Morris was found dead. No, that’s not a copy-paste error, and Mary Lou Morris hadn’t made a miraculous reappearance — this was an entirely different woman, who happened to share the same first and last name. On top of that, the circumstances of their deaths were strikingly similar.
The body of Mary #2 (Mary McGinnis Morris, 39) was found just 25 miles away from the first crime scene. Just like the first, this victim was found in her car by the side of the road, and her wedding ring was missing. To untrained eyes it might have looked like a suicide — Mary had died from a gunshot to the head, using a weapon which her husband had recently lent her — but there was plenty to suggest otherwise.
Mary’s clothes were torn in places, bruises on her wrists suggested a struggle, and cloth fibers in her mouth showed she was likely gagged some time shortly before her death. Add to that the fact that the passenger side door was left open, with the keys outside the car, and it’s little wonder the medical examiner determined that Mary was in fact murdered.
To make matters stranger, it seemed that the victim may have had an incline that her life was in danger in the lead-up to her demise. Mary #2 worked as a nurse, overseeing several clinics for a pharmaceutical company named Union Carbide in Houston. She met her friend Laurie Gemmell at one of those clinics on the 16th to give her an allergy shot. Not long after the two parted ways, Mary called Laurie from a drug store, telling her that a man there was “giving her the creeps”.
That was at around 5:30pm. The plan was to return to work to clock out, then head off home for dinner. But less than 15 minutes later, Mary made another phone call, this time to 911. Detective Wayne Kuhlman from the Harris County Sheriff Department described the tape to the papers:
“We’re not releasing the content of the tape. It covers the attack that happened to Mary. And anybody that’s ever heard that tape has just had their blood chilled listening to it. It’s a very chilling, disturbing call.”
Her body was found several hours later…
So we have two Mary Morris’ murdered in the same week, just a short distance apart. Surely that’s too much of a coincidence, especially when the circumstances were so eerily similar. Was there a serial killer out there with a very, very specific victim profile, or was there some thread as yet unfound which linked the two women?
Thankfully, this second case offered far more to chew on than the first, so we have some idea what might have happened.
The first suspect was a fellow nurse at Mary’s workplace named Duane Young. The two had a very poor relationship since he started working there, with Duane reportedly trying to smear Mary’s reputation. This rivalry descended into outright hostility on the same day that the first Mary Morris died. That afternoon, Mary #2 discovered some things out of place in her office: picture frames were turned over, among other things.
When she went to confront her office nemesis about it, he had already left, but she caught a glimpse of something worrying scribbled on his desk calendar: the words “death to her”. That was actually the reason Mary borrowed the gun from her husbanding he first place, worried that Duane might come get revenge for what happened the following day.
After being reprimanded for his alleged harassment, he was escorted out of the building, screaming and shouting all the while. Some reports say he quit, some that he was fired outright. Whatever the case, Mary was terrified that the threat on the calendar might be carried out, so she asked her husband to lend her the handgun.
That same gun remained tucked under her driver’s seat for several days, until it was ultimately used to end her life. Could the disgruntled ex-coworker be the one who used it against her?
Let’s not all rush to condemn Duane just yet, because there’s another suspicious person to take a look into. Unlike Mary #1’s partner, Mary #2’s husband Mike became a prime suspect in her killing from the outset. When interviewed by police, he said that he was at the movies with his daughter, but he wouldn’t let the cops speak to the little girl to confirm this. On top of that, Mike refused to take a polygraph test, and lawyered up before being officially identified as a suspect.
None of that proves guilt, but his non-compliance definitely raises a few suspicions. It was also found that Mike and Mary had been having some martial issues; according to friends and family, he had followed her several times in the belief she was having an affair, and even confronted her about his suspicions not long before.
Is it possible that Mike ended his wife’s life out of jealousy, and tried to make it look like a suicide to more easily claim the hefty $700,000 life insurance payout? The icing on the cake of this theory is a 4 minute phone call logged from Mike’s cell phone to Mary’s at 7:11pm. This was about an hour and a half after Mary called 911 to report her own kidnapping.
Was this Mike checking in for a status update from Mary’s killer? Or perhaps a final goodbye to the woman herself? Both are pretty chilling prospects, but all we can really do is speculate. Mike never offered any real explanation for the call — he just said it was a mistake on the part of the phone company, as he had only let the phone ring out for 4 minutes with no answer.
If that were the case, then according to the company, it wouldn’t have shown up on the records at all…
An Unlikely Coincidence?
Those might sound like some pretty tantalizing leads, but unfortunately that’s as far as the investigation into Mary Morris #2’s death ever went. We’ll leave it up to you to decide where the suspicion lies. Was Mike really just acting in his own best interests by keeping away from the investigation, and could the vengefulness of an ex-coworker actually be to blame?
But most importantly of all, how in the hell does this relate to the poor bank employee found dead just a few days before?! Well, the answer to that might lie in the missing wedding rings. This little detail has fueled speculation that the Mary Morris murders were both part of the same calculated plot.
I say a “calculated plot”, when really I mean “horrifically miscalculated blunder”. See, in many cases a missing wedding ring is a hallmark of a contract killing: a token, used to prove that the deed has been carried out. So the thread tying these two cases together may be one of the most unfortunate cases of mistaken identity ever. What I mean is, if one of Mary Morris #2’s enemies did in fact hire a hitman to end her life, then it’s possible the killer just went and killed the wrong damn Mary the first time!
Despite the age gap, there are plenty of similarities between the two women which could cause a case of mistaken identity, especially if the killer was a hired professional going only on a name and a photo. Aside from the Mary Morris moniker, they also shared a similar permed haircut, white complexion, and city of residence.
This theory is backed up by an anecdote from Mary #2’s friend Laurie Gemmell, who claims that a mysterious phone call was made to the Houston Chronicle on the 13th, between the two killings. She’s quoted as saying:
“A call came in to the Houston Chronicle, and I verified this with somebody at the Chronicle, between the time the first Mary Morris was killed and the time my friend was killed, saying something to the effect that they got the wrong Mary Morris the first time.”
This hasn’t been verified, but if it’s true, someone with knowledge of the crime might have been dropping a hint to the press: the killer had made a massive error.
Imagine the scene for a moment: standing over the body of his victim, the hitman calls his employer to let them know the job is done: Mary Morris is dead. The line goes silent for a moment as the husband turns around to look at his wife, sitting safe and sound on the sofa (very much alive).
“…Are you sure?”
Well, at least he’ll have a funny story to share at all the contract killer conventions…
Weighing Up the Odds
Now, I should warn you before we finish up that this is not the official account of events according to the police. Without any definitive evidence tying together the two crimes, they maintain that the whole thing is just a wild coincidence: two unconnected crimes, only linked together by freakish improbabilities.
Before you make up your mind either way, we’ve got a few last pieces of evidence for each of the main theories. First up…
If we return to the wedding ring for a second, there’s a compelling anecdote which supports the idea it may have been returned to Mike Morris after his wife’s death. Several months after, a family friend was visiting for dinner. They realized that Mike’s daughter was wearing the deceased woman’s wedding ring.
When they asked Mike about it, he told them that Mary wasn’t actually wearing it when she was killed — a fact which he forgot to tell the police about at the time. Was this evidence that he was in contact with the person who lifted the ring from Mary’s body, or just a sad symptom of their marital problems?
But perhaps one of the biggest problems of all with this story for me is: if you’re planning on having a person killed by a hitman, why arm them with a handgun? Was he just trying to make the hitman really work for his paycheck?
So if not, Mike, then what about Duane? We don’t know exactly what information the police hold on this suspect, but it’s been suggested that they know more than they’ve thus far let on. The very fact that Duane Young has never been officially ruled out suggests the absence of an alibi, which on top of his clear motive means we can’t rule him out either.
Because, at the end of the day, Mary #2’s husband did act suspiciously, but it may have just been to protect his own skin. If he were an unfortunate victim of circumstance, then he would surely understand how bad the situation looked for him, guilty or not, given the problems he and his wife had. Plenty of intelligent, innocent people have taken the advice of the lawyers, when they say that shutting up is often the best thing to do.
When the case started doing the rounds in the early days of the online true crime community, Duane apparently made a habit of defending himself in forums. He maintained his innocence, claiming that he never made any threats against Mary’s life. He instead throws suspicion back at the husband, as well as Laurie Gemmell (one of his most public accusers). Gemmell is quoted as saying, in reference Mary #2:
“She told me that she was afraid of this person that she worked with. And I said, ‘Do you really think he could hurt you?’ And she said, ‘Yes, I do, and I think he could do worse.’”
It seems her problems with Duane Young went way further than a bit of Monday angst. If someone truly believes they’re under that much threat from a person, I’m inclined to believe them.
But aside from all that, if the first Mary Morris was just the unfortunate casualty of a hit gone wrong, then we need to find an explanation for some of the strange circumstances which followed her death. About six months after her death, her husband Jay Morris received a whopping $2000 phone bill addressed to his deceased wife.
Detectives traced Mary’s phone card to a sixteen-year-old in Galveston, about an hour from Houston. It’s pretty unlikely that their killer was a high-schooler, so how did she come across the card? The girl explained she had found it in a purse that was left in a convenience store parking lot the month before. When the cops returned the purse to Mary’s family, they were confused: it wasn’t even hers.
Not long after that, Jay started receiving strange phone calls from a mysterious caller, asking for Mary. This happened three times, and the caller never identified themselves — they only stopped calling after he referred them on to the Harris County Sheriff’s Office.
The Hail Mary Long-shot
There’s one final theory which often gets floated around online, so we need to give it its due before finishing up. Some true crime fans have theorized that we have the whole thing backwards: maybe the first Mary Morris really was the intended victim, and the second murder was part of an elaborate plot to cover the trail.
We may really be stretching the bounds of probability here, but if we run with it for a second, it offers a bit of explanation for one of the most mysterious parts of the case: who called the Houston Chronicle? Now, I should state that the existence of that phone call is not confirmed, and it really might just be a load of nonsense.
However, if someone really did call in to warn of the second killing to come, then what could the motive possibly have been? The killer would hardly want to brag about his incompetence, so the only theory which makes any sense is that it was an intentional red herring, to distract from the first killing itself.
Again, I am not convinced in the slightest by this, but when we’re dealing with a case as strange as this, best not to rule anything out.
Now you have all of the information behind one of the strangest mysteries in Texan history. Was this a double-barreled case of deadly mistaken identity, or just a slapdash robbery and twisted revenge killing, connected only by bizarre circumstance? I think most of us are leaning towards option number one. As Jay Morris, the husband of Mary #1, put it:
“The astronomical odds that two Mary Morrises were killed three days apart, very similar in looks, to me, that’s what it is. Astronomical odds that they’re not connected.”
Part of the reason we’re still talking about these cases over 20 years on is the fact that no one explanation perfectly wraps up all the moving parts involved. No one angle ties everything together, without leaving a few questions hanging. For that reason, it’s likely that we’ll never have a full account of exactly why and how these women died.
That is, unless there’s a savant Sherlock out there that ticks they’ve cracked the case in the past 20 minutes. If so, there’s a cash reward for any information that can shed some light on things ($5000, as far as I can see).
1. The families of both victims have spent years campaigning for new information in order to get some closure. Along the way, some minor silver linings have grown out of their tragedies. Marilyn Blalock (daughter to MARY #1) and Stephanie Loar (MARY #2’S SISTER) became close friendships after co-starring on an episode of the The Montel William’s Show.
2. If the clumsy hitman angle seems too wild to be true, you should know there’s already a precedent for this kind of thing. In 2006, Ohio resident Daniel Ott was killed with a shotgun. It took the cops eight years to conclude that this law-abiding citizen’s only crime was sharing the same name with another Daniel Ott, who was set to testify against a “chop shop” garage owner and his stolen car operation. Best start praying that all your namesakes are on the straight and narrow…