CLAYTON – Dennis Reese, bald and pallid with a crude tattoo crawling up his neck, shuffled in leg chains past Lisa Hill on his way out of the Union County courthouse Thursday after being sentenced to 30 years in prison for the murder of Hill’s husband more than two decades ago.
He turned to her and said, “I’m sorry.”
Two years ago, when Hill first contacted the Journal to ask if we could find out why no one had ever been brought to justice in New Mexico for the murder of her young husband Timothy Keeling in 1991, I could never have imagined that moment.
It took a perfect storm of perseverance by a lot of different people to dredge up a case that was dropped and forgotten and bring it back to life.
I made dozens of phone calls trying to crack the mystery of why charges were dropped for Reese and the alleged trigger man Michael St. Clair back in the 1990s, even though Reese had confessed and given a detailed description of Keeling’s murder.
The Eighth Judicial District Attorney’s staff in Clayton dug into their dusty storage unit to find the file and discovered what I had suspected – that because both defendants had stacks of other charges and life sentences in other states, New Mexico decided not to pursue the case here.
Toby Dolan, the New Mexico State Police officer who responded to the call of a man’s body found on the side of the highway between Springer and Clayton back in 1991, had retired but maintained his file and had a clear memory of his investigation and offered to help.
D.A. Donald Gallegos, aware that both defendants would be spending their lives in prison for other murders even if New Mexico never charged them, decided to take the case to a grand jury anyway, and last April the two were indicted – St. Clair for capital murder, kidnapping and robbery and Reese for being an accessory to those crimes.
New Mexico pushed for their extradition, and, last fall, the two men took up residence behind bars in New Mexico.
Every step of the way, Hill, who now lives in Dallas, kept the pressure on.
Keeling was 22 when he was kidnapped for his pickup truck out of a Denver supermarket parking lot by Reese and St. Clair, who were on the run from a jail escape in Oklahoma. The two accused murderers were headed toward Texas. Keeling was handcuffed and had a gun aimed at him for hours, when the men stopped to relieve themselves about 30 miles west of Clayton and, according to Reese, St. Clair put two bullets in Keeling and left him to die at the side of the road.
State District Judge John Paternoster, who arraigned Reese last year when he was extradited to New Mexico, said Reese surprised him at that hearing. Reese said he wanted to plead guilty right then and there. Although he couldn’t allow that by law, the judge said that had never happened to him before and he was impressed that Reese wanted to take responsibility for his crime.
Hill drove in from Dallas to finally see justice for the young love of her life, Tim Keeling. She had talked to Reese several years ago at the conclusion of a court hearing she attended in Kentucky and said Reese told her what an impression Keeling had made on him as they drove through the night on the run.
He said Keeling, a Christian who was starting a youth ministry in Denver, prayed for him and didn’t show any judgment toward the escapees who held him captive.
Hill, addressing Reese in court, said she forgave him for his part in her husband’s death, but she also told him about the pain of becoming a young widow.
“I lost my best friend. I lost really everything,” she said. “I had to start my life over at age 22.”
“I forgive you,” she told Reese, “but it’s not OK.”
Reese and St. Clair each have several life sentences stacked up in Oklahoma and Kentucky, and St. Clair has an additional death sentence in Kentucky. Barring another escape, the two middle-aged men will die in prison, regardless of what happens to them in New Mexico courts.
Paternoster could have allowed Reese’s New Mexico sentence to be served at the same time as the other life sentences he is serving, but he made a symbolic point of ordering it to be served in addition to the others.
After the sentencing, after she had dried her tears, Hill said she felt “a little bit lighter, I guess.”
“I can take a breath now,” she said, “until the next one.”
The next one, St. Clair’s case, will not be as easy. Hill would like New Mexico to pursue the death penalty for St. Clair, but that won’t happen. D.A. Gallegos said he looked at a number of issues – time and costs and the fact that St. Clair already has a death sentence – to make his decision not to pursue it here.
Still, St. Clair is fighting the charges, which should come to trial later this year.
At the same court hearing in Kentucky at which Hill had a chance to tell Reese she forgave him, St. Clair also addressed the widow. “Lady,” he said, “I didn’t kill your husband.”
UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Leslie at 823-3914 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Go to www.abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal