by Tim Gilmore, 9/24/2022
1. “Excusable Homicide”
“Jury Acquits Man Who Cut Up His Wife,” the headline said.
When his 18 year old bride approached him in their rented house in the woods of Jacksonville’s Westside and accused him of being obsessed with the Asian model at the beach, he choked her to death. Then he stripped her naked, dismembered her with a circular saw, cutting her arms and legs into small pieces and disposing of them, mummified her torso and wrapped it in black plastic, built the torso an airtight 2 x 5-foot chipboard box and carted it to Texas, leaving it in a trailer while he sang and played piano.
In May of ’78, nine months after killing her, Gary Lynn Webster placed Betty Faye’s torso in a storage unit in Garland, Texas. When he stopped paying rent for the unit, workers founded what was left of her among boxes of books about music. Forensics experts identified her by dental records.
On January 12, 1980, the Jacksonville jury deliberated for 10 hours and 10 minutes before ruling Betty Webster’s death an “excusable homicide.”
Gary Webster, 33 years old, who also went by Lynn, G. Lynn, Rusty, G. Rusty and his stage name, Lynn Nicely, told the jury, “From the bottom of my heart, I want to thank you.”
The next day he married Linda Bingham, one of the witnesses in his trial, whom he’d met while performing in Wyoming. It was his third marriage.
2. The Court in the Woods
These 17 little woodframe houses on Tequesta Court, built in the 1940s, have identical 1,500 square foot floorplans. Spaced an equal distance from the road, they back up to the woods. In the late ’70s, the house at 5330 was divided into five tiny apartments; the newlywed Websters rented 5332. Suburbia may have crept in on all sides, but this rural portion of the Westside near 110th and Catoma Streets still feels like it did 45 years ago.
The September afternoon sun burns through the heights of the longleaf pines above the dirty little abandoned house where Gary Webster killed and dismembered his wife that blazing August 8th night. He described it in court. He wept. A coroner told the jury what happened to bone when you sawed through it.
The woods behind the house grow dense and old in dark green shade, shrouded aggressively in vines. The creek that meanders behind the house chokes with elephant-ear colocasias and half a dozen dumped grocery carts. Perhaps, decades ago, this same stream accepted the butchered pieces of Betty Faye’s hands and feet, absorbed them into its ecosystem.
3. Postmortem Gaslighting
Gary and Betty had been married for five months. His folk rock band, The Raintree, was playing regular gigs at the Jacksonville Beach Holiday Inn at 1617 North First Street. He’d been in the midst of making his life anew, as he’d done before, as he would do again. No longer the gospel choir director, no longer the high school music teacher, the lounge musician had left the judgment of small-town South Carolina behind him.
The fact of their age difference, that the former teacher had taken a teenage bride, embarrassed him. If she was a former student, or a Junior Miss Greenwood contestant, nobody said so publicly. Though she came from the tiny community of Hodges, 10 minutes from Greenwood, and would have attended Greenwood High, she never shows up in a Greenwood High School yearbook.
He said he didn’t mean to kill her. He’d tried to cover her mouth to keep her from yelling at him, but his hand slipped down to her throat and she died. Even after she was dead, Gary Lynn Webster was still gaslighting his wife. Could he help it if the story sounded like the plot of a misogynistic slasher film?
Webster hadn’t expected to be exonerated. There was talk of various plea deal possibilities, but ultimately, prosecutors all but scoffed at the notion of Webster’s getting off so easily.
The conviction would come swiftly. Prosecutors were sure. They had a written confession, uncoerced. In the back of a police car on July 23rd, while being transferred to the Dallas County Jail, Gary wrote Betty’s parents a five-page letter, saying, “I know you are feeling shock and loss in Betty’s death and I am greatly saddened to have inflicted that loss on you.”
So prosecutors rejected Webster’s absurd attempt at a plea deal. Then Jacksonville jurors set him free.
Juror Stephen Cope said, “There was considerable reasonable doubt that he did kill her out of spite or hatred or whatever.” He said, “It was not proven to me one way or the other. We had to give the man the benefit of the doubt. They say a man is innocent until proven guilty and he was not proven guilty.”Juror Michael Burnett said, “The dismemberment was not part of the murder. We were instructed not to consider that.”
But Prosecutor Jay Howell, angry and nonplussed, told reporters, “Innocent people don’t go around cutting people up.”
Sure, said Public Defender Bob Link, but the killing and the dismemberment were two different things and the latter was prejudicial to the former. The question for the jury, Link said, was “If he had not dismembered her three days later, what would your verdict be?”
Florida law defined an “excusable homicide,” as “a killing committed by accident and misfortune in the heat of passion without a deadly weapon.”
Webster told the newspapers he felt “fantastic and elated.” He said he had given his “future to God” and hoped “the jury’s decision” would make Betty’s family’s loss seem “a little more understandable to them.”
4. Prehistory of a Homicide; Or, “Goodbye, Rusty, We Salute You!”
On January 22, 1968, Gary Lynn Webster of Kankakee, Illinois married Janice Lucille Gossett of Auburndale, Wisconsin in his parents’ home in Owosso, Michigan, where he’d grown up. Janice wore a white satin brocade suit, an open-crown pillbox hat and shoulder-length bouffant English illusion veil. She carried a bouquet of white daisy chrysanthemums. The couple had met at Olivet Nazarene College, a private Christian school in Kankakee, where Janice majored in English and Gary in Music Education. They honeymooned in South Carolina and soon moved to Greenwood, population 21,000, where Janice’s sister lived.Gary taught music at Greenwood High School. In October, 1972, a nascent Hallmark Music Service of Greenwood published a gospel song called “Without His Care,” co-written by “Rusty” Webster and a friend from college and dedicated to Janice’s father. That December, the Greenwood High School Glee Club, led by G. Rusty Webster, performed portions of Handel’s Messiah.
By 1974, even as Webster’s musical sensibilities permeated Greenwood, trouble colored the horizon. At Easter, Webster directed a “youth chorus” presentation of a country gospel musical called “He’s Alive” at Greenwood’s Lander College Amphitheatre. Webster seems to have written the music himself, since the Easter song of the same name, set to a tawdry dramatic twang and made famous by Dolly Parton, wouldn’t be written for another six years. The following month, G. Rusty was calling for auditions for a high school musical he’d written that raised some eyebrows.
Webster called “Non-Musical Man” a “musical comedy / talent show,” explaining, “The play itself is actually the setting for a talent show. Thus, our call for tryouts is really an invitation to any of our townspeople who have a talent they are willing to share with us: music, magic, dancing, tumbling, juggling – you name it.”
The plot, however, as The [Greenwood] Index-Journal described it, involved “an unemployed con artist who attempts to play the musical and cultural desires of a small town into financial gain for himself.” Busybodies wondered whether the play were autobiographical.
In a 1974 yearbook, Webster autographed his picture and wrote, “Kay…I’ve really enjoyed having you in Chorus, though would have been [sic] even better if you hadn’t waited till your senior year to join!”
An October 2, 1975 letter to the editor of the Index-Journal asserted, “The Greenwood area is losing a valuable asset and a good man. This Monday, as a result of a personal vendetta, in which Greenwood School District 50 proved to be the lethal instrument, Rusty Webster was compelled to resign his position as the Band and Choral director of Greenwood High School.”The letter writer, Gerald Dorn II, said that in just two years, the band had “transformed” from “mediocre” to “excellent and high-spirited,” regularly bringing rounds of applause at football halftime shows. Dorn said Webster had worked magic with the “Junior Miss and Miss Greenwood pageants” and had assisted with the Festival of Flowers. He ended his letter, “Goodbye, Rusty, we salute you!”
Webster had started playing South Carolina lounges where he tried out original tunes. Whether he first got to know Betty Faye as one of his students or as a pageant contestant, no one publicly said, but it was the 1970s and nobody seemed to ask. He’d later claim to have met her while playing music in Greenwood, which he’d come to call a “hostile community.”Two years after Dorn’s letter, Webster had married and murdered Betty Faye, and two years after that, The Greenville News headlined a story “Teacher’s Wife Carted in Casket.” Police had finally arrested Webster in Wyoming after circulating photos of the former music teacher from 1973 and ’74 Greenwood High School yearbooks. A Texas woman recognized him as a lounge musician named Lynn Nicely.
He’d resigned from Greenwood and divorced Janice and married Betty Faye Shirley and left town. In Jacksonville, bandmates said the couple went on a week’s vacation, then disappeared, stealing some of the band’s equipment. Betty never reappeared. Webster performed in Houston and Dallas, then moved westward to Utah, where he sang and played piano for the Stoney Mountain Bluegrass Band.
On July 18, 1979, Webster was arrested walking a motel hallway at the Hilton Inn Lounge in Casper, Wyoming, where he was performing with a pop group called Lloyd Owens and Express Band, who performed Christian songs, tunes from West Side Story and the Barbara Streisand / Neil Diamond duet You Don’t Bring Me Flowers.Webster played piano as Owens crooned, “I learned how to laugh / And I learned how to cry. / Well I learned how to love / And I learned how to lie. / So you’d think I could learn how to tell you goodbye.”
If he hadn’t left Betty’s torso behind in Garland, Texas, after months of carrying her around in her “makeshift coffin,” then stopped paying his $21 monthly storage fee for six months, Gary Lynn Webster might never have been charged with her murder.
5. Piece by Piece
Betty came to watch him play at the Holiday Inn that first Sunday in August. She saw how he flirted with that “Oriental” model. Everybody seemed to know something about it but her. She sped up her drinking and drank harder. The year before, Florida had lowered the legal drinking age to 18.
Back at their small house in the woods, Betty said she was going home to South Carolina. Webster panicked. Nobody knew they were in Florida and he wanted to keep it that way.
Jurors later watched a courtroom re-enactment of Webster’s tale. He said they started fighting in bed. She lunged at him and pushed him to the floor and he fell on his “trick arm,” which he’d broken four times as a child. She scratched his arms and clawed at his face. She shrieked her accusations. He didn’t meant to kill her. He “tried to cover her mouth to quiet her,” he said in court. Then his hands, they just “slipped from her mouth and away from her clawing hands, around her throat. She stopped yelling. I don’t know how long I had actually choked her.”
If he had to guess, he said, he’d say he choked her for 22 seconds. Dr. Linda Norton, the Dallas assistant medical examiner who performed the autopsy on Betty’s decomposed torso said the death was the result of strangulation, that Lynn Nicely would have choked his wife for three to five minutes. It took that much time, she said, but not much strength. The “small-framed brunette,” as The Florida Times-Union‘s Bill Foley called her, said, “If any of you would hold still, I could easily strangle you.”
Defense attorneys argued otherwise. Betty hadn’t died from strangulation at all, but “by a heart attack induced by a blow to the throat.”
Dr. Norton said, “People who die naturally, or from accident or suicide, do not get dismembered, boxed and hidden away.” However Webster had killed his wife, she said, Webster had killed his wife. No question.
After Betty was dead, Gary placed her back in the bed and kept telling her he was sorry. When her body began to stiffen in bed in that little woodframe house in the woods, he wrapped her in sheets and laid her in the bathtub. Then he placed her in a wooden box and built another wooden box to house the first box.
He planned to take her body apart with the circular saw and dispose of her, piece by piece, a little bit every day. The week he told his bandmates he and Betty spent vacationing, he spent in that house with her body and the saw. “I started to do it, but I could not go through with it,” he said. He made it only as far as her elbows and knees.
He kept her body in the bedroom, while he slept on the living room sofa. “Frequently I walked back to the bedroom, still trying to tell her how sorry I was, how much I loved her,” he said.
6. “Don’t Use Your Feelings”
“I have done the wrong thing and I don’t feel good about it.” It was an unnamed woman juror, not Gary Lynn Webster, who told a reporter that.
“As stupid as the law is on certain things,” she said, “we were trying to go with one of the laws that fit the case. To me it was ridiculous, but the judge said we had to do our duty.”
She said Circuit Court Judge R. Hudson Olliff kept telling female jurors, “Don’t use your feelings. You have got to deal with the facts.” The jury stopped its work twice for meals, twice to have instructions repeated and once to ask for aspirin.
The unnamed juror said she couldn’t sleep at night. When she went home after the jury delivered its verdict, she felt sick. “I felt like going out and shooting myself,” she said. She hoped she never had to serve on a jury again, but wished she could do this one over.
7. Cycles of the Forest
Tiny portions of the soil of these woods behind Tequesta Court consist of old motor oil, the rusting out of yesteryear’s beer cans, the bones of birds and rodents and snakes and dogs and boar, the eternal remains of degraded plastics, toy army figures buried by leaf fall where they fell, shotgun shells, the forsaken coils of a moonshine still, millennia of fallen trees, deteriorated palmetto fronds, cicada shells, whole-earths’-worths of earthworm castings.
Through these trees, whose leaves sing so sibilant as to seem sentient in the winds at night in the early autumn, moved gospel-blues-rock tunes from a nearby piano and the screams of the scene of murder.
Maybe Betty Faye went walking in these woods one wet and blazing summer day. Maybe her metacarpals and metatarsals scattered in the biodiversity and nutrient recycling of the forest floor. Trauma chases itself in loops, forever repeating its pain, so surely in some way, her presence in these woods remains.
8. Journal of a Journey
Since trauma circles itself, here’s Gary Webster on Sunday, November 19, 2017, from which we’ll move backward to the start of the story, the end of Betty Faye’s life. That recent Sunday, he directed the 60 member Owosso Area Community Choir in “expressions of Thanksgiving to our Heavenly Father and Savior Jesus Christ” at the Owosso Middle School Auditorium.Since 1998, Webster had coordinated SUMMERPraise! at the Owosso Amphitheater, where hundreds of spectators brought blankets and lawn chairs to hear Southern Gospel singing groups like the Dixie Melody Boys and Southern Sound. He worked public relations for a Southern Gospel quartet called Stronghold, two members of which were his fourth wife Diana’s sons. He became the new director of the Lansing chapter of the Barbershop Harmony Society in 2009.
He sold compact disc recordings of “He Put a Song in My Heart,” a “musical journal of [his] spiritual journey.” His bio said, “In 1993, after more than 20 years of nightclub entertaining, Webster made some dramatic spiritual choices. With a changed perspective, he returned to Owosso, where God opened doors of service.”
Indeed, the man who’d choked his teenage wife to death and dismembered her in Jacksonville found a job teaching Special Education at Owosso High School, where he’d graduated in 1965. Doubtless none of his students’ parents knew his history. He smiled into his mustache for the new yearbook of his old high school. He’d rounded a strange loop.
A December 1983 ad in The Wichita Eagle Beacon located Webster and his second wife, the witness in his murder trial, in her Kansas hometown, promising that “Lynn and Linda Webster” could help you buy your piano or organ at Towne East Square Mall. You could purchase a Wurlitzer D-15 spinet organ, regularly $2950, for $1995. Linda died in Wichita in 2001.
In 1979, almost two years after Gary Lynn (G. Rusty) (Lynn Nicely) Webster killed his wife, newspapers published Betty Faye Shirley Webster’s obituary. As her remains had been just been recovered in Garland, Texas, the obituary said she’d died there, that she’d been 20 years old, instead of 18. She was survived by her paternal step-grandparents and maternal grandparents, her parents, her stepfather, and her five siblings – three sisters and two brothers. New tenants had moved into the little house on Tequesta Court. Nobody seemed to question the strange stains there.