Editor's note: Joseph Mitchell Parsons has dropped his appeals and is scheduled to be executed Oct. 15 for the stabbing death of a California man in 1987. This story, based on police reports and witness interviews, examines the circumstances that led to Parsons' arrest.
BEAVER -- Twelve years ago, Dave's Texaco was a place to stop, fill up the gas tanks and buy a sandwich.Or on one morning, a place to cover up a murder.
It was at this roadside gas station that Joseph Mitchell Parsons stopped early one summer morning in 1987, telling a young man working there he needed to hose out his car to get rid of the red paint.
It wasn't paint. It was blood from a 30-year-old man whom Parsons had stabbed at least 18 times. Richard Ernest was slain 23 miles south of the gas station on Aug. 31, 1987.
The victim made one fatal mistake during his trek from California to Colorado to look for a construction job: He was trusting.
Frustrated over marital problems and alone in his blue Dodge Omni, Ernest had 1,100 miles to drive before he reached Denver.
Those are long miles to go alone.
Near Barstow, Calif., Parsons was trying to hitch a ride.
Ernest stopped, unaware his newfound traveling companion was a fugitive who had walked away from a Nevada halfway house to which he had been paroled on a robbery charge.
By the time Parsons killed Ernest at a rest stop where the two had stopped to sleep, Parsons knew all about his victim. They must have talked a lot.
After the slaying, in a front seat covered in blood, Parsons drove another mile and dumped his victim's body on the east side of I-15, covering it with a sleeping bag. At some point, he slipped out of his own clothes and put on a blue pullover shirt and white Bermuda shorts that belonged to Richard Ernest.
He drove 22 miles north, pulled into the south side of Dave's Texaco in Beaver and parked the car.
An identity assumed
It was early on a Monday, before 5 a.m.
Parsons walked into the gas station and started talking to the 19-year-old man who had just started working there that summer.
"He told me his whole life story, but it was this other guy's story from the get-go," the man recalled.
The former gas station attendant, now 31, asked that his name not be printed. He still fears Parsons, even though it has been 12 years and Parsons is scheduled to be executed next month.
"When I look back on it now, he was probably contemplating on killing me."
At the outset, Parsons told the employee he had just been divorced, was headed to Denver and was driving his former wife's car. He said there were a lot of tools in the car that belonged to his ex-wife's boyfriend, and he wanted to get rid of them.
He told the young man he could have the expensive construction tools if he lent him the use of a hose to wash out the red construction paint that had spilled in the car.
It was all a lie.
The young station attendant believed him, anxious to get on with his own duties.
"He seemed a little bit nervous. I was, too. I had people depending on me to have my job done, and I was busy doing other stuff. I really wasn't watching him that much."
As the employee began to clean the lube bay of the gas station, Parsons backed the car up to a Dumpster on the north side of the business.
It was still dark, the summer night obscuring the apple orchard behind the station. There would have been very little traffic on I-15 that time of day.
The employee could hear the thump of heavy items hitting the sides of the Dumpster as they were tossed in.
He walked over.
Parsons was tossing paper in the trash, along with clothing, books, posters and carpenter tools.
"He pretty much said I could have the tools if he could use the hose and I gave him some towels. That is the trade we made."
After cleaning out the car, Parsons, now going by the name of Richard Ernest, walked into the gas station and bought two chimichangas, three packs of Marlboro cigarettes, chocolate milk, juice and beef jerky. He paid for it all with his victim's credit card.
Parsons wanted to know how far it was to Denver, struck up a conversation with another customer and told the employee to have a good a day. He was very friendly.
Hours later, when his boss showed up, the employee told station owner Dave Marshall about the visitor and the free construction tools. He then went home to bed.
It was only when the deputy sheriffs came knocking on his door that the 19-year-old realized something was dreadfully wrong.
"When I learned what went on, exactly how everything went down, I couldn't believe it. I couldn't believe something like that had happened in this little place, in my territory, in a place I love and cherish. It was nothing I wanted anything to do with."
The former gas station employee is convinced that if other customers hadn't popped in for their regular cups of coffee, Parsons would have killed him.
"I started to trip out once I had learned all this. I think he would have killed me if he'd had the chance."
On the road
Parsons, however, went on up the road, and by 7:23 that morning had used Ernest's credit card to check into the Quality Inn about 50 miles away in Richfield. By 10 a.m., Parsons used the credit card at Kmart to purchase $38 worth of seat covers and floor mats to cover up the blood.
Another purchase at 12:34 p.m. would be the first circumstance that would bring the law closer to catching up with him.
The credit card, which Parsons was trying to use to charge about $300 worth of items, was past its limit. MasterCharge had ordered it seized.
Parsons, surprised, quickly tossed the card back at the clerk. He also told her where he was staying. Then he left.
The clerk called Richfield police.
To the west in Beaver County, other discoveries began to work against Parsons.
The gas station owner, surprised at the number of expensive tools the stranger had unloaded, got curious.
He walked over to the Dumpster with another employee and took a peek.
"I couldn't see anyone giving that kind of stuff away," Marshall said. "It just didn't add up. I got to looking in there, and there was all this blood. That is when we called the cops. I knew something wasn't right. (The employee) kept saying there was paint all over this guy's car, but it didn't look like paint to me."
The call was made to the Beaver County Sheriff's Office at 12:20 p.m. Sheriff Kenneth Yardley arrived at Dave's Texaco with his deputy, Raymond Goodwin.
It was Yardley's first year as the elected sheriff in Beaver County. Fresh into law enforcement, he had completed his academy training just that year.
But it didn't take much to figure out that with that much blood, something was horribly awry.
"The guy that worked the night shift there, Yogi (Parsons' nickname) had him convinced it was paint, and he bought into it. That's why he never did call or say anything."
On the ground next to the trash bin, a police officer found a piece of paper. It was a bank document from the checking account of Richard and Beverley Ernest of Loma Linda, Calif.
Among the assorted items, Goodwin found a man's jewelry box covered in blood and a blue towel soaked in blood. Police officers also found a tan shirt and swimming trunks with blood stains on them. They were Parsons' discarded clothes.
By this time, police were on the phone to Beverley Ernest.
Officers now knew the man who had been at the gas station and was driving Richard Ernest's car looked nothing like Richard Ernest.
Ernest's wife said he would never have abandoned his construction tools.
Police put out a description of the Omni over statewide police channels.
A Utah Highway Patrol trooper found a man sleeping in the Omni at a rest area just west of Salina. It was 4:25 p.m. Aug. 31, about 12 hours after Parsons had pulled into Dave's Texaco.
Yardley and Goodwin drove to Richfield once they learned the Omni was found.
From their pillage of the bloodied items in the Dumpster, they took with them the tan shirt, the swimming trunks and the stained towel.
They put the clothing on an officer's desk in the Richfield Police Department.
"We did that on purpose," Yardley said. "They brought him on the north side of the building. You have to walk down a long hallway to get to this office. That desk was set up so he would have to look right at it. The hall was dark, the room was light, and those clothes were the first thing he would have seen."
At 5:15 p.m., when he walked into the room and came head-on with the bloody clothes, Parsons paused.
"It was not a big pause at all. It was the slightest of hesitation in his step. And then he kept coming," Yardley said.
Parsons insisted he was Ernest, telling officers he was from northern California. When they wanted to know what city, he told them Los Angeles. When they asked his street address, he asked them for a lawyer.
It's been 12 years, but Yardley doesn't have to struggle to remember the interrogation or the bizarre nature of the case.
Bloody clothes, a murder suspect, no body. Not yet.
"We felt Richard was the victim, but we just didn't know what had happened."
By 1 p.m. Sept. 1, the body of Richard Ernest was found about a mile north of the Lunt Park rest area in Iron County.
For Yardley, it was the first and only time he's ever dealt with anyone like Parsons.
"He was about as cold as anybody I've ever been involved with. He was very cool. Nothing seemed to upset him. In fact, if I remember right, his main concern was if he could keep his book and read it."
The former gas station attendant remembers his own fear.
He was shipped out of town by his parents prior to the trial. The temporary move came at the advice of police, who had heard rumors of Parsons being connected with a white supremacy group that might exact revenge.
To this day, the man wonders how close he came to death and how he could have spent that much time with someone who had just committed murder.
"A cold-blooded killer is what he is. That is exactly what the man is."
Parsons joked with him, ate chimichangas and told him of the 9-year-old son that was Ernest's boy.
Not an hour had passed since he'd killed the child's father.
The man attended Parsons' court proceedings, ready to testify. He said it was a tough time for him because he was confused and scared. He also saw the pain Parsons left behind.Comment on this story
"I seen a tremendous amount of tears in those people's eyes. This was a family member who had died, and they were hurting. I saw the guy's wife bawling. It was hard."
Now, a dozen years later, Ernest's family feels justice will come in October when, and if, Parsons is executed by lethal injection.
Parsons is not talking about the crime, so unanswered questions will remain.
"He doesn't care how people feel," the former gas attendant said. "He doesn't care how they are. He takes their lives and destroys them.
"Why he killed that man I'll never know."