1 of 2
AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez
Trial evidence that was used in the case against Lester Leroy Bower Jr., who was sentenced to death for the murders of four people.

SHERMAN, Texas — Three months after four bodies were found shot execution-style in an airplane hangar on the B&B Ranch north of Dallas in 1984, chemical salesman Lester Leroy Bower Jr. was charged with capital murder.

Four months later, a jury deliberated just two hours before convicting him, then deliberated only two hours more the following day before deciding he should die for the crime.

No fingerprints put him at the scene. No witnesses saw him there. The murder weapon never was found. Bower never confessed. DNA testing wasn't available then.

More than 20 years later, a state judge has stopped Bower's scheduled July 22 execution and has agreed to consider his request that evidence be examined to see if DNA testing could back up his claim of innocence.

Prosecutors oppose the testing as a delaying tactic, saying Bower — a mild-mannered man with no record of criminal activity or mental-health problems — just snapped.

Bower made them suspicious. He had lied to his wife and to authorities about his efforts to buy an ultralight plane; she didn't want him flying such a flimsy craft. He sold firearms on the side, including the kind that fired the ammunition used to kill the men.

"I was quite capable of purchasing whatever I need without killing four people," Bower, now 60, said recently from Texas death row. "Virtually no one, except for the prosecution, thinks this sounds like anything I would do."

Bower says he had a good job and was a family man, father of two daughters, with a stable marriage.

"An absolutely stellar record," Bower said. "Then one day, as the prosecutor says, I snapped, killed four people and snapped back. Those are his words, not mine.

"I'm not minimizing that people don't snap ... Does this really sound like something I would do?"

Yes, prosecutors insist.

"Contrary to some television and movie portrayals, the fact is that no ethical prosecutor would ever seek a capital conviction, in fact any conviction, unless they were convinced of the defendant's guilt," said Ronald Sievert, a federal prosecutor who was named as a special prosecutor to assist in Bower's trial. He is now a professor of National Security Law at the University of Texas Law School and the Bush School of Government at Texas A&M University.

Bower is realistic about his chances for reprieve in the nation's most active death penalty state.

"I'm hoping somebody will take a look at it and say there seems to be enough to bring the verdict into question and there is a likelihood this is a miscarriage of justice," he said. "That's probably the best I can hope for."

Sievert and Grayson County prosecutors built a circumstantial case surrounding Bower's purchase of the ultralight airplane from sheriff's Deputy Philip Good, 29. The aircraft was stored at a hangar owned by building contractor Bob Tate, 51.

Tate; Good; Jerry Brown, 52, a Sherman interior designer; and Ronald Mayes, 39, a former Sherman police officer, were all killed at the hangar.

Bower acknowledges he lied to the FBI about his involvement in the purchase of the plane.

"If you haven't done anything wrong, there's absolutely no reason to lie to the police — ever," said Karla Hackett, an assistant Grayson County district attorney handling the appeal. "When you are about up to your eyeballs in a murder investigation and they're clearly looking at you as a suspect, I think you come clean."

"In life you make decisions sometimes you wish you could take back," Bower said from prison. "I was there."

He said Brown was with Good that Saturday afternoon when he was negotiating the down payment of $3,000, or 75 percent, on the airplane. They all waited about 15 minutes for Tate to show up with a key to the hangar.

Bower said he never saw Mayes.

Evidence at trial centered on Bower's two purchases in 1982, when he lived in Colorado Springs, Colo., of Italian-made Fiocchi-brand .22-caliber ammunition, the kind used in the killings. There also was evidence he had owned a .22-caliber Ruger pistol, which prosecutors said was fitted with a silencer he made.

Bower had a federal firearms dealer license. Prosecutors showed jurors his books about guns and gun parts, a Ruger target pistol manual and a book about silencers.

Among evidence and trial exhibits still stored in cardboard boxes at the courthouse are four plastic foam heads, the kind used to display wigs. These four, however, have long blue knitting needles stuck in them, representing the paths bullets took to kill each person.

"They took some information and twisted it to their benefit," Bower said.

Hackett responded: "When you've got time on your hands, it's real easy to sit and justify."

Investigators seized on Bower when Good's phone records showed three calls from Bower charged on his company telephone credit card.

Parts of Tate's aircraft were missing from the hangar, and the FBI found damaged wings in Bower's garage.

"We produced documentary evidence he had ordered silencer parts, we had documentary evidence he purchased a .22 Ruger, we had the evidence he purchased the Julio Fiocchi subsonic bullets, we had the Allen wrench in his brief case that fit the silencer and would attach it to the pistol," Sievert said.

Bower said he lost the pistol in 1982. His appeal says that gun couldn't have been the murder weapon because the firing pin used in its manufacture didn't match marks on bullet casings found at the hangar.

Questions about Bower's conviction first were raised in 1989. A woman called one of Bower's attorneys to say her ex-boyfriend and three of his friends were responsible for the slayings, the result of a dope deal gone bad. The identity of the witness, who signed a sworn affidavit, and the names of the four men she implicated have all been sealed by court order.

"The defense speculation about drug dealers in this case is just the type of wild speculation that all defense attorneys throw out in all capital appeals to get their client off or delay punishment," Sievert said.

Bower's attorneys point to FBI reports that initially suggested the four slayings possibly were related to drugs or gambling. And they question whether he could have driven the 135 miles from the hangar to his house in less than two hours, pointing out that his wife testified he was home by 6:30 p.m., while the killings occurred between 4:30 and 6:30 p.m.

In the defense DNA request, to be reviewed July 17, Bower's lawyers want to see if there's any DNA on crime scene evidence that matches DNA of any of the four men they claim are the real killers.

Hackett said the evidence has not been protected over the years. There's no guarantee it hasn't been substituted or tampered with and altered and even if testing would point to "these four mystery killers," the results couldn't say when they were at the hangar, she said.

Bower says he's ready for whatever happens:

"I told my wife I put in my time and my last words will be: 'I'm out of here. Adios, people."'