When sheriff’s deputies found Johnnie Allbritton on May 14, 1984, the 64-year-old had been shot twice in the chest and three times in the back with a 20-gauge shotgun he owned. The World War II veteran and proprietor of a local grocery store lay dead near the back patio of his home off Highway 75 in rural East Texas.
Police soon landed on a theory, the local Buffalo Express reported: Allbritton had surprised a burglar, who, like most in this small community, knew him personally. So the intruder had hastily killed him to avoid identification and then fled.
For decades, that theory held, despite some incongruous details.
Why had police found only his family members’ fingerprints in the house, as his daughter noted to the Express? And why were there no signs of a break-in?
Then, there was the odd fact that when police later tried to bring in Allbritton’s wife, Norma, for a polygraph test, she accidentally shot herself with another shotgun — dodging the interview.
More than 35 years later, police now say Norma Allbritton had good reason to try to avoid scrutiny. On Tuesday, the Leon County Sheriff’s Office announced that the 84-year-old had been arrested and charged with her husband’s decades-old murder — thanks to new evidence turned up by a cold-case reality show.
“This is not a Lifetime movie. The devil has many disguises. We are dealing with pure evil in disguise,” wrote Julie Allbritton Robinson, Johnnie’s daughter, in a Facebook post on Tuesday. “Believe me when I say I appreciate all the hard work of the investigators and the cooperation of those who had knowledge and willing to share it.”
That indictment may not be the end of the family’s bloody story. Three years before Johnnie’s murder, his 13-year-old daughter, Pam, also died of a gunshot wound in the same house. The case was initially ruled a suicide, but investigators told the Palestine Herald-Press that it’s now under new scrutiny.
“I won’t rest,” Leon County Sheriff Kevin Ellis told the paper in Palestine, Tex. “I don’t think my investigators will rest, until everyone involved in this case, and with other possible crimes related to it, are brought to justice.”
Before his death, Johnnie Allbritton operated a ranch and owned Allbritton’s Grocery in Buffalo, Tex., a small town roughly 110 miles southeast of Dallas. After his wife’s death, he married Norma, who had been his wife’s home caregiver, according to Leon County Today. He had three sons and three daughters.
One of those sons, Jamie, realized something was amiss when his father failed to pick him up from school, the Express reported. When he hitched a ride from the family grocery store to their house three miles out of town and found the doors wide open, he called police to report a burglary.
Instead, the cops found Johnnie gunned down inside, with the murder weapon laying nearby. Although they favored the interrupted burglar theory, detectives were apparently curious enough about Norma that, two weeks later, they ordered her in for a polygraph test, the Herald-Press reported.
That same morning, though, she was shot with a 410-gauge shotgun, telling police she’d accidentally dropped the weapon. Norma, who was then 49 years old, was never subjected to the test, the Herald-Press wrote.
For decades, the case languished — until investigators turned to a true-crime reality show for help.
The Leon County Sheriff’s Office’s interest had been piqued around the 30th anniversary of the crime, the Express reported. By the next year, in 2015, Ellis had digitized all the case records and enlisted the assistance of “Cold Justice,” an Oxygen show produced by “Law & Order” creator Dick Wolf that follows investigators probing long-dormant mysteries.
Leon County officials haven’t revealed what new evidence that probe turned up, but credited the television show with paying for travel across the state to interview around 50 people and with having the lab resources to retest physical evidence.
The case “was reviewed and reinvestigated by a team of Leon County Investigators and a ‘Cold Case’ review team,” the sheriff’s department said Tuesday.
On June 27, a grand jury indicted Norma Allbritton in connection with the crime, the sheriff’s department said; she was arrested July 1. She was released on a $50,000 bond July 3, the Herald-Press reported.
It’s not clear whether she has an attorney.
Johnnie Allbritton’s daughter said the family hopes to find justice after decades of waiting.
“I am so proud of our Sheriff and his department and our current DA,” Robinson wrote on Facebook. “I pray they are given the support to do great things and see justice prevail not just in this case but for all the other cases that were forgotten and filed away. People need justice for closure. Without justice there is no peace!”