The "Cold Justice" team consists of veteran Texas prosecutor Kelly Siegler, front, and a trio of seasoned detectives, including, from left, Tonya Rider, Abbey Abbondandolo and Steve Spignola. Credit: SUBMITTED PHOTO

It began with a phone call and concluded with a murder charge.

Thanks to assistance by the crew of a television show called “Cold Justice,” a man is charged with first-degree murder in a previously unsolved case from 2007 in Texas County. Tommy K. Whetzell, 63, of Liberal, is charged in the shooting death of Ricky Luebbert, 42, whose body was discovered on Nov. 10, 2007, at a residence where multiple bullet holes were found in a front window.

Back then, Whetzell was identified as a suspect in the murder, and an investigation conducted by the Texas County Sheriff’s Department and Missouri State Highway Patrol did lead to Whetzell’s conviction on a federal weapons charge.

But not enough evidence was compiled for him to be charged in Luebbert’s death.

That’s where Cold Justice comes in.

Representatives of the show (which airs on the Oxygen network) routinely call law enforcement agencies around the United States to ask if there might be a “cold case” (or unsolved murder) worth looking into. When Texas County Sheriff Scott Lindsey fielded such a call early last fall, the ball began rolling. Interestingly, Lindsey and Chief Deputy Rowdy Douglas had been discussing the case.

The case of Ricky Luebbert’s  shooting death in 2007 had gone cold until recently, when the Texas County Sheriff’s Department teamed up with crew members of the TV show Cold Justice. 

“We have a few cold cases in the county,” Lindsey said, “and from time to time we sit down and talk about them. If there’s one we think we can solve, we want to do that, and we felt like this one could be.

“One day, out of the blue, I get a call from a representative of Cold Justice. I talked to Rowdy and said I thought I would let them know about this case. I told them we had one they might be interested in.”

Cold Justice personnel then looked over paperwork and other information about the case.

“They liked it,” Lindsey said, “and said they were interested. I had to think about whether this was the best way to move forward with it, but with a cold case, nothing is being done with it and it’s basically just sitting in a file cabinet, so anything we do with it is a benefit.

“The goal was to solve it, and I wasn’t sure we would get there, but it’s not hurting anything to try.”

Cold Justice follows former Harris County, Texas, prosecutor Kelly Siegler and her team of season detectives – Steve Spignola, Tonya Rider and Abbey Abbondandolo –  as they travel to small towns around the United States to dig into unsolved homicide cases that have lingered for years. By working alongside local law enforcement, the Cold Justice team’s efforts have resulted in more than 20 convictions and more than 50 arrests.

The Texas County case was officially reopened in January of this year. About 15 to 20 Cold Justice crewmembers arrived in Houston in late February and set up a headquarters inside the building adjacent to the City of Houston’s municipal swimming pool. The joint operation then commenced, and numerous doors were knocked on and phone calls made.

“We really hit it hard for about a week,” Douglas said.

Things wrapped up in early March and the case was presented to a grand jury in April. Douglas and Sgt. Graham Applegate worked closely with Siegler and Spignola.

Texas County Sheriff’s Department personnel who worked with the Cold Justice crew included, from left, Chief Deputy Rowdy Douglas, Sheriff Scott Lindsey and Sgt. Graham Applegate.

“They didn’t go anywhere without one of us,” Douglas said. “They’ll even tell you it’s a TV show, but it’s also a real investigation and they only wanted to do what we wanted to do.

“But they do a really good job of designing a plan for what to do.”

The local agency benefited from many forms of equipment and other resources Cold Justice had available, along with the efforts digital forensics expert Eric Devlin, who helped provide and secure crucial forms of evidence.

“And they paid for all of that,” Douglas said. “They just had so many resources.”

“We have guys who frequently solve murders,” Lindsey said, “and they’re good at it. We just normally don’t have those kinds of resources on hand to help out.”

IT’S ABOUT ACCOUNTABILITY

Cold Justice has featured more than 90 cases during its six seasons. It was launched in 2013 because Siegler understood how difficult solving cold cases can be, but was also aware of their importance to victims’ loved ones. 

“I knew there were so many cold cases on the verge of being solved if someone would look into the little-bitty details,” she said.

The show’s goal focuses on giving victims and their families the justice that has eluded them for years, and sometimes decades.

“Every time I hear the word closure I wanna slap somebody,” Siegler said. “Where I come from, there is no such thing as closure. What we do try to get is justice. What justice means is that on this earth while we’re alive in this courtroom we hold someone accountable for the murder they’ve committed.”

Lindsey and Douglas said it was strange at first to have TV cameras and crewmembers nearby when working with witnesses or doing other investigative tasks.

“The first day, it was awkward,” Douglas said. “After that, you knew there were cameras there but you’re just doing your thing and it was alright. Kelly and Steve were very down-to-earth; they’re good people and they really do care. We were cutting up and making fun of each other, and it was like we had known each other a long time.

“I think that helped a lot.”

“They were clear from the beginning that their goal was to get justice and end up with a prosecutable case,” Lindsey said. “It wasn’t just for entertainment.”

There was even a bit of acting involved for the beginning of what will become the episode about the case. A scene was shot in the lobby of the Justice Center in Houston in which people from the two groups supposedly came in contact for the first time.

“We had to act like we just met,” Douglas said, “even though we had actually met a couple of days earlier.”

“I think Rowdy would agree that the greeting was sort of uncomfortable,” Lindsey said. “But they told us up front that would be the only part we had to worry about and the rest would just be about us doing our jobs.”

Douglas was a fairly new deputy at the TCSD when the murder took place, while Lindsey was a chief of the Licking Police Department and a reserve deputy. While the presence of the Cold Justice crew was integral to the murder charge being issued, it all came down to good teamwork spearheaded by Douglas and Applegate.

“We have guys who frequently solve murders, and they’re good at it.”

TEXAS COUNTY SHERIFF SCOTT LINDSEY

“I’m proud of the work the guys here do,” Lindsey said. “It was great to have all of the resources and a good plan that kind of made everything come together, but the case wouldn’t have been solved without these guys.”

Detailed information about Cold Justice (including a schedule) is available online at oxygen.com/cold-justice. The Texas County case should be the first to air in Season 7 of the show this fall (likely in early November), but a date has yet to be determined.

“I really feel like when people see the show they’ll get a good, informative look at how an investigation works,” Lindsey said. “I also think they’ll see that we have deputies who really care about their job and are trying to do the best they can to get somebody justice.”

Lindsey and Douglas said numerous things had to fall in place just right for the investigation’s outcome to end the way it did.

“We got lucky in a few ways,” Douglas said. “Kelly was joking about how ‘you can’t use up all of our luck – we have to go to North Dakota after this.’ They got an indictment on that one, too.”

“I feel like the original investigation here came really close,” Lindsey said, “and this one sort of tied up some loose ends. Everyone wants swift justice, but sometimes time is a good thing.”

Doug Davison

Doug Davison is a writer, photographer and newsroom assistant for the Houston Herald. Contact him by phone at 417-967-2000 or by email at ddavison@houstonherald.com.

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