An ‘otherworldly’ experience on an otherwise perfectly normal night 15 years ago changed Sheila Wysocki’s life.
She calls the 2004 event at her Nashville home a “God nod” (one of Wysocki’s pet phrases) and tells how she was in bed doing Bible-study “homework,” not at all thinking about the murder of her college roommate two decades earlier.
Wysocki, who is now considered one of the nation’s leading cold-case private investigators, says it was something she “fell into. It’s not what I strived to be in my life. I wanted to be a mom, a good one, and I wanted to be a good wife.
“But I believe in a higher calling and a higher purpose, and I think that being a P.I. – every time I try to stop, a fantastic, complicated case comes along that I know I can resolve – and, I mean, that’s what I’m supposed to be doing. And it also gives me a lot of joy.”
The story of how that “God nod” came to her is directly tied to the grisly murder of her college roommate on Oct. 13, 1984. Angie Samota was a freshman at Southern Methodist University when she was brutally attacked and stabbed to death. Wysocki (nee Gibbons), a senior who would drop out of college because of the horrific crime, aided the Dallas police investigation at the time, but the case went nowhere and remained unsolved.
Flash forward to that 2004 evening when Wysocki, having moved to Nashville with her husband, Charles, was at home doing Bible study, reading from the book of Daniel. She’d remained in contact with the police over the years, but hadn’t telephoned them in a while.
“And I don’t know, everyone has an opinion on it, so I’ll just tell you what happened,” says Wysocki, who was born in Illinois but grew up in Texas. “I was leaning back and there was a vision of my roommate as I’m doing the Bible study. It was so fast, but it was so slow. I don’t know how else to explain it.
“I remember every detail, and I remember that I reached over and grabbed the phone and called the Dallas police department because I knew it was time to get her case solved. So that’s how I started, and the police ignored me. And ignored me a lot.”
Wysocki and fellow P.I. Mark Gillespie are the subjects of a new book “Becoming a Private Investigator” (Simon & Schuster, $18.99), in which they discuss their rise, and all the highs and lows, to the top of their profession.
First case was personal
Following the vision of Angie – she told the book’s author Howie Kahn that she saw her roommate just as the last days they’d been together, in a brown sweater and matching skirt. She took self-defense and gun courses, got her P.I. license, and in 2005 set out to find whoever murdered Angie, operating as Without Warning Private Investigations.
It wasn’t as easy as it sounds – and it wasn’t any of the original suspects. But slowly, over the next few years, she made inroads and came across key clues, information and details which she shared with Dallas police. In 2008, she received a phone call from Detective Linda Crum of the newly established cold-case division. An arrest based on DNA evidence had been made.
Another man, an original suspect in the case, was exonerated, all due to Wysocki’s perseverance.
In both the recent book and a BBC News interview last year, Wysocki says Angie’s case taught her an important lesson about proof versus theories.
She’d always believed that Russell Buchanan, one of the prime suspects of Dallas police in the 1980s, would someday be arrested as DNA testing was perfected and was shocked when Crum ultimately gave her another name.
“I was waiting for her to say, ‘We got Russell Buchanan,’ the one I knew did it because they told me he did it,” Wysocki told the BBC. “So when she said the name I went through the Rolodex in my head, going, ‘Wait a minute, I don’t know that name.’”
Following the trial, both Buchanan and his mother reached out to Wysocki,” author Kahn writes. “She cleared everything and put it to bed,” Buchanan says in the book.
In a treasured letter to Wysocki, Buchanan’s mother wrote, “Finally, no one looks at my son like he’s a killer. That is forever gone.”
Wysocki told the BBC she reached out and met with both Buchanan and his wife.
In 2010, Donald Bess, a convicted felon out on parole, was tried for Angie’s rape and murder. He was sentenced to death. Having lost one appeal, Bess remains in a Texas prison awaiting execution. Wysocki was in the courtroom for the entire trial.
“I call him the Beast,” Wysocki says. “I thought I was a really strong person and he walked into the courtroom, I can go back to that moment … I remember, he walks in and the oxygen in the entire room went out. I could not breathe.
“It was something that I did not know I would experience. And so, I spent the trial looking at this man and thinking ‘this is the last person Angie saw.’ It still just makes me physically ill.”
Mission not finished
Once the verdict was rendered, Wysocki was ready to surrender her P.I. license and resume the soccer-mom lifestyle she had previously enjoyed with her husband. Then another “God nod” intervention; her involvement in Angie’s high-profile cold-case led to major media exposure – and phone calls from mothers desperate for her help.
“Anytime I say out loud ‘I think I’m going to stop doing this,’ I get a call from another mom. It’s hard to turn these families down,” explains Wysocki, who is currently involved in eight cases and considering a ninth.
“I’m stupid,” she adds with a self-deprecating laugh. “I’m not getting any sleep and I’m overwhelmed, but I made the mistake of talking to the mom and she’s fantastic. I’m hoping it’s No. 9. I can’t help myself.”
Wysocki relies on the help of a core group of fellow P.I.s led by Texas-based Gillespie, a forensics expert, who has been involved in various levels of law enforcement since 1979, beginning in the Air Force.
“I’ve had a lot of high-profile cases, but I have not done anything to the magnitude that Sheila has done,” Gillespie says. “And given her small level of experience, she has done so much more than the average P.I., even a very successful P.I., has ever done.
“I cannot compare her to anyone else. She’s on fire, and that fire is raging. And that fire doesn’t dim until the truth is known. She’s an incredible person.”
Kahn says meeting Wysocki changed his life for the better.
“Being around Sheila is kind of an unforgettable experience,” adds Kahn, who has written for The Wall Street Journal, GQ, Wired, Elle and O: The Oprah Magazine, among other major publications.
“You’ve got people like Sheila and Mark working for years (on a case), and my job was to show the real, everyday grit of the job. I thought it would be really interesting to talk about things that are ongoing because that seemed to be the reality to me that was striking about so much P.I. work.”
Science plays key role
Wysocki lives in a black-and-white world where the only thing that matters to her is the truth.
And she relies on scientific evidence to get to the truth of what happened to a son or daughter who has been murdered or whose death is ruled a suicide when the family suspects otherwise. Asked if she works for law or justice, she answers instantly.
“I work for the truth. That’s all. And everybody has a different definition of the truth, but the truth is the truth,” Wysocki says.
“Lawyers have stories they come to court with. But I’m not coming in with a story. I’m coming in with facts based on proven scientific proof. And I only pick the cases that I can do that with.”
Two of her current cases have received national exposure, the Jonathan Crews case in Coppell, Texas, and the Christian Andreacchio case in Meridian, Mississippi. And in both cases, the truth has been elusive.
On Feb. 2, 2014, Crews was found dead in his apartment, killed by a bullet through the heart. The 911 call was made by his girlfriend, Brenda Lazaro. Wysocki says she knows what really happened, but knowing it and proving it are two different things. They’re trying to do the latter by introducing what she calls “compelling new evidence” in the case.
I always speak for the victim’s families … because they never have a voice,” Wysocki points out. “It’s actually quite an exciting time because we are at the point where we’re diagramming – I work with animators – and we’re diagramming out exactly what happened so we can show a judge or a medical examiner or a jury.
“We just got that back; it came back exactly what we thought that it would come back as, and so we’ve taken the science, the information, and doing an animation on it.
“And then we bring it back to the judge, and we give it to the prosecutors and the medical examiners to change it from undetermined to a homicide.”
Wysocki has been working on a podcast Culpable (produced by Tenderfoot TV, Black Mountain Media and Cadence 13) about the early-stages of the Andreacchio case. His 2014 death was ruled a suicide by a single shot to the head.
“So we know, based on all of our investigation, that he did not commit suicide,” Wysocki says. “We know that, based on definition of corruption, there is corruption in this case. Hard-core. I mean, if you look up what the definition is, it’s what’s going on in that case.
“We are at the beginning stages of that case. And even at the beginning stages, I have more information than they’ve done in five years, including the (Attorney General’s) office. And the AG’s office has been so horrific to the family and so hurtful, it’s shocking.
“And now with the podcast, I always say the world’s watching. The world’s watching the AG, they’re watching the police, the DA.”
Investigations are expensive
Because a cold-case investigation can run for years before being solved – or maybe closure never comes – the expenses can mount quickly for families. Some take out second mortgages to pursue a case.
Wysocki explains the costs of running a proper investigation can easily mount to $500,000.
“I’m not the expensive component of this; it’s getting all the forensic evidence. I could probably work at McDonald’s and make more,” Wysocki acknowledges.
“I tell families now … the cases can’t be done like they used to be because you’re having to pay for experts. You have to find people in the particular cases, so if it’s a firearms expert, they don’t work for free. Trace evidence people don’t work for free.
“So I have a Rolodex of people that I go to for certain things. What happens is, it starts adding up.
“You need a trace evidence person, you need a forensics person, depending on what … if it’s a drowning, I use water flow people, a hydrologist; my trace evidence guy is out of Texas; my forensics guy is out of Texas; this guy is out of Michigan. And if they have to fly in … I fly to most of my cases, so that means my flight, my hotel, my rental car, and my time. That adds up for families.
“And most of my cases are not done quickly, because they’re complicated. I only take complicated, cold cases. And so financially – I talked to an attorney recently whose father was potentially killed … murdered … and I said ‘even with you handling the legal, you need to put aside $150,000. And it could go up to half-a-million.’ That’s a lot of money. A lot of money.”
Sheila clears her throat and continues. “I just did a case where I had private investigators fly to a state. We had to rent a house for all of us to stay in. There were 10 of us that went. That means 10 flights. There were five rental cars and food, everything. That’s a lot of money. But we got more than anybody has gotten. We were able to do 27 interviews, tracking people down.
The conversation returns to the “God nod” and faith, seeing the darkest sides of humanity. She once was a member of the Catholic church, but now calls herself a forward-thinking Christian.
“I don’t hate anybody, I don’t … you know, people are people. And I think people are messy, like I am. I think people have issues, like I do,” she says. “And I’m not the final judgment in their life. They have a God to deal with, not me.
“So I don’t care about … I’m very fair on the cases I take and how I do things, but I think my spiritual journey is the only reason I’m doing this.
“I believe I’m here for the purpose of helping these families because I keep trying to quit, I do,” she says with another laugh.
“Every time I think, ‘OK, once I wrap up these, I’m going to stop,’ it just doesn’t work that way. And I’ve got to tell you, in talking with the mom that I’m working with now, she’s been so taken advantage of. It pisses me off.”
She says her faith gets through the darkest days.
“I don’t think I could do this if I didn’t have my faith because I see the worst of the worst. And I deal with the worst of the worst. From murderers to corrupt officials to people that are taunting and harming a grieving family on social media.”
In a telephone interview, her husband, Charles, is asked if all Texas women are as driven as Sheila. There’s no hesitation in his reply.
“You don’t want to mess with Texas women in general, but I’d say Sheila’s probably going to be a little more of a special side of that,” he says with a laugh.