As the three drove over a small creek blasts from a shotgun shattered the peaceful scene. Lloyd, Frankie, and Willie had died.
Their bodies were slumped over their ATVs and would be found hours later by the couple’s daughter who showed up for a visit.
Investigators would find that the crime that left two grandparents and a grandson dead was interwoven with crime, drugs, and a feud with an old family acquaintance named Darrell Mease.
Darrell Mease, a Vietnam Veteran, was living in Reeds Spring, Missouri when he met Lloyd Lawrence.
The two struck up a partnership. However, their business wasn’t a conventional one.
Law enforcement had its eye on Lloyd. Deputies had suspicions that Lloyd was running several meth labs.
Michael Cueno wrote about this case in his book called “Almost Midnight: An American Story of Murder and Redemption.”
“Lloyd was a methamphetamine drug kingpin and cockfighting entrepreneur in Southwest Missouri,” said Cuneo. “He was really a feared outlaw.”
According to court documents, Lloyd and Darrell made a deal. Darrell would let Lloyd use his property to run a meth lab and in return, Lloyd would teach Darrell the way of meth-making.
Unfortunately, Lloyd failed to keep his end of the deal and the relationship quickly soured.
At one point, Lloyd gave Darrell some meth and he would have a bad reaction to it. Darrell was convinced he had been poisoned and grew paranoid that Lloyd wanted him dead.
So, Darrell and his girlfriend, Mary Epps, decided to get as far away from Taney County as they could. According to prosecutors, on their way out of town, Darrell stole four pounds of meth and four two-liter soda bottles of chemicals used to make the drug from Lloyd.
Darrell and Mary zigzagged across the United States. The two drifted between California, Arizona, and Louisana.
However, Darrell’s troubles weren’t over. During a phone call with his mother, Darrell learned that Lloyd had found out that it was Darrell who stole from him and now the drug boss had put a hit on him.
Darrell decided enough was enough and that he couldn’t keep running. Always in fear of Lloyd or his gang tracking him and his girlfriend down was no way to live. The couple decides it’s time to head back home and settle things with Lloyd once and for all.
Once Darrell was back in the Ozarks, he began setting up in the wood near the Lawrence family weekend cabin in Taney County. Darrell camped out for three days waiting for Lloyd with his 12 gauge shotgun.
Highway Patrol Sergeant Jack Merritt was one of the lead investigators on the case.
“We had found where he had cut down some brush and created a blind for himself,” said Merritt. “And I think through his own admission, he was camouflaged and face blackened and everything.”
On Sunday, May 15, 1988, Darrell spotted his target, Lloyd, and his family riding on their ATVs. Willie zoomed by Darrell first, then came Lloyd and Frankie. Darrell aimed his shotgun then pulled the trigger. Lloyd and Frankie were hit and hearing the noise behind him Willie came back to check on his grandparents.
“Then Willie came back and said he had to go ahead and shoot him because he recognized him,” said Merritt. “There was just a trail of blood where their four-wheeler ended up over in here. He walked down to them and this was where he put the final blow in their heads.”
Merritt and his partner Tom Martin say it’s something they will never forget.
“It was as gruesome a crime scene as I had ever seen and have seen since,” said Martin.
Just eight months after the murder law enforcement would catch up with Darrell and Mary in Arizona. Darrell was arrested and flown back to the Ozarks to face charges.
At the Highway Patrol Headquarters in Springfield Darrell confessed to the murders of Lloyd, Frankie, and Willie Lawrence.
The trial for Willie’s murder started in 1990 and the state felt that would be enough to convict Darrell. Taney County Prosecuting Attorney Jim Justus told jurors the evidence, in this case, couldn’t be any clearer.
“He tracked this man and his family and ended up killing them,” said Justus. “It was over money and drugs. Not only killed them but after that blew their heads away with a shotgun. He wanted to make a statement. He wanted to get involved. He wanted to take over the meth.”
Darrell’s attorney, Bill Wendt, tried to take the responsibility off his client.
“The problems that gave rise to these deaths were created by Lloyd Lawrence because he was the drug pusher,” said Wendt. “Had it not been for his inducement into the drug business these deaths would have never occurred.”
A jury handed down a guilty verdict.
“We presented our case there were no surprises,” said Justus. “We controlled it from the start to the finish and no question in my mind we would get the first-degree guilty verdict.”
And the penalty was death.
“I feel that justice has been served and this is the type of case that we set it up for the death penalty and I am pleased with the verdict and I am,” said Justus.
Willies mom and dad were glad to see justice for their son.
“Yes, but I hate to think of any other family going through what we have had to do,” said Willie’s parents. ” Well, I just feel like it could be expected with all the evidence the state had against Darrell.”
It was sinking in for Lexi Mease. Her son was a convicted killer sentenced to die.
“It doesn’t really seem real yet and I haven’t given up and I still have god and my faith in God and Darrell still has his faith in God and we just go from here,” said Lexi.
Bill Wendt- the defense attorney- believed the jury was biased and bent on handing out the death penalty.
“Of course, I am disappointed and deflated and first death penalty I have had assessed against a client in well over 100 cases. So I am down and I am depressed.”
Sentenced to die- but bill Wendt’s client would never darken the door of a death chamber because of a twist of fate…Make that, faith.
During his first decade behind bars, Darrell says he “got right with the lord” and returned to his roots as a born-again Christian. A journey he told us about in a 2004 jailhouse interview.
“I came to know that I was born to be on death row,” said Darrell. “To get right with God and my heartbroken and be soft enough where I would turn back to him and it has been a ride ever since.
Darrell ended up claiming Jack Merritt- tricked him into a confession. He only gave in to save Mary.
“The only reason I am here is lies and corrupt judges,” said Darrell. “I have nothing against Jack. I spoke to him at the trial. I know what he did. He lied. They had to lie.”
Merritt countered that statement by saying if there ever was a confession to a crime that was it.
Darrell told others, god saved his soul and was going to deliver him from his penalty of death.
He was scheduled to be executed on January 27, 1999.
Someone apparently overlooked that was the same day Pope John Paul II would make a rare visit to Missouri where tens of thousands of faithful would be in St. Louis for a mass with the pontiff.
The Roman Catholic Church is staunchly opposed to the death penalty. Governor Mel Carnahan and the state looked to have a problem.
After all, who wants to be the governor of a state that executes a man the day the pope is in town?
With just days to go, Darrell was told- without an explanation- his execution was rescheduled for February 10, a few days after the Pope would be gone. Word got back to the church.
During a prayer service, the Pope came down from the altar, walked to where Carnahan was seated, and asked him to have mercy on the death row inmate.
Days later, the governor commuted the sentence to life in prison without parole.
But it wasn’t good enough for Darrell, who had been hoping, praying to get out of jail with a complete pardon.
“Oh no I was- that’s putting it mildly,” said Darrell. ” I was disappointed.”
A lot of people saw it as a political move by Carnahan.
Darrell saw it as god sending the pontiff to the show me state to save his life…
As of our last interview with Darrell in 2004, he still believed someday he will walk out of prison a free man.
“There is not enough power in the world to kill me or hold me here,” said Darrell. ” I was bulletproof on the streets through mom’s prayers. And, I am needle-proof here. Watch me walk out of here.”
Reetha Basturea— Lloyd and Frankie’s daughter– who found her loved dead ones at the creek—was disgusted to hear such talk.
“It was like he was laughing in the face of the law being needle proof and bulletproof,” said Basturea. “That doesn’t say too much of our justice system. Aren’t we entitled to some relief? This man brutally killed three of our family members. And our hope is the justice system will never allow this murderer to walk out of prison.”
There is nothing more sure in the world than me walking out of here,” said Darrell. ” And you are going to see it. And it is going to be a real scene. I know it sounds crazy but if you were in these shoes you would know it too.”