Editor's Note: For this installment of Famous Crimes Staff writer Domingo Ramirez Jr. recently had the opportunity to sit down and have a conversation with Courtney Dunkin at the Hobby Unit in Marlin, Texas. She was convicted of killing her grandmother on May 26, 1994 at their Grapevine home. Her case received a great deal of attention at the time. This is the first time she has spoken with a Metroplex reporter about her life.
MARLIN -- The young woman sat poised, her long dark brown hair on her shoulders as her soft voice filled a room at the Hobby Unit of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice where she’s serving a life sentence.
“I’d give anything to turn back time. I just wish it hadn’t happened.” Dunkin leaned forward as she held the telephone tighter in the interview room where glass separates visitors and inmates.
“I wasn’t angry at her. I don’t know why it happened."
Of the 1,293 female inmates at the Hobby Unit, Dunkin is one of the youngest killers. She was 15 when she shot the woman who raised her and whom she called Mom. She’s now 29 and spoke out for the first time one recent morning about the events leading up to the killing of Betty Dunkin. She declined to talk about details of the slaying.
A Tarrant County jury convicted Dunkin in October 1995 of capital murder and she’s been in custody for 14 years. She will be eligible for parole on May 26, 2034. She's shown at right in the courtroom shortly after her conviction.
Her story is one of a little girl who went to live with her paternal grandparents, John and Betty Dunkin, when she was 5. Her parents had divorced, her father was an alcoholic and relatives didn’t talk about her mother.
It is the story of a girl living in a loving home, but one where grief, depression and running with the wrong crowd became her routine as a teenager.
Shortly after moving to Grapevine, she attended Dove Elementary and was diagnosed with attention deficit disorder. School friends would occasionally visit for overnights, but she spent many hours with her grandfather, who owned a construction company and had flexible time for her. Her grandmother worked days at General Motor and prepared dinner when she got home.
In 1989, John Dunkin died of cancer, leaving then 11-year-old Courtney Dunkin shattered.
“I knew he was sick, but no one told me he might die,” she said. “I didn’t have anyone to talk to about it. I would try to talk to Mom about it, but she would just cry.”
As her grief lingered, Courtney Dunkin entered Grapevine Middle School. She started to wear black clothing and decorated her room in black. Troubles — sassing, tardiness and detention — at school started to mount. Arguments with Betty Dunkin increased and police began to know who the teen-ager was.
“It seems that when we would be questioning some suspects at an apartment or at a house, there was Courtney,” recently retired Grapevine Police Detective Bob Murphy said. “We got to know her name.”
Betty Dunkin’s answer to her granddaughter’s problems was counseling: at school, at hospitals and with family therapists, Courtney Dunkin said.
Betty Dunkin also joined ToughLove, a family support group that seeks to help parents with out-of-control children.
About that time, Courtney Dunkin said, she was prescribed Paxil, an anti-depressant on which she would intentionally overdose on a few occasions. The Food and Drug Administration in 2003 recommended that
Paxil not be used in children because of an increase in suicidal and violent behavior.
Dunkin now describes herself as suicidal at the time of her grandmother’s death and irrational because of the drug and the death of her grandfather.
Before the shooting: Police reports indicate that the Grapevine teen ran away several times in the weeks before the shooting; Dunkin says it was only once.
“I’d miss my curfew and Mom called the police,” Dunkin said. “Many times I’d be home in an hour but police still listed me as a runaway.”
Two months before the slaying, Dunkin was arrested for theft after stealing jewelry from her grandmother, she said. She was sentenced to a year’s probation. A few weeks later, authorities fitted her with an ankle monitor after she was driving illegally and became involved in a traffic accident.
On the night of May 26, 1994, Dunkin and her then-best friend, Jamie Hatfield, 16, talked on the telephone about killing Hatfield’s boyfriend, police said.
But the focus shifted to grandma and finding a way to get her car so they could run away, according to court records. Dunkin got off the phone and took two gas credit cards and all the money in her grandmother’s purse.
Then she took a key from her grandfather’s gun case, removed a .38-caliber pistol and took it to her room. Dunkin phoned Hatfield, who suggested chopping up pills and putting them into her grandmother’s food so she would go to sleep and they could take the car.
Dunkin hung up and walked into her grandmother’s bedroom, according to court records.
She gave this statement to then-Detective Bob Murphy: “I hid the gun behind my back and walked into my mom’s room and we talked for a minute and I shot her. When I shot the gun, I saw sparks and it was so loud that my ears were ringing and I felt deaf. The smell was really bad and followed me into the car and it made me sick.”
Dunkin spent the rest of the night at Hatfield’s home, but the next morning Hatfield’s mother sensed something was wrong, according to court documents.
The three of them went to the Dunkin home and found the body, police said. The girls were arrested hours later.
“It all happened so fast,” Courtney Dunkin said on the shooting. “I didn’t realize what I’d done. They (police) wanted a motive and I didn’t know why. I didn’t want to tell them that I was suicidal.”
But Murphy in a recent interview said: Dunkin still “managed to pull the trigger and shoot her grandmother.”
After the slaying
Hatfield was convicted of aggravated robbery in July 1996 and sentenced to five years in prison. She was released July 16, 1999, according to prison records. Hatfield could not be reached for
Dunkin said she and Hatfield initially wrote letters to each other when they were in the Tarrant County Jail awaiting trial, but they quit after their lawyers advised against it.
When she learned about Hatfield’s pending release, Courtney Dunkin wrote her a letter, but it was returned.
While in prison, Courtney Dunkin -- shown at right during her trial -- has participated for the last 10 years in Jail Babes, an Internet Web pen pal site. The site gave a brief biography, but it didn’t mention the crime. She described herself as
“outgoing, honest, sincere and very open-minded.”
She also has been involved in a prison program for at-risk kids, who spend a day at prison in hopes that they will be discouraged from crime.
Old school friends still visit Dunkin in prison; her father hasn’t been there in years. Her mother, whom she almost never saw as a child, stopped writing to her a few years ago when Dunkin learned she had half-siblings and wanted to get into touch with them.
Dunkin said faith in God has kept her going in prison. She said she keeps a photo of her grandparents, in her prison cell. She takes responsibility for the shooting.
“There was no justification for it,” she said. “I was depicted as cold and unremorseful, but that wasn’t the case. I loved her.”
The 29-year-old killer offered one bit of advice for parents with troubled kids.
“Even if they (kids) roll their eyes, communicate with them,” she said. “Just don’t listen and then walk away. Talk to them.”
-- Domingo Ramirez Jr.