At Odessa High School in West Texas, stories of the ghost of Betty Williams circulate wildly, gathering momentum with each new year and high school intake. The school auditorium is her favoured place where she was once a student and flourishing actress dreaming of Broadway success. Faces appearing in windows, flickering lights, strange noises and objects that mysteriously move are all attributed to the presence of Betty. For those who don’t know the tale there are myths of how Betty died from innocent accidents at the school to on-stage theatrics that went horribly wrong, but the truth is much more grisly.
“I’m waging a war within myself, a war to find the true me and I fear that I am losing the battle. So rather than admit defeat I’m going to beat a quick retreat into the no man’s land of death.” – Betty Williams
On 22 March 1961, 17-year-old Betty Williams disappeared. She had gone to bed as usual as far as her parents’ knew but come morning Betty was gone. A friend of Betty’s, Ike Nail, had driven her home from drama rehearsals the night before he told police officers, dropping her at her house around 10pm. Betty had asked him to return half an hour later and meet her in the alleyway behind her house. He duly complied and Betty climbed into his car dressed in her pyjamas, telling him she had sneaked out of her house without her parents’ knowledge.
Texas Monthly reports that as his interview with police continued, Ike told them a second car approached them in the alleyway driven by Betty’s ex-boyfriend Mack Herring. “I didn’t think he’d come,” Betty had told Ike, “I’ve got to call his bluff, even if he kills me.” she finished before climbing into Mack’s car and leaving with him.
Betty Williams grew up in the suburbs of Odessa with her parents and three younger siblings. Her father was a carpenter who was deeply religious, a Baptist who warned his daughter about sin and damnation and worried greatly about her direction in life and her chosen behaviour. Betty Williams liked to stand out from the crowd, enjoying antics that gained her attention and allowed her to voice her opinions. Although confident, Betty was a young girl who wanted acceptance amongst her peers and would watch the popular, wealthy and beautiful girls enjoy their parties and gatherings, wishing she too would be invited to join.
In 1960 she began dating Mack Herring, a local boy who attended the same school. Mack was a boy who fitted in with the crowd, a popular member of the school football team. He grew up in a more affluent area of town than Betty and was a fan of hunting, often spending his weekends out with his rifle. Mack was a sophomore and Betty was a junior when they first became friends and when their relationship turned romantic Betty seemed to have fallen hard for the new boyfriend in her life but Mack appeared hesitant to fully embrace her. He didn’t invite her to the parties all his friends were attending; he didn’t advertise the time he spent with her. Betty embarked on a liaison with one of Mack’s friends, something that Mack discovered and wasn’t happy about. Soon he called the romance off and started a relationship with another girl, one already in the popular circle.
Betty became a teen on a downward spiral, devastated over the loss of her boyfriend and feeling deserted and alone. At that time in her life nothing seemed to be going right for her. She did not get a part in the school play when a new drama teacher Betty felt, didn’t see her potential and assigned her backstage instead. On top of her woes at school and in her personal life, her home life had become strained after her father discovered her diary which gave all the details of her sexual experiences with boys, things a father does not want to read about his teenage daughter and certainly not a father who felt such behaviour was sinful.
In the weeks before her disappearance Betty Williams began making comments to her friends about dying, leaving this world and being in a better place. She told them she wanted to die and would take her own life if only she had the courage to do so. They were comments her friends did not take seriously. They collectively gave them little thought believing they were jokes or simply comments to gain attention. Betty’s expressions of her wishes to end her life were laughed away but they were wishes she intended to carry out.
On the day Betty Williams disappeared, police brought in Mack Herring for questioning after the statement made by Ike Nail. Mack told them he had picked Betty up that previous evening but had driven her back to her parents’ house around midnight and that was the last time he saw her. His story was inconsistent with small details that didn’t ring true, raising the suspicions of interviewing officers. When questioned harder he broke and told them the truth, a story they could hardly believe.
“A friend of mine, seeing how great is my torment, has graciously consented to look after the details. His name is Mack Herring and I pray that he will not have to suffer for what he is doing for my sake. I take upon myself all blame, for there it lies, on me alone!” – Betty Williams
Mack Herring had shot and killed Betty Williams because she had begged him to. He took the police to a stock pond in a secluded spot on the outskirts of the city located on some barren land. He told police he had shot Betty, weighted her body down, and let her sink to the bottom of the pond. At the location, Mack himself went into the water and came out dragging her body.
On examination it could clearly be seen that Betty Williams had been shot in the head at point-blank range. Mack told police Betty was delighted that he had agreed to kill her. “Give me a kiss to remember you by,” he had said to her. They kissed and when she pulled away she told him ‘Now’. Mack Herring raised the shotgun and fired, killing her instantly.
The murder of Betty Williams and its circumstances dominated the headlines in 1961, with many horrified that a young girl wanted to die and her ex-boyfriend had agreed to kill her. Young children at the time grew up hearing the stories of Betty and the rumours that her ghost now haunted the school. When they entered the high school themselves the myths resonated further. “You would hear doors slamming, you would see the curtains move and nobody was there,” one student Kaylee Cochran said. “You would just hear things.” As with all good ghost stories there are many tales of encounters with Betty. “I remember hearing later on she was a ghost and I knew who it was tied to,” another student Cheri Dalton said. “I think that people have seen an image of her in the halls.”
When it came to the criminal proceedings against Mack Herring, everyone expected an open and shut case. He had murdered a 17-year-old girl in cold blood and admitted to doing it, taking police straight to her body. Letters written by Betty Williams were found after her death. Letters where she explains her torment and her agreement with Mack Herring to kill her. “As I have only the will and not the fortitude necessary,” she had written, “I pray that he will not have to suffer for what he is doing for my sake. I take upon myself all blame, for there it lies, on me alone!”
The trial of Mack Herring took place at the Winkler County Courthouse in Kermit, Texas. Mack’s parents hired defence attorney Warren Burnett to defend their son, who they were adamant was temporarily insane at the time he shot and killed Betty Williams.The murder by now had been dubbed the ‘Kiss and Kill Murder’ by the media and the attention on the case was huge.
On 19 February 1962, both Warren Burnett for the defence and Dan Sullivan for the prosecution gathered in the courtroom. As far as Sullivan was concerned this was pre-meditated murder and he would be pushing for the death penalty for the now 18-year-old Mack Herring. Reported in a book on the case, Washed in the Blood, written by Betty’s cousin Shelton Williams, in a surprise move Burnett did not enter a not guilty plea for his client; instead he introduced an affidavit from Mack Herring’s father stating Mack was insane at the time of the killing. His plan was for the court to move to a sanity hearing whereby a jury would decide on the sanity of Mack Herring at the time of his murder and not his guilt or innocence. A verdict of insanity would mean Mack Herring would not be taken to trial for murder. It was a defence strategy that had never been done before.
The local reaction was mixed. Many made crude comments about Betty Williams. They said she was promiscuous and she had manipulated this poor boy into killing her. Others felt regardless of her behaviour, Mack Herring had taken the decision to kill her and carried it out under his own free will. When the sanity trial commenced the letter that Betty Williams had written before her murder was presented as evidence. Burnett called her friends to the stand who testified Betty had told them she wanted to die and she had asked many of them to kill her.
His final witness was a local psychiatrist, Dr Marvin Grice, who testified that Mack Herring was suffering from ‘Gross Stress Disorder’ at the time of the killing. The stress on him from Betty repeatedly asking him to kill her had affected his ability to reason he told the court, and therefore he did not know what he was doing when he shot and killed her. On 24 February 1962, the jury returned their verdict. They found Mack Herring innocent of the murder of Betty Williams on the grounds of temporary insanity.
Little is known about what happened to Mack Herring after his trial but the stories of Betty’s ghost continue in and around Odessa High School. Whether or not she really did want her ex-boyfriend to end her life or it was an attempt to gain his attention and hopefully his affections once again, we will never know. The myth of her spirit roaming the halls and in the school auditorium where she loved to be is something her friends say would have pleased her. “There’s a part of me that kind of laughs and thinks Betty would have loved that. She made her mark.”