An Academic and a Teenager Meet a Horrible End
(‘Shattered Dreams,’ Forensic Files)
Men who patronize prostitutes don’t usually come off as particularly sympathetic characters on Forensic Files.
Some, like Michael Dally, are cheating husbands. Others are psychopaths like Roy Beck, who robbed one sex worker and killed another.
Douglas Birdsall, for whom Forensic Files uses the pseudonym Douglas Miller, falls into a different category, that of a lonely guy who secretly traded money for companionship.
Bookish type. For this week, I looked for more information about Doug and the lady of the night who died alongside him as well as their killer, who committed double homicide on an angry whim, annihilating his own somewhat bright future.
So let’s get going on the recap of “Shattered Dreams” along with extra facts from internet research:
On January 31, 2001, Douglas Birdsall, an associate dean of libraries at Texas Tech University, didn’t arrive at work at his usual 8 a.m.
Saab story. His coworkers at the Lubbock school immediately became worried. “He is a very reliable person,” colleague Dawn Pierce told the Associated Press. “He’s a dean, after all.”
Doug’s boss, Dale Cluff, checked Doug’s house and no one answered the doorbell, according to the Daily Toreador.
Then, a bicyclist alerted authorities after spotting a black Saab in a drainage gully in Canyon Lakes Park, five miles from campus.
Furrowed brows. Doug, 53, lay dead in the backseat. Viola Leanne Ross McVade, 18, also deceased, was in the front seat of the 1993 vehicle, which belonged to Doug.
Doug had hired Viola as an escort that night.
Police Captain Thomas Esparza noted that they were both fully clothed, the Associated Press reported.
Meanwhile, Doug’s coworkers — many of whom had red eyes from crying, according to Pierce — couldn’t imagine how the divorced dad ended up in a vehicle with a teenaged prostitute. They also said that he rarely talked about his private life.
My own research revealed nothing troubling about him.
Educated duo. Douglas Birdsall was born in Wyandotte, Michigan on July 1, 1947, and graduated from the University of Michigan in 1969. He earned a teaching certificate from Western Michigan University in 1971, and went on to get a master’s degree in library science from the University of Michigan.
In 1972, he married Francia Fitch, who studied music education at Michigan State University. The couple started out as teachers in the Midland Public Schools District, according to an item in the Traverse City Record-Eagle.
The Birdsalls had two children, Emily and Nathaniel.
Doug put his graduate work to good use, taking jobs with the library systems of North Dakota State University and Idaho State University.
Giant makeover. Next up, he joined Texas Tech University in Lubbock. There, he created the Art in the Library Committee and a scholarship for library assistants. He also oversaw the library’s $17 million renovation.
Despite the extent of the construction project, Doug made sure the library remained open every day while it received such updates as new elevators, new carpets, and a new mezzanine level to provide offices for subject librarians, among many other improvements, according to Texas Tech’s archival notes.
By this time, Doug and Francia had divorced. She remarried. He stayed single.
Fiddling around. One night, Doug wanted a date with a young black woman. According to Forensic Files, he was looking for companionship more than, or instead of, sex. Doug asked an acquaintance named Teresa Kay Williams, who had three convictions for prostitution, to find someone for him. She suggested Viola.
Not a great deal about Viola’s short life came up in the media. She was born on July 13, 1982 in Lubbock and had two sisters, Liza and Ashley. Viola’s father, Chester Ross, would later describe Viola as warm-hearted, friendly, and always with a smile. According to Forensic Files, she hoped for a career in modeling.
Viola was engaged to Terremy Beaver, who noted during his Forensic Files interview that Viola liked money and would do whatever necessary to earn it. (There’s no indication of how long Viola had been working as an escort or whether she had any other occupation. A Daily Toreador story described her as unemployed; another source said she was still in high school.)
Fiancé eliminated. The green T-shirt Terremy was wearing during his TV appearance worried me a bit. Forensic Files‘ producers like to prolong the whodunit by bringing in regular street clothing for imprisoned interviewees to wear.
It turned out, however, that Terremy wasn’t incarcerated when he appeared on Forensic Files in 2006 — but he was in jail the night of the double murder in 2001.
Police ruled out Terremy as a suspect.
Robbery not a motive. The killer had shot Viola three times in the head, suggesting she had been the intended target. The blood pattern in the car indicated that the gunman shot Doug in the front seat and then moved him into the back.
The victims both died from head wounds.
No one had stolen their wallets or jewelry.
Misery from Missouri. Some people near an alley in a dicey part of Lubbock told police that on the night of the murder, they heard gunshots coming from its direction. Investigators determined that pieces of glass found on the little street came from Doug’s car. A 10-inch-diameter pool of blood at the scene matched Doug’s DNA. The murder weapon, a .380 pistol, was abandoned there.
More evidence turned up at Doug’s house. A cigarette had Viola’s DNA on it. Investigators found out that someone used Doug’s phone to call Viola’s sister Liza Shontell McVade the night of the murders.
Police learned that Viola had called for Liza but instead ended up talking to Liza’s boyfriend, 29-year-old Vaughn Ross
Vaughn, born on September 4, 1971, grew up in Missouri and earned a bachelor’s degree from Central Missouri State University. Despite the shared name of “Ross,” Vaughn and Viola were not related.
Tough talk. At the time of the murder, Vaughn was working a clerical job to pay for graduate architecture classes at Texas Tech. (Vaughn and Doug probably never met. Not counting its law school, Texas Tech had 24,910 undergraduate and graduate students in 2001.)
Viola and Vaughn were feuding; he admitted it. She disapproved of him because he reportedly had physically abused Liza. According to court filings cited by Reuters News, during at least one past call to Vaughn, Viola put an ex-boyfriend of Liza’s on the phone. He allegedly called Vaughn a coward.
Vaughn threatened to shoot Viola.
The tip fits. It later came out that Liza allegedly saw Vaughn don gloves the night of the murders and he suggested that she leave his apartment because, he said, “If I do something, I don’t want nobody around.” Liza left, according to Forensic Files.
Vaughn’s place, in the Chateau De Ville apartments, was a stone’s throw from the alley with the broken glass and blood. A lab test showed that the rubber tip of a glove found under Doug’s body held DNA from both him and Vaughn Ross.
Investigators believed that he killed Doug and Viola in the vehicle, moved Doug’s body to the backseat, got into the driver’s seat next to Viola’s body, and steered the vehicle into the ravine in Canyon Lake Park.
Worrisome history. A background check revealed that in 1997, Vaughn had pleaded guilty to stabbing then-girlfriend Regina Carlisle with a butcher knife and stealing her car. He claimed that she threatened him with the weapon and that he grabbed it from her hands and used it to defend himself. She had wounds to her arm, thigh, and neck.
Fortunately, she survived.
Vaughn received probation and attended an anger-management class. (Well, that really taught him a lesson.)
On February 5, 2001, police arrested Vaughn Ross for the murders of Doug and Viola.
He behaved. His friends at school apparently knew nothing of his violent past.
“He was a nice guy, one we all kidded around with. He never showed any anger in class or blew up at the teacher,” one acquaintance said.
But he did act out while in Lubbock County Jail pending his trial for double murder. Vaughn threw his ID band to the floor and spewed profanity at a jail employee, according to a press release from the Texas Attorney General.
Boiling over. Prosecutors charged Vaughn with two counts of first-degree murder and announced they would seek the death penalty.
The authorities believed that on the night of the murders, Vaughn seethed with anger and hatred for Viola.
He donned rubber gloves. When he spotted Viola in Doug’s car, he shot her to death, then turned the gun on Doug to eliminate him as a witness.
Can’t lie to Mom. The prosecution alleged that the glove tip broke off when Vaughn shuffled Doug to the back of the Saab. When police found similar gloves at Vaughn’s apartment, he explained that he was planning to wash his floor with bleach. Police discovered Vaughn had a sweatshirt with a bloodstain containing Doug’s DNA.
On a recorded phone call from Lubbock County Jail, Vaughn told his mother, Johnnie Ross, that he wasn’t sure whether or not he committed the homicides and that he needed a lawyer. “Oh, lord,” she said.
Nonetheless, the defense alleged that the police planted evidence and that it would take two assailants to move Doug Birdsall’s body. Vaughn was 5-foot-6 and 150 pounds, according to Texas Department of Criminal Justice records.
Trashing the ex. Vaughn’s lawyers, Patrick S. Metze and Floyd Holder, also cast doubt on the DNA evidence.
“It’s a useful tool, but it is collected and analyzed by humans and can be contaminated,” Holder said, as reported by U-Wire. “You can be fooled by DNA.”
As for Vaughn’s previous assault on Regina Carlisle, the defense downplayed its severity, noting that the victim was treated and released, not kept overnight at the hospital.
Traumatic injuries. The defense suggested Doug Birdsall put himself in danger by frequenting “a high-crime area,” the Houston Chronicle reported. Holder contended that “crackheads or prostitutes” might have set Doug up, lying in wait for him.
Vaughn’s lawyers, however, were no match for the prosecution’s showmanship. In the courtroom, the team projected overhead images of the victims’ bodies at the morgue. They had a combined total of 11 bullet wounds.
Strong conviction. Roger Birdsall, Doug’s brother, told the court how the murder had devastated their mother as well as Doug’s two adult children.
It took the jury one hour to find Vaughn, then age 31, guilty.
During the punishment phase of the trial, Vaughn’s former college roommate, Tanya Robertson, advocated for him. She told the court that Vaughn didn’t use drugs, seldom drank, and had a steady relationship with a girlfriend whom he treated well. Robertson described the accused as meek, humble, and polite, according to court papers available on Murderpedia.
A Boy Scout, Literally. Vaughn’s mother played the “no male role model” card, noting that Vaughn hadn’t seen his father, Hershall Sumpton, since he was around 8 years old.
She also threw in the “he was a great kid” angle, noting that her son attended church several times a week, played football, and was a Cub Scout and a Boy Scout, and had no interest in guns. He was never violent until the stabbing incident in 1997, she believed.
Furthermore, she said, the jury held a tainted opinion of her son from the beginning. She also expressed sympathy for the families of Doug Birdsall and Viola McVade.
The court was not impressed. Vaughn received a death sentence.
SCOTUS bid. In 2013, Vaughn Ross appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. He complained that his trial lawyers neglected to call witnesses who could have persuaded a judge to give him a life sentence instead of the death penalty.
Assistant Texas Attorney General Tomee Heining pointed out that it was Vaughn himself who had instructed some family members and friends to not cooperate.
The high court rejected his appeal at 5:45 p.m on July 18, 2013.
No reprieve. Doug’s son, Nathaniel Birdsall — who had become a lawyer himself — told the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal that his father opposed the death penalty. “I am saddened that the loss of two lives will be needlessly compounded by the taking of a third,” said Nathaniel.
At 6:38 p.m. on July 18, 2013, Vaughn, 41, had his date with a gurney and syringe.
The Clark County Prosecutor’s office noted that it no longer provided a special last meal for the condemned, but it did offer Vaughn a chance to speak before the execution.
Gone forever. He denied that he killed Viola and Doug but said he wasn’t afraid to die. According to the AP, none of his friends or family members attended the execution, but in his last words, Vaughn said he loved them and that they should “stay strong.”
The Dallas Morning News reported on the execution:
“As the lethal dose of pentobarbital began taking effect, Ross took several breaths, then began snoring. He let out a gurgle, snored once more and then stopped all movement. “
Roger Birdsall watched.
There ended the case, but it didn’t stop the puzzlement over Doug’s desire for paid companions who probably only visited libraries to use the Ladies Room.
“Bad idea from the get go,” wrote one YouTube viewer. “Unfortunately, he was eventually going to get arrested, robbed and/or killed. This was way out of his league.”
Another said, “They’re trying so hard to make him just an innocent, lonely man. We know why he was with her. C’mon.”
Doug’s colleagues, however, didn’t judge him for going astray.
In 2002, they dedicated a 7-foot-tall steel and sheet metal sculpture, titled Windsong II, to his memory.
“Undoubtedly,” Texas Tech President David Schmidly told the AP, “the Texas Tech library would not have become one of the most comprehensive research libraries in the nation had it not been for Doug’s dedication.”
That’s all for this week. Until next time, cheers. — RR
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