Staring into the cold, probing eyes of Billie Wayne Coble, you wonder: is there such a thing as evil? Or do ordinary people simply do evil things?
This killer of three members of his estranged wife’s family – he executed each one with merciless precision one day in 1989 – is a mystery to me.
Menacing, yes, even behind the reinforced glass of the prison visiting room in which we met. But irredeemably wicked? I hesitate to make such a judgment.
Billie Wayne Coble was scheduled for a lethal injection a week after we met as he faced execution for a triple murder from 1989
The prosecutor in Coble’s 1990 trial for the triple murder had no such qualms. This was a cold-blooded killer, pure and simple, he told the court, with a ‘heart full of scorpions’.
But then, this is Texas, the Lone Star State, where justice retains a frontier flavour. Delving into the culture that surrounds the death penalty in this proud corner of America, I was confronted time and again by the same biblical interpretation of justice. An eye for an eye. As you sow, so shall you reap.
Coble had agreed to give me his last interview. A week after we met, he was due to gain the distinction of being, at 70 years of age, the oldest man to be executed in Texas since 1982.
Once, he would have fried in the electric chair – that most barbarous of American inventions.
Now, like the other 28 states of the Union which retain the death penalty, Texas uses lethal injection. A more humane method, perhaps, but no less traumatic for relatives watching their loved ones die.
As I was to discover when Billie Wayne Coble left this world.
I am not a supporter of capital punishment, but I can understand why people believe it to be a fitting form of redress for the most callous murderers.
There is something indescribably terrible about knowing the exact time and nature of our death – made worse, surely, by the ritual that accompanies the state’s taking of a human life.
Can any human being merit such a form of psychological torture?
As I drove through the bleak winter landscape of Texas towards Coble’s ‘home’, the state penitentiary at Livingston, 75 miles north of Houston, I was expecting to feel some sympathy for this veteran resident of Death Row.
But an hour in his company challenged this. Maybe it was the defiance, the man’s inability to do that of which any human should be capable: expressing sincere remorse for a terrible act.
The state prosecutor described Coble as ‘a cold-blooded killer’ and ‘evil’
We had an hour. For Coble, it was a rare encounter with a person not in uniform. As a prisoner on Death Row, he had spent the last 30 years in a small cell for 23 hours a day, with just an hour for exercise – alone in a cage.
His only experience of human touch during his monotonous existence was the putting on of handcuffs by a warder.
With such a brief window of opportunity, small talk had to be kept to a minimum. We spoke via the intercom, separated by a toughened screen.
‘Hi Bill, I’m Susanna.’
‘Alright,’ he observed, calmly. ‘You definitely have an English accent.’
Was he frightened about what was coming?
‘Death is death,’ said Coble. ‘A person said one time: ‘That’s a horrible way of dying’. I said: ‘What is a good way?’ Could you tell me what a good way is to die?
‘Who is not going to leave this world? Aren’t we all?
‘I have known probably about 400 people that’s been executed, and I was friends with them before. I remember every one of them.
‘It depends on how long a person has already lived. The longer you’ve lived, the easier it is to accept death.’
The victims of Billie Wayne Coble died horribly, of that there is no doubt. On August 29, 1989, Coble drove to the small town of Axtell in central Texas. He was on the hunt for his estranged wife, Karen Vicha, who was threatening him with divorce. When he arrived at Karen’s home, she wasn’t there.
Gripped by an uncontrollable rage, he vented his fury on members of the Vicha family, who lived on the same street. Karen’s nephew, JR Vicha, was 11 at time. He returned from school with his cousins, Karen’s three daughters, to find Billie Wayne waiting with a gun.
‘He used some rope or something and tied us to the bedpost, like with our hands behind our back. And then he put duct tape on our mouths,’ remembered JR. They were lucky – the only mercy displayed by Coble that day.
Leaving the children tied up, the 40-year-old Coble headed off to ambush Bobby Vicha, Karen’s brother – and JR’s father. The off-duty police officer was working on his ranch when Coble surprised him, wrestling his service revolver away from him before using it to blow his head off.
Also killed were Karen’s father Robert, 64, and mother Zelda, 60, murdered in their nearby home. There was nothing spontaneous about the killings. Coble had bought supplies for his escape and fashioned a silencer.
‘I remember he kept bragging about the fact he was going to be on America’s Most Wanted,’ explained JR. ‘Sociopath is what you’d call it. Narcissistic.’
After murdering three members of the Vicha family, Coble lay in wait for Karen.
When she returned home, he kidnapped her, bundling her into a car and speeding off. Slashing her face with a knife, he threatened to rape her, before losing control of the car and crashing. Miraculously, both survived and the injured Coble was arrested by police.
Back in the prison interview room, Coble refused to speculate on a last-minute reprieve.
‘I live for the moment,’ he said.
What did he think of his actions on that bloody day? He smiled that hard smile of his before offering an evasive – and slightly irritated – reply.
‘To some people it matters,’ he offered. ‘To me it really no longer matters.’
Did he love his wife?
‘We all have emotions and there’s many different things can arouse our emotions. A beautiful flower can arouse your emotions.’
Karen was Billie’s third wife and they married in 1988. He was working at a drive-in cinema. After less than a year of marriage, Karen asked for a divorce.
Something stirred in Coble – his earlier marriages were also marked by violence, although he was said to be a good father to his son Gordon.
Perhaps it was down to Vietnam. Coble joined the marines as a 17-year-old and was shipped to South East Asia the following year. Traumatised by his experience, he was treated in hospital for a time following his four-year tour of duty. But many Vietnam veterans suffered psychologically and they didn’t end up as multiple killers.
What of repentance?
‘Well, I feel bad about what I did and what the world’s done. I feel bad about a lot of things,’ came the evasive reply.
Coble’s ex wife Karen’s father Robert, 64, and mother Zelda, 60, were murdered in their nearby home
Forget other things, what did he think about his taking of three innocent lives?
‘Yes, I feel bad that circumstances had got to a point where they shouldn’t have gotten. I feel bad about killing the first person I killed in Vietnam. I see them just as vividly, just as clear as the day it happened, but I can never go back and change that.’
And if the Vicha family asked for an apology would he offer one? He fixed me with a stare: ‘OK, if you want me to give some type of, like, rehearsed apology or something, I mean, I’ve already said that I regret what happened.
‘Now I fully regret what happened. But I also truly regret a lot of things in life.’
The sympathy that I thought would spring naturally from meeting a condemned man drained away. ‘We don’t feel sorry for him at all,’ says JR. ‘Even after the car wreck, he was bragging at the hospital to the nurses, saying, ‘Do you know I just killed three people?’
Ralph Strother, the prosecutor in the case, who identified that scorpion-filled heart, was equally unforgiving. ‘I’ve dealt with the criminal justice system for 40 years, and the Coble case was one of the most brutal of any I’ve ever handled,’ he told me. ‘Frankly, he’s a cold-blooded killer. He’s evil and deserves to die.’
Since the death penalty was re-introduced in Texas in 1982, the state has executed 560 people. Huntsville, a pleasant college town, with its coffee and antique shops, is home to the state’s execution chamber. The Walls Unit, which houses it, is an ugly, late-Victorian redbrick building adorned by a clock that is forever stuck.
Time here indeed moves slowly on execution day.
Execution warrants become active only at 6pm when all avenues of reprieve – last-minute interventions from the state governor or the Supreme Court in Washington – are exhausted. On execution day, usually once a month, condemned prisoners are driven from Livingston before being delivered to the unit’s Death House. Texas doesn’t do euphemism.
Once, after speaking by phone with loved ones and lawyers, prisoners were offered a last meal of their choice. But that privilege is a thing of the past – the soon-to-die must now content themselves with the standard meal on offer.
Executions are invariably accompanied by demonstrations against the death penalty outside the unit – often countered by gatherings of friends and relatives of victims.
In 2018, Texas put 13 men to death – more than half the total for the entire United States.
In 1982, it became the first of the 50 states to use lethal injection, now the standard method of execution in the US.
Like Texas, states retaining the death penalty have found it difficult to source chemicals for execution doses due to the reluctance of major drugs firms to supply them.
Texas now uses the powerful sedative pentobarbital, used by vets for putting down animals, to dispatch condemned prisoners.
This macabre process can take anything between 10 and 40 minutes, depending on how an individual reacts.
‘Don’t mess with Texas’ goes the old refrain – and most people in this friendly little town appear to be at ease with its unofficial status as the nation’s capital of capital punishment. Economics play a part – the area around Huntsville boasts no less than seven prisons and a quarter of its residents live behind bars.
Many of these have regular visits from their families but for those on Death Row, the physical separation is absolute.
Billie Wayne Coble may have been defiant about his heinous crimes but he did betray his humanity when talking about his son, Gordon – who describes him as an attentive father. Gordon was 15 when his father embarked on his killing spree and was never able to exchange even a handshake with him after that day.
When the execution date was set, Gordon, his wife Nelley and their son agreed to witness Billie Wayne’s last moments, separated from the Vicha family by a partition. ‘It’s probably much harder on him [Gordon],’ said Billie Wayne. ‘It’s harder on me knowing that he’s having to cope with this.’
Gordon’s sons have grown up seeing their grandfather only from one side of a glass divide.
Gordon’s son Dalton explained: ‘We put our hands up to the glass. That’s how we say hi. I wish I could hug him. I wish I could do a lot of things with him, but I can’t.’
Sympathy in murder cases inevitably focuses upon relatives of the victims. But relatives of the condemned are equally blameless and suffer, too.
I felt enormous sympathy for Gordon, Nelley and Dalton. All were overcome by grief. None of them deserved that pain.
Gordon did not excuse his father’s actions but believed that life-imprisonment was an adequate and humane form of punishment. But it was not to be.
On February 28, Billie Wayne Coble became the latest criminal to die by lethal injection.
When the Supreme Court refused a plea of clemency at 5pm, his fate was sealed.
Without struggle, without obvious emotion, Coble was escorted to the execution chamber, a small, spartan room with walls of painted brick containing a gurney equipped with restraint straps. Windows allow those attending the execution to watch.
The official record of Coble’s execution lays out in simple and chilling detail what happened.
At 6.02pm, Coble was taken from his holding cell next to the chamber and strapped to the stretcher one minute later. A needle was inserted into his right hand and solution began to flow into his body at 6.05. At 6.13, he made his last statement as the lethal dose was administered.
He said: ‘Yes sir, that will be five dollars. I love you, I love you, I love you. Mike, I love you. Where’s Nelley at? I love you. That will be five dollars. Take care.’
The Mike reference was to Coble’s friend Michael Kerls, who witnessed the execution.
At 6.19 the ‘process’ was completed and at 6.24 Billie Wayne Coble was pronounced dead.
What could this cryptic ‘five dollar’ message mean?
Apparently, this was how children would try to get money out of passing GIs in Vietnam – badgering them with the words ‘Five dollars, five dollars!’
The sight of his father being put to death proved too much for Gordon. Consumed by grief, he started banging on the execution chamber window. Both he and Dalton were dragged screaming from the execution chamber. Imprisoned for 24 hours, they were later released.
‘They are dragging him like he’s a f****** piece of trash!’ screamed Gordon’s wife Nelley as officers pulled her son out of the Walls Unit.
Speaking of Gordon’s behaviour after the execution, Nelley explained: ‘He was standing there and I was holding on to him and then he immediately just started crying and going to the wall screaming. ‘Dad don’t leave me. Dad don’t leave me!’
‘They did nothing wrong – it was natural emotion. I mean, damn, his dad just got executed. What do you expect him to do?’ The statement read by prison official Jeremy Desel afterwards was stark and simple: ‘The state of Texas has executed Billie Coble, inmate number 976.’
On the other side of the emotional divide, JR Vicha was simply glad that his father’s killer had finally met his end.
‘We’re all just going to go to a casino in Oklahoma and we’re all just going to hang out and just do something together,’ he replied when asked how he and his family intended to mark the occasion. ‘It doesn’t change what happened but knowing that he finally got what he deserves that will be a good feeling.’
Billie Wayne Coble was comforted by one thing in his last days – a belief in the afterlife.
When I asked him how he wanted to be remembered, he replied: ‘I’ve never thought of it. It really doesn’t matter to me personally because if I’m dead, I’m with God. It’s not going to concern me any more. I’m not going to be here.’
For his son Gordon, his death is a catastrophe – a brutal end to the only father he had.
Few others will mourn him, though. When asked about the execution, a woman passing by answered: ‘It’s a normal day, just a normal day.’
This, after all, is Huntsville, America’s capital of death.
Susanna Reid features in Death Row: Countdown To Execution which starts on ITV at 9pm on Thursday.