Nancy Howard had no idea someone was following her that day.
In the morning, she headed to the First Baptist church in Carrollton, not far from her home. There was a women’s tea, and Nancy was hosting two tables. Her husband Frank had helped her pack the decorations into her car before he’d left on a business trip a few nights earlier. After tea, she went home before returning to church for a baptism service of a family friend. By the time she left First Baptist again, just before 7:30 in the evening, it was raining. A silver Nissan trailed her.
On her way home, Nancy stopped at Taco Bueno and picked up a steak fajita dinner in the drive-through. Then the 53-year-old mother of three grown children drove to the family’s immaculate two-story brick house on Bluebonnet Way, where she expected to relax in front of the TV. She pulled into the garage and got out of her car, carrying her purse and her Taco Bueno bag. That’s when she felt someone grab her around the neck and put a gun to her head.
She heard the young man demand her purse, but the words didn’t register. She wrestled away, turning to face him, and the seriousness of the moment caught up with her. A man she’d never seen before stood in front of her. He was in his 20s, with facial hair, wearing a black baseball cap, and holding a silver gun. He repeated himself, louder this time: “Give me your purse!”
In a moment of panic, Nancy tried to give him her purse but handed him the Taco Bueno bag instead. She could see him getting angry, and she shoved her purse at him with both hands, pushing him back a step. Then he lifted the gun and pointed it at her face. Before he pulled the trigger, she cried out: “Jesus, save me!”
A .380 caliber bullet entered her left temple, traveled through her sinus cavity, down her throat, and stopped in her right lung. The man ran away with her purse, leaving the bag of food on the rain-soaked driveway and Nancy bleeding on the garage floor.
They met at church in San Marcos. Frank Howard had a deep, gentle voice and piercing eyes. He had been married briefly in college—Nancy attended the ceremony—but it didn’t work out. Nancy had a great voice, too, and violet eyes that drew comparisons to Elizabeth Taylor’s. Frank’s father, a Baptist preacher, married them in 1983. Their first daughter, Ashley, came two years later. The family moved to the suburbs of Dallas, eventually settling in Carrollton, where they found a good school district and a church they liked. They had two more kids, Jay and Brianna, and established a comfortable life together.
Frank was an accountant who shared his small firm with a business partner. They had offices in Addison—decorated by Nancy—and more than 500 clients. Nancy called herself a “domestic engineer.” In addition to cooking and cleaning and keeping a schedule for her husband, for more than 20 years she made sure their three beautiful children made it to school on time and to their various activities. She also served in the PTA and volunteered on most of the school field trips. Together, Frank and Nancy hosted one of the church’s youth groups, and they sang in the choir on Sundays. Their son Jay would later tell people, “If the doors to First Baptist were open, my parents were probably inside.”
The marriage wasn’t perfect. Nancy struggled with depression and the chronic pain of fibromyalgia, and at one point Frank battled prostate cancer. While the health problems were stressful, the couple seemed to come through them with a stronger bond. They had healthy discussions before any major business moves or big purchases. (They worried Frank’s new Lexus might be too flashy.) They worked together to present a united front to their children. Nancy told people that she’d raised her kids to “love, honor, and respect their dad.” When their youngest, Brianna, graduated from high school a few years back, Nancy looked forward to their “empty nester years” and hoped she and Frank could rekindle the spark they’d had early in their relationship.
In May 2009, Frank told Nancy that he’d be taking on a new client and that he’d probably need to travel more. She was surprised that he hadn’t consulted her first. Frank told her that he hoped he’d still be able to make her happy.
The new client was Richard Raley, a Colleyville businessman who’d made millions on Defense Department contracts, supplying ice to troops in Iraq. His longtime accountant had recently died, and Raley needed help bringing more than $30 million from Kuwait into the United States. He offered Frank office space in Grapevine and the use of his private jet, and he eventually made the accountant his chief financial officer.
That summer, Nancy went on a mission trip to Africa with Brianna. It was a chance to spend some time together before her daughter headed out of state for college. But when they got back and Frank picked them up from the airport, Nancy noticed that something about her husband had changed—though she couldn’t put her finger on it. Frank was rarely emotional, but on the way home, he broke down in tears. At the time, he chalked it up to the death of a close family friend.
Soon Frank was traveling all the time. He was in Florida, then California, then Europe or Kuwait. He’d call or email, but Nancy was alone for long stretches, and she wasn’t happy. She’d never met Richard Raley, but she thought Frank’s new client was tearing their marriage apart.
Suzanne Leontieff is a dental hygienist in her early 50s from Santa Cruz, California. She has blond hair, a youthful face, and a perky, high-pitched voice. Her two daughters played competitive softball, and she traveled with them to tournaments all over California.
On the weekend of July 25, 2009—while Nancy was in Africa—Suzanne was at a tournament in Lake Tahoe. Killing time between games, she decided to hit the tables at a casino called Harveys. At one table, she met a man named Frank. He said he was in town for business, and he seemed nice, with a deep, gentle voice, and a head full of thick, black hair. After drinking and talking for half an hour or so, she had to go, but she saw him after dinner at a different table. They gambled together for a few hours that night, and when she walked through the same area the next day, she found him again. By that Sunday, they had exchanged phone numbers, and he was asking if she had any plans for the next weekend. Suzanne was married but separated, working on her divorce. She knew Frank was married, too, but he told her it wasn’t going well.
“He said he just hadn’t been happy,” she says, “but not miserable either.”
They talked on the phone and texted throughout the week, and the next weekend he invited her to meet him in Reno. They went to another casino and drank and talked as they walked around. She had her own room that weekend, but she spent a lot of time in his. They talked about the man she was leaving, and they talked about Frank’s wife, Nancy. A week after they met, Suzanne says, Frank was talking about a divorce “constantly.” A few weeks later, as Frank was creating holding corporations to move Richard Raley’s money, he named three of the companies after Suzanne. One was called SLH, as in Suzanne Leontieff-Howard, her name if they were married.
They kept talking, seeing each other every few weeks, but it went beyond that. He paid for softball tournaments. He helped pay for Suzanne’s oldest daughter’s college. He rented—and then bought—a boat for $30,000. In January 2010, he bought Suzanne a house in Santa Cruz worth $900,000, paying cash. He bought a condo in Tahoe worth nearly $380,000.
There were trips, too. He brought Suzanne to a suite at a Mavs game in 2010 and to a Steelers game in Pittsburgh. He brought her to the Super Bowl the next year. He took Suzanne and her daughters to a Giants game in San Francisco and to the Bahamas for seven days. (She told her kids he was already separated.) When he could, he flew her on the private jet. When he couldn’t, he paid for her commercial flights, and for their food and hotel rooms. And he always stayed with her, even when she came to Dallas.
Frank also started an IRA for Suzanne. He sent her a check for $500,000 and a wire transfer for $200,000. When her divorce finally went through and she lost her health insurance, he put her on the payroll of Raley’s company. He even kept a framed photo in his office from a helicopter trip they took.
Suzanne says they were in love. They rarely fought. And when they did, it was about Frank getting a divorce. She wanted it done and dreamed of a time when she could move to Texas to live with him. He told her that he and Nancy slept in separate rooms, that he’d file for divorce soon. But there was always something that got in the way: a graduation, a marriage, an illness, what he said was Nancy’s fragile mental health. He always had an excuse.
Billie Earl Johnson is in his early 50s. He’s thin and wiry, with a goatee and tattoos on his arms, chest, and neck. He has an affinity for methamphetamine and motorcycles, and he has spent more than a quarter of his life behind bars. When he got out in February 2009, his younger brother Chris was waiting for him, ready to bring him home to East Texas, an area full of tall pines and rusty truck-stop towns.
Chris and his wife set Billie up with a woman who worked with them at Van Tone, a flavor manufacturing company in Terrell. When the woman broke up with Billie in July 2009, he didn’t respond well. He phoned her at all hours, harassing her, threatening her in the middle of the night. She worried that Billie might show up at her work, as he had in the past, and she told the people at Van Tone to be on alert. Within a few weeks, though, he’d found a new lady friend and new troubles.
Billie says he was at home in the town of Ben Wheeler, lying on the couch, when his phone rang. His new girlfriend, a convenience-store clerk named Stacey Serenko, was in the kitchen. The man on the phone introduced himself as John. He told Billie that he’d heard of him and that he was hoping he might help with a job. The man said he needed someone to kill his wife.
“I raised straight up off the couch,” Billie says.
Looking back years later, wearing ankle cuffs and a county-issued jumpsuit, Billie says he never intended to kill anyone. He just wanted to string this guy along for money. Billie agreed to meet John outside a Sheplers Western Wear store in Mesquite.
When Billie showed up, there was only one other car there, a gray Lexus. Billie got out of his truck and into the passenger seat of the man’s car. John handed Billie a brown envelope containing $60,000 cash, along with a photo of Nancy Howard. John told him to make it look like an accident.
Back in East Texas, Billie was generous with his windfall. Everywhere he went, he paid for drinks or bought dinner or handed out $100 bills. A lot of the money went toward drugs. He and Stacey partied for several days straight, a period now fixed in their memories as a blur of shopping and meth-fueled sex. Soon he was arrested and charged with possession. What was left of the cash, the police confiscated. When Billie bonded out two days later, he called John and told him that he needed more money. Stacey noticed how soft-spoken and well-mannered John seemed. “A very nice man,” she says. “Very kind.” Still, the first chance she got, she sent a picture of the man in the Lexus to her confused mother. “If something happened to me,” Stacey says, “I wanted that photo to live on.”
Their second meeting took place at a Texaco off of Interstate 635, where Billie says John gave him an additional $35,000. Billie spent this money the way he’d spent the first payment, and before long he was in jail and broke again. He’s got a colorful way of describing how he burned through the cash.
“I would wipe—” he pauses. “I went through it the way a kid goes through diapers,” he says.