DALLAS — In the years after Leah Corken’s death, one detail after another haunted her daughter.
Though M.J. Jennings came to accept that her mother likely died of a stroke, just the night before they had gone shopping and to a movie and the 83-year-old had seemed her usual sassy self.
When Corken’s body was found in 2016 on the living room floor of her apartment at The Tradition-Prestonwood, an upscale independent living community in Dallas, her freshly styled hair was a mess. There were makeup smudges on her bedroom pillow.
And her wedding ring was missing.
“I knew something was wrong, but I didn’t know,” Jennings said. “I didn’t know it was murder.”
Across Dallas and its suburbs over a two-year span, family after family had similar misgivings, troubled over missing jewelry and puzzling on the suddenness of their older but otherwise healthy and active loved one’s death.
Then, in March 2018, 91-year-old Mary Annis Bartel survived after a man forced his way into her apartment, telling her “don’t fight me” as he tried to smother her with a pillow and left with jewelry. The next day, police arrested Billy Chemirmir. Authorities announced they would review hundreds of deaths, signaling the possibility that a serial killer had been stalking older people.
Over the following years, the number of people Chemirmir was accused of killing grew. He goes on trial Monday in the death of 81-year-old Lu Thi Harris — one of 18 women he is charged with killing. Chemirmir, 48, faces life in prison without parole if convicted, as prosecutors have decided not to seek the death penalty.
Most of the victims were killed at independent living communities for older people, where Chemirmir allegedly forced his way into apartments or posed as a handyman. He’s also accused of killing women in private homes, including the widow of a man he had cared for in his job as an at-home caregiver.
At a news conference days after Chemirmir’s arrest, then-Plano Police Chief Greg Rushin acknowledged a tendency to assume the death of an older person is natural.
“There is not a deep investigation. ... It would be very easy to disguise a crime,” Rushin said.
When police tracked Chemirmir to his nearby apartment following the attack on Bartel, he was holding jewelry and cash. A jewelry box police say he had just thrown away led them to a Dallas home, where Harris was dead in her bedroom, lipstick smeared on her pillow.
Chemirmir’s attorney didn’t respond to a request to comment for this story, but has previously called the evidence against Chemirmir circumstantial. Chemirmir, who immigrated to the U.S. from Kenya, became a legal permanent resident in 2007.
Eight of the people he’s charged with killing lived at The Tradition-Prestonwood, and he’s been linked to a ninth resident’s death in a lawsuit.
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Just days before Glenna Day, 87, was found dead there in October 2016, she told friends something seemed off.
“They asked how things were going. She said, ‘Well, I’m thinking I should move because my friends are dying,’” said her daughter, Sherril Kerr, who added that the deaths prompted her mother to go to her doctor for a checkup.
When Day was killed, the accomplished artist had been working to restore a friend’s painting, and had just been out dancing at a senior center.
Chemirmir has been indicted in two deaths earlier that year at another Dallas retirement community — The Edgemere — and linked via an autopsy report to a third.
In April 2016, police issued a criminal trespass warning at Edgemere to Benjamin Koitaba, an alias Chemirmir used. When he was spotted there again in June, police found that he had two IDs — one for Chemirmir, one for Koitaba. He was charged with criminal trespass and giving officers a false name.
The deaths at The Tradition began after his release from jail that July. According to lawsuits against The Tradition, Chemirmir was escorted off the premises in late 2016 and asked not to return. A November 2016 police report says the suspect -- who isn’t named but whose description matches Chemirmir -- was seen there numerous times, saying he was checking for pipe leaks.
In the two weeks before the attack on Bartel, Chemirmir is accused of killing three of her fellow residents at Preston Place in Plano.
As the victims’ children began finding each other, they formed Secure Our Seniors’ Safety. The group championed new Texas laws requiring medical examiners to notify families when a relative’s death certificate is amended and requiring spot checks by officials at cash-for-gold shops.
They say more work needs to be done, including more transparency at independent living communities. In lawsuits, the families accused the facilities of failing to have the security they advertised.
“We didn’t know evil was roaming the hallways,” said Shannon Dion, whose mother was killed at The Tradition and who is the group’s president.
The Tradition said in a statement that it relied on investigations by police and medical examiners. Preston Place said it resolved the litigation but would not comment on specifics. Edgemere didn’t respond to requests for comment.
As Scott MacPhee read an article about Chemirmir’s arrest, his 82-year-old mother’s death at her Plano home began to make sense. Carolyn MacPhee was found in her bedroom on New Year’s Eve in 2017, just over eight months after her husband’s death. There was blood on her glasses, a door and tissues in the bathroom. Two diamond rings she always wore were missing.
“I’m reading the story going, ‘Well, holy crap, that connects all of the dots,’” he said.
Robert MacPhee said police surmised that their mother had a nosebleed and died of an aneurysm, so the family did not pursue an autopsy. It turned out that Chemirmir, using the Koitaba alias, had been an at-home caregiver for their father, who had Parkinson’s.
About nine months after Chemirmir’s arrest, Jennings found out that authorities believed her mother had been murdered.
“Suddenly, all of the things that I saw in that room on that day ... everything made sense,” she said.
Jennings said Corken had lived all over the world and moved from Florida to The Tradition to be close to her.
“She was my best friend, she really was,” Jennings said.
By JAMIE STENGLE, Associated Press