MURDER ON THE FOURTH OF JULY
Summer Foster, Butch Heller and the death that turned Hinterbach into a cultural lightning rod
By Veronica Stein | firstname.lastname@example.org
AUSTIN, Texas — Hinterbach was still a quiet town during the ﬁrst week of July 1999. City Hall had no sanctioned ﬁreworks show planned for Independence Day, but the volunteer ﬁre department and city council had a long tradition of teaming up to produce a short program just after dusk. Like every other year, it would take place near the banks of the large creek that runs through town.
Those who hadn’t traveled to Kerrville for its larger show often gathered outside to watch during their private celebrations. Summer Foster, the town’s beloved high school librarian, was doing just that on July Fourth. But as the rockets’ red glare streaked across the Hill Country sky, Foster was brutally killed by her live-in boyfriend outside their trailer near the heart of Hinterbach.
The murder landed Butch Heller on Death Row and thrust the sleepy municipality into the national spotlight, sparking changes to both that are still felt two decades later.
Local police were first notified of trouble by Bartholomew John Beck, who called 911 from that yellow doublewide trailer. Beck told the dispatcher he’d just seen Heller brutally beat and stab Foster. Beck would later testify for the state in its prosecution of Heller. He also wrote a bestselling true-crime book on the murder, titled “Cold Summer: The true story of a murder that rocked the Texas Hill Country,” under the name John Beck.
A second 911 call followed soon after. Foster’s neighbor, Delilah Schmidt, called to report that Heller was on their porch, drunk and covered in blood.
After police officers secured a perimeter, Hinterbach Police Department’s top investigator, Detective James Roland, arrived to find a grim scene.
“That was the worst case I ever worked,” said Roland, now retired and living in a San Antonio suburb. “The sheer brutality of it all is still disturbing to think about.”
Beck wrote this description of the scene in “Cold Summer”: “Det. Roland’s eyes scanned Summer Foster’s body. They started at the feet, which were both pointed to the left, toward the shed that held Butch Heller’s tools. The veteran lawman’s eyes drifted up her calves until they met at her knees, which were covered by her thin, flowery dress. She was laying on her side, like she was merely sleeping one off after a long Fourth of July celebration. But as Det. Roland’s eyes got to her face, the images caused his stomach to turn. The right side of her head had been bashed in—crime scene investigators would later find a short, two-pound sledgehammer covered in blood spatter—and a screwdriver was sticking out of her right eye, pointing toward the shed from which it had been removed.”
Beck, who continues to write true-crime books from his home in Fort Worth, said the memory of that July night is also seared into his memory.
“It was terrible,” he said. “I’ll never forget how scared I was.”
In his testimony at Heller’s trial nearly two years after the murder, Beck told District Attorney Martin Gamble he saw Heller drive into Foster’s front yard, which was left to her by her deceased parents.
Heller appeared drunk, Beck said during his testimony, and engaged in a loud confrontation with Foster during the Fourth of July fireworks show.
Beck offered the following account during the trial.
“I had seen this sort of thing a few times, and I never got in the middle of it. But then I saw Mr. Heller grab her and throw her to the ground. That was new to me, though I’d heard my parents talk about how Mr. Heller would sometimes ‘get physical’ with Miss Foster. I guess I decided that, since I was sixteen, I could go help her. I started walking over and lost them behind the cars parked by her house. When I got past the cars, I saw that he had her by one of her ankles and had dragged her half into the tool shed. I kind of freaked out and froze. I’m not proud of that. Then I saw her leg drop like he’d let it go, but then he came out of the shed and swung down on her with something, like a hammer or a hatchet. It looked like he’d hit her in the head, but she was able to crawl. Mr. Heller stood over her and hit her in the head again a couple more times before she stopped moving.
“I stayed still, and I guess he couldn’t see me. He went back into the tool shed, and I heard noises like he was throwing stuff around and screaming. Then I saw him come out and kneel beside her. I think he was crying, but I can’t be sure. The fireworks got real loud at the end. I thought I’d finally worked up the courage to walk over when I saw Mr. Heller raise both hands and stab Miss Foster. He stood back up kind of wobbly, then took off running.
“Once he was gone, I went over to Miss Foster to try and help her. But it was too late. She wasn’t moving, and there was a long screwdriver sticking out of her right eye.”
Twenty years later, Beck said it’s still hard to tell that story.
“I prefer not to think about it,” Beck said.
Gamble said Beck’s testimony was the key to sending Heller to prison and securing a sentence of death by lethal injection.
“It doesn’t get much better than having eyewitness testimony,” Gamble said. “Combine that with neighbors finding Heller drunk and with her blood on his clothes and hands, and this was one of the most clear-cut cases I’ve ever prosecuted.”
Heller continues to maintain his innocence in Foster’s death.
Roland and Gamble said they continue to believe Heller’s motive was jealousy. They never proved Foster was having an affair, but both officials said Heller believed she was cheating.
Whether the affair was real or imagined, authorities said it pushed Heller over the edge.
“It’s pretty clear something set him off,” Gamble said. “And no matter what Summer did or didn’t do, nobody deserves what happened to her.”
‘It wasn’t me’
Over the last two decades, Butch Heller has admitted to several of the facts laid out by Hinterbach police and the DA’s office.
Heller freely admits, for instance, that he left Foster’s Fourth of July party and got nearly blackout drunk. He had been sober for a short period of time and attended 12-step meetings, but that ended in the hours before the murder.
Heller has also said he drove back to Foster’s home and weaved his way to the yard as the fireworks show started.
That’s where his story differs from that of the authorities.
In his version, Heller says he found Foster already dead in her yard, surrounded by the buffet tables and trash cans that he’d set up hours before. After realizing it was too late to help, Heller says, he stumbled to the Schmidts’ house and repeatedly asked Delilah and her husband, Jeremiah, to call police to report Foster’s death.
“Someone murdered the woman I love and left her lying in her own yard like a piece of trash,” Heller said in a sometimes-tearful interview from Texas’ Death Row at the Allan B. Polunsky Unit in Livingston. “I don’t know who did it. But I know this much — it wasn’t me.”
Heller’s current attorney, Jackson McGrady of Austin, said investigators and prosecutors never took his client’s account seriously.
“The good-ole-boy network in Hinterbach railroaded Butch Heller,” McGrady said. “They never once considered his innocence and have never investigated anyone else in the murder of poor Summer Foster. This is especially egregious considering the other obvious suspect in this case.”
That alternative suspect, McGrady argues, is Franklin Jones.
Jones, a former president of the First International Bank and Trust of Kerrville, dated Foster in the late ’90s before they split two years prior to Foster’s death.
The circumstances of their breakup are one reason Jones is an obvious suspect, McGrady said.
Jones was served with a two-year restraining order in 1997 that said he could not be within 100 feet of Foster. She requested the protective order after Jones beat her, according to court documents.
“Franklin Jones was a violent man,” McGrady said. “And he has a documented history of aggression toward the victim of a murder that included a savage beating.”
There is no evidence Jones ever violated the restraining order. However, McGrady said that is less important than what may have happened after the order expired.
“Detectives and prosecutors are trained to disbelieve the existence of coincidence when investigating murders,” McGrady said. “So how, then, do they square the fact that the restraining order against Franklin Jones expired the day Summer Foster was killed?”
McGrady also provided to the Ledger a purchase order from Darren’s Detail and Collision, an auto body shop and towing service in Kerrville. The document shows line items for fixing a fender, other body repairs, and new upholstery for a 1999 silver BMW coupe with a VIN number registered to Jones.
Jones was listed as the customer on the document, which indicates the work was expedited for an additional $2,000.
“The story writes itself,” McGrady said. “It’s obvious that Jones waited for the restraining order to expire on that terrible Fourth of July. He waited until Foster was alone, confronted her, channeled two years’ worth of anger and embarrassment, and killed her. Then, as he sped away from the crime scene, he lost control of his BMW and hit something. Then, because his car needed to be fixed anyway, Jones had his interior ripped out and replaced, destroying any blood, hair, or other trace evidence of the crime.”
McGrady was emphatic about one other point that he says police and prosecutors completely ignored.
“Summer Foster’s fatal injuries were to the right side of her head and face, which indicates an attack from a left-handed assailant,” McGrady said. “Butch Heller is right-handed.
“Franklin Jones is left-handed.”
Jones, through an attorney, declined to comment on McGrady’s allegations.
Hinterbach, Nimitz County, and Texas law enforcement officials declined to comment when asked whether Jones was ever a suspect in Foster’s murder.
A spokeswoman for the San Antonio field office of the FBI said all evidence gathered during the investigation has been turned over to the district attorney’s office and “they would have to provide any further information.”
Heller said he does not know if Jones killed Foster, though he feels his attorney has certainly brought up reasonable doubt.
He hopes it will get him off Death Row, his home for nearly 20 years.
I was able to spend time with Heller in Livingston, where he talked at length about his experience in one of the most storied cell blocks in America.
“I feel like I’ve adapted pretty well,” he said. “About as well as anyone can, anyway.”
Heller said he developed a routine, and that helped him “stay sane.” But after so many years, it does sometimes get boring.
Of course, that’s better than when his routine was disrupted in 2009.
Ten years ago, Heller was led out of the Polunsky Unit and into a Texas Department of Criminal Justice van bound for Huntsville. Though the van was taking him to the site of his execution, Heller said he enjoyed the East Texas scenery.
“It was beautiful,” Heller said. “I actually got misty-eyed on the drive over there. The guards tried to console me until I told them I was crying happy tears.”
After arriving, Heller went through another routine — one repeated each time the state of Texas kills one of its inmates.
“I went through the whole dog and pony show,” Heller said. “I had my last visitors, was read my last rights, was served my last meal.
“They did everything but kill me.”
Heller’s last meal feels like it was ordered off a menu of favorites from each region of Texas: chicken fried steak, a salad with ranch dressing, fried catfish, three barbacoa tacos with refried beans and rice, a barbecue bacon cheeseburger, and a comically large chocolate milkshake. (In 2011, the state revoked the right to a custom last meal. They are now given the same chow as the rest of the inmates in the Huntsville Unit.)
Heller said he ate the meal while sneaking glances into the chamber. He could see the cross-shaped table and restraints where he was to spend his final moments.
“I could see my own ghost while I picked at my salad,” he said.
The man convicted of killing Summer Foster was about 10 minutes from having his death sentenced carried out. One of his final acts was calling four people from his cell with the aid of a prison chaplain. Among those who received calls from Heller were two women he’d corresponded with through prison letters, an Ethel McDonough in rural Nimitz County, and newly sworn-in Texas Rep. Grant Schuhmacher, the former mayor of Hinterbach.
Heller, who claimed to be a born-again Christian, was read his last rights and said he’d taken “at least three steps” toward the execution chamber, which would’ve been about halfway there. Texas Department of Criminal Justice officials said he was never let out of his holding cell.
Heller was saved by an eleventh-hour stay from the U.S. Supreme Court before he could be led into the chamber.
The justices unanimously agreed with the Innocence Project’s argument that a significant amount of DNA testing was skipped during the original investigation. DNA was relatively new when he was arrested in 1999, though it had been used to help convict Heller.
But his advocates pointed to several items at the crime scene, and an untested rape kit performed on Summer’s body.
The Supreme Court’s ruling reset Heller’s doomsday clock, but two years after the testing was completed, a judge from the Western District of Texas denied the appeal again. State prosecutors later leaked that most of the items tested were inconclusive, and a few items had Heller’s DNA on them.
The rape kit showed she had sex with Heller and another man within 24 hours of her death. Experts found no evidence of rape, so the existence of another partner strengthened the state’s theory that Heller killed Foster because he thought she was cheating on him.
Heller said it doesn’t matter if she was.
“I have no idea if she was cheating on me or not,” Heller said. “But even if she’d been sleeping around, I would’ve forgiven her. I loved Summer. An affair wouldn’t’ve changed that.”
FORGING THEIR FUTURE
The name Hinterbach is the collision of two German words: hinter, meaning behind, and bach, meaning creek (or brook, as many would argue based on the phonetics).
The name seems to be geographically appropriate, as the later-named Freddy’s Creek bisects the town. However, if you ask about the name’s history at the few truly local coffee shops left, older members of the community spin a different yarn.
An octogenarian named Fern, who didn’t want to give her last name because “everyone already knows it,” said the town’s identity was borne from the Hinterkaifeck massacre of 1922 in the German state of Bavaria.
“You know the town wasn’t always called Hinterbach, right sweetheart?” Fern asked.
The village was originally known simply as Neu Deutschland, or New Germany, until after World War I ended in 1918. According to local legend, many of the returning soldiers didn’t want to be reminded of Europe or the war they’d fought there. The town was hit hard by The Great War, with seven of its young men dying overseas. At some point, the creek that runs through town became an informal memorial to one of the village’s most popular fallen heroes, Frederick “Freddy” Fischer, and the young men took to calling their hometown Bachland, referencing the brook.
This struggle persisted for years, and Texas maps made between 1918 and 1922 use both names. The fight got heated enough that it was taken up by the state Legislature in late 1922.
By then, six people had been brutally slain at the farm in Germany known as Hinterkaifeck.
The family and their new maid were killed by blows to the head with what Texans would probably call a pickaxe, though the technical term is mattock. The months leading up to the murders are shrouded in possible supernatural events—if you believe that sort of thing—and the murders are still unsolved.
Several suspects have emerged, including two men rumored to have been sleeping with the widow of Hinterkaifeck’s owner, Viktoria Gabriel. Perhaps the most intriguing suspect was her late husband, Karl, whose body was never recovered from a World War I battlefield. No matter the killer, the murders were the stuff of horror movies. In fact, films were made depicting the murders, and the Hinterkaifeck massacre has been made famous again in recent years via the podcast and television series Lore.
The Bavarian story was so shocking that, in theory, a Neu Deutschland resident or member of the Legislature could have heard about the murders. If they wanted to honor the war heroes’ wishes and include “bach” in the official name, marrying “hinter” and “bach” may have seemed reasonable.
“Now, doesn’t that make more sense than anything you’ve ever heard?” Fern asked.
Official records indicate Hinterbach was suggested by several members of the town and voted the official name in a close decision.
But it’s almost too tantalizing to consider Fern’s version, given what happened on July 4, 1999.
Fern was not the only Hinterbach resident who made the connection between Foster’s murder and those in Hinterkaifeck in the days after Heller’s arrest.
“Things have been brewing in this town for a long time,” said Baptist preacher Reginald Baldwin told The Kerrville Daily Times. “I mean, our town was named after a brutal tragedy. I’ve been in a fight for the soul of this town for years.”
His church led an effort in Hinterbach to provide mass counseling and a community discussion. Baldwin was joined by three other religious leaders in the community.
“We all need to hold ourselves accountable for our actions, and to help our neighbors get closer to God,” Julia Schneider told the Daily Times after the community meeting. “If we all start living right, we can avoid these kinds of tragedies.”
The Kerrville Daily Times was one of dozens of media outlets that descended on Hinterbach in the weeks and months after Foster’s murder.
The most high-profile piece on the murder was a New York Times piece that was highly critical of Hinterbach and its investigators. It referred to Roland’s investigation as “blundering” and said Heller’s arrest was “rushed.”
Many residents, including then-Mayor Grant Schuhmacher, remember one particular passage that seemed to accost every member of the community.
“There is little to like about this small town. That word — small — can be used to describe both the size of the town and the state of many residents’ minds. Its backwoods nature can be found in its appearance, its atmosphere, its general vibe. Hinterbach might as well have a billboard on the highway into town that reads, ‘White trash ONLY’ and one on the way out saying, ‘So glad you decided to leave.’”
After that story hit the presses, Schuhmacher, now a U.S. Representative, almost immediately announced an initiative called “Taking Back the Bach.”
The Hinterbach City Council approved several measures to revitalize its downtown. It made efforts to classify its courthouse as historic and passed an ordinance outlawing “manufactured homes” in a two-mile radius — including Foster’s former residence.
Schuhmacher, R-Hinterbach, then invited all business owners to start German-themed establishments and shops in Hinterbach. The council passed tax breaks for more than two dozen such businesses and passed new ordinances aimed at improving the signage and exteriors of all commercial properties along main street.
Hinterbach is now one of the top tourist spots in Texas. Its economy is more than 70 percent reliant on tourism, according to the town’s convention and visitor’s bureau.
“I am proud of the work we did to revitalize Hinterbach,” Schuhmacher said in a statement emailed to the Ledger.
Beck, the prosecution’s key witness and author of “Cold Summer,” returned to Hinterbach and compared to the rural town he grew up in to contemporary Hinterbach.
“It’s a very different place now,” Beck said before pointing to a row of cars parked along the curb. “Will you look at that. One Porsche, two Porsche, red Porsche, blue Porsche.
“When I lived here growing up, we couldn’t spell Porsche, let alone imagine seeing one drive down the street.”
Hinterbach now represents entertainment and wealth in Texas, not society’s ills, but the shadow of Butch Heller is still felt when he and Foster’s death are back in the news.
Many current and former residents of Hinterbach are waiting for one last chapter before they can close the book on Summer Foster’s brutal murder: the mid-September execution of Butch Heller.