MURDER ON THE HIGH PLAINS
The son of a U.S. congressman killed a confidential FBI informant. Then he turned his sights on me.
By Veronica Stein | firstname.lastname@example.org
BORGER, Texas — Paul Schuhmacher stood over me, cold eyes staring through the clear plastic of an industrial face shield, waiting like a surgeon for someone to hand him the instrument of my death.
I’m not ashamed to admit that I urinated on myself. I’d been working with Schuhmacher, the son of a prominent Texas politician, for about a week. He was “my” welder, and I was “his” helper on an oil pipeline between this small town and Fritch, both of which are north of Amarillo in the Texas Panhandle.
It was a matter of public record that he was convicted of rape as a young man. But during that week, I came to realize the son of U.S. Rep. Grant Schuhmacher, R-Hinterbach, was also a violent killer.
The man about to hand Schuhmacher a grinder, fitted with a blade designed for cutting through steel, was Bartholomew John Beck — the true-crime author whose name is most closely associated with a brutal Central Texas murder in 1999. Beck had told me about the recent slaying of Sylvia Davenport, whose body he discovered stuffed inside a piece of steel pipe near Fritch. I drove north from Austin expecting to get the scoop on a small-town murder.
I had no idea I would become the killer’s next target.
Because you are reading this story, you know that Schuhmacher was unsuccessful. What follows is the true story of Davenport’s murder, the search for her killer, and how Beck saved my life.
Amarillo by morning
I first encountered Beck in June while working on a story for the Ledger about the twentieth anniversary of Summer Foster’s murder in the Central Texas town of Hinterbach. That case was the subject of Beck’s bestselling true-crime book, “Cold Summer: The true story of a murder that rocked the Texas Hill Country.” Beck, who wrote the book using his middle name, John, wrote the book after witnessing the murder.
He was one of the best sources I could’ve asked for. So, when I was tasked again with writing a deep dive into the murder before Butch Heller was to be executed for the crime, I once again needed to talk to Beck.
This time, however, Beck was less interested in cooperating as my story would undoubtedly conflict with his version of events. He wasn’t going to leave me with nothing, though.
Just before I reached out to him after Labor Day, a woman was murdered in Hutchinson County. Her body was found at a job site near Fritch, where Beck had been working as part of an oil pipeline welding crew.
Beck, who was not actively working on writing true-crime books, told me he could get me undercover on the job, where I could report on a fresh murder that was not yet a national headline.
After a conversation with my editor at the Ledger, I was sent to cover the murder of a woman we were calling Jillian Rogers.
After driving from Austin to Borger, where Beck and I would be staying while I reported this story, I met the other two people with whom I would work closely for the next week. First, I met Jorge Hernandez, Beck’s welder and best friend.
Then I met Paul Schuhmacher.
What’s in a name?
I had no idea I was working alongside a man who’d served eight years in prison for the violent rape of a college classmate in Lubbock. Paul Schuhmacher had introduced himself to me, and everyone else, as Paul Henry.
As Beck was interviewed by a pair of Texas Rangers investigating the case, he discovered another person involved in the case was hiding their identity.
This time it was the victim.
It turns out Jillian Rogers, the woman I was replacing as a welder’s helper, was really Sylvia Davenport.
After researching the victim under her given name, I discovered the woman was really an environmental activist. She was a key figure in protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline and had been living in Austin before finding a way onto the jobsite in Fritch. Before her death, Beck had found her hindering the crew’s progress. It became clear she was working on the oil pipeline as a cover to sabotage its progress.
Further digging revealed she had been arrested on a federal mail order charge. But we found no evidence of a trial.
We would later discover she was working as an undercover informant for the FBI.
Solving the puzzle
The pieces didn’t start fitting into place until I learned who Paul Schuhmacher really was.
I already knew the Sylvia’s body had been staged to look like Summer Foster. Because she was the victim of a case Beck had been involved with, we naturally assumed the killer was trying to frame him for the slaying.
But nobody was emerging as a natural suspect — until I reviewed the employee files of the pipeline workers and discovered my welder was the violent son of a politician long suspected of, but never charged with, corruption (Grant Schuhmacher has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing when allegations surface).
At that point, the picture came into view.
The FBI flipped Davenport. They turned her into a confidential informant and used her penchant for postponing pipeline development as incentive to gather information on Grant Schuhmacher through his son, Paul.
When Paul discovered who she was and her real motivation, he once again turned violent against a young woman. After beating her to death, he decided he could get away with the crime by staging her body to frame Beck.
We took what we knew to the Rangers investigating Davenport’s murder. They said they’d already figured it out, too.
There was just one problem.
Nobody could find Paul Schuhmacher.
Bound and gagged
On the day I nearly died, our crew was sent home early when a storm rolled over our section of the High Plains. With Paul Schuhmacher still in the stiff Panhandle wind, I took the opportunity to do more research.
But as I was on my way to visit one of the foremen on the job to pore through more records, I was intercepted by the man we all assumed had killed Sylvia Davenport. Schuhmacher told me it was an accident. He begged me to let him provide his side of the story.
But as soon as I hopped into his truck, Schuhmacher hit me over the head and knocked me out.
When I came to, I was in Jorge Hernandez’s pickup. My hands and legs were bound, and my mouth was gagged. He’d driven me back out to one of our job sites, where he was planning on killing me and having Beck help dispose of my body.
Beck pretended to help. But as Schuhmacher was about to begin killing and slicing up my body with a grinder, Beck turned on our attacker, killing him with a machete from the back of the welding truck.
The Texas Rangers are currently wrapping up their investigation, but they provided the media with this statement:
“The preliminary investigation into the death of Sylvia Davenport near Fritch indicates she was killed by her co-worker, Paul Henry Schuhmacher. As we were investigating his possible involvement, Schuhmacher kidnapped another co-worker and lured yet another to a remote area in Hutchinson County. Schuhmacher was killed during a life-and-death struggle. The other people involved have not been charged in the death. Our investigation into Schuhmacher’s involvement in Davenport’s death continues.”
I reached out to Rep. Grant Schuhmacher for this story. While I was not able to speak directly to the father of my attacker, I received this statement via email:
“Congressman Schuhmacher was devastated at the news of his son’s death. He will cooperate with the authorities in any way necessary as the investigation unfolds. The congressman requests the public and media respect his privacy as he mourns this tragedy.”
I suffered a pair of broken ribs in the attack, along with several deep bruises and a few superficial cuts.
I may be hurt. But I am not scared.
And I will continue to investigate and report this story for the Ledger.