Sometimes, life-changing moments can appear out of thin air. One moment, life is good; the next, everything has changed.
For Sheila Gibbons, the future was on the right track: she was a freshman psychology major at Southern Methodist University with a firecracker roommate who would become her best friend. However, when that roommate was murdered, Sheila’s life split into directions she could have never imagined.
Haunted by the questions surrounding her friend’s death, Sheila knew she couldn’t sit idly by and wait for the case to go cold…
When Sheila Gibbons (pictured) and Angela Samota were paired up as college roommates at Southern Methodist University in Waco, Texas, the duo had all the makings to hit it off as a sitcom-style odd couple.
Sheila was the quintessential shy freshman—a psychology student who didn’t drink or go to parties. Angela (pictured), meanwhile, was a “triple threat,” according to Sheila, meaning she was beautiful, intelligent, and had a great personality.
Sheila Wysocki / The Washington Post
Still, as opposite as the two may have been, by the end of their freshman year, they were the best of friends and practically inseparable. That friendship, however, would drastically change the course of Sheila’s life…
Years later, in October of 1984, Sheila was at home with her family in Northern Texas. Her friends—Angela included—were supposed to be going to an SMU football game versus rival school Baylor University. Angela had gone out drinking the night before, but she planned to make the game’s early start time nonetheless.
On the Saturday of the game, however, Sheila received a phone call from one of her and Angela’s sorority sisters. Angela hadn’t made it to the game after all, the sister said. When she explained why, Sheila screamed…
The night before, Angela had been murdered. At just 20 years old, she’d been sexually assaulted and killed after a night at the bar. This was too much Sheila to bear. She broke down into tears and, when her mother rushed into the room to check on her, couldn’t speak between her heaving and sobbing.
After that, “the world was never the same,” Sheila recently told the Washington Post. The Dallas Police Department jumped on the case, naming Russell Buchanan, a friend and the man Angela was seen with at the bar, as the top suspect. To see if the story he gave the police stayed consistent, the police asked Sheila to take him out to dinner and try to get answers…
“I’m thinking, ‘I’m sitting here having dinner with a murderer—with Angie’s murderer,'” Sheila told the Washington Post. But the story Russell told her—that he had not heard about the murder until days later—corroborated with the police’s information, too. Shortly afterwards, the case stalled out and went cold.
Without answers to her friend’s murder, Sheila couldn’t function. “I just kept thinking, ‘These things just don’t happen…’ It took my innocence. It took away my view of the world.” She dropped out of SMU, married, gave birth to two sons, and moved to Tennessee. All was quiet on the Angela case, until one day…
In 2004, Sheila—by then a stay-at-home mom with the last name Wysocki—was home alone, reading passages from the Book of Daniel for a Bible study. Suddenly, according to her account, she saw an image of Angela appear before her as an apparition. After processing this, Sheila knew it was time to take action—she was going to solve this case.
United Church of God
“I know it sounds crazy,” Sheila told People magazine. “I promise you that it sounds crazy to me.” Still, that didn’t stop Sheila from picking up the phone and calling the Dallas Police Department more than 750 times over the next several years, pleading with them to reopen the case. They didn’t budge. Some cases just weren’t going to be solved, the department told her.
In response to the police department’s lack of interest, Sheila went to work herself. She earned her license as a private investigator, taking on small cases like cheating, stalking, and cyber-bullying before she could work her way into cold murder cases. Could she solve her friend’s murder?
“I think when [the Dallas Police Department] found that out, they knew I wasn’t going away,” Sheila told the Washington Post about becoming a P.I. “So did it help? I don’t know, but it was a turning point.” Soon, she had set up a “war room” and was combing through files on Angela’s case.
Independent Journal Review
Sheila’s breakthrough came in 2006, when detective Linda Crum reevaluated old DNA evidence and found a match: a man named Donald Bess. “She said, ‘We got him,'” Sheila recalled. “I thought she meant Russell Buchanan. When she said ‘Donald Bess,’ I was thinking, ‘I can’t place this guy. Who is that?'”
University of Michigan School for Environment and Sustainability / Flickr
In 1984, Bess, a convicted rapist, was out on parole. Since then, he’d already been convicted of another sexual assault, for which he was serving a life sentence. Now, he’d stand trial for another murder—Angela’s.
Fox 4 News
Sheila drove 650 miles to Dallas to witness Bess’s trial. “You couldn’t have kept me away from it,” she said. “To me, I felt like I needed to be there for Angie.” In fact, all of Angela’s family members, friends, and sorority sisters were in attendance.
At the end of the trial, Bess was convicted and sentenced to death. “I cried,” Sheila said about finding out the verdict. “Nothing changes,” she added. “You still have someone who’s dead, you still have someone who murdered her, you still have a world that’s changed.”
While nothing would bring back Angela, Sheila’s willingness to do anything for her friend was admirable, and it broke the case wide open. Not only that, but she still worked as a private investigator, helping others find answers to their own unsolvable cases. Way to go, Sheila!
People Magazine, July 2016
If only all of us could have friends as dedicated as Sheila. The fact that she would get a P.I. license to find some answers on her own is astounding!
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