The Texas cop who allegedly hired a hitman to kill his pregnant girlfriend and then fled to Indonesia was brought back to the United States on Thursday to discover that he'd already been charged with murder—what a prosecutor describes as "a ruh-roh moment."
Ever since former Austin Police Officer VonTrey Clark booked a flight to Jakarta just days after search warrants that detailed incriminating evidence against him were unsealed, law enforcement officials assumed he might be trying to duck them. Clark was also in the middle of an internal affairs investigation and failed to show up to an interview because he left the country, which is what triggered his firing. When prosecutors charged him with capital murder—which here refers to the deliberate killing of more than one person simultaneously, in this case Clark's girlfriend Samantha Dean and their unborn child—they decided to keep the arrest warrant sealed until Clark was in custody.
The warrant was unsealed Wednesday after the FBI picked Clark up in Indonesia.
"When he went to Indonesia, it was a horrible mistake in judgment on his part," the prosecutor on the case, Bastrop District Attorney Bryan Goertz, tells VICE. "Whether he's a runner or a tourist, it was just a stupid thing to do. We had been marching along with our investigation and bottom line is, all of a sudden—I'm not saying we were about to arrest him or we weren't about to arrest him, I'm not going there—but now all of a sudden, I've got him in Indonesia, and that's a problem."
Capital murder can land you on death row in Texas, a state that has executed nearly five times the number of people as the next-highest state, Oklahoma.
If Clark is found guilty and sentenced to death, it will not be the first time the state sends a cop to die. In a case that bears an eerie resemblance to Clark's, a former Texas police officer was convicted of hiring two hitmen to kill his wife during a custody battle in 1994. Records show that the cop, Robert Fratta, paid one man $3,000 and promised a second man his Jeep as payment for murdering his wife. Fratta had told friends and colleagues that if he killed the mother of his three children, he wouldn't have to pay her child support. Farah Fratta was shot twice in the head and found dead next to her car in her garage. More than 20 years later, Fratta and the two men he paid to kill his wife remain on death row.
The president of the Austin Police Association broke his silence regarding Clark on Thursday, suggesting that the state should consider seeking the death penalty. But District Attorney Goertz tells VICE that many factors will be considered in making that decision, including the Dean family's wishes. If Clark is found guilty and the jury doesn't sentence him to death, he will automatically get life without parole.
In early February, a Bastrop County sheriff's deputy came upon Dean's body in the parking lot behind a vacant shopping center. The autopsy revealed that Dean, who was seven months pregnant with a baby girl she had already named Madeline, had been shot three times in the head. Investigators found Dean covered in black plastic, leading them to believe the crime scene had been staged. She had been shot at least once at close range. Detectives soon learned that Dean was the victim services coordinator at the Kyle Police Department, a few miles west of the city of Bastrop.
In an early interview, Clark told Texas Rangers he believed he was the father of Dean's baby. Investigators later learned Dean had told her coworkers that if anything happened to her, Clark would be behind it.
The case soon turned into a jurisdictional nightmare involving the police department the victim worked for, the police department the primary suspect worked for, the sheriff's department that found the body, the Texas Rangers, the FBI, and, eventually, the Indonesian government.
"It probably would not have worked out at all—we would never have gotten to the point we are at today—without the cooperation of all the agencies," DA Goertz says. The FBI's involvement in particular became crucial once Clark fled the country.
Because Indonesia does not have an extradition treaty with the US, Clark could not be forced out that way. That's where the FBI stepped in. The bureau has legal Attaché offices, or legats, in more than 200 countries. Essentially, they cooperate with law enforcement agencies in those countries directly and coordinate the return of fugitives on the lam.
"As Samantha was part of our law enforcement family here in Central Texas, we thought we had to go to great lengths to bring back VonTrey Clark," FBI Special Agent Dan Snow said at a press conference in Bastrop on Thursday. "It also sends a message that if you're a violent criminal in the US, the FBI has the reach around the world to come get you."
When investigators found out Clark bought a ticket to Jakarta, the FBI revoked Clark's passport, according to Snow, and listed the charges against him. Interpol then created a red notice that enabled Indonesian police to arrest him. A Bali police spokesperson told the Associated Press that Clark moved around to avoid arrest, but was eventually found in a villa he rented in the Cangu neighborhood of Bali. He was arrested on July 30 and held until the FBI could bring him back to the country. Since the US canceled his passport and thus rendered his visa invalid, he couldn't legally be in Indonesia. According to the AP and local NBC affiliate KXAN , Indonesia deported him and handed him over to 13 federal agents on Wednesday, more than a month after his arrival in the country. That's usually about how long it takes to get fugitives back home from abroad, according to Goertz, given the complex logistics and legalities involved.
Shortly before midnight on Wednesday, the Department of Justice plane carrying Clark touched down in Austin. Local media reported that the plane was parked away from news cameras, but a small convoy of marked and unmarked police cars then left the airport and drove to Bastrop. Clark was booked into the Bastrop County Jail before 1 AM.
According to a search warrant for Clark's police station locker that was released in August, a man who was arrested in connection with the murders told the Texas Rangers that Clark paid a friend named Kevin Watson $5,000 to kill Dean. Watson was supposed to make it look like a drug deal gone wrong, the man said. He told the Texas Rangers that Clark wanted Dean to have an abortion, but she refused, and that he didn't want to pay child support. He said Clark drove Dean to the place where she would be killed.
The state has charged Clark and Watson, his former roommate, with the murders of both Dean and her unborn baby Madeline. In an affidavit attached to the warrant, the Texas Ranger outlines details about the suspects' actions leading up to and after the time of the murder, but so far little has been revealed about the actual killing.
What we know so far from the affidavits is that several burner phones were used in connection with the crime. The phone that texted Dean about meeting up that night was purchased in Austin and activated in Houston, where Watson lives with his girlfriend. The phones sent texts and made phone calls to each other and to Dean that night. Using cell phone towers, police traced the cell phones to the area of the crime scene at the time of the murder. They weren't used again.
About a week after Dean was killed, her counterpart at the Austin Police Department (who was also her friend, since Dean volunteered at that department) received a threatening text message. It read, "I fucking got her I am going to get him then I am coming for you. I will show you what a crisis is." Investigators tracked the phone back to Houston, where surveillance video shows Watson and a second man named Aaron Williams buying the phone at a Walmart. The two then drove to Bastrop to send the text, according to investigators, presumably in an effort to make police believe the murderer was still in Bastrop. Williams spent a month in jail for sending the text (a retaliation charge), and eventually told the Texas Rangers about how Clark hired their mutual friend Watson to kill Dean.
Two other people are tangentially connected to the murder, by the Texas Rangers' estimation. One of them, Watson's girlfriend, was charged with tampering with evidence and arrested in May after allegedly disposing of the hoodie Watson was wearing on the night of the murder. The other, who the Houston Police Department says has ties to the Hoover Gangster Crips, is linked to one of the burner phones but has not been arrested or charged with anything related to the crime. Clark and Watson are the only ones charged with capital murder, and the state has 90 days to indict them. Clark is being held without bond and Watson has been in jail in Harris County on an unrelated drug charge, so he likely won't be moved to Bastrop until that charge is resolved.
Clark is not speaking publicly about the case, but his attorney Bristol Myers maintains his innocence. "Investigators have been desperate to pin this case on him from the get-go, and they just couldn't risk the picture of innocence that would be painted by allowing Officer Clark to come home under his own power," he told local news outlets after Clark was captured. Myers did not return calls and emails for comment for this story.
Goertz says investigators were not desperate to pin this on anyone, but worked diligently to find the evidence they used to charge Clark. "He had a ruh-roh moment on Monday when he found out all the information that was unsealed," Goertz said, which included burner phone locations he and his co-conspirator allegedly used on the night of the murder, and wiretaps that appeared to corroborate investigators' conclusions. "Wednesday he booked his flight and Friday he was gone. Now I don't know about you, but that's not how I travel to Indonesia."