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Friday, May 14, 1999

Man arrested for 15-year-old murder


Staff Writer

An Abilene man was arrested Thursday and charged for the second time in the murder of Tracy Rene Benge Sewell, a convenience store clerk bludgeoned to death 15 years ago.

Clifford Scott Wright was 21 and at his home on Woodard Street Aug. 22, 1984, when he was first taken into custody for questioning in the murder of 22-year-old Sewell.

When Abilene police confronted him Thursday afternoon at his assembly-line job in town, the 36-year-old didn’t resist or have much to say. Wearing jeans, a Dallas Cowboys T-shirt and a baseball cap, Wright was arrested by detectives John Reid and John McCoy.

“It’s a very good feeling to have arrested someone for an investigation that started a long time ago,” Reid said at a news conference.

Sewell’s father, Buddy Benge, said the family is relieved to have Wright behind bars — again.

“We’re glad, but we hope they have the evidence to convict him if he’s the right one,” he said.

“It’s the old saying, so you can have closure. Now, that’s just a relief.”

Benge said the arrest didn’t surprise him because the police have kept the family aware of strides made in the case.

Sewell’s family was originally from Santa Anna, where she is buried, but now lives in Brownwood. Sewell was the youngest of three children. She graduated from high school in Santa Anna in 1980.

Reopening the file

A little more than a year ago, a new witness approached Abilene police with information about the murder. Information from two other witnesses, along with updated forensic tests on old evidence supported another look at the case. As recent as four days ago, police were still talking with witnesses on the decade-and-a-half-old case.

Newspaper carrier Allyn Layne found Sewell at 4 a.m. lying face down in a back room of the Star Stop at South 23rd and Barrow streets on Aug. 17, 1984.

Police initially believed Sewell was killed execution-style by a single gunshot to the head between 2 and 4 a.m. Her arms were crossed under her head, and blood smatterings on the wall suggested a bullet had killed her. An autopsy later confirmed Sewell died from a beating in the head with a heavy, blunt object.

Sewell worked the night shift at the store from midnight-8 a.m. for about three months. She was the only employee on duty at the time of her death. Police said Sewell and Wright probably didn’t know each other.

After a weeklong investigation that included witnesses’ sightings and a hypnotism, Wright was arrested on a murder charge with a $50,000 bond. He was released eight days later on a writ of habeas corpus.

Wright passed a privately commissioned lie detector test the next day, said Ed Paynter, his attorney at the time.

No weapon was found, and the writ was issued because there wasn’t enough evidence to detain him.

Wright hasn’t left the Big Country; the Cooper High School dropout has lived in and around Abilene since he was released from the murder charge, police said.

Records show Wright has been in legal trouble in Taylor County with a 1998 aggravated sexual assault case and a 1998 indecency with a child case. Both charges stem from the same incident. That jury trial is pending assignment in district court.

Old evidence tested

This time around, the investigation was smoother for the detectives, Reid said. Evidence was well-collected in the 1980’s, so these investigators have been able to focus on forensic testing of that evidence and tracking down possible new witnesses.

Despite the months, years and almost two decades that passed, detectives didn’t believe the murder would remain unsolved, Reid said.

“This case was old, but it was never closed completely,” he said, and when the new information was presented, police were confident an arrest would be made.

Although police believe the likely motive for the murder was robbery, nothing appeared to have been taken from the store.

“I don’t think we have enough evidence to establish there was a robbery,” said District Attorney James Eidson.

Eidson said he believes this case will win a conviction, based on the new evidence, which he couldn’t delve into. However, any case that spans a lengthy investigation can have inherent difficulties to try.

“I’m glad this very serious case has been solved, and I’m very pleased with the police department,” Eidson said. “It would have been easy to just say there’s not enough evidence, and certainly we want to see justice served.”

Detective John Reid, left, and Detective John McCoy escort Clifford Scott Wright at the Law Enforcement Center Thursday. Wright is suspected of the 1984 murder of Tracy Rene Benge Sewell. Photo by Barton Cromeens/ Reporter-News

Deon Daugherty can be reached at 676-6736 or daughertyd@abinews.com

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