More than 35 years after the death of 17-year-old Beth Bramlett in rural Axtell, McLennan County Sheriff’s Office investigators say they have cracked their long-open murder case.

“It happened August 8, 1982 and it’s been unsolved until now,” McLennan County Sheriff Parnell McNamara announced Wednesday. “This was a brutal murder of a beautiful, innocent high school girl, and we know who did it.”

A fisherman discovered Bramlett’s body on abandoned railroad tracks outside Axtell on Aug. 10, 1982, beaten and shot with a .22 caliber handgun, once in the head and once in the chest, McNamara said.

Investigators with the newly established McLennan County Sheriff’s Office Cold Case Unit found the culprit in then 42-year-old Talmadge Wayne Wood, eliminating seven persons of interest who had been identified since the homicide investigation started, he said.

Wood died in 2014 at the age of 74 without being prosecuted in Bramlett’s death.

“That person unfortunately died in 2014 and was never brought to justice, but we now have answers for the Bramlett family,” McNamara said.

Investigators’ theory

Cold case investigators reopened the Bramlett cold case last year after a media report looking into her death. McNamara said he established the cold case unit with seasoned investigators from the Texas Rangers, master peace officers and assistance from a former federal prosecutor.

Investigators learned Bramlett left a party at Tradinghouse Lake at about 1 a.m. with Wood’s daughter and another person who was driving them. Along the way, the driver told Bramlett he didn’t have enough gas and needed to return to the party to get another vehicle.

Cold case Detective Terry Fuller, an Axtell native, said Bramlett got out of the car and started walking, planning to get a ride home from another person leaving the party. When the driver and Wood’s daughter got back to the party, they found Wood there. Wood threatened his daughter, saying she had better beat him home, Fuller said.

Wood left the party, and his daughter left about five minutes later, Fuller said. Wood’s daughter drove the same route her dad had, past where she had let Bramlett out of the car, hoping to catch up to her dad.

Investigators said Wood’s daughter sped down the roadway but never saw her father or Bramlett. Fuller said Wood, who had an undisclosed problem with Bramlett, picked up the soon-to-be Axtell High School senior, and drove her to the intersection of Farm-to-Market Road 939 and Happy Swaner Lane, where he killed her.

“What happened was she (Bramlett) waived him (Wood) down, trying to get a ride. He knew Beth was at the party,” Fuller said. “He made statements that he knew his daughter was at the party and that she better not be with Beth. What his beef with Beth was, we can only imagine.”

Witnesses told the cold case investigators they had seen Wood return home at about 4:30 a.m. covered in blood. Bramlett’s body was found in a ditch by the railroad tracks between her house and Wood’s house, McNamara said.

35 years later

Investigators looked over interviews, evidence, crime scene information and conducted more than 60 interviews with witnesses and family members since September. Chief Deputy David Kilcrease said that although the case is circumstantial, interviews and some physical evidence tie Wood to Bramlett’s murder.

“It is a very circumstantial case, but we believe we could take this to trial and get a conviction today,” Kilcrease said. “We could get an indictment and conviction.”

Fuller said Wood was the only suspect seen both at the party and on the roadway and was the only person with the opportunity to kill Bramlett.

“People were scared to death of him (Wood),” Fuller said.

“We had people who told us that the only reason they went to his funeral in 2014 was to make sure he was dead,” Capt. Steve January said. “People were terrified of him and they wouldn’t have talked if he was still alive.”

Wood, who was named as a suspect during the initial investigations in 1982, was also accused of violence against his family and local residents over several years, investigators said.

He was convicted and was sentenced to 10 years probation on two 1982 attempted murder charges when he shot two McLennan County residents in a home, about four months after Bramlett’s murder. He was later sentenced to 10 years in prison for attempting to car-jack a woman outside Richland Mall in 1984, criminal records show.

McNamara said residents were scared to come forward with any incriminating information about Wood until after his death. McNamara also credited new technology and the diligence of of cold case investigators for not letting the Bramlett case go unsolved.

“Before Christmas, we met with (Bramlett’s) family, and when Beth’s mother came in, she told us that we should have to convince her,” he said. “We laid out everything like we laid it out to you, and even in a little more detail, and she said we did it. After all these years, she was thankful we never gave up on the case.”

Messages left for Bramlett’s mother were not returned Wednesday.

Kristin Hoppa has been covering public safety and breaking news for the Tribune-Herald since January 2016. She worked in Northwest Missouri covering crime-related issues before her move to Central Texas. She is a University of Kansas graduate.

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