- Game 280: November 8 2019 The Initials Game 6
- Game 280: November 8 2019 The Initials Game On
- Game 280: November 8 2019 The Initials Game Show
- Game 280: November 8 2019 The Initials Games
Janice Wooten, 61, will likely never know if her son Dennis was murdered 10 years ago today — Oct. 8, 2010.
Dennis Keith Wooten was 24 when he died in the early morning hours in a house fire in Halfway, a small town in Polk County.
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The cause of the fire has never been definitively determined. The death certificate lists smoke inhalation and carbon monoxide poisoning as the cause of death. Soot was in Wooten's bronchial tubes, indicating he was alive during the blaze.
Ten years later, Janice Wooten demands to know more about the circumstances of the death and the role played, if any, by one or more confidential informants directed by law enforcement. One informant had talked to her son by phone only hours before the fire.
Game 280: November 8 2019 The Initials Game 6
She still wonders if those in law enforcement running the confidential informant, or informants, were the same people who were so quick to decide her son's death was accidental.© Nathan Papes/Springfield News-Leader Janice Wooten cleans off the military service plaque at her husbands gravesite on Friday, Sept. 18, 2020.
Ten years later, Polk County Sheriff Danny Morrison will not release the investigative file into the death; he says the investigation is open and ongoing.
In this series of stories, you will not find clear and concise answers.
Nevertheless, Janice Wooten and her husband, now deceased, have raised questions.
They had their son's body exhumed in 2018 and paid for a second autopsy. This autopsy concluded the fire likely was deliberately set, making her son's death a likely homicide.
That second autopsy appears to be what re-opened the investigation.
The News-Leader first met with Janice Wooten on Jan. 7, 2019.
On that day, she came to the newspaper with her husband Denny to discuss their concerns and why they believed their son was killed.
Ten months after that meeting Denny Wooten died of cancer.
The News-Leader first investigated the death in 2019 because of their questions.
There was that second autopsy.
There was also the lost body part.
Dennis Wooten’s burned right hand was found at the fire scene several feet from his charred remains. Somehow, that hand was lost after the first autopsy.
The fact it was missing was not discovered until eight years later — at the second autopsy in North Little Rock, Arkansas.
The Wootens paid for the second examination primarily to have the hand examined. They fully expected it to be in the casket.
But when Dr. Frank J. Peretti, the forensic pathologist, opened the casket the hand was not with the remains of the body.
'It is my opinion, based on both autopsy findings, scene investigation, and the scientific evidence documented in the fire investigative reports, the origin of this fire is most consistent with an intentionally set fire, arson. Therefore, the manner of death is considered homicide.'
In large part, Peretti based his conclusion on information obtained by the Wootens' insurance company, which investigated the fire before paying the claim.
The Missouri Farm Bureau Insurance Company hired an investigator with an accelerant-sniffing canine to examine the remains of the house seven days after the fire.
The dog detected what might have been accelerant at four locations at the house. Samples were taken from those four sites and sent to Armstrong Forensic Laboratory, Inc., in Texas, for analysis.
One of the four was determined to be an accelerant; it was either kerosene or a substance similar to kerosene.
The News-Leader interviewed the canine handler. His comments will be in an upcoming story.
The parents have been successful, at least, in having their son's death certificate amended.
It was changed in 2014 to state that the manner of death could not be determined because the cause of the fire could not be determined. This reflects the conclusion of Randy Sweet, an investigator with the state fire marshal's office, who oversaw the fire probe.
Prior to that, it had stated the manner of death was the result of a fire that likely was accidental.
Sweet determined there was no clear cause of the fire and no way to definitively determine if it was deliberately set.
Call from drug informant
Janice Wooten has raised another major question.
Within hours of her son's death, investigators seemed to focus on whether her son possessed explosives and hand grenades. He didn't. Why did authorities think he did?
Four days after the fire, the investigator with the state fire marshal's office, returned to the scene with two federal agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Firearms, Tobacco and Explosives to scour the 106-acre farmstead for explosives.
They had received information — again, from a confidential informant — that there were explosives on the property, perhaps in a cave.
There were no explosives found, and no cave.© submitted photo The house where the body of Dennis Wooten was found was already burnt to the ground when firefighters arrived 10 years ago. All that stood was the chimney.
In reporting these stories, the News-Leader has relied on police and fire investigative documents provided by Janice Wooten that she received from authorities in 2011 after the case was closed and the investigation ended — pending new information.
In addition, with the help of Janice Wooten, the newspaper obtained the report compiled by the insurance company that investigated the blaze.
Early in the case, a veteran investigator from the Missouri State Highway Patrol was called in to provide what's called an equivocal death analysis. This is done when there has been a suspicious death. The investigator looks at the information available at the time to conclude what most likely happened.
Sgt. Dan Nash with the highway patrol concluded the fire was likely accidental and, therefore, the death was likely accidental.
But Nash's report is dated Oct. 23, 2010 — only 15 days after the death.
Nash states that he used the insurance company's report, which mentions the accelerant, as a source document. The insurance report is dated Nov. 8, after Nash's report. It is likely Nash had it in advance.
Nevertheless, Nash's narrative report makes no mention of the detached hand and no mention of the accelerant detected at the scene by the canine.
In addition, it states that Dennis Wooten had no children, which was inaccurate. He had a 9-month-old daughter he had never met.© Steve Pokin/News-Leader Janice and Denny Wooten with their grand-daughter Mahala, who is the daughter of their son Dennis. Dennis Wooten never met his daughter. This photo was taken on July 26, 2019.
Janice Wooten has questioned Nash's objectivity. At different times, according to documents, she has been suspicious of many others.
The confidential informant (or informants) was working for the Combined Ozarks Multi-jurisdictional Enforcement Team (COMET). The team often uses confidential informants.
Nash was a member of COMET from 1997 to 2003.
Records indicate Dennis Wooten's final phone conversation was with a man with the initials J.P. (The News-Leader knows the man's name but has chosen to use the initials, not knowing if J.P. is still working as a confidential informant today, 10 years later.)
In that call, Dennis Wooten likely did not know J.P. was a drug informant working for COMET, a fact made clear in documents reviewed by the newspaper.
That phone call was at 10:01 p.m. on Oct. 7, 2010.
Dennis Wooten returned home from a trip to a Sonic in Bolivar at 10:30 p.m. and, according to documents, went to a neighbor's house to borrow a movie and then went home. He was dead by roughly 3:06 a.m., if not earlier.
J.P. has been in prison since 2014 for domestic assault. He did not respond to a letter from the News-Leader last year requesting an interview. He also did not respond to a letter sent to him last month.
Detective Kenneth Minica with the Polk County Sheriff's Office was the main criminal investigator in this case.
Minica interviewed J.P. and wrote the following in a report:
'(J.P.) advised he contacted Dennis Wooten regarding buying some pills from him. (J.P.) advised he did not go to the residence. (J.P.) advised that he knew Dennis Wooten had made people mad over money he owed them. (J.P.) advised that Dennis Wooten was somehow involved with the Mexican Mafia.'
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The Mexican Mafia is a criminal organization with roots in the California prison system.
If a possible connection between the Ozarks and a Mexican drug organization sounds far-fetched, just last month Kristy Conn was sentenced to 10 years in federal prison for conspiring with a drug trafficking organization based in Mexico.
Conn was Everton city clerk at the time. Everton is a city in Dade County with a population of 319.
A 2012 story in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch states that a man who operated a horse ranch in Lexington, Oklahoma, was arrested for allegedly laundering money for the notorious Zeta gang, a Mexican drug operation.
Included in the investigative documents reviewed by the newspaper is one in which authorities considered the possible involvement of a man who was charged with beating someone with a baseball bat and pulling a gun on him in Springfield over drugs. This was in June of 2010.
That man is described in the report as a member of the Zeta gang.
What did he mean by 'life style'?
Janice Wooten says that in the days soon after her son's death authorities treated him more like a suspect than a victim.
In many instances, documents reflect that.
In fact, the report from the first autopsy in 2010 starts with these words by Dr. Keith N. Norton: “Mr. Roy Harms, the coroner of Polk County, requested an autopsy based on this man’s life style.”
Janice Wooten has tried to find out for 10 years what Harms meant by that.
Harms was contacted several times by the News-Leader. He has declined to explain. The newspaper left a letter at his residence just last month.© Nathan Papes/Springfield News-Leader Janice Wooten cleans her husbands headstone on Friday, Sept. 18, 2020.
Game 280: November 8 2019 The Initials Game On
In a 2013 letter to Janice Wooten, Harms wrote: 'I had no knowledge of any prior, or current, events concerning Dennis K. Wooten until the time of this tragic event.'
Another example of Wooten being viewed as a suspect involves Sweet, an investigator with the state fire marshal's office. He wrote that 'Pleasant Hope Fire Department Assistant Fire Chief David Agee contacted me when I arrived on the scene. Assistant Chief Agee said he had information that Dennis Wooten had some C-4 explosives somewhere on the property.'
As a result, Sweet that morning called in two federal agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
Sweet, who declined to be interviewed for these stories, wrote that the information regarding explosives also came from a confidential informant working for COMET.
One of the federal agents told Sweet, according to Sweet's report, that 'drug task force members had been talking with a confidential informant who said Dennis Wooten had some hand grenades.'
No hand grenades were ever found.
Agee, retired, finally agreed to talk to the News-Leader last month. He was asked why he told Sweet there were C-4 explosives on the property back in 2010.
Where did that inaccurate information come from?
'I can't share that with you,' he told the newspaper in a Sept. 24 phone interview. 'It is still too risky. There could be problems with that.'
He would not elaborate.
The story continues below.
Game 280: November 8 2019 The Initials Game Show
Body part kept in a cooler
What's clear from both autopsies is that Dennis Wooten died from the fire. His body was burned beyond recognition and he had a lethal level of carbon monoxide poisoning in his system.
At the scene of the blaze 10 years ago, Dennis Wooten's right hand was found by authorities several feet from the remnants of his body and was originally described as possibly being part of a rib.
By the time the detached body part was found, the body had already been removed from the scene.
While the body was taken to the morgue at Cox Medical Center in Springfield, the hand was not.
Game 280: November 8 2019 The Initials Games
Janice Wooten has said that Harms, then Polk County coroner after serving 12 years as a county commissioner, told her he kept the hand in a cooler on the back porch of his home over the weekend.
Harms spoke only briefly with the News-Leader in 2019. He ended that conversation by hanging up.
He said it is inaccurate to say the hand was kept in a cooler on his back porch over the weekend but would not elaborate.
“I am not going to have anything to say.”© Nathan Papes/Springfield News-Leader Janice Wooten visits the grave of her husband and son on Friday, Sept. 18, 2020.
Harms ran unsuccessfully for state representative in 2016 and did not seek re-election as coroner.
On a Monday morning in October 2010, the detached hand was delivered to Norton, the doctor who performed the first autopsy on what was left of Wooten’s body.
But Norton does not recall examining the hand and his report makes no mention of him ever examining it. But his report acknowledges receiving it.
No one seems to know what happened to Dennis Wooten’s hand after that first autopsy.
The Wootens provided Polk County Sheriff Danny Morrison with the second autopsy report in 2019. Morrison was not the Polk County sheriff in 2010 when Dennis Wooten died; Steve Bruce was.
Morrison has worked under former sheriffs Bruce, Kay Williams and Mike Parson, the current governor.
In February 2019, the News-Leader filed a Sunshine request under the Missouri open records law for any recent information on the criminal investigation into the death of Dennis Wooten.
Morrison said back then the investigation was ongoing and the documents therefore were closed to the public.
The newspaper filed another request Sept. 16, 2020 — 19 months later. Morrison again would not release any information, saying it was an open investigation.
Janice Wooten doubts the sheriff's office is actively working on her son's case.
'They are blowing you off,' she told a News-Leader reporter. 'They are not investigating anything.'© Nathan Papes/Springfield News-Leader The Red Door Diner and its contents, which was formerly owned by Janice Wooten, is auctioned off on Monday, Sept. 21, 2020.
Denny Wooten buried next to son
The newspaper was preparing to publish stories on the death in 2019.
Then Denny Wooten was diagnosed with cancer in the spring and his condition worsened quickly.
During this time, both Denny and Janice Wooten understandably were unable to focus on the upcoming stories. They could not, for example, clarify details or answer new questions.
Denny Lee Wooten died at home in hospice care on Nov. 25, 2019, at 65. He died believing his son was murdered.
His wife says he died peacefully. She had placed her hand lightly on his chest, she says, and felt his final breath.
Before Denny Wooten died he had asked that the family’s burial arrangements be changed. He wanted to be buried in the middle grave, next to their son. She agreed.
Father and son are interred at Pleasant Hope cemetery, in Polk County near First Baptist Church.
Janice Wooten says that although Denny was an Air Force veteran, she faces about $250,000 in outstanding medical bills.
For six years, the couple had owned the Red Door Diner in Pleasant Hope.
Janice Wooten has been forced to close the business because of the pandemic and in September auctioned off the equipment and the structure.
She has also sold her home in Halfway, the one that was next to the smaller home they owned — the one where her son died in the fire.
She sold the surrounding farmstead where she and Denny had lived 35 years.
Janice Wooten rents an apartment in Springfield. She plans to leave Missouri soon.
She remains convinced her son’s death was no accident.
“Every single day. I think about how he died. I think about the fact that the hand was not in the casket and not in the body bag.
“It just haunts me.”
This article originally appeared on Springfield News-Leader: 'It just haunts me' — Ten years after son died in fire, mom still suspects he was murdered