A man accused of killing nearly two dozen older women and who was convicted last year in the slayings of two has been killed by his cellmate at a Texas prison, an official said.
Billy Chemirmir, 50, was found dead in his cell Tuesday morning local time, Texas Department of Criminal Justice spokesperson Hannah Haney said.
She said that Chemirmir's cellmate, who is serving a sentence for murder, was identified as the assailant, but said she couldn't release the cellmate's identity or how Chemirmir was killed.
Family members of the victims who gathered at a news conference expressed shock and relief at the news.
“My mother died in fear. This man did not have a peaceful passing. There’s some relief in feeling that he didn’t get off easily,” said Shannon Dion, whose 92-year-old mother, Doris Gleason, was among those Chemirmir was charged with killing.
Authorities said Chemirmir preyed on older women in the Dallas area over a two-year span, killing them and stealing their valuables. Time after time, their deaths were initially determined to be from natural causes, even as family members raised alarm about missing jewellery.
Chemirmir was caught after a 91-year-old woman survived a 2018 attack and told police a man had forced his way into her apartment at an independent living community for seniors, tried to smother her with a pillow and took her jewellery.
Police said they found Chemirmir the following day in the parking lot of his apartment complex holding jewellery and cash, having just thrown away a large red jewellery box. Documents in the jewellery box led them to the home of Lu Thi Harris, 81, who was found dead in her bedroom.
After Chemirmir’s arrest, police across the area reexamined deaths, and the charges against him grew. Many of the victims’ children have said they were left perplexed by the deaths at the time, as their mothers, though older, were still healthy and active.
The first capital murder trial of Chemirmir for the slaying of Harris ended in mistrial in Dallas County. He was later convicted in a retrial for Harris’ death and was then convicted of a second killing in the death of Mary Brooks, 87.
Following his second conviction, family members of those Chemirmir was accused of killing gathered at a Dallas courthouse to face him. In Ellen French House’s victim impact statement, she told Chemirmir that she wanted him to see two photos of her mother: one of Norma French alive, the other after the 85-year-old was killed.
“This is my beautiful mother,” House said as she displayed the first photo. “This is my mother after you pried her wedding ring off of her finger that she couldn’t even get off.”
Most of the victims lived in apartments at independent living communities for older people. One woman who lived in a private home was the widow of a man Chemirmir cared for while working as an at-home caregiver.
Chemirmir had been indicted on 22 capital murder charges. Thirteen of the charges were in Dallas County while nine were in neighbouring Collin County. Following the two convictions in Dallas County, prosecutors dismissed the remaining 11 charges there. They did not seek the death penalty. Meanwhile, Collin County prosecutors said last month that they would not seek the death penalty in their cases.
Chemirmir, who maintained his innocence, was serving two sentences of life without the possibility of parole. He was imprisoned at the Coffield Unit in Tennessee Colony, located about 100 miles southeast of Dallas.
Chemirmir’s attorney, Phillip Hayes, said Tuesday that his death is "just a horrible tragedy.”
“Nobody deserves to be killed at any point, especially when you are in a place you’re being held against your will," Hayes said.
Earlier this month, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice said it was implementing lockdown measures in response to “a rise in dangerous contraband and drug-related inmate homicides.” At the time of that Sept. 6 announcement, the department said there had been 16 inmate-on-inmate homicides so far this year. In 2021, there were nine such murders while in 2022 there were seven.
With the lockdown, the prisons were limiting the movement of inmates and their contact with outsiders. In addition, inmates and staff were undergoing intensified searches. A heightened drug testing protocol was also implemented.
Department spokesperson Amanda Hernandez said that as comprehensive searches were completed, units have been resuming normal operations. She said that as of Tuesday, the lockdown remained at 25 units and had been lifted at 75.
The Coffield Unit, where Chemirmir was located, is a among those still locked down.
Haney said the Office of Inspector General is investigating his death.