Family Business: Murder Would Settle It, and Debra Banister Knew Who to Ask

Togetherness is a rare thing in families these days, so it was a special moment this spring when Franklin and Iris Sims and their two grown daughters stood united in criminal court in Gainesville, Fla., pleading no contest to varying degrees of involvement in the death of a particularly irksome son-in-law. At issue was the $10,000 murder-for-hire of Cecil Batie, ex-husband of the Simses’ younger daughter, Marlene. Batie had been blasted twice in the head with a .22 rifle as he lay asleep on his living room couch. But this was not the only trouble that had befallen the Simses.

Two years earlier Frank and Iris’ elder daughter, Debra, was found guilty of second-degree murder in the killing of her husband, Joe Banister, who, like his brother-in-law, had been dispatched with two shots to the head. Debra’s lover, John Wayne Hearn, the Vietnam vet who did the actual shooting of both husbands, has also admitted to murdering a fellow’s wife out in Texas. And Marlene’s third husband (Cecil was her first) was partially blinded in an accident a district attorney calls “very suspicious.”

Even Grandma had been involved in this web of familial foul play—if only as victim. Turns out, according to police, that in looking about for a way to raise the cash to pay for the killing of Cecil Batie, the Sims daughters’ thoughts turned to arson. It was before Thanksgiving 1984, and Mama Iris, according to Marlene, remarked that her mama, who lived five hours north of Gainesville in Santa Rosa Beach, maybe should come down for a visit.

According to a sheriff’s department interview, Marlene later said Debra observed, “Wouldn’t it be a shame if Grandma’s house burned down while Grandma was in Gainesville?”

Eventually the girls allegedly discussed their plans with Iris. “I told Mom that we were going to burn down Grandma’s house,” Marlene said. “Mom said, ‘Well, be careful.’ ” Both Iris and Debra have denied any involvement.

Although investigators suspected the sisters of murdering their husbands and were suspicious of the blaze (Grandma, after all, had not been out of town for 50 years), it took almost two years to bring the family to justice. “This case was like a tar baby,” Alachua County Assistant State Attorney Ken Hebert says. “The more you’d pull at it, the deeper in you’d get.”

Gainesville, Fla. In the center of town sits the University of Florida, but there are other sections with the tough, raunchy feel of swamp country—neighborhoods filled with independent-natured folks with gun racks in their pickups. “Rugged-type individuals,” criminal investigator Farnell Cole calls them. “When they call the police in, it’s usually after the fact.”

Into such a neighborhood, in the early ’70s, moved insurance agent Frank Sims and his family, eventually settling into a trailer park just over the city line. The address was 2890 Fifteenth Avenue, Southeast, but the locals called the neighborhood Batie Hill, in dubious tribute to Verdie Ree Batie, a tree surgeon, and his 10 kids. “My father was a rowdy,” says Gerald Batie. “When the police got called, they never sent one car. They always sent several.”

Cecil, youngest of the Batie boys, was a bit of a rowdy too. Liked a drink, liked a fight, dropped out of school to follow his father into the tree business. Then he met blond, plump Marlene Sims. He was 21 when they married; she was 15 and pregnant. Two years and two sons later, the marriage dissolved. During custody battles Marlene claimed that Cecil beat his elder son, Adam, with a board. The Baties, on the other hand, claim that Cecil, after the divorce, stopped drinking, went to night school, even started coaching the Little League. They say he did not use a board when he “beat Adam’s butt.” They also say that Marlene broke his heart.

“One day Cecil came home, and she had packed up the kids and moved in with his best friend, Ralph Smith,” says Gerald. “He spent all these years waiting on Marlene to come back, and after she split up with Ralph, if she’d need anything done, he’d do it. One day I said to him, ‘Cecil, why don’t you just walk up to Marlene, give her a great big hug an’ a big juicy kiss, an’ say, “Marlene, darlin’, if there’s anything you want from me from now on, just kiss my ass.” ‘ He got mad at me. He said he loved Marlene.”

But by the spring of 1984, 28-year-old Marlene was married again—to a construction worker named Larry Foster. Her sister Debra, then 29, whose first marriage had ended in divorce, was also remarried, to telephone installer Joe Banister, 41. Debra Banister had come up in the world: She had a job at the Sun Bank in Gainesville, a $50,000 house in the town of Starke, and two small children, a boy and a girl.

She had also, perhaps, a bit of a wild streak; she upset some neighbors when she took their teenage daughter shopping in Jacksonville and the girl came back with a tattoo. Her friend and lawyer Val Bates felt she was “frustrated” in her marriage—that her quiet husband, a “real nice guy” who had held the same job at Western Electric for 17 years, “just wasn’t what she wanted or needed.” Debra herself later complained that Joe Banister would come home from work, grab a beer and collapse on the couch.

Debra remained close with her family. They looked to her for advice, and when Cecil snatched one of his boys from school during a custody fight with Marlene, Marlene turned to Debra in frustration and rage. “I told Debbie over and over that I didn’t understand…and I wished the man was dead,” she said.

Debra did not have the reputation of a take-charge gal for nothing. A few days after the conversation, she sought out her sister. “She said that she knew someone who would kill Cecil,” Marlene told investigators. She said that there had been an article in Soldier of Fortune magazine, “and she had called a man, and the man had said that anything was possible if the price was right….”

It had been, in fact, not an article but an ad promoting the skills of an ex-Marine courting “high-risk assignments.” The mercenary who had placed it was not quite as tough as the ad made him seem. A 38-year-old truck driver and self-styled photographer, John Wayne Hearn had indeed served two terms of active duty as a Marine sergeant in Vietnam, but with his baby face and tendency to tears, his look was more Teddy Bear than Rambo, and his personal life was a shambles. He had been married four times and was living in a barren studio outside Atlanta when he placed his ad in Soldier of Fortune. Like Marlene, he had been involved in a prolonged custody battle, for his 8-year-old son, Wayne, who lived with Hearn’s mother in South Carolina. A sense of his own unimportance covered Hearn like a shroud, and he had a tendency to see himself as a victim, looking to others for structure and direction. Not surprisingly, his stint in the service was the most successful part of his life. But even there he had run into trouble and been identified as having sociopathic traits.

He met Debra Banister for the first time at a Shoney’s Restaurant in Georgia. Whether she was attracted to his macho persona or the needy fellow beneath is not known, but she was attracted, for midway in the conversation she leaned across the table and kissed her hit man on the tip of his nose. “I tell you, this must have been love at first sight,” Bradford County investigator Don Denton says. “Because after that kiss, things move along fast. She meets him in November; by December she’s at his apartment and telling everybody her husband is dead—and they haven’t even killed him yet.”

Hearn was desperately in love, and Debra Banister was also entranced. “She said she had met a…nice man,” Marlene told investigators, “and she could get Cecil killed for $30,000…. My mother asked her why couldn’t he do it for free…’What’s wrong Debbie…you lost your touch.’ ” A week or so later, the price was down to $10,000. That settled, the sisters set about the business of raising funds. They brought Grandma and her cat down to Gainesville the day before Thanksgiving. Then, according to Marlene, they turned around, drove the five hours back to Walton County, spilled some varnish remover on the floor and started a fire. “Dad told us to be real careful and…not to get a speeding ticket in Walton County or any place near Walton County that would put us back in that area,” Marlene told investigators. (Frank has denied he knew of the arson.) “By the time we got back…it was early in the morning and…my grandma assumed that we had just come in…when actually we had been out all night.”

Later Grandma was said to be peevish and reportedly told Cecil Batie and his mama she knew the Simses had burned her house down even if she couldn’t prove it. Shortly thereafter Marlene’s husband of nine months, Larry Watson, had an argument with Marlene and wound up in the hospital with a serious skull injury. Marlene claimed he’d hit her and that she’d run him down in her van as she tried to escape. Larry’s people were skeptical. “I think he was done ’cause he heard something she didn’t want him to hear,” says his sister Joyce. Police too had their doubts. “Suspicious?” says Assistant State Attorney Hebert. “I consider it very suspicious. He was talked to several times, but he didn’t remember anything, and there’s not much we can do about that.”

Over at the Simses’ trailer, meanwhile, the insurance money on Grandma’s house came through Jan. 2, and on Jan. 3 Debra called Hearn in Atlanta. The next day, a Friday, Hearn met Debra at a Gainesville motel and was paid $10,000 in hundred-dollar bills. He took three of those bills and bought a 12-gauge shotgun advertised in the Gainesville Sun. At about the’ same time, Marlene went over to Cecil’s house to pick up her boys for the weekend. She took a metal box in which Cecil stored his insurance papers, suggested that the baby-sitter leave for the weekend and went to the hospital to pick up the unfortunate Larry. Together they had a nice family barbecue.

In the early morning hours of Sunday, Jan. 6, Hearn, rifle in hand, walked to the picture window of Cecil’s house, just across the street from the Simses’ trailer. Batie lay asleep on the couch with the television on. Hearn shot him twice and left town.

Later that morning, when Alachua County investigators Farnell Cole and Charlie Sanders asked Cecil’s big brother Billy who might have done such a thing, Billy didn’t hesitate.

“Marlene,” he said.

Marlene did not play the grieving widow. “I’m glad the son of a bitch is dead, but I didn’t kill him,” she told police. Reportedly aware that Billy was armed and feeling dangerous, Marlene did not show up at her ex-husband’s funeral. On the first business day after the killing, however, she called up his insurance agent and was “very irate,” according to investigator Cole, to discover that Cecil had recently removed her as beneficiary of his $30,000 life insurance policy.

By this time Debra Banister and John Wayne Hearn were phoning each other daily and had opened a joint checking account, Debra signing her last name as Hearn. He took her son and daughter to Disney World, and they called him Daddy. In January he moved to Gainesville, where he and Debra dreamed of a life together, in a little log cabin in the mountains, maybe.

When an electrician in Texas, Robert Vanoy Black, saw Hearn’s ad and asked him in early January if he would take on the job of murdering his wife, Hearn turned him down. But according to police, Debra Banister helped change his mind. She also asked Hearn to kill her husband, adding that if he wouldn’t kill Joe Banister, she would find somebody else to do it. “She told me she would give me some money so she wouldn’t feel guilty,” he testified later. When Marlene found out about the plan, she said later, she “begged [Debra] not to do it,” apparently feeling that another killing would arouse unwanted suspicion. But Debra wouldn’t listen. She would be meeting Joe at a dinner party in the town of Palatka, and as they were driving home in separate vehicles, Hearn would run him into a ravine. If he couldn’t make it look like an accident, Hearn told Debra, he “would have to use the gun.”

The gun belonged to Joe, and Debra had arranged for her lover to get it from the trunk of her car a few days before her husband’s murder. They were not a cautious couple: That final week of Joe Banister’s life, they saw each other every day, and every day they made love. Then on Saturday, Feb. 2, Debra dropped her children with Marlene and Larry. That evening, after she had gone off to the party to meet her husband, Hearn drove out to the highway and waited. At about 10 p.m., he saw Debra driving by and flagged her down.

“I asked her if she was sure she wanted to go through with it,” he later testified. He said she replied, “[You’d] better hurry up or [you’ll] miss him.”

When the moment arrived, the plan to push Banister off the highway had to be abandoned: There was too much traffic. So Hearn pulled Banister’s AR-7 Survival Rifle from under the seat of his truck, assembled it as he drove and followed Banister onto a narrow country road. After the first shot, Banister, wounded by a bullet that grazed his neck, struggled briefly to control his pickup and was immediately hit by another bullet. His body was found shortly after midnight. The young highway patrolman who discovered it called Debra at 4:30 a.m. to tell her she had become the Widow Banister.

She cried.

The discovery that Joe Banister had been murdered was made on Monday, during an autopsy. That evening Don Denton of the Bradford County Sheriff’s Department went to Debra’s home to break the news. He was dreading it, he says, because he expected her to be “in total shock.” Instead she questioned him about the caliber of the murder weapon.

“Now I’m in shock,” says Denton.

The funeral was Thursday, and Debra attended with a man she introduced as Cousin Hearn—a surprise to Joe’s family and friends, who had never heard of this particular cousin. He seemed to be a real nice fellow, though. He helped Debra with the funeral arrangements and photographed the family at the ceremonies. He took one portrait of the Widow Banister—a single red rose in her hand—standing before her husband’s grave.

After that, things started to unravel. Joe Banister’s family began calling Don Denton in Bradford County to tell him of the widow’s unwidowly behavior. Charlie Sanders, over in Alachua County, called up Denton and told him that Joe Banister had been the in-law of a murder victim in Gainesville. He also told him that people on Batie Hill had fingered a man who appeared in the Sims household shortly before the murder of Cecil Batie. That man was John Wayne Hearn. Suddenly the cops had a suspect.

Yet the Sims family wasn’t easy to crack. They insisted they had known Hearn for years, and Hearn said the same. On the weekend of the murder, he said, he had been up in South Carolina visiting his mother, Mrs. Mary Watson, and his son.

Then he strolled out of the sheriff’s office, drove down the road to the Kampgrounds of America pay phone and placed a call to Bob Black in Bryan, Texas, agreeing to kill Black’s wife for $10,000.

Black was a man of efficiency, if not much sense. As soon as he and Hearn agreed on their deal, he sent Hearn a $1,000 cashier’s check as a down payment, along with a handwritten note: “If there is anyway you could schedule your plans to conclude with my being alibied out-of-town this weekend, it would help considerably.”

On Feb. 21 Hearn met Bob Black at his home in Texas. They ransacked the house to make it look as if it had been robbed, and Hearn was given some of Sandra Black’s jewels. He didn’t have a gun, so Bob Black gave him the 2 caliber revolver his wife kept on her night-stand. Then he left and called his wife at work.

“When you coming home, honey?” he asked.

When she did come home, Hearn, hiding in the dining room, shot her in the back of the head, then, with his customary make-sure shot, in the eye. Bob Black, arriving home later with his 15-year-old son, sent the boy in first, to better his own alibi. Not long afterward, according to police, Debra Banister tried to sell some of Sandra Black’s jewels in Gainesville.

Investigators, meanwhile, were closing in. The day after interviewing Hearn, they had driven up to South Carolina and interviewed Mary Watson. Authorities say she confirmed her son’s alibi, remembering that John Wayne Hearn was home in time for supper on the weekend of Joe Banister’s murder and even recalling what he had to eat. The team of investigators returned to Gainesville to continue digging. Subpoenaed phone bills led to Hearn’s Soldier of Fortune ad and disclosed three calls between Hearn’s motel room in Gainesville and Debra Banister’s home in the early morning hours after Joe’s murder.

Returning to South Carolina, police became more persuasive, confronting Mrs. Watson with the evidence and threatening her with arrest as an accessory to murder. Intimidated, Mrs. Watson admitted that her son had not been home the night of the killing and even turned over Bob Black’s businesslike letter.

Soon afterward Hearn gave himself up to police, and within 36 hours admitted to the killings of Cecil Batie, Joe Banister and Sandra Black, implicating members of the Sims family as well. On April 15985 a Bradford County grand jury indicted Hearn and Debra Banister for first-degree murder in the killing of Joe Banister. On June 7 an Alachua County grand jury indicted Hearn, Debra, Marlene Watson and Franklin and Iris Sims for the murder of Cecil Batie. Hearn became the prosecution’s star witness and received a sentence of life imprisonment. There was, of course, some inducement. There is a death penalty in Florida, and in Texas too.

Debra Banister would not come to trial until August 1986, when she would be portrayed by her two-man defense team as an unhappy housewife driven by loneliness, who had broken off her affair with Hearn the day her husband was killed and who knew nothing of the murder.

The evidence suggested otherwise. Prosecutor Tom Elwell not only had the testimony of Hearn, who wept as he recalled Debra Banister’s first kiss, he also had a recording of Banister and Hearn planning her husband’s murder. Hearn, who was waging a custody fight for his son, had installed a taping system in his mother’s home that automatically recorded all incoming calls.

“The way I got it figured, it will be an accident,” Hearn said on the tape.

“Good,” replied Debra Banister’s voice in the courtroom. She was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to 17 years in prison.

Hearn next traveled to Texas, where he testified against Robert Black. On Feb. 26, 1986, a year and five days after hiring a man to murder his wife, Black was sentenced to death. Subsequently, Sandra Black’s family filed a $107 million gross negligence suit against Soldier of Fortune magazine.

Back in Gainesville, the Sims family, awaiting trial for the murder of Cecil Batie, continued to proclaim their innocence. Then, with the trial approaching, Marlene Watson made a deal. Last February she pleaded no contest to arson and to a reduced charge of conspiracy to commit first-degree murder and was sentenced to 5½ years in jail. Then Frank and Iris Sims were allowed to plead no contest to a charge of being accessories after the fact. They received five years’ probation.

Debra Banister, weeping in prison blues, pleaded no contest to the same conspiracy charge as her sister and was sentenced to 30 years, to be served concurrently with her previous sentence. With time off for good behavior, her lawyer, Lloyd Vipperman, figures she’ll be out in less than nine years. Best deal he’s ever had in a capital case, he says.

Out in Bradford County, sheriff’s investigator Don Denton would probably agree. “I honestly don’t believe John Wayne Hearn would have killed a person except for Debra Banister,” he says. “Debra Banister completely controlled that man. Look at that funeral. He should have left town after killing Joe Banister and nobody would have known who John Wayne Hearn was.

“But it was a love match. He couldn’t stay away.”

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