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Murder On Grapevine Lake

Oct. 22, 2005

CBS News Murder On Grapevine Lake October 22, 2005 230005CBS) 

David Nixon was in the prime of his life when he was murdered in 2002. A successful businessman with a son from a previous marriage, Nixon loved living the good life in the town of Grapevine, Texas.

After his murder, police charged his live-in girlfriend despite what the defense said was a lack of physical evidence.

Who killed David Nixon and what was the motive? Was he murdered for living on the edge?

Correspondent Troy Roberts reports.

The Victim

It was the middle of the night when forensic death investigator John Briggs got the call to report to the scene of a homicide and he remembers smelling a burning odor as he got out of his vehicle.

A body had been wrapped in several items that had burned but were not totally consumed, including a plastic camping tarp and rope.

“I could not even tell if it was a male or a female. But based upon the face, I knew it was a Caucasian person,” recalls Briggs.

When police first arrived at the crime scene in Grand Prairie, Texas, in April 2002, the intense heat from the fire had damaged the body to such a degree that crime scene investigators had to spend hours delicately recovering the remains.

Police found tire tracks and some fiber materials but little other evidence. The medical examiner would determine that the victim was a man in his 40s killed by a single gunshot wound to the heart but his identity was a mystery.

Dental records later confirmed the body’s identity as 40-year-old David Nixon, a successful realtor from nearby Grapevine, Texas.

The victim’s son, Nicholas, was devastated by the news. “I knew the second he never called me back… . I knew something had happened.”

Nicholas, 14, idolized his father, a bear of man at 6 feet 4 inches and 240 pounds. “Trustworthy, dependable, protective. Anybody who knew him knew that he would do just about anything for anybody.”

Nicholas’ mother, Donna Lella, is David Nixon’s first wife and still has fond memories 15 years later. “Charming, vivacious and full of life. And you never knew what you were going to get. Loved surprises.”

The couple married in 1990 and their son was born the following year.

David soon found success selling real estate, becoming a top agent, and eventually brokering million-dollar deals on high-end properties in the affluent suburbs north of Dallas.

Their marriage ended in 1995 after David had an affair with flight attendant Lisa Hill. They married and divorced within two years.

But David wasn’t single for long. Before his divorce to Hill was final, he met another woman, an attractive 27-year-old accountant named Tracey Frame.

“He was nice, very charming, easy to get along with," says Tracey. "Very smooth. I wasn’t interested in dating right then. But he was pretty persistent."

David and Tracey soon started living together in Grapevine and she says David had a taste for the finer things in life and lived beyond his means.

The pair were fixtures in the social scene of Grapevine Lake.

“That lake was a Peyton Place. I’m telling you right now. It was amazing to see who woke up with who in the mornings,” says Jerry Vowell, who knows that scene very well.

While Tracey only had eyes for David, Jerry remembers that the relationship was volatile at times. “Most of the time they were fun to be around. But, boy, when they argued you just wanted to get away from them."

The loudest and longest arguments were over finances and David’s gambling debts.

Tracey says David was spending more and more money and that the arguments got worse. At times things could get rough with shoving matches.

By the spring of 2002, after almost four years, the relationship was over.

But going their separate ways would be complicated. David reportedly owed more than $100,000 in back taxes to the IRS and transferred the house to Tracey to protect his property.

Tracey wanted to retain ownership of the house and arguments escalated on April 9 when David called police. He was livid that Tracey had changed the locks to the house.

The police helped settle that argument.

“So, after that domestic disturbance on April 9, things were civil between the two of you?” Roberts asked.

“I wouldn't say civil. It was business,” says Tracey. "I wasn’t going to leave him high and dry."

Almost two weeks later David Nixon was dead.

The Investigation

Tracey says she was stunned by the news, wondering who murdered David. “There was a lot of things going through my mind. I just couldn't believe it.”

But David’s first wife, Donna Lella, could believe it. “When I went to the police department, those were my first words that Sunday night I went there: ‘Tracey Frame did it. David told me I had to tell you this.’"

Donna also says David knew the person who would kill him. “He was going to be murdered by Tracey. He used the word ‘murder.’ That Tracey was going to kill him."

David never contacted police.

Donna went to the police and reported David missing after he didn’t return phone messages from their son Nicholas. She also says she confronted Tracey over the phone, asking what had happened to him.

But Tracey wasn’t worried about David’s disappearance. “At that point it was not uncommon for him to do what he wanted, to go out with the guys or go stay at a hotel. And I didn’t beg him to come home or whatever. Absolutely not.”

She says David sometimes snuck off to Las Vegas for a weekend of gambling and thinks he was involved with prostitutes and call girls.

Despite their differences, Tracey and David were still living together at the house in Grapevine. But David had found another place to live, and was making arrangements to move just days before his murder.

Tracey says they discussed plans for his move and that he asked her to rent a moving van. She did rent a Penske moving van and furniture dolly but David never returned.

“Since David and Tracey lived together she was our key witness. She was the one we wanted to talk to the most,” says Grapevine Police Detective Larry Hallmark, who was assigned to the murder investigation.

“Once we met her, her demeanor was completely not what I expected, not what would be normal under those circumstances,” Det. Hallmark says. “We told her that David had been murdered. … The first thing she asked was, ‘How did they identify him?’ Which I thought was an extremely suspicious response.”

Tracey insist she never asked that question.

Frame told detectives that she was home alone the night David disappeared and agreed to be questioned on videotape (video) at the police station.

Tracey told investigators that she and David were having problems in the months leading to his murder. “We just aren't getting along and I just lost a baby,” she tearfully told police.

Tracey says she learned of her pregnancy the previous fall, just as her relationship with David was crumbling. She now says health complications forced her to terminate the pregnancy but, at the time, she blamed David.

The loss of her unborn baby and David’s reaction left Tracey bitter. She claims he was unapologetic. “He could be cruel. He could be very vicious with his tongue.”

But was she angry enough to commit murder? Hallmark and another detective, Matt Gudgel, start pressing Tracey for answers.

“She could never tell the truth during that entire interview. She was evasive. And sometimes she just out and out lied,” says Hallmark.

Tracey maintains she had no involvement in Nixon’s murder and knew nothing about the circumstances surrounding the killing.

While Hallmark had his suspicions about Tracey Frame, he had little to go on with no blood evidence and no murder weapon or bullets.

An exhaustive search of the crime scene and a storm drain yielded few clues, as firefighters had already washed down the area.

The police did find a set of tire tracks at the scene, providing Hallmark with an important clue. “The tire tracks that backed up to this body were the same configuration, same make, model and size as the tires that were on the Penske truck that Tracey had rented,”. Hallmark says.

And he soon caught another break. Security cameras at a Tom Thumb supermarket near David and Tracey’s house captured fleeting images (video) over that weekend, blurry at best, but recorded at very precise times.

The videotape shows a Penske moving van that looks similar to the one Tracey rented driving through the parking lot. Also on tape, someone abandons David’s white Lexus in the lot, three days after his murder.

The cameras show a woman walking outside the store. Inside, she’s seen buying several items, and then leaving.

Is that woman Tracey frame? While Hallmark says the woman in the video looks like Frame, she is adamant it is not her and that she was at her parents’ home in Arlington.

Hallmark’s theory is that Tracey shot David in his sleep and then moved his body in the truck. He also thinks that she managed to move his body by using a furniture dolly and strapping him down.

Hallmark also says Tracey tried but failed to shove Nixon’s body down a storm drain.

“You believe that she dumped the body and then two days later returned to set it afire, to get rid of the evidence?” Roberts asked.

“Right. And she could just sweep him into that storm drain and he would just disappear forever,” Hallmark replied.

That alleged plan fell apart after a passerby spotted the fire.

But the question remained: Why would Tracey want David dead?

David’s ex-wife Donna thinks money and greed were the motive, but Tracey says “there was nothing to gain. Nothing.”

The day after Tracey Frame met with police detectives, she was arrested and charged with the murder of David Nixon.

Tracey was released on bond and fitted with an electronic monitoring device to be worn until her trial.

But Tracey has her defenders and none is more loyal than dentist Roland Taylor, a native of Great Britain, who settled in Texas.

“Everybody goes 'What a bitch she is.' And she’s totally the opposite,” says Roland.

Who would want David Nixon dead? “Probably the people that he owed money to. And he owed a lot,” Roland says. “You know what? It would behoove her to keep him alive because he owed her a ton of money.”

Roland and Tracey were long-time friends from Grapevine Lake and, after her arrest, a romance developed. They are now engaged to be married.

“I will never, ever, ever stop loving her," Roland says. "I’ll never leave. I’m there.”

The Defense

“As the state said, this is purely a circumstantial case,” says Donald Feare, Tracey’s defense attorney.

Feare had worked on only three murder cases in his career but is confident he can quickly win an acquittal for Frame.

“She was arrested in the first 36 hours of a homicide case. And that’s just unheard of unless it happens to be standing there with a smoking gun, screaming ‘I did it! I killed him!’” says Feare, who also thinks that Det. Hallmark was over-ambitious and got it all wrong from the beginning.

Feare says the case against his client doesn’t add up, pointing out that no incriminating evidence was found at the house or in the moving truck.

And he says the videotaped interview (video) with detectives was designed to trap his client. “You saw interrogation questions aimed at trying to make her look bad and trip her up.”

Feare and Tracey also dismiss the videotape evidence (video) allegedly showing Tracey abandoning the white Lexus, parking the Penske truck and shopping at the Tom Thumb store.

Store records show that whomever the person in the store surveillance tape is used Tracey’s store discount card at the checkout, saving 19 cents.

Tracey admits the discount card is difficult to explain. “So, I don't have an answer for it, but I don't think that I would use a discount card if I was trying to sneak around town.”

Frame and her attorney throw out several theories about who may have killed David Nixon. They suggest Nixon could have been murdered during a robbery or that it was payback over gambling debts.

And they point an accusing finger at someone who knew both David Nixon and Tracey Frame very well.

“Jerry Vowell. A friend at the lake. Used to be a friend. He’s into businesses of helping people, you know, if they need to borrow money or whatever,” Tracey says.

“In the business of helping people who want to borrow money?” Roberts asked.

“OK, hold on. Can I answer that?” she asked, consulting her lawyer. Feare stopped Tracey from finishing her sentence.

Jerry admits he is an easy target. “I sell used cars. At one time, David loaned me money and right after Christmas I paid him back.”

Jerry and David had a plan to meet on the night he disappeared. Tracey and her lawyer insist the meeting was to discuss David’s interest in a new boat.

“He had $25,000 cash on him that he took from the bank to buy the boat,” Feare said. But Jerry insists David didn’t carry large sums of money and didn’t have outstanding debts.

Jerry says he was going to meet David for a drink but that it got too late and that he only talked to him by phone. He says it was the last time he spoke with his friend.

Feare raises questions about yet another possible suspect, David’s ex-wife Donna.

Two months before he died, David Nixon took out a life insurance policy for half a million dollars and Feare says Donna was named a beneficiary. “She’s secondary beneficiary, but in all reality, as her son is the primary beneficiary, she got the money. Tracey frame got nothing,” says Feare.

Donna says she got very little from David’s estate, less than $10,000.

David’s son, Nicholas, says he wasn’t surprised when Frame was arrested. “It had to be her. Everybody else I knew that knew him liked him. She was the only one who had anything against him really.”

Meanwhile, Feare is confident that prosecutors have no real case or proof and that police never investigated other suspects.

The Trial

More than three years after David Nixon’s murder, Tracey Frame is about to stand trial and she is confident she will be acquitted. “It’s pretty apparent that they don’t have as much as they would lead you to believe they have.”

Tarrant County Assistant District Attorney Sean Colston is prosecuting the case and says there’s no doubt in his mind that Frame killed David Nixon. “I think if you look at Tracey Frame, she’s just an unpredictable type person. And she’s the type of person who could kill without a motive.”

Tracey’s fiancée, Roland Taylor, says prosecutors are trying the wrong woman.

While Roland says he is absolutely sure Tracey is not the woman in the store surveillance tape, prosecutor Colston is convinced Frame was at the store and used her discount card.

With little forensic evidence, no eyewitnesses and the washed down crime scene, the defense believes the prosecution simply cannot make a case for murder.

And Tracey says she thinks David’s killer will never be found. “Because they never looked very far once they accused me.”

In the courtroom, Tracey’s defense was to go on the offense, arguing that the prosecution failed to offer proof beyond a reasonable doubt, that there was no real evidence linking Tracey to the crime, that no blood was found at the house, nothing was found at the storm drain, that the tire tracks could have come from any number of other trucks. They also planned to argue that the woman in the surveillance tape is not Tracey Frame.

And along with no apparent motive, there’s no murder weapon, no gun.

Or was there? Nicholas says his father kept a gun in his safe, in the bedroom of the house he shared with Tracey.

Police never found a gun and Tracey insists David never kept a weapon in the safe of the house.

Police did find two key witnesses to bolster their circumstantial case against Tracey.

John Wright and Mike Headen remember the day Tracey Frame came into their janitorial supply company shopping for cleaning products that would remove odor and blood.

It was one day after David disappeared, and the salesmen say Tracey asked if there was a fool-proof way to remove blood stains. They say they told her about muriatic acid, which they didn’t sell.

The next day, the shadowy figure, who prosecutors say is Tracey Frame, was at the Tom Thumb store, buying muriatic acid.

“Every item purchased by that woman was found in the home when we searched it,” says Det. Hallmark. For the prosecution, all the pieces of the puzzle fit.

And as for the defense suggestion that Donna may have had more to gain from David’s death than Tracey, Hallmark says there was nothing to it. “There was never anything suspicious about Donna's behavior. Everything that she did, all of her cell phone records, all of her alibis, you know, people that she was with, everything checked out. ... Every trail led to Tracey.”

On the eve of the verdict, Tracey Frame, who did not take the stand, seemed subdued and uncertain. “I don’t believe in justice very much right now. And I don’t know how I’ll feel after it.”

The Verdict

After a two-week long trial, it was judgment day for Tracey Frame, who, if convicted, could face a possible sentence of life in prison.

The day, March 9, 2005, would also have been David Nixon’s 43rd birthday.

Whatever the outcome, for Donna and Nicholas, some questions may never be answered.

“What was it that Tracey Frame had on David Nixon? Why couldn't she let him go? How did it get so out of control that she wanted to kill him? I don't know those answers,” says Donna.

Finally, Judge Mike Thomas read the verdict. Jurors had found Tracey Frame guilty of the offense of murder as charged in the indictment.

Jurors took less than four hours to find Tracey guilty, with a 40-year sentence.

David’s family was elated but, later that night, the mood became thoughtful.

“I’m just glad it’s finally over. It has gone on long enough,” says Nicholas.

Donna wishes that, somehow, she had done more. “I’m mad that I can’t change anything,” she said, tearfully. “I can’t bring him back.”

And Jerry Vowell is sure jurors got it right. “I know in my mind Tracey killed David.”

Det. Hallmark thinks money was the motive. “And I think it was a sense of entitlement.” He says entitlement to her fair share of the house.

But Roland Taylor remains loyal to his fiancée. “Tracey Frame was the person that ultimately has paid the price for this crime, not the person who did it.”

Tracey Frame spoke to 48 Hours just after her conviction and thinks she has strong ground for an appeal. Asked if she had any regrets, Tracey said, “Yeah, in the justice system.”

“I don’t really get the whole thing, you know? It’s weird,” says David’s son, Nicholas.

“Do you think when you get older you’ll be able to understand it any better?” Roberts asked.

“You can’t understand that kind of person,” Nicholas Nixon replied.