Original article no longer available
May 26, 2008
By DOMINGO RAMIREZ JR., Star-Telegram Staff Writer
Courtney Dunkin, 29, speaks to a Star-Telegram reporter at the Hobby Unit in Marlin. She is serving a life sentence for killing her grandmother in 1994 when she was 15.
MARLIN — The young woman sat talking in a soft voice, her long, dark brown hair on her shoulders at the prison unit where she’s serving a life sentence. Tears came as Courtney Dunkin talked about her grandmother — the 63-year-old woman Dunkin was convicted of fatally shooting in the head in 1994 at their home in Grapevine.
She’s been in custody for 14 years. She will be eligible for parole on May 26, 2034.
“I’d give anything to turn back time,” she said. “I just wish it hadn’t happened.”
Dunkin leaned forward as she held the telephone tighter in the interview room where glass separates visitors and inmates.
“I wasn’t angry at her,” she said. “I don’t know why it happened.”
Of the 1,293 female inmates at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice’s Hobby Unit, Dunkin is one of the youngest killers. She was 15 when she shot the woman who raised her and whom she called Mom. She’s now 29 and spoke out for the first time one recent morning about the events leading up to the killing of Betty Dunkin. She declined to talk about details of the slaying.
Courtney Dunkin went to live with her paternal grandparents, John and Betty Dunkin, when she was 5. Her parents had divorced; her father was an alcoholic, and relatives didn’t talk about her mother.
Shortly after moving to Grapevine, she began attending Dove Elementary and was diagnosed with attention-deficit (hyperactivity) disorder. School friends would occasionally spend the night, but she spent many hours with her grandfather, who owned a construction company and had a flexible schedule allowing time for her. Her grandmother worked days at General Motors and prepared dinner when she got home.
In 1989, John Dunkin died of cancer, leaving Courtney Dunkin, then 11, shattered.
“I knew he was sick, but no one told me he might die,” she said. “I didn’t have anyone to talk to about it. I would try to talk to Mom about it, but she would just cry.”
As her grief lingered, Courtney Dunkin entered Grapevine Middle School. She started to wear black clothing and decorated her room in black. Troubles — sassing, tardiness and detention — at school started to mount. Arguments with her grandmother increased, and Courtney Dunkin became known to police.
“It seems that when we would be questioning some suspects at an apartment or at a house, there was Courtney,” recently retired Grapevine police Detective Bob Murphy said. “We got to know her name.”
Betty Dunkin’s answer to her granddaughter’s problems was counseling: at school, at hospitals and with family therapists, Courtney Dunkin said. Betty Dunkin also joined ToughLove, a support group that helps parents with out-of-control children.
About that time, Courtney Dunkin said, she was prescribed Paxil, an antidepressant on which she would intentionally overdose on a few occasions. In 2004, the Food and Drug Administration began requiring its strongest label warning for Paxil and other antidepressants because they increase the risk of suicidal thinking and behavior in children.
Dunkin says she was suicidal at the time of her grandmother’s death and irrational because of the medication and the death of her grandfather.
Before the shooting
Police reports indicate that the teen ran away several times in the weeks before the shooting; Dunkin says it was only once.
“I’d miss my curfew, and Mom called the police,” Dunkin said. “Many times I’d be home in an hour, but police still listed me as a runaway.”
Two months before the slaying, Dunkin was arrested for theft after stealing jewelry from her grandmother, she said. She was sentenced to a year’s probation. A few weeks later, authorities fitted her with an ankle monitor after she was driving illegally and became involved in a traffic accident.
On the night of May 26, 1994, Dunkin and Jamie Hatfield, 16, who was her best friend, talked on the telephone about killing Hatfield’s boyfriend, police said.
But the focus shifted to Dunkin’s grandmother and how they could get her car so they could run away, according to court records. Dunkin got off the phone and took two gas credit cards and all the money in her grandmother’s purse. Then she took a key to her grandfather’s gun case, removed a .38-caliber pistol and took it to her room.
Dunkin phoned Hatfield, who suggested chopping up pills and putting them in her grandmother’s food so she would go to sleep and they could take the car.
Dunkin hung up and walked into her grandmother’s bedroom, according to court records.
She gave this statement to Murphy: “I hid the gun behind my back and walked into my mom’s room, and we talked for a minute, and I shot her. When I shot the gun, I saw sparks, and it was so loud that my ears were ringing, and I felt deaf. The smell was really bad and followed me into the car, and it made me sick.”
Dunkin spent the rest of the night at Hatfield’s home, but the next morning Hatfield’s mother sensed that something was wrong, police said.The three of them went to the Dunkin home and found the body, police said. The girls were arrested hours later.
“It all happened so fast,” Courtney Dunkin said of the shooting. “I didn’t realize what I’d done. They [police] wanted a motive, and I didn’t know why. I didn’t want to tell them that I was suicidal.”
After the slaying
Hatfield was convicted of aggravated robbery in July 1996 and sentenced to five years in prison. She was released July 16, 1999, according to prison records.
She has also been involved in a prison program for at-risk kids who spend a day at the prison in hopes that they will be discouraged from crime.
Old school friends still visit Dunkin; her father hasn’t been there in years. Her mother, whom she almost never saw as a child, stopped writing to her a few years ago when Dunkin learned that she had half-siblings and wanted to get in touch with them.
For parents with troubled children, Dunkin offered one bit of advice.
“Even if they roll their eyes, communicate with them,” she said. “Just don’t listen and then walk away. Talk to them.”
DOMINGO RAMIREZ JR. 817-685-3822 firstname.lastname@example.org