SAN SABA, Texas (KXAN) - At 85, Bonnie Harkey was loved by her neighbors in San Saba County and affectionately known as the Pecan Queen because of the sprawling and fertile farm of nut-bearing trees that had been in her family for years.
Harkey was, recalled family friend Donna Bush, "one of the sweetest ladies I ever knew."
But her violent death in March shook the quiet Hill Country community about two hours northwest of Austin, both for its brutality and for the fact that members of her own family were charged in what authorities a far-reaching murder-for-hire scheme over the Harkey family fortune.
And now, new details uncovered by KXAN could have a major impact on the upcoming trial.
Authorities said that the murder-for-hire scheme was hatched to gain control of the Harkey family estate and rooted in deep family secrets. Some of those secrets still haunt some of the people involved.
Those people spoke exclusively to KXAN.
Just outside of San Saba sits the small town of Harkeyville, named for the Harkey family and its generations of pecan farming. But today, there are no Harkeys left on the farm. They're either dead or in jail.
Even before her killing on March 25, it was clear Bonnie Harkey was slowing down. Her husband, Riley had passed away, and she relied on a caretaker, Karen Johnson, for help around the house and getting around town.
But those who knew Bonnie best say members of her family just couldn't wait for her to die.
"She was very good to everybody she knew -- too good to these people who took advantage of her," said Donna Bush.
According to police, one Sunday back in the early spring while Bonnie was at church, her adopted grandson, Carl Pressley, sneaked into her home. The caretaker and Bonnie later came home.
As a signal, Pressley's girlfriend rang the doorbell, knowing Johnson would answer, police said. When the caretaker came to the door, Pressley sneaked up behind her, killed her and then kidnapped his grandmother. Pressley was in police custody hours later, confessing to the crimes.
"He did say he was sorry repeatedly," said Sgt. John Wilkerson, an investigator with the San Saba County Sheriff's Office. "He asked me to forgive him, made comments about burning in hell for the actions that he did."
- Bruce Harkey's federal detention order (contains profane lanuage)
- Indictment against Bruce Harkey
- Judgment against Bruce Harkey
- Bruce Harkey's 2003 arrest report
Investigators say Carl Pressley went to a campground in Leon County where he admitted to holding his grandmother's head underwater and burying her body in a shallow grave that he covered with leaves.
Autopsy reports indicate Bonnie Harkey may have been buried alive. Pressley and his girlfriend, Lillian King, face charges in San Saba and Leon counties.
But that's not all Carl Pressley told investigators. While admitting to the kidnapping and murders, Pressley says he did it because his uncle, Bruce Harkey, paid him to do it.
"There was a payment made to Carl Pressley and of course there were some arrangements to be made that further payment would be made to Carl Pressley for killing Bonnie Harkey," said Wilkerson.
Harkey was arrested and charged with solicitation of murder.
Bruce Harkey is Bonnie Harkey's stepson. His late father left the family estate in Bonnie's control, but Bruce was set to inherit a large portion of the estate upon his stepmother's death. Those close to Bonnie say she was afraid of Bruce and other family members.
"They were mean," said close friend, Myrna Najar. "They were so greedy."
But Bruce Harkey tells a different story. He called KXAN from behind bars in the Taylor County jail, where he awaits trial. In an interview, Harkey said he is innocent and that his nephew is a liar.
"I didn't have a damn thing to do with harming that woman in any way," Bruce Harkey said in a phone call with KXAN. "I don't feel guilty because Carl's not a human being. He is the living epitome of evil."
Investigators say the motive behind Bruce Harkey's solicitation of Bonnie Harkey's murder was greed. Bruce Harkey, they say, felt pressure from years of past-due child support. And the family pecan fortune was his way out.
The he denies any wrongdoing comes as no surprise to investigators.
"Bruce Harkey would not confess to anything he's done wrong," said Wilkerson.
Meanwhile, KXAN has found that it is not the first time Bruce Harkey has been accused of soliciting murder. We uncovered a 2003 case in which there is evidence he tried to have his ex-wife killed. KXAN located Harkey's ex-wife, whom we are identifying only as "Kami." She has been in hiding with their child since before her marriage ended.
"He said he would kill me and they would never implicate him," Kami told KXAN. "It was very true. He tried to have me killed.
"He started to warn me at least once a week, that if I ever tried to run -- and that's what he called it, ‘to run' -- that he would
Kami was 20 in In 1996 when she became Bruce Harkey's eighth wife. Harkey was 44. She says he was immediately abusive. After their daughter was born, she says his threats turned deadly.
"What he kept saying, 'if you take my daughter, I will kill you,'" Kami said (See a clip from the interview in the video box above).
Kami has changed her name and avoided Bruce Harkey for years. KXAN is not revealing where Kami now lives. In an interview she said that when she finally left Bruce Harkey, his threats had turned to action.
"I had an ATF agent and a Texas Ranger knock on my door one day and they just said we needed to have a seat," Kami said. "Your soon-to-be ex-husband, and we know you're in a big custody battle and trying to go through a divorce, but we have reason to believe he wants to hurt you," Kami said the investigators told her.
"And I said, ‘No, no, he wants to kill me.' And they said, ‘That's actually true, he is trying to get someone to kill you," she continued.
KXAN obtained arrest reports alleging that Bruce Harkey had asked a maintenance worker to build him a gun silencer to kill Kami. What he did not know is ATF Agents and Texas Rangers had Harkey under electronic surveillance.
Court records show Harkey had been arrested for domestic assault, interfering with an emergency phone call, and impersonating a police officer in February 2003.
There was a temporary restraining order against Harkey through that April. Later that summer, Kami contacted Travis County Sheriff investigators and reported that Harkey had been trying to get her to drop the charges against him ever since the restraining expired in April.
Kami told investigators that Bruce Harkey had threatened to kill her if she did not get the charges dropped.
According to federal court documents quoting from surveillance recordings, Harkey tells the maintenance worker about his conversation with Kami, saying "There ain't no witnesses to it. I ain't got no tape recorder that's running. You ain't got no tape recorder that's running, either. I will kill your sorry (expletive)."
Harkey then told the worker he "was going to step over the edge and not be able to come back one of these days."
Kami says Agents played a portion of the videotaped surveillance for her to see.
"It was chilling," Kami said. "Just talking about, you know, ‘she needs to die.' The ways to dispose of my body and the gruesome way…what he was going to do to my body," she described the recording.
Days later, on Aug. 7, 2003 when Bruce Harkey was arrested on a retaliation charge, police found a Winchester rifle, a silencer, and 450 rounds of ammunition in his vehicle. He was later charged in federal court with unlawfully possessing a firearm silencer and carrying a weapon in relation to and in connection with a crime of violence.
Bruce Harkey was sentenced to five years in federal prison for possession of the unregistered silencer. The second federal charge was dismissed. The Travis County charges were also dismissed. Harkey was released from federal prison in 2008.
Now, four years later, he is charged with "solicitation of murder" in the death of Bonnie Harkey.
"The sad part is I wasn't surprise -- because he tried to kill me," said Kami. "But that sweet, sweet woman, she just didn't deserve to die that way."
So now the question is: if ATF agents and Texas Rangers have Bruce Harkey on tape talking about having his wife killed nearly 10 years ago while buying a silencer, why did he only go to prison for five years? And why didn't Travis County prosecute Harkey on the felony retaliation charge back in 2003?
KXAN plans to find out and will continue this investigation.
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