CHEROKEE COUNTY — (Editor's Note: The following story contains explicit descriptions of violence. The story is the result of a interview collaboration with KETK.)
Although assailant Richard Cobb, 29, is set to be executed today, Nikki Ansley said she will never forget the horrible evening Cobb and his co-defendant Beunka Adams kidnapped her, fellow clerk Candace Driver, and mentally-challenged customer Kenneth Vandever, 37, from a Rusk convenience store.
The night of Sept. 2, 2002, Adams and Cobb, who wore masks as they came into the store, took them to a remote location in Alto.
Ansley was sexually assaulted by Adams as Cobb held a shotgun on her. All three were forced to kneel. Vandever was shot and killed from behind. Ansley and Driver were shot in the same fashion and left for dead.
Cobb and Adams were caught 16 hours later. Adams was executed for the crime almost exactly a year ago.
Ansley said she never expects to find closure or peace — even after Cobb is gone.
“Closure is kind of small to what is happening,” she said. “The only type of closure I'm getting is the knowledge that our system is giving these guys the punishment they deserve. Things will never be the same for me — from the physical to the emotional. To everything.”
Authorities believe Cobb and Adams, fresh off a spree of recent burglaries, were in a pattern of escalation when they abducted the three.
“What started as an armed robbery turned into a kidnapping and a rape and a murder,” explained Randy Hatch, investigator for the Cherokee County District Attorney's office. “They definitely escalated.”
Ansley said when the masked men came into the store at which she was clerking she didn't fully understand what was happening. Later, she would recognize the two as fellow former students of Rusk high school.
During the abduction, Ansley said she tried reasoning with the two of them to avoid violence — going as far as to share details of her life with Adams, who had removed his mask at some point after leaving the store.
“I was trying to make them understand we were human,” she said. “I was hoping for the best but never sure about what they were going to do. … I did not have clue what was going on.”
But her efforts to convince Adams otherwise did no good. Vandever was helpless to protect himself as Cobb shot and killed him, said former Cherokee County District Attorney Elmer Beckworth, who successfully prosecuted both Adams' and Cobb's cases.
Adams then shot at Driver, who fell down, pretending to be hit, Beckworth said.When Adams threatened to shoot at her again she admitted she had not been struck. Adams shot at her again, this time grazing her around the mouth area.
Ansley continued to play dead. Cobb and Adams started to viciously kick her repeatedly to see if she would cry out. But Ansley gritted her teeth and and stayed silent.
Cobb picked Ansley up off the ground by her pony tail. She stayed limp. Her eyes were partially opened but she managed not to move them.
Ansley ultimately convinced Cobb and Adams she was truly dead.
“I had to outsmart them … I had to play dead,” Ansley said this week. “… Thanks to the good Lord. I feel He had his hand on me the whole night.”
Beckworth, now an Angelina County prosecutor, marveled at Ansley's will power. He said by playing dead she probably saved hers and Driver's lives.
“What if she had given in to the kicks and cried out?” he said. “They probably would have double checked and killed all of them. They kicked her to the point of cracking a cartilage in her ribs.”
After Cobb and Adams left them for dead at the scene, Ansley rose and slowly trudged away in great pain, looking for help. She had been savagely beaten, sexually assaulted and was covered in her own blood.
“I had broken ribs and a gunshot wound and I had to fight to walk,” She said. “I walked roughly half a mile. At one point I saw car lights and I got on another path that was completely dark. I am glad I did because it was their car lights.”
By switching paths, Ansley avoided being caught again by Cobb and Adams.
“The good lord guided me,” she said. “I feel that is what it was.”
Ansley finally reached a house and help was summoned to the scene.
Ansley's brother, Alto Police Officer Troy Ansley said all law enforcement agencies involved pulled together and had apprehended Adams and Cobb within 16 hours.
“We haven't even yet had a chance to say 'Thank you' to them,” Officer Ansley said.
This was easily one of Rusk's most brutal crimes — as well as one of the strongest in terms of evidence, Beckworth said.
“The fabric of the community is hurt and frayed whenever there is a crime like this,” Beckworth said. “It shocked the whole community.”
There were plenty of mitigating factors to choose from for capital murder charges. Kidnapping, sexual assault, aggravated robbery. Plus, Cobb was on probation.
Cobb offered a full confession. Adams only partially confessed.
“The only misgiving Cobb seemed to have is that he backed away from Kenneth before he shot him because he didn't want to get he blood splatted on him. That was it,” Beckworth said. “And at the jail he said to one of the jailers 'How did we get caught?' When the jailer said, 'What do you think?' he answered, 'One of them must have lived.'”
Beckworth said both men committed the violence of the crime but Cobb barely said anything and was taking Adams' verbal cues.
Kenneth Vandever probably didn't really realize gravity of the situation until right before he died, Beckworth said. Vandever had lived a normal life in the Dallas area until an accident robbed him of short term memory.
“Just before the shooting death, Kenneth was going along with it,” Beck worth said. “But at the last minute he stated screaming 'Hey! This isn't funny! I have to get home and take my medication!' It was during that outburst, when they were kneeling that he was murdered.”
Cobb, who was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to lethal injection in January 2004, will die almost exactly a year after co-defendant Adams was executed. He been on death row for a decade and has all but exhausted his appeals.
“There's really nothing left to do,” Cobb said during a recent jailhouse interview from Death Row in Livingston. “ … I accept it, you know what I mean? For what it is. There's no getting away from it. At the same time I don't want to die, but I'm ready to die.”
During an interview with reporters this week at her Cherokee County home, Ansley — who shared her story with Montel Williams on his show eight or nine years ago — said she wants to spend her life helping others, sharing what happened to her in churches and in public as an inspirational speaker.
Ansley said she is glad Adams received just punishment. She fears Cobb might be granted a last minute stay.
But as far as closure? Officer Ansley agrees with his sister that there is no such thing.
“What this is on Thursday is our family can open up a new chapter and not think about this thing and go over it again and again and again,” he said. “All we can do is pray every day to the good lord.”