The man who killed Stephenville resident Susan Woods in 1987 found dead inside his trailer.


Susan Woods

By SARA VANDEN BERGE


Joseph Scott Hatley apparently died alone.


The man who pleaded guilty to murdering Stephenville resident Susan Woods in 1987 was reportedly found dead inside his trailer house on Thursday, Dec. 9, by his landlord, a source told Beneath the Surface News.

The source said Hatley had recently been diagnosed with cancer and was scheduled to begin chemotherapy on the morning his body was found.


I have covered the Susan Woods’ case for years.


I broke the story when the unsolved murder investigation was first reopened and when Hatley was finally arrested.

I interviewed Hatley when he was brought back to the Erath County Jail and covered his guilty plea one week before his trial was set to begin.

I interviewed the detectives, Woods’ ex-husband and a woman who was beaten and raped by Hatley at a roadside park in Erath County.


After news of his death began circulating, I began speaking to many of those same people again.

And while Hatley’s passing provided much-needed relief to some, others were left grappling with fresh wounds.


The murder of Susan Woods went unsolved for nearly two decades and plenty of victims were left in its wake.


Perhaps one of the biggest victims was her ex-husband Michael Woods who lived under a cloud of suspicion for 19 years.

Michael was the first to contact me for a comment after learning that Susan’s killer was dead. What he had to say was short and succinct.


“Thank goodness he won’t kill any more women,” he said via text.


Don Miller is a retired investigator with the Stephenville Police Department credited for finally solving the case.

He and I have spoken about every aspect of the investigation over the years and I know about his long-held belief that other victims are likely out there.


He reiterated that sentiment when we spoke again today.


“Hatley pled guilty to the murder of Susan Woods and I have interviewed two other women who allege that they were assaulted by Hatley in the same manner,” Miller said. “Both interviews were consistent with the Woods’ crime scene.


“Hatley was an over the road truck driver for years. I will always be convinced that there are other unknown victims.”

Donnie Hensley is now retired, but he was one of the first investigators with the Erath County Sheriff’s Office on scene when Woods’ body was discovered in a bathtub inside her home by her father, Joe Atkins.


He told me the case has haunted him for years.


“When I first got to the scene, I didn’t know what was going on and Joe Atkins was standing in the front yard. Joe was a friend of mine and I asked him what happened. He told me that Susan was dead,” Hensley said.


“That personal connection to the family made it hard. No matter how many crime scenes I have been to over the years, I can still see that one as clear as the day it happened.


“When I heard that sonofabitch was dead, it made me damn happy. I hope Shannon finally feels some relief.”

Those of you who have followed this story know that Shannon Myers Barrientos is a former Stephenville resident who was beaten and raped by Hatley at a roadside park in 1987, shortly after Woods’ murder.


Barrientos identified Hatley as her attacker to police and told them that during the attack, Hatley had said that he had killed another woman.

An Erath County grand jury declined to indict Hatley for his crime against Barrientos and he managed to fly under the radar for Woods’ murder for years.


I first spoke to Barrientos after Hatley pleaded guilty to murder and was left shaken by the story of her brutal attack.


She is one of this story’s biggest heroes because, despite her fear, she bravely spoke out about her rape and assault.

When Hatley was released from prison after serving only 11 years, the peace that Barrientos fought so hard to find was shattered.


I spoke with her again today and I am relieved to tell you that she sounds as strong as ever.


“I can finally live my life without fear,” she told me. “And I can finally sleep at night without fear.”