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What to know about the first trial of alleged senior living serial killer Billy Chemirmir

This story, originally published in The Dallas Morning News, is reprinted as part of a collaborative partnership between The Dallas Morning News and Texas Metro News. The partnership seeks to boost coverage of Dallas’ communities of color, particularly in southern Dallas.

Jury selection begins in the trial of Billy Chemirmir, who has been indicted on 18 counts of capital murder in Dallas and Collin counties.
Billy Chemirmir
Billy Chemirmir, 48, has been indicted with 18 counts of capital murder, and faces life in prison without parole if convicted.

By Charles Scudder

Over two years, more than a dozen women died in senior living communities and inside their homes. Jewelry, cash and other valuables went missing. Families were told they died of natural causes.

Years later, a man was arrested for trying to smother a 93-year-old woman with a pillow.

Police say the women were murdered by one of Texas’ most prolific serial killers: Billy Chemirmir.

More than 3½ years after he was arrested, the 48-year-old Chemirmir will face trial for capital murder on Monday in Dallas. A dozen jurors and two alternates were chosen after nine hours of jury selection Wednesday. The outcome of that trial will determine if Chemirmir spends the rest of his life in prison without parole.

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Indicted on 18 counts of capital murder in Dallas and Collin counties, Chemirmir has been linked in police records, medical examiner reports and civil lawsuits to two dozen deaths between 2016 and 2018.

John Creuzot, Dallas County’s district attorney, initially said that he would seek the death penalty for Chemirmir but changed course earlier this year, telling families of the victims that a death penalty trial would be too costly and cumbersome.

Chemirmir, a Kenyan immigrant with permanent resident status, could be deported if released. He says he is innocent.

He has declined multiple interview requests from The Dallas Morning News.

Phillip Hayes, Chemirmir’s attorney, said much of the evidence against his client is circumstantial.

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“It seems like every unexplained death they come up with, they’re pinning on him,” Hayes said last year.

The ongoing case — delayed multiple times due to the COVID-19 pandemic — has been traumatizing for families who believed their loved ones died of natural causes before someone called with the news that their deaths were being re-investigated as possible homicides.

Here’s what you need to know about the upcoming trial against Chemirmir, as well as his other charges.

Which case is going to trial first?

The first case against Chemirmir stems from an 81-year-old woman’s death in her Far North Dallas home in March 2018.

Lu Thi Harris' death led to the arrest of Billy Chemirmir in March 2018.
Lu Thi Harris’ death led to the arrest of Billy Chemirmir in March 2018.(Courtesy photo)

After police identified Chemirmir as a suspect in the attempted murder of a 90-year-old Plano woman, they waited at his apartment complex in Far North Dallas. When he arrived home, police saw him toss something in a dumpster before arresting him.

A Plano officer went to the dumpster and found a jewelry box, according to an arrest warrant affidavit. Inside the jewelry box was thename Lu Thi Harris.

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Dallas police went to Harris’ home about 5 miles away. They found her body in the bedroom and a pillow nearby smeared with lipstick.

Chemirmir was charged with capital murder in Harris’ killing the next day.

According to a recording obtained by The Dallas Morning News, prosecutors told families this summer they believed the case of Harris’ death was the strongest since others were not immediately identified as homicides.

Depending on the outcome of this first trial, Chemirmir could also be tried for the death of Mary Brooks, who was killed in January 2018 in Richardson. The rest of the Dallas County cases, prosecutors say, will likely be dismissed.

What are the allegations against Chemirmir?

In Dallas County, Chemirmir is charged with 13 counts of capital murder. In neighboring Collin County, he faces five charges of capital murder and two attempted.

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Police and prosecutors have said he targeted elderly women between 2016 and 2018, often posing as a maintenance worker who said he was checking for leaky pipes. Once inside their apartments, indictments say, he’d smother victims with a pillow before stealing jewelry, cash and other valuables.

Unlike strangulation, smothering can leave few visible signs on a body. Police and medical examiners initially assumed the deaths of elderly women at senior living communities were heart attacks, not homicide.

It wasn’t until a woman survived an attack in Plano and pointed to Chemirmir in March 2018 that the investigation turned to hundreds of unaccompanied deaths and theft reports in at least four cities.

What evidence links the deaths to Chemirmir?

Police started with reports of unaccompanied deaths and theft reports, then used tracking data from Chemirmir’s cellphone. When the location data on his cellphone records matched with various luxury communities, police would examine those cases more closely.

Video surveillance from senior living communities also shows Chemirmir in the area around the time of some deaths, according to lawsuits filed against the communities by several families.

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Once police finished an investigation, they passed the evidence to medical examiners. Because many deaths were initially marked as being from natural causes, each had to be amended to either homicide or, if medical examiners felt they didn’t have enough evidence, undetermined. Although at least one victim was exhumed, many had been cremated long before the investigation began.

Why won’t Chemirmir get the death penalty?

In 2019, Creuzot’s office filed paperwork saying he’d seek the death penalty for Chemirmir. It was the first and only time Creuzot has done so.

But earlier this summer, Creuzot called families of the victims to tell them he had changed his mind, citing the long appeals process on death cases and the cost of prosecuting them.

He said that because Chemirmir immigrated to the U.S. from Kenya, lawyers would have to travel there to look for evidence of his upbringing — an especially difficult challenge during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I’m 63,” Creuzot said at the meeting, according to a recording obtained by The News. “If someone had a death sentence today in Dallas County, I would not expect to be alive when they were put to death.”

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In Texas, capital murder has an automatic sentence of life in prison without parole if prosecutors do not seek execution. Therefore, if convicted, Chemirmir would go to jail without the traditional sentencing phase of most murder trials.

In our criminal justice system, a jury must only decide whether the evidence proves beyond a reasonable doubt that defendant committed a specific crime. Evidence of other murders cannot be presented to jurors.

That means that jurors will only be asked to decide if Chemirmir killed one specific person — not dozens — and those other cases likely will not be mentioned in court.

How has the pandemic impacted the case?

Chemirmir was initially scheduled to be tried in April, but that was delayed when the COVID-19 pandemic closed courtrooms around the country. The pandemic also slowed evidentiary discovery, part of the legal process that allows defense attorneys to see the evidence that will be presented against their clients, Hayes said.

“I am concerned about the delay because it has prevented us from interviewing both witnesses and experts,” Hayes said last June, before the trial date was rescheduled.

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The pandemic also caused delays at the Dallas and Collin County medical examiners offices, which were tasked with amending death certificates before indictments could be filed. With more deaths and increased pandemic safety protocols, the paperwork for those older cases was put on hold, Dallas County medical examiner Jeffery Barnard said.

When will Chemirmir face trial in Collin County?

Although Chemirmir was initially arrested by a Plano police officer, Dallas County was the first to charge him with capital murder in Harris’ death.

Chemirmir has since been indicted with five counts of capital murder and two counts of attempted capital murder in Collin County.

Since early in the case, prosecutors in Collin County have said they’d let Dallas tackle the case first. They say they’ll make decisions on if or how to prosecute Chemirmir for their cases after seeing how the Dallas trials go.

Some of the families whose mothers were killed in Collin County, as well as State Rep. Jared Patterson, R-Frisco, have called on District Attorney Greg Willis to seek the death penalty since Creuzot did not.

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The Collin County District Attorney’s office declined comment on the case when asked whether Willis would seek the death penalty for Chemirmir.

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