By Dave Moller
Nobody would murder their wife on the family farm, stick her in a septic tank and then later give friends free access to roam the land and police to search it, according to the defense argument for Douglas J. Howery. An Audrain County jury didn’t believe that and on Thursday, Nov. 29 found Howery, 60, of Springfield, guilty of first degree murder in the 1992 slaying of Betty Ann Howery on their Annada farm. The jury deliberated for just over five hours.
Howery now faces sentencing on Monday, Feb. 4, but Audrain County Judge Keith Sutherland is bound by law to sentence him to life without parole, according to 45th Judicial District (public) Defender Tom Crocco.
The case was shifted to Sutherland’s 12th Judicial Circuit on a change of venue from the Pike and Lincoln County 45th Judicial District. Crocco is the lead public defender for the 45th District.
The change of venue is common in high-profile murder cases to get an impartial jury.
“We’ll file a motion for a new trial and if it’s denied, we’ll appeal the verdict,” Crocco said Monday, Dec. 3.
Pike County prosecutor Mark Fisher took a methodic approach to the four-day trial to earn the conviction.
“Our theory has always been that he definitely had motive,” Fisher said while awaiting the verdict in the courthouse in Mexico. “He was the only person who knew where the septic tank was. He was the last person to see her and had a girlfriend who was two months pregnant,” when Betty Howery disappeared Feb. 20, 1992.
On Feb. 21, 1992, Howery called his wife’s employer “and said she’d be taking a vacation,” Fisher said.
He then cleaned out their St. Charles apartment within eight days although there was still a month left on the lease.
The Howerys were living in St. Charles because the house on their Annada farm had burned down, Fisher said. They also received $214,000 in an insurance settlement over the blaze.
When Howery moved out of the St. Charles residence, he took all of his wife’s belongings with him.
“He knew she wasn’t coming back,” Fisher said.
Howery then leased a house in the St. Louis area for he and his girlfriend.
Before Betty Ann Howery’s disappearance, Douglas Howery’s business partner confronted him about his girlfriend, Fisher said. The partner said he had been receiving phone calls from Mrs. Howery about the girlfriend and would no longer cover for Howery.
“The day after she disappeared, he told the business partner he wouldn’t have to worry about Betty anymore,” Fisher said.
“The defendant claimed they had an argument” and that Betty Howery told him to leave her at the Annada farm.
“He said he did and had no idea where she went,” Fisher said.
On Jan. 11, 1993, Howery withdrew $100,000 from their bank account and bought property for $70,000. The other $30,000 was never accounted for, the prosecutor said.
Years passed and Howery eventually moved to Springfield and married a third time. He sold the Annada farm and in 2008, the case literally broke open.
The septic tank
On Oct. 12, 2008, the new owners of the Annada farm dug up the septic tank on the property. As they pulled the tank from the ground with a large piece of equipment, it broke into pieces, Fisher said.
The equipment operator also realized he had broken some teeth off the front of his bucket and ordered a laborer to go down into the muck to find them.
“When he was looking for the teeth, he found human bones,” Fisher said.
Then Pike County Sheriff Jim Wells was called to the scene and he quickly contacted the Missouri State Highway Patrol and the FBI.
The FBI Evidence Response Team extracted the remains and “found a necklace pendant of hers and a derringer,” Fisher said.
DNA from Betty Howery’s son, Matt Higginbotham, now of O’Fallon, confirmed that the discovered bones were his mother’s.
An anthropologist found trauma to Betty Ann Howery’s skull as did St. Louis County Medical Examiner Mary Case.
Case said there were four to five fractures to Mrs. Howery’s skull at her time of death, Fisher said. She testified at the trial that the damage could have been caused by a gunshot or blunt force trauma.
There was also some evidence introduced at the trial from family members of “physical altercations,” between the Howery’s, Fisher said.
A warrant was issued for Douglas Howery’s arrest and he was picked up in Springfield on May 7, 2009. He has been in the Pike County Jail ever since.
Crocco said he based his case on the state not being able to prove the crime beyond reasonable doubt.
“There was no evidence that directly connected Mr. Howery to his wife,” Crocco said. “He was always up front and honest with police and gave free access to the property (in Annada) for searches.
After Mrs. Howery disappeared, Douglas Howery allowed a friend to stay on the Annada farm, Crocco said. That person wanted to build a duck pond right up next to the septic tank and Mr. Howery had no objections.
“No one who had control over the land and a body would do that,” Crocco reasoned. “All of his acts were of someone who did not know there was a body there.
“Doug has no idea what happened to his wife after she left and he didn’t know she was in the septic tank.”