A Longview man pleaded guilty Tuesday to killing two women in Gregg County, one of whom went unidentified for 13 years after her death.
Joseph Wayne Burnette, 43, pleaded guilty to the murders of Dana Lynn Dodd and Felisha Pearson. He has been in the Gregg County Jail since July 2018 on two grand jury indictments of murder and a charge of failing to register as a sex offender on bonds totaling $2.5 million.
He was sentenced to serve 50 years each on the murder charges and on the failure to register as a sex offender charge. Those charges will be served concurrently.
He must serve 25 years before becoming eligible for parole.
Burnette, who will get credit for time served, also was sentenced to 180 days on an indecent exposure charge.
“I want to get this over with,” he said in court. “I want everybody to get their closure.”
The 28-year-old Pearson was found July 24, 2018, in woods off West Birdsong Street in Longview more than a week after she was reported missing.
The body of Dodd, who was known for years simply as “Lavender Doe” because she was not identified, was found Oct. 29, 2006, by two hunters walking on an oil lease road in Gregg County. Her body was face-down in a burning wood pile off Fritz Swanson Road.
Rosalind Wallace, Pearson’s aunt, said in her victim impact statement that when she found out her niece died, it was one of the worst days of her life.
“That was the day you took away a mother, a daughter, a niece and a sister,” Wallace said to Burnett Tuesday in court. “Felisha meant everything to us, especially her mother. They shared a special bond that couldn’t be broke. You managed to take that away in a blink of an eye.”
Burnette stood by his attorney and looked at the families throughout the victim impact statements.
“Felicia was hardworking, outgoing and some would say the life of the party,” Wallace said. “She will ever get the chance to live out her hopes and dreams; she will never get the opportunity to live her full potential.”
Wallace and Pearson’s brother, Thomas Jones, explained how difficult it has been and will continue to be for Pearson’s children.
“She never gave up on our family,” Jones said to Burnett. “Now, we have to answer all the questions that they (her children) want to know about their mother, bringing back memories of what you did.”
Jones told stories from when he and Pearson were children and how they played together.
“Tomorrow is my birthday, and every year, every year I will be grieving instead of celebrating,” Jones said.
Dodd’s half-sister, Amanda Dodd, said the past 15 years have been difficult, wondering where she was and if she was safe.
“Instead we got a phone call saying that some monster took her life away,” she said.
Amanda Dodd said her half-sister will never get the chance to know her nephews growing up.
“She’ll never have the chance to walk down the aisle, to experience motherhood,” she said.
Other family members huddled close to comfort each speaker as they cried.
“I’ll never forgive you, and it’s not because of hate,” Amanda Dodd said to Burnette. “It’s because you don’t deserve my forgiveness. You don’t deserve anybody’s forgiveness. Justice has not been served here, and it will not be served until you are dragged to your hell.”
At a joint news conference Aug. 28, 2018, Longview police and Gregg County Sheriff’s officials said Burnette confessed to killing the two women.
Pearson’s mother reported her missing July 19 to Longview police “under unusual circumstances,” Longview police Chief Mike Bishop said at the time.
“(Her mother) originally believed that Felisha was last seen at the Contessa Inn on July 15 with Joseph Wayne Burnette. Our investigation revealed that Felisha had not been at this location,” he said.
On July 20, Longview police started a joint investigation with the Gregg County Sheriff’s Office, Bishop said. The sheriff’s office found during the investigation that Burnette had not registered as a sex offender, and a warrant was issued for his arrest July 24, 2018, the same day Pearson’s body was found.
A Gregg County arrest warrant for Burnette showed he was living with Pearson before her body was found.
Burnette was arrested July 25, 2018, in Upshur County and interviewed by Longview police detectives the same day, he said.
Though Burnette admitted to killing Lavender Doe, she remained unidentified until late January 2019.
The DNA Doe Project, a California nonprofit agency that says it uses “advanced genetic genealogy techniques to identify John and Jane Does,” identified the woman, but did not release her name.
Dodd’s family in September 2019 traveled from Florida to Longview to lay her to rest.
Gregg County District Attorney Tom Watson on Tuesday said this was a big case and that being able to identify Lavender Doe as Dodd was a substantial break.
“Once we were able to identify her and bring the family in and talk with them to learn about Dana Dodd and who she was just really hit home to us,” Watson said. “This wasn’t just a Jane Doe or Lavender Doe, this was a person who had a family and who had her whole life ahead of her and it was taken away.”
Watson said the district attorney’s office had several issues to consider when moving forward with the case.
The office was in discussions for a plea agreement for about eight months.
“By reaching the plea agreement that we did, we were able to bring closure to the families and also closer to the whole process because he waived any right to appeal,” Watson said. “We didn’t have to go through a long drawn out trial. We didn’t have to expose the family members to the horrors that happened.”
Watson said this was a good outcome for all involved, and he believes that justice has been served in this case.
Gregg County Assistant District Attorney Tanya Reed said the families were “on board” with the plea agreement.
“Any family I can imagine that has a loved one taken away really wants the maximum, but might not be possible under the law,” she said. “The closure, I think the family needed that — both of them needed that.
Watson and Reed said their hearts are broken for the families, listening to the victim statements.
“Our hearts go out to them,” Watson said. “It’s very traumatic for them and we wish nothing but the best for them. We hope that by doing what we’re able to do in this case that they can rest easy, or at least have some closure, although they’ll never forget. Obviously, there’s nothing that we could have done to bring their loved ones back. But we hope that by being able to bring this case to a close, we’ve given them some peace, and some justice.”