News » Cover Story

A grieving son finds no justice on Rev. Maury Davis' path to redemption



It must be hard to watch the man who murdered your mother 30 years ago sermonize about the godly life. Ron Liles watches him gesticulate and stroll across a stage, not from a pew, but on his computer screen in suburban Dallas, some 700 miles away from the church in Madison, Tenn., where the preacher tells this story of profound redemption.

It's Liles' story too, though he wishes to God it wasn't.

He wants to tell Pastor Maury Davis that he's a liar for bending the greatest truth in his life. To remind the mega-church pastor that the price of his spiritual rebirth, his professed salvation, was the blood of Liles' 54-year-old mother, Jo Ella. That every good thing Davis has in this life is borne on the back of a grieving son, in whose home her blood was spilled.

Rev. Davis must know that each time he stands at the pulpit, before his flock at Cornerstone Church, there are those who still desire a full accounting for his mortal sin. How could he not?

From the path Davis set out on so many years ago, no one could ever have guessed that he'd end up here in Middle Tennessee. First he was the son of a well-to-do family in Irving, Texas. Then a convicted murderer.

Yet today he's a high-profile pastor, known for his brash style and conservative theology, with a branded media ministry and a house worth nearly $1 million in a gated Goodlettsville neighborhood.

Contrast this life with Liles'. He was the only child of parents who struggled to stay afloat, losing his mother to a senseless murder remarkable only for its viciousness. Now he's an unassuming pharmacist working the graveyard shift at a CVS in Texas, left to wear the garments of raw anger and heartbreak, which aren't easily shed.

Pastor Davis says he's been forgiven for his sins. Washed in the blood, you might say. After all, who can argue with God?

Yet in the eyes of the few who know the whole story, Davis wears an indelible stain, however faded before the eyes of his own congregation, for the violation of the most sacred law of God and man. And in this world, not even the blood of his Savior has been able to wash it clean.

At around noon on Jan. 27, 1975, a two-tone Cadillac pulls up to a vacant house in Irving, Texas. Two young men step out. One is Ricky Payne, 20, a bearded man police describe as a hippie. The other is Maury Davis, 18, a short, slightly built and clean-cut young man with brown hair slicked back from his forehead. He wears a pair of brown cowboy boots with white stitching.

Davis is fresh out of the New Mexico Military Institute, where he graduated with honors. He's from a successful, God-fearing, churchgoing family that spends weekends together at the lake.

The sun is out. It's one of those unseasonably warm winter days found between the Blue Northers that sweep out of the Panhandle. Lining the street are single-family brick houses—modest, firmly blue collar. A mailman named Robert Clark strides down the sidewalk, dropping letters and bills into the boxes of families he knows by name.

These days, Davis won't discuss what occurred on that January noon. But investigators will later say that he tells Payne they're meeting someone at the house.

They walk up and peer through the windows into empty rooms. The home is owned by Ron Liles, a recent pharmacy school graduate who's moving to Lewisville. He is fixing the house up for sale.

Liles' mother Jo Ella lives across the street. She sees the two young men wandering around and wonders if they're the carpet people her son's been expecting. She approaches in a print dress, warmed by the noonday sun.

They exchange greetings. Davis tells her he's interested in purchasing the house. There is no reason to doubt him. Jo Ella—a recent widow, a Sunday school teacher who wears cat-eye glasses—retrieves the house key. She shows Davis and Payne in for a look around.

According to newspaper accounts, Jo Ella remarks on the paint can left behind by the painters.

Somehow, Davis spills paint on his boots. He'll later claim he "snaps," blaming it on drug abuse.

From another room, Payne hears the sound of scuffling feet from the kitchen or dining room, according to retired Capt. John Looper of the Irving Police. He comes out to see what is happening.

When Payne enters the hallway, police say, he sees Davis stabbing Jo Ella with a buck knife, cutting her throat and severing her carotid artery and windpipe. The blade penetrates so deeply that it bites into her spinal cord, nearly decapitating her. Blood sheets down her dress.

In the yard, mailman Robert Clark crosses the lawn and notices the open front door. "I sorta saw a young fella in there, and I heard another say, 'Close the door, close the door,' " Clark tells the Scene.

The mailman sees Payne shut the door and hears a gurgling noise from somewhere inside. Clark continues on next door. He sees Payne and Davis hurry across the lawn, talking quickly, but he can't make out what they're saying.

The men slide into the Cadillac. Clark, who knows this neighborhood as well as anyone, is troubled, but he can't put his finger on a reason. He scribbles the license plate number on the lined skin of his palm.

After Davis and Payne drive off, Clark approaches the house and opens the door. "Hello," he calls. Silence.

As Clark continues on his route, his wife drives by to check on him. He tells her about the incident and suggests she contact the realty company. They might want to look in on the place.

Capt. John Looper hears an excited patrolman call for the medical examiner and investigators over the shortwave. When Looper arrives at the little brick house on Meadowbreak Lane, the veteran detective, who has seen his share of bloodied scenes, is startled by what he finds.

He sees a 54-year-old woman with a gaping neck. A massive pool of white paint has spilled beneath her, mixed with dark, congealing blood. Her face is smeared in a grim, white mask. The distinct prints of cowboy boots stitch a path across the kitchen, around the body and out the door.

As the investigation begins, it won't be the blood, the paint, or the pose of the body that gives Capt. Looper pause in a way no other case ever will. It will be the reason for the savage murder of Jo Ella Liles. Or more accurately, the absolute lack of one.

Ron Liles is working at Carson's Pharmacy in Lewisville. His aunt calls. She says something has happened to Jo Ella. Liles needs to get home quickly. She will say no more.

Liles picks his wife up and speeds to Irving. When he arrives, he sees squad cars lining Meadowbrook Lane. The police won't let him inside.

Investigators bring mailman Clark back to the home. He gives police the license plate number on his hand, as well as a description of the car and the two men he saw. They run the number, but it comes back to a Ford that doesn't match his description.

It turns out Clark transposed the numbers when he wrote them on his palm. After a few variations, detectives find a Cadillac that fits the bill. By 9 p.m., they trace it back to the owner of the Exxon station where Davis works. The man says he sold the Cadillac to his employee. He gives them a line on Davis' apartment, just across the road.

Looper is starting to panic. A gauze of clouds has darkened the sky, and a light rain begins to fall like the Devil's baptismal, slowly but surely washing away the blood he knows must have dried on the handle of the Cadillac door. In an unmarked squad car, Looper rolls through the parking lot of Davis' complex, scanning the cars. He spots the Cadillac.

Looper spies paint and blood on the driver's-side door handle. He peers inside. On the Cadillac's otherwise flawless, white upholstered seats, he sees smears of blood. Looper locks down the location and sits tight. Before long, Davis emerges from his apartment with his girlfriend. He strolls right by the detective.

"I could have stuck my hand out and knocked him down," Looper says.

Davis gets into a '58 Ford and leaves. The police let him go. It's time to get a search warrant.

At 4 a.m. Looper knocks on Davis' door. Roommate David Gay answers.

"This kid comes to the door. He was a typical early '70s hippie type: Effin' pigs this and effin' pigs that," Looper says. "Really bein' a cute-ass."

As detectives move through the apartment, they find a small amount of marijuana in a brown paper sack. What they don't find are the hard drugs that point to a transformative addiction, which Davis will later claim prompted the murder.

In Davis' room they find the boots. They've been wiped clean, but a small amount of paint and blood still smears the heel.

"When they came out with those boots I said [to Davis' roommate], 'OK, jerk, we're not talking about a chickenshit marijuana charge. We're talking about murder,' " Looper says. "He turned pale as a ghost and started singing his little song."

The roommate gives detectives Davis' girlfriend's address and the whereabouts of Payne. Davis told him to clean the buck knife, he says, which he then gave to Davis' girlfriend. By 5:15 a.m. Looper has a signed arrest warrant.

As Looper drives toward the girlfriend's place, he sees Davis heading in the opposite direction. An officer hangs his badge out of the window and orders him to stop. Davis doesn't appear to be a strung-out dope fiend. The young man, Looper says, goes "as peaceful as a little lamb."

On the way back to the station, Looper asks, "Man, I don't need to talk to you about what you did. I just want to know why.

"He says, 'I don't know, man. I just went fuckin' crazy.' "

To hear Davis and his attorney, Dennis Brewer, tell it, God's hand shaped the outcome of the State of Texas v. Donald Maurice Davis. After all, the series of blessings laid at Davis' feet in Dallas County Court might convince the most resolute atheist.

Brewer, a parishioner of the same church as Davis' parents—and one of the most influential defense attorneys in Dallas—arrives at the Irving Police station 24 hours after Jo Ella Liles is murdered.

"It's only been 24 hours since you killed this woman," Brewer says to his cold-eyed client. "You don't seem too upset about it."

"I didn't even know that old lady," Davis replies.

To Brewer, he looks more like an unrepentant drunk driver than a man facing a murder charge. He chides Davis for his calm. "It's kinda like you run over a cat or a dog," the lawyer says.

"Naw, man," Davis replies. "I like cats and dogs."

In the four months between murder and trial, Davis finds Jailhouse Jesus. To Brewer, the young man's cool demeanor following the murder, and his subsequent lunge toward God, has an insanity defense written all over it. But it won't be the kind most lawyers launch. For Brewer isn't just any lawyer.

He too has recently become born-again. Not long before, while jogging in his Dallas neighborhood, Brewer "was filled with the Holy Spirit" and began speaking in tongues in the middle of an intersection. It was a spiritual epiphany that caused him to forsake heavy drinking and drugs for Christ.

In Davis, he sees not an insane man who nearly beheaded a middle-aged woman. He sees a son of Jesus possessed by the devil.

Still, there isn't much hope. Payne has rolled and will serve as the state's chief witness. Brewer tells Davis he'll ask for a 50-year plea bargain, but the DA is dead-set on sending him to the chair.

Yet jury selection, at least in the lawyer's eyes, will bear the influence of a divine hand. Don McDaniel, a retired California cop, is called to jury duty. The district attorney doesn't eliminate McDaniel because lawmen are notoriously sympathetic to the prosecution. What prosecutors apparently don't know is that McDaniel also attends church with Brewer and Davis' family. The attorney will later admit that McDaniel approaches him, saying that as a born-again Christian, he'll help however he can.

McDaniel too understands the ways of the demon. He's wrestled with his own. As a marine in Korea, he was hit with mortar shrapnel and nearly killed. When he returned to civilian life, he was irrevocably changed.

"Killing was nothing," McDaniel tells the Scene. "You look upon people as insects and you smash them."

As a state trooper he had one of the highest felony arrest records in California. But he'd also been investigated by the FBI and nearly indicted for abusing those he busted. He felt the urge to use his gun. The demon of murder, he says, possessed him.

So he moved with his wife to Texas, joined his mother-in-law's church in Irving and became a devout Christian. Though his newfound spirituality rid him of murderous impulses, it also opened him to demonic attack, he says. So terrified was McDaniel of what the devil might make him do that, for a time, he refused to sleep in the same room with his wife.

One night, while lying in bed with her, he says a blinding light shone through the window, paralyzing him. McDaniel managed to nudge his wife with his toe and could only hoarsely whisper to her, "Pray."

The defense had found its perfect juror.

As the trial progresses, it becomes clear to McDaniel that the rest of the jury want to execute Davis, or at least put him away for life. Brewer, meanwhile, mounts an insanity-by-way-of-possession defense. It's been but a few years since the The Exorcist lodged itself in the nation's consciousness. In court, Davis claims a voice told him to murder Jo Ella.

It helps that McDaniel is in the jury room, there to explain demonic possession, drawing on his gravitas as a cop. This crime is simply too senseless, he tells them. The devil is the only explanation.

Davis is feeling the spirit as well, only now it's the hand of God. One day he comes to Brewer triumphant and cocksure, telling him he'll get just 20 years. God told him so. The lawyer thinks his client is running a fever. He'll be fortunate to breathe another day outside a Texas prison.

"One day his dad came into the office and said, 'He's telling everybody he's gonna get 20 years,' " Brewer recalls. "I went to the jail and he just laughed at me. I said, 'Maury, you're going to disappoint your mother and make me look bad.' "

After all, Davis' guilt is not in doubt. So Brewer presses hard on his insanity defense, dragging before the jury every teacher who might recall Davis as a well-behaved young man. The crime's very senselessness turns to his advantage.

Prosecutors are unable to prove that Davis intended to rob, rape or commit another felony that day—aside from murder. Without another aggravating charge, life in prison is looking more likely than the electric chair.

With McDaniel's guidance and considerable influence, jurors settle on manslaughter. Maximum time: 20 years.

Davis makes the best of prison. In sermons, he recalls rattling a cup across the bars of his cell, calling his fellow prisoners to Sunday worship. He won't begin until every inmate on the block is in attendance. When he comes upon a straggler, Davis claims that between the words "shut" and "up," he hits the man in the mouth with a toilet brush, breaking his front teeth.

From these humble beginnings he continues to minister to the prison population, building a loyal (if captive) congregation.

Back in those days, Capt. Looper says, the chapel was where inmates sought refuge—not from the Devil, but from the brutal Texas heat. The chapel was the only place with air conditioning.

Then, eight-and-a-half years after he was imprisoned, another miracle seems to land at his feet. Overcrowding forces Texas to shed a portion of its inmate population. By now Davis is viewed as a model prisoner, making him a prime candidate for release.

It is 1983 and Davis is back on the streets, without parole or a single restriction on his movements.

He becomes a church janitor in Irving, before a promotion to youth pastor. He marries the church piano player and appears on television and radio with Brewer, sharing his story of redemption. In 1988, he leaves to become an evangelist, traveling the country to offer his testimony in schools.

Three years later he will arrive at the floundering Cornerstone Church, an Assemblies of God congregation in Madison, Tenn. He makes no secret of his ex-con past, though he tends to go light on the viciousness of the details. His prison-to-preacher sermon draws believers and catapults him to regional fame.

That sermon, however, offers no mention of Jo Ella Liles. Davis doesn't tell his audience that he slit a 54-year-old Sunday school teacher's throat, nearly slicing off her head. What he shares with his congregation is this: He is guilty of murder. And where his message is vague in some places, he's embellished it in others, says Capt. Looper.

Davis claims that before his arrest, he led police on a desperate high-speed chase that ended with a crash. It never happened, says Looper. Davis went quietly.

The preacher also attributes the murder to losing himself to the drug-frenzied '70s. The culprits were LSD, speed, you name it. Yet Looper finds this dubious as well. When detectives tossed Davis' apartment, they would have found the hallmarks of a junkie, not a piddling sack of weed. Nor did Davis' appearance suggest a man lost to dope: He was a "nice-looking" kid, says Looper.

But whatever the story he tells now—he declined interview requests from the Scene—it's certainly captivated Middle Tennessee's evangelicals. Under Davis' stewardship, tiny Cornerstone goes from struggling congregation to a 3,200-seat mega-church. Inside its massive lobby are a Starbucks-style coffee shop and a Maury Davis Ministries merch stand selling CDs and DVDs of his sermons. On his website, the faithful can purchase a year's subscription for $299.

Today, more than 100,000 people watch his InFocus show, which appears on CBS and Fox in Alabama, Tennessee and Kentucky. He's been a guest chaplain in the U.S. House of Representatives. And he's become a conservative lightning rod, dealing judgment on gays and railing against the evils of Islam—a four-part sermon broadcast on the Inspiration Network, a cable channel that claims some 15 million viewers. Former Arkansas governor and presidential candidate Mike Huckabee spoke at Cornerstone on Memorial Day weekend. Soldiers rappelled from the ceiling during the service.

To Ron Liles, it all sounds more like entrepreneurship than redemption.

"Had he gone to a small town and a small farming community, and opened up a church and ministered to people in the backwoods, I might could buy that," Liles tells the Scene. "But I don't know very many ministers who live in million-dollar homes in gated communities."

On a recent Sunday morning inside the cavernous chapel, the stadium-style seating is filled with parishioners amid drifts of perfume. Ushers squeeze stragglers into the few remaining chairs.

Behind the stage is a stone-tile edifice bathed by lights in Day-Glo hues of orange, blue and green. Beneath two 15-foot projection screens are banks of staggered choir seating. In between them is a rock band blaring from overhead speakers. The drummer's sticks flick inside a quadratic cage; the guitarist sways. Down front, teenagers and tweens bob their heads, some with arms outstretched, singing along to Christian hits.

After a short set, Davis mounts the stage in a smart black suit, a wedge of handkerchief protruding sharply from his breast pocket. The studio-quality cameras positioned throughout the crowd are trained on him.

"When I look at his eyes and I look at his face, I can see that rage that's still in him," Liles says. "One of these days it's going to come out again. Somebody's gonna spill paint on his cowboy boots and it's going to come out again."

The lesson today is on guilt and obligation. Davis arrives bearing props, a menagerie of rolling suitcases.

"I have a bag I don't know that the world will ever let me get away from," he tells the crowd.

"But people, they want to make sure you have that red, scarlet letter.

"You know I have a lot of sin. I have a lot of shame. I'm 53 years old."

He heaves the suitcases onto a rolling cart—symbolizing the baggage he must carry.

Davis looks out over his flock. They know his testimony by heart. In fact, the "Prison to Priesthood" CD is standard issue to all new members. But its message is redemption, not accountability.

John Looper wants to believe in redemption too. The lawman wants to believe a man can cross the line of ultimate sin—and come back from it. But what he saw in January 1975 remains too vivid, too raw.

"I gotta tell you, I don't know whether he's converted or not," Looper says. "Whether God reached down and took him by the hand...I'd like to think he did. But any way you add it up, it was one of the most brutal things I ever saw."

Today, Davis addresses the crowd in characteristic rapid-fire, tinged by Texas twang.

"Forgiveness is not forgiveness until you allow it to be personal," he says, his voice resounding through the hall. "If God has forgiven you, you need to agree with God."

It's a sentiment of forgiveness so simple as to become immutable truth to his flock. But it's there that an irreconcilable crossroads emerges: Where the Christian tenet of redemption meets society's need for real justice. And so, week after week, Pastor Maury Davis, all but forgiven here in Tennessee, delivers his message.

But in Texas, there are those who would remind him that though God may remove all sin, the world of men is far less forgiving.

Email, or call 615-844-9403.

Comments (214)

Showing 1-25 of 214

Add a comment

Add a comment