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Book Excerpt

Texas Passion Case: Criminal Confesses after Viewing 'The Passion'

By Jody Eldred,
author of Changed Lives: Miracles of the Passion

CBN.com – The day Jesus was crucified, there was a thief next to Him, also hanging on a cross. As he was dying, he mocked Jesus and taunted Him…cruel to the end. But there was another thief on the other side of Jesus, also being executed. This man was different—a criminal deserving death, yes. But in the final moments before that criminal’s death, having witnessed Jesus’ incredible passion—even for those who beat Him and nailed Him to a cross—this man came to see and believe that Jesus was the Son of God.

As this thief was dying, he asked Jesus one thing—would Jesus remember him when He got to heaven? In reply, Jesus spoke these memorable words, “Today you will be with Me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43 NKJV).

Our next story made national and international headlines. It’s about a murder in Texas that the coroner ruled as a suicide, and the ki1ler got off free and clear.

Perhaps.

Like the thief on the cross, this story is about another criminal who had a life-changing encounter with the Son of God.

January 19, 2004—the Fort Bend County Sheriff’s office received a tragic call: a mother, Renee Coulter, had discovered her 19-year-old daughter, Ashley Wilson, dead in her apartment. A pillow case was over her head, and the cord from her high school graduation gown was wrapped around her neck. It looked as though she’d hanged herself. But why?

Sheriff Milton Wright comes from a long line of Texas Rangers—the tough, legendary lawmen who helped tame the West. Wright had been in JFK’s motorcade the day he was assassinated in Dallas, protecting then-governor John Connally. To say he’s been around the block is an understatement. He’s pretty much seen it all.

Sheriff Wright

Sheriff Milton WrightWe received a call to investigate a death. This one looked very cut and dry because of the way the whole situation played out The evidence in the apartment suggested that there had been a suicide—the way the body was positioned, the door being locked from the inside, and a note suggesting suicide.

All the evidence pointed to suicide. A letter was found that could be interpreted as a suicide note. ‘While it didn’t actually say she was going to kill herself, it did state that she was extremely depressed because she was pregnant and the person she was pregnant by was not going to be there for her to raise the child.

Sheriff Wright

With this evidence and other autopsy results, the medical examiner ruled the death as a suicide.

Despite the note suggesting suicide, Renee Coulter and her husband, Dan Wilson, had difficulty agreeing with the sheriff department’s assessment. To them, the evidence just didn’t add up to the person they knew as her daughter.

As reported in the Houston Chronicle, the fact that their daughter’s television, lights, and ceiling fan were off disturbed the parents. “My daughter lived in an apartment by herself” Coulter said. “She always had the TV on, always had the ceiling fan on, and always had lights on.” Moreover, Ashley’s apartment key was missing from her key ring. “To me, that meant that somebody was there and had taken the key,” Coulter added.

To the police, the response of the parents was perfectly understandable. A family in shock and grief. Suicide is hard to accept given someone so young and with all her life ahead of her. But after getting the report from the Harris County medical examiner that it was definitely a suicide, Sheriff Wright’s office closed the case on Ashley Wilson.

Dan Leach is a 21-year-old young man who had been in a relationship with Ashley. That relationship had soured shortly before the time of her death, and some felt it was the motive for her depression and the sad letter she’d left behind.

Leach was depressed as well. He was a guy who went to a local church in the area, but he was a troubled and conflicted man.

He was also a murderer.

March 2004—Less than six weeks after Ashley’s death, The Passion of the Christ came to Richmond, a small town outside of Houston. Like most other locations around the country, the theaters were packed as a result of all the buzz about the film. A young man bought a ticket and went into the theater for an experience that would change his life forever.

Shortly thereafter, that man walked into the Fort Bend County sheriff’s office and turned himself in for the murder of Ashley Wilson.

The police were perplexed. That case was closed. Her death was a suicide. There was no murderer.

Dan Leach convinced them otherwise.

Sheriff Wright

When he came in, he was very, very cooperative and gave us explicit details of how he had planned the murder committed it, and the things he had done nobody else could have known because the information was not public knowledge. He had to have been there because he had knowledge of what had gone on during the murder.

The authorities were stunned.

Sheriff Wright

The description of Dan Randall Leach would be an average American male. Prior military, graduated from high school, and, as far as I know, no criminal history.

Leach believed that Ashley was pregnant. That was his motive for killing her. She was pregnant and he was embarrassed and he wanted her totally out of his life.

It was a sickening admission.

And the surprises kept coming. What Ashley Wilson’s former boyfriend, Dan Leach, had to say next to law enforcement would shock everyone. Seeing The Passion of the Christ had been a pivotal factor in Dan’s decision to confess his crime.

In an exclusive interview with KTRH Radio in Houston, Leach revealed what was going on inside the mind of a murderer—and the miraculous conviction in his spirit that only an encounter with the living God could produce.

Dan Leach

I went and saw the movie with a couple friends. It was very intense, and having that visual stimuli really helps to focus; it does move you. After watching that movie I was very emotional. I thought about the things I had done, and I was upset that I hadn’t repented yet.

Being guilty, I knew I couldn’t repent to God for it and be for given spiritually without going to the law and allowing them to take their course of action.

In all of attorney Ralph Gonzalez’ 24 years of law practice, this was something he had never seen before. He’d been a prosecutor and was now a defense attorney, but this was not something you find in law journals.

Attorney Gonzalez

Attorney GonzalezAt the present, I’m the court- appointed attorney to represent Dan Leach. He’s accused of having murdered a lady here in Richmond, but that’s not the unusual part. Murders occur all the time. I have prosecuted and defended several murderers.

This is a very unique situation for two reasons. First of all, I have a client who is professing his guilt, his complicity in the crime, but, most importantly, that he has a reason that he is doing so [confessing].

Dan had gotten away with the crime he committed. He allegedly had staged it as a suicide, and the authorities believed that it was a suicide.

According to Gonzalez, Dan Leach was also someone who believed in Christ, though clearly he was not following Him.

Leach was very ashamed for what he had done, and felt the incredible burden of guilt growing heavier and heavier.

Attorney Gonzalez

What makes this case most peculiar is the fact that this person had already gotten away with it, but he could not live with his con science.

Just a couple of days after [committing the crime], his conscience began to eat at him and eat at him and eat at him. He became very ashamed, very disgusted with himself over the crime. He needed to tell someone; he needed to get back in God’s grace. He wanted to do that, but he really didn’t know how.

Dan struggled for about six weeks after the alleged crime. Then he went down by the river and prayed to God for an answer He was torn; he already had gotten away with it and he wanted to get right with God. At that point in time, he felt that God spoke to him and told him: “Go confess.”

It was in the midst of making the decision to confess his crime that Dan went to see The Passion of the Christ. There was no turning back. Experiencing the killing of an innocent man was more than he could take. Seeing the thief on the cross being executed, and knowing that he was going to be with Jesus in eternity, no doubt spoke directly to Leach’s equally dire circumstances. He was compelled to come clean on the heinous crime he had committed—knowing full well that in Texas, they kill you for crimes like that.

When asked why he came forward now, Dan said that The Passion of the Christ had moved him spiritually.

Sheriff Wright

He had watched the movie The Passion of the Christ. His statement indicated that the film probably pushed him over the edge as to wanting to confess and clear his conscience.

Attorney Gonzalez

When he saw the movie, that was the very last thing. It was the last piece of the puzzle in his mind that moved him to go and confess.

He wanted redemption.

Before going to the police, Dan confessed his crime to the elders at his church and then further told the church that they will hear about a very heinous crime. He told them they will hear things about him that will disgust them and “that he is starting a journey that he doesn’t know where it will end?’

Dan

I knew I was wrong when I did it. I knew I was wrong in not going forward with it immediately. I knew throughout several occasions, when it came to mind, that I needed to do something about it.

I decided, before time ran out, before something happened to me, that I should go ahead and try to get on the correct path with God.

Once at the sheriff’s station, Dan gave his confession to the police and they took him into custody, putting him under a $100,000 bond, which he chose not to make.

Sheriff Wright

When a murder is planned like this, almost all the time the perpetrator overlooks one minor detail, and like a thread on a piece of cloth, the crime starts to unravel from that point.

This one looked very cut and dry because of the way the whole situation played out. Had he not come forward and confessed, this one would never have cleared. People from time to time come and confess to crimes just to clear their consciences, but this is the first time ever in my experience that somebody has used a movie as a basis to give a reason for doing so.

At the time of Ashley’s death and Dan’s confession, investigators were unclear whether she had been pregnant or not. The state of Texas has one of the strongest laws in the country protecting unborn children from violence. There, under a law enacted in September 2003, the state defines an unborn child as “a person” and, by that definition, has the ability to charge someone with a capital murder for killing a mother carrying an unborn child.

‘What that means is that the crime is punishable by death, while a murder sentence carries a maximum penalty of life in prison. When Dan turned himself in to the police in March 2004, he could have been the first person prosecuted under the state’s new law. He turned himself in knowing he was probably facing the death penalty.

However, since that time, the authorities have determined that in fact Ashley was not pregnant at the time of the murder. So on March 22, 2004, a grand jury indicted Leach for first-degree murder.

Dan Leach had said that he was going to plead guilty in court to the crime. Attorney Gonzalez, in an effort to seek to “temper justice with mercy,” pleaded “not guilty” on Leach’s behalf in order to protect Leach’s rights in the event of a trial. Gonzalez says that Leach admits to killing Ashley—there is no question as to whether or not he did it—by his own admission. But he is hoping to have an opportunity whereby a jury can encourage other criminals to turn themselves in by offering them a prison term of 20-3 0 years instead of life—or death. He believes there is always hope of redemption—only by God’s hand—even in the case of a horrible murderer like Dan Leach.

It is a tough moral dilemma for Gonzalez.

Attorney Gonzalez

I only hope I can temper justice with mercy in the end. In 24 years I have become very familiar with jailhouse religion, where you acquire religion when you get to jail. It’s obvious to me that this guy had religion prior to going to jail. The only bad part to all of this, and the one that troubles me the most as a criminal defense attorney, is if he was that moved by God to confess, what moved him to possibly commit this crime?

There’s an anomaly there. You either love Christ or you don’t. You’ve either taken Him into your heart or you haven’t. It’s not something you switch on and off…that’s the grave issue for me.

But I don’t judge my client; I represent my client I believe that somehow, somewhere, someway he disconnected his head from his heart and did an act he’s very, very sorry he committed, and now he’s willing to face justice. I can only hope that, at the end of his days, God will take Dan under His wing and say, My son, you did the right thing…you did the right thing.”

On August 11, 2004, Dan Leach’s trail began. Leach changed his plea to “guilty,” stating, “I assume full responsibility for my actions.”

Leach wept and displayed a tremendous sense of remorse in the courtroom as the jury was to shortly determine his fate. He told his attorney, “It doesn’t matter what they give me.”

Attorney Gonzalez told me, “He has more faith and courage than I do.”

Two days later the jury pronounced the sentence: 75 years.

Twenty-one-year-old Leach will not be eligible for parole until 2041, when at least half of the sentence has been served. “Dan Leach got away with a perfect crime,” said Attorney Gonzalez. “He got away with it, but he could not live with the fact that he took a human life.”

God had changed a murderer’s heart.


Taken from Changed Lives: Miracles of The Passion by Jody Eldred; Copyright © 2004 by Jody Eldred; Published by Harvest House Publishers, Eugene, OR; Used by Permission.

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