Two days before she died in March 2018, Miriam Nelson told staff at her Plano senior living complex that an intruder had been in her apartment.
Now, after police and prosecutors say she was smothered by serial murder suspect Billy Chemirmir, her family says that the complex where Nelson lived — Preston Place Retirement Community — should have done more to protect her.
Lawsuits filed in the 4th County Court at Law in Dallas on Tuesday by three families, including Nelson’s, detail what one of their attorneys, Trey Crawford, says is a pattern of “woefully deficient security measures” at Preston Place. The suits also provide greater insight into Chemirmir’s alleged actions as he visited North Texas senior living homes.
The suits list two new alleged victims who were not publicly linked to Chemirmir previously. One, who was not named in the suits, died Dec. 10, 2017, the documents state. The other is 93-year-old Mamie Dell Miya, who died Dec. 8, 2017.
Chemirmir has not been indicted in either death, but the suits include Plano police reports that state Miya’s death is a suspected capital murder case.
Chemirmir is accused of murdering nearly two dozen elderly people, mostly women, throughout North Texas. Seven of the alleged slayings occurred at Preston Place.
In all, that makes 22 deaths that have been publicly linked to Chemirmir. It could make him one of Texas’ most prolific serial killers.
Among the family members wanting improved security at Preston Place and other senior living facilities is former Dallas Cowboys safety and 2020 Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee Cliff Harris, whose mother-in-law was Miriam Nelson.
“We made an assumption that it was safe,” Harris told The Dallas Morning News on Tuesday. “These ladies, these widows are the most vulnerable part of society. I feel like they were sitting ducks.
Preston Place changed ownership while the alleged killing spree was underway. The new management company took control of the property in February 2018 and said in a prepared statement Tuesday that it would “not be appropriate to discuss this matter.”
“It is important to remember that Billy Chemirmir is the person law enforcement agencies believe is responsible for these horrible crimes,” the statement reads. “We have assisted police and prosecutors with their investigation and will continue to provide information and support as requested. In addition, we continue to offer our deepest sympathies and condolences to every family affected by these senseless acts.”
The older management company, Dallas-based Spectrum Properties, did not respond to a request for comment.
‘They let us down’
Nelson’s daughter, Karen Harris, said she helped her mother select Preston Place when she wanted to move from Granbury to Dallas. She liked that her mother would be living in a gated community and that there were signs about security cameras around the complex.
Now, Karen Harris says, the few security cameras near the front gate — which she says rarely worked — were not enough.
“They let us down,” she said.
Nelson detailed the incident involving the intruder in a voicemail left with the front desk at Preston Place. She described how a man with rubber gloves came into her apartment while she sat in a living-room recliner on March 7, according to the suits. He said he was there to check for leaks and walked into her bedroom. He left after several minutes.
Two days later, she told her daughter a necklace was missing, the lawsuits state. And that evening, Nelson was found dead in her apartment. More than $11,000 worth of jewelry was gone.
Karen Harris said police arrived quickly and told her late that night they were looking at other similar incidents at Preston Place.
“The reality hit me that someone mistreated my mother,” she said. “It’s the worst thing in the world to feel that someone did that to my mother, the sweetest woman in the world.”
Later that month, police told the family that they believed Nelson was among more than a dozen elderly women smothered by Chemirmir.
Since then, both Karen Harris and her brother, David Nelson, said they’ve struggled with sleeping and trusting strangers. David Nelson said he still has nightmares about what happened to his mother.
“I’m still not right,” he said.
The Harris family recently returned from Miami, where Cliff Harris was honored during Super Bowl LIV. It’s the kind of event his mother-in-law would have definitely attended, they said.
“I think about her in all these moments, and know she would have been so proud of Cliff,” Karen Harris said. “I want to honor her. I want people to know about what happened to her.”
More families speak out
Among the suits filed Tuesday was one by the family of Ann Conklin, who died a few days before Chemirmir was arrested in March 2018.
Conklin’s daughter, Jennie Bassett, said she found her mother’s body. Conklin’s dog was also in the apartment with its leash on. Bassett said she suspects Chemirmir followed her mother into the apartment after she walked the dog.
“That’s all she did. She didn’t open the door to a stranger, she didn’t do anything wrong,” said Gloria Ross, another of Conklin’s daughters. “She walked her dog in a gated community.”
Right away, police began asking questions about her mother’s jewelry and said they wanted to get an autopsy.
It wasn’t until the next day, when a woman who lived across the hall survived an attack and provided police with a description matching Chemirmir, that Bassett and Ross realized what had happened.
“They owed her some protection,” Ross said of Preston Place. “They didn’t tell her that Billy Chemirmir was breaking in apartments and possibly murdering people.”
The suits are the latest in a series of developments that have highlighted security flaws in the senior living industry.
Crawford’s firm represents at least 10 families who say Chemirmir killed their loved ones. The firm has represented families from a number of senior living facilities, including Edgemere and The Tradition-Prestonwood in North Dallas.
All of the suits claim that the independent living communities didn’t do enough to keep residents safe while Chemirmir roamed the premises.
It can be a difficult balance. Many seniors want the autonomy of living alone and independently, while families preparing to move their loved ones into a senior living community want a place where they believe they’ll be secure.
“It’s a group of individuals who are so independent but we don’t realize how vulnerable they are,” Bassett said. “This is so senseless, but it’s also so preventable.”
Some of the families of Chemirmir’s alleged victims have created a nonprofit that is advocating for increased security standards at senior living facilities. The group, called Secure Our Seniors Safety, has met with state lawmakers to push for better laws regulating independent living security.
MJ Jennings, daughter of Leah Corken, is one of the group’s board members. Her mother died at The Tradition-Prestonwood in August 2016. In October 2019, her mother’s cause of death was changed to homicide.
“If my mother had known there were all these robberies, if they pointed out what was happening, any of these deaths would have been prevented,” Jennings told The News on Tuesday.
Crawford said he also hopes the Chemimir case helps change how senior living complexes approach security. He pointed to visitor management systems that can better track who comes and goes, and he highlighted the importance of telling residents when a crime has been committed on premises — something he says Preston Place and The Tradition-Prestonwood did not do.
“I think disclosing criminal activity on the premises is just common sense,” he said. “When you say you’re controlling who comes and goes, and you don’t, you’re putting them in a worse position.”
According to the suits filed Tuesday, the daughter of another resident posted fliers warning residents about the intruder a few days after Nelson’s body was found. The flier noted that Preston Place had no black male maintenance employees and said that residents should call police if such a stranger came to their doors.
The suit claims that Preston Place management removed the fliers the next day.
“She’d want us to fight the fight, she’d want us to do something for her friends,” said David Nelson, Miriam Nelson’s son. “They knew something happened and they made a decision to — after repeated evidence — not do something.”
Strength of cases
Although 22 deaths have been linked to Chemirmir, he has been indicted in only 12. The others are named in lawsuits like the ones filed Tuesday, by families who say police told them their loved one was a victim.
The case was the subject of a two-part series called “Guardians” that was published by The News in December.
Although Chemirmir is accused of having killed people in Dallas and Collin counties since at least May 2016, according to police records, he began frequenting Preston Place months before his arrest.
These Preston Place residents were killed by him, according to criminal indictments and lawsuits:
- Minnie Campbell, 84, was killed Oct. 31, 2017, according to a criminal indictment.
- Diane Delahunty, 79, died Dec. 5, 2017, according to the new suits. Delahunty’s daughter earlier provided The News with emails showing that Plano police believe Chemirmir killed her mother.
- Miya died Dec. 8, according to the new suits.
- A woman who was not identified in the new suits died Dec. 10.
- Martha Williams, 80, died March 4, 2018, according to a criminal indictment.
- Nelson, 81, died March 9, two days after she said she was robbed, according to a criminal indictment.
- Conklin, 82, died March 18, according to a criminal indictment.
On March 19, a 91-year-old woman who lived at Preston Place was attacked by Chemirmir, but she survived, according to a criminal indictment against Chemirmir.
“Go to the bed, don’t fight me,” Chemirmir told the woman before putting a pillow over her face to smother her, the indictment says.
Paramedics revived the woman, and she was able to provide a description of the intruder to police. Police identified Chemirmir through suspicious vehicle and suspicious person reports at a number of North Texas senior living complexes.
The day after the woman’s attack, Plano police saw Chemirmir toss something into a dumpster at his apartment in Far North Dallas. They arrested him and found what he’d tossed: a jewelry box that led them to the Dallas home of Lu Thi Harris, 81.
Harris was found dead in her bedroom, a pillow nearby smeared with lipstick.
Chemirmir was charged with capital murder in Harris’ death and attempted capital murder in the case of the woman at Preston Place who survived being attacked.
Police then began re-investigating deaths at luxury senior living complexes — hundreds of cases over nearly two years. They have lined up Chemirmir’s cellphone data with reports of thefts to track his movements and identify potential victims, according to previously filed civil suits.
In some cases, families are waiting for the medical examiner to review medical reports for a determination on whether to amend the cause of death from “natural causes” to homicide. In Dallas County, a backlog of cases is slowly working its way through that process, medical examiner Jeffery Barnard told The News last month.
When the medical examiner changes the cause of death to either homicide or “undetermined,” the district attorney’s office can choose to take the case to a grand jury for indictment.
Chemirmir, a Kenyan immigrant with permanent resident status in the U.S., is the Dallas County Jail in lieu of $11.6 million bail. He has maintained he is innocent. His attorney, Phillip Hayes, did not respond to a request for comment.
Chemirmir faces the death penalty if convicted in the capital murder of Lu Thi Harris.