The police would later describe it as a tree, but it was really more of a swamp vine. Doyle Simpson was handcuffed to it, his feet sinking into the marshy sludge. Untold Louisiana swamp creatures — alligators, snakes, snapping turtles — lurked in the tangled thicket behind him.
Doyle had two holes in his back, near his shoulder blade, where the freckled man had shot him. The bullets had traveled upward through his body. One was lodged in the base of his skull, and the other had ripped through his throat, narrowly missing his carotid artery, and exited through the front of his neck. He couldn't scream, he couldn't even talk. Out there, no one would have heard him anyway.
It was December 15, 1986. A couple hours earlier, 29-year-old Doyle had pulled up in front of his cousin Clyde's house, a tan rambler in Kenner, Louisiana, a town on the outskirts of New Orleans. It was a Monday morning, around 11:15. Clyde's wife, Elaine, had also just arrived. She parked in the carport alongside her little home on the crowded street.
As Elaine prepared to walk in her side door, she heard two gunshots. She looked left and saw a man darting across her lawn, as if he'd just bolted out the front of her house, a blue steel gun in his hand.
Elaine saw the man run toward Doyle's yellow Ford Pinto, point the gun at Doyle and yell, "Drive!" Doyle's car sped off.
Then Elaine entered her house and found Clyde lying in a pool of blood on the kitchen floor. She ran back to her car and drove to a nearby donut shop to use a payphone to call police.
At 11:38, Kenner Police Detective Steve Caraway arrived at the scene. The door to the Simpson's house looked like it had been kicked in. Clyde's neck had been slashed, he'd been shot three times in the head and once in his stomach. Clyde Simpson was dead. Meanwhile, Doyle was trapped in a car with the murderer.
The man directed Doyle to steer his Pinto away from New Orleans and its suburbs. They crossed the Mississippi River and drove more than 25 miles, through the sugarcane fields and into the swampland of St. John the Baptist Parish. They turned onto a gravel service road. As they neared the edge of the swamp, Doyle's little car got stuck in the mud. They walked the rest of the way to the tree-like vine.
The freckled man stole Doyle's wallet, shot him twice and took off on foot. Doyle was alone, stuck to the tree and bleeding to death. It's not hard to imagine his despair: Doyle slumped over, his weight bearing down on the frail branch, his eyes scanning the tangled brush beneath him for something, anything, that might set him free.
The road from Winona
The story of how Doyle ended up in that swamp in 1986 would take on new significance in the years after the Tardy Furniture murders, in 1996. One of the most pervasive rumors in Winona is that a Louisiana hit man was the killer.
There's no real evidence to support this theory. In fact, there is really only one thing giving it life — Doyle Simpson's past. He is one of the few people in Winona to have lived in the New Orleans area, and he certainly seems to be the only one who was kidnapped and shot there.
Doyle had been an early suspect in the Tardy investigation, and was already a focus of our reporting. He'd owned the gun that investigators say was used in the Tardy Furniture murders and had worked at the store.
Few people who knew Doyle would say much about him, and those who did mentioned his outward appearance: his raspy voice and the ear-to-ear scar across his neck. It prompted us to investigate if he had a connection to organized crime in Louisiana and if he or someone he knew there might have been a hitman. Could Doyle's possible connections to organized crime have been related to the Tardy murders? We decided to check it out.
Doyle had migrated to New Orleans in the late 1970s around the same time as several other young people from Winona. Most of them were related. There was Doyle's cousin, Clyde Simpson, and Clyde's wife, Elaine. There were also Doyle's half-brother, Robert Campbell, and Robert's brother. To them, New Orleans promised opportunity.
"When I left Winona I was working two jobs," said Robert Campbell, who added that he was earning $1.65 an hour and need to pay off a 1977 Oldsmobile Cutlass. "So you start thinking ... they got jobs down there paying more money," he said.
The group settled in the outskirts of the city. Clyde and Elaine Simpson lived in their little house. The guys — five or six of them, including Doyle and Campbell — squeezed into an apartment nearby.
Campbell described Clyde Simpson as his best friend. They graduated from high school together in Winona, and in New Orleans, they got jobs at a washing machine factory. At some point, according to Campbell, Clyde was let go and went into business for himself painting houses and doing minor construction work. He brought on Doyle to help.
It seems likely that Clyde Simpson was also selling drugs. Campbell remembers seeing a room in Clyde's home that was stacked floor-to-ceiling with marijuana. Detective Caraway recalls that "somebody indicated that there may have been a large amount of drugs there, but nothing was ever found." It's unclear whether Doyle was involved in this other side of Clyde's business.
"I don't know the connection with Doyle," Caraway said. "But obviously there was some sort of drug nexus there that brought them all together."
Newspaper stories in the days after the murder reveal that the detectives investigating Clyde's death weren't sure if Doyle was a victim or a getaway driver who'd been double crossed.
Finding the freckled man
Stuck in that swamp, badly wounded and handcuffed to the tree, Doyle needed a way to cut himself loose. He spotted a broken bottle, just a run-of-the-mill bit of swamp detritus, and decided it was going to save his life. He reached down and grabbed a piece of glass. He pressed the jagged edge against the vine, and started sawing back and forth. Eventually, it gave way.
He was free, but in grave condition and stuck in the middle of nowhere. Doyle mustered the strength to stagger 191 feet out to the nearest road. He was spotted by a passing truck driver who called 9-1-1.
Before the paramedics rushed Doyle to the hospital, sheriff's deputies questioned him briefly. Detective Vernon Bailey asked Doyle if he knew the man who'd done this to him. Doyle couldn't speak, but he scribbled a short note. It said something bad might've happened to his cousin in Kenner. Bailey called the Kenner Police Department and talked with Steve Caraway.
Detective Caraway drove out to Detective Bailey's parish that afternoon. There, they interviewed a witness, Martin Sylvain, who had called in a tip to police. Sylvain said he'd been getting gas at a remote Texaco station, a mile or two from where Doyle had been found. Sylvain had been approached at the pump by a man asking for a ride to Kenner. Sylvain refused, even after the man offered him $20. Something about the man seemed off. As Sylvain pulled out of the gas station, he watched the man walk over to a pay phone and start to make a call. It was between 12:30 and 1 p.m.
Sylvain described the man he'd seen to the detectives and the details he gave were distinct. According to court records, "Mr. Sylvain stated that the black male was light complected and had pimples or freckles on his face."
Detective Caraway called South Central Bell Telephone and asked the company to pull the call log for the pay phone at the Texaco Station around the time Sylvain saw the freckled man.
Two days later, Detective Caraway visited Doyle at the hospital to see if he could describe the man who'd shot him. He'd had invasive neck surgery and couldn't speak much, but he could sort of whisper and mime. Caraway remembers Doyle's response clearly. He tapped his fingers all over his cheeks. "He kept referring to what we thought was just a lot of freckles on his face," Caraway said.
According to court records, the phone company called Caraway back on Christmas Eve. There had been a call made from the pay phone at the Texaco Station at 12:54 p.m. on December 15, to the house of a man named Horace Toppins. On December 29, Caraway knocked on the door at that address.
"When the person answered the door it was just really eerie," Caraway said. "It was a very light-complected black male with ... it wasn't freckles, but it was hundreds of little small tiny moles all over his face."
The man was Horace Toppins.
Toppins denied making the call from the pay phone, but the detective thought he looked nervous. He asked Toppins to come down to the station the next day. Toppins was a no-show.
On December 31, Martin Sylvain picked Toppins out of a photo lineup. The next day, Caraway and another detective drove the four hours up to Winona where Doyle was convalescing. There, Doyle also picked Toppins out of a lineup.
Late that night, back in New Orleans, Caraway executed a search warrant for Toppins' home and two cars. He found two R.P. Luger 9 mm rounds, which matched the type of shell casings found at Clyde Simpson's house. He also found a prepaid legal services card with Clyde Simpson's name and social security number on it, according to court records. Police arrested Toppins.
Toppins was indicted separately for the murder of Clyde and the attempted murder of Doyle. In both cases, Toppins entered an Alford guilty plea, which means he didn't admit to either crime but acknowledged that the state's evidence was enough to convict him. He was sentenced to 30 years at Angola prison. Toppins was released in 2003 on "good-time parole," having served less than 17 years.
Living in fear
By most accounts, Doyle spent the rest of his life — he died in 2012 — afraid that the man who kidnapped him would come back to finish him off.
In the 1990s, someone in Winona mentioned to Doyle that there was a new guy in town. He became convinced it was the murderer and that he needed protection.
"'The way they describe him, bro, that's him,'" Robert Campbell remembers Doyle saying. "He got the gun because he heard the guy was there."
Doyle also told people that the man who had tried to kill him was tied to organized crime. "He said he had to be a hitman," Campbell said. Back in New Orleans, Clyde had once told Campbell something similar, saying, "Man, they done put a hit out on me." Campbell remembers telling Clyde to get lost for a while, to go back up to Winona, but he didn't listen.
Doyle's fear doesn't necessarily mean he was involved in criminal activity. Surviving trauma could leave someone scared for many reasons. The detectives who investigated the 1986 incident — Steve Caraway and Vernon Bailey — don't remember thinking that Doyle was complicit in the murder of Clyde. The fact that he was idling in his car outside Clyde's house just seemed to them like bad luck. They said Doyle acted like a victim and cooperated with the investigation.
We spoke briefly to Clyde's widow, Elaine, but she said she couldn't remember much about Doyle and didn't want to talk about her late husband.
There was one last person who we thought might have some answers about whether Doyle had connections to organized crime and why a hit man would have wanted him dead — the man who was charged with trying to kill him, Horace Toppins.
As luck would have it, we found Toppins in New Orleans just a few days after his release from another stint in prison, this time for allegedly passing counterfeit money at a Dillard's in Baton Rouge.
We met at his daughter's office. He was dapper and jolly, wearing a pinstripe suit and smiling broadly. Toppins has recently been suing the state of Louisiana over what he says is the illogic of the attempted murder statute. And that's what he wanted to talk about.
"Murder has intent. When you put the attempt statute with it, you have an attempt to have an intent," Toppins explained. "Intent is a state of mind. You cannot attempt to have a state of mind. You have that mindset or you don't."
Toppins didn't want to address the way that the attempted murder statute was used against him. He wouldn't discuss Doyle or Clyde Simpson and has never admitted guilt in the 1986 crimes.
"I'm not going to speak about that," Toppins said. "I cannot change what happened. I have no animosity, no bitterness, or resentment. There are some things I do regret. However, I'm not going to linger on those."
Some details of Doyle Simpson's past, it seems, will remain a mystery.