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Some names have been changed in this story.
Beloved Texas grocery cashier Samantha Lezark had been going through a devastating divorce when she was found dead with a coaxial cable tightly wrapped around her neck and a large gash to the back of her head.
But investigators would soon learn that Lezark’s estranged husband, John, wasn’t the only man in her life. The 28-year-old also had a secret relationship with her coworker’s husband and had dipped her toe into the world of online dating, giving investigators a daunting list of possible suspects, according to “An Unexpected Killer,” airing Fridays at 8/7c on Oxygen.
The quiet community of Wichita Falls was rocked when Lezark was found dead on the morning of Jan. 6, 2003. Her coworker Laurie had come by the home with her husband, Donnie, to check on Lezark after she didn’t show up that morning for her regular shift at a local grocery store. The couple realized the door was unlocked and went inside to find Lezark splayed out on the floor of her bedroom in a pool of blood.
The 28-year-old was lying in a prone position, with a large wound to her head and a coaxial cable wrapped three or four times around her neck before it was tied off with a distinctive square knot, leading authorities to believe their suspect was either in the military or had a sound knowledge of knots.
“A strangulation death has some up-close and personal aspect to it,” a detective on the case said in the series. “Based on what we saw, we thought there was a good chance the killer actually knew the victim.”
There were also no signs of forced entry to suggest that an intruder had forced his way into the home and no signs of sexual assault.
Near the body, investigators discovered a fire extinguisher, covered with blood, hair, and what appeared to be a portion of a bloody handprint. Authorities believed the extinguisher had been used to deliver Lezark’s blow to the head.
Detectives also discovered a laser pointer on the middle of the bed with blood splatter around it, leading investigators to conclude that the pointer had been on the bed at the time of the attack.
With few other clues to go on, detectives turned to the people who had been closest to the high-spirited cashier. They learned that Lezark had recently separated from her husband. The pair had once been high-school sweethearts, but the relationship fell apart after John fell in love with Lezark’s best friend and had an affair.
“She just kept trying to make him happy and she was so devastated when he left,” her mom recalled of the painful breakup.
For months, John would move back in and out of her life until her mom said she decided to kick him out for good.
Lezark’s friends, who said she had loved cats, music, and her growing collection of tattoos, noted they saw a new sense of purpose in her after this.
“Samantha’s confidence definitely changed,” her friend Lisa recalled. “I think Samantha was just trying to have fun, get out back into the world, try new things.”
One of those new things was online dating. In 2003, online dating was just in its infancy and Lezark usually found her new love interests in chat rooms, using the username meowmix28 in a reference to her love of cats.
Not everyone in her life was happy about the new development. John told detectives he had warned his estranged wife she could “run into some dangerous people” online and her mom had also given her a pointed warning.
“When she started meeting these guys online, I said, ‘You don’t know these people, you’re not letting them come to the house, are you?’ and I could tell she didn’t want me to know because it was going to upset me really bad,” she said.
It wasn’t the only complication in her life. At the time of her death, Lezark’s friend Laurie said Lezark had been fighting with her ex after she threatened to cut off his health insurance. John had suffered a terrible injury when he was 18 years old: A car had fallen down on him, injuring his back. Without the insurance, he could be facing some significant medical bills.
But John told detectives Lezark had agreed not to cut off the insurance, and he said he was at home with his girlfriend the night of her death. He also submitted his DNA and fingerprints, which were not a match to evidence found at the crime scene.
In a surprising twist, investigators also learned that Donnie, the same man who had discovered the body, had a short intimate relationship with Lezark not long before her death. He had initially told detectives he only knew Lezark because she was his wife’s friend, but detectives learned that their relationship had gone deeper.
“Once we realized he had been a lover of Samantha’s we had to look at him more closely,” the detective said.
When confronted, Donnie admitted the relationship but he insisted he had not killed Lezark. He agreed to provide his DNA and fingerprints, which cleared him as a suspect.
With two possible suspects eliminated, authorities decided to focus on Lezark’s online romantic pursuits. The night she was killed, she had told her friend Lisa that she was with a man named Kris at her home and said that the pair were planning to watch a new “Friends” DVD.
While digging into her computer data, investigators found a man by the username “KS” that she had been communicating with just days before her death in messages that were “pretty sexual in nature.”
“He wanted to come over to see her, told her to be blindfolded, topless, and ironically, she says, ‘What if you are a serial killer?’” another investigator recalled in the series. “But, in the end, she went along with it.”
One of Lezark’s neighbors had seen a car at the home with California plates just days before her death and had written down the license plate. Detectives were able to link the car to a man named “Kristoff.”
Kristoff was stationed at a local Air Force base. When they brought him in for questioning, Kristoff admitted to the sexual relationship but said the pair didn’t have much else in common. On the night of the murder, he said he had been with friends at a batting cage.
His DNA and fingerprints were not found to be a match, leaving investigators back at square one.
It wasn’t until investigators recalled the tip given to them by a young boy in the neighborhood that they got the break they needed. The boy told police he had seen a black and red motorcycle parked at Lezark’s home shortly before her body was discovered.
Detectives asked the computer forensics team to search for the word “motorcycle” in Lezark’s correspondence and discovered another suitor who went by the username i-am-elliot who had talked about owning one.
Despite the deceptive username, investigators were able to link the profile to a man who worked at an area camera shop named Kris Russell.
Russell was a college student taking criminal justice courses at Midwestern State University.
“He looked like he came from a good home and he was a decent, clean-cut, all-American kid,” the detective said of the surprising new suspect.
Authorities had searched through the pair’s online correspondence earlier in the investigation but nothing stood out about their talk, initially throwing detectives off his trail.
The pair bonded after Russell told Lezark his wife had just died and she told him her husband had left her for her best friend.
“i-am-elliot seemed very sympathetic to her in their messages and she seemed to respond to that,” another investigator said, describing their online chats as “pretty innocent.”
Yet, the investigation uncovered other troubling signs. Russell had been in the Marines, but only for a few days before he was discharged by the military. Authorities also found a collection of laser pointers at his home, similar to the one mysteriously found on Lezark’s bed, as well as a book on knots.
After securing a search warrant to secure Russell’s DNA and fingerprints in Lezark’s case, they found it matched to the evidence left at the crime scene. Detectives weren’t able to establish a clear motive in the case, but believe Russell likely lost his temper at some point that night and attacked Lezark from behind with the fire extinguisher before strangling her to death.
He was later found guilty and sentenced to a maximum of 99 years in prison.
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