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Crime News Dateline

Texas Doctor Is Killed in "Very Personal" and Brutal Fashion Inside His Own Home

Joseph Sonnier, a man with seemingly no enemies, was gunned down in his Lubbock, Texas home in 2012.

By Jill Sederstrom
A police handout of Thomas Dixon

Dr. Joseph Sonnier was in the midst of a successful second act in life when he was found shot and stabbed to death in the garage of his Lubbock, Texas home in 2012.

How to Watch

Catch up on Dateline: Unforgettable on Peacock or the Oxygen App.

The beloved pathologist had no known enemies, which made his violent murder all the more shocking.

But just days into the investigation, detectives would receive an unexpected tip that blew the case wide open and revealed a sinister plot fueled by jealousy and rage. 

“Beyond the headlines, what I’ll always remember is the man at the heart of this case, Joe Sonnier,” Correspondent Andrea Canning said in Dateline: Unforgettable about what made the case so memorable. “He was an impressive guy. A self-made man, a brilliant yet humble doctor who dedicated his life to helping others. Sometimes the victim gets lost in the bright glare of the spotlight, but that wasn’t the case with Joe.” 

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About the Victim

By all accounts, Joseph was a smart and driven doctor, who led the pathology department at a local Lubbock hospital.

“He is the most intelligent person that I know,” his sister Missy Bartlett recalled.

But what stood out even more was Joseph’s dedication to his family, friends, and loved ones. He was always willing to lend advice or cuddle with one of his grandchildren.

“He was the ultimate support system for everybody in his life,” son Dallas Sonnier recalled.

That unwavering support extended to his girlfriend Richelle Shetina, a divorced mother of four, who he met while taking ballroom dance classes. 

It was a second chance at love for Joseph, who had been devastated in 2001 after learning that his first wife was leaving him for another man. Instead of allowing the betrayal to derail him, Joseph used it as an opportunity to reinvent himself by finding a new passion in ballroom dance, a social and upbeat activity that gave him a new zest for life.

In 2011, he met Shetina at the dance studio and sparks quickly began to fly between the duo. 

“He’s the love of my life,” Shetina would later tell detectives. “He is the kindest man.”

What happened to Dr. Sonnier? 

Joseph’s seemingly idyllic life came to a sudden halt on July 11, 2012 when he was discovered dead in his home by his landscapers and a concerned employee at the lab where he worked. 

After no one answered at the doctor’s front door, the unlikely trio walked to the back of the house and discovered one whole section of windows had been pushed in. Two of them entered the house and discovered Joseph dead in the garage. He had been shot five times and stabbed 11 times in what looked to investigators like overkill. 

“A shooting is very hands-off, but a stabbing is very hands-on, it’s very personal, in your face and so you’re dealing with a personal killing and a killer that had no problem with making sure that this person is dead,” Det. Zach Johnson told Canning.

Nothing appeared to be missing from the home, not even expensive pieces of artwork, leading investigators to rule out the possibility of a burglary gone wrong. They did find a chair in the living room overturned — suggesting a possible struggle — shell casings on the floor and a Gatorade bottle that appeared to be used as a homemade silencer.

A trail of blood leading to the garage suggested Joseph may have tried to flee his killer in the final moments of his life.

Joseph’s family was left gutted by his death. In a bizarre coincidence, Joseph’s first wife had been killed by her second husband just two years earlier, leaving his three sons without any living parents.

“Looking back on it, the phone calls from the two police departments for each of their deaths were so similar that I felt like it could have been the same phone call repeated twice,” Dallas said of the tragedies.

Tip Breaks the Case Wide Open

As for Joseph’s death, his loved ones couldn’t think of anyone who would have wanted to harm the well-liked doctor.

But then just days into the investigation, a man named Paul Reynolds walked into the police station with a shocking tip. 

Reynolds told police that his friend David Shepard was claiming to have ambushed Joseph in his home. He allegedly claimed to have killed Joseph on behalf of Dr. Thomas Michael Dixon, a well-respected plastic surgeon in Amarillo who had dated Shetina, in exchange for three bars of silver.

Investigators had spoken to Dixon shortly after the killing because Shetina had mentioned him as a possible suspect in the slaying.

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According to her, Dixon had wanted to get back together with her and couldn’t seem to move past their breakup. "He can be mean-spirited,” she told detectives. 

Shetina also reported noticing a “big, creepy looking guy” who she thought was following at her gym in the months before the murder, which had her on edge.

When detectives spoke to Dixon the same day the body was discovered, he insisted he had nothing to do with the killing and had a solid alibi, which placed him in Amarillo. 

Yet he did admit to having some strong feelings for Shetina when they were together.

“I’ll be honest with you: I loved, loved, loved that woman. I really did,” he said. “I really had fallen head over heels. In fact… I made a lot of life changes for her.”

He also told police that Shepard had stopped by his house Tuesday, June 10, 2012 — the same night authorities thought Joseph may have been killed — to get some cigars.

When the tipster arrived at the station just a few days later and mentioned both Dixon and Shepard, along with key details of the crime that hadn’t been released to the media, authorities began to suspect the tipster’s story could be valid.

Detectives learned that Shepard had recently sold a silver bar, seemingly confirming Reynolds’ story.

Shepard's Confession

Dixon and Shepard were both arrested and while each initially refused to talk to the police, Shepard, a man detectives described as a con man whose life was spiraling downward when he met Dixon, began talking to authorities months later.

In exchange for his story, Dixon got prosecutors to waive the death penalty and agreed instead to plead no contest to capital murder and receive a sentence of life without parole for the killing. 

According to Shepard, Dixon had been flooded with jealousy when Shetina began dating Joseph and decided to kill the wealthy doctor.

Shepard admitted to following Joseph and Shetina for months before he attacked Joseph the night of the killing by hiding out in his backyard. When Joseph noticed him out in the yard and opened the window to speak to him, Shepard pulled out a gun and began to fire. 

He pushed the window in and followed Joseph as he fled into the garage. When he arrived in the garage, the doctor was laying in a pool of blood and “not breathing.” 

“I pull the knife out of my bag, and I stab him in the vital organs two or three — four times,” Shepard coldly recalled. 

He then drove to a lake where he tossed the gun, which was later recovered by authorities. 

Shepard was expected to be a star witness during Dixon’s trial, yet on the stand he insisted that he had acted alone. 

The jury was unable to reach a verdict in that trial, but Dixon was convicted of two counts of capital murder in a second trial in 2015.

“I was sobbing uncontrollably, I couldn’t keep it together because this was just a release and it felt so nice to know that we had gotten justice, finally,” Dallas said of the verdict.

Dixon was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. 

A Texas appeals court later overturned Dixon’s murder conviction, but a higher court overturned the decision in January of 2020. Today, Dixon remains behind bars serving out his sentence.