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Nearly 25 years after a shocking quadruple homicide happened in Pelham, Alabama, recalling the case still brings authorities to tears.
On Sunday, March 23, 1997, 16-year-old Mark Duke called 911 and said that when he came home he found that his family was dead. The victims were his father, Randy Duke, 39, his dad’s fiancé, Dedra Hunt, 29, and her two daughters, Chelsea, 7, and Chelisa, 6.
“Officers on the scene told us it’s bad, it’s brutal,” Pelham PD Capt. Tommy Thomas told “Family Massacre,” airing Fridays at 9/8c on Oxygen.
Randy had been shot and stabbed with such force that it broke a knife left near his body. Dedra, who was found in an upstairs bathroom, had been shot in the face. A bullet blasted out her teeth, which were found on a living room couch. The girls’ throats were savagely slashed.
“This was a traumatic, very violent way to die,” said Pelham PD Detective Sergeant Mark Hall. “Everybody in there had lost every bit of blood that they had in their body, just about.”
Investigators found that symbols associated with local gangs had been carved into the walls of the home. Because his entire family had been killed, police put Mark in protective custody.
Tommy Hunt, Dedra’s ex-husband and the girls’ father, came under suspicion early in the investigation. He had arrived at the crime scene shortly after the bodies were discovered. Hunt, who shared custody of the girls, said that after failed attempts to reach Dedra he went to Duke’s home. He arrived not long after the police. His statements were checked out with police and he was cleared as a suspect.
A forensics team determined that the victims had been killed at least 36 hours before being discovered. Bullet casings of different calibers were recovered at the scene, which led officials to suspect there was more than one killer behind the slaughter.
In his interview with detectives, Mark Duke said that he’d been away from home since Friday. Over the weekend he and his friends Michael Brandon Samra, Michael Ellison, and David Collums had helped tear down a barn on a local farm. When he came home Sunday he found his family dead.
Mark’s story was corroborated by the owner of the farm, and officials looked deeper into the gang symbols at the crime scene. They considered Randy’s undercover work in the Narcotics Bureau of the Alabama Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission. Had he been killed for revenge? But that line of investigation led to a dead end.
A day after the victims were found, a $20,000 reward was announced for tips leading to an arrest and conviction in the case. In a number of calls that came in, Mark Duke was described as a troubled and angry youth. Along with Samra, Collums, and Ellison, Mark Duke had formed their own gang, according to “Family Massacre.”
The case came into focus following a call about Mark’s 14-year-old girlfriend, who’d told her friend that Mark admitted to killing his family. At the police station, the girlfriend told authorities what Mark had told her and how his friends were involved. She had details about the murders that hadn’t been made public.
The girl agreed to wear a wire and record Mark’s friends talking about the murders. These recorded conversations gave police enough evidence to bring in Mark’s friends for questioning.
Ellison and Collums separately told police that they gave Mark and Samra a ride to Mark’s house and stayed in the car out in the driveway. Samra initially minimized his role in the murders, according to Randall Hillman, Chief Deputy District Attorney of Shelby County.
“But once we let him understand that his buddies had ratted him out,” said Hillman, “he basically rolls over and gives what we call a ‘lay down confession.’”
Samra told detectives there was longstanding friction between Mark and Randy and that Mark spoke about killing his dad. Tensions escalated to murder when Randy refused to let Mark use his truck.
Samra detailed what had gone down the night of the massacre. He said that he entered the house with Mark, who went up to his father and shot him in the face. Mark then brutally stabbed Randy.
Dedra tried to flee and was shot in the side of the face, blowing out her teeth. Dedra grabbed Chelisa and they ran to an upstairs bathroom and locked the door. Mark kicked a hole in the door and shot Dedra. They had no more bullets so they used knives on the girls. Chelisa’s throat was slashed twice. Samra cut Chelsea’s throat as she reportedly begged for mercy.
During the account “Samra had absolutely no emotion, no feeling, no remorse, no nothing,” said Hillman. He said Mark told him there could be no witnesses. The gang symbols were meant to throw police off the track. He helped retrieve the knives that were used in the crimes.
When police interviewed Mark, he quickly lawyered up.
On March 26, 1997, Ellison and Collums were charged with murder. Duke and Samra were charged with capital murder. In the run-up to the trial, Ellison and Collums struck a plea bargain and their trials didn’t take place. “The plea that was offered was 16 years,” said Hillman.
In March 1998, Samra was tried and convicted and sentenced to death. A year later, Samra came off death row to testify against Mark Duke’s trial. Duke’s attorneys attempted to discredit Samra by claiming he was in court because he’d made a deal for leniency.
"Samra denied that claim,” said Hillman. “He looks up and he says, ‘No, sir, that’s not true … somebody has to tell the truth about what happened. And it looks like I’m the only one that’s going to do it.’ The entire courtroom went dead silent.”
Mark Duke was convicted and sentenced to death. “He had no remorse,” said Thomas. “He knew that Dedra and the two girls were in that house and he knew that he was going to have to kill all of them. Somebody that would do that is just pure evil.”
In 2004, he was re-sentenced to life in prison without parole after the Supreme Court barred the death penalty for people under 18 at the time of the offense.
Michael Brandon Samra was 19 when the family was massacred. On May 15, 2019, he was executed by lethal injection.
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