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Police Investigate Men's Love Triangle in 1987 Cold Case of Murdered Elderly Couple
The peculiar deaths of John and Ruth High would be one of the biggest cold cases of Kelly Siegler's prolific career as a prosecutor. But not before police ruled out theories of suicide and mercy killings.
Three male lovers came under suspicion after a married couple was found dead under peculiar circumstances.
On October 8, 1987, at around 5:00 p.m., officers with the Houston Police Department (H.P.D.) were called to the Willowbend neighborhood to perform a welfare check. Ken High and his wife attempted to visit Ken’s parents, John and Ruth High, after they could not contact the married couple via telephone.
When Ken couldn’t enter the house, he peeked through a window and saw his mother on the bed. He assumed she had passed away.
“The officer notices newspapers on the front room porch; the door was locked,” Sgt. Johnny Moore of the H.P.D.’s Homicide Division told Prosecuting Evil with Kelly Siegler, airing Saturdays at 8/7c on Oxygen.
The cop kicked in the door and entered the residence, soon detecting a heavy presence of gas in the air. Soon, he found John High face down in a pool of blood, apparently dead for a period of hours.
At the scene, an outdoor gas cooker had been hooked up to the gas jet of a dryer, which the officer immediately shut off. He then proceeded to the main bedroom, where he found Ruth High dead in her bed with no apparent signs of trauma.
“There was a book beside her, and one of the pages was folded over as if she fell asleep while reading her book,” said Moore.
The couple’s death shocked loved ones, including Ken’s then-college-aged children, Wendy High Thomas and Dewayne High. High Thomas told Prosecuting Evil she “couldn’t believe” both had died at the same time.
There were no signs of forced entry at the Willowbend residence, and with no immediate signs of foul play, detectives wondered if the deaths of John and Ruth were a bizarre accident. They questioned whether John — a geologist who’d spent nearly 50 years with an oil corporation — failed to connect the outdoor cooker inside the home before having an accidental fall.
As a result, it was theorized early on that Ruth — a Houston-bred homemaker who loved dressing up and playing bridge with her friends — died as a result of gas poisoning, unaware of her husband’s fall in the next room.
But early theories were soon extinguished on Oct. 9, 1987, when a postmortem examination revealed John High sustained six lacerations to the top of the head.
“This is not a natural or accidental death,” said Sgt. Moore. “John High had been murdered.”
Were John and Ruth High's deaths a murder-suicide or a double homicide?
Houston authorities investigated whether Mr. High died as the victim of a murder-suicide, possibly at the hands of Mrs. High. In the bedroom where police found Ruth High dead, detectives found an ax handle behind a curtain, possibly the weapon used to kill John High.
Loved ones, however, dismissed the theory, citing how the couple had been married for over 50 years. "My grandparents had a wonderful relationship,” Dewayne High maintained.
Upon revisiting the crime scene, investigators found that someone lit a candle that eventually burned out. According to H.P.D. homicide detective John Burmester, they believed that whoever killed Mr. High hoped the flame would ignite the cooker’s gasses, causing an explosion that could destroy physical evidence.
“If it was designed to set the gas off, somebody didn’t know that natural gas doesn’t behave that way,” Burmester told Prosecuting Evil. “It tends to rise, so a candle would not have affected it.”
The investigation shifted into high gear when a medical examiner reported the findings of Mrs. High’s postmortem examination, showing bruising on the inside of her lower lip “consistent with her lower teeth,” according to Moore. Petechiae in the eyes also led detectives to believe the wife was smothered to death with a pillow, making the case a double homicide.
Oddly, pages from the Highs’ will were found on a coffee table at the crime scene, showing that their sons — Ken and Gary High — stood to inherit between $300,000 and $500,000 from their parents’ deaths.
A look into the High sons and their associates
According to the victims’ grandchildren, Ken High was “devastated” by the Highs’ tragic deaths. Ken, described as a successful, married father of two, reportedly wasn’t close with his brother, Gary, who was eight years his junior.
“Uncle Gary, my dad’s brother, is the type of person that did not talk much,” High Thomas told Prosecuting Evil. “Very reserved, very quiet, not very emotional.”
Through Ken High, detectives learned of Chuck Duncan, the last known person to see John and Ruth High alive. Duncan regularly helped the couple by doing odd jobs around their property, driving them to appointments, and was welcomed as a part of the High family.
Duncan was also the business partner and lover of Gary High. Together with associate Robbie Duncan (no biological relation to Chuck Duncan), the trio ran a company called “High Tech,” according to Kelly Siegler.
“The three men had a very unusual relationship,” said Siegler. “They were business partners, they were roommates, they were friends, and they were lovers.”
Detectives questioned all three men, and it became clear that Chuck Duncan held dominance over the other two. According to Sgt. Moore, Duncan had “firm control,” which went as far as Robbie — born with a different surname — changing his name to match Chuck’s.
Chuck Duncan told investigators that he often spent time with the Highs and even gifted them with the outdoor cooker found at the crime scene. He insisted pages from their will were out in the open because the pair allegedly planned to cut Ken High out and give all their assets to Gary High.
“When the subject came up, Gary was surprised,” Moore told Prosecuting Evil. “You could tell by the expression on his face that he had never heard of that.”
At the time of the murders, Gary High and Robbie Duncan were in Seattle, scouting new business opportunities. Both were ruled out as direct suspects in the crimes, and there was nothing concrete in which to charge Chuck Duncan.
Eventually, the case went cold.
A break in the case comes in 1993
Several years went by without significant movement in the homicide investigation until August 1993, when an anonymous caller claimed to have information about the High murders. Sgt. Moore recognized the voice as belonging to Robbie Duncan, who was no longer in a relationship with Chuck Duncan and Gary High by then.
Robbie said Chuck killed the couple because he believed he could gain access to millions of dollars that the Highs actually didn’t even have. Robbie claimed that while he and Gary were in Seattle, Duncan unexpectedly called and allegedly confessed to the killings.
It didn’t appear Gary was in on the plan.
“Chuck Duncan is evil to the core,” Moore told Prosecuting Evil. “They were friends with him; he doted over them, but he doted over them with a sick purpose: to worm his way into their money… this was cold-blooded murder.”
Robbie Duncan was granted limited immunity in the case, agreeing to have his phone conversation with Chuck Duncan audio recorded. The sting operation commenced on February 3, 1994, but Duncan said little to implicate himself in the crimes other than how Gary High fell into “a deep, deep tailspin” of depression “after the situation.”
Duncan spoke in hypotheticals, claiming that if he did anything, both Robbie and Gary would “be dragged right down with me.”
Despite the evidence against Chuck Duncan being circumstantial, prosecutors believed they had enough to charge him with capital murder, and he was arrested at his Seattle home.
Gary High, then living in Seattle with Duncan, was never charged in connection with his parents’ murders.
Chuck Duncan says deaths were “mercy” killings
Detectives like Sgt. John “Billy” Belk believed Chuck Duncan agreed to speak with detectives because he thought he could talk his way out of the situation. Belk confronted the prime suspect with Robbie’s statements and the recorded phone conversations.
“He knew he was in a lot of trouble, and so in typical fashion, Chuck concocted another story,” Belk told Prosecuting Evil.
Chuck Duncan placed himself at the crime scene, but to everyone’s surprise, he said Ruth High hired him to carry out the murders as part of a “mercy killing.” Duncan said Ruth High didn’t want her and her husband to suffer from the effects of growing old.
“She says, ‘I would do anything in the world for you and Gary and Robbie, but I’ve got to have peace of mind,’” said Duncan, according to transcripts published by Prosecuting Evil.
Duncan alleged Mrs. High said she didn’t want to wait until she was “in a wheelchair being given tranquilizers in a nursing home,” adding she’d “rather pick and choose the time” of her own death.
Duncan claimed he hired two Hispanic landscapers to carry out the killings, but detectives didn’t buy into the theory.
“We had no other choice but to pursue names of all the yard men,” said Belk. “We knew it was a bogus story, but you still had to close that door.”
Chuck Duncan’s Murder Trial
The capital murder trial began May 19, 1995, marking the first time Prosecuting Evil’s Kelly Siegler took on a cold case. It was also her first capital murder.
Siegler knew the crux of the case landed with Robbie Duncan, but she feared jurors wouldn’t see beyond his lifestyle and his decision not to disclose the information he had for several years. Sitting with Sgt. Moore, Siegler wondered, “How are we going to make sure that the jury understands he’s credible? Because if a jury hated him, we were going to lose.”
During the trial, jurors heard the taped conversations and Duncan’s confessions that he had the couple killed at Ruth High’s request. Siegler, however, disputed the “mercy killing” theory, presenting that such an event wouldn’t have required John High to sustain several lacerations to the head.
“The whole story was just stupid in the first place, and it even ended up being kind of laughable,” Kelly Siegler told Prosecuting Evil, adding that Chuck Duncan was a “manipulative liar.”
Leading with the fact that Robbie Duncan came forward with information when he didn’t have to, Siegler was satisfied with how Robbie handled himself on the stand, as well as how he dealt with the defense’s cross-examination. Partly due to Robbie’s testimony, on May 25, 1995, the jury convicted Chuck Duncan of capital murder.
The defendant was sentenced to death, bringing closure to John and Ruth High’s loved ones.
“I felt happy, I felt vindicated, I was glad for my dad,” said the Highs’ granddaughter, Wendy High Thomas. “I was thinking that my grandparents are in Heaven shouting ‘hallelujah.’”
Chuck Duncan died by lethal injection in 2003. According to Sgt. Moore, he used his last words to proclaim his innocence.
Watch all-new episodes of Prosecuting Evil with Kelly Siegler, airing Saturdays at 8/7c on Oxygen.