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Who Was Helen Wilson, The 1985 Murder Victim Whose Case HBO's 'Mind Over Murder' Examines?

Helen Wilson was a beloved grandmother who was found raped and murdered in her Beatrice, Nebraska apartment 37 years ago. A group known as the "Beatrice Six" would be convicted — and later exonerated — for the murder. 

By Jax Miller
Helen Wilson Hbo

Helen Wilson was a beloved grandmother whose brutal 1985 rape and murder are examined in the new HBO true-crime docuseries, “Mind Over Murder.”

It was an icy February night when a killer (or killers) murdered the 68-year-old Wilson in her Beatrice, Nebraska, apartment more than 37 years ago. “Mind Over Murder,” the new six-part series directed by Nanfu Wang, explores who Wilson was and the events leading to the convictions of six people known as the “Beatrice Six,” who’d later be exonerated for the crime.

Wilson was a doting grandmother whose kind deeds and loving nature are fondly recalled by family members interviewed in the new docuseries. According to a 2017 New Yorker article titled “Remembering The Murder You Didn’t Commit,” Wilson lived alone in an iconic brick building and carved out time to play bingo several times a week. She also volunteered her services by watching nursery-aged children at the nearby Methodist church.

She was known for capturing memories by frequently tape recording her and her family’s lives, according to the New York Times. She would even write little poems for her grandchildren on their birthdays.

According to Wilson’s obituary, she was raised in Beatrice — about 40 miles south of Lincoln and 20 miles north of the Kansas border in central Nebraska — and raised two sons and a daughter there, all of whom had children of their own. At the time of Wilson’s death, she had seven grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.

Wilson was sick with a chest cold on Tuesday, Feb. 5, 1985, when her son, Darrell Wilson, made his customary evening visit. Darrell’s wife, Katie, first went to her weekly bowling game before heading to meet her husband at his mother's for coffee, which had become a weekly tradition, according to the Lincoln Journal Star.

But that night, Helen Wilson wasn’t feeling well, so she sent her son and daughter-in-law away coffee-less with an apology.

When Katie called her shortly before midnight to remind her to take her medication, Wilson didn’t answer.

“I should have gotten up and gone over there,” Darrell told the Journal Star. “I’ve carried guilt ever since that night because I didn’t.”

That night, one or more people made their way into Wilson's first-floor apartment and brutally raped the elderly woman before suffocating her to death.

Wilson’s sister found her dead on the floor the following day with an afghan tied so tightly around her face that it distorted her nose, according to the Journal Star. Her hands had been bound, and she was still wearing the blue nightgown she'd put on the previous night. A perpetrator's blood was found on her mattress, on a wall and in her underwear, according to the New Yorker.

Building in Beatrice, Nebraska

It was possible, authorities theorized at the time, that Wilson’s murder was connected to a series of 1983 attacks against other elderly women in the area, though none of the other attacks ended in murder, according to the Lincoln outlet. No arrests have ever been made in those assaults.

Other contemporaneous theories revolved around a suspect being a religious fanatic — or perhaps a gay man, given the nature of the rape, according to the New Yorker.

Three men and three women would eventually be convicted in 1989 on numerous charges related to Wilson’s death, according to The Washington Post. They were Joseph White, Thomas Winslow, Jo Ann Taylor, Debra Shelden (Wilson's grandniece), James Dean and Kathy Gonzalez.

“Despite five of the individuals originally confessing to the crime, the ‘Beatrice Six,’ as they became known, were exonerated by DNA evidence in 2009, a turn of events which divided the rural town and incensed the family of Helen Wilson,” according to HBO’s press release announcing the series, which explores the "reliability of confessions and memory in criminal cases."

According to the New Yorker, the DNA found in Wilson's body belonged to Bruce Allen Smith, a young man with a criminal record whose grandmother lived in Helen Wilson's building. He died seven years after Wilson's death.

The wrongful convictions of the “Beatrice Six” would result in the surviving members of the group being awarded $28 million in damages in 2016, and a new generation in the rural town forced to shoulder the financial burdens of Beatrice’s fateful mistakes.

The judgment would largely overshadow Wilson’s life and tragic death, family members lamented.

“She’s the forgotten person in this,” Wilson’s grandson, Bob Houseman, told the New York Times in 2019.

Mind Over Murder,” which features numerous interviews and documentation about Wilson’s life and death, airs Mondays on HBO and HBO Max.

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