Long before he became one of Dallas’ most acclaimed architects, Russell Buchanan was the prime suspect in the brutal murder of an SMU student in 1984. Twenty-eight years later, the real killer is on death row.
by CHRISTOPHER WYNN | portraits by ADAM FISH
The knock on the front door was strange.
Nobody ever stopped by the young architect’s East Dallas apartment unannounced. He opened the door and found himself staring at a Dallas Police Department badge.
A detective in a coat and tie stood there. Beside him was a hulking uniformed officer with a short-barreled shotgun aimed right at the skinny young man’s chest.
“Are you Russell Buchanan?” the detective asked.
Stunned, it took him a moment to reply: “Yes.”
Today, of course, that name is well known around Dallas. Russell Buchanan is the celebrated architect. His boxy, contemporary homes and apartment buildings have won prestigious awards; his work has graced the pages of Architectural Digest. He shocked Highland Park purists last fall by plopping down a white cube of a house, clad in synthetic panels, on Mockingbird Lane, near a 10-year-old European castle. And his sculptural Spring Table — he designs furniture and is an artist as well — is in the permanent collection of the Dallas Museum of Art.
But on that chilly October evening in 1984, one day after the bustling Texas-OU weekend, Buchanan was a scared 23-year-old. He was only a year out of Texas A&M’s architecture program. It was Monday night around 6 p.m. and he was still standing there in his suit from his first job, a working internship with HKS Architects downtown.
The detective and the officer stepped inside. More police filed in behind them. “We have some questions to ask you about the murder of Angie Samota.”
Angie. Buchanan’s mind was reeling. He had gone bar-hopping Friday night with Samota and her friend, Anita Kadala, but the truth was he hardly knew her. Angela Samota was pretty — long blond hair and angel eyes that were both inviting and impossible at the same time — and, in his word, “bubbly.” She was the social chairman of her sorority, Zeta Tau Alpha, at SMU. She was also smart, a Hockaday alum now studying computer science and electrical engineering at a time when women didn’t do that.
And now she was dead. The details, as Buchanan eventually learned, were gruesome: Samota had been raped, then stabbed 18 times in her off-campus condo near SMU. According to reports in The Dallas Morning News and photos shown in court, she was found lying naked and covered in blood on her bed next to her giant stuffed rabbit. Both of her legs were dangling over the side of the bed. Her eyes were still open.
One of the officers who discovered Samota’s body, Senior Cpl. Janice Crowther, was just 20 at the time — the same age as Samota. According to a report, she later testified in court that she was haunted by the memory of Samota’s blue eyes. “From that day to this one, I could close my eyes and see Angela.”
Buchanan first met Samota at a happy hour one night at Andrew’s restaurant (now Breadwinner’s) on McKinney Avenue with a group of mutual friends. They exchanged information and he later invited her to lunch to see the new Dallas Museum of Art building downtown. The lunch never happened, but Angie did call him that Friday night and ask if he wanted to go out with her and her friend. Angie had a boyfriend, Ben McCall, but he reportedly knew all about their plans.
Every place that Samota, Kadala and Buchanan went was crowded with Texas-OU fans. They ended up at Lakewood’s Boardwalk Beach Club (now Mi Cocina). Buchanan still remembers that “the floor was covered in white sand and they had set up a volleyball net inside.” The friends headed over to Shannon Wynne’s Nostromo restaurant on Travis, where Samota got them into the upstairs club, Rio Room. They enjoyed champagne and dancing. “Angie,” says Buchanan, “was going table-to-table, talking to people. She knew everyone.”
The two women dropped Buchanan off around 1 a.m. at his apartment on Matilda Street, which was a five-minute walk from Samota’s condo on Amesbury Drive. He says he went to bed and fell asleep.
Samota was killed less than two hours later.
The next day, Buchanan got up early to attend a morning wedding in Dallas. A friend took him to the airport afterward for a previously scheduled trip to visit his family in Houston. He got back late Sunday and went straight to work. He didn’t see a newspaper and hadn’t heard about Samota’s death until the police knocked on his door.
The police’s questions that night were quickly becoming directives: “Mr. Buchanan, you need to stand over here. You need to keep your hands out of your pockets. Mr. Buchanan, these officers are going to search your apartment. You don’t have a problem with that, do you?” He cooperated and gave them permission to search, but today is chagrined at what they saw. The apartment was filled with junky knives and old spears — his roommate had just returned from a two-week African safari — more than a little awkward, considering how Samota died.
Buchanan then got his final directive. “You’re coming down to the station with us.” He was escorted outside. There were no handcuffs, as this would just be questioning, but there were flashing blue-and-red lights from half a dozen squad cars surrounding his complex. The car doors were open and officers crouched behind them, their weapons drawn. “It was like I was Dillinger or something,” Buchanan recalls. “They really thought the murderer had skipped town and now he was back — and that was me.”
He got into the back seat of one of the cars. The drive downtown to the station is a blur in his memory except for one bizarre incident. After the squad car pulled through the gate of the station at the old Dallas Municipal Building, the driver headed down a ramp and braked for a moment beside a basement exit. “Does that look familiar?” the driver asked.
Buchanan stared blankly at the scene.
“That’s where Jack Ruby shot Lee Harvey Oswald.”
Dallas police officers quickly constructed a timeline of what happened Friday night to Angie Samota. And the evidence they were accumulating did not look good for Russell Buchanan.
Samota dropped off Buchanan and her girlfriend at their respective homes around 1 a.m. She then reportedly stopped by the apartment of her boyfriend, Ben McCall, around 1:30 a.m. to surprise him and say goodnight. They spoke briefly in his doorway, according to McCall’s report, and then she went home.
Around 1:45 a.m., McCall stated, he got a call from Samota saying there was a man in her condo asking to use the phone and the bathroom. It’s not clear if the man was already there when she got home, or if he was invited in; there were no signs of forced entry. “Talk to me,” Samota reportedly said to McCall. The two chatted and then Samota said she would call him right back. She never did. He tried calling her, but got no answer. Worried, he drove to her condo. The door was locked and nobody responded when he knocked. McCall was a construction supervisor and had an early generation mobile phone installed in his truck. He called information — this was prior to 9-1-1 — and was connected to the police.
Officers broke through the door and, at 2:17 a.m., discovered the gory scene in Samota’s bedroom.
The police quickly zeroed in on three suspects: Samota’s boyfriend, McCall; an old ex-boyfriend from her hometown of Abilene, who had once cut up her clothes in a rage and threatened her with a knife; and Russell Buchanan.
DNA science was in its earliest stages at the time of the murder, but police were able to collect blood and semen samples from Samota’s body. McCall and the ex-boyfriend were excluded from being at the scene because theirs did not match the intruder’s blood type. Buchanan’s was
Worse, police were suspicious because Buchanan didn’t have an alibi for the time of the murder and had left town the following day. Buchanan took a lie-detector test early in the case, which he passed.
For six months after the murder, police detectives regularly picked up Buchanan for questioning down at the station. They showed up at his office to talk with him; it didn’t take long for word to spread. (To his coworkers’ credit, Buchanan says, “No one stopped talking when I walked into the room.”) The police waited for him outside his house when he got home late at night to take him in for several more hours of questioning. Detectives had clearly decided he was guilty, even re-examining his lie-detector results and deciding they were inconclusive. They began directly accusing him. Buchanan vividly recalls them holding up graphic crime-scene photos of Samota’s ravaged body and demanding his confession: “She dropped you off. You were mad because you wanted to have sex with her. You went down to her apartment. She let you in. You had sex with her. She started to scream. You stabbed her. And you stabbed her, and stabbed her, and stabbed her — 18 times.”
Buchanan still shudders today thinking about it. “I don’t know how I got through it. I was 23 years old. I see 23-year-old kids today and I think, Holy moly.” He also didn’t have legal representation yet because he had been trying to cooperate. “I had no idea what interrogations were like. I had never even been inside a police station before. I didn’t know anything. Nobody tells you ‘OK, Mr. Buchanan, if you need to contact an attorney, feel free to do so.’”
Finally, at his concerned parents’ urging, he did get an attorney — a referral from a friend of the family. During an extremely intense interrogation session, he asked to call the attorney, who then got on the line with the lead detective: “Either charge my client or take him home, right now.”
The police may have ceased their conversations with Buchanan after his lawyer got involved, but their interest in him only intensified. He was under 24-hour surveillance. They knew everything about him, including which day he left for graduate school in London, sparking worries that he was fleeing the country.
Police gained an unexpected ally in their investigation through Angela Samota’s friend and SMU freshman roommate, Sheila Wysocki. The week after Samota’s murder, they approached Wysocki and asked her about the men in Samota’s life, including Buchanan. She cooperated with investigators and became a trusted source. One of the investigators eventually confided to her his theory that it was Buchanan and asked for her help.
Wysocki agreed to wear a wire and set up several phone conversations with Buchanan to try and gather evidence. She even went out to dinner with him at a local restaurant. Undercover police were positioned at a table close by. “I thought I was having dinner with a murderer,” Wysocki says, in a telephone interview from her home in Tennessee. “I wasn’t brave, I was just doing what I thought was right.”
Police never obtained incriminating evidence from the efforts. The case went cold over the next two decades. Buchanan moved on. He finished graduate school in London and spent six months, unpaid, building models for Frank Gehry in Los Angeles before finally moving back to Dallas to resume his career. He married his wife, Karen, in the early 1990s. He explained to her early on about the dark cloud in his life. She says she never once doubted his innocence.
Meanwhile, Wysocki moved to Nashville, became a mom and became increasingly frustrated that there had not been justice for her friend. “I did not like the fact that Russell got to be this big-deal architect and live his life when he had taken the life of my roommate,” she says. “That bothered me.” Wysocki was also troubled by something one of the investigators told her: “He said that the first murder is the hardest …”
By the mid-2000s, Wysocki couldn’t bear it. She began a campaign of phone calls to Dallas authorities to try and get someone to reopen the case. Some of Samota’s friends and former sorority sisters also called. Wysocki even went so far as to get a private-investigator’s license to try and get access to the evidence in storage for possible DNA testing. “The FBI has nothing on a worried mother,” says Wysocki. “I’m a better investigator.”
Finally, she says, Dallas police reopened the case in 2006. The stored evidence contained enough material for modern DNA testing and in 2008, they had a hit. Wysocki will never forget when she got the call. Lead Detective Linda Crum’s voice was crisp and confident: “We got him.”
Says Wysocki: “The next words I expected to hear were: ‘Russell Buchanan.’ But that’s not what she said. She named this guy, Donald Andrew Bess. I could feel my world turning upside down. For 23 years, in my mind, Russell Buchanan was the murderer. And in one split-second, everything I thought I knew was no longer correct. I had made it my life goal to get this man behind bars and suddenly I felt so guilty.”
Russell Buchanan was equally stunned to get that phone call from police. They reached his wife first, but then Buchanan called back and a sergeant with the Dallas Police Department explained they had caught Angie Samota’s killer.
Donald Andrew Bess — at this point, about 60 years old — was a 350-pound, twice-convicted rapist serving a life sentence at state prison in Huntsville. Police theorized that Bess, who was out on parole in 1984, became fixated on Samota after spotting her at a bar. (According to reports from Samota’s friends, her striking looks often earned her attention and sometimes even love notes from strangers.) Police believed Bess followed her home that night. They thought he probably began stabbing Samota with a kitchen knife to silence her when her boyfriend, Ben McCall, knocked on the door. Bess may have finished the crime while McCall called the police from his truck and searched the neighborhood.
Buchanan says the sergeant offered an official apology: “I’m looking through your file. And boy, Mr. Buchanan, you went through quite an ordeal.”
Today, sitting pensively in a quiet courtyard park outside his Greenville Avenue offices — mere blocks from his old apartment on Matilda, where authorities first came to his door — Buchanan says he holds no bitterness for the Dallas police. “It wasn’t their fault. If that was your daughter that had been killed, wouldn’t you want the police department to use whatever means necessary to find the truth? I would. As far as I’m concerned, the Dallas Police Department does not owe me an apology. They never did. I’m grateful for the work and the service they did. That’s it. Period.”
Buchanan testified against Bess at Bess’ capital murder trial in June 2010. Bess was found guilty and later sentenced to death for Samota’s murder. He currently remains on death row, but the case is on appeal and no execution date has been set. Buchanan says he felt relief for the first time after the trial. “You don’t realize how stressful it is until it’s over, and then you’re just physically, mentally and emotionally exhausted. That’s when I think I finally realized that it was done, that this chapter had finally been closed.”
In February of this year, Buchanan met with Wysocki when she came to Dallas to film an interview about the murder for NBC’s Dateline, which aired in June. “I need your forgiveness,” she told him and his wife at his office. Wysocki then explained everything she had done to try and convict Buchanan and was stunned by the architect’s reaction: “He said ‘You were just doing what you thought was right for your friend.’” Wysocki, who has since founded the nonprofit group Without Warning: Fight Back to educate women about rape prevention and self-defense, maintains a warm friendship with Buchanan. Both of them will appear this fall in a program about the case, on A&E’s Biography channel.
Buchanan is an extremely private man, but says he doesn’t mind the public attention from the case because “it’s not a source of embarrassment for me.” He does admit that he’s less outgoing than he used to be, but is quick to say that this could be for a number of reasons. In fact, he resolutely denies that his experience in the Samota case has made a significant impact on his personal life or his work. Admirers of his angular, stripped-down structures or his moody artwork, including a series of distressed shipping bags encased in thin layers of marble emulsion, might be tempted to read more into them. But Buchanan says not to.
“You would have to dig really deep to find out what the real impact may have been,” he says. “It’s not on the surface; it’s somewhere else, somewhere that I would have to chisel down very deep to find.”
And that is work he’s not interested in doing; he has other priorities. Buchanan and his wife sold their longtime Lakewood home this summer and are in negotiations on an industrial warehouse downtown for a bold new live-work experiment. Could it be a sort of reset?
“I do not want this event to define who I am. But it will always be a part of my life.”