Sleep put on the back burner for investigators in taxicab driver’s death

Authorities needed just 27 hours to go from the discovery of a burning body to the jailing of three suspects on capital murder charges over the holiday weekend.
It took two investigators who never slept, teamwork from several Denton County Sheriff’s Office units and other agencies, and a sheriff’s sergeant who stumbled over a key piece of evidence while trying to find the crime scene.
“Finding that van was important,” said Sheriff’s Investigator Larry Kish. “You find a burnt body out in the middle of nowhere, and your first question is, ‘How did it get here?’ Because Sgt. [Roger] Griggs found the van so soon, we got that question answered right away and it was a big help.”
Justin firefighters found Hooshang Vatanpour, a 56-year-old taxi driver from Allen, far from the road on a well site off John Day Road on Thursday evening.
His attackers had burned his body after they hit him over the head with a beer bottle, stabbed him several times and cut his throat, investigators said.
A subsequent autopsy showed that the stab wounds contributed most to the man’s death.
Vatanpour’s funeral was Monday.
Several sheriff’s investigators, including Kish, and Texas Ranger Tracy Murphree responded to the scene Thursday night.
Sgt. Roger Griggs was the supervisor on call and he started driving to the remote area sure that he would find it by looking for a myriad of twinkling red lights. He didn’t.
He drove up and down John Day Road looking for a gate into some wild area, he said. He found a gate and began driving down a path. About 50 yards down the path he realized there were no fresh tracks from fire trucks and squad cars.
It took him another 50 yards to find a place to turn around, he said, and that’s where Griggs spotted a blue van with all the doors open.
The instincts of a lifetime in law enforcement made the hairs on the back of his neck stand up. He shined his spotlight on the van. It had the name and address of a cab company on the back and a “taxi” sign on top.
“I need some backup,” Griggs radioed to the other officers, unsure of whether someone still hid in the van. “I believe I have another crime scene here.”
Backup officers arrived and they checked the van. It was saturated in blood, and there was a bloody shirt in the back seat and a broken 32-ounce beer bottle on the floorboard. Someone would have had to sit in the bloody driver’s seat to move the van.
“It was a brutal killing,” Kish said. “They hit him over the head with the bottle at a stop sign and one of them pushed him over and started driving. Between there and the oil well site, they stabbed him and cut his throat.”
That brought to four the number of crime scenes investigators had to process. Besides the fire scene and the place the van was dumped, they found a length of road with evidence thrown out or dropped along the way, and a gate in the fence that had been knocked down. The van’s front license plate was stuck to the gate.
A call to the cab company confirmed that the driver was missing.
Before long, word came to the fire crime scene that two other cabbies — one in Fort Worth and one in Dallas — had been robbed in the area in the past several days. Neither was injured.
Kish and Murphree decided it was likely that someone associated with the robberies probably lived in the area. A bloodhound followed a scent from the scene to Songbird Estates, a mobile home community in the far southwest corner of Denton County.
Fort Worth and Dallas officers began helping with information from their own taxicab robberies. Denton County fire marshals helped with information about the burning of the body.
The investigators learned there was security video from a convenience store where a suspect named “Billy” had used a credit card stolen in one of the taxi robberies.
Murphree and Kish were interested in the beer bottle. They wondered where was the nearest store to the crime scene that sold beer. They found one in Justin and looked at surveillance tape. And there was the same man buying a 32-ounce beer as the man who used the credit card. And the suspect lived in Songbird Estates.
“It was the first of many convenience stores we were going to check,” Murphree said. “We were going to keep looking until we found the right one.” Authorities needed just 27 hours to go from the discovery of a burning body to the jailing of three suspects on capital murder charges over the holiday weekend.
It took two investigators who never slept, teamwork from several Denton County Sheriff’s Office units and other agencies, and a sheriff’s sergeant who stumbled over a key piece of evidence while trying to find the crime scene.
“Finding that van was important,” said Sheriff’s Investigator Larry Kish. “You find a burnt body out in the middle of nowhere, and your first question is, ‘How did it get here?’ Because Sgt. [Roger] Griggs found the van so soon, we got that question answered right away and it was a big help.”
Justin firefighters found Hooshang Vatanpour, a 56-year-old taxi driver from Allen, far from the road on a well site off John Day Road on Thursday evening.
His attackers had burned his body after they hit him over the head with a beer bottle, stabbed him several times and cut his throat, investigators said.
A subsequent autopsy showed that the stab wounds contributed most to the man’s death.
Vatanpour’s funeral was Monday.
Several sheriff’s investigators, including Kish, and Texas Ranger Tracy Murphree responded to the scene Thursday night.
Sgt. Roger Griggs was the supervisor on call and he started driving to the remote area sure that he would find it by looking for a myriad of twinkling red lights. He didn’t.
He drove up and down John Day Road looking for a gate into some wild area, he said. He found a gate and began driving down a path. About 50 yards down the path he realized there were no fresh tracks from fire trucks and squad cars.
It took him another 50 yards to find a place to turn around, he said, and that’s where Griggs spotted a blue van with all the doors open.
The instincts of a lifetime in law enforcement made the hairs on the back of his neck stand up. He shined his spotlight on the van. It had the name and address of a cab company on the back and a “taxi” sign on top.
“I need some backup,” Griggs radioed to the other officers, unsure of whether someone still hid in the van. “I believe I have another crime scene here.”
Backup officers arrived and they checked the van. It was saturated in blood, and there was a bloody shirt in the back seat and a broken 32-ounce beer bottle on the floorboard. Someone would have had to sit in the bloody driver’s seat to move the van.
“It was a brutal killing,” Kish said. “They hit him over the head with the bottle at a stop sign and one of them pushed him over and started driving. Between there and the oil well site, they stabbed him and cut his throat.”
That brought to four the number of crime scenes investigators had to process. Besides the fire scene and the place the van was dumped, they found a length of road with evidence thrown out or dropped along the way, and a gate in the fence that had been knocked down. The van’s front license plate was stuck to the gate.
A call to the cab company confirmed that the driver was missing.
Before long, word came to the fire crime scene that two other cabbies — one in Fort Worth and one in Dallas — had been robbed in the area in the past several days. Neither was injured.
Kish and Murphree decided it was likely that someone associated with the robberies probably lived in the area. A bloodhound followed a scent from the scene to Songbird Estates, a mobile home community in the far southwest corner of Denton County.
Fort Worth and Dallas officers began helping with information from their own taxicab robberies. Denton County fire marshals helped with information about the burning of the body.
The investigators learned there was security video from a convenience store where a suspect named “Billy” had used a credit card stolen in one of the taxi robberies.
Murphree and Kish were interested in the beer bottle. They wondered where was the nearest store to the crime scene that sold beer. They found one in Justin and looked at surveillance tape. And there was the same man buying a 32-ounce beer as the man who used the credit card. And the suspect lived in Songbird Estates.
“It was the first of many convenience stores we were going to check,” Murphree said. “We were going to keep looking until we found the right one.”
Denton County narcotics and special operations officers stepped in to search for the suspect. They found William “Billy” Stephens in Haltom City and asked him to talk to the investigators. They interviewed him as a witness, but his story convinced them he actually was a suspect.
The special operations and narcotics teams found two other suspects in a house in Argyle.
They charged Stephens, Noah Robert Whitehead and Mariesha Lynne Ohlfs each with capital murder. Each was being held in lieu of $250,000 bail in Denton County Jail.
Still, the two investigators didn’t sleep. There was still too much work to do and evidence that might slip away. It was 35 hours before Kish or Murphree finally went to bed. And Monday morning they were back again, processing the van and the Jeep that Ohlfs drove to pick the men up and bring them gasoline, Kish said. Witnesses saw her Jeep around each of the robberies.
The other officers continued to help as well. Sanger police have a mapping system they used to map the crime scene. And the other agencies continue to work their areas of expertise.
“It was not just us,” Kish said. “When you get something this major, all the agencies come together and act as a team. That is so impressive. This is far from over, but I feel very confident we have the three responsible in custody.”

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