With this week's release of my latest book, The Rough Guide to True Crime, it seems only appropriate to present on Women in Crime Ink an excerpt about Bertha Pippin, an elderly woman who was murdered by neighborhood teenagers for no apparent motive.
I know Bertha's son, Jerry Pippin, a veteran radio broadcaster who has had me on his show several times. The story of his mother's murder was barely touched on by local media, then forgotten. So I decided to give Bertha a voice and include her story in my homicide chapter in The Rough Guide to True Crime. Here it is, in part.
BERTHA LEE PIPPIN
On a rainy day in November 2000, Bertha Pippin, 85, was fatally beaten with a baseball bat inside the Muskogee, Oklahoma, home where she lived alone. Frail Bertha was utterly incapable of defending herself against her teenage attackers, one of whom was a local girl, Amanda K. Lane. Bertha paid an appalling price for taking an interest in the welfare of this troubled teen.
Bertha was a mother and grandmother. Bertha talked about Amanda and how she regularly called her the “old lady.” Despite that, Bertha expressed high hopes that by being kind to the teen, she could reform her. Bertha empathized with Amanda, because Bertha too had gone through a lot when she was young. She understood.
Her mother had died giving birth to Bertha.Her sharecropper father told her she wasn’t wanted. He shipped her off to her grandparents, simple farmers who had little money.
A few years later, Bertha went to live with an uncle she had never met. She attended a small protestant church and met her future husband, the son of a Baptist preacher. They married and had four children. They lived a quiet life while her husband made a meager living.
Bertha felt Amanda deserved a chance, but she didn’t like the boys Amanda hung out with. She thought they were a bad influence, especially after Bertha learned they abused a pit bull that lived across the street. But Bertha insisted her son Jerry not report the abuse to authorities. Bertha was afraid the boys would find out and retaliate against her. She had a good sense about people, and it turned out her feeling about the boys was right.
Bertha was comfortable living alone; only a narrow alleyway separated her from her daughter Beverly Robertson’s home. Bertha was involved in her neighborhood. Between 9 and 10 p.m. on Nov. 3, Amanda and two of her friends – Gary Rightsell and Travis Phillips – carried a baseball bat to Bertha’s house. Amanda knocked on the door, telling Bertha she was locked out of her house and needed to use a phone.
While Amanda pretended to call someone on the phone, Bertha went into the kitchen to get a glass of water for one of the boys. As Bertha walked back to her living room, Gary hit her over the head with the bat. Bertha reeled and landed on the sofa. They asked her for money. She told them to hang on because her head hurt, that she would get the money for them and she wouldn’t tell anyone. That’s when Gary began hitting her repeatedly.
Then the other teen took the bat and continued. Amanda later testifiedthat she was ordered to hit Bertha too. Otherwise, the boys might kill Amanda’s three-year-old daughter. So Amanda too took her turn. Bertha’s body was discovered after Beverly sounded the alarm and called her husband and brother. There was blood everywhere. In Bertha’s wallet, untouched, was $300 in cash.
One of the teens, Gary Rightsell, who weighed 200 pounds, admitted to helping kill Bertha using a baseball bat they had gotten from a friend’s house. He pleaded guilty in Muskogee District Court to two counts of accessory after the fact. Rightsell cooperated with prosecutors as part of a plea bargain, and he helped in the arrest of Amanda Lane. She was convicted of first-degree murder and robbery by force or fear. She is incarcerated at the Mabel Bassett Correctional Center in McLoud, Oklahoma, where is she serving out her life sentence.
Two months later, Judge James E. Edmondson sentenced Rightsell to 30 years in prison on both counts, 10 of which were suspended. Rightsell could have gotten 45 years of hard time in a maximum-security prison instead. He is serving time at the Howard McLeod Correctional Center in Atoka, Oklahoma.
According to the prison’s website, Rightsell is eligible for parole and scheduled to appear before the prison board in March 2009. If he's not paroled, his release date is June 2016.
Travis Phillips, owner of the baseball bat used to bludgeon Bertha, received a year’s probation after pleading guilty to a charge of obstructing a police officer in the investigation. He has been in and out of jail and prison ever since, mostly for substance abuse charges, according to the Department of Corrections in Okalahoma. Today, Travis is a free man.
A subpoena to testify was about to be served on the fourth suspect, Randy Hughart, when he was killed in 2001 during a street fight with a drug dealer. Hughart died from blunt trauma to his head, the same fate suffered by Bertha Pippin.