BRYAN, Texas — The night five people were abducted from a Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant 25 years ago, a van sped out its parking lot, being driven by a white man and carrying three people wearing KFC uniforms, a witness testified Monday.
James Rowe testified as defense attorneys began their case in the capital murder trial of Darnell Hartsfield, who is black. The five victims — four KFC employees and a friend — were found shot to death along a rural road about 15 miles from the restaurant the next day in September 1983.
It was long one of Texas’ oldest unresolved mass murder cases. Hartsfield’s trial began almost a year after his cousin agreed to plead guilty and serve five life prison terms.
Prosecutors have said DNA evidence links Hartsfield to the restaurant and shows a third person was involved in the slayings, but that person never has been identified. A reinstated reward remains unclaimed.
Rowe testified he clearly saw the driver — ‘‘white male, long straight hair, long shaggy beard’’ — because the van and his station wagon nearly collided as it sped out of the restaurant lot in Kilgore, in eastern Texas.
‘‘My bumper almost hit his door,’’ Rowe said. ‘‘His window was down. He looked at me, I looked at him, for about two seconds.’’
Hartsfield, 47, faces life in prison if convicted of the five capital murder counts. Prosecutors chose not to seek the death penalty.
Rowe was among a handful of witnesses to testify on behalf of Hartsfield, and closing arguments are expected Tuesday.
On cross examination, prosecutors attempted to raise doubts about Rowe’s story, questioning why he waited over a year to go to police and why his testimony differed slightly from the account he gave a grand jury in 2003.
Prosecutors have built a circumstantial case against Hartsfield to try to tie him to the KFC restaurant.
Killed were David Maxwell, 20; Mary Tyler, 37; Opie Ann Hughes, 39; Joey Johnson, 20; and Monte Landers, 19. All but Landers worked at the restaurant in Kilgore, about 115 miles east of Dallas.
Rowe said he was returning home with his family after dinner at a relative’s home when the near-collision occurred. He said he learned of the slayings the next day.
‘‘I felt real sick to my stomach,’’ he said. ‘‘I wished I would have hit them. I could have stopped this. ... It could have rolled the van over.’’
But Rowe didn’t go to police for at least a year: ‘‘I was scared,’’ he said. When he did go to police, he said he didn’t get much interest. There’s no evidence of a police report.
Defense lawyer Thad Davidson suggested it’s another piece of evidence that’s been lost in the case.
During cross examination, prosecutor Lisa Tanner’s questions showed that Rowe’s testimony differed slightly from his grand jury testimony in 2003. Then, he said there were four or five people in the van with KFC uniforms.
DNA tests on blood from a box found at the restaurant identified Hartsfield as being there, according to testimony. Defense lawyers have questioned the reliability of evidence taken from the crime scene and challenged whether it was kept secure over the years.
Hartsfield told a grand jury in 2003 that he wasn’t at the restaurant the night of the abductions. He wasn’t indicted for the murders then but was accused of aggravated perjury and convicted and sentenced to life in prison because of six earlier felony convictions.
The murder indictments naming Hartsfield and his cousin Romeo Pinkerton were announced in 2005.