Vernon McManus

Sentenced to death after a former employee claimed he had hired two men to kill her parents

Vernon McManus, the football coach at Lamar University in Beaumont, Texas, was sentenced to death in 1977 for the purported murder-for-hire of a former employee’s parents, Paul Harvey Cantrell and Mary Bright Cantrell, in their home in Baytown, Texas.

The key evidence against McManus was the testimony of the former employee, Paula Cantrell Derese, who received a life sentence after testifying against him. Derese claimed that, because she had “problems” with her parents, McManus suggested hiring someone to kill them.

After she agreed, she said, he told her he had paid $20,000 to two men who would carry out the plot. Then, at 4 p.m. on July 24, 1976, McManus allegedly called her at her parent's home, where she lived, and told her “the people supposed to do the killings were in the area” and that she should leave because “three is a crowd.”

She said she left home about 6 p.m. and returned in the early morning hours of July 25 to find the bodies of her parents. She also said she spoke with McManus later that day and he revealed that he had been forced to go with the other two men in the car he had rented and had been present when the killings took place and described the events to her. He warned her “not to crack.”

A federal court granted McManus's petition for a writ of habeas corpus, and Derese refused to testify against him at a second trial. All charges were dropped in 1987.

— Rachel Rosati Warner