Editor’s Note: Retired HPD Homicide Lt. Nelson Zoch was on duty in 1990 when Solo Motorcycle Officer Jim Irby was murdered in cold blood by lifelong criminal Carl Wayne Buntion. He detailed the case in his book, Fallen Heroes of the Bayou City, along with the stories of the first 106 HPD officers killed in the line of duty. Herewith, Lt. Zoch updates the story as Buntion is set to be executed on April 21. At 78, he is the oldest Death Row inmate in Texas. Zoch notes, “Of course, there will still not be an end for the Irby family in the loss of their loved one.”
Throughout history there have been many examples of good families of people doing honest, honorable jobs not only for their loved ones but also their fellow man. Unfortunately, on the other end of the spectrum can be found the exact opposite – families with reputations for doing nothing positive; they actually spend their lives working in direct conflict with society’s collective value system.
One such example in the history of the Houston Police Department came directly to light in 1967 when Officer Louis Lyndon Sander unknowingly stopped a wanted fugitive on a routine traffic violation. Sander was shot and killed by Kenneth Hinkle, who along with his older brother William, had brutally robbed and beaten a wealthy couple in Little Rock, Arkansas.
Good versus Evil
Loaded with their cache of stolen jewelry, the Hinkle brothers were in the Houston-Galveston-Beaumont triangle solely to unload their ill-gotten goods when Officer Sander stopped Kenneth Hinkle for a minor traffic violation. This was on January 21, 1967, a day when Sander died from a single bullet fired from a pistol. Both of the Hinkle brothers had been in jail most of their adult life prior to this capital murder and both later died in prison. Kenneth Hinkle, born in 1928, was a willing protégé of his older brother William. Their records practically paralleled each other and Kenneth’s stretched across the South.
Kenneth Hinkle first did time in Fort Leavenworth as part of his military service in 1951. Three years later he served time in Tennessee for assault, burglary and carrying a weapon. His behavior “record” included an escape charge in Nashville. He later went to the pen in Atlanta for larceny of an auto in 1959 and basically “transferred” to an Ashville prison a year later on the same charge. By 1964 he “graduated” to federal prison for auto theft and interstate transportation of a stolen vehicle. Next it was time in the federal prison in Tallahassee, Florida. His arrest in New Orleans in 1967 was related to Officer Sander’s murder.
In comparison to the Hinkle family, Officer Sander was the middle of three sons of honest, hard-working parents. The Sanders raised their family in the shadows of Reagan High School in Houston’s Heights, where they owned and operated a mom and pop grocery store and hamburger café. Other Reagan graduates of the same era share the same sentiments about the Sanders family, which showed a strong devotion to public service. The older son Dennis was serving in the United States Army when Lyndon was murdered, while the youngest son Kenneth also was serving in the Houston Police Department.
For whatever reason on this tragic night, Evil prevailed over Good for the Walter and Sadie Sander family, the citizens of Houston, HPD and the law enforcement community in general.
The dichotomy present in the Sander-Hinkle conflict also existed in the Irby-Buntion encounter about twenty-three years later. And while there is no obvious connection between the Hinkles and the Buntions – the bad guys – there are notable similarities.
The criminal antics of William and Kenneth Hinkle around the states of Arkansas and Tennessee reeked havoc for distant but promising criminal would-be playgrounds like Houston. Here were two self-proclaimed “tush-hogs” whose sole purpose in their stinking lives was to live outside of the realm of normal society. What brings brothers to this measure of success in a life of violence will remain forever a mystery to honest, decent citizens, especially those involved in day-to-day law enforcement operations.
The Gun-toting Parolee
These brothers seemed destined to be outlaws, fierce rebels against polite society. They could be compared to the Buntion family, which in this case consisted of three sons raised on Houston’s Northside. All three had numerous encounters with the law in particular and any authority figure in general. Such encounters were serious and often violent.
There were the twins, Kenneth and Carl, born in 1943, and Bobby, two years their junior. Fortunately for the good of our society, law enforcement officers killed Kenneth, twenty-seven, in 1971, only after numerous skirmishes, including one in which bullets Kenneth fired wounded two HPD officers on the same day.
On the other end of the spectrum there was Solo Motorcycle Officer James B. Irby, an eighteen-year HPD veteran. His honorable service had paralleled that of his grandfather, Detective V. V. Irby, an HPD retiree. Officer Irby was proud to ably wear the badge number that his grandfather wore as a patrolman. It was Badge No. 189.
James Bruce Irby was born in Houston on May 25, 1953. He got his early education at Golfcrest Elementary School, Hartman Junior High School and Jones Senior High School, from which he graduated in 1972. He joined HPD as a police trainee on November 13, 1972, entering Police Cadet Class No. 57. That class graduated on March 3, 1973, and he successfully completed his probationary period on September 15, 1973.
Officer Irby’s original assignment was to the Point Control Division and from there he transferred to Radio Patrol Central in 1975. His excellent work ethic served him well when he was accepted into the prestigious Solo Motorcycle Detail in 1982.
On Wednesday afternoon, June 27, 1990, Carl Wayne Buntion (White Male, 46) had been out of prison for just a short time. On parole until 2002, Buntion was living up to his previous lifestyle. On May 15, 1990, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice paroled Buntion for the ninth time. He was given $200 in cash and a new set of clothes and ordered to report to the Texas House on Beaumont Highway in Houston. However, consistent with his entire criminal history, Buntion chose not to conform to the freedom he had been so graciously provided. Thumbing his nose at society and its justice system, he never reported as ordered.
Six weeks later, he had no job and lived off and on with people of his own ilk on Bennington Street. He toted a pistol, as had been his lifelong habit. Technically, by not reporting to the parolee facility, he was immediately in direct violation of his parole. Additionally, he was in the constant company of another ex-con, John Earl Killingsworth (White Male, 42). Killingsworth, unlike Buntion, did have a vehicle – of questionable ownership, of course.
Finally, on June 13, 1990, his non-appearance was reported to parole officials in Huntsville and on June 28, the day after a fine HPD officer lost his life, the State of Texas issued a “blue warrant” for Buntion’s arrest for the parole violation. Officers would call this the typical “day late-dollar short” effort.
On this hot, summer afternoon, these two fine citizens, Buntion and Killingsworth, managed to scrape up enough scrap metal to cash it in for eight dollars and some change. Even though they already had run out of gas once that afternoon, they continued to drive aimlessly around the north side, drinking beer. With Killingsworth driving and Buntion toting hardware and therefore truly “riding shotgun,” they cruised in search of a vulnerable robbery victim.
Officer Irby was on traffic patrol near Northline Mall about 8 p.m. when he observed an older model Pontiac driving north on Airline Drive under the North Freeway overpass. When the Pontiac left the traffic light, Officer Irby decided to stop this vehicle after it spun its tires when the light turned green.
Being summertime, it was just nearing darkness and Irby observed that the Pontiac had several other lighting violations. The traffic stop was completed when the driver of the Pontiac, Killingsworth, pulled into the parking lot of the Houston Community College’s Northeast College campus near this intersection. Irby was getting off his motorcycle when the driver of the Pontiac got out, the two meeting at the left rear of the car and just in front of the parked motorcycle.
Witnesses said Officer Irby and Killingsworth were conversing in a quiet, mild manner when Irby noticed the passenger getting out of the car. Irby motioned for him to stay inside but he refused to do so. Instead, he got out, pointed a pistol at the officer and fired, striking Irby and knocking him to the ground. The shooter, later identified as parole violator Carl Wayne Buntion, then calmly walked around the Pontiac toward the fallen officer and, holding the pistol with both hands, fired at least two more times, causing Officer Irby to suffer deeper gunshot wounds while lying helplessly on the pavement.
Northeast Dayshift Patrol Officer Roy E. Thompson, working an extra job at the nearby Fiesta Food Market, had two shoplifters in custody outside the store while awaiting the arrival of a patrol unit for this “wagon call.” Officer Laura Smelley was dispatched to meet Thompson and passed Officer Irby while en route to the store. Slowing down, she later stated that as she looked toward Irby he acknowledged her to continue, that he needed no help with his traffic stop. Just as she entered the parking lot of the Fiesta, citizens advised her that an officer had been shot.
Hearing people shouting from the direction of the solo and fearing that the officer was involved, Smelley alertly rushed to the scene in her patrol car. Officer Thompson also heard the shots and the shouting. He immediately followed in his personal vehicle. What the two officers found was likely something that neither will ever be able to erase from their memory.
Officer Jim Irby lay mortally wounded, shot an untold number of times. A security guard was holding a pistol – Officer Irby’s – on Killingsworth. Medical assistance was summoned and while waiting their arrival, Officer Smelley attempted to perform mouth-to-mouth resuscitation on her wounded fellow officer as an “Assist the Officer” was immediately broadcast.
Unlike many shooting scenes, on this day there were a number of witnesses waiting to tell their story. In a textbook version of scene-and-witness protection, Officers Smelley and Thompson used their training by quartering these eyewitnesses inside the nearby Houston Community College building to conduct a thorough investigation. More importantly, medical aid arrived and Officer Irby was transported to Ben Taub General Hospital. However, he was pronounced dead on arrival at 8:32 p.m. as the result of four gunshot wounds, one of which was to the head from close range. Jim Irby was thirty-seven years old, a married man and the father of two young children.
Buntion fled on foot east on Lyerly Street, where he encountered two females in a vehicle. Whether he was aware of it or not, both had witnessed the shooting. He began shooting at them as the driver attempted to flee in reverse. While both escaped immediate danger, they were wounded either by bullets or glass fragments. When they successfully fled, Buntion continued his escape on foot. He ran into a delivery service business on Lyerly where he attempted to commandeer an employee’s vehicle at gunpoint. In doing so, he got the vehicle started but was forced to abandon it when the engine died on him. He then ran inside the business.
His actions caused everyone inside to flee from this crazed, armed man. Officer D. G. Kalich, nearby when the “Assist the Officer” was broadcast, arrived at the shooting scene and saw other officers with Irby. He quickly noticed citizens pointing east on Lyerly and bravely drove to investigate.
Family Left Behind
A witness pointed out Buntion to Officer Kalich as he crouched behind a vehicle. At this point, Buntion decided that maybe he did not have enough ammunition or guts to shoot at an officer who might actually be in a position to shoot back. He threw his weapon out and gave up, an arrest that Officer Kalich will never forget.
Officer James B. Irby was survived by his wife Maura and two children, son Cody James Irby, just under three years old, and daughter Callie Ann Irby, who had just turned one year old.
Also mourning his death were his father, V. V. Irby Jr., and a brother, Kelly Irby, and his paternal grandmother, Mrs. Thelma Irby. There also were an uncle, Bill Folsom; a great-uncle, Bubba Irby and his wife, Madge; his father- and mother-in-law, Mr. and Mrs. Robert and Kay Mills; and Maura’s two sisters, Mandie and Megan Mills. He was preceded in death by his mother
, and his grandfather, HPD Retired Detective V. V. Irby Sr.
Crespo Funeral Home at 2516 Navigation was in charge of funeral arrangements. Visitation was held beginning at 9 a.m. on Friday, June 29, 1990, with a vigil conducted at 2 p.m. that same day. Funeral services were held at the Second Baptist Church, 6400 Woodway, on Saturday, June 30, 1990, at 4 p.m. Following the church service, one of the largest funeral processions in HPD history took place to the burial site at Forest Park Lawndale Cemetery, 6900 Lawndale.
Homicide Lieutenants Greg T. Neely and Bobby J. Beck were on duty when this shooting happened. Lieutenant Neely, along with Homicide Sergeants A. J. Toepoel, John G. Burmester and Fred W. Carroll responded to the scene, which had been professionally secured by the patrol supervisors and officers. Lieutenant Beck manned the Homicide command post and assisted from that location with any additional manpower or investigation that either Lieutenant deemed necessary.
At the time of the original assignments, the condition of Officer Irby was uncertain. Unfortunately, that changed for the worse. Homicide Sergeants Eric Mehl and Brad S. Rudolph were assigned to conduct the investigation at the hospitals where Officer Irby and the two wounded civilian witnesses were taken. Upon Lieutenant Neely’s arrival, he was met by Assistant Chief of Police J. L. Dotson. The chief provided Neely an overall briefing on the details known at the time, as well as the fact that the suspected shooter and the driver of the vehicle were both in custody. With the principals in custody and eyewitnesses abounding, this was truly a blessing for a Homicide lieutenant’s worst nightmare, a slain officer.
Yet there was a multitude of tasks to be performed and, as is the case in every homicide, these duties need to be completed in an extremely detailed manner in order to obtain evidence and eyewitness testimony. No stone would be left unturned and no item of intricate detail would be left undone.
Crime Scene Units Mary E. Lentschke, J. L. Kay and G. L. “Stoney” Burke were assigned to various segments of the scene and hospital inquiries. With a murdered officer, even with the suspects and/or witnesses available, a long night lay ahead. Additional investigators were summoned to assist. All on-duty personnel were quickly utilized and Homicide Sergeants John R. Swaim, Ken E. Vachris and Dennis J. Gafford were called in from their residences to assist. On-duty Sgt. George Alderette was assigned to conduct the crucial interview with John Lee Killingsworth, who at this time was not suspected of any criminal activity in the death of Officer Irby. While his lengthy criminal record lessened his credibility as an eyewitness, his version of the events of this tragic evening was deemed as important as if he were a choirboy.
Surprise! Buntion Starts Lying!
Sergeant Dennis Gafford was assigned the task of interrogating what was believed to be the shooter, seven-time Texas ex-convict Carl Wayne Buntion. The suspect’s hands had been bagged and he had refused to give officers any information at this point. CSU Officer Kay was assigned to remove the bags in order to perform the necessary tests. Buntion, however, in his usual cocky and arrogant manner toward law enforcement, did state that had he not chosen to surrender, he would still be out there “swapping lead.”
After the tests were completed, Gafford provided Buntion his statutory warning. Being absolutely positive that Buntion understood his rights, Gafford proceeded in his usual professional manner in this crucial interview. After a very short time, Buntion said, “I’m the shooter.” From this point Buntion spoke freely and matter of factly about the murder. Showing no remorse whatsoever, he stated that he was in fear that Officer Irby was going to kill him and that he had decided to shoot first. Of course, this was in direct conflict with witness versions of the story. He continued to exaggerate, stating that Irby was a raging man bent on killing both him and Killingsworth for spinning his tires. As the interview continued, Sergeant Gafford condensed Buntion’s oral version to writing in the form of a written confession – all done with the suspect’s approval.
The investigation continued after the confession and well into the next day. Witnesses were shown a live line-up with Buntion. Their choices were unanimous: Buntion was the individual who murdered Officer Jim Irby. An autopsy was performed the following day and it determined that the officer had received a total of four entry gunshot wounds to the back, chest and head – several of which would have been fatal on their own.
Killingsworth consented to a search of his vehicle, which produced a container that held traces of heroin. Killingsworth, in addition to being a key witness in this offense, was charged with possession of a controlled substance. Much more importantly, Carl Wayne Buntion was charged with capital murder in the death of a peace officer in the 178th Criminal District Court. He was held without bond.
Finally, this predator was off the streets for good.
Buntion’s attorneys, fully cognizant that their client faced an uphill battle in Harris County, got a change of venue in this case. The trial was moved to Fredricksburg in the heart of the Texas Hill Country. (The judicial proceedings in Fredricksburg took on a number of bizarre twists. These included the usual theatrics by the defense counsel and several strange rulings by State District Judge William Harmon, the Houston judge who also presided over the case in this Hill Country town.) After all was said and done, the optimistic view of Buntion being free no more prevailed. On January 24, 1991, a jury found him guilty of capital murder. Several days later, that same jury assessed the death penalty to career criminal Carl Wayne Buntion.
HPD investigators have long believed that Buntion’s desire for revenge led him to assassinate Officer Jim Irby. The story of this possibility thickens the tragic plot.
In April 1971, Carl Wayne Buntion’s twin brother Kenneth was running a forgery ring out of an apartment project near Tidwell and Jensen. Houston and Pasadena police officers conducted a three-day surveillance of these activities and eventually obtained search warrants. They had this location covered on a Saturday afternoon when they observed several of the principals, Kenneth Buntion being one of them, arrive at the project. Present along with several Pasadena officers were Vice Officer Doug “Tooter” Steffanauer and Harris County Organized Crime Task Force Officer A. D. “Dale” Dugger of HPD. From the HPD Criminal Intelligence Division there were Officers Lloyd “Sonny” Dollar, Tom Doty and Johnny Thornton.
Threatens to Kill Officers
Buntion shot Johnny Thornton through his right arm while the officers were attempting to arrest him. That same round continued and struck Dale Dugger in a main artery, very nearly causing his death. It was the second time Dugger was shot in the line of duty, as he had also been wounded during the TSU Riot of 1967. Only the heroic actions of a citizen paramedic saved his life that spring day in 1971.
After shooting Dugger and Thornton, Buntion was still firing as he ran across the upstairs walkway of an apartment complex. Officer “Tooter” Steffanauer was the first to shoot Buntion, the bullet striking him in the neck. Buntion did not go down easily. Finally, the continued barrage of bullets from the guns of both Thornton and Steffanauer brought him down. As the story goes, Carl Wayne Buntion, whose sole life’s ambition was to be a career criminal, took on another cause that day in 1971 – to avenge the death of his twin brother. Buntion was in the process of serving one of his many prison terms that day when his brother was killed. He and his younger brother Bobby were allowed by TDC to attend Kenneth’s funeral at Bullard, Texas.
Bobby was dressed in a borrowed dark suit from his prison warden. Carl Wayne wore prison clothes. Yet their attire was identical in two respects – both wore handcuffs on their wrists and shackles on their ankles. Later, the warden of Carl’s TDCJ unit called HPD officials to advise them of the threats Carl was making. Newspaper accounts said Buntion had notified the warden that he had better be locked down or he would break out of the penitentiary and come to Houston to kill Dugger and Steffanauer because they had killed his brother. He was known to voice the threat to a number of people over the next nineteen years, clearly bragging about his intentions. Dale Dugger, who spent a large portion of his HPD career working undercover in Vice and the Houston-Harris County Organized Crime Task Force, confronted Carl Buntion regarding these threats. Buntion, in his usual cowardly fashion, backed down, apologized and recanted his intentions.
Nevertheless, Carl Buntion’s motives likely continued until that fateful day in 1990 when Officer Jim Irby’s life was taken. A number of the officers present that day could have lost their lives in 1971 at the hands of a Buntion. Unfortunately, Officer Irby was not that lucky. One Buntion brother dead, one on Death Row, and the younger one, Bobby Joe, was in and out of jail all of this adult life.
On July 30, 1990, Officer Steffanauer was quoted in the Houston Chronicle as saying, “Instead of one rotten apple in the barrel, there’s a barrel full of rotten apples.”
The Follow-up Justice
Jim Irby is dead. However, friends and family have not forgotten this man, who volunteered many hours of his own time helping others. Just several days after his death, a local radio station held a benefit for his surviving family at the Hard Rock Café, where a large amount of money was raised. Irby had been very active with youths at the annual Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, taking his own vacation time to work at this event. Shortly after his death, the Southeast Chapter of the Texas Peace Officer’s Association held a benefit rodeo in west Houston. The proceeds of this effort established a trust fund for the Irby children.
As of July 2004, Buntion still lingered on Death Row, thankfully still off the streets of Houston and Texas.
That same year, Maura Irby resided in Utah with daughter Callie, while son Cody lived near Lake Travis, just north of Austin. The slain officer’s father was still alive and brother Kelly lived in Pearland and had two daughters. All of his other natural relatives died over a fourteen-year period. Mother- and father-in-law, Mr. and Mrs. Mills, resided in Austin, as did Maura’s sister, Megan. Her other sister, Mandie, lived in Beaumont.
Here we are in March, 2022, nearly thirty-two years after Officer James Irby’s life was taken from him by the actions and mis-directed revenge of one man, Carl Wayne Buntion. Of course, when Buntion was assessed the Death Penalty, it created an automatic appeal, and as appeals go, it lingered on for many years.
In 2009, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals threw out the 1991Death Sentence, saying Buntion deserved a new punishment phase to his trial. However, a jury in 2012 returned him to Death Row once again, where he has remained these past nine years.
It appears that the appeal litigation continued over these many years. Court filings too numerous to detail here have been reviewed by a number of courts in order to give this convicted cop killer his rights. Just recently, it seems that Carl Wayne Buntion has reached the end of his legal rope. As of January 4, 2022, a State Judge has set April 21, 2022 as the execution date for career criminal Carl Wayne Buntion, who has been referred to as the oldest inmate on Death Row and will turn 78 in late March, 2022.
As stated before, after Buntion’s twin brother Kenneth was killed after he shot two Houston Officers, Carl Wayne bragged on more than one occasion that he was going to kill Officer Allan Dale Dugger, whom Kenneth shot. When confronted with that threat, Carl Wayne backed off and as an alternative, I guess, he settled on murdering in cold blood Officer Jim Irby.
I recently spoke with Retired Officer Dugger and advised him of this execution date. He is now 87 years of age. He stated that after these many long years of legal wrangling by Buntion and his attorneys, he is surprised that it is finally going to come to pass. We shall see!
I also spoke with former Officer Cody James Irby, who was three years of age when his dad was taken from him. Cody served the Pflugerville PD for over twelve years and is now employed in the private sector with the Motorola Company working with numerous law enforcement agencies with their communication needs. He is married with three young children and lives near Leander, Texas. His mother and sister reside in the Austin area.