A Husband Tries to Mess with Texas
“Writer’s Block,” (Forensic Files)
When Richard Lyon first began sneaking poison into his wife’s beverages, he probably hoped she would die quickly and doctors would attribute the tragedy to natural causes, end of story.
But he was ready for a criminal investigation into Nancy Dillard Lyon’s death just the same.
Dallas drama. He prepared documents designed to make it look as though a) Nancy committed suicide, b) her brother murdered her to hide family secrets, or c) an ex-colleague had her killed to stop her from testifying in an embezzlement case.
The architect thought he had all the angles covered.
Fortunately, the state of Texas and Nancy’s family weren’t so easily fooled. They succeeded in getting Richard Lyon removed from the Dallas Country Club and deposited into the W. F. Ramsey Unit on a prison farm in Rosharon.
Here’s a recap of “Writer’s Block,” the Forensic Files episode about the case, plus additional information from internet research.
Richard Lyon was born on April 22, 1957 to a middle class family of five children in Connecticut. His father sold insurance. He attended the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, then headed to the Harvard School of Design for a graduate degree in landscaping and architecture.
Ivy League sweethearts. There, he met Nancy Dillard, whose parents were wealthy and influential enough for her father’s nickname to be Big Daddy. He had made a fortune in commercial real estate in Texas. But the money hadn’t spoiled Nancy. She was hard-working and practical.
In a Texas Monthly story, Gayle Golden wrote about Nancy and Richard’s early years:
“At Harvard, they had teamed up on all their projects, working through the night until collapsing together in the single bed they shared. According to friends, Nancy had the ideas, Richard the speedy execution.”
The two purposely tweaked their handwriting so it looked similar enough that he could get away with handing in papers she’d written for him.
They married in 1982 and moved into a duplex in University Park, an affluent section of Dallas.
Folks, it’s Camelot. Forensic Files portrayed Nancy as a sweet and generous soul, an assessment corroborated by Golden, a newspaper reporter who lived in the other half of the duplex owned by the Lyons.
Nancy worked her way up to a partnership at Trammell Crow, a real estate development firm. Richard did well for himself as a project manager at a landscape architectural firm.
By 1990, they had two small daughters and lots of friends, swam at the country club, and joined in vacations underwritten by Nancy’s parents, William W. Dillard Sr. and Sue Stubbs Dillard.
Nancy and Richard continued to enjoy working together, Gayle Golden recounted:
“On their own they transformed the once-scrawny back yard into a little paradise, planting trees and wisteria, driving bricks into sand to make a patio, hanging chimes and a hammock.”
They constructed a dollhouse “shingle by shingle” for their daughter Allison.
Homewrecker. But, as every Forensic Files watcher knows, idyllic-looking existences tend to give way. Richard began an affair with a coworker named Tami Ayn Gaisford around 1989. Nancy found out, but instead of getting mad, she got depressed.
She hoped the affair would blow over. Richard left her on at least one occasion but returned and put on the loving husband act, all the while intending to escape from the marriage.
But the mild-mannered 5-foot-7-inch Richard needed a way that wouldn’t mean losing custody of his kids or the affluence and prestige that Nancy Dillard Lyon’s family brought to his life.
And there was something to gain from Nancy’s death: a $500,000 life insurance payout.
Toxic husband. Richard first sprang into action by sprinkling a powdered poison into a soda he bought for Nancy at the movies. The drink tasted terrible and made her sick later that evening. She survived that attempt.
It wasn’t clear what type of poison he used on that occasion.
On a subsequent try, he gave her vitamin capsules laced with the poison barium carbonate. Still, she lived.
At some point, he switched to arsenic, which he probably put in her food and a bottle of wine left anonymously on their porch.
Nice playacting. A grim-looking Richard showed up on Golden’s doorstep in January 1991 to ask if she and her husband would look after his daughters while he took Nancy to the emergency room. She had nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.
“Do you think you can make it downstairs?” Gayle Golden overheard Richard say to Nancy in a sweet voice. “I’ll carry you.”
During her six-day stay at Presbyterian Hospital of Dallas, Nancy’s violent illness continued and she begged the medical staff to save her life.
Doctors frantically did tests to find the cause of her illness. She died before they had a chance, on January 14, 1991, at the age of 37.
Forensic tests. Nancy’s father was none-too-pleased that his son-in-law made the decision to terminate her life support without consulting him or his wife. It would come up in court later.
Meanwhile, a laboratory found lethal amounts of arsenic in Nancy’s hair, liver, and kidneys. The strands of hair served as a map of doses of arsenic that coincided with Richard’s interactions with his wife.
Aware that the No. 1 suspect is always the husband, Richard was armed and ready with the aforementioned forged documents designed to look as though Nancy wrote them.
He produced diary entries detailing childhood sexual abuse Nancy’s brother had allegedly perpetrated against her. Perhaps that would prove that either her brother killed her or that Nancy was so distraught over the bad memories she took her own life.
Find a Patsy. The grieving husband also showed authorities an anonymous letter Nancy had received; it threatened violence if she went ahead and testified against a former colleague named David Bagwell who allegedly embezzled $720,000 from Trammell Crow.
Nancy had told doctors about the mystery wine; maybe it was from Bagwell and contained arsenic.
Testifying on his own behalf at the trial, Richard Lyon tried to implicate Bagwell. Nancy had called him a “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” he alleged.
And in case that didn’t work, Richard could rely on a receipt for arsenic trioxide, barium carbonate, and two other deadly substances — signed by Nancy — as evidence that she deliberately poisoned herself.
Paper Lyon. At the trial, prosecutor Jerri Sims called on a handwriting expert who could see the small differences between Richard’s and Nancy’s handwriting. He determined the diary entries about Nancy’s brother were forgeries created by Richard.
Chemical Engineering Co., where Richard claimed the arsenic came from, said that the receipts it issued to customers looked nothing like the one Richard presented; it was fabricated evidence.
And the anonymous threatening letter on behalf of her former coworker was a big nothing. No one could trace it to anyone involved in the embezzlement case.
Tami Ayn Gaisford, Richard’s girlfriend, testified that Richard had told her that Nancy died from a rare fatal blood disease — more proof that he was a liar.
Facing reality. While Golden described Nancy as “infuriatingly optimistic” about saving her marriage when Richard first left her, it came out at the trial that her hopefulness had finally receded: At some point, she had quietly removed her husband as beneficiary of her life insurance policy.
She also shut him off from their joint bank accounts. She didn’t appreciate his using $5,900 of their money to buy a ring for Gaisford.
In 1990, Nancy had hired a divorce attorney, Mary Henrich, in whom she confided her suspicion that Richard was poisoning her — something she felt too embarrassed to tell police, according to court records from Richard Lyon’s unsuccessful 1994 appeal.
Nancy planned to move to Washington, D.C., with her daughters after the divorce, a 1991 AP story reported.
Ants implicated. At the trial, internist Dr. Ali Bagheri noted that Richard was “smiling, joking, and laughing” with hospital staff members during his wife’s emergency room visit.
A detective noted that upon being informed that Nancy had passed away from poisoning, Richard Lyon didn’t ask any questions.
Lyon later admitted to buying some poisons, for killing fire ants in his yard, he said.
But members of the jury brought their healthy sense of skepticism with them for the two-week trial.
Bar exam. They took three hours to find Richard Lyon guilty of first-degree murder.
During sentencing, Judge John C. Creuzot said that Lyon used “various and sundry chemicals to kill Nancy. The first two didn’t work, and you finally finished her off with arsenic, a tried-and-true method of producing death.”
Creuzot gave him life in jail and a $10,000 fine.
His sentence began on December 19, 1991 — less than a year after Nancy Dillard Lyon died. I guess Texas courts don’t mess around.
Today, Richard Alan Abood Lyon is prisoner No. 00612188 in the capable hands of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.
An upcoming post will look into developments in his case since the conviction.
Until then, cheers. — RR
Update: Read Part 3