Her Deadly Web: New Excerpt

Her Deadly Web by Diane FanningRaynella Dossett Leath said she came home one morning in 2003 and found her husband’s body in bed—covered in blood, a Colt .38 by his side. But authorities were suspicious of Raynella’s story. Why would her husband of ten years suddenly commit suicide? And if he had taken his own life, why did it appear that three shots were fired?

David Leath was not the first of Raynella’s husbands to turn up dead. After digging into Raynella’s past, police unearthed bizarre, gruesome details surrounding the death of her first husband, who was seemingly trampled by his own cattle. Which led investigators to wonder: Could Raynella have staged his death, too?

To those who knew her, Raynella was a loving mother of two, a good neighbor and friend, a nurse who always reached out a helping hand. Was this woman capable of killing both her husbands? And if so: Why did she do it—out of greed, jealousy, revenge? This is the story about what dark secrets were lurking inside Her Deadly Web.

Chapter 1

The humidity was rising and not a single speck of blue could be seen in the cloud-covered sky as Raynella Dossett Leath turned into the driveway of her farm near Knoxville, Tennessee, on March 13, 2003. She drove past the family vegetable patch, where newly planted onion sets thrust fresh green sprouts up through the dark soil.

She continued on past an outbuilding to the house she’d called home for nearly twenty years. In the time she lived beneath its roof, she’d lost a husband and a son; raised one daughter to adulthood and marriage; and now prepared for the high school graduation of her third child.

Stepping on the porch, unlocking the closed door and crossing the threshold, she entered a lifeless dwelling. David Leath, a barber who had been her husband of ten years, lay dead in the marital bed.

She picked up the receiver of the telephone on the table beside his body and punched in 911.

The emergency dispatcher answered the incoming call at 11:23 that morning.

“County 911.”

“Help me! Help me!” Raynella shrieked, choking on her words.

“Ma’am, where are you?”

“Please help me!” she yelled as she struggled to breathe.

“Ma’am, what’s going on?”

“My—my husband shot himself—three—uh—three-oh-three-one Solway. Hurry!”

“Okay, where is your husband?”

“He’s still in the bed. Please hurry!”

“Ma’am”

“I’m going to vomit.”

“Ma’am?”

Raynella uttered wordless shrieks and moans.

“Ma’am?”

Raynella gagged and made inarticulate sounds.

“Ma’am, I need you to calm down so I can get some help to you. Okay?”

The dispatcher sent units to the address to investigate a reported suicide attempt. Dispatch informed the emergency personnel: “She’s called in, says her husband shot himself. The phone’s off the hook, the line is open, and the caller can still be heard screaming.”

The first responder to the scene, Deputy Sergeant David Amburn of the Knox County Sheriff’s Office, arrived at 11:32. He found Raynella lying facedown in the grass in the front yard. He thought that she, too, had been shot or injured. He bolted out of his vehicle shouting, “Ma’am, ma’am,” as he ran to her.

He knelt down and nudged her. She burst into unintelligible cries and wails then shouted, “Help him. Help him. He’s been shot.” She was, he said, a woman “overcome with grief.” He helped her onto the porch and went into the house with Deputy Chief Keith Lyons.

They found David Leath, age fifty-seven, dead in his bed. He had a black hole in his forehead over his left eye surrounded by copious gunpowder stippling, consistent with a shot fired from close range. He lay on his right side with his right arm extended straight out and his left arm bent at the elbow, with his wrist turned under and resting on the mattress.

Beside that hand was an old blue steel Colt .38 double-action revolver with a black grip.

Investigator Perry Moyers arrived at the solid brick house at 11:51. Raynella was on the front porch now with a rag in her hand. At five feet eight inches and 170 pounds, with stark blue eyes and steel-colored hair, Raynella cut an imposing figure. She was wearing blue jeans, white Skechers tennis shoes, and a gray and white long-sleeved shirt layered with a gray sleeveless shirt. He looked her over but saw no signs of any blood transfer stains. He thought that was odd. Raynella was a nurse: surely she had attempted CPR on her husband.

Moyers went inside where Sergeant Robert Lee directed him to the left and down the hallway to the bedroom. He heard the sound of a clothes dryer running and made a mental note to follow up on that observation.

The deceased David Leath appeared to Moyers’s trained eye as if he’d been tucked into bed for comfort. A pillow in a green pillowcase was in between his head and shoulder, another between his legs. He lay on a blue sheet, and a white quilt with pink and green accents neatly covered the lower half of his body.

His position simply did not look right: Moyers thought it seemed unlikely for someone who had committed suicide. He wondered if the scene was staged.

A plate of food—oatmeal, toast, and jelly—sat on a table beside the bed. It had not been touched. It bore no blood evidence on its surface. There were neither lip marks on the drinking glass standing beside the plate nor any other indication that anyone had drunk a drop of the milk inside it.

Moyers saw early signs of lividity discoloring David’s skin. That in all probability meant his death could not have occurred in the last half hour. He pressed a finger down on the skin’s surface. Where he applied pressure, he observed blanching, suggesting that death could not have occurred much more than five hours earlier. The exposed parts of his body were cool to the touch, but under the covers the toes were still warm. Moyers estimated the time of death as between 6:00 and 9:00 that morning.

Three officers in training were on the scene, learning from their more experienced colleagues. Before lifting the weapon from the bed to demonstrate the proper handling of a gun at a death scene, Moyers noted that the holes in the blue bedsheet indicated there had been a fold in the fabric when the gun was discharged.

“When you rotate the cylinder out, you need to be careful not to turn it,” he said holding the revolver up so that all the new officers could see. “Then you need to draw the cylinder as you see it on a piece of paper.” Moyers made his drawing, but at the time he did not notice the most significant piece of evidence the gun contained.

Raynella came into the house with her married daughter, Maggie Dossett Connaster, and asked, “What’s going on here, boys? What’s going on?”

Moyers talked with Maggie while Detective Steve Webb spoke to Raynella. She informed Webb that it had been a typical morning. Katie was running a little late but she left home for school at 8:15. Raynella said she’d prepared and served her husband breakfast in bed. “He always tells me I bring it too hot to melt the butter.” The detective thought that was an odd statement but didn’t question her about it. Before leaving the house, she tuned the television to the Joyce Meyer show, a religious and inspirational program that aired at 8:30.

She also told him that the house was locked when she returned home. When Webb asked her why her husband would commit suicide, Raynella said, “He just found out yesterday that his mother has cancer.”

After a moment of silence she added: “Well, he’s finally at rest. He can finally rest.”

She volunteered her journal, handing it to the investigator, saying that it chronicled their family life and contained documentation of Dave’s health and state of mind. In response to the detective’s question, she said that she started the washer and the dryer just before leaving home at 9:00 that morning. Lead investigator Moyers silently wondered why the dryer was still running three hours later.

Moyers looked for signs of the grief and sorrow noted in Raynella by the first responder but saw none. Instead he a observed a woman in control, taking charge of the situation. That made him very uncomfortable.

He also wasn’t pleased to see the gathering of the who’s who of Knoxville’s legal and political world in front of the Leath home: public defenders, local Republican Party leaders, lawyers, and at least one judge. They were clearly there in support of Raynella, their attention not wavering even when a burst of misty drizzle blew through the gloomy afternoon. Investigator Moyers knew the pressure the powerful could apply. Their involvement always made an investigation difficult and delicate.

But what troubled Moyers the most was the evidence uncovered in the bedroom. Techs dug a bullet out of the wall. It had passed through the headboard with a piece of the victim’s hair attached. They dug another bullet out of the floor under the bed. And a third bullet was lodged in David Leath’s head—the one that had pierced his skull above his left eye, transected his brain stem, and killed him instantly.

The evidence wasn’t in harmony with the widow’s story. Was it really a suicide?

Chapter 2

Cindy Wilkerson, David Leath’s daughter from a previous marriage, arrived at the scene of her father’s death. Investigator Moyers noted that the thin blond woman had a faraway look in her eyes as she struggled against the ugly truth that her father was gone.

Crime scene technicians continued their grim but necessary work. Brad Parks set up the stringing of the scene. He ran a line from the point of impact out along the angle of entry to find the trajectory of each bullet. This information would give investigators an indication of the location of the gun when the trigger was pulled.

After the body was on its way to the morgue for an autopsy, techs moved the mattress, revealing spatters and puddles of bright red. Crimson drops fell from the bed to the floor, splashing up on the molding running along the base of the wall. The blood stood in stark contrast to the white lid on the clear plastic storage box tucked beneath the bed frame.

Techs collected the oak headboard with its intricate carved medallions and posts, and the pillow where David rested his head. They cut out a piece of the wall and collected the gun. They confiscated a pair of rubber gloves from the bathroom.

Gordon Armstrong was unaware of the drama playing out at the home of his best friend, David Leath, until his wife, Gail, telephoned him at work. “David committed suicide. He shot himself.”

“I don’t believe he’d shoot himself.”

“There was a handgun beside him.”

“That makes even less sense: Dave hated guns.”

When Gordon returned home, he received a phone call from Raynella, who was now at her daughter Maggie’s home because her own house was sealed by law enforcement. “Gordon, can you go up to the house and pick up the will?”

Gordon, half out of his soiled work clothes, said, “Just as soon as I can get ready.”

Before he could get out the door, Raynella called again. “Never mind, Gordon. Maggie’s got to go down there to get something else and she’ll pick up the will.”

Later that evening, Gordon wanted to see if Raynella needed anything else. Maggie picked up the phone and said, “She’s not going to talk to anybody tonight.”

In the background, Gordon heard Raynella ask, “Who is it?”

“Gordon,” Maggie said.

“Come on. I will talk to him,” Raynella said, taking the phone.

Gordon expressed his sympathy, shared his sorrow, and reminded Raynella that if she needed anything at all, she need only let him know.

The next morning, at 8:15, Detective Moyers and three other detectives observed as Dr. Darinka Mileusnic, the assistant chief medical examiner for Knox County, performed an autopsy on the body of David Leath.

She made a thorough external examination of the man stretched before her on the stainless steel table. She noted scars and his wedding band, and described the body as “that of a well-developed, well-nourished, and well-built white male appearing the stated age of fifty-seven years. The body measures 68 inches in length and weighs 201 pounds. The scalp hair is brown with gray and short with a residual layer of dried-out hair spray.”

She noted that he was tanned and wore a short mustache and beard. She observed one shrunken eye below the gunshot entry wound and the remaining eye with its green-blue iris and cloudy cornea.

She noted a number of developing health problems internally: a fatty liver, an enlarged heart and spleen, and mild atherosclerosis with small areas of severe blockage. Dr. Mileusnic removed the copper-plated bullet that took his life when it traveled from his forehead through his brain, ricocheting off the interior backside of his skull before burrowing into the right occipital lobe.

When the autopsy was complete, the doctor released the body to Cremation Options as the widow had instructed. David’s body was cremated that same day. Raynella had prepaid for the service, although David had a plot in the cemetery next to his parents and had expressed his desire to be buried there.

Cindy was shocked and dismayed when she learned of the cremation: she knew Raynella had gone against her father’s oft-expressed wishes. Gordon was likewise surprised: his thoughts went to the dark places he’d been trying to avoid. He was certain his friend had not committed suicide; that left only murder. There were only three people living in that home. David was dead; that left Raynella and her daughter Katie. Who had pulled the trigger?

Chapter 3

Three days after David’s death, the Reverend Henry Lenoir officiated over a memorial service at Solway United Methodist Church in Solway, Tennessee. The family was there to greet friends and neighbors and the ceremony began at 3:30 that Sunday.

In the middle of her words about the passing of her husband, Raynella spoke a phrase that puzzled many of the attendees: “I was nothing but Dave’s hood ornament.” In lieu of flowers, Raynella requested donations to David Leath’s Grandchildren’s Memorial Fund.

The sheriff’s office released the Leath home on Monday. Investigator Moyers met Raynella at the house to turn it over. He informed her that they believed David’s death to be a homicide.

“Am I a suspect?” she asked.

“The only person who is not a suspect is me,” the detective said.

The following day, Raynella invited people to her home for a meeting. Among attendees were David’s fellow barber and shop co-owner Hoyt Vanosdale. He was a man of average height and weight, his face framed by gray-brown hair and adorned with glasses and a beard. Also present was David’s daughter, Cindy Wilkerson. When they arrived, a lawyer from James A.H. Bell’s office, the firm representing Raynella’s interests, was already at the home. He had a tape recorder and asked everyone why they thought David had committed suicide.

Hoyt spoke up, saying he did not believe that David had shot himself.

The attorney said, “I guess our conversation is over.”

Rising to his feet, Hoyt said, “You got that right,” and left the meeting.

A few days later Hoyt returned to Raynella’s home to see if she needed anything, volunteering to be available for his former partner’s widow through the difficult aftermath of David’s death. Before he left, Raynella handed over a small, heavy cardboard box and asked that he deliver the package to Cindy. She did not tell him the contents of the container. And he didn’t peek inside.

Hoyt turned the box over to Cindy, who opened it to see what was inside. She found in it her father’s cremains. To Cindy, this discovery was like learning about her father’s death all over again.

The first of April brought an abundance of activity in the case. Because Raynella’s first husband had been the Sixth Judicial District attorney general, the local prosecutor’s office did not feel they should be involved in the investigation. “To avoid even the appearance of any conflict of interest, I have asked that a special pro tem prosecutor from outside Knox County be appointed to assist law enforcement in this case,” sitting attorney general Randy Nichols announced.

Raynella’s attorney, James Bell, told the media, “I have specifically asked the sheriff’s department if she is a suspect, a target, or a subject of an investigation. They just say they can’t tell me. I have asked if there are any suspects in the case, and they say they can’t tell me that, either.” He continued with a defense of his client: “Raynella Dossett Leath did not kill David Leath. She loved him, and anyone who says she killed him had better be prepared to come into court and deal with me over it.”

David’s daughter, Cindy, was simply befuddled. She told the Knoxville News Sentinel, “I don’t know anything. I don’t know if they’re calling it a suicide or a homicide. I would like to know something, but no one has told me anything.” She added that she doubted her father would have killed himself, and if he had, he would not have done it with a firearm “because he was terrified of guns. Anybody who knew him knows that.”

The day after Nichols’s conflict-of- interest announcement, Bill Reedy and Chuck Pope, both of the Tenth Judicial District attorney general’s office, were assigned as special prosecutors to work with Knox County Sheriff’s Office on the case. They met with meet with lead investigator Perry Moyers and other Knox County Sheriff’s Office officers the next day.

After the meeting, Bill Reedy spoke to reporters, telling them that the investigation into the death of retired West Knoxville barber David Leath would rely on circumstantial evidence. He warned that the state budget cutbacks that resulted in the closing of two crime labs might mean it would take longer to accumulate evidence results.

“It is also very clear that to develop a suspect in this case will require the use of investigative subpoenas, a new procedure available to us. We are going to have to develop a good deal more evidence by way of such things as telephone records and other things to confirm or deny things that have been said to police by some parties close to the victim.”

He went on to describe the case as “a death investigation that we are treating as a homicide and will continue to do so, unless something comes back from the complete autopsy results and forensic tests that tell us something different. But everybody who has looked at the crime scene and the evidence that was collected have concluded that is most probably not a suicide.”

When the results came back from the forensics labs, it was clear that the gun recovered at the scene was the weapon that fired all three of the bullets. It was more shots than typically found in a suicide, but it still did not prove homicide beyond a shadow of a doubt.

However, the final autopsy report bolstered the other forensic evidence. It concluded: “Examination of the skin surrounding the gunshot wound of entrance reveals gunpowder stippling which covers an area of 3.8 inches in diameter. Scene investigation and wound features, particularly the extent of gunpowder stippling, are inconsistent with self-inflicted gunshot wound. The manner of death is homicide.”

Law enforcement now knew with certainty that Raynella’s pronouncement of suicide was wrong: David Leath had not taken his own life.


Diane Fanning is the author of Written in Blood: A True Story of Murder and a Deadly 16 Year-Old Secret that Tore a Family Apart, Through the Window: The Terrifying True Story of Cross Country Killer Tommy Lynn Sells, Into the Water: An Astonishing True Story of Abduction, Murder, and the Nice Guy Next Door, and the co-editor of Red Boots & Attitude. Fanning lives in New Braunfels, Texas.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.