School rivalry ends in charge of murder plot

February 12, 1991|By Bruce Nichols | Bruce Nichols,Dallas Morning News

CHANNELVIEW, Texas -- This middle-class suburb of Houston is proud of its winners.

Signs praise the high school basketball team. The principal brags about student scores on state achievement tests. Banners back U.S. troops in the Middle East.

But one of its residents -- Wanda Holloway, a churchgoing, 36-year-old mother of two -- is accused of taking the competitive spirit to a deadly level that shocked this community of 25,000.

Officials say that to boost her 13-year-old daughter Shanna's chances of becoming a cheerleader, Wanda Holloway tried to hire a man to kill 37-year-old Verna Heath, a former friend who is the mother of her daughter's chief rival, Amber Heath.

"Her daughter and the other woman's daughter have been going to school together for years, and basically Shanna has always come in second to Amber and she was just sick of it," said Harris County Sheriff's Sgt. Flint Blackwell.

Wanda Holloway, whose husband owns an oil-field service company, was arrested Jan. 30 after a three-week investigation, charged with solicitation of capital murder and freed on $10,000 bond.

The Holloways did not return telephone calls, and Verna Heath declined a request for an interview.

"People are just in shock about it," said Mindy Harrison, a seventh-grader at Alice Johnson Junior High School, where Shanna, whose last name is Harper, and Amber were described as "sweet, well-liked" eighth-graders, good students and good cheerleaders.

"It's what everybody wants to be," said eighth-grader Kristi Cartwright.

But "everyone was pretty surprised someone would go this low for cheerleading," Kristi said.

"Our biggest, most persistent problem in this school is gum-chewing and tardies to class," said Johnson's principal, Jim Barker. "We've had about four smoking cases this year."

The Holloways and Heaths, who live a block apart in a subdivision of small tract homes, get high marks from friends and school officials.

Wanda Holloway plays the piano at Channelview Missionary Baptist Church. She dropped off her daughter for a church function on her way to deliver the diamond earrings she offered as a down payment for the killing of Verna Heath, Sergeant Blackwell said.

Verna Heath, 37, a mother of four, was a star baton twirler at nearby Baytown Lee High School and teaches twirling at a studio owned by her mother. Her husband, Jack, is a grocery store manager.

For years, the two women were friends, Jack Heath said. "Both of our kids went to private Christian schools. . . . My wife had braided Wanda's hair before. Wanda had had us over to her home. We would take each other's kids to school, things like that."

Trouble began when their daughters competed in the sixth grade to become cheerleaders at Johnson Junior High, Jack Heath said. Amber edged out Shanna, and after that, "there was a problem," he said.

Wanda Holloway went to the school board, complained and tried unsuccessfully to overturn Amber's selection, officials said.

Last year, Shanna was disqualified from the eighth-grade competition because her mother violated limits on the distribution of campaign materials, school officials said.

When the students voted, Amber was elected again.

The girls "have always competed against each other," said the Rev. Milton Koonce of Channelview Christian Church, which runs the private school the girls attended.

Although Shanna had her moments, Amber often had the edge in experience, Mr. Koonce said.

"Wanda is a mother that goes 150 percent in everything she does," Verna Heath said last week during a television interview she now says was obtained surreptitiously.

With this year's cheerleader competition for Channelview High School coming up in March, Wanda Holloway "must have lost her equilibrium," said Mr. Koonce.

According to investigators, Wanda Holloway asked an acquaintance whether he could hire someone to kill Amber and her mother. The acquaintance contacted authorities, Sergeant Blackwell said.

When she was told that the price would be $5,000 for killing Amber and $2,500 for killing Mrs. Heath, she said she couldn't afford both, the sergeant said.

"She really wanted the daughter done to get her completely out of the picture, but she figured if she got mom done that would upset the daughter enough to take her out of the picture," Sergeant Blackwell said.

Some neighbors in the Sterling Green subdivision wondered whether the incident had lessons for every parent who has supported a child in competition.

"We all go through that," said Chris Netherly, 31. "We try to give our kids things we didn't have."

But Larry Kolarik, business manager for the Channelview school district, cautioned against drawing too many conclusions from one incident.

"There are many people that are tremendously competitive with their children," Mr. Kolarik said. "I just think this got out of hand."

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