Lubbock D.A. files appeal to reinstate Dixon’s conviction

Thomas Michael Dixon
Thomas Michael Dixon
Updated: Jul. 10, 2019 at 1:23 PM CDT
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LUBBOCK, Texas (KCBD) - It has been seven years to the day since the death of Lubbock pathologist Joseph Sonnier. Dr. Sonnier was found dead in his Lubbock home on July 11, 2012. He was murdered on the night of July 10, 2012.

According to court documents filed on July 8, 2019:

Joseph Sonnier was found brutally murdered in his home on July 11, 2012—the result of a love triangle turned murder for hire plot. David Shepard, the gunman, pleaded guilty to the offense of capital murder and received a sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. (Dixon’s) first trial for the offense of capital murder resulted in a mistrial. A jury found (Dixon) guilty of two counts of capital murder in 2015. Count One of the indictment alleged the offense was committed for remuneration. Count Two alleged the offense was committed in the course of a burglary of a habitation. (Dixon) was sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole on both counts.

Dr. Joseph Sonnier was found dead in his home in July of 2012.
Dr. Joseph Sonnier was found dead in his home in July of 2012.

In January of this year, Thomas Dixon, the former Amarillo doctor, posted a $2 million bail as he awaits a retrial in the case. Dixon was released from the Lubbock County Detention Center. The $2 million bail was to guarantee he would show up for the as yet to be scheduled retrial.

Dixon’s conviction for his role in the July 2012 death of Lubbock pathologist Joseph Sonnier was overturned on December 13, 2018 by the Seventh Court of Appeals on the grounds prosecutors used illegally-gained cell phone information.

According to court documents filed this week, The Seventh Court of Appeals reversed Appellant’s convictions on December 13, 2018, holding that the erroneous admission of Appellant’s CSLI contributed to his conviction beyond a reasonable doubt, and because the trial court violated Appellant’s Sixth Amendment right to public trial.

David Neal Shepard, serving life in prison for the murder of Dr. Joseph Sonnier (Source:...
David Neal Shepard, serving life in prison for the murder of Dr. Joseph Sonnier (Source: Lubbock County Detention Center)

Earlier this week, Lubbock County Criminal District Attorney filed an appellate brief before the Texas Court of Criminal appeals requesting the court reverse the judgment of the Seventh Court of Appeals and affirm the judgment of the trial court, which was a conviction and a sentence of life in prison.

Shepard accepted a plea deal for Sonnier’s murder in 2013 and was sentenced to life in prison.

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MORE: Former Amarillo doctor accused of hiring hitman to kill romantic rival to post $2 million bond

In 2011, Thomas Michael Dixon (Appellant) had everything going for him: as a successful plastic surgeon he was married with three children and a growing medical practice. Appellant opened a day spa in addition to working as a surgeon at the local hospitals, and it was there he met the woman that would change everything for him. Richelle Shetina—a former professional cheerleader—was tall, beautiful, and paid attention to Appellant in a way his wife of over twenty years did not. Appellant and Richelle began dating and Appellant’s marriage dissolved. Newly single, Appellant befriended David Shepard and the two became fast friends.

Shepard was intrigued by Appellant’s high lifestyle and courtship of Richelle. In the summer of 2011, Richelle broke things off with Appellant. Appellant was, by his own admission, heartbroken. He “sold his family down the river” for Richelle. Appellant soon learned that Richelle had left him for another physician—Dr. Joseph Sonnier, III, a pathologist in Lubbock, Texas. Wounded, Appellant became obsessed with Sonnier and his relationship with Richelle. Shepard, eager to stay in Appellant’s good graces, became Appellant’s confidant regarding Richelle and Sonnier, and later, his accomplice.

On July 10th, 2012, Sonnier was brutally murdered in his home. The assailant entered the home through Sonnier’s back windows where he shot Sonnier seven times and stabbed him eleven times. The state of the house told the story of a struggle—a back window was pushed out, chairs were toppled, a high ball glass and Sonnier’s glasses were on the ground, and a trail of blood and cartridge casings led to the garage where Sonnier’s body was ultimately found. A Gatorade bottle that appeared to have been used as a makeshift silencer was found just inside of the pushed in window.

Sonnier’s body was found the day after his murder. Richelle was notified and came to the scene. Her interview with the Lubbock Police Department (LPD) led detectives to Appellant’s house outside of Amarillo where Appellant and his new girlfriend, Ashley Woolbert, were interviewed separately that evening. Appellant denied any involvement with the death of Sonnier, and any knowledge of what might have happened. In his first contact with law enforcement, Appellant told the officer she did not know anything about Dr. Sonnier and that he was shocked his name was even mentioned. But Woolbert mentioned to LPD Detective Ylanda Pena that the two had dinner with Shepard the night before—a fact Appellant omitted when speaking to LPD Detective Zach Johnson. As soon as Johnson and Pena left Appellant’s house, Appellant and Shepard exchanged several phone calls and text messages, including the following text from Appellant to Shepard: “Just had visit from Lubbock PD, going asap, Ash said came by, said gave cigars from Bermuda, they will see our com phone records tonight anywhere, lay low.” Woolbert testified that after Johnson and Pena left Appellant’s house on July 11, Appellant acted very odd and was concealing text messages and stepping outside to make phone calls, something he never did under normal circumstances.23 In the following days, Shepard attempted suicide by slitting his wrist and overdosing on pills. Overcome with emotion one night, Shepard confessed everything to his roommate—Paul Reynolds.

Shepard told Reynolds of the elaborate murder-for-hire plot. Appellant gave Shepard Sonnier’s home address, work address, a description of what he drove, and where he practiced ballroom dancing. Shepard followed Sonnier for months, and would often text Appellant while watching Sonnier. On July 10, 2012, Shepard waited in Sonnier’s backyard for him to arrive. When he did, Shepard entered Sonnier’s home and shot and stabbed Sonnier to death. Shepard explained to Reynolds how he used a Gatorade bottle to muffle the sound of the gunshots, and that Appellant gave him the gun that he used to shoot Sonnier. An Amarillo dive team recovered a gun from Lawrence lake in Amarillo, where Shepard told detectives he threw the murder weapon. Once recovered, the gun was traced to Monty Dixon—Appellant’s brother.

After Shepard attempted suicide, Appellant gave Shepard stitches and suggested that he leave town for a couple of weeks. Shepard told Reynolds he was paid in silver bars, worth approximately ten-thousand dollars, for the murder. Johnson and Pena were able to confirm through Leads Online that Shepard pawned one silver bar on June 15, 2012—Father’s Day weekend, and two the morning of July 11—the day after Sonnier was murdered.

Appellant claimed Shepard came over the night of the murder so that Appellant could give him some cigars he brought him from Bermuda, and Appellant invited Woolbert to join. When asked at trial why Appellant had to give Shepard the cigars that evening, he claimed it was because that was when they were ready after being rehumidified. Yet, the box was unsealed for the first time at Appellant’s second trial, where it was revealed to contain a humidor inside—Appellant had no idea if the cigars were ready that evening or not because he had not unsealed the box, discrediting his claim that he needed to re-humidify the cigars.

At some point after Sonnier’s murder but before Appellant’s arrest, Appellant deleted the majority of the text messages on his phone and jumped in the pool with his phone.40 But because Appellant had plugged his phone into his laptop, some of the data from the phone transferred to the laptop. DPS Agent Dylan Dorrow was able to recover approximately fifty percent of Appellant’s text messages. The text messages revealed an ongoing plot to follow Sonnier, learn his movements, and to “get r done.” After the murder, the calls and texts between Dixon and Shepard revealed a continued plot to conceal the murder.

After the arrests of Shepard and Appellant, LPD detectives obtained Appellant’s and Shepard’s historical CSLI from their respective cell-service providers via court orders. The State presented Shepard’s CSLI to the jury at trial, demonstrating months of travel to parts of Lubbock he knew Sonnier to frequent—Sonnier’s home, Richelle’s home, and D’Venue. Of the 166 days of Appellant’s CSLI obtained by the State, only a portion of 2 days of data was presented to the jury: Appellant’s location on March 12, 2012, and June 15, 2012. The CSLI placed Appellant and Shepard in Lubbock, pinging off the same cell towers around the same times on March 12, 2012. On direct examination, Appellant told the jury he was in Lubbock that day——but denied being with Shepard. The CSLI presented to the jury also showed Appellant to be in Amarillo on June 15, 2012, the day that Shepard pawned the first silver bar. At trial, Shepard’s oldest daughter Haley testified that the weekend after Shepard sold the first bar of silver, he took his daughters out for a lavish weekend of spending. When Haley asked her father where he got the money, he told her he did some work for Appellant, and Appellant paid him early, but not to ask what kind of work it was.

At trial, a sketch artist was temporarily excluded from a portion of jury selection, despite special accommodations being made for Appellant’s parents to be present in the courtroom. The trial court was unaware of the exclusion, but corrected it as soon as it was brought to his attention and allowed the sketch artist to sit in the jury box for the remainder of the day. Appellant objected to the temporary exclusion the following day. Halfway through the presentation of evidence, the trial court excused spectators from the courtroom to admonish the attorneys on appropriate courtroom decorum, but several members of the public remained in the courtroom. Appellant objected at the time of the ruling. Last, the trial court implemented a “one in, one out” rule after the courtroom reached full capacity during closing arguments. Appellant objected to the rule for the first time in his Motion for New Trial, filed after the verdict. After a three-week trial, the jury returned a verdict of guilty on both counts of capital murder.

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