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AS NIGHT FALLS IN CHANNELVIEW, TEXAS, weary oilworkers and longshoremen can he found sipping cold beers in the icehouses along Sheldon Road, which runs beside the murky waters of the Houston Ship Channel, and families with small children flock to the neon-lit strips of fast-food joints. But this being the first Friday in September and this being Texas, most local teenagers, not to mention hordes of their parents, head for the stadium at Channelview High to root for their football team—the beloved Falcons. Around here, football and all its panoply stir mighty passions. And so before the start of this week's game, the crowd of several hundred rises for the invocation, which ends with a fervent prayer: "God protect our players and the cheerleaders."

These days that is no idle plea, for in Channelview the mythic rites of fall have been overshadowed by terrible events. It was here that a county court early this month convicted Wanda Holloway, 37, of plotting the contract murder of Verna Heath, 38, and even heard testimony that she wanted to rub out Verna's 14-year-old daughter, Amber. The motive wasn't money or drugs or even love—at least in the ordinary sense. Wanda, a stage mother who could have given Joan Crawford the willies, wanted Verna and Amber eliminated for a much simpler reason: so her own daughter, Shanna, 14, could win a spot on the cheerleading squad.

For those who packed the tiny courtroom for the weeklong trial, the testimony elicited stunned disbelief. Alter all, the Heaths and the Holloways were neighbors in the blue-collar Houston suburb. Amber and Shanna had even attended the same Christian elementary school. But there was no arguing with the secretly recorded police tapes of Wanda hatching the murder plot. "It was clear that this was really a cold, cold, calculating woman," says juror Tim Evans, a Houston X-ray technician. "On those tapes, when she talked about Amber, it was venomous. It was evil. This woman was obsessed."

Wanda Holloway's obsession with cheerleading—and her hatred of Verna and Amber Heath—had been brewing for years. At one time, when the girls were younger and played together occasionally, the two mothers had been on friendly terms, meeting to go shopping or to take the kids to the Ideal swimming pool. All that had changed, though, once Amber and Shanna started competing to be cheerleaders. The first run-in occurred in the spring of 1989, when Verna got special permission from Channelview school officials for Amber, who was then in the sixth grade and still attending a Christian academy, to try out as a cheerleader at Alice Johnson Junior High. where she planned to enroll the following fall. When Amber was elected to the team by a student vote and Shanna was not, Wanda was furious, especially since she had transferred her daughter to the public school earlier in the year so she would be eligible.

Undeterred, Wanda tried the following year to help Shanna win a spot on the squad by supplying her with pencils and rulers bearing her name, which Shanna was supposed to hand out to schoolmates while campaigning for votes. Instead, Verna called for a closed-door meeting of the school board; Shanna was subsequently disqualified from the tryouts for violating rules forbidding such trinkets. Adding to the humiliation, said Wanda at her trial, Amber allegedly taunted Shanna in the hallways over her failure to make the squad.

After that, family and friends agree, Wanda was a woman possessed. As she saw it, Amber and Verna had conspired to thwart Shanna. "That's all she ever talked about, that cheerleading stuff," says her former father-in-law, R.E. Harper, who runs a convenience store in Channelview. "She'd go on and on about it to anybody who'd listen."

Wanda's ambition and hunger for acceptance were nothing new to those who knew her. She had been raised in Channelview, where her father, Clyde, was a tester at a cement plant; her mother, whose name also happened to be Verna, worked in the cafeteria at Channelview High, which some friends say was a source of embarrassment to Wanda. After graduating from high school in 1972, Wanda married a fellow Channelview student, Tony Harper, then 19, with whom she had two children, Shane, now 18 and a freshman at Baylor University, and Shanna. She divorced Tony in 1980 and married Gordon Englehart, a prosperous businessman in Beaumont, Texas, who was at least 20 years her senior. That marriage lasted less than two years, alter which Wanda returned to Channelview and began serving as an organist at the Missionary Baptist Church, where she met her third husband, C.D. Holloway. The congregation's choir director, he was also 20 years her senior and the owner of his own pipeline-construction company.

With her marriage to C.D., Wanda seemed determined to take what she apparently saw as her rightful place in Channelview. She liked bragging to friends about how much money she had to spend on jewelry, as well as on fancy clothes for herself and Shanna. Even though she lived in a modest three-bedroom tract house, she claimed that she and C.D. were worth some $2 million and that they routinely kept $5,000 in cash around the house.

Given Wanda's social ambitions, Shanna's failure to make the cheer-leading squad hit especially hard. Last September, Wanda ran into Terry Harper, 36, her former brother-in-law and a man with a long record of petty crime and an even longer history of marital troubles. (Harper isn't sure himself how many times he's been married; he thinks it's either six or seven.) As Harper testified, Wanda launched into a tirade about Verna. He jokingly told her that she should simply have her nemesis killed. Then, sometime in December, Shanna told Harper her mother wanted to speak with him. Wanda asked if he could really arrange to get rid of someone. Startled, he told her he could. Later, believing that Wanda was serious, says Harper, he went to the Harris County sheriff's office and told them everything. He agreed to wear a wire and gather evidence against Holloway.

There ensued six taped conversations between Terry Harper and Wanda Holloway, both on the phone and in person. By turns anxious and determined, Wanda slowly but unmistakably confronted the possibility of hiring a hit man to kill the Heaths. On Jan. 14, she fretted about Shanna's chances of becoming a cheerleader on her third try. "This is a critical year," she told Harper plaintively. "She don't make it this year, she ain't never gonna make it." But when Harper pointed out that finding someone to kill a child—"doing" her, as he put it—might be difficult, Wanda's voice suddenly turned icy. "But, Terry, you don't know this little girl," she snapped. "If you knew her—ooh! I can't stand her. I mean, she's a bitch. Makes me sick. I mean, I could knock her in the face, You know?"

Over the course of their conversations, Terry tried to coax Wanda into stating plainly that she wanted Verna and Amber murdered. Wanda always skirted the issue, preferring to talk in general terms about how the crime might be arranged. On Jan. 14 she gave Terry Verna's address, as well as details about her car and daily habits. Wanda and Harper also settled on a price for the hit: $7,500 for both Verna and Amber, $2,500 for Verna alone. (Early in their investigation, Harris County deputies put Verna and Amber under protective surveillance without telling them—the cops' concern being that any changes in their behavior might scare off Wanda.)

Meeting two weeks later with Terry in the parking lot of Grandy's restaurant in Channelview, Wanda seemed to have decided that she couldn't afford the higher-priced option and would have to settle for killing just Verna. "The mother's done more damage than the daughter," she said. "The mother is the one that screwed me around." All the same, Wanda appeared almost reluctant to admit to herself what she was setting in motion. Referring to Verna, she said, "I just want her out of here. I don't care if they ship her to Cuba and keep her there for 15 years, okay?... I want her gone. I want her gone." Moments later, though, she sounded giddy with excitement while inquiring about the nonexistent hit man. "This guy, badass or what?" she asked Harper. "Yeah, yeah, he's bad to the bone, baby," Harper replied. "He's gotta be," said Wanda, adding with a laugh, "this is the only way I could ever do it, is pay somebody." At the end of the meeting Wanda gave Terry a pair of diamond earrings, later valued at $2,000, as a down payment for the hit on Verna.

That was all the evidence police needed. The next day detectives took their case to the district attorney, who quickly convinced a grand jury to indict Wanda Holloway for solicitation of capital murder. At the trial, in August, defense lawyers argued that Terry had been trying to set Wanda up; the supposed motive for his scheme was to get her in trouble so that his brother Tony, Wanda's first husband, could win custody of Shanna and Shane. The unsuspecting Wanda, her attorneys contended, simply fell into the trap. "She was just curious about this stuff, wondering if there really was such a thing as hit men," said lawyer Troy McKinney. Tom Harper scoffs at the theory that he was out to regain his children. "These kids are almost grown," he says. "Why would I wait until 11 years after our divorce, when Shane is nearly 18 and Shanna is 13, to try to get custody?"

Ultimately, the tapes and Wanda's own testimony undermined her case. Under cross-examination by prosecutor Mike Anderson, she offered no convincing explanation for why she hadn't simply backed out of the plot and gone to the police herself if she thought Terry was trying to pressure her. Fighting back tears, Wanda could only reply weakly, "You just don't understand." Then, turning to the jury, Wanda declared, "I never wanted Verna killed, or Amber, ever. I'm sorry I said all that stuff. I know it sounds awful."

The jury of four women and eight men took only six hours to agree that it did—and to return a guilty verdict. Settling on a sentence proved more difficult. Some jurors wanted to let Wanda off with probation, while others argued for life in prison. They compromised on 15 years—a kind of poetic justice, since Wanda had talked of banishing Verna to Cuba for that same length of time.

Now out on bail pending an appeal, Wanda has maintained a low profile in Channelview, which is still reeling from the case. In her first interview since being released, Wanda acknowledged that the tapes had laid bare a nasty streak. "Yes, I have some hatred and meanness," she said, "but I am not a vengeful-type person." She also indignantly denied that she had become excessively involved in Shanna's life. "I never have tried to live through my child." she said, before adding with no hint of irony, "We are so close, we even wear a lot of the same clothes. A lot of hers are too trendy for me, but I wear them anyway."

While Wanda's case makes its way through the appeals process, the more immediate battle is over the rights to the story. During the trial, Wanda's lawyers alleged that many of those arrayed against her—especially Tony and Terry Harper—stood to make a bundle from the film rights to the story. Indeed HBO and independent producers have jointly signed up Tony. Meanwhile, the Heaths have hired lawyers in both Houston and California, as well as a publicist in Los Angeles, to handle their negotiations.

That is a far cry from Verna's reaction last January, when she learned from police of the plot against her. All she could do then was profess bewilderment at the enormity and pettiness of Wanda's proposed crime. "I just want to ask her why, why would you do this," Verna told PEOPLE. "Why would a cheerleading position be so important? To leave my kids without a mother? Who would raise them? You know—over cheerleading—to not have a mother?" Perhaps only Wanda could explain; then again, perhaps she could not.

BILL HEWITT
ANNE MAIER and JANE HOWARD in Channelview

  • Contributors:
  • Anne Maier,
  • Jane Howard.