First murder trial begins for Dallas man accused of killing 18 senior citizens

Billy Chemirmir faces life in prison without parole if convicted of capital murder in the death of 81-year-old Lu Thi Harris in a trial that begins Monday in Dallas. Chemirmir is accused of killing 18 older women, who largely resided in retirement communities.

Prosecutors have alleged that Billy Chemirmir often posed as a handyman at seniors' communities

M.J. Jennings looks at a photo of her mother, Leah Corken, while sitting at her home in Dallas on Nov. 3. Billy Chemirmir is charged with capital murder in 18 deaths including Corken and Lu Thi Harris, the victim in a trial that begins Monday. (LM Otero/The Associated Press)

A man accused of killing 18 senior citizens went on trial for the murder of one of the older women on Monday in Dallas.

Billy Chemirmir, 48, faces life in prison without parole if convicted of capital murder in the death of 81-year-old Lu Thi Harris after prosecutors decided not to seek the death penalty.

Chemirmir is charged with killing 18 older women in Dallas and its suburbs over a two-year span, although according to reports in Dallas, it's not expected he'll face trial in each and every case.

"This is a case about stalking, smothering and stealing," prosecutor Glen Fitzmartin told the jury in his opening statement.

The defence did not make an opening statement.

Chemirmir was arrested in March 2018 after 91-year-old Mary Annis Bartel survived an attack by a man who forced his way into her apartment at a senior living community in Plano. The man told her "don't fight me" as he tried to smother her with a pillow and left with jewelry.

This undated photo provided by the Dallas County Sheriff's Office shows the defendant, Chemirmir. (The Associated Press)

When police tracked Chemirmir to his nearby apartment the next day, he was holding jewelry and cash. A jewelry box police say he had just thrown away led them to a Dallas home, where Harris was dead in her bedroom, lipstick smeared on her pillow.

In opening statements, Fitzmartin said that earlier that day, Harris and Chemirmir had been checking out at the same time at a Walmart store.

After his arrest, authorities announced they would review hundreds of deaths, signalling the possibility that a serial killer had been stalking older people. Over the following years, the number of people Chemirmir was accused of killing grew, with the deceased ranging in age from 76 to 94.

Fitzmartin said jurors would also be hearing about the killing of 87-year-old Mary Brooks, who was found dead in her Richardson home in January 2018. Chemirmir has been charged in her death.

He said that Brooks' death had originally been called a natural death, but after an investigation following the arrest of Chemirmir, the medical examiner changed the cause of death to homicide.

Fitzmartin said that the day before Brooks was found dead, she was at a Walmart, the same Walmart that Harris was at before her death later in the year. Fitzmartin said that a vehicle model known to be driven by Chemirmir was parked next to Brooks' vehicle.

"He follows her out of there, follows her to her house, kills her, steals from her," Fitzmartin said.

Most of the victims were killed at independent living communities for older people, where Chemirmir allegedly forced his way into apartments or posed as a handyman. He's also accused of killing women in private homes, including the widow of a man he had cared for in his job as an at-home caregiver.

Chemirmir, who is a permanent U.S. resident who came from Kenya as an adult, has been in custody since March 2018. His attorney has called the evidence against Chemirmir circumstantial.

Deaths were often not seen as suspicious

At a news conference days after Chemirmir's arrest, then-Plano police Chief Greg Rushin acknowledged a tendency to assume the death of an older person is natural.

"There is not a deep investigation.… It would be very easy to disguise a crime," Rushin said.

Eight of the people he's charged with killing lived at The Tradition-Prestonwood, and he's been linked to a ninth resident's death in a lawsuit.

According to lawsuits against The Tradition, Chemirmir was escorted off the premises in late 2016 and asked not to return. A November 2016 police report says the suspect — who isn't named but whose description matches Chemirmir — was seen there numerous times, saying he was checking for pipe leaks.

As the victims' children began finding each other, they formed a group, Secure Our Seniors' Safety. The group championed new Texas laws requiring medical examiners to notify families when a relative's death certificate is amended and requiring spot checks by officials at cash-for-gold shops.

With files from CBC News