Joseph Scott Hatley Died a Free Man but Confessed to His Crimes in Secret Letters

Jennifer Tisdale - Author

Jan. 19 2024, Published 7:02 p.m. ET

In 1990, nearly 14,000 people were living in the city of Stephenville, Texas. It's not quite large enough to be described as bustling, but it certainly wasn't a small town by any stretch of the imagination. Everyone didn't know everyone, but folks stayed close to the people they were familiar with. Still, if tragedy struck, people knew about it and they were not going to stay quiet. That's why a horrific murder of one of their own was impossible to understand.

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According to Texas Monthly, when the body of 30-year-old Susan Woods was discovered in her bathtub by her father Joe Atkins in 1987, shock poured through every cell of his body. "They killed her," is all he could mutter to Sergeant Donnie Hensley when he arrived on the scene. No one knew who "they" was, and they wouldn't know for almost 20 years. Eventually a man by the name of Joseph Scott Hatley was caught using forensic technology not available in 1987. Where is he now? Somewhere he can't hurt anyone else.

Susan Woods
Source: Twitter/Dateline NBC

Photographs of Susan Woods

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Where is Joseph Scott Hatley now? He died in November 2021.

Two sets of fingerprints and palm prints were found at the crime scene, but there wasn't much anyone could do about them in 1987. In May 2006, the Texas Department of Public Safety was given access to the FBI's electronic national fingerprint database. Officer Don Miller, who reopened the case in the early 2000s, delivered the fingerprints to Austin and handed them over to a DPS officer. It didn't take long for Miller to receive a call. They had a match for the prints and the name was Joseph Scott Hatley.

"Make no mistake, the day is six-six of ’06, and we are about to meet the devil himself," said Miller to his partner on June 6, 2006, when they drove to arrest Hatley where he was living in a trailer in Round Rock, Texas. They had more than enough physical evidence to arrest him, so he cut a deal and got 30 years. While in prison he "rediscovered religion, wrote his manifesto, and, in 2017, was diagnosed with bladder cancer that soon went into remission," per Texas Monthly.

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In 2018, Hatley was released on good behavior after serving only 11 years behind bars. He went from a halfway house in Midland to a decent job, then finally "found a job repairing oil-field trucks, and, after being laid off at the outset of the coronavirus pandemic, moved into an RV park outside Abilene to be near one of his daughters, Amanda." His daughter believed he started drinking again, which resulted in huge arguments.

Joseph Scott Hatley young
Source: Twitter/Dateline NBC

Joseph Scott Hatley

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On Halloween in 2021 Hatley told Amanda his cancer returned, and six weeks later his landlord discovered his body in the RV. He was 56-years-old and probably thought he took his crimes to his grave, until someone else bought his RV. Soon after Hatley died, Miller received a strange phone call from a Stephnville police officer who told him the new owners stumbled upon some disturbing missives left by Hatley.

Joseph Scott Hatley confessed to his crimes in secret letters.

There were nearly 200 pages of writing, wherein Hatley confessed to all that he did. Miller believes he was trying to figure out how he came to be who he was. What went wrong in his life, that would lead him down such a depraved path? Along with stories of his childhood, he talked about the first time he drank alcohol and how it was a thrilling experience. He described himself as a "fat anti-social kid," and often complained about never having a girlfriend growing up.

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At some point Hatley got married but as his relationship crumbled, he turned to prayer. When that didn't work, Hatley chose Satan instead. One evening when his wife wasn't home, Hatley lit a bunch of her candles and told Satan he would follow him forever if he could just help him. Many times in his writings, Hatley referenced this moment, as if he really believes it was responsible for what he would later do.

He met Woods while he was still married, though divorce was definitely on the horizon. Hatley thought she was flirting with him and took this as a sign that something more was possible. When he showed up at her home a few days after their first meeting, he "overstepped his bounds," so Woods slapped him.

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Susan Woods and husband Michael Woods
Source: Twitter/Dateline NBC

Susan Woods's estranged husband Michael Woods (pictured above with Susan) was initially a suspect

That triggered something in him. "By the time I came out of the fog I had brutalized her," he wrote. He said that the last moments of her life were spent in prayer. "That night I took the life of a kind, sweet, loving woman who never did anything to me but show me kindness. My God I had become a monster," he wrote. Hatley's own daughter found out who her father really was after reading his confession. She wasn't surprised. "My dad was just a really bad guy," she said.

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