SIERRA VISTA, AZ (3TV/CBS 5) - The email arrived in the CBS 5 Investigates email inbox on April 7. The first line stood out to producer Edward Ayala.
“I have information regarding the Arizona Board of Executive Clemency (Parole) releasing a serial killer into the community,” it read.
Six days later, we were driving out of state to interview the woman who sent the email, to listen to the story of how a serial killer, who referred to himself as “The Phantom,” murdered two young girls and targeted a third, and how this person would be let out of prison and allowed to live in an unsuspecting Tucson neighborhood.
The story begins in 1967 in the town of Sierra Vista. The population was 5,000 at that time, most of the residents there because of the adjacent Army post, Fort Huachuca.
[VIDEO: 'The Phantom' serial killer of children out of prison, living in Tucson]
“Sierra Vista at that time did not have a violent crime problem,” said David Santor, who was 22 years old back then, and has a vivid recollection of the events of that spring and summer, events that would change the community in ways that only fear and tragedy can.
“The element of universal trust was gone,” said Santor.
On Sunday, April 30, a 7-year-old blond haired girl named Cindy Clelland walked down the street, looking for bottles that she could turn in at the neighborhood store in exchange for candy. Three days later, a search team found her naked, lifeless, mutilated body in a desert area 120 feet into the boundary of Fort Huachuca.
“Throughout the three days she was missing, they would find, like, clothes and underpants, and they would bring it to my mom and say, ‘Is this Cindy’s?’” said Darlene Roi, who is Cindy’s older sister.
She remembers how her father was a sergeant in the Army at the time, and deployed overseas.
[VIDEO: Morgan Loew confronts William Huff in Tucson]
“The Red Cross had to track him down in Vietnam, brought him back while the military was looking for Cindy. And on the third day, when my dad happened to arrive was the same day they found Cindy,” said Roi.
Having discovered Cindy’s body, FBI agents, Army investigators, Cochise County Sheriff’s Deputies and Sierra Vista Police turned their attention toward finding the killer.
One week later, a handwritten letter arrived at Sierra Vista police headquarters. It contained a message that read, in part, “I am The Phantom. You have found my first victim. My next victim lives on Steffan Street. 9 yrs old. (Fools!!!)”
Police identified the 9-year-old girl mentioned in the letter and provided around-the-clock protection for her. The letter would become a key piece of evidence. Meantime, the residents of Sierra Vista were living in fear.
“People went out and bought guns. People did everything they could to make sure that they knew where their children were every minute of every day,” said Santor.
Investigators followed lead after lead into dead end after dead end. All the while, the Sierra Vista police chief, C. Reed Vance, suspected a neighborhood teenager had something to do with the crime.
On June 22, another little girl vanished. Jenelle Haines was 6 years old. Her family had just moved back to Sierra Vista and Fort Huachuca after being stationed in Germany. Her father was a Lt. Colonel.
At around 11 a.m., Jenelle was playing at the pond near the Lakeside Officer’s Club. Her brother said she had been talking to a tall, thin, black teenage boy when she disappeared.
At around 1 p.m., before he knew about the second abduction, Chief Vance was driving onto the Army post for a meeting. He said he noticed that neighborhood teenager he suspected of being involved in Cindy Clelland’s disappearance was walking off the post.
Search teams found Jenelle’s body later that day. She was naked, murdered in a similar fashion as Cindy Clelland. But now, investigators had a solid lead. The description Jenelle’s brother gave to investigators matched William Huff, the teenager Chief Vance had suspected all along. A subsequent handwriting sample from Huff matched the letter from The Phantom.
Huff, a 16-year-old high school student had a history of run-ins with law enforcement. He admitted to killing a ring-tailed cat on the Army post. He was suspected of killing cats, stealing bicycles and breaking into his neighbor’s home. She told police Huff fondled her young daughter.
Huff was charged in the deaths of Cindy Clelland and Jenelle Haines. On the day the first of his two trials was scheduled to begin, Huff pleaded guilty. He ended up being sentenced to 15 years in federal prison for one murder and 40 years to life for the other.
That was supposed to be the end of the story. But when we arrived at the home of the woman who wrote to CBS 5 Investigates, we discovered there was much more to come.
“It leaves a hole where there shouldn’t be a hole,” said Melisa Haines.
Her father is Jenelle’s brother. Haines was explaining why she became the family member who spoke at William Huff’s parole hearings.
“Somebody needed to keep an eye on him. Somebody needed to know where he was, what he was doing, to keep the community safe,” said Haines.
Huff became eligible for parole in 2008. Records show that every time he appeared before the Arizona Board of Executive Clemency, his request for parole was denied. But that changed on December 2, 2015.
“We believed that it was going to be the exact same thing as always,” said Haines.
She and Darlene Roi had become friends through their efforts to keep Huff behind bars for the rest of his life.
“He was the victim, always. Cindy and Jenelle were never the victims. He was the victim,” said Roi. “He was the victim of Sierra Vista police. He was the victim of alcohol. He was the victim of drugs,” she said.
Here are three excerpts from the Clemency Board hearing that took place in December 0f 2015:
“I have no plans to go out and violate any law. I do know what I did. And I understand the implications of it,” Huff said.
“As time goes on and on, it makes it more difficult to keep an old ‘lifer’ in prison for life, especially one that was a teenager at the time he committed the offense,” a Clemency Board member said.
“Having a psychopathic personality does not mean you’re going to be a criminal and continue to commit, and continue to commit crimes,” another board member said. “I am going to make a motion to grant home arrest to Mr. Huff.”
The Clemency Board voted unanimously that day to grant William Huff release on home arrest.
“It was almost a feeling like I was at wrong the parole hearing, “ said Haines.
Huff was released to a halfway house in Tucson in January of 2016. The victims' families believe the Clemency Board made a huge mistake. So does David Santor, who joined the Sierra Vista Police Department in 1968, and would later become its chief.
When asked if he considers Huff a serial killer, Santor’s response was immediate.
“Absolutely,” he said. “He fits the mold right down to the last dot.”
CBS 5 Investigates reached out to Dr. Steven Pitt, who is a nationally known and respected forensic psychiatrist. Pitt has worked on high profile murder cases across the country and is a consultant to the Phoenix Police Department.
“Is this person someone who we are deeply concerned about? Absolutely. Does that mean this person is going to go out and reoffend? I have no way of knowing that,” said Pitt, who has not personally interviewed Huff or examined detailed case information.
But Pitt did say the very nature of the offenses raises a number of red flags. He abducted and murdered young girls and the offenses appeared to be sexually sadistic in nature.
“I think that these are people that are trying to do the right thing. And I think that nine out of 10 times they do do the right thing. What I think is different in this case is that this is that one out of 10. This is that one where you step back and say, ‘Whoa. This looks a little different, and we need to make sure all the I's are dotted and T's are crossed before he is released,'” said Pitt.
A recording of a Clemency Board hearing on April 6 shows newer board members also have reservations about Huff being out prison.
“In my view, after reading all the evidence in the file, he should never have been put on home arrest,” said one board member. “If it’s at all possible, my view is to revoke his home arrest and send him back to prison. I think he’s a danger to the community,” she said.
But after a discussion with attorneys from the Arizona Attorney General’s Office during executive session, the board voted to keep Huff on home arrest.
“I just want to say that I would not put him on home arrest to begin with. However, he is on home arrest and we can’t change that,” said the board member.
“That crime was committed 50 years ago,” said CT Wright, Ph.D., who is the current chair of the Arizona Board of Executive Clemency. “The parole officer indicated to this board that he was one of their best inmates that he’d had tom work with,” he said.
Wright and Ellen Kirschbaum, who was the chair of the board when it voted to release Huff said they looked at the nature of the offense, Huff’s criminal history and clean record while in prison, as well as the statements of the victims’ families.
“It’s a decision I made being on the board at that time. I stand by all my decisions,” said Kirschbaum.
When asked whether she could say that Huff was no longer a danger to the community, here was her response:
“I don’t think I can answer that question,” she said.
“I can’t answer that question. The only thing I would say to you, sir, is that for a year and a half, he has proven that he has not committed another crime,” said Wright.
Producer Gilbert Zermeno spent two days, sitting in a car in front of the halfway house where Huff is living. He videotaped Huff walking around the grounds of the facility, walking out to the street to get his mail, and riding his bicycle around the neighborhood. He is supposed to be wearing a GPS device on his ankle and getting permission from his parole officer before he leaves the facility.
We approached him to see if he would sit down for an interview. Here is a partial transcript of our conversation:
“You understand why people are nervous about you being out of prison?” the reporter said.
“Yeah. Because of my case and the stuff that happened to me,” Huff said,
“You mean the stuff that you did,” the reporter said.
“Yeah, yeah yeah,” Huff replied.
He said he would consider doing an interview, but less than an hour later, stated in a text that he was advised not to speak to the media.
Something else that Zermeno videotaped caught our attention. Neighborhood children walked back and forth in front of Huff’s address, completely unaware of who was living there. It turns out, there are no restrictions placed upon him regarding contact with children. That is something Wright from the Clemency Board said the state is re-evaluating.