Dr. Joseph Sonnier was a pathologist in Lubbock, Texas, who was found murdered in his home in 2012. He was found shot and stabbed to death almost two years to the day that his ex-wife Becky Gallegos was murdered. Ahead of the Dateline NBC episode about the case, here’s what you need to know about the crime, how Dr. Thomas Dixon was responsible, and how the trial went down before Dixon was sentenced to life in prison.
Joseph Sonnier Was Murdered July 11, 2012. His Ex-Wife Was Murdered July 12, 2010
According to ABC News, Sonnier married his high school sweetheart Becky Gallegos when he was just 19 years old. They later had two sons, Dallas and James Sonnier, and informally adopted a third boy, Phillip Prestwood, whom Sonnier considered a son.
In 2001, Gallegos and Sonnier divorced. She later remarried Fermin “Juan” Gallegos, but in 2010, he murdered her by shooting her twice in the chest. He called 911 and then turned the gun on himself, according to My San Antonio. The responding deputies found him alive in the living room with a gunshot wound to the head. He died later at the hospital; he also shot the family’s black-and-white dog.
In an interview with Lubbock Online, son Dallas said that he believed Gallegos shot his mother because she was planning to divorce him and spend more time in California to be close to Dallas’ newborn daughter, Camilla, her first grandchild.
“My mom had kept my aunt in the loop. My mom knew she was going to divorce him, and that he was not taking it well. She already planned to spend more time in California, closer to her granddaughter,” said Sonnier. “From what we know, she had been packing upstairs that day. Her husband was drunk. He shot their dog, we presume to convince her to come downstairs, and then he shot her.”
James Sonnier later told ABC News, “I got the call [about our father’s murder] the day before the two-year anniversary of my mother’s death. I thought maybe it had something to do with her death. That’s how out of left field and completely out of nowhere this was.”
Two Years Later, the Sons Received Word Their Father Had Been Murdered
A landscaper discovered Sonnier’s body and called the police. Lubbock police Detective Zach Johnson told ABC News that it was clear this wasn’t some kind of robbery gone wrong.
“We knew that we were dealing with something that was a hit, you know, of sorts … somebody had come to this house and to kill this person specifically,” said Johnson.
Police questioned Sonnier’s then-girlfriend, a woman named Richelle Shetina, who gave them the name of her ex-boyfriend as someone who possibly would have been involved. That man was Dr. Thomas Michael Dixon, an Amarillo, Texas-based plastic surgeon. She told police that he wanted her back even though she told him she was seeing someone new.
“He was obsessed with Richelle. He was having a lot of problems getting over this break-up. He just couldn’t seem to let her go,” said Det. Johnson.
However, Dixon had an alibi. He was out to dinner with his med student girlfriend Ashley Woolbert that night in Amarillo, some two hours away from the scene of the crime.
But a tip came in from registered nurse Paul Reynolds that led investigators to Dave Shepard, who said he had killed a man in Lubbock. The police found surveillance footage of Shepard and Dixon together the day after the murder, and Dixon was later arrested for hiring Shepard to kill Sonnier. Shepard said Dixon paid him with a box of Cuban cigars and three bars of silver. The gun used in the murder was found in the lake behind Dixon’s office; it was registered to Dixon’s brother.
Dixon’s first trial was a hung jury, but the second trial’s jury found him guilty of murder and sentenced him to life in prison without the possibility of parole. According to ABC News, Shepard accepted a plea deal in 2013 to avoid the death penalty in exchange for testifying against Dixon. He is currently serving his own life sentence.
Dixon’s lawyers appealed the conviction, however, and in 2018, the 7th Court of Appeals overturned it and let him out of jail. But the state of Texas appealed that decision to the Court of Criminal Appeals, the highest court for criminal matters in the state. In January 2020, the Court of Criminal Appeals reversed the 7th Circuit’s decision, but Dixon remains out of prison on a $2 million bond while his lawyers file new issues with the 7th Circuit, according to KFDA.
Dateline NBC airs Thursdays, Fridays, and Mondays on NBC.