History: Shooting of Lake Highlands cafeteria worker remembered

Billy Conn Gardner
Billy Conn Gardner

This is the 4th in a series of articles in preparation for the Lake Highlands High School Anniversary celebration March 23rd from 1:30 to 5 p.m. on the LHHS campus.

If you were surprised yesterday to read long-time LHHS counselor Jerry McVay mention “the shooting on our campus of the head of the school cafeteria,” so was I. It’s a story I hadn’t heard, even after sending four kids through the school.

McVay, who dispensed guidance to Wildcats as a much-beloved counselor for more than 30 years, and Staci Ard Tekell, 1984 LHHS grad and former math teacher at the school, helped me do a little digging.

On May 16, 1983, 64-year-old LHHS cafeteria supervisor Thelma Row (McVay recalls that staff called her “Katie”), was counting the daily receipts in a back room at the school. She was confronted by a robber wearing a stocking mask and shot with a .357-caliber pistol. He made off with $1,600. She died 11 days later of her injuries.

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Billy Conn Gardner was executed on Feb. 16, 1995 for the crime. When he was arrested, he was on parole for forgery, assault, burglary and carrying a prohibited weapon. He first went to prison at the age of 19.

Prior to the robbery, Row’s co-worker, Paula Sanders, informed her husband, Melvin, that thousands of dollars of daily cafeteria receipts were handled in the back room each day. At Gardner’s trial, Melvin admitted to inviting Gardner to help him rob the school. Melvin claimed he drove the getaway car after Gardner went inside. His admissions came after authorities threatened to prosecute both Melvin and Paula Sanders. Lester Matthews, the school custodian, positively identified Gardner as the shooter.

“I remember the day,” said Tekell. “I was in Mrs. Vandament’s class, directly across from the office. We were told to remain in our classrooms and lock the door. Such an unnecessary tragedy.”

“She was a great lady,” added McVay. “Luckily, the students didn’t witness it.”

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