David Bell

David Bell

On New Year’s Day 2002, officers with the Walker Police Department spread across a field north of the railroad tracks at Louisiana Highway 447, searching for a gun.

On New Year’s Eve, a 15-year-old boy pistol-whipped and robbed the owner of Estelle’s Sweet Shop. Chief Elton Burns said his officers canvased the nearby grounds for hours without finding the gun that the juvenile insisted he lost there. However, they did find something else of importance, a wallet belonging to David Bell, a local contractor, whom someone robbed and killed the week before Christmas.

On December 17, 2001, an assassin shot 35-year-old David Wayne Bell in the head between 9 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. inside his home office at 16595 Abbott Lane in Walker.

Interviewed that night, Gretchen Marie Bell, David’s wife of nine years, told Livingston Parish sheriff’s detectives she found her husband lying in a puddle of blood after arriving home from visiting her sister.

With her sister listening over the cell phone, Gretchen said she ran to a neighbor’s house and knocked. Getting no answer there, she hung up and called 9-1-1.

David died the following day at Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center in Baton Rouge.

Two years later, with investigators still stymied, David’s family hired private detectives and leased large billboards advertising a $10,000 reward for anyone who could answer the question, “Who murdered David Bell?”

The night of the murder, according to Gretchen, she and David had dinner before David’s regular league night of bowling. While David bowled, she said, she went to her sister’s house, visiting until approximately 9:30 p.m.

As she drove home, Gretchen said she tried to reach David on her cell phone without success before calling her sister and asking her to try. When her sister's attempt also failed, the two women remained on the phone until Gretchen arrived home to discover the crime scene.

Jeff Oliphant, who bowled with David every Tuesday night in the now-closed Bowl-n-Putt at 744 South Range in Denham Springs, told me parts of Gretchen’s recounting of that night are untrue.

“In the two years we bowled together, Gretchen never showed up at the bowling alley before that night, and she walked from one end [of the alley] to the other in front of the security cameras,” Jeff remembered. “Our bowling sessions usually ended by 9, so I would say David left between 9:10 and 9:20, and she left a short while after he did.”

Jeff Oliphant also believes that Gretchen never knocked at a neighbor’s door. Her closest neighbors, Jeff’s parents, lived across the street.

Investigators said David Bell’s killer shot him as he opened his home office door from the inside, possibly answering a knock or responding to a sound outside.

David Bell, the second-youngest of seven siblings, served four years in the Air Force before returning to work in the family business — Bell Carpentry Works — with his brothers Jimmy and Joe.

Family members told journalists in 2004 that David had many friends, avoided confrontation with others, enjoyed NASCAR racing, bowling, and outdoor cooking, and was always willing to “swing a hammer” to help a friend or relative in need.

Considering his popularity, David’s family said they had no idea why anyone would have killed him.

Because of the missing wallet, Livingston Parish sheriff’s detectives initially suspected robbery. However, according to his brothers, David had valuable electronic equipment and NASCAR collectibles left untouched in his office.

With no arrests made in the case by 2004, the reward on the billboard’s rose to $25,000, and reporters called the Livingston Parish Sheriff’s Office for comment. Detective Robert Ardoin told them his office still actively investigated the homicide.

“It’s not a dead-end, but we’re not on anything that’s groundbreaking,” he said.

He said investigators had not identified the murder weapon. Examiners found only fragments of the bullet during the autopsy.

The billboards asked that anyone with information call the Livingston Parish Sheriff’s Office, but the detective said the sheriff’s office had received no calls in the two years the billboards had been up.

Ardoin said the sheriff’s office did not have a cold-case officer, so cases remained opened until resolved.

“If it’s ten years later and a tip comes in,” he said, “We grab it and go.”

Ardoin refused to say that investigators had cleared anyone as a suspect, including Gretchen Bell, who was a Criminal Justice major at Southeastern Louisiana University when someone killed her husband.

“Everybody’s a suspect until we can narrow it down,” the detective said.

Three months after David’s death, Gretchen Bell filed lawsuits against State Farm, the Ozark National Life Insurance Company, and Stonebridge Life for a total of $275,000. In the filings, she said all three companies had refused to pay-out her husband’s insurance policies.

According to court records, Gretchen Bell dropped her claim against Stonebridge after it settled and paid her the full amount of the $25,000 policy.

State Farm representatives told the court they hesitated to pay since David Bell had listed his mother as the secondary beneficiary. If law enforcement later showed that Gretchen Bell had her husband killed, they told the court, they would also be required to pay David’s mother.

Ultimately, State Farm deposited $100,000 into the 19th Judicial District Court’s registry and asked the court to determine ownership. The court later consolidated State Farm’s proceeding with those of Ozark National, which deposited another $146,080.24 into the court registry.

Darlene Bell, David’s mother, submitted a claim to the court, asking for the money, saying she believed Gretchen Bell hired someone to kill her son.

In a January 2003 deposition, she said David had talked about leaving his wife because of infidelity, and that her daughter-in-law feared losing her only source of income since Gretchen, a full-time college student, did not have a job.

David’s brothers submitted a report developed by private investigators they had contracted, but the court ruled their findings “hearsay” and inadmissible.

“I loved my husband, and I treated his family with the utmost respect,” Gretchen Bell told reporters following her deposition. “They have ruined my reputation as a human being and run off all my friends.”

On August 22, 2003, the court awarded the money collected to Gretchen Bell.

At the time of the award, she still lived in their home on Abbott Lane, along with her boyfriend, Dallas Arceneaux. David Bell was Gretchen’s third husband, but she told reporters she would never marry again.

“David was my life, and that’s the way it will stay,” Gretchen Bell said. “One of these days, someone is going to talk, and these people are going to owe me one heck of an apology.”

In 2005, as Gretchen predicted, someone finally talked.

Darrell Vern Armstrong, III, 36, of Lafayette, told police that Gretchen Bell Arceneaux, 40, paid him and another man, $5,000, to shoot her husband. He said that he and the other man attended a planning meeting with Arceneaux in November of 2001 and that he watched Paul Marks, 46, of Holden shoot David Bell the following December.

In 2007, a Livingston Parish grand jury indicted the alleged conspirators, charging all three with second-degree murder.

After announcing the indictment, Assistant District Attorney Charlotte Herbert told reporters that, should a jury convict them, the law required the judge to sentence all three to life in prison without probation, parole or suspension of sentence.

Following the arrests, Livingston Parish Sheriff Willie Graves told reporters that detectives did not charge anyone in 2005 because they had no evidence to corroborate Armstrong’s confession, even though he passed a polygraph test at the time.

In 2007, the sheriff said his detectives interviewed other witnesses who supported Armstrong’s statements. Detectives picked Armstrong up again for questioning, and his story had not changed. After Armstrong passed a second polygraph test, Graves said, the district attorney’s office issued the warrants.

According to the sheriff, Armstrong told detectives that he confessed to knowledge of David Bell’s murder because he “wanted to right a wrong.”

“We’re just thankful we had enough credible information to make an arrest and bring closure to this family,” Graves said.

But before the trial in 2009, Armstrong recanted his story.

After a discussion over a plea deal went sour, Armstrong’s defense attorney, Jasper Brock, told the court that his client made up the story at the urging of his uncle, Charles Smith, so that the uncle could get a deal with prosecutors in a different case.

“To be honest, the whole thing blew me away,” Brock said.

Armstrong told Brock he took Valium to pass the polygraph tests.

Brock said he did not know which story his client told was the truth. “But if he tells me one is not true now, I can’t let him get on the stand, and neither can the state,” Brock said.

The murder case never went to trial.

Judge Robert Morrison charged Darrell Armstrong with Obstruction of Justice.

I am unsure how much time he served, but he did not get the 40-year maximum permitted by the charge. The following July, Armstrong was arrested in Lafayette and charged with Criminal Damage to Property. After skipping bail on that one, police picked him up on the bench warrant in 2011.

His last known arrest came in 2012. The Lafayette Police Department nabbed him again; this time for transfer to Pointe Coupee Parish. Charge unknown.

Both Paul Marks and Gretchen Marie Bell Arceneaux walked out of the Livingston Parish Prison in January of 2009, and today, the murder of David Bell remains officially classified as an unsolved homicide.

“Bayou Justice” is a weekly true crime column featuring exciting or notable crime-related stories often focusing on cold case files in South Louisiana; stories based on interviews with key players, among them: police investigators, lawyers, victims, and their families. If you have information regarding this case or another unsolved crime, contact Crime Stoppers or your local police agency, or email bayoujustice@hammondstar.com.

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