DALLAS — A Texas prisoner accused of killing 22 older women over two years, preying on them so he could steal jewelry and other valuables, was slain Tuesday by his cellmate while serving a life sentence, prison officials said.
Billy Chemirmir, 50, who was convicted last year in the slayings of two women, was found dead in his cell at a prison in rural East Texas, Texas Department of Criminal Justice spokesperson Hannah Haney said. He was killed by his cellmate who was also serving a prison sentence for murder, according to Haney.
Chemirmir's death comes about two weeks after Texas' 100 prisons were placed on a rare statewide lockdown because of a rise in the number of killings inside the facilities, which prisons officials have said were related to drugs.
Haney did not release the name of the cellmate, how Chemirmir was killed or what may have led to the slaying.
Family members of those he was accused of killing expressed shock and relief at the news.
''My mother died in fear. This man did not have a peaceful passing. There's some relief in feeling that he didn't get off easily,'' Shannon Dion, whose 92-year-old mother, Doris Gleason, was among those Chemirmir was charged with killing, said at a news conference.
Time after time, the deaths in Dallas and nearby cities were initially determined to be from natural causes, even as family members raised alarm about missing jewelry.
Chemirmir was caught after a 91-year-old woman survived a 2018 attack and told police a man had forced his way into her apartment at an independent living community for seniors, tried to smother her with a pillow and took her jewelry.
Police said they found Chemirmir the following day in the parking lot of his apartment complex holding jewelry and cash, having just thrown away a large red jewelry box. Documents in the jewelry box led them to the home of Lu Thi Harris, 81, who was dead in her bedroom.
After Chemirmir's arrest, police across the area reexamined deaths, and the charges against him grew. Many of the victims' children have said they were left perplexed by the deaths at the time, as their mothers, though older, were still healthy and active.
The first capital murder trial of Chemirmir for the slaying of Harris ended in mistrial in Dallas County. He was later convicted in a retrial for Harris' death and was then convicted of a second killing in the death of Mary Brooks, 87.
Following his second conviction, family members of those Chemirmir was accused of killing gathered in a Dallas courtroom to face him. Ellen French House showed Chemirmir two photos of her mother: one of Norma French alive, the other after the 85-year-old was killed.
''This is my beautiful mother,'' House said as she displayed the first photo. ''This is my mother after you pried her wedding ring off of her finger that she couldn't even get off.''
Most of the victims lived in apartments at independent living communities for older people. One woman who lived in a private home was the widow of a man Chemirmir cared for while working as an at-home caregiver.
Chemirmir had been indicted on 22 capital murder charges. Thirteen of the charges were in Dallas County, while nine were in neighboring Collin County. Following the two convictions in Dallas County, prosecutors dismissed the remaining 11 charges there. They did not seek the death penalty. Last month, Collin County prosecutors said they also would not seek the death penalty.
Chemirmir, who maintained his innocence, was serving two sentences of life without the possibility of parole. He was imprisoned at the Coffield Unit in Tennessee Colony, about 100 miles (160 kilometers) southeast of Dallas.
Chemirmir's attorney, Phillip Hayes, said his death is "just a horrible tragedy.''
''Nobody deserves to be killed at any point, especially when you are in a place you're being held against your will," Hayes said.
Earlier this month, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice said it was implementing lockdown measures in response to ''a rise in dangerous contraband and drug-related inmate homicides.'' At the time of that Sept. 6 announcement, the department said there had been 16 inmate-on-inmate homicides so far this year. In 2021, there were nine such killings; in 2022, there were seven.
With the lockdown, the prisons limited inmates' movement and their contact with outsiders. In addition, inmates and staff were undergoing intensified searches. A heightened drug testing protocol was also implemented.
Department spokesperson Amanda Hernandez said that as comprehensive searches were completed, units have been resuming normal operations. She said that as of Tuesday, the lockdown had been lifted at 75 units. The Coffield Unit, where Chemirmir was imprisoned, was among 25 units still under lockdown.
Haney said the Office of Inspector General is investigating his death.
This story has been corrected to show that Chemirmir was indicted in the deaths of 22 women, not 18 women.