Unhinged: The Texas Cheerleader Murder Plot

Anyone who’s seen Bring It On knows how fierce cheerleading is, but sometimes, it’s also deadly. While it’s already a dangerous sport, some competitive parents will do anything to take down the competition. This mom went to extreme lengths to ensure her daughter’s success.

Wanda Holloway / Wanda Holloway / Shanna Holloway / Amber Heath.
Source: Houston Magazine

Wanda Holloway was just a typical Texas cheer mom who pushed her daughter to be the best. When her daughter didn’t make the cheer squad, Holloway hatched up a plan to take down her daughter’s rival. This murder-for-hire story was something out of a dark comedy between the Texas-sized hair, small-town drama, and copious amounts of glitter.

“A Lovely Person”

Wanda Holloway was a well-regarded member of the Channelview, Texas, community. She worked as a secretary, played piano at her church, and married well. People said she was a lovely person, which wasn’t common where she lived. The junior high principal described Holloway as “very refined, spoke good English, and was beautifully attired.”

A still of Wanda during an interview.
Wanda Holloway. Source: YouTube

However, unbeknownst to everyone around her, Holloway was a brooder. She spent years focusing on a problem and finally found a dark solution. Her story made headlines worldwide. Holloway believed that killing Verna Heath would make her daughter Amber too grief-stricken to make the cheerleading team, leaving a spot open for Holloway’s daughter Shanna.

Growing Up on the South Side of the I-10

Holloway was born and raised in Channelview. She grew up on the south side of the I-10, which was a rougher stretch of the town. Her father was a tester at a concrete plant, and her mother worked in the high school cafeteria. She always felt like people looked down on her.

A picture of Texas highway.
Source: Pinterest

Her parents didn’t have more money than anyone else in town, but they always stretched for their kids. Holloway’s father, Clyde Webb, wanted everyone to see him as powerful because he was headstrong. When he didn’t get his way, he would plot revenge. This is where Holloway got her drive.

Always an Overachiever

Growing up, Holloway was always described as an overachiever. As a child, she took piano lessons, and as a teenager, she excelled in her business classes. People said, “She was very hyper, very active, she always wanted everyone to like her.” However, she never got the recognition or acceptance she wanted.

A still of Holloway and her daughter during an interview.
Wanda Holloway, Shanna Holloway. Source: Houston Magazine

Holloway always wanted to try out for her school’s cheerleading squad or drill team, but her father said those activities were not conservative enough for his religious beliefs. He thought the uniforms and costumes were inappropriate and too skimpy for a girl her age. It crushed her that she couldn’t even try out.

Her Dreams Slipped Away

Besides not getting to be on the cheerleading squad, other dreams slipped away as the years passed. Holloway married when she was eighteen and abandoned her business education. Her husband didn’t want her to work, and she wanted to start a family, so he said she would stay at home with the kids.

A mugshot of Holloway.
Wanda Holloway. Source: Pinterest

Her first husband, Tony Harper, whom she knew most of her life, came from a family that was not rich but wealthier than Holloway’s family. His father owned three gas stations in town, and his mother had her own business, Peggy’s Cameo Boutique, a lingerie store. They were everything her parents were not.

Settling Into Married Life

When Holloway and Harper got married, they settled into the Channelview life they grew up knowing. He said, “I thought you got married, got a job, had kids, and that was it. We had a good life; we were going in the right direction.” However, Holloway wanted more.

A portrait of Holloway at home.
Source: Pinterest

She was jealous of her mother-in-law’s Cadillac and wanted a town car too. But Tony had a modest job at the railroad warehouse and couldn’t afford it. Holloway always wanted bigger and better things, but the couple settled into a house on the same street as the rest of the Harper family.

Growing Their Family

Holloway always knew she wanted to be a mom, so she and Harper decided to have children soon after their marriage. When her children were born, her hopes reawakened. Her son Shane was born in 1973. She named him after the heroic loner from the 1953 movie of the same name.

A picture of Shanna Holloway.
Source: Pinterest

When Holloway’s daughter was born four years later, she insisted on naming her Shanna because it was the girl version of Shane. While she was at home with the children, her husband’s career took off, and he opened Harper’s Insurance, but this hurt their marriage.

Going Their Separate Ways

While it seemed like they had the perfect family, with Holloway at home with the children and Harper bringing home the money, they were a broken couple. In 1980, the couple decided to split. Their divorce had a few hiccups, but it was far from messy.

A portrait of Wanda Holloway.
Source: Houston Magazine

Holloway ended up getting the house and most of the furnishings. Harper cleared out the water skis, his beloved recliner, and the pickup truck. Everyone knows everyone’s business in a small town like Channelview, but what got people talking were Holloway’s following two marriages.

She Remarried Twice After Tony Harper

Holloway’s personal life was the talk of the town in Channelview. After Harper, she was briefly married to an older, wealthier man who lived in a city about an hour away. When that ended, she reconciled with Harper, but they decided it was better to stay apart.

A close-up of an engagement ring.
Photo by Sean Gladwell/Getty Images

Her third marriage was to C.D., who had his own oil-field service company. He was 20 years older than Holloway, but despite the age difference, they had a mutual attraction after meeting at the Missionary Baptist Church. He was a man who could provide her with the life she always wanted.

Her Dreams Were Coming True

C.D. was perfect for Holloway because he could make all her dreams come true. She finally got the Lincoln town car she wanted, and local gossips noticed C.D.’s wealth. Holloway would talk about diamonds and moving to a nicer area like River Oaks or Memorial.

A photo of River Oaks.
Source: Pinterest

He also had a private plane, but this didn’t change anything. The couple never left Channelview. They stayed in their modest house with a sloping roof and burglar bars. Some people started to think that C.D. talked a big game but didn’t actually have the finances to back up his flashy lifestyle.

A Lifelong Rivalry

Holloway was ambitious in every aspect of her life, and that led her to Verna Heath. Heath grew up in Channelview with Holloway, but she got to do everything Holloway didn’t. Heath was a twirling champion during their school years and the daughter of a well-known twirling teacher.

A picture of Verna during an interview.
Source: YouTube

Holloway was always jealous because she was never allowed to set foot on the field at halftime. During their early adult years, there was also underlying competition. Heath’s husband managed a grocery store, while Holloway’s husband had his own company. It was a game of one-upmanship.

Their Similarities Outweighed Their Differences

Like so many competitors, Holloway and Heath’s similarities far outweighed their differences for a period. They lived around the corner from one another, and their houses had the same floor plan. The women have also dedicated mothers who would do anything for their children.

A photo of Verna and her daughter in court.
Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images

When Holloway was arrested, Heath said Holloway “is a mother who goes 150 percent in everything she does.” It’s possible she was talking about herself because many people, including Tony Harper, said she was the same caliber woman as Holloway. They hated that they resembled each other.

They Continued the Rivalry Through Their Daughters

Holloway and Heath sent their daughters to the Alpha Gymnastics studio, a gym in Pasadena, Texas. There, the girls learned cheerleading, gymnastics, and tumbling from teachers certified by the National Cheerleading Association. While the kids took lessons, the parents would watch from the viewing area.

A portrait of Wanda Holloway / A photo of Verna.
Source: Houston Chronicle

The viewing area at the gym was tense, and the mothers gave off strong Patsy Ramsey vibes. Holloway and Heath were well-known among the moms because of their reputation for going all out for their daughters. They each wanted their daughter to be better than the other.

Their Daughters Were Very Similar

Heath’s daughter, Amber, took after her mother and started twirling at a young age. She was winning competitions starting at age three and became a yearbook star, being named the friendliest and most spirited. Holloway’s daughter, Shanna, was quite similar to Amber.

A portrait of Shanna / A picture of Amber wearing a cheerleader uniform.
Source: Houston Chronicle

Shanna was an honor student, like Amber, and was considered popular and talented. In eighth grade, she was the class vice president, while Amber was the president (they did not compete, they ran for different offices). The girls wanted to be friends because of their similarities.

They Had to Be Cordial

Holloway and Heath had to be cordial with each other because their daughters became friends. Shanna and Amber would have sleepovers in elementary school, and they would carpool to school or other activities because they lived in the same neighborhood. Their moms were nice to each other.

A photo of cheerleaders’ pompoms on the court.
Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire/Getty Images

Heath’s husband, Jack, said, “My wife braided Wanda’s hair before,” proving that there was some level of friendship between them. However, Heath said she was always too busy to have time for close friends. Holloway might have underestimated Heath’s ambitions for Amber.

Trouble Begins

In 1989, the first signs of trouble appeared when Shanna wanted to try out for the cheerleading team at Channelview’s public middle school. Holloway took her daughter out of Channelview Christian School, a private elementary school, and enrolled her in Alice Johnson Jr. High.

A male cheerleader is lifting a female cheerleader.
Photo by David Madison/Getty Images

Holloway didn’t know that Heath had the same plan, making Amber Shanna’s competition. Heath also planned to enroll Amber, who was still at Channelview Christian, at Alice Johnson when she reached seventh grade. Heath had to get special permission from the principal because her daughter wasn’t technically a student yet when tryouts started.

The Competition Was Fierce

There were three days set aside for campaigning during the tryout period because the team would vote on the new cheerleader. Heath would pick Amber up from the private school and drive her to the middle school to meet and greet her future classmates.

A photo of a cheerleader megaphone and a pompom.
Photo by Nazarethman/Getty Images

Heath printed out flyers with peppermint candies attached for Amber to hand out. This infuriated Holloway, and the competition made her feel like a Channelview outsider again. While she wasn’t allowed to be a cheerleader, the next best thing was being a cheerleader’s mom, but that plan was falling apart.

“Don’t Vote for the ‘Outsider’”

Holloway felt so threatened by Heath’s campaign that she urged the other parents to tell their children not to vote for “the outsider,” the nickname she gave Amber. She even mentioned getting a lawyer because Amber wasn’t a student at the school yet, but she was allowed to try out for the team.

A picture of Holloway and Shanna in court.
Source: Pinterest

Unfortunately for Holloway, she couldn’t save her or Shanna from disappointment. There were only two spots open on the cheer team and three competitors. Amber and another student made the team, but Shanna did not. Holloway was devastated, probably more than her daughter, who actually tried out.

Holloway’s Husband Had the Rules Changed

Although it was too late to change Shanna’s fate, C.D. used his power as a member of the Channelview Band board to later amend the rules so that potential cheerleaders need to spend a semester at the school before trying out. It was a slight relief for Holloway.

A portrait of Holloway.
Source: YouTube

Holloway felt Shanna had been cheated. She was so desperate for her daughter to live the life she wasn’t able to as a teenager, and it made her do things no one thought she was capable of. The situation would only get worse.

The Ruler Incident

The following school year, Holloway doubled down on her efforts to get Shanna elected to the team. Months before the tryouts, she reached out to her ex-husband, Tony Harper, to help try and guarantee Shanna a spot. They came up with the ruler idea.

An image of a wooden ruler.
Photo by Sean Gladwell/Getty Images

Harper thought it would be a good idea to hand out wooden rulers and pencils that said, “Vote Shanna Harper for Cheerleader.” Holloway loved the idea because most students couldn’t afford rulers, and she offered to split the costs. When the campaign began, Holloway got dreadful news.

Shanna Was Disqualified

When the campaigning started, Harper got a call from Holloway telling him the school wouldn’t let Shanna hand out the supplies. It didn’t comply with the school election code, and the vice principal confiscated them with support from the cheerleading sponsor.

A picture of a young cheerleader.
Photo by Harold M. Lambert/Getty Images

Holloway tried to pass the rulers out again a few days later, and the school called a meeting. The sponsor asked the cheerleading parents to attend, including Heath, and Shanna was disqualified. Holloway and Harper begged them to reconsider the decision, but it didn’t work.

Shanna Didn’t Want to Be a Cheerleader

While her mom didn’t want to give up the fight, Shanna told Harper she didn’t want to be a cheerleader anymore. Holloway was always living vicariously through her daughter. She was her daughter’s best friend and made sure Shanna had private cheerleading lessons.

Shanna speaks during an interview.
Source: YouTube

Holloway also got herself and Shanna mother-daughter outfits that blurred the distinction between Shanna’s life and her own. One of the outfits was a cheerleading costume. Her daughter just went along with what her mom wanted because she didn’t usually have a choice.

Plotting Her Revenge

Holloway was furious after Shanna was disqualified. She started hatching a plan to get her daughter on the team again. The high school cheer tryouts weren’t until March 1991, but Holloway began planning for the event several months prior. She started by taking a job in the high school band office.

An image of Holloway entering the courtroom.
Source: Houston Chronicle

She was doing clerical work for the high school band’s director and asked one of the other administrators how to get Amber or another competitor disqualified. While it was a strange question, it didn’t help her get answers.

Asking for Help

Working at the high school didn’t help her, so she ended up at Terry Harper’s trailer, her ex-brother-in-law. She asked him if they could talk, so they met at a convenience store. First, she asked him how much he loved his niece and nephew.

A photo from the trial.
Source: ABC

Then she told him she wanted two people “taken care of,” and she didn’t care how. Terry was shocked and said he didn’t do things like that and wouldn’t hurt a 13-year-old child. He was confused and uncomfortable and didn’t hear from her again until Christmas Eve.

She Wouldn’t Back Down

On Christmas Eve, Shanna told Terry that her mom wanted him to call her. He thought she might say the deal was off or ask if he knew someone who could do it. When he called Holloway, she still wanted to go through with having Heath and Amber killed.

A picture of Holloway in court.
Source: ABC

Terry tried to reason with Holloway. He asked why she didn’t just let Shanna try out, and if “she doesn’t get it, she doesn’t get it?” Holloway immediately shut down that idea because “she’ll be too devastated and not try out again.” She wasn’t backing down.

She Was Determined to Go Through With Her Plan

When Terry realized that Holloway wouldn’t stop until she got what she wanted, he called his brother. Harper told Terry to contact the Harris County Sheriff’s Department. He later told a reporter that he went to the police because he didn’t want to be a suspect if anything happened to Heath or Amber.

An image of Shanna in the courthouse.
Source: YouTube

When he went to the police, it was challenging to convince them that Holloway was serious. This was partly because of who he was put in touch with at the Sheriff’s Department. It was going to take a lot more than just reporting Holloway to stop her.

He Had to Make the Detectives Listen to Him

Terry was put in touch with Detective George Helton, who had been on the force for 17 years. He was more interested in busting dope dealers than listening to Terry. Helton had previously investigated a hit near Channelview, and the man only got probation.

A view of a group of cheerleaders.
Photo by Bromberger Hoover Photo/Getty Images

When Terry told him about Holloway’s plan to have two people killed, Helton replied, “No s**t!” With the help of Sergeant Flynt Blackwell, Helton decided to put a wire on Terry and showed him how to record a phone conversation with Holloway. Over the next three weeks, Helton came to believe Terry’s story.

She Settled for One Murder

Throughout the three weeks Terry wore a wire, he spoke to Holloway and convinced the police that she intended to go through with the crime. She was no longer shopping for a killer; she had settled on Terry to do the job. Then, they started haggling over the price.

A picture of Holloway exiting the courtroom.
Source: YouTube

Terry told her it would be $2,500 to kill Heath and another $5,000 to assassinate Amber. It was too much money for Holloway, so she settled on just getting rid of Heath. She figured Amber would be too distraught to compete for the high school team.

Arrested While Making the Down Payment

On the day she was arrested, Holloway dropped Shanna off at church, then gave a pair of diamond earrings as payment to Terry. When she removed them from her ears, she told him, “I couldn’t pull the trigger myself, but I sure can do it this way.”

An image of hands holding diamond earrings.
Photo by Robert Hradil/Getty Images

It was all the police needed to arrest her the following day. Blackwell and Helton noticed that she was dressed impeccably when they handcuffed her. Now Heath and Amber were safe, and Holloway was behind bars. The news shook Channelview, but people weren’t fully surprised.

She Really Hated Them

When police informed Heath that Holloway had intended to kill her and her daughter, she said, “You’ve really got to dislike someone to do that.” She felt numb and hurt that someone hated her so much they wanted to kill her.

A photo of Heath leaving court.
Source: YouTube

However, as the spring went on, people in Channelview started to forget that the lives of several people, including Amber and Shanna, were greatly affected. What made the story unbelievable to people reading the headlines was that it was all over a cheerleading spot.

Everyone Turned on Holloway

Everyone was sick of Holloway. She was no longer a “lovely” person like people used to say, and she looked too comfortable in front of the cameras. The story made global headlines because it had Texas, cheerleading, and a strange murder-for-hire scheme that unfolded in the backyard of the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders.

A picture of Shanna and Holloway outside court.
Source: Houston Chronicle

Holloway needed to put on a more remorseful performance because she was being scorned for acting like nothing ever happened. Shanna was also numb to the unfolding events, and her fellow students thought it was bizarre.

Harper Got Full Custody

When Holloway was arrested and refused to get counseling for her children, Harper sued his ex-wife for full custody. People briefly thought that Terry and Harper framed Holloway to get custody of the children. The theory was refuted because he had never made prior attempts to change the custody situation.

A picture of Shanna leaving court.
Source: Houston Magazine

When the trial approached, Harper and Holloway had shared custody of their children, but Shane preferred his father. All of Shane’s college money was going towards Holloway’s defense, and Harper was disgusted. It was sad that this hurt the children too.

People Made a Joke out of the Case

Everyone said the case had too many ironies. They believed that if the Channelview High School band director had allowed ninth graders to try out, Amber would have become a twirler instead of a cheerleader. If Wanda had let things be, Shanna would have earned a spot based on her talent.

A dated magazine article about the case.
Source: Pinterest

People believed that Holloway handed Heath a victory because they could earn fame and fortune from the movie offers that would come their way. Meanwhile, Holloway would lose everything if found guilty. She created a scenario where her daughter would be without a mother (as she had wanted to do to Amber Heath).

Her First Trial

In August 1991, Holloway’s trial began. The novelty of the charges against her made the case an international media sensation. Mike Anderson led the prosecution, and it came down to the tapes provided by Terry Harper and his testimony. It wasn’t long before she was convicted.

A still of Verna testifying during the trial.
Source: YouTube

On the tapes, Holloway clearly stated that she was giving Terry her diamonds in exchange for him to kill Verna Heath. Holloway’s defense lawyer, Troy McKinney, argued that Harper conspired with his brother to frame Holloway. McKinney played on the ensuing custody battle and their 1980 divorce.

The Defense Crumbled

McKinney wasn’t getting anywhere with his claims about Harper framing his ex-wife, so he had Terry’s estranged wife, Marla LaRue Harper, testify. She said that Terry beat her to scare her out of revealing that he would get Holloway to say things to help his brother win custody of his children.

A video still from the trial.
Source: YouTube

This defense didn’t work, and Holloway was convicted of solicitation of capital murder and sentenced to 15 years in prison. However, the conviction was overturned when it was discovered that one of the jurors was on probation for a felony drug charge. It was declared a mistrial.

She Went to Trial Again

For her second trial, Holloway hired Jack Zimmerman and pleaded “no contest.” Her lawyer successfully negotiated a plea deal. On September 9, 1996, state district court judge George Godwin gave Holloway ten years in prison. She was also fined $10,000, but that wasn’t all.

An image from a lawyer talking to the press.
Source: YouTube

Holloway settled a civil suit with the Heath family and agreed to pay $150,000 to the victims. The court decided that $70,000 would go to Verna Heath and her husband, $30,000 would go to the Heath children, and $50,000 would cover their legal expenses.

Good Behavior and Early Release

Although Holloway was sentenced to ten years in prison, she was released after only serving six months of her sentence. The judge then ordered her to fulfill the remaining nine and a half years on probation and complete 1,000 hours of community service.

A still of Holloway sitting in court.
Source: YouTube

Judge Goodwin denied prosecutors’ request to send Holloway to a mental hospital after being released and instead ordered her to undergo a psychiatric evaluation. He said he would re-evaluate her probation after the tests. The Heath family did not feel comfortable with the decision.

She Disappeared From the Headlines

After Holloway was freed, she disappeared from the headlines. After the trial, Holloway’s children and ex-husband didn’t discuss what happened. They just pretended as if nothing had happened and put it on the back burner. However, while they tried to forget, the world kept reminding them.

An image of Holloway and Shanna outside court.
Source: YouTube

Shanna and Shane had to go to years of therapy for what their mother put them through. Shanna was significantly affected. She never wanted to be a cheerleader and fell into a depression because of the scandal. The ordeal made high school a nightmare.

The Scandal Was Turned Into a Movie

Because the events of the “cheerleading-murder mom” were so sensational, HBO turned it into a movie. The 1993 film, The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murder Mom, starred Holly Hunter as Wonda Holloway and Beau Bridges as Terry Harper.

A still from the film.
Source: YouTube

In 1992, Willing to Kill: The Texas Cheerleader Story was also released based on Holloway’s plot to kill Heath. The movies brought even more attention to the already circus-like trial, and it made a mockery out of what happened to the Heath family. It also hurt Shanna because she just wanted to forget everything that happened.

Holloway Has a Rough Relationship With Her Daughter

It is no surprise that Holloway’s relationship with Shanna was strained after the scandal. How could anyone look at their mother after what she tried to do for such a trivial reason? However, after going to therapy and trying to heal for a long time, Shanna said she does speak to Holloway.

A picture of Shanna with her partner and children.
Source: Facebook

Shanna lives just 30 minutes outside of Channelview and keeps in touch with her mom through her sons, Holloway’s grandchildren. They never talk about the trial, but she doesn’t want her children to grow up without knowing their grandmother. However, Shanna has her own parenting style that is nothing like her mother’s.

The Heath Family Has Moved On

It has been three decades since this ordeal took place, and Verna Heath and her family have tried to put everything in the past. Today, Amber works with her mother for a company that sells legal insurance, but they still have some reminders of what happened in 1991.

A dated picture of Verna and Amber.
Source: YouTube

Heath said she still receives letters from mothers asking if they should let their daughters try out for cheerleading. She added that the case affected the entire cheer industry, even though it had nothing to do with cheerleading. The same thing happened to ice skating.

Terry Passed Away

In 2005, Terry Harper passed away from liver disease. While that usually wouldn’t be in the newspaper, his death brought back all the memories of the case. When Heath heard about his passing, she said, “The bottom line is that he went to the police, and I’m alive today. I’m thankful for that.”

A current portrait of Verna Heath.
Source: Pinterest

Without his help, who knows what would have happened to Heath and her daughter? Many people remember him for his numerous marriages and drinking a lot, but at his core, he was a good person who wouldn’t stand aside when someone crossed the line.

Holloway Never Wanted to Be a Cheerleader

While many people claim Holloway wanted Shanna on the cheerleading team because she never got to be a cheerleader herself, her ex-husband thinks differently. Harper said Holloway has denied ever wanting to be a cheerleader in the past.

A current portrait of Shanna.
Source: Facebook

Harper said that Holloway acknowledged once wanting to join the drill team but didn’t push when her father objected to the uniforms. Maybe she didn’t want to live out a dream she never got to fulfill, but there is no denying she was living life through her daughter.