BILLY CLARK SEEMED like the kind of all-American kid every mother secretly hopes for when she rocks her baby to sleep.

Athletic, popular and handsome, Billy graduated in 1989 from a Lutheran high school in Phoenix, where he'd been a soccer star and student-body president. After high school, he joined the Marines, where he was a star in boot camp.

That's just the way Billy was--a team player and a winner. Not a murderer. Not a monster who could snap his stepmother's neck and then lead police to her desert grave without a tear, as though he were leading the cops instead to a broken water main.

What people remember most about Billy is that he rarely gave anyone any trouble. He went out of his way to help people. He was cheerful. And he never seemed to show signs that the stresses and pulls of his parents' acrimonious relationship got to him.

Sometimes he lived with his mother, Carolyn, a former Texas beauty queen who used to be a Scottsdale socialite. Other times he lived with his father, a wealthy rancher named Bill Clark, and stepmother Anita in their home in the suburban community of Ahwatukee. In fact, he was living with Bill and Anita Clark when Anita disappeared on the day after Mother's Day last May.

In the end, it was the fact that Billy secretly sold Anita's silver Mercedes Benz in San Diego that made police suspicious.

Billy was arrested 11 days after the murder, and he confessed to snapping Anita's neck with his bare hands. And then he led Phoenix police detectives to a small round grave in the desert near Toltec, about 45 miles southeast of Phoenix off Interstate 10. When detectives dug up the grave, they discovered Anita Clark's remains. The body had been incinerated, but detectives found her wedding rings in the grave.

That night, Billy told police about how Anita had stolen his father from his mother. Anita was a religious fanatic, he said, and was donating thousands of dollars of Bill Clark's money to a Christian television station in Phoenix.

Billy said he killed Anita in self-defense--that he and Anita had been arguing over religion and that Anita screamed and tore at Billy with her fingernails. He said he instinctively reached for her head and twisted it until she was dead. Then he panicked, he said, and that's why he burned and buried the body in the desert.

The police didn't believe Billy's pleas of self-defense. He was charged with first-degree murder, to which he's pleaded not guilty.

The story of Billy takes on the quality of a soap opera. Billy's sister, Margaret, recognizes this. She calls her father, Bill Clark, the "J.R. Ewing of Phoenix." To 22-year-old Margaret and 20-year-old Billy, their father is a larger-than-life patriarch who could rescue them from anything in the world.

Both Billy and Margaret want to be rescued. Not only does Billy face a murder charge, but his sister recently pleaded not guilty to a charge of hindering prosecution. She's accused of lying to police about Anita's whereabouts on the night of the murder.

Bill Clark, according to police reports, suspects that Margaret was involved in the murder. Clark "said he has felt Margaret is more likely to have taken Anita's life," detective Mike Chambers wrote in a June report.

Police reports say that during a drinking party before Anita's body was found, Margaret described details of the murder.

Faced with the upcoming trials of two of his children in connection with the murder of his wife, Bill Clark refuses to do the rescuing.

What happened to Billy the all-American boy, the good kid, the soccer star, the model Marine?

For one thing, that image isn't entirely correct. Billy has testified that he never had been in trouble with the law. Court records show otherwise. In 1989, right after he graduated from high school, Billy pleaded guilty to felony theft in Navajo County. He had broken into a car and stolen a camera and some tapes.

He told the court at the time, "I feel I am still a good kid because I just don't go out and do these things. . . . Nothing like this will ever happen again."

These days, Billy is hoping to undo the damage of his murder confession by trying to keep it out of the courtroom, but in any case Billy has refused requests for interviews, citing his upcoming trial as the reason. He does, however, apparently believe that even he doesn't know all the answers. A few months ago, in a letter explaining his reason for declining an interview, Billy wrote to New Times: "I know there are many answers I am still searching for."

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Terry Greene