For at least two days, neighbors at a city apartment complex noticed an acrid aroma, black smoke and leaping flames coming from two barbecue grills on the balcony of a second-floor apartment.
What, neighbors at the Red Oak Place apartments wondered, was going on in the unit where 27-year-old Timothy Wayne Shepherd lived? What was he burning at all hours, for days at a time?
The answer turned their stomachs.
According to law enforcement officials, Shepherd dismembered, and then burned the body of his former girlfriend, Tynesha Stewart, a 19-year-old Texas A&M University student. Nothing remains of Stewart's body, Harris County Sheriff Tommy Thomas said at a press conference Saturday.
"I just don't know what to think about it," said Louis Evans, whose balcony faces Shepherd's in the quiet tree-lined enclave in northern Houston. "I thought he was a nice normal person. I guess you never know what your neighbors are doing."
Authorities said Shepherd has confessed to strangling and dismembering Stewart, a college freshman who was home on spring break, because he was angry that she had started a new relationship.
Officials first thought Shepherd had disposed of her remains in a large commercial trash bin that had since been emptied, launching an intense debate in the area about whether the Sheriff's Department should conduct a massive and expensive search of area landfills for Stewart's remains.
Stewart was last seen March 15 and was reported missing March 19. The next day the Harris County Sheriff's Office homicide division launched its investigation.
On March 16, neighbors said they first noticed the unusual activity -- and the unpleasant odor -- on Shepherd's balcony.
"The smell was awful," said Evans, who also became alarmed after seeing a blaze shoot out from the grills. "I was wondering: What is he burning? Not cooking, but burning. There is a difference."
At times, Evans said, the flames from the grills leapt dangerously close to the roof of the balcony. Evans says he called 911, but when firefighters arrived, the flames had calmed and Shepherd assured them everything was under control.
A leasing agent at the apartment complex also noticed the thick dark smoke and the intense flames and asked Shepherd what he was doing, Evans said.
Another neighbor, 18-year-old James Hebert, told The Houston Chronicle that he often cooked out with Shepherd, and even left his grill at Shepherd's apartment. When he wasn't invited over, he asked his neighbor what was going on. Shepherd replied that he was cooking for a wedding, the newspaper said.
Dionne Whitaker, 31, who lives in the complex, said she saw Shepherd carry the grill and smoker to a garbage bin a day or so later, the newspaper said.
Human remains generally require extremely high temperatures to destroy, and authorities have not said how it is possible that Stewart's remains could be completely burned on a patio grill.
"This certainly turned out to be one of the most heinous crimes I've ever seen in my 38 years (in law enforcement)," Thomas, the sheriff, said Saturday.
Shepherd, who is charged with murder, is being held on $250,000 bond in the Harris County Jail. Telephone message left with his attorney, Chip Lewis, were not immediately returned. On Sunday, the door to Shepherd's apartment was covered with plywood boards.