A Death in Texas

A Story of Race, Murder and a Small Town's Struggle for Redemption

Dina Temple-Raston

Henry Holt and Co.

A DEATH IN TEXAS
CHAPTER ONE
DANTE'S INFERNO
JASPER LIES ON the eastern edge of what Texans call the "Big Thicket," a triangle of woods that runs south to Beaumont, north to Corrigan, and ends on the banks of the Trinity River. For more than 160 years, ever since the first families arrived in Jasper on horseback to live in the sparsely settled area between the Neches and Sabine Rivers, the piney woods provided most everyone, regardless of race, a means to eke out a living. One hundred years earlier, the woods had been so thick and breezeless, a candle would not flicker in the trees. The place so teemed with life that hunters could hardly step outside their cabins without stumbling over the river's washtub-sized loggerhead turtles. In those days it was easy togo fishing for the table, and a man could bag wild hog, bear, and deer just by pointing a gun and pulling the trigger.
Jasper's young boys were taught at an early age the way to handle a gun and kill an animal. In a town where winners were few, hunting in the Big Thicket provided an opportunity for every man to be bigger than he really was; it provided an opportunity for boasting, whether it was about who had the biggest arsenal, the biggest truck, or the biggest buck dragged lifeless from the trees.
The weekend rituals became predictable. Men of every hue woke early on Saturdays and drove down undulating backroads, ruminating aloud about the life expectancy of deer and how they intended to shorten it. They disappeared into the forest, whooping and caterwauling, sometimes pumping their rifles victoriously over their heads. In November, when deer-hunting season started, all that firepower in the woods made the place sound like a battlefield. By daybreak, the first pickups pulled up to Jasper Quality Meats and Smokehouse on South Wheeler and deposited the animals in the side alley. The men stopped only long enough to pose for photographs next to a rack of antlers. Bo Jackson and his employees stacked does and bucks like cordwood beside the shop, which, by midmorning, looked like an abattoir. Jackson, in his stiff blood-soaked apron, skinned the deer and sliced them into steaks for $47.50. Field dressing, the quick gutting of animals most hunters did in the field, was an extra $3.75. Jackson often got three hundred deer in the first weekend.
Deer-hunting season was the one time of year when local Jasperites, who endured the day-to-day condescension of visitors from the city, displayed their sagacity. They waited all year for this role reversal, when they were judged by how much life they could take out of the woods and not by their tobacco-stained teeth or thenubs above their knuckles. The Big Thicket was an equalizer. It made people from Dallas and Houston feel awkward as they clomped through the bramble, busting twigs and tripping over roots. The Jasperites, those country Bubbas city folk ridiculed, walked noiselessly through the trees like Indians, skimming over the ground beneath skies as gray as smoke.
Over the years, the visitors' discomfiture, viewed on the sly from beneath sleepy, half-lowered lids, had become one of Jasperites' richest delights, an unexpected tidbit among scanty rations. Jasperites particularly liked to recount visitors' reactions after the first crack of gunfire tore through the wooded stillness. As the report echoed from all directions, instinct told the city dwellers to take cover. The visitors' minds flooded with stories of accidental shootings, bullets gone astray, human movement among the trees mistaken for prey. Finally, they stood stock-still, eyes darting, bracing for the moment when the bullet found its mark. Would the shot hit them between the eyes, or would it be a flesh wound that would make them moderately late for work on Monday?
When silence descended again, the visitors laughed uneasily. It was not just the gunfire that made them nervous. After several hours in the woods, it dawned on most city people that this Faulknerian, testosterone-loaded horde all around them could be lethal. The competition in the woods, man against forest, man against animal, man against man, danced on the edge of deadly. That was about the time Jasperites let the city folk in on the secret: there were so many trees in the forest, bullets did not often hit accidental targets. The real problem with woods this thick was that if a man was shot, or a bear surprised him in the bramble, or there was a murder, no one would ever know. These woods were so deserted one could be left for dead a month before anybody would find out.
And nestled in these woods, where the only sound was the soughing of pines, was Huff Creek Road, a spooky, deserted stretch of asphalt bound by a thick strand of pine on either side. It was so quiet one could drive its entire six-mile length and never run into another driver, car, or flicker of life.
Cedric Green lived in a trailer on the edge of the Huff Creek community, just over the county line in Newton in a small black settlement called Jamestown. Green was a small square man with a barrel chest and broad shoulders. He worked in the scrap yards and had become sturdy moving heavy iron and steel pieces around the yard. It was before 8 A.M. the morning of June 7, Green bounced over the curb where the dirt part of Huff Creek Road played out and the pavement began. He was in his signature orange truck, which, had anyone sworn to it, would have had to be described as more metal-colored than orange. Everyone in Jasper best knew Green by that ancient Ford. The truck was so renowned it had become a landmark: because there were no street numbers around Green's trailer, it was a description of the truck parked out front that helped visitors identify his house.
That morning Green was tooling along the roller-coaster road with the window open so he could smell the pines. He turned up the radio. Rock and roll from KJAS, the local Jasper station, sputtered through the speakers. Green was going against the usual flow of Huff Creek traffic. Most Jasperites turned onto Huff Creek from the Jasper city end, from Farm-to-Market Road 1408, instead of the back way from Jamestown. It was a sharp left off the main drag. One hundred feet down the pavement one crossed a tiny railroad tie bridge fording the trickling dribble of water from which the road got its name.
Huff Creek had always been a mecca for drunk drivers, partly because it was so deserted and partly because such isolated roadspermitted anyone who had had a few too many to skirt sheriffs' cruisers and get home without a DWI. For that reason, casualties along these old timber routes were commonplace. It was not unusual to see vehicles wrapped around tree trunks or hear about runaway logging trucks, or raw pine poles rolling off trailer skids and plowing into oncoming cars. In the spring and summer, when the hunters had put away their rifles, the deer bolted across the road as they pleased. Drivers hit so many, they were referred to as "fast food."
Cedric Green accelerated through the curves, shooting glances out of the corner of his eye at his five-year-old son, who sat beside him on the seat. Green let his eyes rest on the primitive little black churches that dotted the landscape--shoeboxes on stilts. He caught glimpses of the old "colored" cemeteries that sped past him through the side windows. They appeared every few hundred feet, it seemed, with their rough-hewn headstones, plastic flowers, and roll call of sweetly docile and abbreviated names: Colemans, Parks, and Adams. As Green came up over a hill at speed, he noticed something on the side of the road. A deer carcass? He swerved to miss it, nearly plowing into the culvert on the other side. His son stood up on the seat to see what it was. Then Green, looking in the rearview mirror, saw shoes. "Son, don't look," he said, covering the boy's face with his hand. He swung the truck around and pulled into the first driveway scraped out of the dirt. He knocked on the door, asked to use the phone, and called the sheriff's office. "A man's been killed up on Huff Creek, by the Rose Bloom Cemetery," he said.
Green went back to the truck and sat with his son. He was out of breath.
 
 
ACROSS TOWN IN a one-bedroom apartment, shades blocked out the midday sun where Bill King and Russell Brewer slept. They hadn't bothered to undress from the night before and were asleep facedown across the bed as if they had been struck from behind. In the living room, a small square space littered with free weights and dirty clothes, Shawn Berry was similarly dozing.
The trio of young white men roused themselves sometime after lunch and drove down to the Jasper Car Wash, where, witnesses said later, they scrubbed Berry's gray sidestep truck with an attention to detail they had rarely exhibited in the past. They hosed off a thirty-foot logging chain, blasted the bed with water, and then roared up Highway 59, muffler rattling. No one would have noticed had it not been that these three boys were among the least likely to care about the cleanliness of the truck they drove. The three were headed out to nearby Burkeville for a barbecue--they were providing the steaks--and a pickup volleyball game. Neither King nor Brewer had much fun, though. King said he had hurt his arm riding a motorcycle the day before. Brewer said he had hurt his toe.
"At the time I didn't think anything of it," said Pat Behator, a friend of King's who was there.
 
 
GLORIA MAYS'S GOSPEL Inspiration Hour aired on KJAS radio every Sunday between 9 and 10 A.M. A mixture of gospel music, scripture reading, and prayers for the community, the show had a devoted following. Every Sunday, the station got forty or fifty phone calls on its prayer line. Residents called to ask listeners to include the sick or dying in their prayers.
Mike Lout, owner of KJAS, and Mays were taking turns answering the phone and jotting down prayers to say on the air when a call came in from the Huff Creek community.
"There's a man's head in a ditch off Huff Creek Road," the caller said.
Lout thought nothing of it. "This is the rumor-est damn place in the world," he said later. "I think it is because they don't have anything to do. So I didn't think anything of the call."
Five minutes later, Gloria Mays took another call from a frantic woman, also from Huff Creek, who said police had found a body without a head. "Then I knew something was up," said Lout. "There was something going on out there."
At Evergreen Baptist Church, where beauty salon owner Unav (pronounced Una-vee) Wade attended services, a member of the congregation had burst into the room at the back and breathlessly said the head of a black man had been found in a yard on Huff Creek Road. "No one could hardly go through with the service," Wade said. "And no one knew who it was."
Sheriff Billy Rowles's arrival at the crime scene more than an hour later seemed almost beside the point. In the time it had taken him to drive up to Huff Creek, the shoulders of the road had filled. Ambulances and police cruisers were parked helter-skelter along the pavement. The coroner, police photographers, and state troopers were snapping on rubber gloves and walking the crime scene. Sheriff's deputies were roping off the area, and inside the yellow tapes investigators were at work. Hunkered under the trees, grim policemen, deputies, and agents were dropping the contents of James Byrd's pockets into brown paper bags and photographing puddles of blood. Others circled evidence with bright orange paint. The forest sounds had been replaced by the crackle of static over two-way police radios.
By the time Rowles had walked the three-mile crime scene, seen the cigarette lighter with three interlocking K's, and had taken in the evidence of a struggle up at the top of the dirt timber road, he was thinking the worst. "I was a brand-new sheriff. I didn't even know the definition of a hate crime," he testified later. "What I knew was that somebody had been murdered because he was black. Once we saw the KKK emblem on the lighter, that's when we started having some bad thoughts."
There were other disturbing signs. There were no skid marks, the usual evidence in a hit-and-run. Typically, once a man has been hit, drivers stop to see what they have struck. What's more, the bloody trail down Huff Creek Road didn't run parallel to the tire tracks. It went from one side of the road to the other, zigzagging like a water-skier jumping a boat wake. "It was going through my mind--somebody's dragging something," Rowles said.
The investigators took plaster casts of the tire tracks on the dirt tram path off Huff Creek Road. Bagged beer bottles. Dropped CD cases into paper bags. Picked up a socket wrench. As the evidence began to accumulate, one thing was clear: the suspects had done a poor job of covering up their crime.
 
 
THE DISPATCHER AT the sheriff's office rang Dorie Coleman's Mortuary on Fletcher Avenue around 11 A.M. There was an unidentified body on Huff Creek Road that needed to be picked up. The dispatcher did not need to say it was a black man; that was understood. There were two funeral homes in Jasper that served the black community and two homes that tended to the white. The race of the deceased determined who was summoned. Coleman'sMortuary and the Robinson Community Funeral Home, the two black establishments, alternated their pickups. The dispatcher kept track, and on that June morning it was Coleman's turn. Rodney Coleman, the mortician's son, took the call.
The younger Coleman climbed into the car and went by Greater New Bethel Baptist Church to pick up his father, who was a deacon and preparing for Sunday services. On this quiet Sunday morning it took them only ten minutes to drive to the crime scene. As they pulled up, they saw that an army of deputies had stationed themselves at the corner of Farm-to-Market Road 1408 and Huff Creek Road to guard against the curious. They waved the Colemans right through. Another deputy stood at the bridge in that locked-knee stance officers took when they knew they would be on their feet for a while.
"Follow the line," he said, pointing to the bloody stripe that wound along the pavement. The Coleman men exchanged glances and eased the car in over the bridge.
Dorie and his son had picked up so many bodies over the years that the process had become routine. They rolled the car up to where they saw Billy Rowles, Judge Ronnie Billingsley, and death investigator Phil Denny standing and turned off the engine. The white men were standing on the pavement looking down into a culvert. The head and arm of a black man lay below. Denny nodded toward the head and arm in the ditch and asked the Colemans to go ahead and "do the removal." Dorie Coleman knew just about every black man in Jasper, but he didn't recognize this one.
As they climbed back into the car, the two Colemans had simultaneous thoughts. "We right away thought this was some guy from Houston who crossed some skinheads," said Dorie Coleman later. "Once we had the head and arm in the car, we must have sat around for an hour waiting for the detectives to finish. Then we followedthem up the road. There was evidence marked all over the pavement, so we drove slowly. We hadn't even got to the body before Rodney and I decided it was a hate crime."
The Colemans picked up the torso in front of the cemetery and drove it back to the funeral home. They hardly said a word in the car. The phone rang again about forty minutes later. It was Curtis Frame. He wanted to bring by a couple of men from nearby Newton to try to identify the body. A friend of theirs had been missing for several days, and they thought the body might be him. When the three arrived, Frame unzipped the body bag and the two Newton men peered in. It wasn't their friend. Frame took a fingerprint and thanked Dorie Coleman for his time.
"If you find out, sure would like to know who this is," Dorie Coleman said.
Half an hour later, Frame was back on the line. "It's James Byrd Jr. We got a positive ID from his prison record. It's James Byrd Jr."
Dorie Coleman was shocked. "I knew James, I knew James well, and the face--it didn't look anything like him."
 
 
IN THE SPRING of 1998, the entire country was riveted by two things: the mythic battle between St. Louis Cardinal home-run king Mark McGwire and Chicago Cub Sammy Sosa, and the nightly prime-time reports of an entanglement between a middle-aged president and a smitten twenty-one-year-old intern. The baseball story was a simple one; both McGwire and Sosa were congenial in their competition, supportive of one another, and provided an opportunity for fans embittered by the 1997 baseball strike to begin to believe in heroes again. The Clinton-Lewinsky scandal managed,by contrast, to do just the opposite. The president claimed never to have had relations "with that woman" just as Monica Lewinsky's confidants were being flown to Washington, D.C., on a daily basis to tell their side of the story to an independent counsel. It took no time for the summer to become a season of promiscuous opinionizing. The story set friend against friend, provided fodder for off-color jokes of the kind your grandfather told when your grandmother wasn't around, and turned Lewinsky into a verb. The center, as Joan Didion once wrote about the 1960s, was not holding.
 
 
MOST OF THE men in Jasper found their way to the Aubrey Cole Law Enforcement Center for one of two reasons: either to report a crime or to deny being mixed up in one. Official authority in the rural South had always tended to concentrate in the sheriff's office, and Jasper was no different. The Jasper County Jail and sheriff's office were housed in an unremarkable cinder-block square with fifty cells on one side and a struggling vegetable garden, tended by trusties in their black-and-white wide-striped jail pajamas, on the other. The jail was flat and bland and looked like a packing crate. The view was equally unremarkable: it looked out over the dust of a concrete factory and a patch of scrawny trees on Burch Street. The parking lot, with its thirty spaces, was usually full of trucks and sheriff's cruisers. The county jail was always a bustle of activity.
Truth was, Jasper offered few alternatives. There were no bars; the town was dry. Restaurants circumvented the regulations by selling "club memberships," which permitted them to serve liquor to anyone who set down a five-dollar membership fee. Getting a six-pack for the cooler was more difficult. Residents had to drive tenmiles up the road to Solley's dry goods store just outside of town. Every couple of years there was a push to change the liquor laws, but it was always defeated by citizens who figured the unemployment rate and abject poverty in Jasper made people angry and dangerous enough without adding liquor to the mix.
What's more, summers were notoriously difficult in the South. Jasper's residents' chief concern became finding ways to escape weather that seemed straight out of Dante's Inferno. The summer of 1998 was worse than most. It brought to Jasper forty-one straight days of temperatures above one hundred degrees, weeks of drought, and shortened fuses. Summer unemployment in Jasper had tipped up to 17 percent. The price of a barrel of oil had dropped to ten dollars, erasing any incentive for companies to drill for more. Lumber prices also declined, which meant more layoffs at the mill. The double hit put hundreds of Jasper's young men at loose ends just when the kiln of a Texas summer was firing up. Disaffected Jasperites spent hours seated before huge, whirring fans and inefficient air conditioners that did little more than push around the suffocating heat. They filled their days grumbling about their plight and tinkered with windows and screens to see what combination of open and shut worked best at what time of day. At night there was little relief. Jasperites haunted different rooms of the house or trailer in search of a breeze. The long slow days began to drive the entire town to distraction. There were only so many barbecues to attend, volleyball games to play, and motorcycles to ride before heat-inspired restlessness was bound to take over.
The first explosion roared through town at the end of May 1998. Almost as soon as the sun rose, entire families would begin making plans for relief. Driving up to Sam Rayburn Park for a swim in the reservoir was a common escape. Carolyn McQueen camehome from shopping with the feeling that something was wrong. Her husband, Jerry, had not called to say he had arrived safely at the family hunting lodge. Her son had left a message on the machine saying his father had missed a Saturday appointment at the school. The younger McQueen, with his new driver's license, decided to drive up to the hunting property, seven miles west of town on Highway 190, to make sure his daddy was all right.
The McQueens were a quiet, upper-middle-class family who lived in the nicer part of town off Route 8. They weren't far from the part of Jasper known to locals rather derisively as Silk Stocking row. It was there that the district attorney and the mayor lived in big new houses set back from the street on wide landscaped yards. It was an island of prosperity in a place like Jasper. Carolyn had married Jerry young and had opted to stay home and raise their children while her husband built up a concrete contracting business. Most Jasperites considered Jerry McQueen one of those few homegrown Jasperites who had succeeded. Billy Rowles was on the fifth hole at the country club when his pager went off. The young McQueen had found his father murdered in the woods.
By the time Sheriff Rowles had driven to the hunting camp, seen the body, and returned to the McQueens' house, Carolyn had known about her husband's death for hours. Rowles began with the usual questions. Who might want to kill her husband? Did she know if he had any enemies? When did she last speak to him?
He had no enemies, she said. She didn't know who might want to kill him. She broke down in tears.
Joe Sterling, the same baby-faced and soft-in-the-middle deputy who would be on the scene for the Byrd murder, was the lead investigator for the McQueen killing. He figured the motivation was drugs, something that had become a scourge in Jasper. In the mid-1980s,cocaine and crack had replaced marijuana as the best-selling commodity in the East Texas drug trade. In Jasper, crack caught on mainly in poor black neighborhoods and the Quarters and the poor, mostly black, Pollard Street housing project. Few whites got into crack; they preferred marijuana or speed.
By Monday afternoon, Sterling had zeroed in on Donald Kennebrew, a longtime black employee of McQueen's. Known to have a crack problem and financial woes, Kennebrew had not shown up for work that morning, and his family had not heard from him for days. By Tuesday, sheriff's officers had tracked down Kennebrew at a local motel and brought him to the station for questioning. It took thirty minutes to get him to confess.
After McQueen had paid Kennebrew his regular wages the previous Friday, Kennebrew had quickly spent his entire check on some rocks of crack cocaine. The next day, down from his high and ravenous for more, Kennebrew had driven out to the McQueen hunting camp that Saturday morning to ask his boss to advance him some more money. It was something McQueen had agreed to do in the past, but this time he refused. Kennebrew went back out to his truck, smoked another rock of cocaine, and returned to the camp with a piece of rebar, one of the heavy iron strips used to reinforce concrete foundations. He bludgeoned McQueen to death and stole his wallet. He still had McQueen's billfold on him and was still wearing bloodstained clothes when the sheriff's deputies picked him up. Kennebrew was so addled by the crack that he didn't know Jerry McQueen was dead. As murders go, this one was easily wrapped up. Carolyn McQueen, distraught over her husband's death, wanted Kennebrew to plead guilty and avoid a public trial. Kennebrew agreed, promised not to appeal, and got a life sentence. It was a terrible black-on-white murder everyone hoped would just go away.
If there was any solace in the case, it was that this type of murder didn't happen often in Jasper. There were more bad accidents--accidental shootings at the hands of jealous boyfriends--than premeditated killings. McQueen was a family man, was popular in the community, and was one of Jasper's best employers of both black and white men. And now one of his black employees had killed him. While that wasn't immediately alarming to Rowles, he did think that such a murder would do little to help people get along in Jasper.
"The McQueen murder was shocking to a lot of people because it was a whodunit," said local radio reporter Mike Lout. "We have murders and shootings in this town all the time, but they are never whodunits. In Texas people say, 'Hell yes, I shot him; I should have done it ten years ago.' They don't weasel around." The McQueen murder was different. In the hours after the murder, detectives were questioning anyone who had known McQueen. In the white community, the talk around town was all speculation, not only about who had been called in for questioning, but who was likely to be summoned next.
In the east end of town, however, there was frightened gossip. There was immediate speculation about Kennebrew's well-being. Some wondered aloud about rumors that he had been beaten while in jail--a holdover from the good ol' boy justice blacks had come to accept. There was frightened gossip. This was a grudge beating.
McQueen's murder certainly set the tone for the coming storm. It took the breath out of Jasperites. Imagine someone killing McQueen for drugs. No one could remember anyone having ever exchanged a cross word with McQueen. And then, exactly a week later, James Byrd's body was found on Huff Creek Road.
 
 
MIKE LOUT REPORTED the news from a small soundproof room in his house on a Jasper hilltop. Out the window he could see the rodeo grounds on one side and a Baptist church on the other. The events that qualified as news in Jasper were usually minor. A car stereo stolen, a man's trailer missing, growing speculation of a bowling alley moving into town. Covering small-town news well, Lout said, meant that his most important sources were the beautician, the barber, and the bartender. And he made sure he was on good terms with all of them.
Lout was, in the fullest sense of the word, a small-town newsman. In a single day he would attend chamber of commerce meetings, accidents, city council gatherings, and anything else that might be fashioned into a news item for KJAS. He was often up at night to cover house fires or car wrecks. He complained about long hours but never had a police scanner out of earshot. He loved his work, and, with all its warts, he loved Jasper, too.
Reporting on neighbors and friends may be one of the toughest journalism assignments. If Lout displeased someone with his stories, there was no avoiding them. He would run into them at the Wal-Mart or on Courthouse Square. And anyone with a complaint had little trouble finding Lout. He was a fixture in town, who had as many supporters as he had detractors. Newcomers counted on Lout to let them know what was going on. Old-timers said he was just trying to stir up trouble.
Lout was a born-and-bred Jasper boy. At fifteen, he had landed his first radio job at Jasper's own KTXJ. He cut the grass, burned Teletype, and did whatever needed to be done around the station. He graduated from Jasper High School in 1974. Technical jobs in Orange and Beaumont over the next decade helped teach him how a radio station actually worked and inspired him to starthis own operation with three friends in 1987. They called it KJAS. The business plan had included hiring a newsman, but money was short, applicants were few, and Lout filled in, only to discover he loved it. "Mike steps on toes; he's like that," local journalist Mike Journee said.
Two years after it started, the radio station went off the air after Lout got in a dispute with his partners and pulled the plug. "I climbed up the tower and took back the antenna," he said. "The station ceased to operate." Lout returned to jobs in public relations in Beaumont and Port Arthur and in the meantime bought everything he needed to resurrect the station on his own. A transmitter came from Charlotte, North Carolina. Everything he pulled together was either used or broken. He secured an FCC permit in 1996 and returned KJAS to the air that November, opening with the national anthem.
Most Jasperites awakened to Mike Lout's cheery good mornings. He was the main source of their local news, and his reports came over the airwaves like clockwork. He sat every day behind a desk in his house, scanning the newspapers, recording the day's weather, and rewriting news stories on a typewriter. Every Monday at 8 A.M., he read Jasper's weekend crime report, a compilation of the petty crimes and fires that make news in small places: "There were a couple of bedspreads missing from the Holiday Inn on 96; the police think they have some leads ... . There was a UFO sighting last night, and this might have gone down as just another story had two law enforcement officers not seen it for themselves ... ." Lout always finished the weekend crime report the same way: "And the good guys are winning." With those words, nearly everyone in Jasper knew it was 8:05, time to snap off their radios and tackle the day.
In 1998, the biggest news story Lout had ever had landed in his lap. Before the Byrd murder, Jasper had been a town where journalists asked themselves whether it was really their place to report the news because stories in small towns caused big stirs. After the murder those questions stopped.
"The Byrd deal did a lot of things to Jasper, and not many of them were good," said Lout. "But in terms of media, and the way we covered news in this town, Byrd's murder completely changed things. It was the difference between daylight and dark. All of a sudden, we weren't holding anything back."
Copyright © 2002 by Dina Temple-Raston