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A Young Man's Death in Texas Jail Leaves Unsolvable Mystery: Why?

December 06, 1987|WILLIAM H. INMAN | United Press International

HILLSBORO, Tex. — Donald Earl Price went down in a frenzy of pounding anxiety.

A Sunday morning dispatcher said she may have heard a muted cry crackling across the intercom from the cells at Hillsboro jail, but she thought little of it. It sounded like a man clearing his throat, perhaps a rasping cough. Nothing important. Nothing significant. Besides, jail houses are a cacophony of odd, obscene, usually meaningless chatter.

But this cry was a death rattle.

Sometime before 10:45 a.m. the 21-year-old black man confined to Hillsboro's windowless holding tank for a probation violation signed off as a functioning member of the human race.

Donald Earl Price had hanged himself. He was found dangling from a strip of torn fabric. He had twisted there for 10 or 15 minutes, locked in a sitting position with his buttocks inches from the floor, his legs akimbo, his eyes fixed on some unknowable thing ahead.

Price was on and off life-support machinery at nearby hospitals for 80 hours.

"If a man wants to kill himself, he'll kill himself," said Ed Wheat, police chief in this depressed Cotton Belt community of 7,000 about 60 miles south of Dallas. "But it's not a good feeling to have somebody hang in my jail."

Price's death Aug. 12 received little publicity. Perhaps the feeling was that the inmate was unimportant. He was a triple loser, a school dropout from a broken family who had been caught trying to break into a home. Or maybe his apparent suicide was regarded as a routine occurrence.

Suicide is the eighth most frequent cause of death in America and costs about 29,000 lives a year, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.

Nevertheless, Price's death seemed different. Or that's what Price's father thought. Robert Price, a decorated Vietnam veteran, former law enforcement trainee and a respected contractor, said in an interview:

"I don't believe any of the answers I'm hearing. I haven't slept a full night in weeks, and I won't until I get the truth. Nobody's life is cheap, nobody's."

A UPI examination found several puzzling aspects to the case:

How could a man 5 feet 11 hang himself from a shelf that was five feet from the floor?

Why were there no marks or bruises on Price's neck?

Why were his knuckles bloodied?

How did he cut the noose from a heavy Army blanket--microscopic study revealed it had been cut with something like dull scissors--deprived of any obvious cutting instrument?

Finally, why did Price kill himself, if indeed he did?

To piece together his last hours, a reporter visited Price's haunts, studied forensic documents and interviewed high school counselors, probation officers, police, friends and relatives. Because of fresh questions arising in the case, the Dallas medical examiner's office reopened it and temporarily changed its initial cause-of-death finding from suicide to "undetermined."

Here is a reconstruction:

Saturday, 12:50 p.m. Hillsboro police were called to a civil disturbance on the town's east side, where tin-roofed shacks shelter many of the poorest and least privileged residents. The address was the home of Donald Price's paternal grandmother, Carrie Johnson, 87. "Donald never done nothing violent," she said. "He was just wanting a little money for some baby-sitting. He was acting a little rambunctious that night."

Relatives told police that Price was wanted as a runaway from a Dallas County halfway house and that they wanted him removed, at least for a while. By checking computer records via radio, police learned of a revocation warrant against him. "It was no big deal," said a spokesman for Judge Richard Mays, who had ordered Price's arrest. "He was given probation for burglary of a building." Price left the halfway house after a few weeks and hid at his grandmother's home, which had been a refuge through the years.

When police ordered Price to surrender, he ran. In less than a minute, he cleared several large hedges, rocketed through a thicket, over a culvert and into a backyard three blocks away. A cousin, Patricia, convinced him that the run wasn't worth the risk.

"He was a runner and our people gave foot pursuit," said Lt. Dana Thomason of the police. "We weren't going to shoot that boy," another officer told an investigator. "Why should we? He was harmless."

No guns were drawn, according to reports. Donald was taken without a struggle.

Sunday, 7:58 a.m. Price was fed breakfast. He was in a recently refurbished, 6-by-12-foot holding cell furnished only with an iron bunk, a commode and the tiny shelf. There were two men in a cell nearby. They reported hearing nothing. He called his grandmother. He was in good spirits and talked about what he planned to do in Dallas. He asked for cigarettes.

9 a.m. Another check. Nothing unusual.

10:45 a.m. Price was found in a coma. He was cut down. There was blood on the wall. Cardiopulmonary resuscitation was administered. An ambulance took Price to Hill County Regional Hospital.

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