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3 Charged in Texas After Black Man's Grisly Death

Crime: Victim was dragged behind pickup truck and torn apart. Killing is called racially motivated.

June 10, 1998|LIANNE HART | TIMES STAFF WRITER

JASPER, Texas — Three men with reported ties to white supremacist groups were charged Tuesday with chaining a black man to a pickup truck and dragging him two miles, tearing off his head, part of his neck and his right arm.

The victim, 49-year-old James Byrd Jr., was a father of three who loved music and was friendly and well-known around town. He was walking home from a niece's bridal shower, authorities said, when the three white men picked him up on a dirt road in this timber town, tucked into the piney woods of East Texas. They took him to an isolated area, officers said, where he was beaten and then pulled behind the truck until he died.

Charged with murder were Lawrence Russell Brewer, 31, of Sulphur Springs, 70 miles northeast of Dallas, and Shawn Allen Berry and John William King, both 23, of Jasper. They and the victim had spent time in prison. Sheriff Billy Rowles said the three apparently had prison ties to the Ku Klux Klan and the Aryan Nation, a white supremacist group. King and Brewer had several tattoos, Rowles said, indicating white supremacist beliefs.

The killing came less than two weeks after a white man pleaded guilty to murder in Independence, Va., for burning and beheading a black man. But the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala., which tracks hate crimes, said there was no evidence of any organized killing of blacks. "I don't think it was a group-sanctioned or group-inspired deal," Joe Roy, director of an SPLC intelligence project, said of the Texas slaying. "I think it was guys who were ruthlessly, brutally, racially motivated."

"We have no Aryan Nation or KKK in Jasper County," Rowles told reporters. The sheriff's statement drew hoots from African Americans who heard it. The killing and its brutality caused this town to search its soul. Churches stand on many street corners, and one pickup parked downtown carried a bumper sticker that read: "Cowboys for Christ." Most blacks, however, live on the east side of town, and whites are scattered to the north, south and west.

Charles Lee, grand dragon of an East Texas faction of the klan, refused to tell the Associated Press whether it had any members in Jasper County. Roy said he knew of no hate groups in Jasper, but he cited such organizations in Tyler, Henderson, Mount Enterprise and Cleveland. Jasper is 55 miles north of Vidor, where a klan faction protested a 1993 federal order to integrate public housing.

Victim Allegedly Was Offered a Ride

Based on an account from Berry, authorities said, this is what happened in this quiet country town, where people usually like to spend their evenings rocking in their porch swings:

Berry and his two companions were riding around in his pickup Saturday night when they offered Byrd a ride. King objected because Byrd was black, but they picked him up anyway. He apparently knew one of the three men. The four stopped at a convenience store. King got behind the wheel and drove to an isolated area. Brewer and King began beating the victim. He was chained to the truck and dragged.

The truck pulled him 10,000 feet along a narrow, winding asphalt road. His belongings--wallet, keys and dentures--scattered in his wake, along with parts of his body. His torso was found Sunday morning in an area called Huff Creek. Nearby were beer cans, a wrench engraved with Berry's name and a cigarette lighter inscribed with a triangular symbol and the word "Possum," which had been King's nickname in prison.

Byrd's head, neck and right arm were found a mile away.

Preliminary autopsy results indicated that Byrd died of multiple traumas to the head and body, inflicted as he was pulled along behind the truck. The victim was so badly disfigured that investigators had to use fingerprints to identify him.

Officers said a witness saw Byrd sitting in the bed of the pickup before the killing. The officers said they found a chain behind a house, which they believed to be the one that had been used to tie Byrd to the truck.

Brewer, Berry and King originally were arrested on a charge of possessing stolen property after a break-in at a restaurant. Officers say they were caught with a large quantity of frozen meat.

FBI Discusses Civil Rights Charges

After the three were formally accused of the murder, FBI agents met with the sheriff to discuss possible federal civil rights charges. "All evidence shows [the slaying was] racially motivated," the sheriff said.

In Washington, Kweisi Mfume, president of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People, urged the Justice Department to bring the federal charges. "These cowards," Mfume declared, "should never walk the street again as free men."

Byrd was a former vacuum cleaner salesman disabled by an arm injury. He was walking home from the bridal shower because he suffered a seizure disorder and could not drive.

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