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Dragging Death Haunts Quiet Texas Town

Five years after James Byrd Jr. was slain, racial divisions continue in Jasper as two of three convicted killers await execution.

June 08, 2003|Mark Babineck | Associated Press Writer

JASPER, Texas — Unav Wade scoffs at the talk of Jasper's healing and reconciliation in the five years since James Byrd Jr. was dragged to death for being black.

Don't get her wrong; Wade says she enjoys life in this racially balanced city of about 8,300 tucked in the woods of east Texas. It's just that she believes Jasper's black-and-white divide hasn't narrowed much.

"I do have some really nice white friends here, I do. It's not many, but they love me and I know it," Wade said. "But the ones who are not so nice, I don't think they've changed."

Three of the not-so-nice ones are in prison, one for life and the others awaiting the executioner's needle for chaining Byrd's ankles to a gray 1982 Ford pickup truck bumper in the early morning hours of June 7, 1998, and dragging him to pieces along rural Huff Creek Road.

Had Byrd's remains been strewn through a white neighborhood, not in the predominantly black area where it happened, Wade believes his killers might not be behind bars today.

"They'd have covered it up and we'd have never known," said Wade, 72, revealing an honest cynicism born of a cross burned in her yard near Mobile, Ala., in the 1950s, followed by a 1960s' move into a "wasp's nest" of bigotry in Alameda, Calif.

Wade isn't impressed by outward signs of racial healing, such as the park that bears Byrd's name and the 1999 removal of an iron fence that segregated the area's 166-year-old cemetery.

"There are no black people buried on that [white] side that I know about," she said. "It's still separated."

Still, Wade doesn't report enduring any bold-faced hate in her 30-odd years in Jasper. The same cannot be said for Byrd.

*

In 27 years as a Texas state trooper, Billy Rowles had seen his share of auto-pedestrian collisions. Six months into his first term as Jasper County's sheriff, Rowles figured he'd be investigating another one the morning of June 7, 1998, when he was called from a weekend getaway.

"At first I thought he got hit by a car and got hung up underneath it," Rowles recalled. "It still appeared that way until we started walking the 3.1 miles. Probably a mile into that walk, it became real apparent it wasn't a hit-and-run."

The bloodstains marking Byrd's path weaved side to side, sometimes into the grass off the road. There were no tire tracks in the grass, meaning that the vehicle stayed on the pavement.

Rowles began to envision a man bound at the feet when he saw the gouge marks above Byrd's ankles: "With no tracks on the left side of the road and none on the right, things just started calculating. The old heart started racing. Something ain't right."

Things fell together quickly that Sunday. A boy reported to Jasper police that he had seen Byrd riding with three white people early that morning. Investigators found a tool with the initials "SB" and a lighter with the word "Possum." Then they found drag marks and evidence of a scuffle on a dirt logging path leading onto the road.

So Rowles had a "pretty good clue what happened," but still didn't know why. When his men mentioned local troublemaker Shawn Berry drove a primer-gray pickup matching the description given by the boy, they made the first arrest and learned the answer.

"When it really struck me," Rowles said, "was when [Berry] broke and confessed about" what happened, although Berry denied he had committed the killing. Rowles recalled Berry's expletive-laced, racist way of saying that the men wanted to pick on a black person. "That just echoed in my head for the next five years. That's when we realized what we had."

Word of the killing spread, spawning fear in the black community. Byrd's sister, Houston schoolteacher Clara Taylor, had been in Jasper that Saturday visiting him and the rest of her family at a wedding shower.

She got the call shortly after noon Sunday that he was dead.

"We thought mostly it might be a robbery or some other kind of foul play," Taylor said. A lynching "never crossed my mind."

Byrd, 49, was widely portrayed afterward as a heavy drinker whose judgment might have been impaired by too much alcohol. Although that could be true, Taylor said, there's another side of her brother that outsiders didn't get to know.

"He was a talker, a very smooth talker at times. He was a very good singer, an accomplished piano player and a trumpet player. He had a voice like Al Green -- to me, he sounded even better than Al Green. The personal problems he was dealing with, those were his problems. They never hurt anyone else."

By Monday evening, an appalled nation was learning about the grisliest hate crime in recent memory. Meanwhile, Berry and friends John William "Possum" King and Lawrence Russell Brewer -- all with nonviolent criminal records -- were in the Jasper County jail charged with capital murder.

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