Small Town America

Henry wasn’t a bad kid, he just grew up in…

Henry wasn’t a bad kid, he just grew up in a lower income area of town where peer pressure required him to do things that were considered bad. In January 1980, Henry and his buddies had been doing car burglaries at a local cowboy club for several weeks, making a little money off the stuff they boosted. This Saturday night they were looking to do the same. But tonight they picked a car parked next to a van occupied by a couple of out-of-state boys that were having a good time with a couple of girls. As Henry and his crew started to break into the car, the two out-of-state boys heard them and slipped out the back of the van with a big .44 caliber Ruger. They stepped around the back of the van and said something to the effect of “Freeze.” With that Henry and his crew broke and some ran toward the back of the club, while others toward a low-rent housing complex. The guy with the gun then fired two or three rounds in the direction the kids had run.

Unfortunately for Henry though, a 240-grain .44 round hit him just behind the right ear and exited the front of his forehead. He fell over a cable suspended between posts about 18 inches off the ground, landing face down with one foot hanging on the cable. The two out-of-state boys figured they might be in trouble so they boogied out of the parking lot and back to their home state. Henry’s buddies all split up and ran home with no one knowing Henry had been hit.

The next morning Henry’s dad got worried because Henry had not come home last night. Since he was only 12, he usually did not stay out all night. His father went and talked with some of the kids Henry ran with and they told him about the incident at the club. Henry’s father went back to the cowboy club and found him lying over the cable fence. He went home and told his wife and called the police. That was when I got the call to respond to a homicide in our small town, population 7,600.

policestories.jpgOn my arrival at the scene, the patrol officers who were working had the scene around the body secure. The Chief of Police had already arrived and started a preliminary investigation. During a canvass search of the open area, a purse was found that contained a driver’s license of a female who lived in the area. There was also a vehicle parked in front of the cowboy club that coincidently came back registered to the same woman and the doors had been pried open. An interview of Henry’s crew revealed they had seen a van leaving the area just after the shooting, the only distinguishing fixture on the van they could describe was teardrop windows in the rear of the van. We heard from the crowd gathered just outside the crime scene that they thought a security guard had been the one who shot Henry because he drove a van and he had worked the low-income projects before and had not made many friends in that area. It did not matter that his van did not fit the description of the suspect vehicle and that he was working a security job 40 miles away at the time of the shooting.

A security guard working at the club that night had walked to the front door of the club after hearing gunfire, looked out, and saw a dark colored van with teardrop windows in the back of it leaving on the highway, which ran in front of the club, but failed to investigate their origin or call police to investigate (we obtained the description after we talked to him the morning of the discovery of the body). However, several in the crowd had their minds made up the security guard, who was not even around, was the shooter. The crowd fueled the fires by starting a story that Henry had been killed, beaten, and then hung “crucifixion style” on a chain link fence behind the apartment complex by a mob of minority-hating cowboys and security personnel. This was about 6:30 a.m. and the minority community was already starting to rumble with demands of swift action by the police to arrest the security guard, or trouble would follow.

We contacted the female who owned the car and purse, and learned from her that the purse theft and damage to the doors on her car had not happened the previous night but a week or two before. She had not reported the incident at the time it happened because she did not think anything would be done about it. Turns out she was not real high on law enforcement. During the interview, we asked if she knew anyone who drove a van with teardrop windows. To our surprise she said she did and gave us some names. After talking to several other people we got an idea of the whereabouts of the owner of a van fitting the description of the one seen leaving the scene just after the shots were heard. He lived about 45 minutes away in a neighboring state. We also got the name of a girl who ran around with the guy from the same area in that state, who they called “Mad Dog,” and who was in the club the night before.

After the crime scene was cleared and Henry’s body had been removed, the chief and I headed to the neighboring state. We made contact with the Sheriff of the county where the suspects lived and he met us in the small town to search for the suspect and vehicle. Like I said, it was a small town and as soon as we gave him the suspect’s name he took us to a house in the middle of town. There in the driveway sat a maroon van with teardrop windows in the rear. We knocked and made contact with the male suspect. The sheriff asked him to go with him to the sheriff’s office in the nearby county seat. He agreed and we followed them to town.

The interview started friendly, with him admitting that he had been in our town the night before in his van and had been at the cowboy club. But that is where the interview started to become tense. He said he had been alone and had not heard any gunfire or seen any kids breaking into cars. We then interviewed the girl we had been told ran with him. A deputy had brought her in not long after we arrived at the sheriff’s office. She gave us the name of another male who had been with them at the cowboy club the night before. The sheriff sent a deputy to find him and we re-interviewed the first male. He admitted the female and the other male had been with him at the club, but that’s about all he would say. The interview dragged on for several hours. All the time we were getting calls from our dispatch that we needed to hurry and get someone arrested and get back home because the situation there was getting worse by the minute. There was a large crowd that had formed at the city hall demanding action over the killing or “blood would run in the streets.” There were still several people demanding the arrest of the original security guard.

As our interview continued, more information would be learned as to the activity of the trio, which turned out to be four people at the cowboy club. We interviewed the second male for several hours and he would not admit to any gunplay, even though he admitted to seeing the kids trying to break into the car parked next to them in the parking lot, having a gun in the van, and told us where the gun was. A deputy and I went back to a house in the town where the suspects lived and recovered a 7.5-inch barrel .44 caliber Ruger Super Blackhawk. Finally, some time around 9:30 p.m. he asked for a lawyer. He was told we would get him a lawyer, but we needed to get this cleared up tonight. With that, we did not ask him any other questions, but he spontaneously said, “I just want one thing understood, I’m the only one that did any shooting last night. My friend did not have anything to do with it.” Our dispatch continued calling, telling us we needed to get back, because there had been random gunfire, several stores including liquor stores had been broken into, and the cowboy club had been set on fire.

Responding fire units had come under small arms fire, causing the firemen to have to retreat and let the club burn. The suspect would not waive extradition, so after we got him booked into the out-of-the-state county jail we started back home in a driving rain. We monitored the radio traffic from our town and heard officers saying they were taking heavy gunfire. Then we heard “officer down” calls coming in and officers calling for ambulances because they had suspects down from return gunfire. By now we were driving about 120 mph in heavy rain and I thought several times we would not make it back home. I thought to myself, “It’s going to be one hell of a wreck with no one to respond to it because all our ambulances are tied up in town.”

When we finally made it back, we were informed that there had been a crowd who kind of took over the city hall and the police station for a short period, and the mayor had been talking to a self-appointed delegation of citizens who were demanding everything from the arrest of the security guard to several cases of beer. There had been a report of an armed mob down on a main street leading out of town that ran in front of the cowboy club. A group of officers consisting of local police officers, deputies, and state troopers went to the location to break up the crowd, but it turned out to be an ambush set up to pull them in. Just as they stopped in front of a closed beer joint, they came under heavy small arms fire from concealed locations. One officer was killed, one wounded, and at least one car disabled before they could pick up the downed officers and pull back to a safe location. A tactical team was sent in to disable the radios in the disabled unit and it was learned then that a shotgun had been stolen out of the unit. It was decided to block off the area until daybreak when more assistance could be brought in.

I was assigned to a roadblock to keep traffic from entering, I guess what you would call, a free fire zone near the burning cowboy club. We received sporadic gunfire throughout the rest of the night. There was only one casualty, a private citizen who was told to turn around at our roadblock. He called us cowards, drove around the block and shortly afterwards returned with a shotgun wound to his left arm and the left side of his face. Luckily the shooter was far enough away that the pellets did not penetrate very deeply and his wounds were minor.

The next morning the only vehicle traffic in town were marked patrol cars, Police, Sheriff, and State Troopers. There must have been 100 or more troopers in town; they had been brought in from as far as 250 miles away. I think we even had some Texas cops who showed up. My partner and I drove down through the crime scene where the officer had been killed and found another body lying by an abandoned house. When we called it in, there must have been about 50 people who showed up, crime bureau agents, highway patrol tactical team, we even had helicopter support circling the scene.

For the next several days we didn’t have anyone else shot, but we had numerous incidents that had to be addressed. Several Ku Klux Klan members came into town from out-of-state and offered their help, which we declined. A couple passed out communist literature and tried to stir up more trouble and a ton of news media. This was a real shock here in small town America. The governor had the state crime bureau open an investigation into the matter, several committees for change were formed, and the investigation of Henry’s death gathered steam.

I had been called into work on Sunday about 6:00 a.m. and I finally got to go home Thursday night about midnight. During this time I had about 3 hours sleep, not just me but also every officer in our department.

Total losses over a good old out-of-state boy taking care of things on his own: four dead, several wounded, and thousands of dollars in property damage done. We never did find out just how many people got hit by gunfire because most did not report it. There was one body found in a well out of state, believed to have been a casualty of this incident. Oh, the out-of-state boy that started all this, he went to trial and was released by the jury on a technicality. — JW, OK

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