When Houston winters are grim, they are that much grimmer in Channelview. Heading east out Interstate 10, the big city’s stately pines, designer skyscrapers, and tasteful suburbs give way to postmarked asphalt, ramshackle churches, and rusting ship-channel businesses. When the cold, steady winter rain starts to fall, as it did unrelentingly last January, Channelview seems drenched in a dingy futility. The only color seems to be the perilous orange of the refinery gas flares; at the Dell Dale highway exit, the white elephant rearing about the flea market looks hopelessly grimy, and off the road the rain soaks the yards of the tract and trailer homes to a dirty brown. In such weather, people lose their resolve: In the Baptist temples, they turn to hymns of salvation but do not keep time with the melody; in the pawnshops, they hock their baby furniture, stub out their cigarettes, and think about looking for work out of town. Winter in Channelview can bring menace and breed hopelessness, two qualities with which Wanda Holloway, who had spent most of her life here, was more than well acquainted.
This January, however, was going to be different. Slight and pretty, with dark shoulder-length hair brushed off her face, Holloway, 37, had the tighter jawline of so many women who start with little but the determination to better themselves. She had certainly done that. Holloway had worked as a secretary, she was a gifted pianist at her church, and she had married well. Holloway, in fact, had made herself into a well-regarded member of the Channelview community. She was, in local parlance, “a lovely person” in a place where that was not so common; she was, in the words of her daughter’s junior high school principal, “very refined, spoke good English, and was beautifully attired.”
But unbeknownst to almost everyone, Wanda Holloway was also a brooder, and, law enforcement sources speculate, she had spent years brooding on a problem for which she finally found a dark solution. The story has since made headlines in everything from the Channelview Sentinel to the British tabloids; Holloway believed that by hiring someone to kill 38-year-old Verna Heath and her 13-year-old daughter, Amber, she would assure her own daughter, Shanna, of a place on the cheerleading squad at Channelview High School. For help, she turned to one Terry Harper, her first husband’s brother, who would later recall that when ordering the hit, Wanda was calm: “She wanted it done. She said she could handle it.” As has also been reported, Terry Harper, fortunately, could not. He took her scheme to the police. The two officers who arrested Holloway on January 30 would remember that when they told her that she was charged with solicitation of capital murder, she showed no reaction at all.
She was, most likely, the last person to respond in such fashion. That was, after all, before the story of the Pom-pom Mom would cause an international sensation, before the value of cheerleading would be as hotly debated as the Gulf War, before every major player in this drama would receive a call from Geraldo, before the people of Houston and beyond would open their morning papers to find that, thanks to the strange, seemingly inexplicable dreams of one formerly anonymous, innocuous woman, their winter doldrums were over and a true story of Channelview had begun.
“This is a made-for- TV movie, not a feature film,” one lawyer remarked dismissively a few weeks before Holloway’s February indictment. He may or may not be right, depending on which production company eventually wins the rights to whose story, but his remark still speaks to some essential Channelview truth: Here, a smaller, diminished view of life has a way of eclipsing larger ones. If, far away, Holloway’s story is viewed as an aberration, closer to home it makes more sense. To those who know Channelview, Wanda Holloway’s story is a story of place, and to understand the place is to understand almost everything.
“God created Channelview so the people of Pasadena would have someplace to look down on,” said criminal attorney Mike Ramsey, who was born and raised in Channelview. Physically, it straddles I-10 just outside of Houston on the way to Beaumont, though it has less in common with other faceless suburbs than with distinctive small towns. The brochure for the North Channel Chamber of Commerce depicts the area as one where new brick mansions nestle in pine groves, complete with ponds populated with regal swans, and the streets have pastoral names like Woodforest and Sterling Glen, but Channelview is in no way bucolic. The brochure also asserts that lights from tankers on the ship channel glisten just as brightly as those of the Houston skyline at night, but Channelview is in no way romantic. It is instead unabashedly rough, taking a defensive posture against the world. Neighboring communities like Deer Park and Baytown were created and dominated by Shell and Exxon and so maintained a corporate courteousness that Channelview lacks — the place has no sponsor. One tabloid TV show got it right when it focused on a welcome sign that announced, “Don’t Mess With Channelview.”
Mostly white, resolutely working class, it was, even as late as the seventies, a Ku Klux Klan stronghold. In the sixties and seventies, when Wanda Holloway was coming of age, the high school students could be evenly divided between dopers and ropers. Mike Ramsey and most of his friends grew up on better than nodding terms with the bars on market Street. One of his friends had an ear torn off in a fight, and when an emergency room doctor told Ramsey that he could reattach the ear if Ramsey could retrieve it, the lawyer returned to find a scroungy dog sniffing hungrily for more remains. You don’t see “Yard of the Month” signs in Channelview; instead, particularly on the south side of I-10, you see homes guarded by German shepherds, rottweilers, or mastiffs. People here have even steeled themselves against the very air they