The Horse Killers

Bored and angry, a group of kids in a small East Texas town took out their hostility on a horse, whose violent death shocked the world.

THE HORSE WAS A FOURTEEN-YEAR-OLD sorrel gelding with a blaze face. As it lay there in the bloodstained meadow, with its right eye gone milky and its rear covered with gashes, the softness of its coat remained unmarred, its hindquarters still rippled, and above its sturdy back, its long mane hung in an insouciant tease. Its legs still suggested power and grace, war and play. Even beaten to death, the horse looked strangely indomitable.

Its registered name was Mister Wilson Boy, and in earlier years it had been a prizewinning cutting horse. Of late its knees had become arthritic, and so the horse had passed its final days in a ten-acre pasture just west of the East Texas town of Silsbee. Both the pasture and the horse were owned by Silsbee High School football coach Charlie Woodard, an even-tempered 53-year-old man who taught Sunday school at the First Methodist Church. Woodard was that rare Texas football coach who was more interested in the lives of the boys who played the game than in the game’s outcome. He loved children, and one way he showed this was by frequently letting them ride Mister Wilson Boy around his pasture. Woodard trusted his horse around children, and children around his horse—until the morning of Monday, September 18, 1995, when he was informed that the brutes who had clubbed his horse to death four days earlier were seven boys and one girl, ranging in age from eight to fourteen.

The revelation shocked and disturbed Coach Woodard—“It ruins my faith in humanity,” he told a friend. The owner’s reaction turned out to be the tamest on record. From all over America, letters seething with revulsion and vindictiveness poured in to the Hardin County courthouse: “What horrible children we are raising in this country.” “They are our future Mansons, Gacys, and other perverts. Do not allow them back into society.” “I believe any punishment you can give these monsters cannot be severe enough!” “I would suggest a public, bare-butt caning of them.” “Perhaps we should wrap them in barbed wire and beat them with sticks.” “Hang them and get it over with.” So hostile was the public sentiment, says Hardin County prosecutor David Sheffield, that “it put me, the prosecutor of the kids, in a position of wanting to defend them. We had to put up metal detectors in the courthouse halls. After reading all these letters about how the kids should be hanged or mutilated, we were worried that some nut was going to come down to Hardin County and take care of the horse problem himself.”

Improbably, the Silsbee horse-killing case became one of the most talked-about crime stories of 1995. Readers of the New York Times, the Washington Post, and newspapers in England and Australia were alerted to the macabre drama; Time magazine sent a reporter and a photographer to Silsbee; and Ann Landers waxed indignant in her column. In an age that finds us immunized from any horror we may inflict upon each other, the eight Silsbee youths may have committed one of the last outrages left to commit.

Why they did so was a matter lost in the stampede to punish them. What clues there are suggest a conclusion at odds with the prevailing belief that the horse killing was simply the grisly handiwork of eight Jeffrey Dahmers in the making. The perpetrators shared three elements: their town, which was Silsbee; their attitude toward authority, which (with one notable exception) was disrespectful; and their skin color, which was black. The Hardin County authorities never revealed that last fact to the press, perhaps fearing that the disclosure would only further inflame the public’s passions. Since then, however, two mothers whose four children have been sent to correctional facilities insist that the sentences were racially motivated. Few Silsbee residents want to believe that this is true, just as few wish to believe that the experience of being black in East Texas somehow set the stage for the children’s violent outburst in Coach Woodard’s pasture. Regardless, it is hard to deny that this peculiarly rural crime story harbors more than a few distinctly (and depressingly) urban elements. It is as if William Golding retold The Lord of the Flies using the characters from Boyz N the Hood and then set his hostile mob loose on Silsbee.

WHEN WE HEARD ABOUT WHAT happened to Charlie Woodard’s horse, I said, ‘I’ll bet I can tell you exactly who did it,’” a faculty member of Silsbee Middle School tells me. “Sure enough, I was right. They were the worst kids we had.”

Then she catches herself and says, “I take that back. Oliver was a big surprise. That one blew us all away.”

Oliver (whose name, as with the rest of the juveniles in this story, has been changed) grew up in Silsbee, a quiet East Texas town of lumber mills and churches less than twenty miles north of Beaumont. He grew up on the predominantly black west side, an area abutting the railroad tracks that no one would confuse with suburbia. Of the eight juveniles accused of killing Coach Woodard’s horse, none had it worse than Oliver. His mother had died in childbirth, and his father was addicted to crack. Oliver lived with his father and three siblings in a house that seems to be standing only as a monument to decay. Its roof is tattered, its front door is pocked with holes, and the walls appear to be on the verge of collapse. When Oliver’s father was sent to county jail on a drug possession charge a few years ago, the children moved in with their maternal grandmother a couple of miles away, in a one-room rural shack that appeared to lack running water, judging by the condition of the house and the smell of urine that accompanied the children to school.

If any of the accused had a right to hate the world, it was Oliver, who wore soiled clothes and shoes that seemed to be rotting

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