Manhunt at Menard Creek

Surrounded by snarling prison dogs, a thief drowns in a muddy slough after a two-day chase through the Big Thicket. Lawmen swear it was an accident, but the U.S. Justice Department wants to make a federal case out of it.

Long before they found Tommy Earl Haynes facedown in Menard Creek with a pack of hounds snapping at his body, it had seemed a safe bet that Haynes would never achieve a high public standing. His sister Elizabeth Martines hadn’t seen him in nearly a decade because, as she stated in a deposition, “I didn’t like to visit prisons.” The last time his legal wife, Billie Jean Haynes, had laid eyes on him was in 1983, when she observed Haynes driving a brand-new pickup and reported him to the sheriff for car theft. The only two men who ever spent much time with Haynes were two Tyler County officers who had made a virtual career out of arresting him. One of the last law enforcement officials to pursue Haynes, Hardin County sheriff Mike Holzapfel, appraised the lifelong criminal with a smirk and declared, “Tommy Earl Haynes was not an upstanding citizen, not a credit to society, and the world is probably better off without him.”

He was a 48-year-old illiterate with an IQ of 70, a speech impediment, a swarthy look, and an uncomplicated manner – a man of few natural gifts. In fact, he had three, according to the lawmen who knew him best, former Tyler County deputy sheriff B. J. Vardeman: “He was a natural born thief – he couldn’t help it any more than he could help breathing. He’d get started on a binge and take the most ungodly things. Tractors. Kitchenwares. Once he broke into a campsite and stole a deer mount and a bunch of other crap he couldn’t use. It was just the way he was.

“But, boy, he could fix an engine. Tommy was truly an excellent mechanic, especially diesel motors. He could fix a diesel quicker than a cat’ll lick its butt.

“And of course,” sums up the former deputy with a fond grin,” “in my forty years of law enforcement, Tommy was one of the best at losing dogs I’d ever seen.”

Time and again, the East Texas sheriffs would send the Texas Department of Criminal Justice’s tracking dogs after Haynes, chasing him through the lakelands and the pine forests, only to come back empty-handed. Tommy Earl Haynes knew all the tricks of eluding the hounds, and he displayed his full repertoire on January 19 and 20, 1991, during a treacherous two-day manhunt following one of his stealing sprees. When the dogs finally caught up with the thief in a slough feeding out of Menard Creek in the Big Thicket, it seemed an awful but fitting end. And that would, indeed, have concluded the lawless saga of Tommy Earl Haynes – were it not for a single lie, six small lacerations, and a host of incalculable motives on the part of individuals who saw in Haynes’s corpse far greater potential than they had ever seen in his life as a career criminal.

Time levels us all, but not before having a little sport: It swats down kings one minute and makes martyrs out of miscreants the next. In death, Tommy Earl Haynes became larger than life. The ink was barely dry on his autopsy report when the videotaped beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles police officers hit the airwaves. The horrified reaction to the King videotape spread from Washington, D.C., where the U.S. Department of Justice announced that it would scour the nation for similar brutality cases, to East Texas, where the lacerations on Haynes’ scalp began to look – to federal investigators – like the handiwork of a lawman’s pistol butt. As the King beating would come to symbolize the malevolence of the Los Angeles Police Department, so too would the Haynes episode confirm the Justice Department’s long-standing belief that the Texas prison system was capable of anything, including a murder cover-up.

Thereby did the death of a two-bit thief inaugurate what has now become a massive federal investigation, in which the two Texas prison officers who participated in the manhunt may ultimately be charged with civil rights violations involving death. But two years’ worth of subpoenas, exhumations, accusations, and lawsuits have produced no indictments. Gradually it has become evident that this is not so much a case of murder as the latest episode in a self-righteous federal agency’s ongoing crusade against the Texas prison system – that is to say a bureaucratic brawl in which Haynes and the two prison officers figure only as pawns. Underneath the layers of haze and intrigue remains the question that in all likelihood can only be answered by a dead man: What happened to Tommy Earl Haynes down on Menard Creek?

THE DOG BOSS

Out by the dog kennels at the edge of the Wynne Unit prison farm, the division of authority is unmistakable. There are the servants: the dogs, the horses, and the inmate kennelmen. And then there is the man they all serve, dog sergeant Gene Stokes. The 44-year-old sergeant has a boyish face and aqueous blue eyes, but the inmates – who spend most of their time studying correctional officers for signs of exploitable weaknesses – have long since given up probing Stokes for soft spots. He saves his easy chatter for off the premises. When the kennelmen bring him his cup of coffee, he accepts it without so much as a nod. When they edge too close during a conversation with a visitor, he snaps, “What?” and the kennelmen stammer, “Nothing, Sarge,” and scurry off.

Toughness is part of the job, and the twenty-year Texas Department of Criminal Justice personnel history of Gene Archie Stokes suggests that few in the TDCJ system do their job better. Both in 1979 and in 1986, the dog sergeant was a finalist for TDCJ Officer of the Year. His personnel file is crammed with thank-you letters from East Texas sheriffs who have called upon Stokes and his dogs to apprehend jail escapees, drug dealers, and murderers. In a letter of commendation, a former warden described Stokes as “a very effective handler of

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