ON FRIDAY NIGHTS IN AMARILLO, after the high school football season and its hopes have faded, there is a restless energy on Western Street, where students from Amarillo High and its crosstown rival, Tascosa, idle in empty parking lots, leaning out the windows of their pickups to discuss the night’s possibilities. The uneasy tensions of adolescence reverberate along this broad boulevard lined with fast-food joints, convenience stores, and all-night drive-throughs, where the jocks and the punks and the kickers and the stoners while away their weekend evenings. Here, the jocks—sometimes called the White Hats for the ball caps they regularly wear—reign supreme: With a sense of certainty and the self-assurance of those who know their worth, they drive along Western Street, surveying the landscape as if it were their own. The objects of their scorn are the misfits who stand at its fringes: punks in patched-up pants and black leather jackets and the occasional blue mohawk. Over the years, the punks say, the White Hats have mocked and bullied them without mercy, spitting on them as they walk down the hall at school, roughing them up in the restroom, and swinging at them, on occasion, from the back of pickup trucks with bats. “Hey, freak,” the jocks would yell from their cars at the punks passing by on foot, scattering broken glass along the pavement as hurled beer bottles missed their mark.
Amarillo turned a blind eye to these cruelties until a brawl of such extraordinary violence erupted one night on Western Street that a Tascosa High football player would later say it “seemed like a dream.” It happened on a Friday night much like any other, a few weeks before Christmas in 1997. Rumors had been circulating at Tascosa all week that the football players—the Rebels—were going to fight the punks. The previous weekend there had been a scuffle between the two groups outside a coffee shop on Western Street at which seventeen-year-old Dustin Camp, the ruddy-cheeked center for the junior varsity team, had gotten into an argument with several punks. It had quickly escalated: Dustin’s windshield had been smashed, and though he denies it, the punks say he had taken swipes at them with his car before peeling off down the boulevard. Now he had returned to the coffee shop to see how the rematch would unfold. Beside him in his prized 1983 Cadillac sat varsity tight end Rob Mansfield and in the back was Rob’s friend Elise Thompson, a poised, serious-minded girl who would graduate as the valedictorian of the class of 1999. Elise had heard the rumors, but she didn’t believe they were anything more than the usual bluster. There was often such talk, but rarely did the boys do anything more than throw a few punches before hightailing it out of there.
As Dustin turned his Cadillac onto Western Street, the coffee shop came into view: A large group of boys in varsity jackets stood outside, along with dozens of students who had gathered to watch. Several punks, armed with bats and chains, soon approached, challenging the jocks to fight; the melee began in the parking lot across the way with a ferocity that sent a chill through Elise. Alarmed, she assumed that Dustin would take her and Rob home, but he steered his Cadillac toward the action, weaving through the boys, who wrangled with one another under the streetlights. To his left, he caught a glimpse of one of his good friends, Andrew McCullough, being beaten by several punks. It was then, Elise later recalled, that Dustin “snapped.” Veering toward the crowd, he knocked one of the punks off his feet and onto the hood of the Cadillac; the boy stared in startled amazement before falling off to the side. “Let’s go,” cried Rob as the punks pummeled the car with bats and fists, making a thunderous racket. “Let’s get out of here!” Dustin drove hurriedly toward the exit, then changed his mind; circling back around, he jumped a median as he picked up speed. Spotting a punk, nineteen-year-old Brian Deneke, striking someone, he drove steadily toward him. Brian turned for an instant as the headlights drew nearer and struck the Cadillac with a chain when it came too close.
Then there was a thud. Brian rolled up onto the hood before sliding beneath the car. Elise closed her eyes and prayed that it was only the median she had felt underneath the wheels.
“I’m a ninja in my Caddy,” Elise heard Dustin boast. “I bet he liked that one.”
Elise looked over her shoulder, out the back window, and saw Brian crumpled on the pavement in a pool of blood. “I might have screamed,” she later testified. “I was having trouble forming words…The emotions were so intense—we were overwhelmed. It was insane.”
The Cadillac lurched out of the parking lot and sped toward the highway, leaving Brian dying on the pavement. In its wake, over the course of the many months that followed, the city’s sympathies would be divided as it waited for the football player behind the wheel to be tried for murder. But in those first searing moments, as the Cadillac fled the scene, all of that was unforseeable to the three teenagers inside. After what seemed an interminable amount of time, Elise leaned forward, trembling, and asked the question that was no doubt on their minds: “What if he’s dead?”
AMARILLO STRADDLES THE FLAT, empty prairie that stretches north across the Panhandle toward Oklahoma—a stark landscape of wide-open sky and grassy plains unexpectedly broken just west of town by the upturned tailfins of Cadillac Ranch. It is arguably Texas’ last great Western outpost, a city of 169,000 bordered to the east by the ragged barbed wire of the stockyards and vast ranchland that extends to the horizon. Named “Amarillo” (Spanish for “yellow”) after the yellow wildflowers that bloom in its pastures each spring and the yellow soil that lines its creek banks, it is a place of contrary impulses: with