“TELL ME SOMETHING,” CHUCK SMITH asks, fixing me with a Rasputin-like stare. “Would you let your kids suffer? Would you break the law to keep them safe?” His voice, usually as fervent as an evangelist’s, drops to a half-whisper. “Would you sacrifice everything for your own kids?”
It took the case of Kenneth Allen McDuff to reveal to the public what Texas politicians have known for years: The state parole system is rife with bad judgment and the potential for corruption. Now an Austin grand jury is investigating allegations that McDuff and other violent criminals have bought their way out of state prisons.
A couple of miles north of Childress, near a curving dirt road that intersects two cotton fields, there stands a drooping, wide-limbed horse apple tree with its largest branch broken nearly in half. It is the hanging tree, one of the most talked-about landmarks in town. Yet most residents know of it only by hearsay. “They’d prefer not to go out there, if you know what I mean,” says David McCoy, the district attorney. “Not that they’ll tell you the place is haunted.
The knocks came after midnight. We were in bed upstairs, sleeping so soundly that the noise seemed, at first, just part of a dream.
Before the law caught up with Steve Benifiel last year, he had become known as the biggest badass in West Texas. In the little town of Ranger, 86 miles west of Fort Wroth, people told stories about him the way old-timers once talked about Bonnie and Clyde. He had been called a bully, a thief, a forager, a drug lord, a loan shark, a pimp, a gunrunner. There were rumors that he had been a hit man. That he had Mafia connections. That he had taken a double-crossing friend out into a cornfield and shot him in the kneecaps.
Everyone knew Forrest Carter had been drinking. It was October 1978, and the novelist from Abilene was a guest speaker at the Wellesley College Club book-and-author luncheon in Dallas. Wearing his trademark cowboy hat, the author of the Rebel Outlaws: Josey Wales and other Western adventures delivered a slurred speech about the need for people to love one another.
Forest Lawn North is a newer cemetary nestled just beyond the commercial chaos that is Houston’s Farm Road 1960. Flat, small, and bordered by pines, it has the look and smell of a pasture. It is a place for people whose roots in the community did not go very deep: The tombstones do not date back very far, and there are no imposing family mausoleums or impressive statuary, just a whitewashed wooden sidewalk leading to a modest but well-intentioned gazebo.
Nineteen ninety-one may well be remembered as the year most Texans came to expect that they would become victims of violent crime. People went to sleep at night listening for the sound of breaking glass and watching for shadows on the walls; no longer oddly reassured by the old saw that most murders are committed by people known to their victims, Texans became afraid of people who passed them on the street, of people in convenience stores, of people on city buses.
That Monday in early April, the humidity swept over the forests north of Houston like a soggy blanket. The eminent cell biologist Dr. Barry Van Winkle was not pleased. Humidity always gave him a stuffy nose, and he had no time this morning for such matters. There was an important paper to finish for the Journal of Histochemistry and Cytochemistry and an experiment to perform involving a heart-cell membrane. Van Winkle was an ambitious, impatient man.