101 Sure Signs That Summer Anne Burton Is From Texas

After four hectic months working remotely from Austin as the weekend editor for the New York–based news and entertainment website BuzzFeed, Summer Anne Burton accepted a full-time editing position with the company in 2012. For someone who loves creating and curating things on the Internet—she has an active Tumblr, a blog featuring her drawings of major league baseball Hall of Famers, and another blog devoted to obscure music from the fifties and sixties—it was a dream job.

Clear Eyes, Full Wallets

Tom Westerberg would just as soon not answer another question about Allen High School’s Eagle Stadium. “It’s the same thing over and over and over,” the coach of the Allen football team says of the parade of journalists that has interviewed him over the past several months. They want to know about the extraordinary amount of money that was spent on the facility in advance of its 2012 opening. They want to know about the problems that forced the stadium to close this past February.

The Witness

I.

Ms. Lyons,
Hi, if you are reading this then they killed me. I wanted to tell you that I enjoyed talking to you, you seem like a really great lady. I’m sorry we didn’t meet under different circumstances. . . . Thank you for your kindness. Have a wonderful day.
—Letter from death row inmate Robert Coulson, June 25, 2002

Early one morning in April, Michelle Lyons pulled up outside her daughter’s elementary school in Huntsville, seventy miles north of Houston. Set deep in the Piney Woods, Huntsville—which is home to no fewer than five prisons—is a company town whose primary industry is confinement. Many parents who were dropping their children off at school that day worked for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, Huntsville’s largest employer. Michelle, who sat behind the wheel of her blue Chevy sedan nursing a travel mug of coffee, had worked for TDCJ herself for more than a decade. She had been the public face of the agency, a disarmingly friendly, upbeat spokesperson for the biggest prison system in the nation. Though she had left the position two years earlier, she was still well-known around town, and several mothers waved as her car idled in the drop-off line. “Have a beautiful day,” she murmured when her nine-year-old leaned in to kiss her goodbye. 

When Michelle first went to work for TDCJ, in 2001, she had begun each weekday morning by driving into town, past the picturesque courthouse square and toward the Walls Unit, the 165-year-old penitentiary that is Huntsville’s most iconic landmark. The prison, whose ramparts measure more than thirty feet high, is a colossal, foreboding structure crowned by razor wire—a two-block-long, red-brick fortress that houses the most active death chamber in the country. Michelle’s office occupied a corner of an administrative building directly across the street from the Walls, and one of the requirements of her job as a public information officer had been to attend every execution the state carried out. She had also attended executions for her previous job, as a reporter covering prisons for the hometown newspaper, the Huntsville Item. Michelle spent many evenings—hundreds, in fact—standing shoulder-to-shoulder with witnesses in a cramped room that afforded a view of the death chamber, where she watched as men, and two women, were injected with a three-drug cocktail that stopped their hearts. All told, she had seen 278 inmates put to death.

As Michelle pulled away from the school, she headed out of Huntsville, toward Interstate 45 and her new job more than an hour’s drive away, in downtown Houston. She cracked her window, grateful for the cool air on her face. Mornings, when her commute offered time to think back on everything she had seen at the Walls, were the hardest. She was flooded with memories from her time inside the Death House: of the conversations she had shared with particular inmates in the hours before they were strapped to the gurney; of the mothers, dressed in their Sunday best, who had turned out to attend their sons’ executions; of the victims’ families, their faces hardened with grief; of the sudden stillness that came over the prisoners soon after the lethal drugs entered their bloodstreams. She could still see some of these men—their chests expanding, their chins stiffening as they took their last breaths. 

These memories intruded with such frequency that Michelle no longer tried to push them out of her mind. Instead, she had started recording voice memos, letting her thoughts unspool as she drove alone in the car. She kept one eye on the road that morning as she rummaged through her purse for her iPhone, finally fishing it out and holding the microphone up to her mouth. “I support the death penalty,” she began. “I believe that there are some crimes that are so heinous that the only way you can truly pay your debt to society is with your life.” She spoke with the same deliberation she had used when addressing reporters outside the Walls after high-profile executions. “But in other cases, I feel very conflicted,” she added. “There are men I watched die that I don’t think should have.” A piece of folk art she had picked up on a trip to Austin—an evil-eye charm to ward off bad spirits—bobbed from her rearview mirror. “I thought being away from the prison system would make me think about it less, but it’s been quite the opposite,” she continued. “I think about it all the time.”

As she approached Houston’s outer suburbs, the East Texas pines receded, replaced by roadside billboards hawking vasectomy reversals and personal injury lawyers and Chick-fil-A. Michelle thought back to a few months earlier, when she had called her former boss, Larry Fitzgerald, on the way to work, as she did every now and then to check in on him. The authoritative sound of his voice—Larry had been a radio news reporter back in the sixties—had always reassured her. It was Larry who had recruited her to TDCJ, and their friendship had continued after he retired and Michelle succeeded him as the agency’s director of public information. Though Larry was 38 years her senior, they had remained close because of the peculiar history they shared. Wardens, guards, and prison administrators had come and gone, but she and Larry had each been a constant presence, attending virtually every execution during the period when George W. Bush’s bid for the presidency had thrust Texas into the international spotlight. 

Despite all the time the two had spent together—the workday lunches, the happy hours, the long evenings waiting to hear if the appellate courts would grant a reprieve—Michelle had never asked Larry how he felt about watching inmates die, and he had never offered his opinion. So when she had phoned him from the road the previous fall and he had casually mentioned that he was having nightmares—which he downplayed by calling them dreams—about his time inside the Walls, his words had sent a jolt through her. She could still picture the exact moment he made this admission: she had been making a turn onto the Hardy Toll Road, and the morning sun had been unbearably bright. That Larry too was struggling had unnerved her. He had always been the less serious one, the one who could shrug off the solemnity of the moment with a dry aside. Often after they exited the Death House, he would suggest they go drink margaritas. 

Michelle had forgotten where she had left off with her dictation. She was thinking about Larry, wondering which executions he relived in his dreams. Her own hard moments came when she was awake. She could still picture Ricky McGinn’s mother, an elderly woman who had arrived at her son’s execution in a floral dress and pearls. Michelle would never forget watching her try to rise from her wheelchair so she could see through the large pane of glass that separated her from the death chamber. On the other side lay her son, who had been sentenced to death for the rape and murder of a twelve-year-old girl. McGinn was flat on his back, each limb restrained with leather straps, an IV line stuck in each arm. The old woman, her wrinkled hands pressed to the glass, had watched intently as her son’s body went slack. Michelle thought about her as she drove to work that morning. When the Houston skyline rose up in front of her, she realized her face was wet with tears.

II.

This was my first execution and I was completely fine with it, although many, many people asked me about if I really was okay. I really was. In fact, I felt bad, like, “Am I supposed to be upset about this? Do people think I’m bad or evil or something because I’m not?”
—Michelle’s journal, October 1, 1998

Before the responsibilityof watching an inmate die fell to a handful of state employees, executions in Texas were conspicuously public affairs. Few events in the nineteenth and early twentieth century could rival the spectacle of a hanging on the courthouse square, and Texans often marked years in relation to not just major fires and floods but also these sensational dispensations of justice. That changed in 1923, after an epidemic of lynchings began to erode the distinction between legal hangings—conducted only after a defendant was found guilty, by a jury, of a capital crime—and vigilantism, which prompted the Legislature to outlaw all public executions. From then on, defendants sentenced to death were sent to Huntsville, away from the emotionally charged settings of their crimes. Executions took place in the south wing of the Walls and were attended by a small group of prison employees and reporters. Electrocution, which was considered more state-of-the-art than the gallows, was adopted as the official means of execution.

For the next forty years, witnesses were subjected to a gruesome sight. Though the electric chair did its work more efficiently than the noose, it still proved to be a crude way to kill someone. In his memoir, Have a Seat, Please, the late Huntsville Item editor Don Reid described in unsettling detail the 1938 electrocution of “a tall, powerfully built Negro” named Albert Lee Hemphill, who had been convicted of the robbery and murder of a Dallas man. Reid recounted watching as Hemphill was led into the death chamber, where, just feet from the assembled witnesses, he “sank to his knees and sang ‘Just a Closer Walk With Thee’ in a deep, rich, and unfaltering baritone.” (Until 1989, nothing but a metal rail divided onlookers from the person slated to die.) When the 23-year-old finished, he was strapped to the chair, where a guard laid a Bible in his lap. Then the signal was given. “The room exploded with the mounting whine of the generators,” Reid wrote. “Hemphill’s body slammed forward against the restraining leather straps, and the Bible came sliding down his lap to the floor. I shrank back as the second jolt brought an odd red glow to Hemphill’s skin and steam drifted from his head and chest. A dreadful odor of burning flesh enveloped us all.”

Three hundred and sixty-one men were put to death by electrocution before Old Sparky was decommissioned, in 1977. The Legislature decided to retire the sturdy, high-backed, solid oak chair after a Dallas TV reporter named Tony Garrett filed a lawsuit along with the American Civil Liberties Union seeking permission to film executions and broadcast them to the public. When a federal judge in Dallas ruled in January 1977 that executions could indeed be televised, Texas lawmakers quickly moved to approve a new method that would be less offensive than electrocution. Their deliberations came on the heels of a four-year moratorium on the death penalty; the U.S. Supreme Court had only just reinstated capital punishment the previous July after a long legal battle over whether or not it violated the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment. Texas lawmakers settled on lethal injection, a method developed by the Oklahoma state medical examiner that was yet untested but promised a “gentle, humane” death, as one prison chaplain told a reporter, “just like . . . laying down and going to sleep.” James Estelle, the director of the Texas Department of Corrections (as TDCJ was then known), heralded it as “a more civilized way of carrying out our responsibilities.” 

Because of appeals and legal challenges, this new procedure would not be put into practice until five years later, when a Fort Worth man named Charlie Brooks became the first person in the United States to be executed using lethal injection. (A Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling had by this time barred executions from being televised.) Just before midnight on December 6, 1982, witnesses were led into the Death House, a small structure inside the Walls prison complex where Old Sparky had been housed since the fifties. There, they saw Brooks strapped to a gurney, “stiff with fright,” as Dick Reavis wrote for this magazine (“Charlie Brooks’ Last Words,” February 1983). An IV line led from Brooks’s arm through a small opening in the wall to an adjacent room, where the executioner was concealed behind a one-way mirror. Sentenced to death for the murder of a Fort Worth mechanic, Brooks met a far less violent end than his victim, who had been shoved into the trunk of a car, bound with coat hanger wire, gagged with tape, and shot in the head. When the lethal drugs began flowing, “a look of absolute, unmitigated terror took over his face,” wrote Reavis. “His agony of anticipation [lasted . . .] perhaps a minute, perhaps two minutes, before he felt death creeping in.” Brooks gasped and wheezed, then fell silent. At 12:16 a.m., seven minutes after the injection had begun, he was pronounced dead.

In the years that followed, prison officials from more than a dozen other states visited Huntsville after their legislatures adopted lethal injection as the method of execution. They toured the Walls, learning the precise protocol that TDCJ had developed for putting inmates to death. The process began with the warden asking the condemned to walk from his holding cell, where he had eaten his last meal, to the death chamber, fifteen feet away. There, five guards who constituted the “tie-down team” quickly strapped him to a gurney, buckling thick leather belts across his arms, legs, and torso, and a two-person “drug team” inserted IVs into his arms. Only three people remained in the chamber after that: the inmate, who gave a final statement; the prison chaplain, who had spent the day with the condemned and now stood at his side; and the warden, who motioned to the executioner when it was time to begin. Then the three-drug cocktail was injected into the IV lines. First came sodium thiopental, an anesthetic; followed by pancuronium bromide, a muscle relaxant; and finally potassium chloride, which causes cardiac arrest. For the witnesses who looked on, the experience was not unlike watching someone drift off to sleep.

By the time Michelle arrived in Huntsville, in the late nineties, executions had become routine, even banal, affairs, many of which merited only a brief mention in the local news. Because of the protracted appeals process for death row inmates, their sentences were often not carried out until more than a decade after their crimes, when many of them were more temperate, acquiescent versions of the men they had once been. Michelle was struck by the decorum inside the Walls, where men who had committed acts of extraordinary violence freely walked to the death chamber without any hesitation or need for force. She noted in particular the small courtesies that the prison staff extended to the condemned, as when the warden ensured that a pillow be placed at the head of the gurney so the inmate would be more comfortable, or when the chaplain placed his hand on the right leg of the restrained prisoner, just below the knee, to reassure him during his final moments. Later, as Michelle went about her job as TDCJ’s spokesperson, the incongruous civility of these gestures would never be far from her mind.

The Click Clique

It was a lovely April evening in downtown Dallas, the sky blank and blue. The Kate Spade cocktail party was scheduled to start at six o’clock, and as the minutes ticked past, two hundred young women in all their polymorphic plumage—stilettos, Céline bags, bangles, blowouts, and iPhones, always iPhones—began to gather on an Astroturf lawn across the street from the Joule Hotel. Passersby, leaving their offices for home or happy hours, might have thought the gathering was just another party full of beautiful people, not all that unusual in Dallas.

Except these weren’t just beautiful people. These were fashion bloggers, selfie stars whose facility with heated hair tools and knack for posing long ago upended a field once strictly dominated by runway shows and magazine glossies. In attendance, for example, was Aimee Song (known as @songofstyle, with 1.58 million followers), a Los Angeles blogger famous for her girly grunge aesthetic and lips-parted-eyes-staring-dead-into-the-camera expression; her Instagram of a pair of $580 Isabel Marant sandals (basically Birkenstocks with pink bows), which she’d bought earlier that afternoon, had garnered more than 27,000 likes. There was also Julie Sariñana (@SincerelyJules, 1.4 million), another L.A.-based blogger, whose photo outside the Joule in a white slip dress and Vince espadrille platform sandals would later be used to advertise the shoe, which had sold out at all department stores, on eBay. There was Andreas Wijk (@andreaswijk, 129k), the orange-colored Justin Bieber of Sweden, and Wendy Nguyen (@wendyslookbook, 510k), subject of the viral YouTube video “25 Ways to Wear a Scarf in 4.5 Minutes!” And then there was Dallas’s own Jane Aldridge (@seaofshoes, 132k), quietly slinking about in leather pants and a red flannel shirt, champagne in hand. 

The influence wielded by this flock of pout-prone lips and dewy eyelashes was nothing short of staggering. These partygoers reached more than 13.5 million followers on Instagram combined. Many made more than $20,000 a month—some more than $80,000—just from posting links to sites that sold the short-shorts and Chanel shoes that they wore in their photos. Factoring in the revenue from banner ads on their websites, sponsored posts, and store appearances, a number of top bloggers raked in more than $1 million a year. And now they were waiting—having flown in from Los Angeles and New York and more than eighteen countries, some as far away as Australia and China—to meet the person who had made much of this money-making possible: a redheaded 26-year-old from Highland Park named Amber Venz.

Amber and her boyfriend, Baxter Box, had revolutionized the fashion world a few years earlier when, almost single-handedly, they figured out how to do the near impossible: easily monetize the content of fashion blogs. In 2011, with only a modest family investment, they’d built rewardStyle, a fashion technology company that collects commissions from retailers on behalf of bloggers and more-traditional publishers (think the websites of some major magazines) whose pictures induce readers to buy baubles online. In three years the company had grown to include 87 employees in Dallas and London, a network of 4,000 retailers, and more than 14,000 “publishers,” who drove $155 million in retail sales in 2013 alone (rewardStyle declined to release information about its amount of revenue). As rewardStyle’s top 200 earners, the bloggers on the lawn had been invited to the company’s second annual conference, hosted at the Joule. Because rewardStyle only makes money when its publishers do, the goal of the next three days was to teach the women how to make even more money by giving them strategies for effective website design (NewYorker.com was used as a model) and for search engine optimization (using, as an example, the key words “Valentino Rockstud pumps” ). The cocktail party was a networking event to kick the invitation-only conference off.

Amber, however, had yet to make an appearance, though she had been haunting the premises. Two days prior she’d Instagrammed a picture (@venzedits, 31k) of herself peering into a soft-lit mirror, looking like an ethereal nymph. It was geotagged to the Joule penthouse. But earlier that afternoon she posted a video outtake from her shoot with a local style magazine at her headquarters, just north of downtown. Few that day had seen her in the flesh.

Not that she hadn’t taken care of her acolytes. In their hotel rooms, the bloggers had found galvanized-tin buckets full of gifts, some of them personally selected, like a $595 biker jacket (gray leather, size XS) by the London-based label Reiss given to Leandra Medine, the spunky New Yorker behind Man Repeller (@manrepeller, 650k). They’d also been given glossy “photography guides” that steered them to nearby ivy-covered walls and the Joule’s rooftop pool, places ideal for their snapshots. At noon, the flagship Neiman Marcus had hosted a lunch featuring male models—dressed in baby-blue blazers, paisley shirts, and pink shorts—as doormen. (Tiny takeout boxes of Asian-inspired noodles with pink plastic chopsticks and two-inch cheese pizzas in mini cardboard boxes with “#NMevents” stickers went mostly uneaten but frequently Instagrammed.) In the hotel’s Praetorian Room, racks of clothes had been interspersed with heaps of sweets—Smarties and rock candy and Jordan almonds and macarons (“a blogger’s basic food group,” one posted)—and because the key to a successful blog is having a photographer boyfriend, as all but one of the top five earners do, there was even a “boyfriend lounge.” “It’s wear [sic] the blogging boyfriends and husbands can hangout [sic] and complain about all the stuff we have to put up with,” posted the husband of blogger Julia Engel, from Gal Meets Glam (@juliahengel, 235k), on Instagram. In the late afternoon, caterers had begun to wheel white sofas and cocktail tables across the street from the hotel, where the women were now gathering, depositing the furniture on the Astroturf that stretched in front of Tony Tasset’s thirty-foot-tall, disturbingly realistic eyeball sculpture, a.k.a. THE EYE. The tables were topped with black-and-white-striped tablecloths and special, softball-size pink peonies had been flown in from New York, ostensibly because they were Kate Spade’s favorite flower. 

rewardStyle Amber Venz Kate Spade Party

THE EYE had never seen anything like it. As the party got under way, the bloggers, uncased iPhones at the ready, started snapping selfies. A gaggle of them, in Kate Spade shorts and party dresses, posed for a photo that Kate Spade itself would later Instagram. It would receive more than 13,400 likes, and it was relentlessly mocked by the snarky web forum Get Off My Internets (GOMI), whose users were avidly following the #rSTheCon hashtag (for “rewardStyle The Conference”) from home. They were quick to point out that there was a very long tail to rewardStyle’s invite list; a number of the company’s most-acclaimed clients were not present and many smaller bloggers had made it off the waiting list, paying $350 to attend. GOMI dubbed the whole affair, during which no fewer than six bloggers Instagrammed their feet in $995 Valentino Rockstud pumps, “The Rockstud Rodeo.”

And then, finally, Amber arrived, and all the women turned to her, like magpies drawn to a shiny object. She was instantly recognizable, her look that of a high-fashion cartoon character: long red bob, porcelain legs, coral cheeks, a cleft chin, and the sort of small teeth that look rich and innocent. She was wearing a navy-and-white wide-stripe crop top with matching high-waisted short-shorts and strappy gold heels. Her twinset was from ASOS, an online fast-fashion giant, and matched the tablecloths. But her youth, her twiggy limbs, and her flawless complexion made the ensemble look expensive. Baxter, rewardStyle’s CEO, stood beside her in shorts and a blazer. Each held a leash, at the end of which was a Rottweiler pup, sniffing the plastic grass perplexedly.

Mary Beech, a model blonde and Kate Spade's senior vice president and chief marketing officer, took to the mike and attempted to seduce the women clustered in the audience. “We’re a very authentic brand,” she said, “and you all are very authentic in what you do. You are all incredibly influential, and we love the way you position our product.” But her speech, with its fanciful character descriptions of the Kate Spade customer (“She wallpapers the rental apartment. She sings off-key but with great spirit”) didn’t hold the bloggers’ attention as much as Amber, the epitome of poise and perfect posture. 

Amber, for her part, didn’t even address the crowd. As bloggers hovered to make their introductions, she stood with Baxter, greeting young women with a tap-tap of a hug. Yet her smile was warm, and she exuded a charming openness, like an eager-to-please co-conspirator. Her admirers basked in the attention, then crouched down to pet the dogs (@BearandLuca, 279 followers) before posing for more pictures. 

The Texanist

Q: My friends and I were paddling the Devils River in Val Verde County last spring. We drank some beer, we spilled our gear, and before we knew it, it was getting dark and we hadn’t found a good island to camp on. So we pitched a tent on the bank below a bluff. Or at least we’d started to, when the owner of said bluff appeared and loudly informed us that we were on his property and needed to get lost.

Turning the Page

clearly remember the summer day in 1996 when Evan Smith asked me to come to his office for the first time. He was Texas Monthly’s deputy editor. I was an unpaid intern, sitting in a cubicle within shouting distance of his doorway and searching something called “the Internet.” When I heard my name, I felt like I was being called up to the big leagues.

Confessions of a Fat Bastard

"I thought you'd be fatter."

It’s a common outburst when people first meet me at a barbecue event, book signing, or one of the hundred-plus barbecue joints I visit in a year traveling across Texas and beyond. 

“How are you not . . . ,” a pause to size me up, “. . . four hundred pounds?” 

At least they figure I weigh less than a car engine. Otherwise I might consider the question rude.

This line of inquiry appears to be an unavoidable hazard of the job. Since Texas Monthly named me the nation’s first and only full-time barbecue editor in March 2013, my health has been a topic of international discussion. When the New York Times reported on the news of my hiring—calling me “a walking milestone in the history of Texas barbecue”—they asked Jake Silverstein, Texas Monthly’s then editor in chief and the man who hired me, about plans for my fitness program. “He’s figured out how to make the barbecue lifestyle compatible with staying above ground” was his response. A few months later, a live spot with an Australian morning show ended with the female host exclaiming, “Oh, your poor colon!” They went to commercial before I could thank her for her consideration.

The Greek chorus of Twitter also regularly pipes up, with followers happy to stand in for my mother:

From @chuck_blount: @BBQsnob How often do you get your cholesterol checked? 

And @JaimesonPaul: Daniel Vaughn’s heart attack is going to be so sad.

And @KLewie: @BBQsnob I had a heart attack in march. Not fun. Be careful my friend. But I’m still smokin but just not eating as much. Luv ya man.

Weird as it is to say, I understand the morbid fascination with my 36-year-old cardiovascular system. My job requires that I travel from one end of the state to the other eating smoked brisket, one of the fattiest cuts on the steer. And I can’t forget to order the pork ribs, sausage, and beef ribs. Of course my diet is going to raise eyebrows. Including those of my doctor. During one of my semiannual visits to see him, when my blood work showed an elevated cholesterol level, he gave me a scrip for statins and a helpful catalog of high-cholesterol foods to avoid. First on the list? Beef brisket. Second? Pork ribs. When I told him about my role as barbecue editor, he just said, “Maybe you could eat a little less brisket.” I promised to focus more on smoked chicken, but the pledge was as empty as the calories in my next order of banana pudding. 

My wife, Jen, also has concerns. My editor, Andrea Valdez, once asked her if she was worried about my health based on my profession. Jen replied, “Shouldn’t we all be?” But to her credit, she’s been supportive of my decision to change careers (albeit a bit less enthusiastic than she was when I was made an associate at the Dallas architecture firm I worked with for six years). Only once has Jen placed restrictions on my diet. Back in 2010, when I was regularly writing for my blog, Full Custom Gospel BBQ, and doing research for my book, The Prophets of Smoked Meat, she declared February “Heart Healthy Month” and banned me from eating barbecue. Suffering from withdrawal, I turned to cured meats. She got so sick of seeing salami and speck in the fridge (I think I even staged a bacon tasting at one point), she let me off the hook three days early. That was the last prolonged barbecue hiatus I can remember.

All jokes aside, I do understand the long-term perils of my profession. I’ve taken those statins religiously for several years, and I’m doing my part to keep the antacid market in business. But I’m usually more worried about the acute health concerns I face. I judged the “Anything Goes” category at a cookoff in South Texas and spat out a submission mid-chew that featured some severely undercooked lobster tails. At a barbecue joint in Aubrey, I took a bite of beef rib that I had reasonable suspicion to believe had been tainted with melted plastic wrap. And the most gastrointestinal discomfort I’ve ever had came from the 33 entries of beans I judged in one sitting at an amateur barbecue competition in Dallas. 

But my health is my concern. To anyone who asks if I’m worried about an early grave, I just say I’ve pre-humously donated my body to barbecue. 

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