The Beating of Billy Ray Johnson

On a Saturday night three years ago, a mentally disabled black man from Linden was taken to a party filled with white kids half his age. A few hours later, he was dumped by the side of the road, bleeding and unconscious. But of all the crimes that were committed, none was worse than how the small East Texas town responded—and who were considered the victims.

DAYBREAK WAS STILL MORE THAN AN HOUR away on the morning of September 28, 2003, when Cass County sheriff’s deputy John Elder turned down Old Dump Road. Above the tree line, the sky was moonless and dark. Cass County is pressed deep into the northeastern corner of Texas, hard against the Arkansas and Louisiana state lines, and it is crisscrossed by back roads that meander into the woods, under pine awnings and over low-water crossings and past unincorporated communities not found on maps. Elder followed the blacktop as it tacked back and forth, and after roughly a mile, he spotted a silver pickup idling at a T in the road. Two young men who had called the sheriff’s department were sitting inside. “He’s over here,” the driver called out, motioning for the deputy to follow him. Elder fell in behind the pickup as it headed to the left, down a county road that had few houses or mailboxes or signs of life.

They came to a stop after half a mile, and Elder could make out a figure on the ground, huddled in the fetal position. He was a short, slight black man, and he was wearing only a T-shirt and jeans despite the cool weather. Elder knelt down, and after fishing the man’s identification out of his pocket, the deputy saw that he was Billy Ray Johnson. Around Linden, the county seat, Billy Ray was often seen hanging around the courthouse square or walking by the side of the road, and he was what people in town politely called “slow.” Elder could see that he was alive but in bad shape. The bottom half of his face was bruised and swollen, and his breathing sounded labored. His upper lip was cut, and blood had pooled on the ground under him. His entire body had been badly stung by fire ants. The deputy tried to wake him, but Billy Ray was unconscious.

Elder called for an ambulance and then inspected the pavement, searching for evidence of a hit-and-run. But he found no skid marks or broken glass, and so he turned to the two white men who had led him out there to ask them what they knew. Elder recognized the bigger, heavyset one with the crew cut as 24-year-old Corey Hicks, who had served in the Navy and now worked at the sheriff’s department as a jailer. Elder wasn’t familiar with Corey’s friend, 19-year-old Wes Owens, who stood with his hands in his pockets and said little. “Now, how did y’all find him?” Elder asked.

Corey shrugged. “We were just riding around,” he said, explaining that they had been at a party until early that Sunday morning. “We drove up on him and saw him laying there.”

Elder nodded and didn’t probe further. Billy Ray smelled of alcohol, and in the absence of any evidence of a hit-and-run, the deputy guessed that the 42-year-old had been out walking and had hit his head when he passed out. The two young men who had led him there were nothing if not helpful; when the paramedics arrived and loaded Billy Ray’s limp body onto a gurney, they helped lift him into the back of the ambulance.

But by the following morning, Billy Ray had yet to regain consciousness. A CAT scan found that he had suffered a subarachnoid hemorrhage, a serious brain injury that can be caused by blunt force to the head. While he lay in a coma, word spread that he had last been seen Saturday night at a pasture party with some white boys half his age. Still, the sheriff’s department did not grasp that it had a criminal investigation on its hands until Lieutenant Ray Copeland, the department’s chief investigator, began receiving anonymous phone calls—three that week, all from what sounded to him like the same soft-spoken white man. “Y’all need to look into what happened to Billy Ray,” the caller said, and hung up.

What the investigation unearthed was a story that no one in Linden wanted to believe: Billy Ray, who is mentally disabled, had been taken to a party, ridiculed, called racial slurs, knocked unconscious, and then dumped by the side of the road. Even the strangers who had come to his aid were not Good Samaritans but two of the perpetrators. Had the town’s white residents condemned what had happened to Billy Ray, the incident might have faded into memory; the crime pivoted on a single punch. Instead, they closed ranks, and juries in both criminal trials that followed declined to give the defendants more than a slap on the wrist. Now Morris Dees, one of the nation’s preeminent civil rights lawyers, has taken up Billy Ray’s case, and Linden—a place most Texans have never heard of—will likely become the focus of national attention when the wrongful-injury lawsuit goes to trial this spring. Whether a new jury will see things differently depends on how Linden perceives its own role in this drama: as a community that must redeem itself or as a small town unfairly maligned by outsiders.

BILLY RAY GREW UP LESS THAN TWO miles from where he had been found, in a sagging white trailer on Old Dump Road. He was raised by his widowed grandmother, Era Lockett Taylor—Miss Era, as she was called—after he was born with meningitis to mentally disabled parents. Billy Ray had five brothers, two of whom were also mentally disabled. (Relatives and neighbors raised all but the youngest son, Bonnie.) As a boy, Billy Ray was able to grasp simple concepts his mother had never mastered, like how to dial a phone number or pay for something in a store, but he couldn’t learn to read or write, and he was often the butt of other kids’ jokes; on the school bus, his cousins handed over their lunch money to his tormentors so he would be left alone. After he had to repeat the fifth grade, Miss Era pulled him out of school for good, and they lived in the woods, apart from

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