FOR THE LONGEST TIME, PEOPLE BELIEVED that Godwin Park was one of the safest places in Houston. It nestles quietly in Meyerland, the heart of the city’s Jewish community, a neat square that is, in total, about the size of a city block. A cheery elementary school—named to the state’s honor roll, a banner notes—occupies one side of the park, but plenty of space remains for a soccer field, a baseball diamond, and a covered basketball court. The grass is shorn and green, the playground equipment freshly painted and sturdy. The park is shaded by benevolent oaks that are about the same age as the homes that surround it: cozy ranch houses from the fifties and sixties in Tudor, colonial, and contemporary variations, comfortable but never showy, with gardens lovingly tended. The people who congregate here on weekends—boys on bikes, new moms pushing strollers, elderly couples walking with clasped hands—are the type of folks you would want to be with: kind, contented, seemingly immune from life’s cruelties.
So maybe it was natural that sixteen-year-old Jonathan Finkelman felt safe enough to meet some strangers here late one night last December, just two days after Christmas. A strapping, good-looking Bellaire High School junior with bright eyes, a broad smile, and a casual sweetness, he knew this neighborhood as well as he knew the layout of his own home. Jonathan, the third-oldest of five brothers, had grown up here, as had his father and mother. Within the Jewish community, his grandfather was known for his philanthropy. Close friends were always nearby, as was the conservative synagogue, Beth Yeshurun, where Jonathan’s family worshipped. The Finkelmans had both money and respect, and for Jonathan, then, everything seemed all good—too good, perhaps, because up to this point, he had enjoyed the kind of cosseted life that sometimes stirs teenagers to take risks. This particular night was one of those times: Jonathan had come to Godwin Park to do a drug deal.
He was there to sell two bottles (some two hundred pills in all) of hydrocodone, an opium-based painkiller marketed as Lorcet, for $500, a hefty sum even for a kid from a wealthy family. That drugs were plentiful in a neighborhood as prosperous and placid as Meyerland, and in a school as prestigious as Bellaire—arguably the city’s best public school—would surprise no one. Drugs were everywhere, as socially segmented and niche marketed—bars (Xanax) for the rich kids, weed for the gang bangers, meth for the goths—as the designer sneakers and expensive handbags the students coveted.
A more cautious kid might have avoided this deal and stayed at home that night, watching TV. A more cautious kid might have been suspicious of the boy who law enforcement sources say set up the sale, a reedy, redheaded stoner of fifteen named Warren Payne. Maybe $500 was just too much to pass up, or maybe Jonathan’s trusting nature blinded him to the danger in the familiar. Warren and his sister went to Bellaire, just like he did. They lived in a big house not far from the one Jonathan shared with his father and stepmother. And Warren had bought this kind of painkiller from Jonathan before. That Warren had a Web site featuring gangsta music with violent lyrics, an album cover with a hooded black man pointing a Glock at the viewer, and a description of his occupation as “hustlin” was not exactly a warning sign in this day and age. Maybe Warren was just another kid out for a good time. But Jonathan must have felt that something about the deal wasn’t right, because he took the precaution of bringing along a friend from school, a wealthy party boy who described his interests online as “hott bitches and paintball.”
And so, just after eleven o’clock, Jonathan drove to the park in his seven-year-old Mitsubishi Diamante, pulled up on the wrong side of the road by the baseball diamond, and waited. Streetlights glowed dimly along the perimeter, but most of the people living around the park had shut off their porch lights, contributing to the darkness. The day had been unseasonably warm, so the night was cool but not winter cold, with just a hint of clingy Houston dampness.
Perhaps he should have noticed that Warren’s small posse of pals had gathered in the bleachers behind the diamond, restless, like an audience waiting for a play to begin. They were mostly fifteen or sixteen years old, white boys with long, unruly hair and troubled histories (including, in some instances, juvenile records), who pulled showily on their cigarettes. Every once in a while, a laugh cut through the night air.
Later, no one could remember when, exactly, the sedan arrived, driven by a black male, who remains unidentified except for a street name. Also in the car were a heavy, moonfaced Hispanic man, whose younger brother, a friend of Warren’s, was watching from the bleachers, and another black male, an eighteen-year-old high school dropout named Dontae Terrell Moore. Dontae, who had skin the color of rich, black coffee and pensive, thoughtful eyes, lived just a few miles from Meyerland but a world away from its comforts. In the Hiram Clarke neighborhood, the ranch houses were much smaller, the windows had bars, and weeds choked the front yards. Since quitting school the previous spring, Dontae had spent most of his days playing video games with friends and minding all the little kids crowding his aunt’s house on Woodring Drive, where he lived.
The meeting, then, had the feel of a summit between two very different but interdependent nations, with drugs and drug money as the common bond. Maybe if you lived in Hiram Clarke instead of Meyerland, you used the cash to pay the rent or the electric bill instead of buying an iPod, but maybe not. All kids want nice things, no matter what side of town they live on, and nowadays everyone wants them in a hurry.
One of the black men—the police say it was Dontae—got out of the sedan and into Jonathan’s Mitsubishi,