In the tiny West Texas town of Iraan, the drumming begins two hours before game time. A dozen or so fans of the Iraan High Braves, already at the football stadium, pound on tom-toms: one loud beat followed by three lighter ones, over and over and over. The sound of the drumming carries all the way across town and echoes off the nearby hills and mesas, and soon more fans arrive, many of them, adults and students alike, wearing war paint on their faces. Some carry homemade spears, made of PVC pipes with rubber tips, which they bang on the metal bleachers, keeping time with the tom-toms. Others shout a war chant while they hold up their arms and make tomahawk-chop gestures.
By kickoff, close to 800 of Iraan’s 1,200 citizens are packed into the stadium. The ninety-member Big Red marching band launches into the school fight song, and the six varsity cheerleaders turn backflips. When the Braves run onto the field, the roar from the crowd is almost deafening—“like something you’d expect at a college game,” says Clara Greer, the editor and publisher of the weekly Iraan News . “In Iraan, we have no roller-skating rinks or bowling alleys or movie theaters. For our entertainment, we’ve got the Braves. Out here, Friday night football really is the one thing we live for.”
In the fall of 2007, the Braves were led by four good-looking kids. One, the son of the town’s bank president, was the steady, sure-handed quarterback. Another, the son of a coach, was a deceptively swift running back. The third, the son of another coach, was the team’s best lineman, and the fourth, a blond-haired boy who looked as if he had walked straight out of an Abercrombie & Fitch advertisement, was such a magnificent defensive back that Texas sportswriters would later name him to the class 1A all-state team.
Because of their gridiron exploits, the Braves advanced to the state playoffs, and there was talk around town that the team had a shot at the state championship, which it had last won in 1996. The four boys were treated, in the words of one resident, like “the town’s celebrities.” Whenever they walked into the Old House Cafe, Iraan’s gathering spot, older men nodded at them appreciatively. Children asked for their autographs. Teenage girls, sitting at the back tables, raised their eyebrows whenever they walked by and shyly said hi.
But in early December, the Braves faltered in the regional playoff game against one of their top rivals, the Nazareth Swifts. In the fourth quarter, the quarterback threw a rare interception, the all-stater made a bad punt, and Nazareth scored 18 unanswered points in the final nine minutes of the game to win 24-17. Many Iraan fans were teary-eyed. But they kept reassuring one another that everything was not lost. After all, they said, the team’s four stars would be back the next year to lead them into the playoffs once again.
Six days later—on the first Friday night the football team had had free since the beginning of the season—the four boys met at the Old House to eat. Afterward, they climbed into a pickup and made the loop around town, ending up at the high school baseball stadium. Deer often frequented the outfield, coming down from the nearby hills and leaping over the fence to nibble on the grass, and this night was no different. The boys spotted a number of them, their white tails flicking. One, a mature doe, was grazing near a button buck, probably no more than six months old, his tiny antlers just beginning to show.
The boys jumped out of the truck and gave chase. Before long, they had cornered the two deer in a bull pen. They shut the gate, got back in the pickup, drove to their homes, and retrieved a blue aluminum baseball bat and a wooden-handled shovel. They also picked up a golf club and a homemade spear not unlike the ones Iraan High fans brought to football games.
Then, they returned to the bull pen. The two deer were panicking, defecating as they ran from one end of the enclosure to the other. But they didn’t run for long. The boys raised their makeshift weapons and began swinging. One of them slammed the baseball bat into the doe’s skull. Another walloped the button buck with the shovel.
The hits kept coming, one after another. Within minutes, the four football stars had bashed in the deer’s heads. They jumped back in the pickup and drove away, leaving the deer twitching in the grass.
A school maintenance worker discovered the dead animals on Sunday morning. School officials notified a Pecos County sheriff’s deputy, who called the local game warden based in Iraan, Chris Amthor. He drove out to the bull pen, took one look at the gaping head wounds, and promptly called his boss, Captain Scott Davis, whose office is in Midland, 85 miles to the north.
The burly Davis, who has been a game warden for 23 years, is a conservative, churchgoing man: On the wall behind his desk is an illustration of George W. Bush praying with Abraham Lincoln and George Washington. “When Chris told me that two deer had been beaten to death, I wasn’t real sure what to think,” he told me. “I’d never even heard of such a thing. I thought, ‘What kind of person would want to do something like that?’”
Rumors about the killings were already flying through town—the culprits were either a couple of drunk oil field workers or some illegal immigrants. Someone said the deaths had to be the work of a satanic cult. But then Amthor heard that the sheriff’s department had received an anonymous tip from an Iraan woman who had overheard a story being spread around by some high school kids: The deer killers were Iraan High’s four football stars.
On December 14, five days after the deer had been found, Davis and Amthor visited