Very early in the trial of Cullen Davis, the richest man ever to be brought to judgment on a murder charge in this country, a shapeless and badly used Panhandle housewife with her cheeks heavily rouged and her hair tinted raven black caught a glimpse of Cullen’s estranged wife, Priscilla, and announced to those around her: “I can tell she’s guilty just by looking!” I mumbled that Priscilla’s guilt or innocence wasn’t an issue in the case, but I knew as I said it that I was wrong. Three months later Cullen walked free, and the housewife wept in gratitude as she thanked her friends and neighbors on the jury.
The housewife had driven more than fifty miles that morning back in August, not realizing that the 52 seats in Judge George E. Dowlen’s Amarillo courtroom would be coveted like tickets to Gloryland. The housewife could have returned home in time to watch Days of Our Lives, but she didn’t. Instead, she waited in the corridor with about a dozen other disappointed middle-aged women, watching the proceedings through a small glass panel about the size of a small TV screen. It was their common experience that women like Priscilla were responsible for the majority of the evils of the world. Their first clue was Priscilla’s expensive outfit with its frills of virginal white late. Who did she think she was fooling? Then there were the high heels, the cascade of platinum hair, and her shockingly piquant figure. But the clincher, the moral equivalent of the smoking pistol, was the tiny gold cross that the state’s key witness wore defiantly between her silicone breasts.
“Have you ever seen anything so tacky?” the housewife asked the assembly of indignant spectators. What they didn’t know was that Priscilla had carried that same cross in her purse on the night of the murders of her daughter and her lover, the night she had been shot between those breasts and, miraculously, had survived.
“You should’ve seen her yesterday,” another middle-aged woman said. “She wore suede. In August, no less!”
Still another woman remarked that, while she hadn’t actually seen it, she had heard that Priscilla arrived in Amarillo carrying a white Bible and a single perfect lily.
“Why would he ever marry her?”
That was a good question, but one they would not hear answered. Maybe Cullen did it out of a sense of Christian charity, or perhaps because of some well-intentioned flaw in his own personality, some Pygmalion instinct. Hadn’t he tried to help her? Whatever the answer to this riddle, it was generally agreed that the time had come to place blame where it belonged; Cullen Davis’ strange collection of groupies — “the menopause brigade,” one bailiff named them — had resolved to do what they could. They scolded Deputy Sheriff Al Cross for not seeing to it that Cullen’s bed linens were changed regularly. They brought the defendant cookies and pies and flocked around him at each recess. They brought their children and grandchildren to meet him and — for some strange and convoluted reason — had him autograph their copies of Blood and Money. One had him autograph her neck brace, and another offered to iron his shorts and socks. On one occasion the mother of a juror chatted with Cullen.
Not all the groupies were shapeless, middle-aged housewives. There was a nifty, dark-haired young morsel who enjoyed getting Cullen in the corner and discussing sociology. And there was a stream of young beauties, most of them from Fort Worth or Dallas, who frequented the trial. They always sat directly behind the defendant in the courtroom and shared daily catered luncheons with Cullen and his attractive girl friend, Karen Master. One of the most striking was Rhonda Sellers, whose mother is a close friend of Karen Master. Rhonda is a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader and the former Miss Metroplex. The jurors didn’t know any of the beauties by name, but they wouldn’t forget what they looked like.
During each recess you could find Cullen moving freely among his admirers, shaking hands, posing for pictures, exchanging pleasantries. The housewives loved the way Cullen referred to his cell mate as “my old lady,” a carryover from his days as a Texas A&M cadet. At times the security was so informal that, had he been so inclined, Cullen Davis could have walked out of the courthouse and been out of town before anyone noticed. The bailiffs assigned to guard the defendant were openly on his side and treated him as they would a visiting dignitary. One bailiff in fact had once worked for one of Cullen’s companies. There was the day that Cullen walked out of the courtroom and took an elevator to the ground floor, accompanied only by one of his attorneys. Another time when he was left alone in the jail booking office, the telephone rang and Cullen answered it.
Cullen had his own telephone installed in Judge Dowlen’s waiting room and frequently conducted high-level corporate affairs during recesses. Besides being permitted to have catered meals, the defendant was allowed to keep a color TV set in his cell. Although the Potter County jail was so overcrowded that other prisoners slept on the floor, Cullen was at times assigned to a private double-bunk cell. He was always freshly groomed and immaculate in his expensive, conservatively cut business suits, very much the corporate president, collected and in control. Each afternoon when the court recessed for the day, Cullen gathered a fresh change of clothes and in the company of Deputy Al Cross drove across town to see his chiropractor. Members of the press began referring to the Potter County jail as the “Cullen Hilton.” And always there were the groupies waving him on with brave smiles and wet eyes that showed clearly they shared his ordeal. Their eyes were windows into the heart of the community. Their eyes said: We’re for Cullen.
What made all this display