Rich Man, Poor Man
The son of a former governor thought he was making a generous offer. The son of an ironworker thought he was being pushed around. Nobody thought that when it was all over both men would be dead.
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For the last year, he’d walk around his little piece of property, sometimes carrying an AK-47, looking for trespassers. He’d go inside his modest frame house with blue siding, sit in his kitchen, sometimes eat breakfast with his wife, and silently read a few passages from his Bible. Then he’d head outside again to sit in a pop-up deer blind in his front yard, not far from his mailbox, which was topped by a slightly rusted metal sign that read “Texas.” Whenever he heard the sound of an automobile heading toward his home, at the dead end of County Road 4609, he’d step out of the blind, usually with his AK-47 in hand, and order the driver to turn around.
His name was Howard Granger, and some of his neighbors in this corner of East Texas just south of Athens referred to him as a hermit. He was 46 years old, solid as a tree trunk, with a neatly trimmed beard. Just a few years back, said one man who knew him, he was “a pretty good old boy,” pleasant to be around, devoted to Christian causes. He gave money to a missionary organization that delivered Bibles to the Chinese by motorcycle. Although he didn’t have a regular job, he built barbecue smokers and sometimes drove over to his mother’s home to do repairs and trim her trees. At night he watched movies, including inspirational Christian dramas. One of his favorites was Amazing Grace, based on the life of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century politician William Wilberforce, who fought to end the British slave trade.
But sometime in 2009, Granger changed. He was “acting sort of strange and suspicious,” one neighbor said, “even with those of us he knew.” He stayed on his five-acre property day and night, telling his brother—whom he hadn’t seen in a year because he didn’t want to leave his land unprotected—that he was afraid someone might burn his house to the ground. He put up No Trespassing signs near his driveway and built a fence around his property, with six to eight strands of wire. Granger kept telling his relatives that “a rich man from Dallas” was after him. “He wants my land and he wants me gone,” Granger insisted.
There was indeed a rich man who wanted Granger’s five acres: Ben Gill Clements, a youthful 69-year-old who was as trim as a teenager, with clear blue eyes and a touch of brown still running through his silver hair. Clements, who was known as Gill, was the son of Bill Clements, the former Dallas oilman who served two terms as governor of Texas, the first Republican to hold the position since Reconstruction. In 1968, when he was in his late twenties, Gill went to work at his father’s offshore drilling company, Sedco, and within five years was promoted to president and CEO. In 1985, after he’d overseen the sale of Sedco to Schlumberger, the oil-field-services conglomerate, for more than a billion dollars, he retired from the oil business and spent his time tending to his investments and hunting and fishing around the world.
The place Clements loved most, however, was the land around Athens, with its rolling landscape—a breeding ground for deer and wild ducks—and its creek-fed lakes flourishing with bass. In the eighties, he and his father developed Hollyglen, a hunting and fishing preserve on roughly eight hundred acres along the west side of Texas Highway 19, about nine miles south of Athens. In the late nineties, Clements decided to create another preserve himself, this one more than one thousand acres in size, on the other side of the highway. He told his friends that this time he wanted to build a three-hundred-acre lake and then plant thousands of hardwood trees around it, creating a new forest for the wildlife. He made deals with nearly forty small landowners to buy their land, paying them far better than fair market value. The only one who wouldn’t sell was Howard Granger.
“He’s going to do something to get rid of me,” Granger kept telling his family. He started wearing a bulletproof vest whenever he went outside. “I think he’s going to send someone to get me.”
For more than a century, moneyed Dallas families have been hunting and fishing around Athens, which is about an hour-and-twenty-minute drive from their homes. It is for them what the Hamptons are for wealthy New Yorkers, the perfect weekend retreat, albeit without the giant mansions, expensive restaurants, and glitzy shops. One Dallas titan, eighty-year-old former lumber dealer Lee Slaughter, told me about a morning on an Athens-area lake when he hooked a six-pound bass just as he watched an eight-point buck walk into the water to take a drink. “Then, as I pulled back on my rod, a duck swam under my line,” Slaughter said. “As far as I’m concerned, that one moment was heaven on earth.”
Slaughter is one of 145 members of the Coon Creek Club, a nine-thousand-acre refuge just off Highway 19 that was founded more than a century ago by a group of Dallas businessmen, among them such prominent names as Gaston, Cockrell, Schoellkopf, Prather, and Tenison. Although it’s hardly an ostentatious place—it includes a small lodge with a six-table dining room, a cluster of ancient boathouses that look as if they are about to rot away, and a sprinkling of homes, most of them nothing more than fishing cabins with screened porches—there’s a long waiting list of men (and a few women) more than willing to pay the steep initiation fee and monthly dues to get access to the club’s deer blinds and four lakes.
There are other private hunting and fishing clubs along Highway 19—George W. Bush was a member of the Rainbo Club before he became president—and numerous estates and ranches nearby. (Clint Murchison Sr. went so far as to build a landing strip on his ranch so his friends and business partners could fly in to visit him.) Bill Clements, who is now 93 years old, started coming to Athens when he was a boy, and in 1953, just as Sedco was taking off, he was invited to join the Coon Creek Club. During those years, he often brought along his only son, Gill, who turned out to be a skilled outdoorsman, earning the rank of Eagle Scout before he turned 13. Gill was accepted into the club in 1965, two years after he graduated from Southern Methodist University, and it wasn’t long before other members were talking about his ability with a fishing rod. “He studied fishing like he was studying for a final exam,” said 90-year-old club member Joel Williams, the founder of the Dallas bank Texas Federal Savings. “He seemed to know every inch of a lake.”
Compared with the elder Clements—who was one of the most colorful and controversial politicians in modern Texas history, a maverick known for his plaid coats and public bluster—Gill was, in the words of his son, Bill Clements III, “unusually private.” He rarely attended social or political events in Dallas, and he never gave interviews during his years running Sedco. Despite his famous last name, most people in Dallas had no idea who he was. Carl Thorne, a former Sedco executive who worked with Gill for more than twenty years, called him “the kind of man who didn’t engage in small talk, who didn’t backslap, and who always played his cards close to his vest.” But, added Thorne, Gill was like his famous father in one way. “He was a formidable, commanding leader who, during business negotiations, could be as tough as a strip of rawhide.”
In 1983, for instance, when the New York City comptroller wrote Sedco demanding that the company, which had operations in South Africa, work to improve conditions there or lose the city’s rich pension funds, an unmoved Gill sent back a blunt handwritten note. “We do not become involved in politics,” he wrote. “Our mission is to return a profit for our shareholders by serving our customers. If your philosophy does not agree with ours, perhaps you should invest your funds elsewhere.”
After the sale of Sedco, Gill retired, and he and his wife, Pat, who participated in quarter horse riding competitions, left Dallas and moved to a ranch just east of the city—and a little closer to Athens. He remained a member of Coon Creek, but when he came to the area, he spent almost all his time on his Hollyglen property. The preserve boasted a two-hundred-acre lake and a two-story home, a replica of an 1854 East Texas dog-run house, floored with pine planks taken from an 1850’s cotton gin and filled with early-Texas furniture, wildlife paintings, and mounted fish and ducks. Gill would often stay there on the weekends during the fall and spring—in the summers he stayed at a home he owned in northern Michigan—fishing on his lake twice a day and driving over to Coon Creek for his meals.
“He got such joy developing Hollyglen—planting pine trees on the property, creating a wildlife habitat with duck marshes, and protecting a nest of eagles he found there— that he decided to try it all again,” said his friend Bubba Wood, the owner of Collectors Covey, a Dallas art gallery specializing in wildlife paintings and sculptures. “Not once in any conversation we had—and we sometimes talked five times a day—did he ever say anything to me about having a problem with a man at the end of the county road.”
Howard Granger grew up near Athens in the town of Kemp, the son of an ironworker who drove into Dallas to build skyscrapers. As a young man, Granger worked for a bank and for an automotive-supply company in Athens. His wife of nearly sixteen years, Terri, was employed by an electric company in its billing department, and they attended an Assemblies of God church. “They were completely straitlaced and by the book,” a close relative who asked not to be identified told me. “They had one of those God Bless This House signs that you can get at Walmart. Howard read the Bible to old people at nursing homes, and he volunteered to help out kids at one of those drug rehabilitation facilities. He loved everyone, even the gays and the racial minorities, because he said we are all God’s children.”
Granger certainly had his peculiarities. For years, Clements III said, Granger engaged in “multihour shooting sessions several days a week,” firing his gun at targets on his own property or across the lake being built on Gill’s land. He kept a stock of food and supplies on his property in case the government collapsed. He went off on long rants about evolution being a myth, and according to his relative, he was eventually asked to leave the drug rehab center because he kept preaching about Jesus to the kids.
But he had no criminal record, and the police had never once been called to his house. Bill Clements III said that when his father first met Granger, probably around 2000, he’d found him “harmless.” Although Granger said he had no interest in selling his land, Gill continued to stop by Granger’s home every few months, just “to maintain a relationship,” said Clements III. “Dad would remind Mr. Granger that he would buy his land should his circumstances change.”
Because Gill was offering $2,500 an acre for land that had been appraised at $1,000 to $1,500 an acre, he didn’t have much trouble making deals with almost all the local landowners. He bought the home of an elderly resident and promised her that she could continue living there until she died. He agreed to pay even higher prices to two landowners whose homes were located where the new lake would be. (Clements III said his father, showing no ill will, shook hands with one of them and congratulated him “for being such a tough and patient negotiator.”) As part of his master plan, he also bought out half a dozen or so home-owners along County Road 4609, which ran through his acreage, in order to make the road private. By the mid-2000’s, there was only one piece of the puzzle missing: Granger’s five acres.
According to Granger’s relative, he figured the longer he held out, the more money he’d make. “Howard thought if he sold his property, Clements’s total land value would be worth millions.” And apparently Clements was ready to make Granger the deal of a lifetime: Granger’s brother and a neighbor recently told the Dallas Morning News that Clements offered $50,000—more than five times the value of the land—for the property just a few years ago. According to Clements’s personal records, in September 2008 he offered to buy the land for a negotiated price and allow Granger to continue living there rent-free for three years. Granger, Clements wrote, agreed to consider the offer, saying, “Everything is for sale at a price.”
But Granger’s brother said that when he refused to sell, Clements took a new tack: He began to hound Granger. “From what he told me,” explained Granger’s anonymous relative, “Mr. Clements just would come over there and talk down to him, making smart-alecky comments like he was better than Howard and that he should be giving up his land. To me, it was like a John Wayne movie, the rich guy trying to push out the poor country guy. One time Howard said Clements came over and gave him some fish that made him sick, and he wondered if Clements had done it on purpose.”
It’s not difficult to imagine that, because of their very different stations in life, Granger was simply intimidated by Clements’s presence. Bubba Wood, for one, finds it impossible to believe that Clements’s rawhide-tough demeanor had slipped into something nastier. “Gill was definitely a man’s man,” said Wood, “but he was fair to everyone he met, and he treated all those other landowners with genuine respect. I know without a shadow of a doubt that Gill did not go down to Granger’s property to antagonize Granger.”
Whatever happened between the two men, Granger, who was once determined to drive a hard bargain for his land, began to seem unwilling to sell under any circumstances. By 2009 he was acting increasingly paranoid and irrational, and he was often seen with his AK-47. When a neighbor came by, looking for a dog that had gotten loose, Granger chased him away. When a game warden idled down the county road, Granger aimed a spotlight on him and declared in no uncertain terms that he’d better not step onto his land. He even started telling his relatives that the members of the Coon Creek Club were actually members of the Ku Klux Klan and that they wanted to get rid of him (the club’s original name was the Koon Kreek Klub, for Koon Kreek, which ran through the property). He supposedly told his wife, “They’re going to kill me soon.”
Granger’s once harmless peculiarities seemed to have deteriorated into something else. At least in his mind, a showdown was inevitable. And it finally took place the third week of October.
On the morning of October 21, Gill Clements was supposed to meet his property manager to check out a small herd of Longhorn cattle that grazed on one of his pastures. But Gill didn’t show up at the appointed time, and he didn’t answer his phone. That night, after receiving a worried call from his mother, Clements III drove over from his home in Tyler, where he works as an investor, to look for his father. He and the property manager found Gill’s Toyota Land Cruiser, the key still in the ignition, on a back road adjoining the edge of his acreage. But Gill was nowhere to be seen. The family called the sheriff’s department, which brought in search dogs from a nearby correctional facility. The dogs couldn’t pick up a scent. An infrared-equipped helicopter couldn’t find anything either.
No one imagined Clements was the victim of foul play. Law enforcement officials wondered if he had fallen in the woods or become disoriented for some reason and gotten lost. The next morning, scuba-trained police officers searched a pond close to where the Land Cruiser was found. Nothing. Officers on horseback and the team of dogs searched the nearby fields. Still nothing. Then a tracking device that could locate a cell phone was brought in. Clements’ cell phone was on, and the signal suggested it was very close to Howard Granger’s property.
Ten officers on horseback rode across one of Clements’s fields that surrounded Granger’s property. They saw Granger on the other side of the fence, but they didn’t have time to ask if he knew Clements’s whereabouts. Granger pointed his AK-47 at them—which is a felony—and ordered them to leave. They backed away quickly and obtained an arrest warrant and a search warrant. A few hours later, thirteen officers in an armored personnel carrier arrived in front of Granger’s home. One officer dialed Granger’s phone number. Granger’s wife answered the phone, said, “He’s done nothing wrong,” and hung up. After the police spent nearly an hour attempting to negotiate, to no avail, Granger stepped outside and fired more than thirty rounds from his AK-47 at the carrier. “I’ll never surrender!” he shouted. And then, “I’m not going to sell my land!”
He slipped around to the backyard. An officer from the sheriff’s department was two hundred yards away, the scope of his rifle targeted on Granger. One shot later, Granger was dead.
The drama wasn’t over, though. Despite the officers’ entreaties, Granger’s widow, Terri, holed up in the house and refused to leave. After some deliberation, tear gas was thrown through the windows, and she fled the premises. Terri refused to answer any questions about what had happened between her husband and Clements, and since there was no basis for arresting her, she was driven to the sheriff’s offices, where she called someone to pick her up.
Since the police had used deadly force, the Texas Rangers took over the search. While they were securing the property, the Rangers found a mound of freshly dug soil in a shed behind the house. The loose dirt covered Clements’s body, which was lying facedown, two to three feet below. He had been shot multiple times.
It seemed as if everyone around Athens had a theory about the showdown. Someone speculated that Granger must have shot Clements while hunting on the older man’s property. Someone else figured that Clements had tried to talk to Granger one more time and that Granger had shot him and moved the Land Cruiser to another location to confuse the police. Others wondered if Granger had been stalking Clements and decided to ambush him on that back piece of property. Almost everyone wondered why Granger’s family hadn’t gotten him some help when he seemed to be spiraling out of control.
Days later, Clements’s funeral was held before a packed congregation at St. Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church, one of Dallas’s most prominent houses of worship. Among those in attendance was Clements’s famous father, his head bowed. “Gill was a world-class businessman,” Bubba Wood said in his eulogy. “And a man with more compassion for his friends than most can imagine.” The congregation stood and sang “Amazing Grace.”
At a small funeral home in North Dallas, the Granger family gathered to eulogize Howard. (To avoid reporters, the funeral had been moved from Athens.) They described him as a good Christian and a loving husband. “None of us thought he was crazy,” his close relative later said. “He was scared of that rich man, and he just wanted to be left alone.”
Because Terri, the only possible witness to whatever happened that day, isn’t talking, investigators aren’t sure they’ll ever learn what set off the final confrontation between the two men. They’re not even certain of the location of the shooting or how, exactly, Granger got Clements’s body to his shed. “All we know is that two men from two different worlds came across one another out on that county road,” said Henderson County sheriff Ray Nutt. “And that’s all we know. This is going to be one of those tragedies that we’re going to wonder about for a long, long time.”