texasmonthly.com: This is such a tragic story. How did you approach the families involved? Julie Reid seems to have been your in; how did you approach her? What techniques did you use as a reporter to walk gently over this sensitive ground?
Skip Hollandsworth: What I did was very simple. I either wrote the various families letters or I picked up the phone and called them. I told them how I had kept an article about the car wreck on my desk for nearly a year. I said that I wanted to understand what they had gone through since the wreck and how they had endured the grief. I also said I wanted to understand how they maintained their sanity in the midst of such tragedy. I said to Julie Reid in my letter to her that what she had gone through was something like the modern-day equivalent of the Book of Job, and I thought there were lessons for all of us to learn from her experience.
texasmonthly.com: Why do you think the families wanted to talk to you? Did some people refuse, either initially or at a certain point in an interview?
SH: Everyone agreed immediately to talk. It was, I admit, amazing. But what I realized is that these people had not had much of a chance to tell outsiders what they had gone through. It was a way, I think, for some of them to let go of at least part of the burden they had been carrying for the past year.
texasmonthly.com: Did you get caught up emotionally in the story as you wrote it? Did you find yourself taking sides?
SH: I was caught up emotionally in the story from the very beginning. It was difficult to sit through the interviews and listen to parents talk about their dead children. It was especially difficult listening to them talk about how they heard about the car wreck and what they saw once they got to the scene. I didn’t take sides about the lawsuit that got filed as a result of the wreck, and I didn’t want to. I went into that part of the story understanding that grief can make people do unpredictable things. And I wanted readers at least to understand why such animosity erupted.
texasmonthly.com: After doing your reporting, was it difficult stylistically to handle such a sensitive subject in writing? Did you have to change your writing in any way?
SH: The one thing not to do in a story like this is to use a lot of adjectives to try to capture a grieving parent. The adjectives always fall flat. What I wanted to do was get very specific details down about what happened—the last moments the mothers saw their daughters, for instance, or what the parents did when they drove past the roadside memorial that was later erected for the girls. That’s all that’s necessary to convey to a reader the impact of this tragedy. Any attempt to write about how someone “felt” was just not going to work. So I tried to construct the story from scene to scene.
texasmonthly.com: In the article, you quote a private investigator in the case saying that “this is going to be the kind of trial that can bring the whole town down.” Was Tatum particularly threatened by these events because it is such a small town? How?
SH: Tatum was not threatened in the sense that people were going to move away. But one of the most powerful quotes in the story came from the elderly columnist of the weekly newspaper there. She said that those girls were the town’s “future.” With their deaths, the town lost some of its life. And with that roadside memorial always there on the highway, people will always be reminded of the sadness that enveloped Tatum—and still does to this day.
texasmonthly.com: On a related note, what was the role of the small town in what happened in Tatum? You paint a picture of David Reid as a boy driven to recklessness by the boredom of small-town adolescence. Did you get a sense of Tatum as a place where youth doesn’t have anywhere to go, not just literally but also in a larger sense?
SH: There was some debate after the accident about whether the city should have more events for teenagers so that they don’t drive the highways as much at night. Someone suggested a teen center. But everyone knew that cruising the back roads is part of teenage life in a small town. Everyone also knew that wrecks inevitably happen, regardless of what kind of activities the town or the school has for its teenagers. That was one of the overall points I was trying to make: Every weekend, in some small town, there is a teenage car crash. It is part of our lives. And it happens so often that we forget the impact such wrecks can have on people.
texasmonthly.com: What did you make of David?
SH: David, of course, was the most interesting and perplexing of the characters. Like so many teenage boys, he rarely let me in on what he was feeling, which did not surprise me. But it was the little things he did—the photo of his sister that he put on his bedroom wall, for instance, or the stories he told me about fishing for hours, alone, on cold lakes through the winter—that made me realize that there was so much going on inside him. Although I know he is considered the villain by so many in town, I did drive away from my interview with him worried about what his future was going to be like.
texasmonthly.com: You mention that David’s lawyer, Daryll Bennett, himself lost a son in an auto accident. That’s another amazing element to this case. Did you get any sense of Bennett’s story? What led him to defend David?
SH: Yes, if I had had more room in the story, Bennett could have taken up an entire section. He is one of these glorious bulldog-like East Texas characters. He lost a young son years ago in a four-wheeler accident, and like anyone who has gone through such an event, he has never gotten over the grief—and my opinion is that he has never gotten over his own self-recrimination for letting his son drive a four-wheeler in the first place. So much of that emotion had to have found its way into the Tatum car crash and the resulting lawsuit he filed. If you go back to the story and read his quote about the futility of parents looking for someone to blame, the quote takes on extraordinary meaning when you consider what he himself has gone through.
texasmonthly.com: The town seems to have defined this story, as Bennett puts it, as a case of “the town’s ‘bad boy’ killing the town’s ‘good girls.'” Your article reflects this dynamic, but are you convinced by it at all?
SH: I do think that is how most people feel. David was the town’s James Dean. The girls were the best and the brightest of Tatum. David, they naturally assumed, had to have been at fault. That’s why I think the upcoming trial will be so closely watched, for a lot of people are starting to wonder if it was at all possible that Jaicey, the driver of the other car, never looked to her left when she pulled out right in front of him. Whatever the truth is, the accident is going to haunt that town for many years to come.