ON THE NIGHT OF NOVEMBER 22, 1995—Thanksgiving Eve—Sergeant Mark Bergmark and reserve officer James Purcell of the Comanche County Sheriff’s Department had nothing more pressing to do than drive around Lake Proctor, a meandering body of water on the Leon River eighty miles southwest of Fort Worth. Purcell was new on the job, and Bergmark wanted him to be familiar with the roads on which he’d most likely encounter drunk drivers. Sure enough, at about nine, the deputies noticed a pickup truck roll through a stop sign on FM 2861, pull onto Texas Highway 16, and begin to weave erratically. Bergmark flipped on his flashing lights and pulled the truck over. Behind the wheel was a 38-year-old local, Steve Davis.
That brief opening incident in the Steve Davis story is beyond dispute; little else is. To ask what happened later that night and in the ensuing weeks and months is to lift the lid on a Texas version of Rashomon that continues to baffle area residents and torture Davis’ friends and relatives, even though his family recently reached an out-of-court settlement with Comanche County.
Bergmark recognized the handsome curly-haired man who got out of his truck that night: He had arrested him the year before on a DWI charge. But he might have known him anyway. Davis was the eldest son of a well-respected family and a high school football hero from the early seventies—one of the best kickers the Comanche Indians ever had. Upon graduating from Comanche High, he had enrolled at Tarleton State University in Stephenville and then St. Mary’s University School of Law in San Antonio, and after that he’d returned home and hung out a shingle. Around the Comanche County courthouse, he had a reputation as a crusader who flouted convention but was quick to stand up for the weak and the defenseless. “He always felt like he was a lawyer for the little people,” says his sister, Fredda Jones.
“He had ongoing trouble with the local constabulary,” says Comanche attorney Jim Parker, who hired him fresh out of law school. “He had no respect for their authority.” Parker, who served four terms in the Texas House before going to work as Ann Richards’ legislative liaison in 1991 and 1992, remembers that if a judge ordered Davis to wear a tie in court, he’d put on one with a naked woman on it or throw a shoestring around his neck—anything to twit the establishment. “Steve was kind of a free spirit,” he says. “He’d bring in five new clients and no new money. That’s why we finally had to part company. But he was a writer and a poet and a damn good trial lawyer.”
By the time Davis was pulled over, he was making a living another way: He was bagging peanuts and driving a forklift at the Golden Peanut plant outside De Leon. During the federal government’s amnesty program for illegal immigrants in the late 1980’s, he had been convicted of forging papers for agricultural workers who wanted to qualify. He spent eighteen months in the federal minimum-security prison at Fort Worth and lost his law license; with Parker’s help he had been trying to get it back.
According to the sheriff’s department log, Bergmark and Purcell stopped Davis at 9:16 p.m. Davis got out and told them he was on his way to see his sister in Comanche, about five miles away. When Bergmark asked to see his driver’s license, Davis told him it was in the glove compartment—but instead of retrieving it, he jumped back into the truck, locked the doors, and drove off. Bergmark and Purcell headed for Davis’ house, which was near the shore of the lake not far from where they had stopped him.
What happened next depends on who you ask. Parker tells it this way: “The local sheriff’s office stopped Steve with some degree of regularity. He knew the law, and they didn’t, so after they stood around for a while, he cranked his pickup up and drove home. Half an hour later they busted in his front door and beat the shit out of him. Neighbors heard the noise and saw the deputies come out in the front yard and give each other a high five. They hauled him in to jail and then took him to a doctor.”
On the advice of counsel, neither the officers nor Comanche County Sheriff Billy Works is talking to the press, but Works said at the time of the beating that Davis was taken directly to the emergency room. While Davis was being treated for lacerations on his knuckles, he told an emergency medical technician that he took responsibility for the incident and that he had fought the deputies with a chair. “He said it out of our presence,” Works told a reporter.
Still, Davis later alleged that Bergmark and Purcell had used excessive force. In January 1996 a Comanche County grand jury reviewed the incident and took no action. Davis’ comments in the emergency room were reportedly entered into the record. Three months after that, Davis pleaded guilty to a charge of evading arrest and paid a $500 fine.
But the matter wasn’t over, at least as far as he was concerned. That spring, working with Parker and another Comanche attorney, Keith Woodley, he began preparing a lawsuit naming Works and the two officers, claiming his civil rights had been violated. He did so even though, according to his sister, he feared retaliation. “He was terribly nervous,” she says. “He would come by the house, go to the window, and pull back the curtains and look out.” Steve told Jim Parker they would catch him out some night and he would “resist arrest” and they would kill him.
On May 17 Davis dropped by Parker’s office to pick up the petition. He mentioned that he might soon win an award from the Austin Poetry Society and was driving to Austin the next day to attend the group’s awards ceremony. Between eleven and eleven-thirty that night, he called his sister and asked if he could borrow her van the next morning. He told her that his girlfriend, a woman named Katherine Eoff, had decided to go with him and they were getting ready to drive over to her house in nearby Dublin to pick up some clothes.
At about eleven-thirty, according to Eoff, she and Davis got into his truck and drove to the Shade Tree convenience store on FM 2861. Davis bought a six-pack of beer for himself and a Dr Pepper for her. Shortly after leaving the Shade Tree, a car came up behind them and blinked its lights. They pulled over, and a young man walked up to the driver’s side: Could Davis go back to the Shade Tree and buy a case of beer for him and his buddies? He obliged. After he left the store, he drove to the entrance of nearby Copperas Creek Park, where the high school kids were partying, and he tossed the beer and the boy’s change on the ground.
With no traffic at that time of night, Davis ignored the stop sign as he pulled out of the park road onto FM 2861. Immediately he saw flashing red lights in his rearview mirror. A patrol car had apparently been waiting on a dirt road that runs down into a pecan grove near the park. Davis pulled into the dirt parking lot of the Shade Tree, got out of the truck, and walked back to the patrol car. Eoff told Parker later that she saw one deputy get out to talk to Davis, calling him by name. The other one remained in the car. The descriptions she gave fit Bergmark and Purcell.
Eoff recalled that within minutes other police cars pulled into the lot. A female officer instructed her to step out of the truck and walk to the front of the liquor store. As she submitted to a sobriety test, Eoff saw Davis run away from the officers who had been talking to him at the rear of the truck. She yelled to him. He turned and shrugged his shoulders as if to say “What else can I do?” Then he climbed over a wooden fence, disappearing into a thicket behind the store. According to Eoff, no fewer than six and as many as ten officers hopped the fence in pursuit.
Some minutes later, one of the officers came back to the store and told Eoff they had lost him. Another officer pocketed the keys from the pickup and drove her in a patrol car to Davis’ house. He dropped her off outside without going in to check whether Davis might have shown up. He hadn’t. He didn’t show up the next day either, or the next, or the next.
Months passed, in fact, with no word of his whereabouts. Then, on February 6, 1997, Patty Mazurek, the co-owner of the Copperas Creek package store, which is near the Shade Tree, was walking in the woods behind her store. She was surveying damage from a grass fire when something white on the ground caught her eye. At first she thought it was a mushroom, but when she got closer, she realized it was a human skull. She hurried back inside and called 911, and a few minutes later Sheriff Works and Texas Ranger Thelbert Milsap arrived. They examined the skull and a pile of bones nearby and found a shirt looped around the limb of a small tree. The limb was about five feet off the ground. The Tarrant County Medical Examiner’s Office used dental records to identify the remains. The official cause of death, which came a few weeks later, was listed as “undetermined (probable hanging).” The manner of death was “undetermined (probable suicide).”
At the Dairy Queen in Comanche and in shops around the courthouse square, doubts surfaced instantly about how Davis had died. How could a six-foot-tall, 170-pound man hang himself from the limb of a sapling barely five feet off the ground? And would a man crashing through a dense thicket in the dead of night, with police officers on his tail, suddenly stop and kill himself? Would he quickly strip off his shirt, knot it around a limb, and somehow twist it around his neck, then slump down and stay slumped long enough to suffocate himself? Why didn’t the cops find him? It didn’t add up. And where had the body been all this time? An elderly woman who lived in a house with a clear view of the tree said she walked her dog in the area nearly every day but had never seen or smelled anything, and her dog had never acted strangely.
And why would Davis kill himself? He had hopes of winning a poetry award, was close to getting his law license back, and had made plans to celebrate his son’s eighteenth birthday when he and Eoff got back from Austin. “I thought we were at the most optimistic point we’d been to since the whole ordeal began,” Fredda Jones said.
Jim Parker has a theory about what happened the night Davis disappeared: “They stopped him that night; maybe they were even following him. They were just going to screw with him, and I’m sure he had some choice words for them. He probably told them he was getting ready to sue them, probably said something about how he had the lawsuit right up there on his dashboard. They go to arrest him, and Steve remembers what happened the last time he was in custody, and he takes off running. After a while they catch up with him in the woods, and these big, burly boys decide they’d subdue him.” Parker suspects the deputies killed him accidentally, then rigged it to look like a suicide to cover their crime.
The sheriff and his deputies haven’t said in their own words what they believe happened that night, but in a letter published on the front page of the Comanche Chief on November 27, 1997, their Austin attorney, Bob Bass, spoke for them. “The ‘truth’ of this matter,” he wrote, “is that the Davis family is unwilling to accept the truth.…The ‘truth’ is that a very promising youth was wasted due to chronic alcohol abuse. The ‘truth’ is that Steven Davis lost the privilege to practice law when he was convicted of a federal crime involving the fabrication of documents designed to circumvent immigration laws.…The ‘truth’ is that when Steve Davis returned to his hometown, he had lost his self-esteem and was seriously depressed.
“The ‘truth,’” he went on, “is that Steve Davis continued to find solace for his depression in a bottle…The ‘truth’ is that another arrest for driving while intoxicated would be treated as a felony, subjecting Davis to yet more time in jail. The ‘truth’ is that despite his family’s belief that he had nothing to die for, on the early morning hours of May 18, 1996, in a drunken depression, Steve Davis fled from police yet again, and this time, fled to one place from which he would never again have to suffer the indignity of humiliating himself or his family by his own irresponsible conduct.”
After Bass’s letter appeared, people in Comanche began to lose interest in the Davis case—but not Fredda Jones. As far as she was concerned, there were too many unanswered questions. In the fall of 1997 her parents, Fred and Betty Davis, hired a private investigator and an attorney, Steve Gibbins, who filed a $4.5 million wrongful death civil suit against Comanche County and the sheriff’s department. (They did not retain Parker and Woodley because they specialize in state court cases.)
When I went to see Gibbins at his Austin office last June, he was sitting behind his desk, chomping on a cigar. He picked up a small, hard object from the base of his lamp. It’s a tooth, he said, from Steve Davis’ skull. (Nine teeth were missing when the skull was found.) “I don’t believe he could have committed suicide,” he told me. “The tree sort of was a sapling. You could pull that thing down. He would have had to be on his knees and sagged down.”
Sitting behind his own desk a few blocks away, Bass told me a considerably different story a few days later. None of the Comanche County lawmen, he said, has ever been accused of police brutality or civil rights violations, although Bergmark, he acknowledged, was sued a few years ago for losing evidence. (He had been called to a convenience store to break up a fight in which a man had his ear bitten off. He collected the ear in a cup but later misplaced it, and the case was dismissed.) Bass has no doubt that Davis killed himself that night. “I’ve had jail suicide hangings that take place in the most insubstantial places,” he said. “It’s not difficult to do.”
So what really happened? On a sunny Saturday morning last fall, I drove out FM 2861, pulled up in front of the Copperas Creek package store, and wandered into the woods. The post oak thicket was denser than I had expected, with brambles, oak runners, and rotting logs waiting to trip anyone walking through the woods, much less running. After a few minutes I found the tree. It was deeper into the woods than I thought it would be. It’s a small tree but bigger than a sapling, and though it bent a bit when I pulled on the limb, it seemed like it could have supported a grown man’s dead weight if the man was intent on killing himself.
I tried to imagine that dark May night. Men in uniform, men with guns, crashing through the underbrush. They corner the suspect. He’s gasping for breath, frightened, desperate. And then what? Do the officers beat him? Do they choke him until he stops breathing? Was it an accident, as Parker theorizes? Do they drag the body deeper into the woods, strip off the shirt, and tie it to a tree to make it look like he hanged himself? Or do they drive away with the body and bring it back some time later?
Or maybe, just maybe, it happened the way the cops said it did. Maybe all the probing, the restless lights scanning the trees, the shouts and the curses, the people crashing through the brush—maybe it all dies away and Steve Davis is alone in the dark. It’s quiet, and as he sits on the cold ground, he thinks about how his life has gone haywire. Maybe, after a while, he gets up, looks at the stars and the sky, and in an alcoholic haze, strips off his shirt and knots the sleeves around a nearby limb to form a noose. Maybe.