Manhunt at Menard Creek
Surrounded by snarling prison dogs, a thief drowns in a muddy slough after a two-day chase through the Big Thicket. Lawmen swear it was an accident, but the U.S. Justice Department wants to make a federal case out of it.
Long before they found Tommy Earl Haynes facedown in Menard Creek with a pack of hounds snapping at his body, it had seemed a safe bet that Haynes would never achieve a high public standing. His sister Elizabeth Martines hadn’t seen him in nearly a decade because, as she stated in a deposition, “I didn’t like to visit prisons.” The last time his legal wife, Billie Jean Haynes, had laid eyes on him was in 1983, when she observed Haynes driving a brand-new pickup and reported him to the sheriff for car theft. The only two men who ever spent much time with Haynes were two Tyler County officers who had made a virtual career out of arresting him. One of the last law enforcement officials to pursue Haynes, Hardin County sheriff Mike Holzapfel, appraised the lifelong criminal with a smirk and declared, “Tommy Earl Haynes was not an upstanding citizen, not a credit to society, and the world is probably better off without him.”
He was a 48-year-old illiterate with an IQ of 70, a speech impediment, a swarthy look, and an uncomplicated manner – a man of few natural gifts. In fact, he had three, according to the lawmen who knew him best, former Tyler County deputy sheriff B. J. Vardeman: “He was a natural born thief – he couldn’t help it any more than he could help breathing. He’d get started on a binge and take the most ungodly things. Tractors. Kitchenwares. Once he broke into a campsite and stole a deer mount and a bunch of other crap he couldn’t use. It was just the way he was.
“But, boy, he could fix an engine. Tommy was truly an excellent mechanic, especially diesel motors. He could fix a diesel quicker than a cat’ll lick its butt.
“And of course,” sums up the former deputy with a fond grin,” “in my forty years of law enforcement, Tommy was one of the best at losing dogs I’d ever seen.”
Time and again, the East Texas sheriffs would send the Texas Department of Criminal Justice’s tracking dogs after Haynes, chasing him through the lakelands and the pine forests, only to come back empty-handed. Tommy Earl Haynes knew all the tricks of eluding the hounds, and he displayed his full repertoire on January 19 and 20, 1991, during a treacherous two-day manhunt following one of his stealing sprees. When the dogs finally caught up with the thief in a slough feeding out of Menard Creek in the Big Thicket, it seemed an awful but fitting end. And that would, indeed, have concluded the lawless saga of Tommy Earl Haynes – were it not for a single lie, six small lacerations, and a host of incalculable motives on the part of individuals who saw in Haynes’s corpse far greater potential than they had ever seen in his life as a career criminal.
Time levels us all, but not before having a little sport: It swats down kings one minute and makes martyrs out of miscreants the next. In death, Tommy Earl Haynes became larger than life. The ink was barely dry on his autopsy report when the videotaped beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles police officers hit the airwaves. The horrified reaction to the King videotape spread from Washington, D.C., where the U.S. Department of Justice announced that it would scour the nation for similar brutality cases, to East Texas, where the lacerations on Haynes’ scalp began to look – to federal investigators – like the handiwork of a lawman’s pistol butt. As the King beating would come to symbolize the malevolence of the Los Angeles Police Department, so too would the Haynes episode confirm the Justice Department’s long-standing belief that the Texas prison system was capable of anything, including a murder cover-up.
Thereby did the death of a two-bit thief inaugurate what has now become a massive federal investigation, in which the two Texas prison officers who participated in the manhunt may ultimately be charged with civil rights violations involving death. But two years’ worth of subpoenas, exhumations, accusations, and lawsuits have produced no indictments. Gradually it has become evident that this is not so much a case of murder as the latest episode in a self-righteous federal agency’s ongoing crusade against the Texas prison system – that is to say a bureaucratic brawl in which Haynes and the two prison officers figure only as pawns. Underneath the layers of haze and intrigue remains the question that in all likelihood can only be answered by a dead man: What happened to Tommy Earl Haynes down on Menard Creek?
THE DOG BOSS
Out by the dog kennels at the edge of the Wynne Unit prison farm, the division of authority is unmistakable. There are the servants: the dogs, the horses, and the inmate kennelmen. And then there is the man they all serve, dog sergeant Gene Stokes. The 44-year-old sergeant has a boyish face and aqueous blue eyes, but the inmates – who spend most of their time studying correctional officers for signs of exploitable weaknesses – have long since given up probing Stokes for soft spots. He saves his easy chatter for off the premises. When the kennelmen bring him his cup of coffee, he accepts it without so much as a nod. When they edge too close during a conversation with a visitor, he snaps, “What?” and the kennelmen stammer, “Nothing, Sarge,” and scurry off.
Toughness is part of the job, and the twenty-year Texas Department of Criminal Justice personnel history of Gene Archie Stokes suggests that few in the TDCJ system do their job better. Both in 1979 and in 1986, the dog sergeant was a finalist for TDCJ Officer of the Year. His personnel file is crammed with thank-you letters from East Texas sheriffs who have called upon Stokes and his dogs to apprehend jail escapees, drug dealers, and murderers. In a letter of commendation, a former warden described Stokes as “a very effective handler of men…He has a reputation among inmates and employees of being a man of his word.” His disciplinary record is spotless, and his kennelmen have told state attorneys that their boss is a fair man. Still, when a Wynne inmate volunteers to become a kennelman, he is volunteering to help train Stokes’s mixed-breed hounds – which includes being on the receiving end of frequent simulated manhunts. The padded uniforms that the kennelmen wear on these chases are tattered from dog bites. Occasionally the kennelmen are tattered as well.
Technically, of course, the dogs are tracking devices, not weapons. From 1980 through 1990, the 386 canines stationed at 22 prison units were used to track 127 escapees. TDCJ officials insist that the dogs are why Texas prisons suffer only 1 escape per 1,000 inmates, far lower than the national ratio of 18 escapes per 1,000 inmates. Furthermore, at least once a week an outside law enforcement agency is apt to call a prison unit and ask that the dogs be sent to track a “free world” fugitive. About half the time, the dogs succeed, which is why sheriffs and Rangers have always expressed enthusiasm about the TDCJ dog program. Still, Texas is one of only three states (Arkansas and Mississippi being the other two) that track fugitives with unleashed dogs. The distaste for the practice has something to do with the crude image of animals hunting men, but it literally cuts deeper than that. For the hounds do not merely track fugitives. They restrain them by means of very sharp teeth, and the results aren’t pretty. As one of the attorneys involved in the Tommy Earl Haynes case says, “Those dogs have one purpose in life, and that’s to chew your ass up.”
For the past fifteen years, Stokes has been in charge of the Wynne Unit’s kennels. He personally raises and trains the dogs from puppies. He knows each of them by the name the inmates have given them (Houston, Della, Roscoe, Satan); he knows which has the best nose, the strongest legs, or the hardest bite. Stokes has used his dogs on more than a hundred manhunts. He has chased inmates through downtown Huntsville, confronted Colombian murderers in the woods near Sugar Land, and watched sheepishly as a pregnant thief outran the dogs to Interstate 45 and hitched a ride. No situation, however hazardous or dreary or slapstick, seems to have avoided the realm of Gene Stokes’s experience.
All of which explains why the dog sergeant thought nothing of the phone call he received at home from a Wynne supervisor at eight-twenty on Saturday evening, January 19,1991. According to the supervisor, a burglar had run off into the thicket of Honey Island, a backwoods community just outside of Kountze in Hardin County. It was a routine mission – certainly nowhere near as perilous as the situation Stokes had faced just two days prior, when he and the dogs chased five escapees from the Bastrop County jail.
Stokes set out with a pack of ten dogs, three horses, his kennelmen, and Bo Beene, the 53-year-old Wynne farm manager who had himself been involved in more than a hundred manhunts in the past 25 years. Shortly after ten-fifteen, they arrived at the dead end of a pitch-dark clay road. A scruffy little cabin was nearby, along with a trailer. Several Hardin County and Polk County deputies approached Stokes and gave him the rundown.
Earlier that morning, a house in neighboring Polk County had been burglarized, and several electrical appliances were stolen. The burglar had left behind a truck that had become stuck in the mud and that he had tried to liberate by means of a tractor he had also stolen. Having failed to free the truck the burglar had apparently tried to set it on fire. Polk county deputies ran a vehicle check and determined that the truck had been stolen in Louisiana. Its license plates had been stolen in Huntsville.
Inside the truck, the deputies found a hospital bill addressed to Sandra Tarver Bolden at 120 Sutton Lane in Honey Island, where they now stood. Bolden was rousted from her bed and questioned about the truck. She said it belonged to her boyfriend, whom she knew as John Hayes. Hayes had shown up on her doorstep a few months back, saying he had lived in San Antonio for the past ten years and that he was looking for a place to park his trailer. Just two months later, he moved into her house, though he came and went at irregular hours and never explained exactly what he was up to. Hayes told his new girlfriend rather ominously that he was on the government payroll. Though Bolden never saw any pay stubs around the house, Hayes always seemed to have cash. And that, she confessed, was pretty much all she knew about her boyfriend. She couldn’t tell the deputies why his right hand was missing its index finger or why he always wore a bandage around his left wrist.
The deputies approached the trailer. Hayes was not home, but a fresh set of boot prints led from the residence to the wood line just east of the property. A few minutes later, the thief’s wallet was found. The name on the driver’s license was not John Hayes. It was Tommy Earl Haynes. The deputies radioed in the name. Out spewed the vital statistics. Tommy Earl Haynes, former TDCJ inmate #375010. Theft and burglary convictions in 1967, 1970, 1974, 1975, 1980, and 1984. One prison escape in 1974. Also arrested in Louisiana. Also escaped in that state. Currently violating parole. Has a speech impediment. Severed his right index finger in a prison machine shop. Wears an Eastham prison tattoo on his left wrist.
“Tommy Earl Haynes,” murmured Gene Stokes at the end of the briefing. “I know that name.” HE turned to Beene. “Bo, ain’t we chased him before?”
They had, and so had Stokes’s predecessor, Gerald Wood. In 1970 dog sergeant Wood sent the Wynne Unit hounds after Haynes, who had stolen a tractor and unaccountably had buried it in the back yard of his family’s house in Woodville. Haynes crisscrossed his way through the East Texas pines, confounding the dogs and Wood, who never caught him. A decade later, in September 1980, Stokes and Beene pursued Haynes with the dogs for three hours along the bluffs of Lake Livingston. They discovered the thief hunkered down in a washout hole beneath a tangle of tree roots. Three years after that, Haynes was fresh out of prison and back to his old tricks. Stokes and Beene were dispatched to the vicinity of Sam Rayburn state Park, where they were told Haynes had abandoned a stolen truck. Stokes put out the dogs, but the chase was fruitless: their quarry had swum the Neches River and was long gone.
Now the thief had a five-hour head start and was somewhere out there in the darkness, running through the pine jungle. Stokes and Beene saddled up. The kennelmen unchained the dogs, who immediately bolted into the woods. The hunt for Haynes was on.
The trail led through a pine plantation spiked everywhere with seedlings. Recent heavy rains had reduced the acreage to swampland. Stokes and Beene carefully picked their way through the area, but at times the water rose to the horses’ flanks. The two barely spoke to each other – it was enough simply to see through the darkness, follow the sounds of the dogs, and remain atop their stumbling horses while fending off the brambles and pine limbs that slapped at their bodies. Both men worried that they might hit a deep slough and drown. The dogs swam from one spot to the next, sniffing at bushes and tree limbs, searching for any scent of Tommy Earl Haynes. After a mile and a half, the trail followed a dirt road that ran through a second pine plantation, where the water kept getting deeper. Though the dirt road cut straight through the plantation, Haynes’s trail was parallel to the road, in standing water. Stokes knew what this meant: They were dealing with a man who knew how to lose dogs.
Indeed, at the edge of a flooded creek bottom, the dogs lost the trail entirely. Beene gathered the hounds, and Stokes got on his walkie-talkie and conferred with the Hardin County deputies. One of them suggested that Stokes and Beene drag the dogs through a clear-cut that ran alongside the far end of the creek bottom. It was good advice: Haynes had emerged from the creek, dashed through the clear-cut, and crossed Texas Highway 1293. The deputies stopped traffic while the dogs charged across the highway with the horsemen in pursuit. The trail led down a set of railroad tracks, westbound toward the town of Votaw. While the hounds set out on the tracks, the horses slogged through a damp firebreak, which, on top of being cluttered with vines and scrap lumber, had the consistency of peanut butter. For five miles they persevered alongside the tracks. Despite their plodding pace, Stokes and Beene passed six of their dogs along the way. The hounds were hobbled from the run; the crushed rock along the tracks was tearing up their pads. Stay on the tracks – another Haynes trick, Stokes figured ruefully.
A train was coming. Stokes collected his dogs just in time. After the train passed, the dogs rushed toward a nearby camp house. The dog sergeant radioed the deputies: “Got something here y’all need to shake down,” he said. The squad cards drove up and the officers approached the camp house. Sure enough, Haynes had been there. A window had been broken, a pile of wet clothes and a machete lay on the floor, and a bag of half-eaten food lay in the adjacent hay barn, along with a bloody bandage. Wynne Unit warden Lester Beaird and assistant warden Mickey Liles showed up on the scene and saw that their men were wet and tired and the dogs were beaten all to hell. It was three o’clock in the morning. Somewhere out there, Haynes would have to wait. The lawmen called the Wynne Unit on a deputy’s car radio and asked for a fresh pack.
A bitter chill had crept into the January air. The men built a fire and huddled beside it, thinking, “How much longer can this man run?” A few Polk County officers arrived with food and coffee from Livingston. Just after seven, a trailer containing a new pack of ten dogs and two fresh horses drove up. Stokes dragged the dogs in the area surrounding the camp house. No scent anywhere. He decided that Haynes had gone straight from the barn into the slough and waded back toward the railroad. He guessed right. Another train came through. A dog from the fresh pack, Ruby, was killed. Onward the horsemen rode. For another five miles both packs followed Haynes’ scent, which weaved from one side of the tracks to the other. At Votaw they came to a switchyard, where the scent and the boot prints of Tommy Earl Haynes vanished altogether. By now the crushed rock had maimed the pads of the fresh pack, and almost every dog was limping. Stokes didn’t bother asking Warden Beaird for another fresh pack. Only one pack was left, and those dogs had to stay home in the event of a prison escape. Stokes Beene, Beaird, and Liles evaluated the situation with the deputies, the glumly decided to call off the manhunt.
The TDCJ officers loaded up their horses and their half-lame dogs. They had all but pulled out toward Huntsville when a dispatch from a Hardin County constable came over the radio: some four miles west of Votaw, a few yards from the tracks, in a densely thicketed subdivision called Hoop and Holler, a fresh boot print had been spotted. The company drove by caravan to the site, a sandy road known as Outlaw Bend because bikers and thieves frequented the area. The boot prints matched those along the railroad tracks. Stokes and Beene followed the prints on horseback, accompanied by a third horseman, Polk county reserve deputy Tim Harkness. Along the road, a truck drove up from the opposite direction. Yes, said the driver, he had seen a man walking down the road earlier, and the fellow appeared to be toting a rifle. Farther down the road, the three horsemen noticed an elderly man and his grandson burning leaves in their front yard. They too had seen a man ambling down the road with what appeared to be a rifle. The horsemen kept going until the tracks played out. Stokes, Beene, and Harkness dismounted and studied the ground. No doubt about it: Tommy Earl Haynes had left the road and burrowed into the thicket.
The three men donned bulletproof vests while the kennelmen brought in the second pack of dogs. One of the hounds was dead, another was lost, and two others were unable to walk. The remaining six were hardly in optimum condition but nonetheless could tell that the trail was fresh; once unchained, they sprang into the woods. The horsemen zigzagged through the pine forest. By the time they caught up, the dogs were gathered at the banks of Menard Creek.
The land through which Tommy Earl Haynes would lead the officers in the last hours of his life was flooded with fast-moving creekwater, and the air was choked with mosquitoes. Even on a temperate day, the Menard Creek corridor is godless country. The water is the color of rust, and it burbles here and there with the movements of catfish that are surely inedible. Even the butterflies are black. Rows of cypress knees jut out of the ground like the spine of a half-buried dinosaur. The trees seem to block out the air itself, and the mud traps and vines sap the wanderer of his spirit; only the mosquitoes compel movement. And this is how it seems on a nice day, in good walking shoes, after a full night’s sleep and a decent meal. This is not how things were for Gene Stokes, Bo Beene, and Tim Harkness on January 20, 1991, as they wallowed on horseback through whatever bogs and sloughs and hellholes the dogs led them. And it is certainly not how things were for Tommy Earl Haynes – a man on the run since four-fifteen the afternoon before, running in a pair of rubber boots, two pairs of jeans, a shirt, two coats, and a nylon jacket with a down-filled vest, bleeding, hungry, half mad from fatigue and fear, with the hounds of hell crying for his flesh in the near distance.
By early afternoon, the distance was closing. The dogs were more than 100 yards ahead of the horsemen, but by trailing the barks, they could tell that the thief had crossed the creek once, then crossed back over a slough. Finally, from a distance of perhaps 75 yards, they heard the dogs baying. Single file on horseback, Stokes, Beene, and Harkness approached the creekbed. According to all three men, this is what happened next:
The horsemen halted at the edge of a thirty-yard-wide slough of slow-moving water. Several of the dogs were at the water’s edge; three others – Houston, Stonewall, and Cowboy – were in the slough itself, clinging to something. “Looks like a coat floating out there,” said Stokes.
They nylon jacket bobbed at the tugging of the dogs, and the outline of a hairy scalp became visible. “No,” said Beene. “That’s him.”
Without a moment’s hesitation, the farm manager dismounted. “You pop your whip, and I’m going in after him,” Beene said, and one by one handed Harkness his boots, chaps, gun belt, and bulletproof vest. . As Beene paddled through the frigid water toward the body, someone cracked a whip several times. Instantly the anxious voice of Warden Beaird came over the walkie-talkie: “Who shot?”
“That was my whip. I was moving the dogs,” was the answer. “We’ve got him in custody.”
Beene hauled the waterlogged, rapidly stiffening body to the opposite shore. Frantically he pumped on Haynes’s back while the dogs milled around the thief’s body. “I been around convicts all my life,” the farm manager would later explain, “but I am a compassionate man, and I was going to do everything humanly possible…to save his life so I wouldn’t have to think about nothing afterward.”
But no signs of life could be coaxed from Haynes. Stokes said into his radio, “We need an ambulance and some emergency personnel.”
Wearily, the dog sergeant sat on a stump and gazed out at his partner, who was shivering over the body of Tommy Earl Haynes – “As depressed as I’ve ever been in my life,” he would later say. Any prison veteran knew what dead bodies meant: an avalanche of paperwork, tedious interviews with the tough guys in Internal Affairs, and the kind of publicity TDCJ didn’t need. “Well,” Stokes said to nobody in particular, “I guess this is the end of the dog program.”
Then Tim Harkness spoke. “As far as I’m concerned,” the Polk County reserve deputy said, “the man just drowned.”
Within minutes, other law enforcement officials began to arrive on the scene followed by a justice of the peace, who pronounced Tommy Earl Haynes dead. They zipped up the corpse in a body bag and shipped it off to Beaumont for an autopsy.
A few days later, Bo Beene visited Gene Stokes at the Wynne kennels to discuss how they would word their incident reports to Warden Beaird. Beene remembers asking, “What are you going to say about [what happened] right at the end?” And he remembers that Stokes replied, “Well, I just put that the dogs was there on the edge of the water, barking.” It was a lie, a cover-up to save the dog program, and neither man had an inkling of what trouble it would bring them.
Hardin County Sheriff Mike Holzapfel couldn’t believe what he was hearing. “There was what?” he hollered into the telephone receiver.
“There were some blows to the deceased’s head,” repeated Thomas Molina, the Beaumont pathologist who had performed the autopsy on Tommy Earl Haynes.
“Now wait a minute, Doc,” said the sheriff. “You mean blows to the head like running into tree limbs or blows to the head like someone hit him in the head?”
Molina replied that, well, certainly it was possible that Haynes had incurred the head injuries while running through the woods. But the autopsy report that Holzapfel received in the mail a few weeks later didn’t read that way: “A significant condition found at autopsy and believed to have contributed to his death by drowning was blunt traumatic injury to the head.” In all, Molina noted six irregular lacerations on the top and posterior of Haynes’ scalp, accompanied by bruises and congested blood vessels. The blunt trauma, in Molina’s view, would have been sufficient to render Haynes dazed or unconscious.
Holzapfel got on the phone and called up Texas Ranger Haskell Taylor. “I already screwed things by not looking into this death sooner,” the sheriff confessed to the Ranger. “You better take over from here.” But before Ranger Taylor could begin his interviews, an ugly new context developed a week later. On March 3, 1991, television news stations around the world aired a videotape in which a black man named Rodney King was savagely beaten by a group of Los Angeles police officers. In the wake of the beating, U.S. attorney general Dick Thornburgh announced that the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division would be reviewing some 15,000 police misconduct complaints it had received over the past six years.
Were it not for this development, the Haynes case might have been handled quietly by Texas lawmen. But the King beating resounded through television talk shows, through Congress; the entire nation engaged itself in the debate over what constituted “excessive use of force.” Sheriff Holzapfel and Hardin County district attorney Bo Horka began to feel out of their depth. “To be frank with you,” Horka later told a reporter, “the L.A. thing happened during our investigation and …it made us think about going to the feds.”
A day after the Rodney King tape was aired, Texas Rangers Haskell Taylor and Ronnie McBride visited the Wynne Unit. In the Wynne conference room, the Rangers advised Gene Stokes of his Miranda rights. At the conclusion of a two-hour interview, Taylor told the dog sergeant, “What we’re doing here at this time is a civil rights investigation. And we’re trying to get to the bottom of what did happen and we’re not in any position to pointing fingers, but there is three people down in that bottom and we’ve got to clear the air that one of you three did not do something…I hope you understand where we’re coming from…a normal drowning wouldn’t have these wounds.”
“Well, I haven’t got anything to hide about it,” stammered Stokes, according to the interview transcript. “I hadn’t hit the man, Mr. Beene didn’t hit the man, and Deputy Hartness [sic] didn’t hit the man…it may be hard for y’all to believe, but it’s not hard for me to believe because I was standing right there, you know.”
Next the Rangers interviewed Beene. “Far as you know,” said Ranger McBride, “the dogs never got up close to him.”
The Wynne farm manager knew the truth. He also knew that the truth would doom the dog program. “No, sir,” said Beene, thereby committing himself to a cover-up conspiracy. But at the time, Bo Beene had no way of anticipating that this fatal lie would lead investigators to believe that the farm manager was guilty of a crime.
Ranger Taylor focused on Haynes’ scalp. “Can you give me any idea why those wounds might have been there?” he asked.
Recalling the terrain, Beene replied, “Oh, I can give you a dozen times that it could have happened during the twenty-two-mile run we had.”
“Did you hit him?”
“Did you see anybody else hit him?”
“Nobody hit him.”
“Are you trying to cover up for anybody else?”
“Would not cover up for nobody,” declared Bo Beene.
Two days later, Stokes and Beene were voluntarily polygraphed by TDCJ Internal Affairs personnel. The chief questions asked were: “During the free-world chase of Tommy Earl Haynes, did you at any time hit Tommy Earl Haynes in the head with anything? Did you at any time see someone hit Tommy Earl Haynes? Are you deliberately withholding information? Regarding the death of Tommy Earl Haynes, did you answer each question truthfully?”
The polygraph charts indicated that Beene’s answers were deceptive; the results for Stokes were inconclusive.
Two days afterward, Polk County reserve deputy Tim Harkness was polygraphed. He was found to be untruthful.
Following the examinations, the Rangers asked Stokes and Beene, “Are y’all holding back something about the dogs?” The men cratered and at last gave the Rangers the full story about what they had seen down on Menard Creek. “My problem with the polygraph is I was trying to cover up for the dogs,” Stokes aid. “I believe the dogs put the cuts in the man’s head.” He and Beene agreed to take another polygraph.
Both men flunked the second polygraph. They promptly hired a private investigator, who arranged for an independent examiner to polygraph them one more time. Stokes, Beene, and Harkness passed the independent polygraph, but by then the damage was done. On March 22, at the request of the Hardin County district attorney, the FBI formally entered the Haynes investigation.
At about that time, Ranger Taylor urged Harkness to make a full confession to the Hardin County authorities. Don’t cover up for the other two, the Ranger told him. Let them take their lumps. The feds are in on the case now. They’re publicity-seekers; they’ll take everyone down if necessary.
The Ranger’s warning turned out to be eerily prescient. Taylor may have jumped to a premature conclusion about what had happened at Menard Creek, but his assumptions about the case were far exceeded by federal investigators, who seemed to arrive in East Texas with the attitude that the lawmen were guilty until proven innocent. “We don’t think your client did it,” said FBI agent Vernon Glossup to Harkness’ attorney in Beaumont, Jimmy Nettles. “But we think he saw it.” Then the tall, red-headed agent with the Moses-like voice threw down the scene-of-the-incident photos on Nettles’ desk. “Haynes was a bad guy,” he declared, “but he didn’t deserve to die like that!”
No one could have confused Tommy Earl Haynes’s avenging angel with an East Texas girl. Federal trial attorney Francesca Freccero wore the short hairdo and the crisp business suits of a fast-track federal bureaucrat. She looked and behaved at least a decade older than her 32 years, and her rapid speech pattern suggested both a keen mind and an aggressive skepticism. Freccero hailed from California, attending law school at Berkeley and spending three years in Oakland as one of Alameda County’s 140 deputy district attorneys. While in Oakland, Freccero was regarded as a rising star by her superiors by the time she landed the plum job as 1 of the 29 attorneys in the criminal section of the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division. She started work for the division in April 1991, two weeks after the FBI entered the Haynes case. Ten months later, the case was hers.
The furor this year over Lani Guinier’s failed bid to head the Civil Rights Division is a measure of the division’s significance in America’s domestic affairs. For it is this branch of the Justice Department that has traditionally protected individuals from the biases and brute force of the state. The Civil Rights Division has been particularly active in Texas. Between 1987 and 1991, according to an investigation by the Dallas Morning News, Texas led the nation in the number of law enforcement officials convicted of federal civil rights violations.
Now it fell to Freccero to determine whether three more Texas lawmen were crooked. The case against them consisted of no solid evidence, just unanswered questions, disputed polygraph results, and innuendo. Still, a number of troublesome matters begged explanation. Where was the rifle Haynes was supposed to have been carrying? If, as Stokes, Beene, and Harkness had originally theorized, Haynes’s head wounds had come from running through the woods, why weren’t the cuts on the front of his head? Did Haynes run those 22 miles backward? Of course, Stokes was now blaming some cuts on the dogs. But Haynes’ scalp revealed no teeth marks, nor were there bites elsewhere on his body. And speaking of the body: The three men claimed it was floating in the slough when they arrived on the scene. Dead bodies, however, don’t float.
Then there were the polygraphs. Stokes had admitted to the polygraph examiner that in the past he had lied to avoid trouble – and since this was the worst trouble he had ever experienced, wouldn’t it follow that the dog sergeant would say anything to save his skin? Furthermore, Beene and Stokes admitted that they had lied to cover up the involvement of the dogs. The only question that remained was, What else was being covered up? Beene said he had done everything possible to save Haynes’s life; yet he did not employ mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and had left Haynes’s legs submerged in the frigid creekwater while supposedly pumping the thief’s back. As for Harkness, he had admitted to the investigators that on previous manhunts he had used force to take fugitives into custody.
Finally, there was innuendo. Freccero told grand jury witnesses that there was “a pattern of violence” in Gene Stokes’s history. The dog sergeant had told the polygraph examiner that he had slapped inmates before and had hit one with a pistol butt. Additionally, in 1985 an escapee claimed that, after being captured by Stokes in a manhunt, the dog sergeant had beaten him and dragged him around with a lariat. And on August 26, 1983, a Wynne Unit kennelman named Willie Lee Steward drowned in a stock tank at the conclusion of a stimulated manhunt – sinking to the bottom, incidentally – while dog sergeant Gene Stokes stood at the edge of the stock tank and watched.
Freccero knew that Stokes had been toting both a pistol and a flashlight down on Menard Creek. Both of these instruments were now in federal hands, and either was capable of dealing Haynes the fateful blows. She had in her possession a deposition in which a former East Texas sheriff who had examined Haynes’s head was quoted: “I know what I’m looking at when I’m looking at this, because I have inflicted this kind of wound on people myself.” Yet another East Texas sheriff Freccero had interviewed obligingly told one investigator, “I have been on a bunch of chases, and I hadn’t seen one run yet that didn’t get his ass whopped at the end of that chase. When I chase a son of a bitch all night long, I’m gonna thump him. Hell, you probably done the same thing. I can see that horse running up on that old boy and running that horse into him and taking a whop handle or whatever and popping his ass, saying, “You son of a bitch, you won’t run from me no more.’”
None of this was proof of wrongdoing, but there was a very good reason why Francesca Freccero might find it compelling. The view held among the criminal section attorneys was that this wasn’t just a Texas case; it was a TDCJ case, making the Haynes saga the latest installment of a continuing feud between two stubborn bureaucracies. To the Justice Department attorneys, the Texas prison bosses were primitive and corrupt. To the prison officials, the attorneys were sanctimonious bullies who had no concept of how a prison system had to work. Ever since the seventies, Civil Rights Division lawyers have been engaged in a protracted, and at times ugly, wrangle with TDCJ over the issue of how prison cells are to be racially integrated. And shortly before Freccero took over the Haynes case, the Civil Rights Division began an investigation of the Ellis II Unit where an inordinate number of inmate deaths had recently taken place. When confronted about the deaths, prison officials patiently explained that Ellis II had, in the past year, become a hospice for terminally ill inmates. Unmoved, the head of the Civil Rights Division fired off a letter to state officials, announcing the division’s intention to tour Ellis II accompanied by medical experts. At a chance meeting, TDCJ institutional director Andy Collins conveyed his exasperation to then-U.S. attorney general William Barr. Barr gave Collins the name of a top-ranking U.S. Justice Department staffer, and after the ominous letter arrived, Texas officials asked the staffer to intercede. It worked: The prison tour was canceled, and the Ellis II investigation terminated. While this pleased TDCJ officials, a few of them realized that the Civil Rights Division attorneys might be fuming over Collins’ maneuver and looking for a chance to vent their fury.
How important was this case to the Civil Rights Division? In 1991, the FBI received 9,835 civil rights complaints and investigated 3,583 of them. Those investigations, in turn, were reviewed by the criminal section’s 29 attorneys, including Freccero. Of the 3,583 cases, the attorneys picked only 63, or 1.8 percent, to bring before a federal grand jury. According to one of the attorneys present during the selection process, the Haynes case was viewed not simply as a case with strong prosecutorial merit but also as a chance to “clean up TCD.”
Francesca Freccero bore a double burden. She had to make her grand jury investigation count – to justify the considerable taxpayer expense and to fulfill the mission of shaking up the Texas prison system. Through the summer months of 1992, she bided her time while a particularly independent-minded Beaumont grand jury completed its term. In August a new federal grand jury was impaneled, and thereafter Freccero unleashed dozens of subpoenas. Like one of Gene Stokes’s hounds, she bit down hard on the idea that Tommy Earl Haynes was killed and now Texas prison officials were covering it up. And she would not let go.
As Freccero and FBI agent Glossup rummaged through East Texas for proof that Tommy Earl Haynes had been murdered, anxious speculation descended upon the region like a summer gully washer. It seemed a foregone conclusion that Stokes, Beene, and Harkness would be brought to trial; the only question was when. Glossup had been pursuing the federal case since March 1991, Freccero since February 1992, and the new grand jury since August of the same year. But as 1993 advanced, Freccero’s investigation seemed to be plodding along like an East Texas lumber truck. “We can indict anytime we want to,” Freccero and Glossup both assured Haynes’ sister Elizabeth Martines. “We just want to assemble the best possible case before we do so.”
Freccero will not talk about her investigation, but the list of people she has subpoenaed in the case suggests what the federal case might be: Stokes beat up Haynes while Beene and Harkness watched. Unconscious, Haynes fell in Menard Creek and drowned. On the drive back to Huntsville, the two TDCJ horsemen had confessed to Warden Beaird and assistant warden Liles – a confession that was eventually relayed up the TDCJ hierarchy. When the autopsy uncovered the lacerations and the horsemen failed their polygraphs, the new story became that the dogs had mauled Haynes. Seemingly to serve this theory, Freccero subpoenaed the personnel records of Stokes, Beene, Beaird, and Liles. She brought Beaird, Liles, and TDCJ deputy director Wayne Scott before the grand jury, where each official underwent a hostile grilling. Stokes’s wife, his brother-in-law, his sister, and his colleagues were interviewed by Freccero. And, presumably in an effort to turn up the heat on Tim Harkness, agent Glossup flew out to California and gathered legal documents relating to Harkness’ first marriage.
Freccero’s maneuverings were intimidating, but they produced no smoking gun, no sudden confessions – perhaps, one began to suspect, because there was nothing to confess to. Apart from the lie about the dogs, the three horsemen had not budged from their original stories, which were consistent with each other and with accounts given by the Polk and Hardin county deputies who had been in the vicinity. And if there were a few East Texas lawmen who could envision foul play, there were far more who were insisting that these particular officers would never have done something so brutal or idiotic. (Says Haynes’s old friend, former Tyler County deputy sheriff B.J. Vardeman: “I’ve seen those two TDC boys do good work, and I just don’t believe they’re the type who’d do any prisoner bodily harm”) To accept the federal investigators’ view of Haynes’s death required one to accept that Stokes and Beene, knowing that a swarm of local lawmen had surrounded Menard Creek, would be willing to sacrifice their long-standing careers for a few swings of a pistol butt. It also required one to believe that Harkness – who could not even recall the names of the two Wynne Unit trackers when interviewed by the Rangers – would risk going to jail to cover up for two strangers.
On close inspection, the innuendo concerning the horsemen’s violent tendencies also rested on flimsy evidence. Yes, Stokes had gotten rough with escaped inmates. But he was investigated and exonerated for acting in self-defense. Yes, Stokes had been investigated by the FBI for allegedly dragging a fugitive around with a lariat – and he had been cleared by the FBI of any wrongdoing. True, the dog sergeant hadn’t jumped into the stock tank to save a drowning inmate. But it was also true that to have done so would have been an unheard-of security risk, and further true that Stokes held out a pole to a second inmate, who had jumped into the stock tank and tried, unsuccessfully, to rescue Willie Lee Steward. Yes, all three horsemen had failed a polygraph – and all three had passed one as well. (“The only problem with polygraphs,” said one high-ranking TDCJ official, “is that they don’t weigh twenty pounds more so that they can be used as boat anchors.”) And while it was true that dead bodies tend to sink, this particular body wore a nylon jacket with a down vest that could have kept Haynes buoyant – certainly more buoyant than the case being assembled by Francesca Freccero.
After all was said and done, the only hard evidence of foul play remained the six lacerations on the scalp of Tommy Earl Haynes. Thomas Molina’s opinion that Haynes’s head wounds were “believed to have contributed to his death” was what had gotten the attention of the federal investigators to begin with, and the entire federal case against Stokes, Beene, and Harkness rested on Molina’s judgment. But that judgment was open to question: The Beaumont pathologist’s record reflected a tendency to form alarming conclusions. Hardin County sheriff Mike Holzapfel knew this firsthand. In 1990 Molina concluded that a man found dead by Hardin County deputies had not, as the deputies said, been killed by a hit-and-run driver, but rather had been beaten to death. Dismayed, Holzapfel called in the Rangers, who found conclusively that the deputies had been right after all; as a result, Molina rewrote his autopsy report.
Far more disturbing was a pathology report Molina had rendered in 1988 while working in northeast Texas. A Paris businessman, Russell Gifford, had been complaining of a sore throat, which his physician had diagnosed as esophagitis. After examining the biopsy slides, Molina insisted that Gifford had cancer of the throat. Gifford therefore underwent six weeks of chemotherapy and radiation treatment. Just prior to major surgery, Gifford was informed by a rather startled Dallas surgeon, who had run a few preliminary tests, that he didn’t have cancer at all – he was merely suffering from esophagitis. Gifford’s attorneys successfully sued Molina for $1.2 million.
Molina’s finding in the Gifford case had appalled Linda Norton, a Dallas pathologist who achieved early fame when she performed the exhumation-autopsy of Lee Harvey Oswald in 1981. Testifying for Gifford, Norton declared that Molina had misdiagnosed what happened to be one of the easier types of cancer to identify under the microscope. When the attorneys representing Stokes and Beene contacted her about Molina’s autopsy of Haynes, Norton decided to take a close look at the autopsy report and the photographs of Haynes’s wounds. “It’s ridiculous to conclude that these lacerations would render a man unconscious,” she says today. “The blows did not transgress the skull. There were no bruises on the brain. There was a congestion of blood vessels, but that’s simply an agonal [death agony] phenomenon, suggesting that the right heart failed before the left heart did. I doubt these wounds felt very good when Haynes suffered them, but do you know how hard it is to knock someone out with a blunt object? The Rodney King videotape shows you how hard it is.
“I took a camera out to Menard Creek and took pictures of everything I saw out in those woods that could have caused these kinds of wounds. It didn’t take me long to run out of film. Not only is it not a matter of whether Haynes could have suffered these lacerations while running through the woods – the only reason he wasn’t more seriously injured was that he was wearing heavy clothing. And, yes, I’m aware that much has been made of the location of the wounds. But, logically, that argument makes no sense. When you’re running through the woods you’re aware of the need to protect your face. Particularly when fatigued, you are apt to run with your head down, thus exposing the top and back of your head.”
Whether or not Haynes’ scalp harbored definitive evidence therefore depended upon whom you asked. Freccero determined on her own not to rely upon Molina’s opinion. She did not bother to bring the Beaumont pathologist before the grand jury. Instead, in August 1992 Francesca Freccero took a step that seems tellingly desperate: She ordered an exhumation and a second autopsy of Haynes’s body. When the prison officers’ attorneys heard that an exhumation might be taking place, they telephoned Freccero. She refused to confirm if or when an exhumation would take place. When asked if she would be willing to let Linda Norton witness the second autopsy, Freccero coolly replied, “Absolutely not.” A few days later, TDCJ attorneys brought the matter before a federal judge – only to be informed by Freccero that the issue was moot: The exhumation and second autopsy had already taken place.
Infuriated, the state attorneys went to Haynes’ sister Elizabeth Martines and asked for permission to conduct a second exhumation and a third autopsy. Freccero urged Martines to deny the request. After months of negotiating, Haynes’ sister consented. In February 1993 the casket containing the remains of Tommy Earl Haynes was removed from the Mount Pisgah Cemetery in Woodville, transported to San Antonio, and in the presence of Bexar county medical examiner Vincent DiMaio and Linda Norton, unsealed.
And there lay Tommy Earl Haynes – minus his scalp.
What had happened to the most important piece of evidence in the Tommy Earl Haynes case? “We don’t have it,” agent Glossup told Haynes’ sister. Yet when Haynes was buried the first time, his scalp was on his head. When federal authorities had exhumed the corpse in August, presumably they would have let it be known if the body they examined had somehow been scalped. For her part, Freccero refused to comment one way or the other. Already her approach to the Haynes case betrayed a certain bureaucratic vindictiveness. But now, by refusing to clear up the matter of the missing scalp, she was descending to Watergate-like depths. As to what the federal investigators might do with the scalp – preserve it, destroy it, alter its appearance – once could only guess. But the disappearance of Tommy earl Haynes’ scalp, as Linda Norton would observe, “inescapably lends the appearance of obstruction.”
This past summer, outside the grand jury room of the Jack Brooks Federal Building in Beaumont, I approached Francesca Freccero with a list of questions pertaining to her, the Civil Rights Division, TDCJ, and the Tommy Earl Haynes case. They gray-suited attorney shook my hand, offered a tight smile, and confirmed a couple of details about her background while FBI agent Glossup loomed nearby. On every other matter, she refused to comment, explaining crisply, “I hope you understand that I’m bound by both departmental policy and by Section 6E of the Federal Grand Jury Act, which in a nutshell forbids me to discuss matters that are before a pending grand jury investigation.” Yet Freccero’s interpretation of this law seemed far-reaching. She would not confirm when she was officially assigned the Haynes case, when she first came to Texas, or even when the present grand jury term would expire. When I asked her if she was aware that TDCJ officials viewed the Haynes case as part of a federal vendetta, she quickly replied, “I’m not going to make a single comment about TCD.” When I asked her about the missing scalp, Francesca Freccero just laughed.
An aroma of pettiness has begun to hang over the Menard Creek episode, only some of which is due to the behavior of the federal investigators. Earlier this year, Elizabeth Martines pressed forward with a civil suit. With tears in her eyes, the 37-year-old Nacogdoches woman spoke lovingly of her dead brother to local lawmen, federal investigators, and reporters. Seldom did Martines volunteer, however, that she had not seen Tommy Earl in the eight years prior to his death. And no one seemed aware that, when she viewed Haynes’s corpse on January 22, 1991, she was so unsure that it really was her beloved brother that she called upon former Tyler county deputy sheriff B.J. Vardeman to identify the body. Fittingly, then, it wasn’t a member of Haynes’s family but rather his frequent captor who was able to say: “Yep, that’s Tommy Earl, all right.”
The civil suit filed by Haynes’ sister may drag on for another year; the federal investigation, even longer. In the meantime, Tim Harkness, Gene Stokes, and Bo Beene already have spent thousands of dollars in attorneys’ fees, and criminal charges haven’t even been filed. Harkness’ duties at the Polk County sheriff’s office have been limited to narcotics cases. Stokes has been ordered by prison officials not to participate in any free-world manhunts. “I’m pretty much grounded,” he says over the din of the hounds as he traverses the kennels, scuffling his boots through the Wynne farm’s mud. “But not being on chases doesn’t bother me. I’ve paid my dues. I’ve been doing this job for fifteen years, and it ain’t getting’ any easier. Used to be you’d chase ‘em, and they’d give up in a matter of minutes. Nowadays everyone’s carrying a gun and they’re on some crazy drugs and you don’t know what you’re up against. So I’m not aching to get back to that. It’s why I’m grounded that pisses me off.”
Like everyone else, the dog sergeant occasionally puzzles over what happened at the conclusion of his last chase. “I used to think the dogs gave him those cuts,” Stokes says. “But when I think about all those tree limbs and briars we rode through in the dead of night, t makes perfect sense to me that Haynes banged up his head long before he ever got to that slough.”
Prison officials fear that no matter how the case ends, the furor over Haynes’s death will spell the end of the dog program. Ironically, Thomas Molina and Linda Norton are in rare agreement that Haynes’s head wounds do not look like dog bites. Former Wynne dog sergeant Gerald Wood, on the other hand, believes that at least one of the lacerations was almost certainly inflicted by a dog’s tooth. The most plausible cause-of-death theory seems to be Norton’s: “He was exhausted, he was wearing several layers of wet clothing, he dove into the slough, the dogs caught up to him and did what they were supposed to do, which is restrain him, and which is exactly what they were doing when the three officers showed up. But being held down in water, Haynes was unable to breathe, and so he lost consciousness.”
Still, it is only a theory. In all likelihood, the secret of why Tommy Earl Haynes drowned in Menard Creek remains kept, and shall always be kept, by a pack of dogs and a scalped corpse.
The thief’s body and its pine vessel have been returned to Mount Pisgah Cemetery in Woodville, the town of Haynes’s birth. The cemetery caretakers express dismay at the approach of a visitor. “You ain’t here to dig his body up again, are you?” one of them asks. “I won’t do it anymore. I’ll retire first. Oh, you just wanna look? Well, you can’t miss it. It’s all the way at the back. Ain’t no big marker, but you still can’t miss it.”
And there, at the eastern edge of the graveyard, lies a mound of clay – and six feet underneath, the keeper of the secret, yielding nothing of the East Texas mystery, still elusive, still running.