FIFTEEN MILES EAST OF DALLAS, wedged between Mesquite and Garland, the cheerfully named town of Sunnyvale has been swept up in a Who Shot J.R.?—style mystery since March 1, when former mayor Charles Mayhew, Sr., was found dead in his bed, having sustained a single gunshot wound to the neck. Because there was no sign of a struggle or forced entry, it seems likely that the 81-year-old oilman knew his killer well, which ought to make it an easy case to solve in a town of only 2,350. But it’s proving to be anything but. At the time of his death, Mayhew had been suing Sunnyvale for eleven years over zoning restrictions, costing the town—and, by extension, its tax-paying residents—more than $2 million in legal fees. “There’s certainly lots of talk,” says Sunnyvale’s current mayor, Jim Wade. “Everybody’s got a list of possible suspects and motives.”
As perplexing as Mayhew’s murder may be, it isn’t the first crime to befall his family. While he was still in office in 1972, his daughter, Amanda—newly married to Dallas Morning News heir Joe M. Dealey, Jr.—was kidnapped and held for $250,000 ransom before being safely returned two days later. Money, too, may have fueled the recent tragedy. Mayhew’s dispute with pastoral Sunnyvale—still relatively unchanged from the days when farmers and moonshiners had the run of the place—began in 1987, when he and his son, Chuck, decided to fight the town’s zoning ordinance, which made the profitable development of their 1,200 acres nearly impossible. In the legal tangles that followed, the Mayhews leveled charges of racism against the town, arguing that zoning restrictions were designed to keep out “undesirables.” (“It’s a Fort Apache of white flight,” observes a Dallas developer.) Sunnyvale, which said it simply wanted to preserve good country living near the Metroplex, faced possible bankruptcy if the courts sided with the Mayhews. “No one in Sunnyvale was too happy about this lawsuit,” explains another former mayor, Paul Cash.
Mayhew’s body was apparently discovered by 45-year-old Chuck, a hard-living hell-raiser who is a champion marksman. Chuck was questioned by investigators from the Dallas County Sheriff’s Department, though they refuse to call him a suspect. Then again, it is well-known around Sunnyvale that Chuck (who did not respond to requests for an interview for this story) was frustrated by his inability to make money off his father’s land. It certainly didn’t help matters that it was his father, while mayor, who amended the zoning ordinance that later caused the family’s problems.
So far, no arrests have been made in the case, and the possibilities seem endless. Says Don Peritz, Jr., an investigator with the sheriff’s department: “No one is being ruled out as a suspect.” But at least one issue has been resolved. Two weeks after Mayhew’s murder, the Texas Supreme Court handed down its ruling in the zoning lawsuit—and found in favor of Sunnyvale.