IT WAS SEPTEMBER 5, 2003, one year ago. A beautiful Friday night, the wind murmuring in the trees. Many of the residents of the tiny East Texas town of Tatum (population: 1,175) were at the high school stadium to watch the Tatum Eagles play their biggest rival, Spring Hill High School, from nearby Longview. “It was exactly the kind of night that makes a small town special,” the high school principal would later say. “High school football, a big rivalry, everyone cheering, the band playing the school song.”
The game went into overtime, Tatum losing 1421. One of the cheerleaders, fifteen-year-old sophomore Rachel Reid, famous for doing back handsprings across the field, ran midway across the field to kiss her mother, Julie, good-bye. She and one of her closest friends, fourteen-year-old freshman Mackinsey Blalock, a long-legged blond athlete, were headed off to spend the night with junior Jaicey Robberson, another cheerleader and one of the most popular girls at the school. Jaicey, who was sixteen, would be driving.
“Please be careful,” Julie told her daughter. “You know what you mean to me.” It was the first time that Julie was allowing Rachel to ride in a car at night with another teenager driving.
“Oh, Big Momma,” Rachel replied, using her favorite nickname for her mother. “You know you worry too much.”
The three girls jumped into Jaicey’s brown Chevrolet Blazer. They were ecstatic, especially Rachel. For the first time, she was about to go cruising. She was going to get to experience the freedom of a car, roaming alone in the dark, laughing and leaning against her friends as their favorite songs blared from the radio.
Jaicey headed north of town on Texas Highway 149 to pick up one more friend, Kasey Jo Moraw, a former Tatum High School mascot who had graduated in 2002 and who was still living with her mother and stepfather. When Kasey Jo saw the Blazer pull up to her family’s small home right next to the highway, she said good-bye to her mother, Janet Russom, and walked toward the door. Then, inexplicably, she turned and came back across the living room to hug her mother and say, “I love you, Momma.” Kasey Jo turned one more time for the front door, shouted out to Jaicey, “I’ve got shotgun,” and then jumped into the Blazer.
THE BOY GUNNED THE ENGINE of his pickup, a green 1997 GMC Sonoma, a real beauty, the kind of truck that made other boys in town look twice and whistle. He had bought it just two months earlier for $6,000, using his savings from his job at Sonic to make the down payment, and then he had spent another $1,000 souping it up, adding a new chrome grille, chrome wheel covers, chrome mirrors, an aluminum antenna, clear taillights, and a new CD player with a subwoofer and an amp that filled up most of the backseat.
The boy’s name was David Reid. He was eighteen years old, fence-post lean, with closely cropped black hair, tiny metal studs piercing his ears and bottom lip, and a skull and flames tattoo etched on his right arm. He and his buddies spent most of their evenings in the large garage behind David’s parents’ house, where they played foosball or dominoes and worked on their cars. They called themselves the Monster Garage Crew. One of the crew members had gone so far as to strip the damaged hood off his Buick Skylark, expose the engine, paint blue flames on the doors, and call his car the Monster. But even he admitted that it didn’t look half as good as David’s truck.
“A hot-rodder,” one of the parents in town would later say about David. “Not exactly the kind of boy you want your girl to go out with.” Which, of course, was why so many girls liked him. He was the town’s teenage James Dean. When he cranked up Hank Williams Jr. on his truck’s stereo, the music could be heard a block away.
That Friday night, David and his buddies had gone to the Tatum HighSpring Hill game, then they had lingered in the parking lot, staring at girls, waiting for the traffic to thin out. Finally, David led the group north on Highway 149 toward his parents’ house. As he was driving away, one of his friends, Karl Cullen, a senior at Tatum High, came up beside him in his gold two-door Mitsubishi Eclipse. One look between them was all it took. The two engines were suddenly roaring, the transmissions kicking through the gears. By the time they got to the city limits sign, they were standing on the gas, their tachometers heading toward the red lines, the white highway lines in front of them turning into a blur.
It was not supposed to last long. The two boys knew that. It was just a brief drag race, a short game of chicken to see who would back off first. A man standing in his front yard just outside the city limits estimated their speed at 80 to 85 miles an hour as they blew past his house. A woman driving north on the highway, Ozella Tunstle, was startled when they zoomed past her, David’s truck in front, Karl’s Eclipse two car lengths behind. She estimated their speed at 90 miles per hour. As they raced away from her, Mrs. Tunstle peered forward and saw something else. She saw a brown Chevy Blazer pulling onto the highway.
AFTER HUGGING HER DAUGHTER, Kasey Jo, good-bye, Janet Russom left the front door of her home open to catch the breeze. Then she sat down on the couch with her husband to watch Jay Leno. The explosion came before Leno got through a single joke. The sound was like a bomb detonating, an ugly screeching sound of metal slamming full-speed into metal.
The pickup had gone almost through the entire body of the Blazer, knocking both vehicles into a ditch on the other side of the road. Jaicey, Rachel, and Mackinsey had died on impact. Kasey Jo, who was later pronounced dead at the hospital, had been thrown from her seat. Her blue jeans were smoking, and her head was turned in a peculiar way, as if she had no muscles in her neck. As her stepfather, Allen, reached her, the Blazer burst into flames, the heat causing the tires and the windows to explode.
The sirens could be heard all over town. Jaicey’s mother, Daphne, tried to call her daughter. When her call went straight to Jaicey’s voice mail, Daphne rode with a friend to the highway, less than a mile from her home.
Julie Reid was told by a friend that David had been in an accident. While she tried to reach Rachel, her husband, Randy, left the house to find out what was happening. Because the highway was by then so congested with other onlookers’ parked cars and trucks, Randy parked his own truck about a quarter of a mile from the site of the accident. As he walked past a group of tearful teenagers, he heard them talking about four girls: Jaicey, Kasey Jo, Mackinsey, and Rachel.
Randy started running. He saw the Chevy Blazer, the flames finally extinguished. He saw a couple of volunteer firemen he knew, neither of whom was able to look back at him. “Was my Rachel in that Blazer?” he shouted. “Was she?”
Then he noticed the pickup truck, a green 1997 GMC Sonoma, the front end crumpled like an accordion. He saw David, the driver of the pickup, being loaded into an ambulance. His eyes were open and his hands were waving hesitantly. Randy stood there for a few more minutes, seemingly unable to realize what lay before him.
David Reid, his son, had just killed his daughter, Rachel, and three of her closest friends.
SOMEDAY WHEN YOU ARE IN East Texas, if you should travel down Highway 149 just outside Tatum, you will see a roadside memorial: four gleaming white crosses, each one inscribed with the first name of one of the teenage girls killed in the Blazer. Scattered around the crosses are sculptures of angels, a plastic-encased Bible, and handwritten notes from friends pledging to remember forever. Someone—no one is sure who—comes by each week to mow the grass around the crosses. Someone else stops to leave fresh bouquets of flowers. Even now, many townspeople continue to slow down in their cars when they come to the spot, as if the highway has suddenly become more dangerous—or haunted.
A lawyer involved in the case has called the crash East Texas’s version of a Greek tragedy, one that has forced residents to address the most agonizing of life’s questions: When the worst things happen—when the most heartbreaking events come into your life to stay—whom do you blame? Whom should you blame? And when you’ve done that, then what do you do?
Very soon, twelve people in Rusk County, where Tatum is located, are going to be forced to come up with some answers to those questions. Before the year is out, a jury is expected to be convened to decide the fate of young David Reid, who has been indicted on four counts of manslaughter and four counts of a new Texas felony: racing that causes bodily injury. If he is convicted, he could go to prison for twenty years.
Many residents of Tatum, including the parents of Jaicey and Kasey Jo, are demanding that David serve time. “What I heard was that boy did nothing but hop up cars and race them around town and scare people,” says Jaicey’s father, Jim Robberson, a plumber. “People were always afraid he’d do something like this someday. And now here we are, and it’s time to hold him responsible.”
But others claim that the boy is not criminally at fault. They say that if Jaicey had simply looked down the very long and straight highway before pulling her Blazer out onto the road, she would have seen David’s pickup truck coming her way. “Almost everyone in Tatum wants to blame David for this accident because he looks like the town’s ‘bad boy,'” says the Reids’ attorney, Daryll Bennett, of Longview, a man who himself has spent more than a decade haunted by the death of his own son, killed at the age of eleven in a four-wheeler accident. “They want you to believe this is a simple matter of the town’s ‘bad boy’ killing the town’s ‘good girls.’ Well, it isn’t that easy. None of this is.”
The debate surrounding the crash has been inflamed by a recent lawsuit filed, ironically enough, by David’s parents against the estate of Jaicey Robberson, blaming her for what happened and demanding monetary damages. Many Tatum townspeople are outraged at the Reids, who before the accident were considered quiet, likable working-class people, trying to make ends meet on Randy’s welding income and the little money that Julie made building and selling birdhouses shaped like churches. Some even say that the Reids are acting irrationally because they are unable to deal with the horrific reality that their son took the life of their beloved, bubbly Rachel. “They know the truth about what happened that night,” says Kasey Jo’s stepfather, Allen Russom, a former shift worker at a chemical-processing plant who was laid off right after Kasey Jo’s death. “They know that they should have slowed David down long ago.”
Julie Reid, however, insists that it’s the other families who have been driven crazy by grief. “They don’t care that we’ve already lost one child,” she tells me, sitting in the living room of her trailer home, which she rarely leaves these days. “Now they’re out there meeting with the district attorney, pushing him to get the trial scheduled so David can be sent away to the state penitentiary. Well, they’d better think of another way to make themselves feel better, because we’re not going to lose another child.”
PARENTS OF DEAD CHILDREN WILL tell you that they have two lives: the one before their child died and the one afterward. Almost always, the second life is a kind of purgatory. “All you do is wait for a day to come when you can feel normal again,” says Jaicey’s mother, Daphne Allen, a nurse who is divorced from Jaicey’s father and who identified her charred body on the night of the wreck from the retainer she wore. “You wait for a day in which you can go for an hour—one hour—without thinking about what happened to your child.”
In a city, a parent of a child killed in a car wreck can always figure out a route to drive so that he or she never again has to look at the accident site. But in Tatum, which is so small its only traffic signal is a four-way stop, the parents and stepparents of Jaicey, Kasey Jo, Mackinsey, and Rachel must drive up and down Highway 149 several times a day either to get to work or to run errands. Although Kasey Jo’s mother and stepfather have moved across town since the accident—”There was no way we could keep looking out our front window right at the four crosses,” says Janet—they still find themselves on the highway constantly. As soon as she sees the road, Janet tries not to cry. “For the rest of my life, I will ask myself why I didn’t hold my daughter for five more seconds when she came back across the room to hug me,” she says. “Just five more seconds. That’s all the time we would have needed for David to have passed by.”
To try to forget what she saw that night on the highway, Mackinsey’s mother, Debra Blalock, who’s also divorced, took a job on the assembly line of a truck plant, where she works twelve-hour days—”Longer if they’d let me, so I could come home tired enough to sleep partway through the night,” she says. Randy Reid would come home from his welding job and immediately begin working in his garage or in his vegetable garden, hoeing himself into a dizzy sweat. Randy doesn’t talk much about Rachel. He says it takes him “a couple of days” to get over any conversation about her. Usually, when he hears Julie mentioning something Rachel used to like to do, he slips out a back door.
The four girls were indeed the good girls of the town, bright and attractive—”Our future,” wrote Mary Craig, the 81-year-old columnist for Tatum’s weekly newspaper. Kasey Jo had been working at a day care center in the mornings and was attending junior college in the afternoons, preparing for a career in medical radiology. Jaicey, a member of the National Honor Society, was studying for the ACT test to gain early admission to the University of Texas. Her dream was to become a doctor. Rachel, a nearly straight-A student, was a member of the school’s UIL math team. Mackinsey spent her free time writing poetry. After the September 11 attacks, she wrote a poem that included the line “Many think I’m just a child that wouldn’t know, how the people weep for the ones lost they loved so.”
After the accident, their funerals were standing room only. “Amazing Grace” and “I Can Only Imagine,” a popular contemporary Christian song, were sung over and over. Photographs of the girls in their cheerleading uniforms or in Popsicle-colored prom dresses were propped up beside their caskets. At Jaicey’s funeral, all the members of the high school football team were listed as honorary pallbearers. Rumors were already then flying that some of the football players were going to go looking for David to pay him back for what he had done.
DAVID REID WAS NOT BY any means the town’s bad boy. He had never been arrested for a crime. But he was the kind of kid who came to school in a black T-shirt and sat in the back of the classroom, utterly uninterested in academics or any extracurricular activities (he graduated in the bottom half of his class in the spring of 2003). He was known for getting into fights over girls, and he was also known for his disregard of authority: He had once been suspended from high school for smoking in a hallway, and he had received a couple of tickets from the local police for speeding in his truck.
“I’ve done a few crazy things,” he tells me when I first meet him earlier this summer in his parents’ garage, where he is hanging out with some of his buddies from the Monster Garage Crew. He is, of course, wary of me. He is talking to me only because his mother wants him to, and still he is reticent, unwilling to reveal too much. Like so many young men his age, he tries to show no emotion whatsoever, as if that might be interpreted by his friends as some sort of weakness. When I ask him what he misses about Rachel, he says, his eyes cast downward, “You know, lots of things. All kinds of things.” Occasionally, he looks over at his girlfriend, Stacia, a high school student from Lake Cherokee he met when he was working at Sonic. She smiles at him shyly, but he is apparently uncomfortable smiling back at her in front of a stranger. “I guess my mom wants you to see that I’m not a criminal,” he says gruffly. “Hell, what good is it going to do? Everyone out here already calls me public enemy number one, the badass of Highway 149.”
As everyone in town knew, the sociable Rachel had been, in the words of one Tatum parent, “the apple of Julie’s eye.” She was the child in the family who was no doubt going to graduate from college and make a mark in the world. But by all accounts, Julie was equally devoted to David. She had constantly encouraged him to do something with his love of cars—perhaps someday open a custom paint and body shop. Six months before the wreck, to show how proud she was of both her son and her daughter, Julie had painted two pictures on a shed next to their house, visible to anyone driving by. One painting depicted Rachel in her cheerleading uniform. The other depicted a low-riding blue pickup truck—the first one David had customized before he got his green Sonoma.
Julie says she did not tell David about Rachel until three days after the wreck. He was still in the hospital, recovering from broken ribs, a broken collarbone, a severely twisted leg, and cuts on his face and most of his body. When he was lucid enough to talk, he told his mother he couldn’t remember anything about the accident. She told him, finally, that some girls had died in the Blazer. David asked for their names. His mother mentioned Jaicey, Kasey Jo, and Mackinsey.
“And Rachel,” she said.
“Rachel?” David asked, uncomprehending. “Rachel who?”
For a moment, his mother couldn’t answer him. Then he said, “Our Rachel?”
“He might never tell you what he thinks,” Julie says about David, “but I know he was proud that his little sister was a star at the school, doing things he didn’t do. If you go back in his room, you’ll see a photo of her on the wall.”
A couple of months after the accident, his injuries healing, David returned to his job at Sonic—”You know, just trying to move on with my life,” he tells me, shrugging his shoulders, looking away. Inevitably, the parents of the other dead girls saw him around town. He kept his head down, refusing to speak. The parents concluded that he had little remorse for what he had done. “All we wanted was for him to just say, ‘I’m sorry,'” says Janet Russom. “Why, we asked ourselves, couldn’t he walk up to us and say, ‘I’m sorry’?”
One day, David had someone drive him to the wrecker yard where his demolished truck sat. He stared at it for several minutes, silent. Eventually he noticed that the chrome covers on the back wheels were undamaged. “I don’t know,” he tells me. “I thought, ‘Well, someone can use them.’ So I took them off.”
But when the other parents heard what he had done, they were furious. “It’s like the boy cared more about his truck than he did about those girls he killed in that truck,” says Jim Robberson. They became even angrier when they kept hearing stories of him returning to high school football games and attending a high school dance. When the Fellowship of Christian Athletes unveiled a three-foot-high monument in honor of the dead girls, David stood with his buddies at the edge of the crowd. Allen Russom was so disturbed at the sight of David that he told a preacher who was also there that David should be asked to leave. “The preacher said to me, ‘But David has a right to be here. His sister was one of those killed.’ And I said, ‘But he was the one who killed her. And he was our children’s killer too!'”
THREE MONTHS AFTER THE WRECK, the Department of Public Safety’s accident reconstruction team released a report declaring what it believed happened on the highway. After interviewing witnesses, examining the pickup and the Blazer, and studying the 97-foot skid marks made on the highway by the tires of David’s truck, the report concluded that David was going about 99 miles per hour when he hit the Blazer. The report was sent to a Rusk County grand jury, which this past January indicted both David and Karl on manslaughter and street-racing charges. David was arrested one evening at a nearby lake where he and a friend had been fishing for catfish in a rusty boat. The Reids used their life savings, loans, and the money they’d received from Rachel’s life insurance policy to post a $50,000 bond and hire a lawyer.
For days people drove past the Reids’ property, staring at Julie’s paintings on the shed, wondering what was going on inside their home. When I ask Julie the question on everybody’s mind—if she ever felt anger toward her own son during those days—she says, her voice wobbly, “How is anger going to help? It was an accident. The worst of accidents. But an accident.”
She also tells me that David is not unlike any other boy in any other rural town tempted by back highways and farm-to-market roads. “Yes, David had a lead foot,” she says. “But he wasn’t worse than anyone else. Everyone knows that. He was a responsible driver. I let him drive Rachel to school every day. And everyone also knows the way girls are when they get in a car together. They laugh and giggle and don’t pay attention. I did the same thing when I was a kid.”
Karl Cullen admitted to DPS officers that he and David had begun to race just as they were leaving town. But he said that the racing was long over by the time they got to Kasey Jo’s house, three miles away, and that he could not possibly be at fault because he was so far behind David when the accident took place. David told officers that if he was speeding when he reached Kasey Jo’s house, he wasn’t going much above the posted 65-mile-per-hour speed limit. He said that when he did see a vehicle come suddenly out of the driveway, he hit the brakes and wrenched the steering wheel to his left—and after that, everything was a blank.
The DPS report did acknowledge that the accident could have been due, in part, to Jaicey’s not having yielded the right-of-way. What’s more, says the Reids’ attorney, Daryll Bennett, the DPS didn’t talk to other kids who were at the scene of the wreck, some of whom reportedly heard Janet Russom crying out that Jaicey had forgotten to turn on her headlights. “But everyone, including the grand jury, has made the rush to judgment that pretty little Jaicey, on her way to the popular kids’ party, can’t be blamed and thus David must be at fault,” snaps Bennett.
Janet says she never said anything that night about Jaicey’s headlights. (“I’m a million percent certain that her headlights were on, because we could see them shining right through our open front door.”) There is also the matter of Ozella Tunstle’s statement to the police about what she saw after David and Karl raced by her. She says David’s headlights were flicking on and off. For years Tatum boys had been playing a game at night on lonely stretches of highway, trying to see who could go the longest with his headlights extinguished. Was that what David was doing? Is that why Jaicey never saw him coming?
The Russoms and other parents did indeed begin visiting the district attorney, pushing him to schedule a trial. A couple of parents appeared on Longview television stations, talking about the need to bring David to justice. After Bennett watched one of the reports, he told Julie that they needed to fight back, and the way to do it was to file a lawsuit against Jaicey Robberson’s estate. “David was the one who didn’t want us to file the lawsuit [in which he is listed as the plaintiff],” Julie says. “He told me, ‘Mom, that family doesn’t have anything. They lost everything too.’ I said, ‘David, we’re not filing this to get any money. We’re filing it to get the truth out. Everyone in town is trying to make you guilty, and we have to do something to keep you out of prison.'”
ALTHOUGH HE WON’T ADMIT IT, Rusk County district attorney Cal Freeman has been in no hurry to put David on trial. (It is not clear if Karl will be tried at the same time, if at all.) “He knows there won’t be any winner in this trial,” says a private investigator involved in the case. “He knows this is going to be the kind of trial that can bring the whole town down.”
Although the other families are resolute in their determination that David be held accountable, they do admit that his indictment has, so far, not made their lives any better. “What’s so surprising is that the pain gets worse every day,” says Jaicey’s mother, Daphne. “No matter what people say to you, you have trouble feeling any comfort, any closure. I find myself in stores, pulling clothes off a rack because I think they will look good on Jaicey, and I carry them to the checkout stand before I think, ‘What am I doing?'” Janet and Allen Russom tell me that they actually drove to a mall in Longview just so they could walk past a certain store to look at a teenage clerk there who resembled Kasey Jo. In their new house, Janet has gone so far as to recreate Kasey Jo’s bedroom, because she can’t ever imagine walking down the hallway and not seeing Kasey Jo’s bed, filled with her favorite stuffed animals. Debra Blalock often drives by the fields where Mackinsey used to run cross-country. Sometimes she sees another blond-haired girl running in the distance, and she has to say to herself, “It’s not my daughter. It’s not my daughter.”
As for Julie Reid, she still has not been able to stop her car and stand by the crosses just down the highway. “It’s full of ghosts,” she says. “This whole town is full of ghosts.” But when I ask why the family doesn’t move someplace else—a suggestion that has been made more than once by Tatum residents who despise them—she says she never wants to be far from Rachel’s grave at the Tatum cemetery. She visits the grave at least once a week, although she always makes sure before visiting that Janet and Allen Russom are not at Kasey Jo’s grave, a mere twenty feet away.
Like his parents, David, now nineteen years old, rarely appears in Tatum anymore. Because he got tired of people coming to Sonic just to look at him, he quit his job and started working for a construction company. He says he has heard about threats made a couple of times by guys who were friends with the other dead girls, but no fight ever took place. For a brief period, one of the cheerleaders who had been a close friend of Rachel’s dated David. She was another one of the town’s good girls, no doubt drawn to David because he was complicated and controversial, unlike any other boy in town. She said she felt sorry for him. He, in turn, went out with her, he says, “just to see what it was like being with someone like that. I don’t know. It didn’t last long. I didn’t have much to say.”
What truly surprised Tatum residents was the news that David had appeared several months after his indictment at Tatum’s First Baptist Church. He stood in a white robe at the baptismal pool, and when the minister said his name, there were people in the sanctuary who gasped. He slowly slid under the water to be baptized, and when the minister told him to rise to new life in the name of Jesus Christ, he came up out of the water with a grim look on his face. “I thought it would help, you know,” he tells me. “Maybe get rid of the dreams.”
“The dreams?” I ask.
“Rachel coming to me, saying things.” He stops suddenly and looks around at his friends, realizing he is saying too much. “I only went to church a couple of times. I knew everyone was talking about me behind my back.”
I ask him if he’s afraid of going to prison. “Yeah, maybe,” he says. “I guess that will make people around here happy, me behind bars, like I’m not going to have to pay for this accident every minute of every day of my damn life. Like I’m not thinking about it every minute.”
When I pause and leaf through my notebook, searching for another question to ask, he sees his opening and tells me he needs to leave. He and his buddies have to go someplace, he says. He heads for the passenger seat of a friend’s pickup truck. Although David has driven since the wreck—a couple of times with his father and a couple of times with his girlfriend—he still prefers to be a passenger. He does tell me that he’s been thinking lately about buying another truck. “Nothing fast,” he said. “Just something that would take me somewhere far away, like Florida. Just get on the highway and go.”
The truck slowly pulls away, turns right on Highway 149 and heads toward the site of the accident, toward the crosses. “He never looks at the crosses when he drives past them,” says Julie. “That’s one thing, at least, that he’s told me. He says he’ll never be able to look at those crosses.”
Before I get in my own car, I ask Julie if I can look at the photo of Rachel in David’s room. The photo is of the two of them, taken just before they left home to attend the Tatum High School 2003 spring prom. Rachel is in a shimmery gold dress that Julie still has in a closet, and David is in a starched white rented tuxedo, as stiff as a board. Rachel is smiling like a beauty queen, her light brown hair curled in ringlets, and David has a cocky smile on his face.
“My sweet children,” says Julie. “My sweet children.”