Murder wasn’t all that unusual in the little towns that edge the Big Thicket, but this one was so cold-blooded, so layered with undertones of sex and race and social circumstance that it was bound to be the main topic of conversation all summer. The killer had stalked Billy Mac Fleming, a junior school coach—stalked him, executed him, and dumped his body in a section of the thicket so isolated and remote that it might have gone undiscovered for years. There was something primordial and foreboding about the Big Thicket, something so out of whack with time that in a spooky way murder was almost a metaphor for natural order.
There was a paradox to the lush spread of prairie and forest between the Sabine and the Trinity, a fatal charm peculiar to Southeast Texas. The thicket was desolate and hostile, but not the way West Texas is desolate and hostile, not in a clean, open way. Life was abundant here, but it was also tenuous and unforgiving. The desolation had reduced life, swallowed it in fact, until life was merely a faint shadow of death. It hung the way moss hung from ancient oaks, like malignant vestments at a black mass. Sluggish bayous teemed and slithered through the dense brush, and impenetrable walls of trees blocked out the sky. All the universe beyond this one damp spot appeared as a single ribbon of distant, diffused light. In its primal way the thicket was rich, and yet to the dismal procession of cowhands, log cutters, and roughnecks who cared up the wilderness, it had never promised much more than a hard life and a premature and sometimes ghastly death. The poet who called this God’s country had in mind a deity who was hellishly dark and brooding.
People said that ghosts lived back in the thicket, and there was no reason to doubt them. It smelled of ghosts and decay and superstition and fear of earthly illuminations. There was a seven-mile dirt cutoff called Ghostlight Road that started nowhere and ended nowhere. The past was always underfoot. Drillers in Daisetta or Batson occasionally dug up mummified heart pine boards, the remnants of board roads that once bridged the marshes between oil rigs and main highways. The old stagecoach road that ran from Nacogdoches to Liberty had mostly receded into the wilderness, but parts of it formed roadbeds for strips of U.S. 59 and Texas 146. In a tin shed in Batson a band wheel so ancient that hardly anyone alive remembered when it wasn’t there still turned almost inaudibly, pulling its broad cotton bands and working the connecting rods that pumped oil from a dozen shallow wells drilled around the turn of the century.
You could drive for what seemed hours along the narrow paved highways that cut through the thicket and maybe pass one or two logging trucks or maybe pass nothing. Traveling those roads at night, especially when it was hot and the breeze had been trapped and turned away by the curtain of pine, was like moving in a black vacuum. At such times the desolation was overpowering. It must have seemed that way on the night of April 12 when the killer drove Billy Mac Fleming’s body down a logging road southwest of Livingston.
April 12 was a payday Friday in the Hull-Daisetta school district. When Coach Billy Mac Fleming left his last-period gym class twenty minutes early, he planned to leave campus and deposit his paycheck. But first he had to see the principal, Hurley Fontenot. Another coach remembered hearing him mutter, “Damn, Fontenot is up to it again.”
Everyone at the Hull-Daisetta Middle School knew there were bad feelings between the coach and the principal. Everyone in the whole school system knew they loved the same woman, Laura Nugent, a clerk at the junior school. The principal had dated her for several years, at least as far back as late 1982, when he divorced his wife. Last January Laura dropped the principal and started seeing the coach, who had left his wife that same month and moved into a bachelor apartment just off the town square in Liberty. There had been so much talk that Superintendent Kenneth Voytek decided that the prudent course was to transfer Laura Nugent to the senior school for the remainder of the term. She didn’t have a contract, and it had already been decided that she wouldn’t be rehired. But her transfer didn’t stop the gossip or the feeling of some school officials that things were headed for a showdown. By Easter it was common knowledge that Fleming planned to marry her as soon as the school term ended.
“If we had just dismissed that little Nugent girl from school, Bill Fleming might be alive,” one member of the school board said. Although Laura Nugent was 36 and had been divorced two times, some people still called her that little Nugent girl. It was a way to classify her, a way to tell the world she wasn’t quite up to standard. In her unadorned way, Laura was attractive, but her lack of education and sophistication placed her near the bottom of the social structure, which in Liberty County was decadent and rigid. At a glance, Laura Nugent hardly looked like the sort of woman someone would kill over. She had dark hair, dark eyes, and a firm, supple body, yet there was something hard about her, something primitive and unyielding. But love makes men do strange things. The principal, Hurley Fontenot, had risked his career by dating Laura. The coach, Bill Fleming, was divorcing his wife to marry her.
They didn’t find Coach Bill Fleming’s body until April 22, ten days after he was last seen alive, in front of the field house at the Hull-Daisetta junior school. The next day, a Texas Ranger and several other lawmen grilled Hurley Fontenot. In mid-May a Polk County grand jury charged the principal with the coach’s murder.
The murder could properly be termed an execution. Fleming had been shot two times behind the right ear with a small-caliber pistol. The lawmen speculated that the murder had actually taken place somewhere else, that the body had been dropped off in the woods some hours after the shooting. When they found the coach’s body, he was still wearing his trademark, a whistle attached to a lanyard. But his boots were missing and so was his billfold.
It was the gossip more than the physical evidence that led lawmen to Fontenot. Folks had been talking for weeks about the principal, the coach, and the little Nugent girl—some of the more sophisticated wags didn’t dismiss the possibility of a ménage à trois, although cooler heads agreed that the notion was absurd. The gossip was pervasive, reflecting the superstitions, fears, and prejudices of an introverted community. As Superintendent Voytek observed, “Small-town gossip rules more supreme than the Bible.” If the love affair had been smoldering anywhere except in the school, most people might have forgotten it, but the school was the backdrop that made the affair public property. The school system was what galvanized the rural community. It was the community’s pride, its nucleus, in many ways its soul. When you drove through the tiny towns of Raywood and Hull and saw the rusted grain elevators, the boarded-up buildings, and the ruins of a more prosperous era, you scarcely realized that they were still functioning communities. Daisetta, once a thriving oil boomtown, was lively only by comparison. Once, the town had had a hotel and saloons and even a movie house, but the buildings were long since abandoned or demolished. Except for an occasional stray dog or a pickup, it could have been a ghost town. There was a grocery store, an auto supply store, and a dry goods store. There was one cafe, but it wasn’t always open.
Towns like Daisetta, Batson, and Saratoga had been mean and raucous settlements in the oil-boom days immediately after the turn of the century, places where special breeds of rogues and money grubbers lived in tents and palmetto shanties, where whiskey and women were available for a price, where hornet nests hung from saloon ceilings and long-nosed razorback hogs ran wild. All that had changed radically. People still worked for and owed their allegiances to oil interests, but the only spiritual and physical reminders of the boom days were the ghostly chuggings of pumpers and the putrid smell of oil.
Far and away the largest and most impressive structure in Daisetta was the modern yellow-brick complex that contained the senior school, the administration building, and the football facilities. The junior school—in an old brick building a few miles south in Raywood, on what people called the cutoff road to the county seat in Liberty—had been the district’s “colored school” before integration in1967. The school system was the one and only institution that touched everyone. In recent times at least, the pinnacle of civic pride was 1979, when the Hull-Daisetta Bobcats won a state-championship in football. “Except for the football team and the sinkhole,” one citizen said, “nobody had ever heard of us.”
Bill Fleming’s murder changed that.
Into the Thicket
A series of anonymous letters came to light at the school board meeting in March. A letter to Voytek stated that the coach and Laura Nugent had been observed in a “very compromising position” during class and at lunch breaks and that the author (the letter was signed “concerned parents”) had pictures showing the pair checking into a motel. An earlier letter to Fleming’s estranged wife, Linda, called Laura Nugent “a no good trashy whore” who bragged about the marriages she had broken up. “You and Bil’s [sic] is the 4th one that we know about,” the writer said.
Anne Richardson, one of the school board members who had received letters, spoke out at the meeting and asked the principal if he knew anything about the letters. Fontenot replied that he had received several himself. He had handled the situation the way he always handled anonymous mail, by throwing the letters away. When it came time to vote on renewing teachers’ contracts, Richardson made a motion that the board hold off voting on Fleming’s contract until the accusations in the letters had been investigated.
Hurley Fontenot immediately responded with what some school board members thought was an uncharacteristically spirited defense of the coach. He told the board in effect that if it failed to renew Bill Fleming’s contract, it ought to tear up his contract too. “We all knew there was trouble between the coach and the principal,” Richardson said. “I thought it was very unusual he would be defending him like that.” After the meeting Fontenot drove to Fleming’s apartment in Liberty and told him what had happened. Fleming, who had already decided to look for another job, was surprised by the unexpected late-evening visit and told Laura Nugent later that the principal had stayed and talked for more than an hour.
What happened a few weeks later was even more unexpected. One afternoon the principal asked the coach to ride with him to the bank in Liberty. Afterward, Fontenot drove Fleming to the coach’s apartment and surprised him with a wedding gift—a microwave oven, still crated in the back of the principal’s red pickup. “Bill was real thrilled,” Laura recalled. “I was surprised at what Hurley had done, but Bill said he was just trying to be nice. Bill would do anything to get along, at least until school was out.”
Laura wasn’t convinced that the principal was taking their wedding plans all that gracefully. Around the first of March, she remembers, he had walked into the office at school and offered her a diamond ring. Even when they were dating, she says, Fontenot had never talked about marriage. She refused the ring. “Just think about it,” he had said. “People change their minds every day.”
After the gift of the microwave oven and the incident with the diamond ring, Laura was surprised to receive an Easter card from Fontenot. He wrote across the bottom that she was a good friend and he was happy she had found “a wonderful person to spend your life with.” On Easter Fleming took his fiancée to meet his family in Center. Five days later he was dead.
Those days had seemed routine at the time, but in retrospect otherwise ordinary occurrences took on sinister meanings. On April 9, the Tuesday after Easter, the principal went to the office of the superintendent and asked to borrow the school’s camper shell, which was used to protect luggage on Future Farmers of America trips. Fontenot said that he needed it to protect some furniture that he was taking to his daughter in Austin. His daughter was supposed to fly from Austin to Houston on Friday, and he requested the superintendent’s permission to leave school early to meet her at the airport.
It had only been a month since the coach had talked with the superintendent and asked to appear before the school board at the end of the term to discuss “the educational environment” at the junior school. Fleming didn’t spell it out, but Superintendent Voytek knew he was talking about Hurley Fontenot. Voytek knew that relations between the coach and the principal were strained, and he suspected that the animosity was something more than mere jealousy. For almost a year there had been rumors of financial irregularities at the junior school. The previous summer, in fact, a little more than $2000 was missing, and though the investigation had been turned over to the Liberty County district attorney, nothing had come of it yet.
There was a track meet the night of April 11 at the junior school. Bill Fleming was usually in his element at such functions, but on that night he seemed preoccupied. He had learned earlier that evening that his divorce, which was supposed to be final the next Monday, had been delayed. It was only a technicality—Linda’s attorney hadn’t finished preparing the documents—but the coach came as close as he ever had to losing his temper and accused her of dragging her heels. “Are you trying to get all my money?” he asked. Linda, who was a teacher too, told him, “Bill, we don’t have any money. We’re just trying to get all the paperwork straight.”
At the track meet there was some mix-up with the ribbons, and the coach promised to meet athletic director Jack Young the next afternoon, half an hour or so after the final bell at three-fifteen, to straighten things out. The coach never showed up. He was supposed to have dinner at Laura’s mother’s house in Hull at four-thirty, but he didn’t show up there either. Lawmen speculate that sometime between three and four the killer lured Fleming down one of the isolated roads near the school, found some pretense to get behind him, and shot him in the head—then shot him a second time.
That same night, by the light of a half-moon, the killer drove north, deep into the Big Thicket, along one of those narrow, deserted blacktops sheltered and obscured by walls of trees, turned down an even narrower logging road, and dumped the coach’s body in a grove of pines.
Newspaper and television reports called Hurley Fontenot black, and technically he was. In this part of Texas anyway, if a person has even a trace of Negro blood, that person is black. Hurley was a frail, wiry, tightly wrapped man with brown hair and off-white skin. His skin appeared bleached, as though he had worked for years in the sun but had recently retired and by choice allowed himself to pale. Hurley and his brother Walter Fontenot, Jr., could and did pass for white outside the community. At out-of-town education seminars, Hurley usually gave his race as white, and when the FBI was conducting a security clearance for his son, who was studying to be a military cryptographer, Hurley asked a former school board member to tell agents that the boy was white. In Liberty County, however, the Fontenots were indelibly black. Walter Junior, who practiced law in Liberty, sometimes referred to himself sardonically as “the town’s only black lawyer.”
The Creoles who originally settled Liberty County were white plantation owners, descendants of the aristocrats who had fled the French Revolution. Along with their slaves, they crossed the Sabine River from Louisiana in 1845 and bought cheap land in the new Republic of Texas. Over the decades the term “Creole” came to mean anyone whose bloodline contained a mixture of black, European, and sometimes Indian or West Indian stock.
Hurley Fontenot’s great-grandfather was Garand Fontenot, a Frenchman by birth and part of the Catholic migration from Canada that settled in southern Louisiana. A painting of Garand Fontenot hung in Walter Junior’s law office; he was a handsome, blue-eyed blond with a bushy beard. Garand married a woman who was one-eighth African, an octoroon; thus their descendants were destined to bear the nebulous racial classification of Creole, or black Creole as it is sometimes called.
Garand’s son, Desilvia, migrated to Texas in about 1912 and helped found the Creole village of Raywood. He became a landowner, opened the first cotton gin, and later founded Raywood’s first school, the Fontenot School. After the Hull-Daisetta school district was formed in1925, Desilvia’s son, Walter Senior, was principal of the district’s black school, Carter G. Woodson High, which became the junior school after integration.
Walter Senior was a stern and dominant figure in the Creole community. For more than thirty years he was the symbol of black education in the school district, an advocate of what moderns would call an Uncle Tom philosophy. Hurley remembers that his father constantly admonished his children and his students to accept their station in life. “He’d tell us that you never see robins with mockingbirds,” Hurley says. “Now that I’m older I can see what he meant.” The speaking of French was discouraged in Walter Senior’s home. That was a hollow exercise in discipline, since his children spent their summers with French-speaking relatives in Lawtell, Louisiana.
Growing up in a Creole community in the Big Thicket must have been a schizophrenic experience, especially before integration. “It caused some emotional scars,” Walter Junior admits. “We were colored, so we had to sit in a special section at restaurants and in the balcony at the movie house in Daisetta. But we weren’t black either. We were French-speaking Catholics, and the blacks didn’t want anything to do with us.” Hurley remembers that when blacks rode into the Big Thicket boomtown of Saratoga—usually on a logging truck, few if any blacks were allowed to work for oil companies—they were greeted by a sign warning, “Nigger, don’t let the sun set on your head.” There was a barrel in Saratoga called the laughing barrel, and blacks who felt themselves in danger of laughing were required to stick their heads in it. To this day, Saratoga prides itself on being all white, but Walter Junior observes, “There are blacks in Saratoga and many other places masquerading as whites.”
Some of the Fontenots had moved far enough away from Liberty County that their race had ceased to be a factor; they were white and that was that. Those who stayed were sometimes hypersensitive. A merchant in Hull who employed a young man from the Fontenot family says, “He’s lighter than I am. He has blue eyes and black wavy hair. But he’s so sensitive about dark skin that he wears number fifteen sunscreen.”
A glance at tax records or even a phonebook in Liberty County reflects the French heritage but not the racial or social disparities. There are many Fontenots, for example, most of them black, and there are many more Fregias, most of them white; the class distinction in Liberty County cannot be understood in simple terms of black and white. A wealthy white woman in Hull explains, “We have four classes of people here: the black blacks, the yellow blacks, the [she named five large lower-middle-class white families], and those of us who aren’t.”
When Hurley Fontenot graduated with honors from Prairie View A&M in 1957 and accepted an ROTC commission as a second lieutenant, the Army had already integrated. He remembers his military career fondly, especially the way he was able to walk in the front door of any hotel or restaurant. Since he was fluent in French, part of his military career consisted of escort duty with Vietnamese officers. Later, he taught chemical and biological warfare. Colleagues note that even now Hurley conducts himself in a military manner and is careful to distinguish rank and chain of command.
For seventeen years Hurley taught vocational agriculture, first at Woodson High and after integration at Hull-Daisetta High. He was a popular teacher and, like his father, a strong leader. Hurley had known since his days in the seventh grade that he wanted to be an ag teacher. “I was a runt who couldn’t make it in sports,” he says. “Agriculture was my way of exercising leadership.”
Hurley had a drinking problem, and in the late seventies the problem threatened his teaching career. He showed up drunk at FFA meetings and wrecked the ag department truck, which had been donated by a dealer in Liberty. Some school board members wanted him fired, but his cousin, Alfred Fontenot, one of two black members of the board, intervened. Instead of firing Hurley, they promoted him to principal of the junior school. The promotion felt like a demotion to Hurley. “I felt like crying,” he said. Nevertheless, he gave up drinking and accepted the position a few months later; he says he hasn’t touched a drop since January 1981.
In his four years at the junior school, Hurley never completely adjusted or felt comfortable. A principal is expected to be not only the chief executive officer of a school, he is expected to be the enforcer.” I felt like a dictator, a whipper,” he said. “In seventeen years as an ag teacher, I used corporal punishment four times. In my first four years as a principal the number was four hundred plus.”
In August 1982, at age 45, he suffered a heart attack, and the following November he underwent open heart surgery. A stomach problem that hadn’t bothered him since his days in the military flared up again. He had constant financial problems and borrowed money, or tried to, from a number of people in the district. His only recreation was attending the horse races at Delta Downs in Vinton, Louisiana, where his cousin Alfred was well known as a horse trainer. He bet heavily. Sometimes he was accompanied at the races by his clerk, Laura Nugent. In November 1982 his marriage ended in divorce.
Hurley Fontenot kept denying it, but everyone knew he was carrying on with Laura. “We’d see Hurley’s truck go by regularly, headed north toward where she lived with her mama and daddy,” recalls school board member Anne Richardson, who with her husband operated the hardware store in Hull. “When the superintendent asked him about it, he said he was just going out there to get some peas. In January? Who grows peas in January?”
At the start of the 1983-84 school year, a new coach was added to the junior school staff. His name was Billy Mac Fleming, and he was a hit with students and staff alike. The mother of two teen-agers described him as a real hunk.
Bill Fleming was a star athlete at Galena Park High School in the late sixties, and he never got sports out of his system. He played freshman football and varsity baseball at Rice, but he couldn’t make the grade either athletically or academically. After two years he quit. He married his first wife, Ann, and they moved to Nacogdoches, where they both worked and attended Stephen F. Austin State University.
Though Fleming had started out to be a stockbroker, he changed his mind and majored in agriculture. He wanted to be an ag teacher, but, as things worked out, most of the jobs available in East Texas were in coaching. So he coached and taught science and math at Corrigan, Hempstead, Anahuac, and finally Hull-Daisetta. His first marriage ended after eight years, and less than a year later he married his second wife, Linda, a middle school English teacher.
“He loved agriculture,” Linda says, “but he couldn’t teach ag and still coach. He could grow anything. He could fix anything. He was a fantastic dancer. He could pick up a new dance step instantly. He was just a natural athlete. He was the home-run hitter of his Houston softball team when we lived in Anahuac, and they won all sorts of tournaments and trophies.”
Fleming had worked his way through Stephen F. Austin by laying carpet, and after the 1981-82 school year at Anahuac he quit coaching and joined his longtime friend Douglas Duncan in a carpet business in Channel view. Duncan was apparently something of a free spirit and a mystery even to people who had known him for years. “He always seemed to have a lot of extra money,” Linda remembers. Bill Fleming was worried that maybe Duncan was mixed up in something. In the summer of 1982 the carpet store burned, and seven months after that Duncan disappeared.
Fleming decided to return to coaching in the spring of 1983. They moved to Hull-Daisetta, but Linda kept her job at Barbers Hill Middle School in Mont Belvieu, southwest of Liberty. Bill didn’t talk much about his own job, but Linda gradually realized that he wasn’t altogether happy. A lot of the disciplinary problems that should have been handled by the principal were being dumped on the coach, or that was how it looked to Fleming.
“Bill had a weak personality,” Linda says. “He wanted everyone to like him. He would do more than his share, anything to keep from making waves. But he really felt like Hurley Fontenot was getting on his case.”
An incident in the summer of 1984 seemed to foreshadow the terrible things ahead. About $2000 was stolen from the office at the junior school, and some pages were tom from a receipt book. The principal, the coach, and several others, including Laura Nugent, were called before the school board. Superintendent Voytek suspected Fontenot, who, the superintendent says, had been “gambling, womanizing, writing hot checks.” But the mystery of the missing cash was never solved.
It is likely that Bill Fleming was smitten by a case of the middle-age crazies in the fall of 1984. He was 36, an age when many ex-athletes go to seed, an age when a man begins to sense that time is fleeting and the future will not be what he envisioned. Linda Fleming didn’t know it, but her husband was already lusting after Laura Nugent. “When I look back,” she says, “I remember that Bill mentioned her more frequently around October. I saw her at the Christmas banquet. She was dressed in this old-style sixties dress, and I remember looking at her and feeling sorry for her. Bill told me she was poor and not well educated. When I looked at her she dropped her eyes. I remember wondering why.”
Fleming shocked his wife a few weeks after Christmas by asking for a divorce. There wasn’t another woman, he said. He just needed space. He needed to find himself. In January Fleming moved into the apartment, and in early March Linda received an anonymous letter at her school. “Another teacher was standing beside me when I opened the letter,” Linda says. “I was shaking all over. It was the first time I knew there was another girl.”
Fleming was angry when she showed him the letter, angrier still when letters continued to arrive. One of them was typed across the top of a motel registration form signed by Bill Fleming of Nacogdoches, Texas, and it said that the coach was shacked up with Laura Nugent. There were four in all, not counting the ones mailed to Superintendent Voytek and the school board. “I was frightened, Linda says. “I said, ‘Bill, somebody is watching you. Somebody dislikes you a lot.’“ At first Fleming accused his wife of writing the letters, but Linda pointed to numerous grammatical errors and told him, “You know I’m an English teacher; I even correct letters people send to me.” No, the letters had been written by someone who was poorly educated—or pretending to be.
Fleming and Laura Nugent went back to the motel, the Travelodge in Crosby, on U.S. Highway 90 between Liberty and Houston, and demanded to know how a copy of the registration form had gotten into the hands of the anonymous author. Motel workers wouldn’t tell them.
When Laura confronted Fontenot about the letters, one of which asserted that pictures of the lovers were available, he was evasive, she recalls. “At first he told me he had the pictures, then he told me he misplaced them. Later he said he found them again. I asked to see them, and he said he locked them in his safe-deposit box. ‘Nobody’s ever going to see them,’ he said, like he was protecting me.”
When Fleming got back to his apartment after the track meet on Thursday, April 11, Laura was there. She spent the night, as she did frequently, and the next morning they had coffee at her mother’s house in Hull, which was also a regular practice. He telephoned that afternoon, and she reminded him that supper was at four-thirty. But four-thirty came and went, and the coach still hadn’t arrived.
“I knew he was supposed to see Coach Young first, and I was sitting on the front porch with Mama and Daddy, just waiting. Billy wasn’t hardly ever late, or he’d phone if he was. But he never phoned.” Around eight she drove over to Liberty and checked his apartment. None of his clothes were missing, and there was no sign that he had been there. On the way home she noticed his truck parked near the junior school, but for some reason she didn’t stop.
Laura and her sister drove back to the junior school Saturday morning and parked near Fleming’s truck. ‘“I was scared to look inside—he could have had a heart attack or something—so my sister looked. Then we peeped in the field house window. We didn’t see nothing.” She searched again all day Sunday. Just like his friend Douglas Duncan, Billy Mac Fleming had vanished.
Superintendent Voytek had already learned that Fleming had failed to keep any of his appointments over the weekend, and when he was informed Monday morning that Fleming hadn’t arrived for his first class, a chill went up his back. “I knew something was wrong,” he says. “I knew my coach. He was a man of integrity. He wouldn’t have let his boss [Jack Young] down. He wouldn’t have let the girl he was planning to marry down. He was supposed to have picked up his son in Houston for the start of the Little League season on Saturday. He wouldn’t have let his son down.”
Voytek telephoned the principal at the junior school. Fontenot didn’t sound concerned. He told the superintendent, “He was over here Sunday washing his clothes at the field house.” Fontenot hadn’t actually seen the coach, but he had seen the coach’s truck. Voytek immediately telephoned the sheriff. Jack Young borrowed Laura’s key, and Voytek, Young, Fontenot, and a deputy sheriff searched Fleming’s apartment. The superintendent remembered the conversation he had had with Fleming the previous Thursday in which the coach had threatened to blow the whistle on the principal, and the next morning Voytek jimmied the lock on the coach’s truck and searched his briefcase for the ribbons from the track meet and for any evidence of foul play. Though he found no evidence linking the principal to the coach’s disappearance, Voytek would later say, “I knew Fontenot. Give him an inch, he’ll take a mile. If he does you a favor, you owe him, and I promise you’ll never get even. I’ll bet the coach owed him.”
In the days that followed, Voytek became obsessed with the coach’s disappearance. It was the worst experience in his career as an educator, he said. People started calling him Inspector Voytek. He wanted to believe that Fontenot was innocent of any wrongdoing, but, as the inspector, he had a theory: On the day of the murder the principal might have picked up the coach outside the gym and given him some kind of story about needing help. The coach was a soft touch for anyone in need of help. Maybe the principal needed help lifting some furniture; everyone knew he had a bad heart. At that point the principal could have driven about a mile down the road to a farm where his cousin trained horses, persuaded the coach to climb into the back of the camper shell, and killed him.
Voytek furnished the Liberty County sheriff’s department with two copies of the Hull-Daisetta yearbook. When a deputy showed the yearbooks to two women clerks at the motel in Crosby, they identified a man who looked like the well-dressed gentleman who had picked up a copy of Fleming’s registration form. They identified Hurley Fontenot.
But then the investigation turned up something else. Searching Fleming’s apartment, lawmen opened a medicine cabinet in the bathroom, and there behind some bottles they found a gram of cocaine. A gram isn’t much (it would cost about $100), but it was enough to suggest another motive. In some minds, the drugs squared with the mystery of the missing boots. Victims of drug-related murders are sometimes found without their shoes; it’s a handy way to keep the victim from running until the killer is ready to pull the trigger. There was no evidence that this was a drug-related murder, but someone might have wanted it to look that way.
A Pine Desert
When Billy Mac Fleming disappeared, his mother in Center, his first wife in Houston, and others who had known him long and well thought about the missing friend, Douglas Duncan, and wondered if there was a connection. Maybe Billy had wanted to vanish, his mother thought. People do that sometimes. Maybe he was with Duncan. The Big Thicket was so desolate that a search seemed pointless. People had been vanishing in the thicket for years, and hardly any of them had ever been found except by accident.
That’s how they found the coach. A berry picker discovered the body near a logging trail in Polk County, near a section of the Big Thicket National Preserve. Like many areas of the thicket, that one had been clear-cut and replanted in nursery pines by lumber companies. The big hardwoods were long gone, and so were the birds and animals; it had become what folklorist Bill Brett called “a pine desert.” There were vehicle tracks near the body, and some of the pine saplings had been broken or had bark skinned away as the vehicle passed over them.
Traces of pine bark were found underneath Hurley Fontenot’s pickup, and when they were examined by an expert at Stephen F. Austin they proved identical to samples found near the body. The authorities also found bloodstains on the truck, though it had been washed the day following the murder. On April 23, one day after the body was found, Texas Ranger Tom Walker summoned Hurley Fontenot to the sheriff’s office in Liberty. The principal assumed that he had been called in for routine questioning and talked freely to the Texas Ranger and to lawmen from Liberty and Polk counties. He didn’t bother to consult his brother, even though Waller’s law office was only about two blocks away. Talking without benefit of counsel turned out to be a mistake. Lawmen surprised him with questions about the pine bark and flustered him with questions about the anonymous letter typed on the motel registration form.
Fontenot had no explanation for how the bark got under his truck. The night that the coach disappeared, he recalled, he had been staying at his sister’s vacant rent house in Raywood. He usually spent the night with his ex-wife—they had such an amiable divorce that they remarried last July—but since he was late arriving home that night, he chose not to disturb her. He remembered driving around a mud hole and suggested that maybe he had run over some saplings.
The lawmen crowded around Fontenot, who must have realized by now that this was more than just routine questioning. They were coming at him from every side. “What if we had some evidence that you had checked on them [at the motel]?” Ranger Tom Walker asked. “For what reason would you have checked on them?” Another lawman told him they had witnesses who would testify that he had gone by the motel the following day and gotten a copy of the motel bill, but Fontenot flatly denied following Bill Fleming and Laura Nugent to the motel or writing the letter.
“That is incorrect,” he said. “I’ve never been to that motel in my life.”
“Those ladies sure seem to be real positive about you doing that,” Walker told him. “And of course the one that done that is probably the one who mailed the letters and [schemed] to discredit the coach . . . with his affair with Laura. You didn’t have anything to do with that?”
“No, sir! Emphatically no,” Hurley Fontenot declared.
The principal supplied his interrogators with a detailed account of his activities the day that the coach vanished. He remembered having lunch with the coach and others on the staff. Fleming made several phone calls during the lunch break and appeared to be “emotionally upset.” Shortly before three, Fontenot told his secretary that he was driving to Houston to pick up his daughter at the airport. Walking toward his truck, he met the coach and gave him a ride to his own truck, which was parked near the field house. The principal recalled that they talked about a lesson plan the coach intended to complete over the weekend. That was the last time he saw the coach.
From school, Fontenot said, he drove to the post office in Raywood, then filled his truck with gas and headed toward Hobby airport. When his daughter failed to arrive on the Southwest flight from Austin, he drove to Intercontinental Airport, thinking he had gotten the schedule mixed up. There were no Southwest flights from Austin to Intercontinental, but he had a parking receipt to prove he had been there. He stopped for gas in Dayton and ran into two friends—by now it was nearly six-thirty—and then drove to the races in Vinton, Louisiana. It was nearly mid-night when he went to his sister’s house.
During the long interrogation, the principal gave the coach a glowing report, calling him “one of the most dedicated teachers I’ve had.”
“You liked Bill a great deal, then,” Ranger Walker said. “Thought a lot of him.”
“You doggone right,” the principal said. “I cried four times today.”
The Ranger asked the principal why anyone would want to kill the coach, and Fontenot said that he had no idea. He had heard a radio report about drugs and about the disappearance of Fleming’s former partner, the principal said, but as far as he knew it was all speculation.
The lawmen made it clear that they thought Fontenot might have planted drugs in Fleming’s apartment. If the coach had used cocaine, neither Linda Fleming nor Laura Nugent knew it. Linda speculated that maybe Douglas Duncan had given her husband the cocaine, but that didn’t make a lot of sense. Nobody in his right mind hides cocaine in a medicine cabinet. What was more, Fleming hadn’t seen his former partner in at least two years. Laura Nugent recalled that only a month before his death, Fleming had tried again to locate his missing friend and had told members of his family that he believed Duncan was dead.
The principal’s trial was scheduled to start in Polk County on August 19 but was later reset for November 18. As the summer wore on, rumors as fat and thick as mosquitoes swarmed over Liberty County. Some of the stories were loosely rooted to events of the crime: the alleged motel pictures gave rise to a story of a porno ring. Others came completely out of the blue. There was one rumor that the coach had been fired from his job in Anahuac for messing around with a teen-age cheerleader. Backyard wags even concocted a scenario in which Fleming was still alive and hiding in South America. All of those stories were ridiculous, but the fact that almost everyone had heard them cast a shadow over the trial.
Some of the strangest rumors concerned Laura Nugent. For someone who had lived almost her entire life in the community, she was a true enigma. Some people said that she had once ridden with the Hell’s Angels. The truth was, her first husband had owned a motorcycle. “He was like the Fonz on Happy Days,” a friend says. Laura had never ridden with the Hell’s Angels or done much of anything else. The most exciting part of her life was her two years in Houma, Louisiana, with her second husband. When he decided to come back to Liberty County, she believed that she had no choice but to follow. She had dreamed of leaving the thicket, dreamed it many times, but for some reason she had never been able to make the move. She loved Billy Mac Fleming partly because he had promised to take her away. He had applied for a teaching position at Galena Park, and they had talked about opening their own carpet company. Now that dream was dead too. “Billy was my last chance for happiness,” she says.
As for Hurley Fontenot, about half the community seemed convinced that he was guilty, and the other half swore he wasn’t capable of such a crime. “There is no way he could kill,” says Wiley Smith, owner of the Liberty Gazette. Smith, who was white, wrote an editorial blasting Sheriff E. W. “Sonny” Applebe after the sheriff told a Beaumont TV crew that Hurley was “guilty as sin.”
The mood of the town was almost as volatile as the fierce and ominous thunder-storms that hit southeastern Texas the first week in July. The normally diffuse light of the thicket turned purple and then black as wind lashed the trees and torrential rains swelled the rivers and creeks. By the afternoon of the Fourth of July, the storms had moved out of Liberty County, but you could still see dark clouds and occasional lightning flashes. At a backyard barbecue in Daisetta, the guests appeared apprehensive, as people do when events do not follow the natural order. A screen door slammed suddenly, startling the birds and causing a man who was chewing on a pork rib to flinch and freeze for an instant. He watched a woman carrying a rifle move beneath a canopy of Spanish moss, toward some cows that had wandered too close to her garden, and he flinched again as she fired a shot into the air and shook her fist at the retreating cattle.
The murder was old news by now, but the sense of pervading evil was thicker than ever. The feeling was nearly unanimous that no matter what happened at the trial, the mystery—and the threat—would remain.
Many people at the barbecue stood behind the principal, though some of them resented a letter he had written to the Gazette soliciting money for his defense. At the urging of his brother Walter Junior, Hurley had hired a top criminal attorney from Houston, Dick DeGuerin, who used to work under Percy Foreman.
“I didn’t think he did it till he hired that big-name lawyer,” said a man in overalls and a gimme cap.
A rancher who was weaving hatbands from strands of horsehair considered the murder but didn’t speak for a time. His two sons had studied agriculture ten years ago at Hull-Daisetta and had loved Hurley Fontenot. “I know Hurley,” he said at last. “He’s a quality man. He’s no killer.”
A mother said, “All I know is for seventeen years we loaded our kids up and let them go all over the country with Hurley.”
Those who could bring themselves to believe that the principal was capable of murder were nevertheless puzzled by the apparent motive. On one level it didn’t make sense. But emotions were high in Liberty County, and they would probably be just as high in Polk County, where the trial would take place. A skillful prosecutor could argue that this thing had been building for months, that the defendant had ulcers, a bum heart, and debts up to his eyeballs, that he was struggling and doing everything he could just to hang on—and while all this was happening, some hunk, some outsider, came along and took his girl. Whatever anyone might prove or even say about Billy Mac Fleming, he was an outsider. That was motive enough for some people.
An oil-field worker who had been squatting by the back porch drinking beer and tossing pieces of bread to a hound observed one more thing that no jury in this part of Texas could overlook. The principal was black. He may not have looked black, but he was, and the jury would know it from the outset. “Yes, sir!” he said. “He got to going with that white woman and couldn’t let go of it.”