As the one-minute video begins, a young Black male is backpedaling through the grass and a figure in a white sheet is approaching him. The figure is wearing a droopy hood with a pointy top and holes cut out for eyes. “That’s not funny. Stop!” says the Black teenager, who is dressed in jeans and a long-sleeved shirt. He has a friend with him: a thin, young white male, who wanders in and out of the frame and occasionally tries to intervene.
The action is being filmed on a cellphone by a girl, who tells the Black kid, “If you say their names, they’re gonna tase you.” Then there’s the crackle of a stun gun being fired. “Get closer,” she says, and the gun is fired again. The Black young man keeps backing away.
“Surround him,” the girl says. “Surround him!” She giggles. Now a second figure in a white sheet and hood comes into the frame. In one hand, he’s holding a small purple device. A rapid-fire crackle rings out.
“Chill!” the Black teenager yells as the hooded figure with the purple device lunges for him, making a loud “Ah!” sound.
“KKK,” the girl announces.
“That’s not funny,” says the Black teen’s friend. The hooded figures ignore him.
“Wait,” says the girl to one of the white-sheeted figures, “get on this side of him.” Then, to the other: “Get on that side.” At that point, one of the figures approaches the young Black man, reaches toward him, and zaps him. “Ooh!” he calls out, recoiling, inspiring the girl to giggle even louder.
“Chill,” the Black teenager says again, now sounding agitated. “Chill!” He turns his back on his tormentors and begins walking away as the video, obtained exclusively by Texas Monthly, ends.
It was Halloween night in Woodsboro, a South Texas town of 1,400 that’s forty miles north of Corpus Christi and proclaims itself, on a large stone sign in the town square, “The Friendly City.” The teenagers in the video all knew each other. They attended Woodsboro High School (enrollment 131), and the Black kid and the two boys in sheets played on the football team. The girl was sixteen; her compatriots were both seventeen. One boy is white: Rance Bolcik, whose grandfather is Robert Bolcik, Refugio County’s sheriff from 2011 to 2019. The other is Hispanic: Noel Garcia Jr., a running back and baseball pitcher for Woodsboro High. Their target, the Black kid, was sixteen. His identity, like the girl’s, has been withheld by authorities.
Three days later, Corpus Christi civil attorney Matthew Manning, who had heard about the incident from a client in Refugio, a town five minutes from Woodsboro, began posting about it on Facebook. “It’s my understanding,” he wrote, “that a young black teenage boy may’ve been tazed, terrorized, and menaced by three kids dressed as Klansmen in or near Woodsboro, TX on Halloween night, as he was trick or treating.”
A handful of local residents responded with outrage. “This is an organized hate crime,” one commented, adding: “This was completely unacceptable!!!” Another wrote that she had been born and raised in Woodsboro, but “never in my 60+ years have I ever seen or heard of an incident like this.” Some folks said they had seen the white-sheeted teens on Halloween. One wrote that she had spied them walking that night on Locke Street. “When I passed them, they pointed the taser at my car and you could hear the sound.” Another wrote that the perpetrators were “walking around with their heads held high repeatedly heard saying ‘nothing is going to happen, no one’s going to do anything about it.’”
Manning posted on November 7 that he had been retained to represent the victim’s family. He called the three perpetrators “depraved menaces” and asked why the two boys had been allowed to play in the Woodsboro football game the Friday after Halloween. Two days later, Ronald D. Segers Jr., the Woodsboro ISD superintendent and principal of Woodsboro High, released a cautious public statement. He said he was aware of a Halloween incident involving students “allegedly dressing in garb associated with a widely known racial hate group and antagonizing a classmate.” The district was “deeply disappointed,” Segers wrote. But because the event didn’t occur on campus or at a school activity, he said, the district couldn’t discipline them. (Segers did not respond to multiple requests for an interview.)
Manning held a press conference on Zoom on November 10, accompanied by Jeremy Coleman of the Corpus Christi NAACP, who said his group was considering the incident a hate crime. “This can’t be analyzed as kids being kids,” Manning said. “This must be seen as a purposeful crime with the intent to terrorize a Black person.” At various points, Manning, who has three young sons, let his voice rise in anger. “The reason I am so incensed,” he said, “is because at one point I was their age—I was a young Black man in America. The idea that somebody dressed as a Klan member—multiple people dressed as Klan members—could accost me and hurt me, when I’m a teenager, is indefensible.” The attorney chastised the Woodsboro ISD for not taking action against the students, using PowerPoint to display a page from the district’s code of conduct that says students can be put into a disciplinary program if the superintendent has a “reasonable belief” the student committed an off-campus felony. Manning also exhibited a second page, which says that a student can be expelled for committing an aggravated assault at “any location.” His representation of his client would be “voracious,” he promised. “We will get justice.”
The press conference was carried live on Corpus Christi local news and soon a few national outlets took notice. Newsweek’s headline featured Manning’s memorable words “Depraved Menaces.” A few days later, the perpetrators were suspended from the football team, which went on to lose its final game of the season 37–0. By that point, the Woodsboro Police Department had requested the assistance of the Texas Rangers, who sent an officer to investigate.
On a warm day in early December, I drove down to Refugio County. I had already spoken with locals who’d told me the community was in anguish over the incident. Most, it seemed, thought the whole thing was dreadful—“It’s a hate crime,” one elderly resident told me. The resident (who asked not to be identified) told me that others were downplaying it, saying, “It was just a prank, nobody got hurt.”
Like so many parts of the South, Refugio County—which is about half Hispanic, two fifths white, and 6 percent Black—has a complicated racial history. Luckily for me, I had as my tour guide a man named James Durst, who has lived in the area for most of his 68 years. Durst grew up in the Black part of Refugio and attended the Barefield School, the town’s school for African Americans, until desegregation in 1965, when he enrolled at Refugio Junior High. Durst wasn’t allowed to ride the bus, though—except on game days for the basketball and football teams, both of which he played for, he had to walk to school. After he graduated from Refugio High in 1970, he labored in the oil fields before opening his own home-cooking restaurant, after which he worked as a jailer for nine years. Today, he’s retired and lives in a house across the street from the old Barefield School.
Durst is a big man with a gray-flecked goatee, and on this day he wore a Dallas Cowboys ball cap as we cruised through the quiet streets of Refugio—past the H-E-B and the historic Our Lady of Refuge Catholic Church. He speaks quietly, with a soft drawl. “Most African Americans in this area came here to work on ranches back in the twenties and thirties,” he told me. It was hard for Black folks to get good jobs, and many worked as domestics. “I came up in the quota system. The better-paying jobs would hire no more than two Blacks. I worked for a company like that.” Durst recalled sitting with other Black locals in the small balcony of the town theater, while white and Hispanic patrons sat below. Black folks weren’t allowed inside the local hamburger joint; he had to order from an outside window. Like other dark-skinned locals, Durst had to learn to look the other way when faced with slights and favoritism.
As we headed toward nearby Woodsboro, Durst talked about how close the two towns are, and not just geographically. “We all know each other and we all get along for the most part.” Most families have kin in each town, and residents constantly travel back and forth—to the H-E-B in Refugio, to Tuttle’s meat market in Woodsboro. Teens from Refugio drive to Woodsboro to eat hamburgers at the Frosty, while teens from Woodsboro congregate at the Refugio Dairy Queen.
We pulled off in the small Black area of town, on the north end. “That kid they tased lives over here,” Durst said. We drove down the road, which was rutted and narrow. We passed more trailers and the occasional abandoned home caving in on itself, surrounded by head-high grass and scrub. There were signs in many front yards that read “PRAY.” We drove down dirt roads and past the occasional dog sunning itself in the middle of the street. It doesn’t take long to drive through Woodsboro, which has a total area of three quarters of a mile. On the nicer side of town, the homes were mostly made of brick and the streets were smoother.
Durst said he’d never seen any kind of Klan outfit in Refugio County before: “This was totally out of the blue.” And he didn’t like it, calling it “terrorism.” He said he had heard plenty of people downplay what happened on Halloween—even members of his family. “Some of my relatives in Woodsboro had the feeling, ‘They’re just kids being kids,’” he said. “It troubled me—I got into some arguments, especially with one of them. ‘That’s so-and-so’s kid, they’re not like that.’ Well, evidently they are. Somebody’s like that. Why would something like that cross your mind: ‘Let’s dress like the KKK tonight.’ Somebody should have said, ‘I don’t think that’s a good idea.’”
For Durst and other locals, the incident brought to mind stories they’d heard over the years of intimidation against African American youths, some that involved violent threats to young men for dating white girls. But racism didn’t just make its presence known via menacing words and gestures. For years, it also existed in the form of school tradition.
When Durst was playing cornerback for the Refugio High Bobcats, every time the team ran on the field or scored a touchdown, the band played “Dixie,” the unofficial anthem of the Confederacy. He said he didn’t think much about it at the time. “I ran out on the field to it every game. I was fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, and at the time I didn’t realize what went on behind that song.” But as he grew up and would return to the stadium to watch his alma mater play, he began to hate it. “‘Dixie’ was around for so long, everybody got comfortable with it, didn’t really think about it. But there were always rumblings,” he said. “When ‘Dixie’ played, you looked around—white people were standing, but Black people were sitting down.”
The discomfort Black folks felt eventually erupted into controversy that brought an awkward national spotlight to Refugio. Even after the University of Mississippi finally banned the playing of “Dixie,” in 2016, ending a seven-decades-old tradition and drawing national attention to the song, Refugio High’s band continued to play it. That year a local African American man named Charles Lewis asked the school board to ban it. The board voted 6–1 to keep it.
But an anti-“Dixie” sentiment was growing. At a multi-class reunion that October, Durst came upon an old schoolmate named Phyllis Moore, a white writer who had recently published a blog post declaring “playing ‘Dixie’ at school events is wrong.” After the reunion, she created a Facebook group called Bobcats for a Better Anthem that quickly attracted two hundred members. The group asked the school board again to get rid of the song, and Moore, along with Durst and many others, spoke at several heated board meetings, where other community members insisted the song wasn’t racist, just tradition. The board again agreed with the traditionalists, voting 5–2 in favor of keeping the song.
Moore and others inundated local media with calls and letters; their campaign ultimately had an effect, as state and national media began paying attention to what was going on in a small town in Texas. A few weeks later, on December 17, 2019, USA Today ran an opinion piece by one of its columnists on how Refugio High was still playing “Dixie” after every touchdown. (And the school, which at the time was one step away from a state football championship, scored a lot of touchdowns.) The following month, the school board board voted 7–0 to finally nix “Dixie.” Afterward, Durst said, “There were a lot of hard feelings in town. Probably still are a few.”
Hispanic folks in Refugio told me they’d experienced their share of bias and prejudice through the years too. “The Anglos here were always privileged,” an elderly man who has lived in Refugio County his entire life told me. “They didn’t know it. They were raised that way. They can get away with what they want, because they were raised that way. I’ve been in meetings where Anglos can say what they want, but I’m supposed to keep my mouth shut.”
“Favoritism is very real around here,” Amanda Hernandez told me. Hernandez is the mother of Haylee Castro, a Woodsboro High student who in the spring of 2020 was ranked the number-two student in her class, making her the salutatorian and thus eligible for scholarship money given to the top ten percent of students. But as graduation drew nearer, she found she had dropped to fourth. After graduation, when the final transcripts came out, Haylee was shocked to see that she was second again, yet the school wouldn’t reinstall her as the official salutatorian. The controversy that ensued drew attention to Refugio County once again. “If I’m being honest,” Hernandez told me, “I feel that if my daughter had a different last name, the school might have tried a little harder to at least right their wrong after the fact.”
This past Thursday, December 16, Rance Bolcik and Noel Garcia Jr. were arrested at Woodsboro High School. Refugio’s district attorney indicted each of them on two third-degree felonies: “engaging in organized criminal activity” while committing assault on a juvenile, and tampering with evidence (they had burned their costumes). A hate-crime “enhancement” was added to the felonies, according to the indictment, because the teens “intentionally selected” their victim “primarily because of bias or prejudice against African Americans.” Both teens face sentences of two to ten years in prison if convicted. (The girl who filmed the video is considered a juvenile under Texas law, and won’t be charged in the adult justice system.)
To some, it might be surprising that one of the arrested teens is Hispanic. That’s not such a surprise in Refugio County, said one young Hispanic who was born and raised there. “A lot of people don’t want to admit it,” he told me, “but Mexicans are just as racist against Blacks as whites are. There are plenty of instances of Mexican girls dating Black guys and the parents saying, ‘You’re not bringing a Black guy home.’”
Some folks, no doubt, will feel some sympathy for the boys who now face such serious consequences. It was Halloween, after all, when kids are encouraged to dress up as monsters. The stun-gunning didn’t inflict serious physical injury. And maybe—who knows?—they didn’t understand how reprehensible the KKK is. But that’s part of the problem, Phyllis Moore told me. “It’s sad this had to happen,” she said last week, referring to the arrests. “But I think adults led them to believe this kind of behavior is okay. Parents as well as people at the schools, churches, and in law enforcement—they set the standards for the community. How many people drove by that night—why didn’t they make a call to police or stop the kids and talk to them? Marching them out of school to arrest them sends an extreme message, but that’s what it’s going to take to let kids know that this is not okay.”
Manning describes the Black teen targeted on Halloween as a quiet sort who’s not prone to draw attention to himself. “He’s a got a strong family—mother, stepfather, sister, and brother, plus aunts and uncles in the community,” Manning said. According to the attorney, the teen told him that most of his high school classmates have been supportive of him since that night. Manning said he has tried to encourage him by telling him, “You have the opportunity to stand up for all the people who had bad stuff happen to them and felt it was too daunting to go and stand up for themselves. This is a case for all other young Black people.”