Editors’ note: As we approach our fiftieth anniversary, in February 2023, we will, every week, highlight an important story from our past and offer some perspective on it.

Longtime Texas Monthly contributor Robert Draper has written about prison gangs, Mexican drug cartels, the Iraq War, and, most recently, a family of January 6 insurrectionists. But his favorite TM story, “Manhunt at Menard Creek” (1993), tells an apparently more prosaic tale. In January 1991, a 48-year-old career criminal named Tommy Earl Haynes was found dead in a creek after being chased by police dogs for two days through the Big Thicket of East Texas. The death was ruled an accidental drowning, but a number of lacerations on Haynes’s skull led investigators from the Department of Justice to believe that Haynes had been beaten to death by law enforcement officers as punishment for evading arrest. 

To report the story, Draper spent months interviewing the folks who knew Haynes best—mostly prison guards and cops. He conducted numerous interviews with “dog sergeant” Gene Stokes, the no-nonsense prison official who ran the Texas Department of Criminal Justice’s dog tracker program and participated in Haynes’s chase. (At the time, Texas was one of just three states that employed hunting dogs to track down escaped inmates and other fugitives.) Draper also spent several days retracing Haynes’s frantic run through the Big Thicket.“I think the story definitely benefited from my actually eyeballing where the dogs gave chase, and where Haynes met his maker,” Draper told me. 

In the story, Draper describes a violent, semi-feudal East Texas ruled by autocratic sheriffs and high-handed prison officials. He became fascinated by this world, later using it as the setting for his 1999 debut novel, Hadrian’s Walls. “East Texas is the main character in the story,” he told me. “Haynes’s death was a mystery, but the actual resolution of the mystery, in a sense, is beside the point because all the other elements are entertaining on their own.” 

The narrative unfolds with the black humor of a Charles Portis novel. We learn that Haynes’s wife last saw him nearly a decade before his death. He was driving a brand-new pickup, and she promptly turned him in to the sheriff for car theft. Throughout the investigation into Haynes’s cause of death, his body is autopsied three times and exhumed twice. At some point, Haynes’s scalp goes missing. When Draper visits Haynes’s grave, a caretaker expresses alarm. “You ain’t here to dig his body up again, are you?” he asks. “I won’t do it anymore, I’ll retire first.”

Federal prosecutors eventually dropped the charges against the law enforcement officers, but the controversy led the state to end its dog tracking program a few years later. Even today, Draper isn’t sure how Haynes really died. “I wouldn’t put it outside the realm of possibility that the law enforcement officers took matters into their own hands,” he said. “But I think the likelier explanation, given the injuries, is that the dogs drowned him.”