Three men with reported ties to white supremacist groups were charged Tuesday with chaining a black man to a pickup truck and dragging him two miles, tearing off his head, part of his neck and his right arm.
The victim, 49-year-old James Byrd Jr., was a father of three who loved music and was friendly and well-known around town. He was walking home from a niece’s bridal shower, authorities said, when the three white men picked him up on a dirt road in this timber town, tucked into the piney woods of East Texas. They took him to an isolated area, officers said, where he was beaten and then pulled behind the truck until he died.
Charged with murder were Lawrence Russell Brewer, 31, of Sulphur Springs, 70 miles northeast of Dallas, and Shawn Allen Berry and John William King, both 23, of Jasper. They and the victim had spent time in prison. Sheriff Billy Rowles said the three apparently had prison ties to the Ku Klux Klan and the Aryan Nation, a white supremacist group. King and Brewer had several tattoos, Rowles said, indicating white supremacist beliefs.
The killing came less than two weeks after a white man pleaded guilty to murder in Independence, Va., for burning and beheading a black man. But the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala., which tracks hate crimes, said there was no evidence of any organized killing of blacks. “I don’t think it was a group-sanctioned or group-inspired deal,” Joe Roy, director of an SPLC intelligence project, said of the Texas slaying. “I think it was guys who were ruthlessly, brutally, racially motivated.”
“We have no Aryan Nation or KKK in Jasper County,” Rowles told reporters. The sheriff’s statement drew hoots from African Americans who heard it. The killing and its brutality caused this town to search its soul. Churches stand on many street corners, and one pickup parked downtown carried a bumper sticker that read: “Cowboys for Christ.” Most blacks, however, live on the east side of town, and whites are scattered to the north, south and west.
Charles Lee, grand dragon of an East Texas faction of the klan, refused to tell the Associated Press whether it had any members in Jasper County. Roy said he knew of no hate groups in Jasper, but he cited such organizations in Tyler, Henderson, Mount Enterprise and Cleveland. Jasper is 55 miles north of Vidor, where a klan faction protested a 1993 federal order to integrate public housing.
Victim Allegedly Was Offered a Ride
Based on an account from Berry, authorities said, this is what happened in this quiet country town, where people usually like to spend their evenings rocking in their porch swings:
Berry and his two companions were riding around in his pickup Saturday night when they offered Byrd a ride. King objected because Byrd was black, but they picked him up anyway. He apparently knew one of the three men. The four stopped at a convenience store. King got behind the wheel and drove to an isolated area. Brewer and King began beating the victim. He was chained to the truck and dragged.
The truck pulled him 10,000 feet along a narrow, winding asphalt road. His belongings--wallet, keys and dentures--scattered in his wake, along with parts of his body. His torso was found Sunday morning in an area called Huff Creek. Nearby were beer cans, a wrench engraved with Berry’s name and a cigarette lighter inscribed with a triangular symbol and the word “Possum,” which had been King’s nickname in prison.
Byrd’s head, neck and right arm were found a mile away.
Preliminary autopsy results indicated that Byrd died of multiple traumas to the head and body, inflicted as he was pulled along behind the truck. The victim was so badly disfigured that investigators had to use fingerprints to identify him.
Officers said a witness saw Byrd sitting in the bed of the pickup before the killing. The officers said they found a chain behind a house, which they believed to be the one that had been used to tie Byrd to the truck.
Brewer, Berry and King originally were arrested on a charge of possessing stolen property after a break-in at a restaurant. Officers say they were caught with a large quantity of frozen meat.
FBI Discusses Civil Rights Charges
After the three were formally accused of the murder, FBI agents met with the sheriff to discuss possible federal civil rights charges. “All evidence shows [the slaying was] racially motivated,” the sheriff said.
In Washington, Kweisi Mfume, president of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People, urged the Justice Department to bring the federal charges. “These cowards,” Mfume declared, “should never walk the street again as free men.”
Byrd was a former vacuum cleaner salesman disabled by an arm injury. He was walking home from the bridal shower because he suffered a seizure disorder and could not drive.
He was divorced and had served prison sentences for both theft and forgery. He and King, who had served time for burglary, reported to the same parole office in Orange, Texas, near Jasper. D.L. Harrison, an information officer for the state parole division, said King and the victim might have gotten to know each other that way. “It’s possible,” Harrison said, “that they met each other in the lobby.”
Berry was a co-defendant with King on a 1992 burglary. Berry served three months and got probation. Brewer served prison sentences for burglary, possession of a controlled substance and a parole violation.
Mylinda Washington, 45, one of the victim’s six sisters, said she had heard that the black community in Jasper might retaliate for her brother’s death. She pleaded urgently against it.
“We don’t want this to turn into a big racial problem,” Washington said. “My parents have to live here. I know it was a terrible injustice, but we have a lot of confidence in the Jasper Police Department and the FBI.
“I do think this is a hate crime. You can’t love somebody and do this. [But] we don’t want things to get out of hand. We don’t advocate violence. That’s not the way to do it.”
Another sister, Clara Taylor, who came immediately from her home in Houston, said her brother was outgoing and friendly. His family called him “Toe” because he had lost one of his toes as a child.
“Everyone around here knew him,” Taylor said. “There was no ingrained hatred or anything like that.” She described her brother as a music lover who sang and played the piano and trumpet.
“He had a beautiful singing voice,” she said.
“You never thought this would happen, especially in Jasper. You felt safe here. You let your children walk outdoors. This makes me more cautious.”
While there might not have been any ingrained hatred, some people in Jasper acknowledged racial tension in town.
‘Whites Tolerate the Blacks’
“Whites tolerate the blacks, but no one goes out of their way for them,” said Mac Horn, 53, a white tow truck driver who was born and reared here. “Interracial couples, man, they don’t fit in around here. Blacks sort of stick to themselves, and whites stick to themselves.”
Hilda Kellum, 50, a home health care provider who is white, said bluntly: “There’s never been a racial problem here before. There’s gonna be one now.”
But Vicky Armstrong, 20, who is black and has lived here all her life, said: “You never thought this would happen here. Everybody seemed to get along.” Then she added: “Now it’s different. This isn’t the end of it. People are going to hold a grudge.”
She knew the victim as a man who liked to stroll around town singing. “He thought he was Al Green.”
Armstrong said she also knew two of the suspects: Berry and King. She said Berry worked at a movie theater collecting tickets. She said King was a sacker at a grocery store. Both were nice to blacks like herself, she said. “You’d never think they’d do something like this.”
Gwendolyn Chisholm, also black, told Reuters that the killing proved things were not always what they seemed.
She joined a crowd looking at photographs of the suspects posted outside the County Jail. “They look like normal people, don’t they? That’s the way they are nowadays--they don’t wear hoods anymore.”
“Yeah, they’re high-tech now,” another onlooker said.
“I think,” Chisholm replied, “that it has always been more prevalent than anyone wanted to admit.”
The victim’s daughter, Renee Mullins, 27, came from Honolulu where she lives with her husband, who is in the Army. She tried hard to make sense of what had happened. “He was a people person, an entertainer, always trying to tell jokes,” she remembered. “When I was little, he called me Miss America.
“It’s hard for this to sink in. The way he died is very brutal.”
The pickup used in the killing, a gray-primered, 1980s vintage Ford, sat in a garage next to the sheriff’s office. A tow truck driver said body fragments and some blood were cleaned from its undercarriage.
Aryan Brotherhood Is ‘Very Violent’
At the Southern Poverty Law Center, the slaying was seen as an individual incident. “I don’t know that this is group-related unless there is something having to do with an affiliation with the Aryan Brotherhood in the penal system in Texas,” Roy said.
“The Aryan Brotherhood is a white prison gang, very violent. As far as gangs go in the prison system in Texas, the Aryan Brotherhood has one of the top records in violence.
“I understand there was an Aryan Brotherhood symbol on a cigarette lighter or something belonging to one of the defendants. The symbol is an ‘A’ and a ‘B’ overlapping each other, and at first glance it looks like a triangle.”
Hate crime statistics compiled by the Justice Department in Washington show a nationwide rise in incidents from 5,932 in 1994 to 8,759 in 1996, the last year for which numbers are available.
These numbers mask a problem with compliance in reporting hate crimes, Roy said. Many states do not report at all. Others report, but not 100% of the time. “Some are reporting ‘no information,’ ” he said.
One year, he said, Alabama, for instance, reported zero hate crimes.
Times researcher Edith Stanley in Atlanta and staff writer Richard E. Meyer in Los Angeles contributed to this story.