A Myth of Hope in a Land of Tragedy
Second of three parts
ALLENSWORTH, Calif. -- Chuck Jones had heard the stories growing up in Oklahoma.
Grapes as big as jade eggs and fields of cotton that didn’t quit. Row after row, mile upon mile, it was all there for the picking in a giant valley in the middle of California.
The son of a black tenant farmer, he could already taste the bitter that came with the Oklahoma land. Soon enough, the debt to the white boss man that got passed from his grandfather to his father would get passed to him.
So in the mid-1940s, like so many other Black Okies chasing a myth, he took off west to the San Joaquin Valley. Here was a land that offered the wide-open blessings of the rural without the half-empty cotton sacks of sharecropping. He had found a new South.
He fell in love with a woman named Margaret, who had seven children. They married and had two of their own. They taught them a reverence for work and a respect for the rod. In their family, the branches of the weeping willow would be known as the branches of the “whuppin’ willow.”
Jones made sure that his children and grandchildren would grow up knowing the seasons the way he knew them--that pomegranates meant winter and loquats meant spring and the harvest moon meant the squeal of pigs being neutered.
He lived long enough to spoil his two young grandsons, Howie and Eric, and long enough to watch his family tree stretch beyond the alkali. He died in 1984, perhaps mercifully, never having to see that myth turn to tragedy.
His youngest daughter, Hallie, the mother of Howie and Eric, grew too busy hustling crack to pass along any Black Okie dreams to her sons.
Howie left home at 15, joined a gang and began dealing his own drugs. In the fall of 1998, 14 years after his grandfather’s death, he was shot dead, two bullets to the head in a beef over a craps game.
Eric, 17, tried to honor his big brother the only way he knew--by joining the same rural gang. On a cold winter night last year, he left the house wearing a T-shirt inscribed “Rest in Peace” as a memorial to Howie.
They found him the next morning in the plowed dirt beside a country road near Allensworth. He was naked and hogtied. A wooden handle protruded from his rectum and nine bullets pierced his back. His fingers bore the marks of electrical shock. He was lying at the edge of the old lake basin, in the same cotton fields that had brought his grandfather west.
Across a distance of six decades and thousands of miles, heartbreak has chased the children and grandchildren and now the great-grandchildren of the old black cotton pickers of Tulare Lake. Highway 99, a zipper straight up the gut of California, is no longer a road to salvation. Sunday sermons don’t have to venture far to find the bittersweet.
Tina Houston graduates from UCLA, gets her master’s degree from Harvard while her brother, Kenneth, serves a five-year drug sentence at Ironwood State Prison.
Leon Richardson helps as a pastor at the House of Prayer in Teviston while his brother, George, passes his days as an inmate at North Kern State Prison. George’s wife raises their 10 children in a trash heap of a house where dirty plastic diapers--ripped apart by pit bulls--snag on tumbleweeds. She is pregnant with an 11th child conceived during a conjugal visit. She stays away from the house for days at a time, leaving her 14-year-old daughter in charge.
The breakdown of family structure that began five and six generations ago in the rural South has accelerated in the rural West. More than seven out of 10 black children in the San Joaquin Valley are born out of wedlock. Of the 6,000 blacks in Tulare County, 45% receive welfare or food stamps.
Tulare may rank as the No. 1 milk producer in the world but it stands as the poorest county in California, with nearly one-third of its residents living below the poverty level. With so few resources to spread around, no one--not social workers, job trainers or Head Start administrators--is targeting the needs of the 1,500 Black Okies scattered in rural enclaves across the lake basin.
“Even poor people in the inner city, as bad as they have it, at least have services nearby,” said Connie Conway, a Tulare County supervisor. “We don’t have the public transit to help the rural people even access the meager services that we do have.”
In a place so broken, even a crime as savage as the murder of Eric “Cutty” Jones has gone down as simply one more gangbanger who turned up dead beside a ditch in the forgotten middle of California.
Four of the accused killers are migrants from Mexico whose families came a generation after the Black Okies to pick the same fields. Police say Jones made the mistake of double-crossing the men who had given him a cut of their methamphetamine trade.
As the case heads to trial, 19 months after the killing, it is hardly discussed among Black Okies. The murder seems to have been swept over, absorbed into a larger narrative of lost hope.
“Oh yeah, that kid in the cotton field,” says an old black woman in Pixley, puffing a cigarette between her toothless gums. “Too bad. A while back, we had a black man lying dead right here on my road. Came out of that crack house right behind me and just died. The county wouldn’t remove him. They let him bake all day in the sun.”
Following the Harvest
Before he arrived in the San Joaquin Valley, Chuck Jones got his one taste of the big city. After World War II, he took a job in Oakland as a longshoreman and watched thousands of black shipyard workers--their industry suddenly shuttered by peace--tossed to the wind.
Some of the jobless had family in the valley, and Jones took off with them to follow the cotton harvest. He landed in Delano long before Cesar Chavez turned the town into a labor movement. It was a step up and a dozen miles removed from the dusty black settlement of Teviston. He made steady wages hauling grapes to the winery. His wife, Margaret, a native of Compton, packed oranges and vegetables.
They set down a rule for their nine children, especially the youngest, Hallie. Be home before the sun cuts out and the street lights twitch on. If they failed to abide, Margaret Jones stood on the front porch holding a branch, not too thin and not too thick, with just the right whip. “We used to get a ‘just in case’ whuppin,” Hallie Jones said. “Just in case we were thinking about doing something wrong. There were no rotten cottons in our house.”
Hallie watched three of her older brothers prove themselves on the athletic field, graduate from Delano High School and travel the world working for the oil companies that drilled heavy crude in Kern County. She saw her two big sisters build careers with the post office and mental health agencies and raise children who went to UCLA and the University of Arkansas.
But from Day 1, the opportunities put in front of Hallie went wasted. Six feet tall and slim, she neglected the athletic gifts that took her cousins to college. She began smoking weed at 15, dropped out of high school and sneaked off with Danny Chavez, a married man down the block. Their affair was brief but it produced a baby in 1977 whom she christened Howard Chavez.
Six years later, Eric was born, fathered by a white construction worker she met while waiting tables. “Two flings, two babies,” she said. “I didn’t consider abortion. The children were innocent. I accepted my responsibilities. Period.”
Eric was 10 months old when Hallie met Ed Scott, a white Okie with red hair who irrigated orchards for a Tulare County farmer. He was a drinker and they fell hard for each other. They vowed to get clean and headed into the tules and tumbleweeds to get away from the bad influences. They went from cheap motel to raggedy house but the dopers still found them. Cocaine, crack or crank--it didn’t matter.
They had six more children to go with Howie and Eric, five of them born drug-addled. The twin girls came nine weeks premature, barely 1 1/2 pounds each. “They were born with no skin development, no lung development,” Hallie’s niece, Melanie Wallace, said. “The state took them away and that was the day she and Ed started to change their lives.”
For firstborn Howie, it came too late. He was 12 when he started burglarizing houses and stealing cars. He told his mother he needed his own space. He packed his bags and moved to Bakersfield to live with his mother’s older sister, Leagla Fortson.
She was the rock of the family, everyone’s fix-it woman, but Fortson couldn’t fix Howie. She was too busy supervising the night shift at the post office. He dropped out of school and joined the East Side Crips, one of two black gangs fighting over pitiful turf in Bakersfield. Howie was now H-Bone.
Eric didn’t want to listen to his cleaned-up mother and her new rules. He missed Howie so much he decided to follow his big brother to their aunt’s house. “Both of them could take apart and put together anything. Both could have been electricians,” Fortson said. “They’d tell me, ‘Auntie Neenee, that’s going to take a long time.’ I’d say, ‘It’s not about quickness. It’s about discipline.’
“They thought the life I was pushing on them was too slow. The ability to delay gratification, it wasn’t there.”
The crack business got so good that Howie, 21, moved out of his aunt’s house in September 1998 and rented an apartment in Bakersfield. Three weeks later, he was dead, two .38-caliber bullets to the head. The $1,500 he won the night before in a dice game was gone. A tiny black youth, barely 15 years old, the same one Howie had taken under his wing, pleaded guilty to manslaughter. After his brother’s killing, Eric moved back to Delano to live with his grandmother. The town had grown to 38,000 residents, 60% from Mexico. On the west side, Mexicans and blacks started calling him “Cutty,” street slang for cousin. Everything sacred to him he now had tattooed on his back: “H-Bone to honor his brother; “Crippin” to honor his gang; “One Life to Live” to honor his new credo.
“We saw Eric on Thanksgiving and he had been beat up,” his mother said. “I suspected he was doing crank. I told him, ‘You know how you make me feel? You know how you felt looking at your brother in the coffin? Well that’s how I feel looking at you right now.” ’
‘You’re Going to Die’
The radio in the garage was blaring, the music turned up to muffle his cries. He was lying on the concrete floor, an AK-47 shoved into his mouth. His wrists and ankles had been bound together behind his back with an extension cord. Had he not been tied down, Eric Jones would have towered over all of them.
“Today, you’re going die, Cutty. You’re going to make the papers!” one of the assailants shouted. “Do you want your casket open or closed?”
What happened inside the stucco house across from an almond orchard in Delano on the night of Jan. 24, 2001, is described in the detailed statements of three of the defendants.
They have pleaded not guilty to charges of kidnapping, torture and murder and face a spring trial. Two other defendants remain at large. Defense attorneys, who have refused to comment on the case, are expected to argue that the statements were coerced by detectives.
Gerardo Zavala, a 28-year-old body-and-fender man, told investigators he helped lure Eric to the garage that night and struck the first blow. Like a game of pinata, it went around the room. Then Jorge Vidal, a 31-year-old farm worker from Sonora, Mexico, who had belonged to a Delano street gang, took charge.
He wanted the pillowcase covering Eric’s head removed. He wanted to see and hear the damage he was about to inflict. Eric’s face was already so broken that Vidal couldn’t recognize the boy he had tutored in crime.
“You messed up, Cutty!” Vidal shouted, according to his statement. “You won’t be stealing my crap again, nigger.”
“What’d I do? What’d I do?” Eric pleaded.
Vidal told detectives he had taught Eric the ropes of crank dealing and stealing, and Eric had betrayed his trust. A month earlier, Vidal had caught Eric trying to steal his car. Eric ran off, his screwdriver still stuck in Vidal’s window.
Vidal balled up his fist and struck Eric in the face, maybe 10 times. Eric could barely see the punches coming. His eyes were slits. He cursed at Vidal and spit in his face. He fell unconscious. Vidal woke him up only to knock him out again.
“Hey Cutty, remember when you wanted to steal my car? You left your screwdriver, eh? Well, I’m going to return your screwdriver.” Vidal told detectives he then grabbed a long flat screwdriver and stuck Eric in the back.
Juan Soto’s stomach began to turn. They had chosen his house in the Almond Trees, a new subdivision at the edge of Delano, to carry out the beating. The 23-year-old forklift driver felt so queasy he had to go inside and take a break with his wife and two small children.
His younger brother, Gerardo Soto, and 29-year-old Keith Seriales stood there transfixed. They watched Vidal cut the end off an electrical cord and tape the exposed wires to Eric’s fingers. “Plug him in, plug him in,” one of them said, snickering.
Vidal told the police he plugged the extension cord into the wall and shocked Eric. Each time he took the cord out and plugged it in again, Eric groaned. “Hey Cutty,” he said. “Are you getting energized yet?”
They decided to take a break. The Soto brothers went on a beer run and brought back a 24-pack of Bud Light. They began stripping Eric--his acid washed jeans and the T-shirt inscribed “Rest in Peace” as a memorial to his older brother. Seriales got some duct tape, and they blindfolded Eric and secured the hogtie.
By now, they were wearing white gloves to cover up their fingerprints. Vidal told detectives he unscrewed the wood handle from a squeegee and swaggered around the garage slapping it in his hands. He took the 2-foot-long stick and began sodomizing Eric. He cried so loud they had to turn up the music even higher. One of the assailants stumbled to the side of the garage and vomited. Vidal laughed. “Let’s get going.”
They threw his writhing body into the trunk of a green Dodge Intrepid and took off past the dairies and vineyards and alfalfa fields, past the giant lights of North Kern State prison, until they reached Allensworth.
This was the place where freed slaves came West and founded their own community in 1908. They stopped at a plowed cotton field not far from the house where Eric’s mother and six brothers and sisters lived.
They lifted him out of the trunk and dumped him in the dirt at the side of the road. He was still breathing. Vidal told detectives he paused for a moment trying to decide what to do. That’s when two of the men shouted, “Shoot him! Shoot him!” He told detectives he pulled out his 9-millimeter handgun, walked up to Eric, aimed at his head and fired once. Vidal said he paused again and then fired nine more times into Eric’s back.
They piled in the car and headed back to Delano. It was near midnight. They polished off the beers and smoked some crank.
Hallie Jones swears she heard Eric’s voice cry her name in the quiet of the night. The next morning, she saw the yellow tape slicing the corner of Avenue 16 and Highway 43 and knew in her gut that her second son was dead too.
Margaret Jones had raised, in whole or part, nine children and 26 grandchildren, including Eric. She drew and cut out silhouettes of each one of them. Sit up straight, she’d tell them. Read your Bible and watch nature programs. You can hop from Europe to Africa, take a side trip to Antarctica, and never leave your room.
Eric was living with her at the time of the murder. She had fallen asleep early that night and when she awoke her grandson was gone. She pressed her daughters for details. How many times had he been shot? What did the death certificate say? A wood handle? Why?
“I close my eyes and see it,” she said. “The thought of my grandchild lying on the side of the road. ‘Naked,’ the paper had it. ‘Hogtied.’ What kind of hate? What kind of hate?”
Six months after the murder, the Jones family, minus its matriarch, drove to the courthouse in Tulare to attend a pretrial hearing. Three women who had cared for Eric at different times in his life--his mother, his aunt, an older cousin--sat in a park and waited for the case to be called. They would be eye-to-eye with Zavala and Vidal and Seriales for the first time. The Soto brothers, who had disappeared that night, were still at large.
Hallie Jones insisted that she had no bitterness in her heart.
Six years earlier, she had transformed her life by rediscovering the religious beliefs that had sustained her family all the way back to slavery. She said she had forgiven her son’s killers and found a kind of peace knowing that Eric, in the days before his death, had made his own pact with God. She had his letters as proof. “I hate what they did,” she said. “But I don’t hate them. As far as I’m concerned, all Eric felt that night were feathers. Feathers or maybe nothing. Because God is bigger than all of us. That’s what I believe in and that’s what I hold on to.”
Hallie’s niece, Melanie Wallace, said she wanted something more than platitudes. She wanted a way to explain the hate. She owed it to her grandmother, to the black community.
She walked inside the courthouse and read the detectives’ report. “This is different than Howie’s murder,” Wallace said. “There’s a whole lot of ‘nigger this’ and ‘nigger that’ that night.”
Like Wallace, some blacks here can’t shake the specter of race in a killing so brutal. They point to the use of the “N-word” as proof that his killers stopped seeing Eric as a partner who did them wrong and began seeing him as a black man who had crossed them.
Others, though, view the murder as part of the larger wasting that has cut short the ambitions of so many of their children and grandchildren. Eric made foolish choices, they say, and this, more than race, explains the murder.
Police and prosecutors point out that Eric grew up in a basin where black, Mexican and poor white youths cruise the same farms fields listening to the same gangsta rap. In this mix, they say, the “N-word” is no longer a reliable indicator of prejudice. Indeed, it has become such a motif of a shared hip-hop culture that it ceases to carry much meaning at all.
“This was a horrific crime,” Tulare County prosecutor Carol Turner said. “But it wasn’t a hate crime.”
‘I Love the Country’
A faded turquoise house sits in the hot sun on a patch of prairie so thick with alkali that it appears in the distance as fallen snow.
The house skirts an old cemetery where the freed slaves who founded Allensworth are buried beneath tumbleweeds. The mailbox says “Jones and Scott” and “To God Be the Glory.” A white man with red hair stands over a fire of grape stumps, cooking hot dogs and steaks. A tall black woman in an African skullcap leans back in a lawn chair and smiles at the children swimming in a plastic pool and dancing in the dust to a stereo blasting Christian rap--"Gangsters for Jesus.”
Hallie Jones and Ed Scott had come all this way, 10 miles from the nearest mini-mart, 12 miles from the nearest movie house, to reclaim their lives. Six years sober, six years right with God, and it made no difference in the fate of Hallie’s sons. Eric ended up just like Howie, only worse.
Hallie and her husband were doing their best to protect their younger children, to bend destiny a different way. She counseled youths at the community center, volunteered with the Salvation Army and got a job pulling weeds in a cotton field outside her front door. She straddled the knee-high plants and moved up and down the rows, but when the workday was done she seemed troubled.
Ever since that first day in court when she confronted the defendants, their faces so indifferent, she could no longer see things so tidy. Now the trial was approaching and she was doubting the compassion that had gotten her through the darkest time. How could she forgive them with such unforgiving facts?
“There’s no word to describe his end,” she says of Eric. “ ‘Torture’ doesn’t do it. Neither does ‘desecration.’ What they did to my son is unlisted.”
The field where they left Eric’s body has been sown again to cotton, and soon the pink flowers will turn into puffs of popcorn white. She has driven by it a hundred times but never once stopped.
“People ask why I still live here. So close to so much pain,” she says. “But I have no desire to live in the city. The murder of my sons could have happened there just as easily as here.
“I love the country. And it’s good for the kids. You can see the stars at night and hear the barn owls screech. And the wind, it feels free.”
About This Series
Times staff writer Mark Arax and photographer Matt Black spent nearly two years chronicling the lives of the Black Okies of California’s Tulare Lake Basin.
To see additional photos of these forgotten migrants and read Parts 1 and 2 of this series, visit www.latimes.com/blackokies.
Tuesday in Column One: The matriarch on her deathbed.