Down a Dark Road to Murder
Three Accused Tied to Hate Groups
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 13, 1998; Page A01
JASPER, Tex., June 12They were three troubled men out riding and drinking on a Saturday night.
John William King, 23, was the trio's unofficial leader, a foul-mouthed convicted burglar whose prison nickname was "Possum." Shawn Allen Berry, also 23, was King's former high school classmate and partner in crime. Lawrence Russell Brewer, 31, had served seven years on a cocaine conviction, released on condition he be treated for an undisclosed mental illness. All three had tattoos or personal items with the special markings of the white supremacist.
Before the night was over, authorities charge, the men sank to the depths of brutality, committing a murder so cruel and unthinkable that it has shocked residents of this East Texas town of 7,200 as well as the rest of the nation, drawn words of condemnation from President Clinton and left everyone asking what brought them to such a dark place.
After stopping in the wee hours of Sunday to give a ride to James Byrd Jr., 49, a disabled black man they saw walking on a downtown street, the men drove Byrd to a deserted country road, beat and kicked him, then chained him by his ankles to the back of their pickup and dragged him so violently that his head and right arm were wrenched from his body, police say. Police found Byrd's dentures, torn from his mouth, lying on the road. Blood smeared a trail a mile long.
The men were arrested later Sunday. But since then, through the media storm and the public outcry, only one of them -- Berry, who also has cooperated with police and described the crime in an affidavit -- has shown any remorse, according to Jasper County Sheriff Billy Rowles. Brewer and King wore sullen, tough expressions as deputies led them into the courthouse this week, their orange jail jumpsuits covered with bullet-proof vests.
"Hate got into some young men," said Mayor R.C. Horn, who is black, grasping for an explanation.
Relatives of the three largely have refused to discuss the incident. In a letter of apology sent to the Fox News Channel, King's father, Ronald, who lives in Jasper, said to kill another "in such a manner is beyond any kind of reasoning. It hurts me deeply to know that a boy I raised and considered to be the most loved boy I knew could find it in himself to take a life."
A cousin of King's by marriage told reporters she never heard him use racial epithets as a youth, but was shocked recently when she ran into him in a local convenience store and saw that he was covered with tattoos, some apparently employing racist symbols. In a brief interview early this week with the Associated Press, Brewer's mother, Helen Brewer of Sulphur Springs, suggested that drinking sent the men over the edge.
"I couldn't do a dog that way," she said. "That just shows you what alcohol can do."
In certain basic ways, the three men matched the stereotype of perpetrators of hate crimes, according to experts who track such behavior. All three were high school dropouts who did not seem able to hold steady jobs, working variously as yard workers and lumber company employees; they were about to be evicted from the modest apartment they shared across from the local Wal-Mart. But perhaps most significant in their downward spiral were the racist influences they apparently encountered, and embraced, in prison.
Larry Fitzgerald, a spokesman for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, said all three men, while serving time, were suspected of belonging to the Ku Klux Klan and the Confederate Knights of America. But he could not confirm that they belonged to the Aryan Brotherhood, considered the most violent of prison hate groups. King, who was serving a sentence for burglary, was disciplined in 1995 for his involvement in a racial disturbance between whites and Hispanics at his prison unit, Fitzgerald said.
"We find the reason most people join a group like that is for support, for safety, protection. And birds of a feather flock together, of course," Fitzgerald said, adding that out of a Texas prison population of 142,785, nearly 5,000 inmates have been identified as having hate-group affiliations.
Authorities have not described the racist tattoos allegedly covering the men's skin, but Fitzgerald said the Aryan Brotherhood symbol involves the use of the initials, "AB," often intertwined or partially covered by other tattoos. A triangular-shaped symbol, actually the convergence of three K's, is the recognized symbol for the Klan. A cigarette lighter found at the murder scene that police say belonged to King had such a symbol etched on it.
In his statement to police, Berry also supplied a clue about the depth of King's racist beliefs. "We're starting 'the Turner Diaries' early,' " King allegedly said while dragging Byrd's body behind the truck. "The Turner Diaries," a fictional account of race war in America, is seen as the bible of hate groups and apparently inspired convicted Oklahoma City bomber Timothy J. McVeigh.
"That's a pretty sophisticated statement for a racist to make; that's not a flippant statement," said Morris Dees of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups. "First of all, these men were drunk. But secondly, they were basically racists at heart and they had been influenced by Klan and neo-Nazi propaganda."
Dees and others -- including Jasper officials and civil rights leader Jesse L. Jackson, who held a prayer meeting here and will return to preach at Byrd's funeral Saturday -- have been quick to say the horrific crime could have happened anywhere and is no reflection on Jasper, which is near the Louisiana border 100 miles northeast of Houston. Forty-five percent of the residents of this prosperous lumber town are black, and several of its elected officials, in addition to the mayor, are black.
"There's nothing we see in this town that caused this to happen," Dees said. "It's a Southern town with built-in biases, but it's not a racist town."
Nor is Texas a particular center for hate crimes, he said, although the general area of East Texas long has been a hotbed of Klan activity. Jasper lies 55 miles north of Vidor, where a Klan group in 1993 tried to prevent the integration of an all-white public housing development. Six of the 18 hate groups identified by Dees's agency as operating in Texas are headquartered in the eastern part of the state. But Florida, with 48 identified hate groups, California, with 35, and even Illinois, with 26, outpace Texas.
According to FBI statistics, 10,702 hate crimes were reported in America in 1996, including 11 homicides. Because such crimes are erratically reported, Dees said, it is difficult to say whether they are on the increase. But hate groups are growing. In 1997, 474 hate groups were identified as operating in the United States, he said, a 20 percent jump over 1996.
What set the three Jasper men off is not yet fully known. It may have been a case of unfortunate circumstances, too much to drink, nothing to do, a lone black man on a dark street giving shape to all the thoughts the men had absorbed in prison.
Keshia Adkins, whom police identified as a girlfriend of King, told police she left King's apartment around 2 a.m. Sunday; the three men said they were leaving to visit a girl in the northern part of the county. Jasper resident Steve Scott said he saw Byrd, who did not own a car and was known to go everywhere in town on foot, walking down the street around 2:30 a.m.; a few minutes later, he noticed a gray late-model truck pass his home, with Byrd sitting in the back, and two or three white men in the front.
Shawn Berry told police in the affidavit he recognized Byrd and offered him a ride, upsetting King. After stopping at a convenience store, King took the wheel and eventually turned down a dirt road. When Berry asked King what he was doing, he replied that he wanted to give a "scare" to Byrd, whom he referred to with a racial slur.
King stopped the truck, Berry said, then King and Brewer got out and began beating Byrd until he was nearly unconscious. Alarmed, Berry said he ran a short distance away. A few minutes later, he came back and got in the truck, and King started to drive away, noting that Byrd was "bouncing all over the place." Not knowing what King was talking about, Berry said he turned and saw to his horror that the man was being dragged by a chain behind the truck.
Berry said he immediately asked King to let him out of the truck, but said King gave him a warning. "You're just as guilty as we are," Berry said King told him.
Authorities have said the men were drinking. That may have made them careless. At the murder scene, police found, in addition to Byrd's wallet, shirt and tennis shoes, a number of items: the lighter with the Klan symbol, several unopened beers, a compact disc by the rock group Kiss, and a wrench with Berry's name etched on it. A spatter of blood was found on the undercarriage of the truck.
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