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Listed Under:  Hate Crimes

Sue Ann Pressley

Three held in black man's dragging death

Citation Information:Sue Ann Pressley, "Three held in black man's dragging death," The Times Picayune, v. 162 n. 138, June 10, 1998.

Three held in black man's dragging death

White ex-cons with racist ties charged

By SUE ANN PRESSLEY
The Washington Post

AUSTIN—Three white men, two of whom are former cellmates sporting white supremacist tattoos, were charged Tuesday with chaining a disabled black man to the back of their pickup and dragging him to his death along a rough dirt road in the wooded flatlands of eastern Texas.

The torn and battered body of James Byrd, Jr., 49, was discovered Sunday morning in a wooded area of Jasper County about 100 miles northeast of Houston; his head and right arm were missing. Those body parts, apparently severed as Byrd was dragged along a two-mile stretch of the isolated road were found a mile away, Jasper Sheriff Billy Rowles said.

Byrd, who suffered from what his sister described as a seizure disorder and did not drive, was last seen late Saturday walking home from a friend's anniversary party, his relatives said.

Charged with the murder were Shawn Allen Berry, 23, of Jasper; Lawrence Russell Brewer, 31 of Sulphur Springs, 50 miles east of Dallas; and John William King, 23, of Jasper. The sheriff said Brewer and King, who had been cellmates in a Texas prison, have tattoos that affiliate them with white supremacist groups, but did not describe the markings. The two had picked up Berry, an apparent friend who also has served time in prison, at his job at a Jasper movie theater. "It has been indicated to us that these guys, while they were in prison, were party of the Aryan Nation or the Ku Klux Klan." Rowles said at a news conference.

Don Clark, special agent in charge of the Houston Field Office of the FBI, said the bureau is assisting in the investigation because of "the extreme circumstances" of the case. If it is determined the slaying was a hate crime, federal charges could be filed.

Berry told police that the three men were riding around Saturday night in Berry's pickup when they saw a man walking alongside the road and stopped to offer him a lift. Byrd's family said Tuesday that they do not know the suspects and had never heard the victim mention them, but Rowles said Byrd may have been acquainted with one of the men.

According to Berry's statement, King did not want to pick Byrd up because he was a black person, but soon changed his mind and let Byrd climb into the bed of the truck. After stopping at a convenience store, Berry said, King drove the truck to an isolated wooded area about 10 miles from Byrd's apartment. Berry told police that Brewer and King got out and began beating Byrd, eventually chaining him to the back of the truck.

The suspects had been drinking, Rowles said. They were initially arrested Sunday morning for possessing stolen property after police investigating a restaurant break-in found them with a large supply of frozen meat. Later, Byrd's body was discovered near a creek.

In the meantime, Byrd's family had no idea that he was missing, his sister, Mary Verrett, 47 said. They had last seen him Saturday evening at his niece's bridal shower at the parents' Jasper home. Byrd, the divorced father of three children, was sitting on the porch, bouncing his baby granddaughter on his knee.

Later, Verrett said, he attended the friend's anniversary party, but left on foot at about 11:30 p.m. after he could not find anyone to give him a ride home. What happened next is horrifying to the family, she said.

"We are all hoping and praying he didn't have to suffer, that he wasn't tormented, that at some point in time, he lost consciousness," she said. "Hopefully, he was able to black out. Otherwise, we couldn't continue focusing on this."

Byrd was the third of eight children born to James Byrd Sr. worked for 50 years at a Jasper cleaners, and his wife, Stella. A former salesman, Byrd had been receiving disability checks because of his seizure problems. He lived alone in a government-subsidized apartment.

"He was my big brother," Verrett said. "He loved people, he was very people-oriented. As a matter of fact, he was the kind of person who never wanted to be alone; he would walk up to a group and join right in. He was very intelligent. People in the family told him he never used his full intellect. I would get upset with him at times—like anybody else, he had his faults—but the most harm he ever did was to his own self. He was never the kind to harm others. He just never took care of his personal health. We thought he should eat more and rest more, that sort of thing.