Did racism help kill SMU basketball star Ruben Triplett?

Almost 40 years later, questions remain about a triple killing in Dallas that authorities classify as ‘solved’

The couple standing in the North Dallas movie theater line to see newly-released The Empire Strikes Back stood out for several reasons that warm May evening.

For one thing, they were playing Yahtzee as they waited. Who does that in a movie line? They were attractive and well-dressed. The man was extremely tall at 6-foot-7.

But what made them truly memorable was their mixed racial backgrounds: he happened to be black, she white.

This was 1980 ― not 2018 ― in Dallas ― not New York. For decades, “segregation of the races” had literally been a formal policy in Dallas, written into the city charter until 1969. Interracial marriage, mostly defined as between “negroes” and whites, was officially outlawed in predominantly Southern states, including Texas, until a 1967 Supreme Court decision that was vehemently opposed by most Americans. At least Texas was not like two defiant states that held onto bans following the national ruling; South Carolina did not remove the clause until 1998, Alabama until 2000. In the latter state, some 546,000 voters ― 40.5 percent ― still wanted to keep the ban. In 2000.

Such marriages grew slowly. In 1970, only 65,000 couples nationwide were black-and-white. That more than doubled to 167,000 by 1980, but that was still only 0.3 percent of the marriages. By 2009, the number expanded to 550,000 ― still less than 1 percent of the total ― although more newlyweds married outside their race. However, a study released in 2014 found that only 26 percent of white Americans favored a close relative marrying an African American, compared with 54 percent of blacks supporting a family member marrying a white. Even in 2015, there were many more marriages between whites and Hispanics [42 percent of the total] than whites and blacks [11 percent] and slightly more among whites and Asians [15 percent]. 1

In Southern cities like Dallas, black-and-white dating was still frowned upon by many for decades after the 1967 ruling. Even black members of the adored Dallas Cowboys had to live in segregated housing developments much farther away from the team’s practice facilities until lawsuits forced change in the 1970s. During those years, the KKK regularly marched through downtown without inciting a riot.

Interracial dating was such a taboo around that time, so rebellious of the established social order, that members of the Richland College basketball team and cheerleaders decided one evening in 1978 to walk arm-in-arm into a small North Texas town diner as black-and-white couples. That was their Rosa Parks’ moment of social protest, their revolutionary act. They received icy stares but no incidents. They went home and back to their normal lives.

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Newspaper coverage of a white banker killing an African-American athlete dodged the race question. [Dallas Times Herald, July 28, 1980, Fair Use]

Deflecting icy stares and worse was part of everyday life for Ruben Triplett and Nancy Patrick for at least a few months in 1980. Triplett was used to breaking color barriers. In Galesburg, Ill., he easily made friends with kids from all backgrounds at an early age. Former Texas Rangers catcher and executive Jim Sundberg was among Triplett’s childhood friends; both played on Galesburg High’s baseball and basketball teams and made that school’s Athletics Hall of Fame. They remained in touch in Dallas to the point that Sundberg got his friend autographed baseballs to give to children. 2

At SMU, Triplett became the first African American to earn a basketball scholarship in 1971 with the aid of Galesburg High coach John Thiel, whose son, Zack, also signed with the Dallas-area private university that same year. Triplett continued to date outside his race, even after having a daughter with a common-law spouse.

“He was a nice guy to me,” said Patty Hines, a gymnast and former Richland student who lived in the same North Dallas condominium complex as Triplett that was then called The Lofts. “He would talk to everybody. But he was also the cocky, jock-type. That rubbed some people the wrong way.”

On that May evening, Triplett was in a jovial mood before seeing the latest Star Wars movie. Intrigued by their board game, I asked who was winning at Yahtzee. He laughed and replied, “She is, as usual.”

We engaged in more friendly, small talk until making it inside the theater when he left to purchase some movie food. The woman with Triplett asked how tall I was since I was the same height as her date. She said he used to play basketball for SMU. I had been a Mustangs fan during his time ― the Ponies were more successful in the early 1970s than the ABA’s Dallas Chaparrals, which only won one playoff series in six years ― and immediately recognized his name. When he returned, we discussed SMU basketball until the movie began.

Two months later, Triplett and Patrick would be dead. I couldn’t be sure that the woman with Triplett that night was Nancy Patrick, though she seemed to match the photos. But I knew for sure that had been Triplett. That link alone was enough to make me ― a mere college journalist at North Texas ― pursue an independent investigation of the case and learn more than I wanted to about the ugly nature of racism and jealousy.

‘Straight-arrow’ killer?

Don Fountain Patrick grew up in the conservative hamlet of University Park, home to SMU and one of the richest burbs in the country. Even in 2000, University Park was 94 percent white, with just about all of the minorities being SMU students. Its population of some 24,000 in 1950 remained about the same through 2016. To say that University Park resisted change was a gross understatement.

Patrick shunned the local college to attend an even more conservative private university, Baylor in Waco. Working his way through the First National Bank ladders, Patrick became vice president of the large banking institution’s trust department in 1977. An active Baylor booster, he regularly took his stepson, Shane, to Baylor football games. He introduced Shane to players such as Neal Jeffrey, an All-American quarterback who led the Bears to their first Southwest Conference title in 1974 and briefly played in the NFL.

Gerald Bennett, First National Bank vice president for community relations, described Patrick in 1980 as a “straight-arrow guy.” Some neighbors said he appeared glum, which could have been in part due to marital difficulties with Nancy Patrick. Around May 1980, he moved out of their house near University Park into an apartment. 3

Doing so was almost the end of the world to him, said Brenda Cox, a family friend. “Don was raised in a strict Christian family, and the idea of separation or divorce was horrible to him,” she said. 4

Despite his Christian upbringing, Patrick did not attend church with Nancy and Shane at Wilshire Baptist near their house, said the late Rev. Bruce McIver. Nancy was more outgoing and involved in church ministries, including befriending a child who had cystic fibrosis, he said.

Nancy and Triplett could have met through sports ― she regularly played tennis and he remained active in basketball and softball leagues. Both outgoing extroverts, they could have also met through social functions. Triplett drove a delivery route for Julius Schepps Wholesale Liquors, and neighbors saw him with numerous women, black and white. Nancy kept her romantic interests more private.

An executive assistant to then Trammell Crow Co. President Don Williams, Nancy attended college in the evenings to work on a bachelor’s degree. She was a model person and employee, said Williams, a mover and shaker who was involved in efforts to revitalize minority neighborhoods and decrepit schools. Supervisors lent similar compliments about Triplett’s job performance, saying he was “pleasant, well-dressed and never missed a day” of work, according to one news report. 5

But Nancy had another side that remained hidden from work colleagues, neighbors, and her pastor. She and Triplett became intimate enough for her to possess a key to his condo. While Texas law considers couples to still be married even if they live in separate residences, Triplett did not view Nancy Patrick as still being Don Patrick’s spouse. To him, living in separate places meant being single, and he was reportedly smitten enough with Nancy to tell her he loved her.

In early July, Patrick’s apparent glumness had turned violent. He reportedly held a gun to his estranged wife’s head for 30 minutes, demanding she stop seeing Triplett. At some point, he forced her to hand over her key to the condo.

About two weeks later, Patrick visited his parents’ house. He asked his mother, who taught Sunday school for preschoolers at a prominent Baptist church, and father, who was a deacon at the same church, to pray for him and his marriage.

“Nancy wouldn’t pray,” Ruth Patrick told me. “She loved that black man.”

And more and more, her son blamed “that black man” ― Ruben Triplett ― for his problems. The bank exec also had another side. “He was real jealous by his nature,” his mother said. “He loved Nancy so much.”

Triple killing on a Sunday afternoon

Patrick’s other side led him to venture to Triplett’s condo wearing a fake beard, mustache, and wig around July 20. A police officer found him peering into Triplett’s window. Upon questioning Patrick, his fake mustache fell off. Still, no arrest was made.

On July 27, Nancy visited Triplett, and they swam at the complex pool. She left around 3 p.m. to pick up Shane, who returned from a church-sponsored camping trip about 4 p.m.

That was when Don Patrick entered Triplett’s condo with the key he took from Nancy, carrying a .38-caliber pistol. Somehow, Patrick knew right when to enter when Triplett’s German shepherd, Thor, was behind a closed door in an upstairs bedroom.

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The Dallas condo where Triplett was killed in 1980 in the middle of a Sunday afternoon. [Kevin Shay photo]

As Triplett spoke on the phone to friend Maurice Grover, he heard a noise at the door like a knock or someone trying to open it. Some accounts claimed Triplett opened the door, while others reported that Patrick used the key.

“Oh,” Grover heard Triplett say into the phone.

Patrick fired at least one shot. A bullet passed through Triplett’s throat and lodged in his head, as Thor barked ferociously from upstairs. The bank executive left a note saying he killed Triplett because he “still loved” Nancy. He then exited the way he came, locking the door.

No one saw Patrick come. No one saw him leave. One woman, a neighbor in a condo about 20 yards away, heard some shots but didn’t think anything of them until two-and-a-half hours later when the area swarmed with police and reporters.

Grover knew something was wrong. He called Triplett back, but no one answered. No one heard Thor barking wildly in the upstairs bedroom. By the time Grover and another friend knocked on Triplett’s door, two hours had passed. They observed blood running under Triplett’s door and couldn’t get the locked door open. After running to a neighboring apartment to call police, officers had to summon animal control to remove Thor from the condo. 6

After Patrick committed his first murder, he drove to Nancy’s house, where she had taken Shane. Patrick informed his estranged wife of Triplett’s sudden death. He emphasized that he had killed him to save their marriage and that it was wrong for Nancy to have a boyfriend, particularly a black boyfriend. 7

An argument followed, and Patrick ran out to his car to get another .25-caliber pistol. Nancy informed Shane of what his stepdad planned to do, then ran out the back door in her bare feet screaming, “Help me! Help me! He’s trying to shoot me!” At least two neighbors heard the cries and laid low while Patrick ran after his wife with the pistol. Shane scurried after them.

Nancy cut through a yard and ran down the street. The owner of the yard was watching a golf tournament and in the corner of his eye saw a man and boy run past the window. He glanced out to see the 12-year-old boy jump on the man and attempt to drag him to the ground. The boy fell off, and the man kept running.

The owner of the house walked from the window to the bedroom to tell his wife. He heard a popping sound like firecrackers. He stayed in the room. “The man had a gun,” he later said. “I knew that was no place for me.”

Meanwhile, Nancy ran through another yard and across an alley to Lovers Lane, a six-lane busy street with a median separating the two sides. Some young men were across the street playing basketball in the parking lot of Zion Lutheran Church. They stopped playing as they heard the women’s screams and saw the man running after her with a gun. One of them later said he first thought it was all a “joke.” 8

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Site on Lovers Lane in Dallas, where Nancy Patrick was shot and killed in 1980 in the middle of this street on a Sunday afternoon. [Kevin Shay photo]

Patrick got close enough to Nancy to fire a shot or two. A witness observed Nancy on her knees in the middle of the busy street, “pleading for her life.” As she fell over, Patrick walked up to her and pumped at least four shots into her back. Police found six empty .25-caliber shells at the scene of the crime. 9

Motorists stopped their cars. People rushed to the aid of Nancy, and a guy ran to a neighbor’s house to call police. Shane lay face-down, pounding the sidewalk, crying. “My daddy killed my mother!” he told a witness. Shane had been the only one in the neighborhood to try to stop the killing. He finally turned to a man and said, “Please, mister, see that [his stepdad] goes to jail.” 10

No one paid much attention to the murderer. Amidst the confusion, he just quietly drifted away. No one tried to stop him. He had a gun. But, what no one except maybe Patrick knew was that his gun was empty. One passing motorist later said Patrick had stood there looking at his gun after the shooting “like he couldn’t believe what was happening.”

The double-murderer ran to his silver Datsun 280Z parked in front of the Patricks’ house and drove to his parents’ house. He told them what he had done and what he planned to do ― finish off his own version of justice. He took his .38-caliber pistol with him and walked out the back door into the backyard.

Ruth Patrick followed, pleading with him not to pull the trigger. But, he knew he couldn’t live with what he had just done. He put the gun to his head and fired his final shot in front of his mother.

A University Park police officer, who had come to the house to inform the elder Patricks of their daughter-in-law’s death, reached the scene seconds after Patrick’s suicide shot. Patrick, 39, died in the ambulance on the way to the hospital. Nancy Patrick, 33, and Triplett, 29, died almost immediately after he shot them.

‘He just did what he felt he had to do’

Two weeks after Don Patrick ended his life and two others, I found myself in front of the scene of the final crime. A short, elderly woman answered my tentative knock on the door of Ruth and James Patrick’s small-but-well-kept residence in University Park.

“Mrs. Patrick?”

“Yes. Can I help you?”

I explained I was a journalist “looking into that triple killing” and wanted to ask some questions. I all-but turned to leave, expecting another slammed door, which I had become used to in the previous few days.

But to my surprise, this lady looked at me curiously. “Well, I guess so. What do you want to know?” Apparently, I was the first journalist bold enough to knock on her door. I sure hadn’t seen her quoted anywhere.

Surprised, I immediately cut to the chase. “Why did your son do it?” That was the million-dollar question that ran through my mind.

She detailed how her son had come to her house and asked her to pray for him. She seemed disdainful that Nancy declined to pray, mentioning with no small measure of disgust that she “loved that black man.” Even though I grew up knowing how to decode racist code words, her refusal to refer to Triplett by name shook me for a few moments. But I didn’t want to make her stop talking by questioning her about that.

After saying how her son’s jealousy caused him to go off the deep end because he “loved Nancy so much,” Ruth Patrick gazed at me and asked, “Are you a Christian?”

Again, I resisted the urge to question her query. “Keep the subject talking” was an axiom drummed into me by numerous journalism professors. “Yes, ma’am,” I answered. I wasn’t sure that was the truth anymore. But I didn’t want to explain to her how I was closer to being a deist or simply “on a break” from all religion.

“Then you pray for him,” she urged. “You pray for us. You pray for Shane. You pray for that black man’s family and kin. Don’s gone now, and I pray that the Lord will forgive him. I think He will.”

She was silent for a moment, then said in a lowered voice, “He just did what he felt he had to do.”

I almost didn’t catch that last sentence. Did what he thought he had to do?

My mind was still reeling from the last statement. I blurted out a question on where Shane was.

“He’s at Nancy’s parents’ house. I just hope he finds some way to deal with this.”

I then mistakenly followed that up by asking where Nancy’s parents’ lived.

“No way I’ll tell you that,” she stated, her voice getting louder. “You stay away from that boy. I’ve told you too much already.”

Slam.

An attorney for the Patricks denied she tried to justify her son’s actions. “I would drop this matter if I were you,” he said. The Patricks later declined to comment further during a second visit to their house that was less cordial than the first.

Others also tried to convince me to let things lie. Carlos Gonzales, the 23-year-old eyewitness to the murder of Nancy who told a reporter that at first he thought the chase scene was a “joke,” claimed he was misquoted. “How were you misquoted?” I asked.

“I don’t want to say,” he replied. “I think you should just drop the whole thing. The people are dead, and nothing’s going to bring them back.”

A neighbor of the Patricks told me I should “find out who shot J.R. [Ewing]” after completing an investigation of this case. But at least he wasn’t among those who slammed the door in my face.

Several neighbors denied knowing the Patricks. That included Triplett’s old SMU coach, Bob Prewitt, who ironically lived right across the street from the Patricks. “I saw him and his wife out a few times, but we didn’t socialize or anything like that,” Prewitt said. He added that he was out-of-town that fateful day and hadn’t talked with Triplett in more than a year.

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Happier times for Ruben Triplett, far left, middle row, and Coach Prewitt, third from left, front row, as co-SWC champs in 1972. [SMU Basketball Twitter post, May 29, 2013]

Prewitt, who played for SMU himself back in the 1940s, became an assistant basketball coach in 1949 and was promoted to head coach in 1967, taking over for the legendary Doc Hayes. Through eight seasons, his teams lost more than they won, with an overall record of 88–115. His best year came in 1972, when Triplett scored 18 points and grabbed 11 rebounds a game to lead SMU to a share of the regular-season Southwest Conference championship with a record of 10–4. Triplett earned first-team All-SWC honors that season. Prewitt was replaced in 1975 by Sonny Allen, who happened to coach a former Richland teammate of mine with the most appropriate basketball name in the world, Ollie Hoops. The Mustangs would not win another SWC title until 1988.

A 1973 story on Prewitt called him “the tall, gentlemanly basketball coach at Southern Methodist, [who] shuns controversy in the same manner he would likely shun a mountain lion who had missed his lunch.” 11

Here Prewitt lived across the street from the guy who murdered one of the best players he coached ― Triplett didn’t advance to the NBA like teammate Ira Terrell, but he played on international pro squads in Europe and South America. Prewitt didn’t seem interested in picking my brain on what I had learned about how his star player had died. Perhaps it was too controversial for him. The situation was weird, but I didn’t find anything sinister with that residential coincidence.

‘Truth will come out in the end’

Working full-time as a security guard in a warehouse for former department store chain Sanger-Harris that summer cut into my investigation time. But the job also introduced me to some people with heart-tugging stories. Fellow guard J.C. West said he had served three years in prison for manslaughter on what he called “trumped-up charges.”

“Three white guys jumped me outside a bar in Seattle,” stated West, an African American who knew karate. “I was just defending myself. One had a knife, and one ended up dying.”

He expressed remorse for that tragedy but added that he really had no choice when it was three-on-one. He had to use all of his training to survive. “All the judge and the jury saw was a black guy killing a white guy, even though they started it,” West said.

I tried to use my present occupation and my father’s former one as an FBI agent to my advantage in getting information from Dallas and University Park police about the triple killing. But on those visits, I gave them more than they shared with me. Some tried to claim that public police reports were confidential; at times, I wondered if they were trying to keep a lid on the case so it didn’t fester into a racist-infused controversy or legal battle.

For several nights, I got off work around 8 p.m. and drove to The Lofts still in my security uniform. On one occasion, resident Mike Greaves detailed other crimes at the complex, including robberies and shootings. “I’ve complained to management and security guards ten or 12 times about punks hanging all over my car late at night,” he said. “Nothing is ever done. I finally took a gun out there myself and waved it at the kids until they left.”

“That sounds like a dangerous situation,” I noted. Not to mention probably illegal, especially if the gun happened to go off. “Why don’t you leave here if it’s the way you say?”

Greaves shrugged. “Somebody’s got to stay and fight this thing. I’ve always believed in meeting a problem head-on. I’ve never been one to run away from anything.”

Dick Thomas, a manager with the complex, said he had just hired a full-time, night security guard. Previously, including the day Triplett was shot, a company patrolled the complex and numerous others by car. Greaves was “a troublemaker,” Thomas said. “If he doesn’t like the way the place is run, he can just leave.”

The killing was a tragedy, but one that “happens everywhere,” Thomas claimed. “Whose fault is it that the woman got shot on Lovers Lane? Is it the Dallas police department’s fault?”

A guard for the patrolling company said he had just gone on duty at 7 p.m. the day Triplett was murdered. Another guard had been on duty since 5 p.m. but hadn’t noticed anything until police carried Triplett’s body away.

Joe Clark, the full-time guard, told me that no one had informed him someone had just been killed in those condos. He found out about it one night while doing foot patrols from a resident working out in the complex exercise room.

“I was glad he informed me of that,” Clark said. “If someone’s killed in the place where I work, I want to know about it.” When Clark confronted his boss over that matter, he had just laughed. “It’s no laughing matter to me. When a man’s killed at a place I work, I want to find out the details and take measures to see it don’t happen again.”

The other guard wasn’t impressed. “You gotta remember that we’re here for the manager’s sake, not the people’s sake,” he said. Then he had to leave to patrol another area ― in his car.

Clark didn’t respond to that statement. But I could tell he didn’t agree with the younger guard. “He only comes through here about every two hours or so,” he said. “Before they hired me, that’s all the security this place had. And that’s not good enough because you can’t protect anything just driving around in a car.”

At his former job at a hospital, the African-American Clark said he was fired about a week before he would have qualified for a pension for supposedly “cussing” at another employee. He told me about his son dying of a knife wound the previous year, his brother-in-law being killed supposedly over a football bet, and a young daughter dying of meningitis. Such tragic events could easily make people bitter and take shortcuts. Yet, that didn’t seem like Clark’s style.

The following day, I ventured by Triplett’s old condo and knocked on the door. A young woman answered and said she had just moved in from Mississippi two days earlier.

“Oh yeah? So what do you think about living in a place where a man was murdered a month ago?”

Her face turned pale. “A man was murdered here!?” she shrieked. “No one told me anything about that. The owner said a murder had taken place around here, but he didn’t say it was in this place.”

“Well, the killer can’t bother you. He killed himself.” I tried to change the subject, asking how she liked Dallas. She still seemed shocked.

“I have to go. I’m going to go get a bolt for my door.”

After working later than usual, I ended up at The Lofts again, finding Clark near the pool. He sought more details about the Triplett case — he also thought there was more to it than jealousy. “A man doesn’t shoot another without some deep-felt rage,” Clark said. “Then to go and kill his wife in front of his son and himself in front of his mother. Something doesn’t add up…. Racism, psychological problems. There is something else there.”

We talked about many subjects ― the Mafia, Olympic boycott, presidential election, gun control, lost ideals ― as I walked with him around the complex. He never asked why I spent so much time there; I guess a strange guy in security garb hanging out at a murder scene, asking questions about a case the authorities classified as solved, made as much sense as anything.

Numerous security lights were turned off or burned out. Four model condos were left unlocked, likely by careless salespeople. More than half of the condos were unoccupied, Clark said. One had its door wide open and didn’t have a doorknob. “I’ve reported that door having no lock or doorknob ever since I started working here,” he said. “They’re slow here.”

Suddenly, Clark motioned for me to be quiet and pointed to a second-floor window that had been removed. A light was on in the condo. He quietly climbed the stairs and peered in the window. He then pulled his gun and disappeared through the unlocked door. After what seemed like an eternity, he emerged.

“I have to chase out people from these empty condos all the time,” Clark said. “The guy in this one must have moved in. There was a frying pan in there and some food. I’ll have to come back and chase him out when he comes back.”

Some squatters offered him money to let them stay in the empty rooms. But he never accepted it. He always made them leave. The man who risked his life here for $4.50 an hour ― as much as I made at Sanger-Harris guarding clothes and workers ― didn’t look the other way.

Back at the pool, the conversation turned to Jim Jones and his cult that had resulted in almost 1,000 deaths in 1978, mostly by mass poisoning. “He started out with a good idea, trying to build a community that had people’s interests at heart,” noted Clark. Jones had supported integration and equal rights for African Americans earlier than most, and his church initially attracted praise from civil rights leaders. “But he went power-crazy. That always seems to happen.”

Still, Clark wasn’t ready to give up on a similar dream. “I wish I had about a million dollars or so. I’d purchase me a piece of land out West or somewhere that no one was around. I’d start my own town with decent, honest people who cared about others,” he said, his eyes getting a bit misty. “I’d build a general store, a bank, a hotel, maybe even a bar ― you gotta have someplace to go to get a little crazy. I’d have one of those old-fashioned towns like in the Wild West. On Saturdays, we’d have picnics like the kind I went to as a boy where everyone would just come and eat and drink and have a good time.”

I stood there listening to Clark describe his Utopian town, steps away from the place where a month earlier one of SMU’s top hoopsters was gunned down. Crickets chirped in the grass near the pool. A cool breeze swept over us, contrasting with another steamy-hot day that would start in a few hours. Nearby, someone committed a crime. Others cried over losing a home, a job, a loved one. But in those wee morning hours, I remained focused on listening to this middle-aged security guard ― who had seen more heartache in his life than most ― holding fast to a childhood vision.

It was weird. I barely knew this man who was at least twice my age. But we had bonded quickly over something more than our security badges. Stifling a yawn, I wondered what would happen if Clark somehow scraped together the money to pursue his dream. Would it become compromised, like Eden, Brook Farm, La Reunion, Oneida, Jonestown? Or would it become like the minority to survive, if only in a substantially different form?

Clark must have read my thoughts. “But all that’s pretty foolish. Someone would come in and mess it up somehow.”

I looked at my watch. 3 a.m. I had been there five hours. “Well, Joe, I wish I could stay longer. I have to get up early in the morning.”

“You better get going.” He shook my hand as firmly as the day we met. “Thanks for keeping me company out here for awhile. And thanks… for listening to an old man.”

“Sure, it was great.” I smiled. “You’re not so old.” I wanted to tell him not to change, to keep working honestly against adversity, to hold fast to his dream. I wanted to ask if he really believed that his efforts would be worthwhile. In 1980, such questions seemed to make more sense to discuss than in 2018. You found more people willing to discuss them, even those you wouldn’t think would do so, like a hardened, gun-toting security guard.

But I didn’t tell him. Maybe I didn’t really believe in dreams enough, not even at age 21 when that was about all I seemingly had. I didn’t ask. Maybe I didn’t want to know the answer, not in 1980 when life was still full of wide-open possibilities, even when you were investigating some God-forsaken tragedy that made you want to give up on the human race most days.

I started to climb into my 1972 Pontiac LeMans. “Hey!” Clark yelled at me from across the parking lot. “Don’t let go of your quest. I’ll keep asking around. The truth will come out in the end.”

I stood there for a few moments, trying to think of an appropriate response. “Thanks, Joe,” I finally managed, weakly. Maybe he knew what I wanted to tell him without me saying anything. I got in the car and drove away.

Epilogue

That was the last time I would see Joe Clark. I soon moved back to Denton for my senior year of college and confronted new mysteries and challenges.

In the nearly four decades since that triple killing, I would continue to question everything, to write about many more tragedies and triumphs, disasters and heart-warming stories. I would walk across the U.S. and Europe to Russia in 18 months. I would drive my kids across the country and back in 17 days. I would befriend Roy, another older African-American former hoopster about my height, and we would form a bond that would result in a Howard Zinn-inspired book on Dallas history from the view of the disenfranchised. I would meet presidents and homeless folks, celebrities and people who shunned the spotlight, yahoos who yelled at me to move my car and kinder souls who stopped to help change a flat tire, cynical criminals and adults who still believed in Santa Claus.

But I would get no closer to figuring out why senseless tragedies like the 1980 one involving Triplett and the Patricks continue to occur. I would get no closer to figuring out how to prevent them, other than to live your life in an actual bubble. I didn’t want to give up on finding answers. But perhaps one’s survival ultimately came down to something as random as luck. Maybe the most important concept in life is to live each moment like it’s your last.

Perhaps that was what I was doing during those few weeks when I investigated that triple killing, which culminated with helping Joe Clark get through another graveyard shift at the complex where Don Patrick gunned down Ruben Triplett in a fit of rage, insanity, racism, and jealousy the previous month. I lived without fear, knocking on anyone’s door in pursuit of answers, of truth. As a lowly college student, I chased the story longer and farther than anyone else, doing so while working full-time at another job and trying to have some fun in the last summer of my youth. That pursuit, of course, culminated with more questions than answers. I ran into more brick walls.

When I first read about the triple killing, I immediately thought it was racially charged. The stories I read largely ignored this factor, at least openly. Many assumed Triplett was engaging in an affair with another man’s wife, which was not really the case since they were separated. If a middle-aged, white banker had been dating the estranged Nancy Patrick, I doubt Don Patrick would have gunned him down on a Sunday afternoon. He might have reported him to the IRS to trigger an audit or let the air out of the tires to his Mercedes-Benz.

But killing him in cold blood in his own condo and calmly leaving a note as his dog went wild upstairs, then murdering his own wife in front of numerous witnesses who included his stepson, then killing himself in front of his mother? Would jealousy alone drive a respected banker to do all that?

When Patrick was born in the 1940s, white men ruled Dallas and most American cities with iron grips after they took down the more outwardly racist tyrant Hitler. Between the late 19th century and 1970, Texas led the nation in the number of white people lynched and was third behind Georgia and Mississippi in blacks lynched. Many black victims were accused, but not tried, of sexually assaulting white women, while numerous white people were targeted for being sympathetic to, or intimately involved with, African Americans. 12

“Whites’ fear of sexual contact between black men and white women was pervasive and led to many lynchings,” reported Earth Justice Initiative. “Charges of rape, while common, were ‘routinely fabricated’ and often extrapolated from minor violations of the social code, such as ‘paying a compliment’ to a white woman, expressing romantic interest in a white woman, or cohabitating interracially.” The mobs often stripped and castrated victims before further torturing, hacking, hanging, burning or boiling them until they finally died. 13

The Dallas of Patrick’s and his parent’s time was different in numerous ways from the one today. Dallas did not even have an African-American City Council or School Board member until the late 1960s. The city did not choose a minority manager until 1986, while the school district did not hire a minority superintendent until 1988. The large civil rights demonstrations seen in Birmingham and Atlanta and Montgomery and other Southern cities largely bypassed Dallas, thanks in no small part to deals made between black preachers and the city’s white power elite. The remnants of slavery and Jim Crow racism would long remain entrenched in this city, from the statue of Confederate leader Robert E. Lee that didn’t come down until 2017 and strong black officials targeted by federal investigations, to the policies and voting habits that still enable the City Council to be 60 percent white while the population is two-thirds minority. 14

In 1980, an attitude that whites are inherently better than blacks remained ingrained in many longtime white Dallas residents, especially older ones. No one I interviewed came out and said Patrick was a racist, but more than a few surmised that race was a factor that drove him to do what he did. The reports that Patrick told his estranged wife it was particularly bad having a “black boyfriend,” Patrick’s mother referring to the celebrated SMU athlete who her son ruthlessly struck down only as “that black man,” and other clues lent some hints of confirmation. Was there an element of racism in the Dallas Police choosing not to arrest or detain Patrick for peering into a black guy’s place wearing a disguise? Had a suspicious black man peeped into a white-owned home, it’s likely he would be arrested. Especially in 1980 Dallas.

Some psychologists might conclude that Patrick’s temporary madness, insane jealousy, and deep-seated rage came from a subconscious, triggered reaction to the racist code words and symbols of his conservative upbringing. Patrick was successful in his education, successful in his career, but the one person ― in his mind ― standing between him being successful in his family life was a brash, womanizing, athletic, young black man, who symbolized the “uppity n-words” who the outstanding citizens from Patrick’s parents’ days lynched.

With racism also goes sexism. Patrick expected his wife to come crawling back to him, and when she didn’t and dared to continue seeing Triplett, that likely added to his rage. Did this banker really need to pump four more shots into his wife, not caring who was observing, once he already felled her with a bullet? Such actions go beyond mere jealousy.

So does it matter that race played a role in killing Ruben Triplett — and Nancy Patrick — almost four decades ago? Dead is dead, some will argue. Why dredge up the past and open sore wounds?

As for resurrecting the past, that continues to regularly be done by SMU and Galesburg High School since Triplett was a significant contributor to their basketball programs. In 2007, members of the 1972 basketball team ― one of just 13 SMU men’s hoops teams in 76 seasons to win a Southwest Conference title ― were recognized during a football game between the Mustangs and North Texas as part of the university’s Lettermen’s Reunion Weekend. Triplett, the only SMU player to earn first-team All-SWC honors that year, not being there left a major hole.

Galesburg High has honored the two-time All-State Triplett several times posthumously, including with the Hall of Fame induction in 2009. In early 2018, the 1968 team that, led by Triplett, finished second in the Illinois playoffs was recognized at a game. “Ruben was the only team member who had died,” noted Tom Wilson, a local historian who has broadcast Silver Streaks games for more than four decades and writes for the Galesburg Register-Mail.

Triplett, who had eight siblings, is buried in a cemetery in Galesburg, a city where numerous family members still reside. Nancy Patrick and Don Patrick are buried in Dallas.

Ultimately, it’s our responsibility to see that the truth is not buried with them. If we really believe that the truth will set you free in a society that seeks to protect concepts like “liberty and justice for all,” we must have the guts to pursue that truth and set the historical record straight whenever possible, damn the consequences. And we must take steps to address and fix whatever issues that truth unearths.

Otherwise, we are merely playing Yahtzee against an opponent who always wins.

Image for post
Triplett’s obituary in the Galesburg Register-Mail. [Fair Use]

Notes

  1. Married Couples by Race and Hispanic Origin of Spouses: 1980 to 2009,” Table 60, U.S. Census Bureau, Statistical Abstract of the United States: 2011; Yanyi K. Djamba and Sitawa R. Kimuna, “Are Americans Really in Favor of Interracial Marriage? A Closer Look at When They Are Asked About Black-White Marriage for Their Relatives.” Journal of Black Studies, July 10, 2014; Gretchen Livingston and Anna Brown, “Intermarriage in the U.S. 50 Years After Loving v. Virginia.” Pew Research Center, May 2017.
  2. Allen Pusey, “Triplett on phone when shot.” Dallas Times Herald, July 28, 1980.
  3. Travis Brown, “Banker kills spouse, ex-SMU star, himself.” Dallas Times Herald, July 28, 1980.
  4. Mary Barrineau, “Patrick moody, quiet, shocked neighbors say.” Dallas Times Herald, July 28, 1980.
  5. Pusey, op. cit.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Brad Bailey, “Triple killing triggers more questions than answers.” The Dallas Morning News, July 29, 1980.
  8. Brown, op. cit.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Ibid.
  11. “While Prewitt returns to Mustang drawing board.” UPI, March 5, 1973.
  12. “Lynching, Whites & Negroes, 1882 -1968.” Tuskegee University report, 2010.
  13. “Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror.” Earth Justice Initiative, Bryan Stevenson, Director, 2015.
  14. Roy H. Williams and Kevin James Shay, And Justice For All: The Untold History of Dallas. CGS Communications, 2000.

Written by

Written for 45+ newspapers/mags. Written some books — see https://www.amazon.com/Kevin-J.-Shay/e/B004BCQRTG. Visited 48 states, 30+ countries.

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