In the last summer of my youth, I should have been getting drunk and chasing women. Instead, I found Jesus and pursued a triple-killing investigation.
A grimy mixture of marijuana smoke, sweat, and body odor engulfed the Volkswagen Beetle on this steamy June evening.
Dean and I had just spent a fruitless few hours in the Bachman Lake-area discos, trying to meet women significantly younger and less attached than the one we presently encountered. Our journey from there led to this parking lot in the northwest Dallas neighborhood comprised mostly of strip joints and adult bookstores with their peep-show and glory-hole booths.
Dean Beasley didn’t need to get women high to attract them. He also didn’t need to meet them in a porn shop parking lot. But then, neither did I.
The previous Summer of ‘79 featured a seemingly endless array of clubhouse parties at the North Dallas apartment complex where we lived for a few months to get away from our parents’ houses, where Everclear flowed from fountains and attendees wore little, if anything. I don’t remember much about that summer — hell, I don’t even remember the name of the complex so let’s call it the Everclear Apartments. I do recall that I starred in the most epic jungle-rules water volleyball games of my life there. And it was incredibly easy to meet women at those parties.
But a year later, that scene seemed like ancient history. Here we were, outside a grimy porn shop, trying to decide whether to accept an offer from an older married swinger. As someone once said, the road to Hell is paved with good intentions and bad decisions. In our case, it was just bad decisions.
In a certain light, Dean could have been mistaken for Mac Davis, another Texas-born icon who played a Don Meredith-like quarterback in North Dallas 40, a raunchy film inspired by a ground-breaking novel by former Dallas Cowboys receiver Peter Gent. Dean, who had the well-built body, blue eyes, and curly hair to match Seth Maxwell, wanted to act like Davis. He would have killed to play a role like Davis did in that movie. Kurt, a friend who formed a facetious Campus Kings fraternity at a local community college, gave Dean a nickname that was part-sarcastic, part-serious: “Nation’s Top Hustler.” Kurt also came up with one of the best retorts to a young woman who says, “No, thank you,” when you ask her to dance in a club: “Don’t thank me, thank God someone asked you to dance.”
To Dean, when the woman in the next car offered him a joint, it would be downright impolite to say no. It didn’t matter that her husband was inside the porn place, probably masturbating to some Debbie Does Dallas ripoff as they spoke.
“I’m a romantic at heart,” Dean told his new friend after some small talk. That included his story about how he obtained an honorable discharge from the U.S. Air Force after telling his supervisor that the military lifestyle — with its hazing, screaming officers, and menial tasks — sucked.
The woman laughed. “Oh yeah?” She gazed into his eyes. “Want to get romantic in Grand Prairie?”
“Yeeeeooowww!” yelped Dean. “What do you have in mind, exactly?”
She got out, exposing more of her ample bosom, and leaned against Dean’s Bug. “Whatever you like, darlin’.” She glanced at me. “Your friend can join us, if he wants.” Then she focused on the porn shop. “I have to wait for my husband, though. He likes to watch. I’ll go check on him now.” She turned back to us. “Don’t you go anywhere, darlin’.”
As she walked off, Dean nudged me. “Ha! This could be really interesting, huh, Kev?”
“Could be.” I was curious and a little turned on. OK, a lot turned on. After all, I was 21. But I was also mature enough to know I didn’t really want to play exhibitionist role games. And I didn’t feel like being in the middle of a ménage a trois with one of my best buddies. Talk about awkward. “You don’t know what they might do,” I warned.
Dean thought for a few seconds, then laughed, “Well, hell,” he drawled, “I guess I don’t want some old guy poking me in the ass while I’m trying to pork his wife!” He nudged me, letting out another trademark “Yeooowww!”
“Yeah, Dean,” I replied. “That shit would cramp your style.”
When Swinging Susie returned, Dean let her down easy. I glanced back at her as we drove off. Her face still wore a dejected look. But Dean was all smiles. “Hey, I got her number!” he exclaimed, nudging me again. “Yeeeooowwww!”
From Jackass Landscaping to guarding boxes
It was the Summer of ‘80. The relatively carefree days of Carterism, college grants, disco, Olympic boycotts, and free love were on their last legs. Reaganism, weighty university loans, MTV, nuclear proliferation, and AIDS were about to crash society in cynical, mind-numbing waves.
I had one more year left at the University of North Texas, which then was called North Texas State University. This summer was my last big hurrah before having to confront the Real World. Of course, I didn’t know what the hell I wanted to do, not with a career, not with a romance, not with my life. I had tried to play college basketball until a bum knee blew that pipe dream. I wrote for my college newspapers and a local daily but wasn’t sure I wanted to spend my career doing that. I had tried to date a few young women until I neglected to call them soon enough, or called too soon — I usually had to use my mom’s phone in the kitchen where everyone could listen to your conversation or a pay phone where some jerk would be yelling at you to get the hell off it. So I wasted my time in discos and worse, searching for something that seemed unattainable and idiotic, yet necessary to get on with your life.
The summer had started innocently enough. Dean and two other UNT buddies, Steve and Martin, decided it’d be a great idea to run our own landscaping business, rather than seek real summer jobs. I went along because I didn’t really feel like looking for work, even though I desperately needed the money. Of course, we didn’t realize that our actual combined knowledge of running a business and landscaping could fit on a pinhead until we were almost a month into the summer.
So we spent most of our time driving around in Martin’s roomy pickup truck, drinking, watching Martin bite the skin off his fingers, and trying to get Dean to stop smoking pot so much. Dean was ahead of his time. He worked out more than any of us and took health supplements and drank these God-awful protein shakes filled with all kinds of shit, among the pot.
As for Jackass Landscaping Co., we landed one good job during the entire month of its existence. That was when we had to rent a tiller. Of course, we didn’t know how much it cost to rent a tiller, so a significant chunk of our profits was lost there. And our client called me when the job wasn’t quite up to his satisfaction. I had to drive back up there by myself and do some tilling and shit. That’s when I realized it was time to hit the newspaper want-ads — that’s right, there were no Craigslists or Facebooks or Monsters or Indeeds in those days. It was the Dark Ages.
So we decided to shutdown Jackass Landscaping for good. Steve had smartly bailed out earlier than anyone, landing a teller job at a bank. Martin started working somewhere, doing something mysterious, probably for a distant relative. He was Italian and had grown up in New Orleans, so we kidded him about his Mafia connections. Dean entered the lucrative industry of liquor store management. I guess our arguments against pot did get through on some level.
Me, I answered an ad for a store detective, one of those sunglass-wearing nerds who walks around a retail outlet and spots people shoplifting, kind of like a corporate hall monitor. This was also before most retailers installed elaborate security-camera systems. So actual people would patrol stores, posing as shoppers, trying to catch some kid sipping on a Coke or Granny lifting bladder-control pads.
I was impressive enough at the interview for Sanger-Harris — the Dallas-based department store had formed in 1961 with the merger of longtime local chains Sanger Bros. and A. Harris. In seven years, Sanger-Harris would be history itself, gobbled up by Houston-based Foley’s, which absorbed into some Ohio company in 2005 that eventually became part of Macy’s. The manager had a job for me — it just wasn’t my first choice. He thought I was way too tall to be a good undercover shoplifting agent, and he was probably right. Another dream dashed, along with the boyhood dream of being a jockey and astronaut.
The warehouse security guard position turned out to be ideal “because all I have to do is sit around and check employees’ IDs,” I wrote on June 28, 1980, in a journal I kept that summer. In 1837, transcendentalist leader and writer Ralph Waldo Emerson encouraged 20-year-old Henry David Thoreau to write a journal. I was ahead of Thoreau’s timeline, having started my first journal when I was 10, though it only lasted four days. But at times since then, the habit stuck for a few weeks. We didn’t have Twitter or Instagram or ICQ or Reddit to vent and broadcast our inner-most thoughts to the universe then. We had to put them down on paper. And then hope our siblings or parents didn’t find them.
I didn’t exactly go through extensive clothes and boxes-watching training to get that job. I knew enough not to let some crazed gun nut walk by without a few questions. But I couldn’t really spot a fake ID from a real one. I was good at remembering people’s faces, though. Most people at work were friendly enough. A cute woman with streaked blonde hair sometimes came to work early to sit in my chair and talk — as I stood around and tried to look busy. “I kind of feel for her since she has two jobs and probably has to struggle to make ends meet,” I wrote.
A pretty, young black woman with frosted hair always smiled really big as she passed. I usually found some excuse to stop her and talk. I thought about asking her out and wondered how that would be received in 1980 Dallas, a city where the goddamned charter had an official “segregation of the races” clause as late as 1969. A city where the fucking KKK still could march through downtown without inciting a riot. A city where minorities made up 80 percent of those in poverty. “The blacks probably wouldn’t give us much trouble; they’d probably just sit there and go, ‘Hey man, that’s cool. You finally got smart’,” I wrote. “It’s the whites who would react funny.”
One fellow guard in particular impacted me. J.C. West knew karate and had served time for manslaughter for what he said was trumped-up charges mixed with racism. His case inspired me enough to write a poem. Between checking IDs, monitoring the warehouse grounds on video screens, and writing heart-felt, questionable-quality poetry, I read books such as Bob Woodward’s and Carl Bernstein’s All the President’s Men, Studs Terkel’s Talking to Myself, John Fuller’s The Ghost of Flight 401, Ruth Montgomery’s A Search for the Truth, and Anthony Summers’ Conspiracy. Each book deepened my knowledge and opened up new ideas. Woodward and Bernstein’s and Terkel’s cemented my will to pursue journalism professionally to expose corruption for the benefit of that mythical person in the street. Summers’ disclosed more of the web that took out JFK, which had interested me since the 1978 day I met a witness in the cramped Richland College newspaper office.
Fuller’s and Montgomery’s sent me on a “chase into the world of psychic phenomena. If people can really contact spirits, then that can open up a whole new world for mankind,” I gushed in the journal. I had this idea to contact the spirits of Oswald and Ruby and JFK to find out the truth in that assassination. That would be weird, wild stuff, as Johnny Carson said.
Montgomery’s book in particular resulted in me trying to meditate and go back to church in search of deeper religious awakenings. I didn’t particularly care if they were the Pentecostal fire and brimstone variety or the New Age wacko stuff. My older sister’s death when I was five had spooked me enough to long read books on the afterlife and wonder what came after this world. “I often think of what will happen after I die,” I wrote in a journal on Jan. 25, 1974. “I don’t want to just lay in [the] ground forever and ever. I believe in reincarnation kind of. I think God takes our dead spirit and places it in a new-born babies’ body.” Then I resumed mostly writing about athletic conquests and junior high bullies.
My 1980 journal was a little more focused on the topic. “Mrs. Montgomery uses meditation and spirit writing to find out certain clues behind the life after death question. It really confirmed my faith in God and the spirit world,” I wrote on June 28. “All along I thought life has more meaning than getting drunk and going to schools and parties, working at a boring 9–5 job and having sex.”
I wrote about trying to meditate and do spirit writing, where your words are supposedly influenced by unseen forces. But a day later, I decided to stop the spirit writing since “I read that if you start too quick and get hasty in your development, bad spirits can come and take over your body… I’ll really have to remember that. I don’t want to be possessed.”
See, I wasn’t completely clueless.
Freaking out friends with religious talk
After spending most of the first month in the Summer of ’80 drinking and chasing women with little luck, my latest investigation into religion didn’t exactly impress my friends. “I really freaked out two good friends,” I wrote on June 29. “Steve and Dean thought I had gone crazy when I laid all that heavy life after death stuff on them. They kept making jokes and saying I was just going through a phase but I know I’m not.”
Of course, I was, at least partially. But in the Summer of ’80, I didn’t know any better than what was in front of my nose at any given moment. I continued to vow to go to church more and “carry out my life’s mission to the fullest so my soul will progress that much more.” Someone up there had to be keeping score, I thought, and I played every game to win, even the religious ones.
On the same evening I talked religion, I met a young woman from California who was seeing Rick, another UNT friend. We had clicked in a short conversation, and her home state intrigued me as one where I might want to live someday. “I hope I get to see her again as she was really good looking and nice… I sure would like to date her.” The battle between my earthy and higher natures was raging. Help me, Jesus.
On a blistering hot day, Dad provided some unexpected guidance. We met at White Rock Lake and spent the afternoon walking around the water where numerous organized criminals had dumped weapons, perhaps even bodies, feeding birds, watching sailboats. “He really enjoys just going out there and sitting and being out in nature as I do,” I wrote.
He and Mom had divorced a couple years earlier, which was a popular trend. In 1979, Dallas and Houston shared the title of the Divorce Capital of the country, more than double the rate of New York City. Experts theorized the high number of younger people and mobility were the main reasons Texas couples split so much. I figured they had more time to argue and get bored here, and there seemed to be more people concerned with materialism.
It was tough going from a three-bedroom, two-car garage, single-family house that Dad had bought for $26,000 in 1965 to an efficiency apartment, even if the latter did feature some decent water volleyball games. Like the previous summer, I played those games with a vengeance, taking out disco-crazed frustrations on my opponents. The games were far more tame than those at Everclear Apartments, where I grabbed the net against 20-somethings bigger and almost as tall as me. At Dad’s place, most players were at least a decade older than me. In that pool, I was clearly the King of the Net.
Dad spoke that afternoon about how he had been going to a Protestant church regularly, “getting right with the Lord.” He had stopped attending Catholic church when I was in high school, saying he was tired of listening to talks about saving souls as they urged you to “give more money to God.” I stopped going as well, saying if Dad didn’t have to go, neither did I. A magnet stuck on a tin can on my desk proclaimed, “Read the Bible ― it’ll scare the hell out of you.” A postcard taped to the can depicted Mad Magazine mascot Alfred E. Neuman’s face with the words, “What, me worry?” Up to that summer, those relics had pretty much summed up my views of religion and life. Something was changing, I just knew it.
In my younger days, I felt proud when I told the neighborhood gang that Dad was a G-Man as we watched The FBI and other television crime shows. Most of them didn’t believe me. Another kid on the block had an FBI father who sometimes commuted to work with Dad, but he was younger than me and we rarely crossed paths. No one else’s father had such a celebrated profession.
Then Dad quit when I was 10, and his subsequent truck-driving career did not score near as many points with my friends. There was a time in ninth and tenth grade when we barely talked. I blamed mostly him for everything going wrong around me, the arguments with Mom, the tension between them, the pressures of school, basketball, money, dating, growing up. “I got [Mom] a salt and pepper shaker,” I wrote in January 1974. “My dad didn’t give Mom a birthday present.”
A couple months later, I further explained, “Dad says that I hate him because he makes me do stuff and I resent it. That’s not it. It’s because he’s so nosy and acts weird in front of my friends and says stupid things.” You know, the kind of logic that makes sense to a 14-year-old and no one else.
But by 1980, I understood a bit more about the complexities of male-female relationships. Not that much more, but a little. “Our relationship has gotten a lot better since I went through that weird phase,” I wrote that night. “Now I realize that he has my best interests at heart. I’m glad I realized this before it was too late.”
Parties, protein shakes, and shit
The parties at Dad’s old home that younger sister Kathy and I threw that summer when Mom was out of town visiting her relatives became legendary. It seemed like we had found an unlimited supply of kegs, and an unlimited supply of teens and 20-somethings within a few square miles had found our residence.
At one boisterous affair, Dallas Times Herald journalist Jim Henderson, who lived two houses down, punched a drunk kid who insulted his wife. That incident “was great,” I wrote. Henderson and I bonded over that and more.
By early July, I had sworn off such parties and nightclubs while in the midst of one. “Oh sure, you big dummy, you’re going to stop going to these places,” Dean taunted.
“I am,” I almost yelled. “I’m going to go to work busting up the Mafia and the CIA. Those assholes took out Kennedy.”
Dean laughed. “You sure are drunk, you big dummy. Your ego is more overinflated than usual tonight…. Someday, you’ll learn.”
Dean might have been more California than even me. At our regular workout at the University of Texas at Dallas weight room the following day, Dean talked to another guy he just met about protein shakes and shit for what seemed like an hour. Since I was ready to leave, I tried to break up the discussion by asking the other dude, “So do you have a blender where you put milk, protein powder, ice cream, wheat germ, alfalfa sprouts, barley, and other shit into it, too?”
Dean got pissed. “You bitch! You just aren’t that serious about working out.” But my scheme worked, for they finally departed. As he left, Dean shook the other guy’s hand, saying, “I’m Dean.”
His new partner’s eyes lit up. “I’m Dean, too.”
I maintained my wits, even with a slight hangover. I shook Dean II’s hand, saying, “And I’m Dean, three.”
Dean I was still peeved. “Don’t listen to what he says,” he motioned at me. “He’s a journalism major. And a Gemini.”
It wasn’t long before we were all — Dean I, II, and III — in some disco-turned-Cowboy-club called Diamond Jim’s in the Old Town area of Greenville Avenue. The lure of the night’s neon lights, the excitement of not knowing what lay ahead, was addicting. At least it was more interesting than staying home reading the Bible and writing in the journal.
That evening, Martin’s latest girlfriend, Nancy, was “really mad” at Dean I because he had said he wanted to meet a friend of hers there. Well, the girl came, but by that time, Dean I and II had hooked up with some divorced women at the bar.
And I was deep in conversation with a Kansas City newcomer about the JFK assassination and spooks. She surprised me because she knew a lot about those subjects. When I told her about my plans to crusade against the Mafia and CIA, she retorted, “I’ll look forward to reading your obituary in the papers.”
KC even bought me some beers. I offered to pay for them, but she said, “Haven’t you ever heard of women’s lib?” I didn’t want to admit how little I had followed the women’s movement to that point, especially if she was buying. I smiled and raised a glass.
At one point, KC left to go to the restroom and Nancy asked what I was doing with her when she was there with a friend. “Oh, just hustling this babe, here,” I replied, trying to be funny. That didn’t improve her mood. At one time, Nancy said I was “sweet,” but Dean clued her in to my other Gemini side that was more blunt and sarcastic, particularly as I drank. She didn’t much care for that side and soon left. I couldn’t blame her.
It wasn’t long before Dean broke up my budding romance with KC by handing me the keys to his Volkswagen. “But Dean, I’ve never driven a shift,” I protested.
His eyes lit up. “You’ll learn, bitch. You gotta do it. I got a hot one here.”
He was right. I did learn. I only had to grind the gears a few times and pushed it backwards once when I couldn’t find reverse. I had gotten KC’s number, but when I called her two days later, she acted as if she didn’t know me. Maybe she didn’t like me leaving. Maybe our budding romance was just one of those alcohol-fueled, temporary flirt-fests that wore off like a hangover. Maybe I waited a day too long to call. Maybe she was “waiting for John Travolta to come along and take her away to Fantasy Island,” I wrote.
The next day, Dean was in such bad shape that he and another friend, Ken, lost to Steve and me in tennis in two straight sets. We had the advantage since Dean had been smoking pot and Ken was still drinking.
Meeting a mentor and doing the Lord’s work
The pool around Martin’s family place at the Summit Apartments — which were within walking distance of the Greenville Avenue nightlife — became our center of activity that summer. Martin met Nancy there. We smoked pot, though I mostly passed. The water volleyball games weren’t even as competitive as the ones at Dad’s place, but what the hell.
At times, some young black kids played during lull periods, which pissed off many of the older white people taking a break. One time, some whites told the black kids to “get lost.” I responded by jumping in and integrating their games. The reaction on the older folks’ faces was priceless. Dean later told me, “You really get off on those ‘homes.’ I don’t know anyone who gets off on them so much.”
I had befriended one of the few black kids in my elementary school back in the ’60s. In fourth grade when we had to write a paragraph on “the person that I want to be like,” most classmates chose a parent, preacher, or white athlete like Don Meredith or Bob Lilly. I chose Bob Hayes, one of the first black players on the Cowboys. “I don’t care about the color of anyone’s skin,” I wrote. After all, many white people hung out at pools trying to darken their skin. Why should I hate someone for something stupid like skin color?
A few weeks earlier, Martin had introduced me to retired journalist Jim Erwin, who happened to live in his complex. A longtime reporter for the Associated Press and various newspapers, Erwin was impressed with the clips I showed him. “So many people are assholes,” he told me in a drunken haze one afternoon. “You,” he pointed at me, looking crazily like an older Neuman, “you are different. You use your head. You think.”
“Thanks,” I replied. “I try to think. I mean, if you don’t think in college, where are you going to think?”
He laughed and took another gulp of bourbon. We talked about many subjects, including ones that are supposed to be taboo like religion and politics. He thought the Bible was mostly a hoax; I didn’t quite agree. I thought it had been written by men who were inspired by a higher power. Sure, men had changed the book at times, but it was still worth the read. Jim liked the Old Testament better than the New Testament. “There is a purpose to religion,” Jim said. “A lot of people would do worse things if they weren’t in church every Sunday.” He had a point.
I had been reading a book by evangelical minister Norman Vincent Peale. Of course, I didn’t know how close he was with Nixon and other political criminals. In my still-developing mind, I liked quotes that he related, such as “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” Jim, of course, thought Peale was fake and in it only for the money. I argued that he still relates some good information and inspires a few people, even if he did get a boatload of money and justify Nixon’s behavior.
Jim advised me to buy some boots and “go out on the town and be the biggest guy in town.” I told him I had done that and found it mostly to be a waste of time. He said I should read Karl Marx, among others, though Jim certainly was not a communist. “Expose yourself to as many different viewpoints as you can,” he said. “You’re only young once.” He encouraged me to start writing a book, even while in college.
We were both fans of Thomas Wolfe. Jim gave me a card with one of the writer’s quotes on it: “Each of us is all the sums he has not counted: subtract us into the nakedness and night again, and you shall see begin in Crete four thousand years ago the love that ended yesterday in Texas.” I liked it so much I kept the card for decades before it got lost in one of many moves.
As I left, Jim not only hugged me but tried to kiss me on the lips. That kind of shocked me. “A handshake would suffice,” I recoiled.
“But I always kiss my kids hello and good-bye,” he replied.
“Yeah, well, I’m not really comfortable with that.” I later told Dean, Steve, and Martin about that incident. Big mistake. For the rest of that summer, they asked me how my “lover” was every stinking chance they got. But Jim would become a valuable mentor.
After leaving Jim’s, I knocked on Nancy’s door. I apologized for being aloof when she and her friend were at Diamond Jim’s. “I don’t know what comes over me in those places,” I said. “I don’t act like myself in them.”
“Oh, it’s OK,” she smiled, taking a long drag from a joint and handing it to me. I acted like I puffed on it, then returned the doobie. She looked at me closer through the haze. “You’re a nice guy, Kevin. You need to settle down with a nice girl.”
I laughed. “I need to do a lot of things.” Like change the subject. “Have you heard from Martin?” Martin seemed to be out of town at his mystery job a lot lately.
“We speak most every day. He stays so busy.”
“Yeah, busy. Doing what, drinking?”
She laughed. “Who knows?” She motioned at me to sit with her on the couch. I could tell she got lonely, but I wasn’t going against the “bros before hoes” code.
“I have to get going.” I looked away. “There’s always something to do.” She hugged me closely, then I was free.
I hated that many guys seemed to use women merely for one thing. I hadn’t done that near as much as I tried to do that and vowed, once again, to quit trying. “Where have the morals gone?” I raged in my journal that evening. “Where are the family lives? What happened to good old common decency?”
The following evening, Ken called and wanted to do something. We met at a bar called Magoo’s. I had grown up with Ken, who lived three houses down. We were best friends until we drifted apart somewhat in junior high, when he made the football and basketball teams and I didn’t. He attended the University of Texas, and I had visited him, taking my first trip to Hippie Hollow, a legal nudist beach at Lake Travis. We hadn’t participated ourselves; we were just there to check out the scene. I was always up for checking out places I hadn’t been.
On this evening, I felt comfortable enough to tell Ken about my perceived religious awakening. “I don’t really like to even drink much anymore,” I said. “There has to be more to life.”
Ken looked at me hard, like he was seeing me for the first time. “That’s amazing, Kev. I know how you feel. I get tired of the bar scene myself. Most of the people in Austin are really immoral, drinking, partying, having sex in public. I really can’t stand it. I want to get back to God.”
I nodded. “I want to spread the word through writing somehow. I don’t know exactly how. But I want to do some good.” I asked him if he had read a story about a nicely-dressed young male hitchhiker picked up near Little Rock, Ark. He would tell the drivers, “Jesus is coming,” then suddenly vanish. At least two such reports to police were made.
“No! That sounds really interesting.”
“That’s the kind of thing I want to investigate.” It could have been a hoax. But who knows?
We talked a bit more about our circular paths in life. He was the friend who I had known the longest. We recalled the neighborhood football games, the Boy Scout campouts, the days on his family boat, the road trips. Ken’s dad was usually in the middle of those football games on his lawn, throwing bullet passes at us when we were seven or eight. You learned how to use the trees to your advantage to shield off a defender and score. I was slim to the point that friends gave me the loathsome nickname, Bones. I hated that nickname, which even adult Scout leaders would call me. I wasn’t the best athlete out there, but I was tough and worked hard to get better. Eventually, I became the best basketball player in the neighborhood and earned a nickname I liked better, Doc.
“I really think I’ve found Jesus,” I wrote that evening. “I’ve laughed at people in the past who have claimed they’ve been ‘saved’ and other things. But I know something has come into my life or I’ve hit upon a realization that few really do. It’s something I’ve known all my life and I guess you have to be on the brink of Hell before you can really find it. And this past school year, I was just about there. I’d drink so much beer and not care about anything except my own career and always be on the prowl going after girls for one thing…. People in school would go, ‘Gosh I really got drunk last night. I had such a good time.’ And I’d sit there and think, a good time? I’d think there has to be more to life.”
The following day, I went to Catholic confession for the first time since high school. I told the priest that I hadn’t gone to church much lately, but I wanted to reaffirm my faith in God. “I could tell [the priest] was touched,” I wrote.
Breaking the nightclub vow again
Of course, it wasn’t long before I was back in a nightclub. “I should know not to promise [not to ever go to a club] because I always seem to break it,” I wrote. Billy Joel’s song about how he’d rather “laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints” was too popular to resist. Sorry, God, but the Devil was just more fun than Jesus.
Al, another high school and UNT buddy, called out of the blue, wanting to go “check out some action.” I hadn’t seen Al, who had a steady girlfriend, all summer. He was a good basketball player and made the Lake Highlands High varsity our junior year, then opted to quit before becoming a senior. “I just couldn’t take [Coach] Wells anymore,” he explained. I completely understood.
My roundball career was something out of a One on One Robby Benson movie subplot. I starred on the outdoor court of Wallace Elementary and should have made the seventh grade team at Lake Highlands Junior High along with friends like Dan and another future roommate named Steve. In tryouts, we played a short game, and my team won, 4–0. I scored all the points, but Coach Cook overlooked me in favor of huskier football players.
In eighth grade, I didn’t appreciate drill sergeant-like Coach Thompson, who thought making us duck walk many times around the court would show him who was really tough enough to make the team. I didn’t see what duck walking had to do with basketball. And I absolutely hated the nickname he pinned on me, Spider. I should have been mentally tougher, but I wasn’t. So I didn’t show up on one of the last days of tryouts.
Earlier that summer, I had run into Thompson in the parking lot outside some Dallas clubs and restaurants. “Shay! Is that you?” I can still hear Thompson’s loud, drunken voice. The coach had nodded to another man with him. “I cut this guy in eighth grade. But he went on to be a star in high school.”
I didn’t remember it that way, but I had let Thompson’s account slide and just laughed. “I don’t know if I was a star.”
“Why did you cut him?” the other man asked.
Thompson had looked at me for a second as he struggled to recall. “Because he couldn’t walk back then!” he finally blurted out. I had no response to that but another laugh. We shook hands and wished each other well.
In ninth grade, I was still shell-shocked from Thompson’s tryouts and didn’t attempt to make the team. That freshman squad, which Al made as a transfer player, was led by Coach Clark, an excellent teacher of the game who later coached me on the junior varsity.
In tenth grade, I happened to have Coach Wells for physical education class. He then coached the JV basketball team, so one day I approached him to inquire about trying out.
He all-but laughed at me. “Son,” Wells had said, condescendingly, “you’re good competing in P.E. But you’d have no chance competing with the school team.”
That had floored me for a day or two. The asshole wasn’t even going to give me a chance. So I did something ballsy for me, something I still couldn’t quite believe I could do back then, when my self-confidence was about as strong as a straw house. I went over his head. I approached varsity Coach Wade, who saw enough in me to agree to a tryout. I made the most of the opportunity, this time not caring how many times I had to duck walk around the gym or what nickname I was given.
Wade left soon after I showed enough potential to make JV, and Wells became the new varsity coach. I made the varsity the following year, but Wells started sophomore Kelly, who later became a star, instead of me for our first game that season. With our team down by 10 points and looking like it might continue the previous season’s losing ways, Wells inserted me in the game in the second quarter. I scored 10 points in the quarter as we took a halftime lead and won easily. I ended up leading the team with 20 points and 16 rebounds. I had showed Wells I could compete with the school team and then some. After that triumph, I had some decent games but kept having to look over my shoulder, knowing Wells would bench me the minute I didn’t play well.
Cruising in Al’s Corvette, we relived those high school days. “Remember when Gibby and Jud walked out into the crowd of drill teamers and cheerleaders wearing only towels?” Al laughed. “Gibby was crazy.” The son of popular children’s television show host Mr. Peppermint, Gibby Haynes later became lead singer of the punk-rock band Butthole Surfers and one of the school’s more famous alumni.
“I got a call from Gibby last year. He tried to recruit me to play hoops with him down at Trinity.”
“You should have gone.”
“That would have been a trip.” Who knows how my life would have turned out? I shook my head. “But then, I would have missed out on the fun at UNT intramurals.” Our intramural team made it to the semi-finals before an opposing player whose team we beat in the playoffs told the office that me and another former Richland player named Kevin were skirting the dumb rule to sit out a year before playing intramurals. We were both hurt most of our sophomore year, though I played through the pain in my knee. The office disqualified us, and I wrote an angry account on the situation in the college newspaper. I could do that since I was the sports editor.
We stopped by Rick’s house and checked out his new car. Rick told me I should take Miss California off his hands. “Where is she?” I asked.
“I don’t know.” He didn’t want to follow us to a club so we left.
As we neared a parking lot outside a country place called Cotton Eyed Joe’s that was one of the largest clubs in Dallas, numerous women waved and yelled at us. The Vette was a babe magnet. We walked through the massive lot, and a group of inebriated females stopped their car. “You’re cute!” one yelled at Al. She exited the vehicle. “Let me pinch you!”
Al looked at me quizzically. I shrugged. “C’mon, give us a thrill,” the young lady persisted. This was almost four decades before the “Me Too” campaign changed the landscape of such advances. Before he could protest, she pinched Al’s butt. “Wheeeeewwwww!!” she yelled, climbing back into the car.
We watched them drive away. “Doc, what kind of a place are you taking me to?” Al asked.
I laughed. “You never know what will happen.” I didn’t usually frequent country places, but this one formerly used to be a popular disco. It was still packed after it switched formats. Sometimes I needed a change of scenery.
At the bucking machine, Al ran into a young lady he knew at UNT, who was with her boyfriend. We soon left to take in the usual place, After the Gold Rush, which Steve sometimes referred to as “After the Gold Fuck.” I saw a girl who was in my high school English class. She said she had been married, and we soon split.
As we were walking outside, more women stopped and convinced us to follow them to La Bare, a male strip club. We balked at going inside, sitting in the parking lot and talking for more than an hour. Sharon grew up in a small North Texas town and detailed alleged UNT police corruption in the form of officers splitting drug cash and more in that area. I told her if I found out anything I’d expose them. She seemed impressed with my journalism background. As we left, Sharon said, “I’ve really enjoyed talking with you. It’s not what I expected.” She handed me her number on a slip of paper.
“Yeah, it was nice,” I replied, taking the paper. “Hope to see you around some time.” That’s how it was in the heydays of disco. You usually ran into people again if you hung around those clubs enough. If you played it cool enough, you’d eventually score. At least that was one philosophy I had heard worked. It didn’t seem to work that well for me, though. Hanging out in a parking lot seemed to work better. But then, I was on a higher mission.
I wasn’t as creative or wealthy as New York advertising exec Michael Block, who in 1977 rented illuminated large signs in subway stations that read, “Single bars are great if you want to stay single. I don’t. If you’d like to meet and get together, just send a picture and a short note to: Michael, c/o Box 2331, New York City, NY 10017.” He received some 20,000 responses, mostly due to the ensuing media coverage, and later wrote a book about the experience. But even that massive response didn’t work; Block remained single at least through the 1980s. Maybe he just liked the attention.
Hitting the road
In late July, Dad wanted to take us on a family weekend trip. I hadn’t gone on one with him, Kathy, and brother Patrick in several years. We rode the riverboat Brazos Queen in Waco, then set up camp at a KOA in Austin. At Barton Springs, I tried to impress some women with my high-board dives and one-and-a-half flips off the low-board. Then I landed on my stomach and acted like it didn’t hurt. The stupid board was too rigid.
The next morning, I convinced everyone to go to church — I knew that if you want to learn a lot about an area in a short time attend a local church. Patrick and Kathy weren’t too enthusiastic, which was odd since they later went to church much more religiously than me. Dad liked the idea.
We found an all-Spanish mass at a Catholic church in San Marcos and entered, the only white people in the building. Patrick and Kathy left early, saying they couldn’t follow the language. That didn’t matter to Dad and me. I even went to communion for the first time in months, when Steve had dragged me to a mass with him. The experience seemed richer in a different language.
We continued to New Braunfels. A couple years earlier, high school friend Jimmy and I jumped off a 20-foot high bridge here into five feet of water without injury. You could get away with that kind of thing for awhile if you were young and ballsy and idiotic enough. But one day, things catch up to you.
The natural rapids had been mostly free to ride for decades, even after some private firms opened camps. But in 1979, Bob and Billye Henry opened a resort motel on the spring-fed Comal River and erected a 60-foot tower with slides. Thus started Schlitterbahn, the second waterpark in the country. And the free rides were over.
By the time I visited New Braunfels with my family, the city had taken control of the main spillway, charging an additional $1.50 to shoot it. I protested to an employee, accusing the city and private firms of exploitation. I then found a hole in the fence and entered the park that way. That experience became the basis for a North Texas Daily column I would write that fall on exploitation of natural resources, environmental degradation, and the white man’s failure to heed natives’ more spiritual and nature-respecting lifestyle. My manifesto would ruffle some elitist feathers and cause the paper’s editor to ban future columns on “eternal” subjects.
Steve and I soon journeyed to UNT to take care of some loose ends for the upcoming year. We entered the Clark Hall dorm and ran into a guy who played on an opposing intramural basketball team. “Doc!” he exclaimed, as we slapped palms. “You been messing with any women? Sheeet!” We both laughed. “I starting shacking up with my old lady in the dorm room.”
“But, but, that’s against the rules,” I exclaimed, sarcastically.
He laughed. “We were just talking ‘bout your team and how y’all got shafted.”
“That story is still making the rounds, huh?” I queried.
“Don’t keep talking about it,” Steve interjected. “Doc has a big enough head already.” That was true. It recently became bigger when I saw the latest issue of Texas Sports Magazine with my feature on Taekwondo champion Tom Seabourne, whose strong religious faith had greatly aided his success.
I convinced Steve to go with me to look up a friend in Crumley Hall. A resident assistant behind the front desk recognized me. She usually worked at Bruce Hall, but I guess transferred for the summer. She had regularly hung up my columns on the dorm bulletin board and wrote messages in the margins like, “Who does this guy think he is?” I had lived for that kind of reaction a few short months ago. But I was on a different path, now.
“Have you written any more radical articles?” she asked. “I really miss them.”
I smiled. “It’s summer. I’m taking a break. I’ll be back soon, though. Maybe I’ll write something better.” Then I noticed the university housing director in the next room within earshot and soon left.
Later, I wrote in the journal, “I have these daydreams where I win the Pulitzer Prize, and I just blow off the ceremony, telling my editor to accept the award for me… I have other daydreams where I expose corruption in the police department, and the police frame me for drugs and throw me in jail. The judge tells me he’ll let me out if I promise not to expose anything else. I look him in the eye and say, ‘You’re the judge here? No wonder this country’s so screwed up.’
“I tell him no way, and the headlines read, ‘College journalist thrown in jail for telling the truth.’ Then the [students] stage a protest, and the judge is forced to let me go. That would be superb. But then, it’s only a dream.”
Triple-killing case grabs me
On a late July Sunday afternoon, as I was playing water volleyball, bank vice president Don Fountain Patrick drove to the North Dallas condominium of former SMU basketball star Ruben Triplett. Patrick carried a gun that he planned to use on Triplett because he thought the 29-year-old liquor salesman was dating his separated wife.
After confronting the 6-foot-7 Triplett inside his condo, Patrick fired at least one shot at him, killing him instantly. He wrote a note saying he killed Triplett because he “still loved” his wife, Nancy. He drove to the house of his estranged wife and told her he had killed Triplett to “save” their marriage and that it was wrong for Nancy to have a boyfriend, particularly a black boyfriend. An argument followed, and Patrick ran out to his car to get another pistol.
Nancy informed her 12-year-old son, Shane, of what his stepdad planned to do and 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, whose owner observed a man and boy run past the window. He saw the boy jump on the man and attempt to drag him to the ground. The boy fell off, and the man kept running. Nancy ran to Lovers Lane, a busy street with a median separating the two sides. Patrick got close enough to Nancy to fire a shot or two. A witness saw Nancy on her knees in the street, “pleading for her life.” As she fell over, Patrick walked up to her and pumped at least four shots into her back.
Motorists stopped their cars and rushed to the aid of Nancy. Shane, the only one who had tried to stop the killing, lay face-down, pounding the sidewalk. Patrick drifted away without being stopped. He drove to his parents’ house, told them what he had done, and walked out the back door. His mother followed him and pleaded with him not to pull the trigger. But he put the gun to his head and fired his final shot in front of his mother. He died in the ambulance on the way to the hospital.
I had read more than a few accounts of grisly crimes before this one that summer. There was the guy who shot a girl while she was driving down Central Expressway for cutting in front of him. There was the psycho who hacked a lady into small pieces and stored her in the garage. There was the gun nut who fired his rifle at cars from an Irving bridge, killing two people.
But something about this triple-killing on a Sunday afternoon shook me on a deeper level than any of those. It was a sensational case, with elements of insanity, overreaction, lust, racism, and more rolled into one. On the surface, it seemed to be cut and dried: conservative white banker gets mad about a younger, hip, maybe too-cocky black dude hitting on his estranged wife and goes berserk. To me, this case seemed more mysterious and unbelievable than many unsolved murder cases. For some reason, I saved the newspaper clippings on the triple killing, which was strange for me. I had recognized Triplett from his SMU hoops days and watched his games a few times in person. But there was something else about the case that wouldn’t let me go.
Over the following week, I went to a few clubs but barely drank. At one called the Bijou, Steve and I observed cocaine, pot, and other drugs being sold in the open. “I wish I could expose some of that stuff,” I later wrote. “I want to take up karate. If I learn that, I can be deadly. I could continue my search for truth without fear of anyone daring to stop me.” Of course, I ignored what occurred to some karate experts like J.C. West.
Questions continued to haunt me: How could a man shoot someone in a security-patrolled condominium complex on a sunny Sunday afternoon? How can a man chase a woman through a crowded neighborhood, shoot her in front of numerous witnesses in broad daylight, and just walk away?
I also turned my mind to who I would support in the presidential election, the first one in which I could vote. Though Democrat Jimmy Carter was a good Christian who practiced his beliefs in helping those less fortunate, I abhorred his Olympic boycott. Though I better understood the situation years later, I’m still torn about whether it really did anything to stem the Soviets’ push to expand their empire during the Cold War. But sometimes you make a statement for the statement’s sake. Don Paige, a middle distance runner from Villanova who was among those who lost their only chance at Olympic fame due to the boycott, recalled his coach telling him he would one day “look back at sport and see how small sport is and how big a sacrifice [the 1980 boycott] is. You will see death, cancer, bigger things than running in the Olympic Games.” His coach “was right,” Paige said in 2012.
In 1980, I didn’t like Republican Ronald Reagan, either. He was an actor who didn’t know what real freedom was. I started reading about third parties and gravitated towards the Libertarian Party. That group’s extreme anti-government platform to the point it opposed the military draft, most drug arrests, and foreign aid appealed to my still-developing, anti-authoritative brain. “I really think this [Libertarian] Party is what America needs,” I wrote.
My independent studies at work escalated to the point that I wrote about wanting to “get away from sports because it’s only a game and doesn’t really matter that much to me in life.” I was interested in learning more about politics, metaphysics, and social justice. I wanted to write something about how war is wrong, “that if sane men can talk peace after the senseless murders of millions of the world’s greatest commodity — youth — can’t they talk peace before and save this travesty?”
I would still “fight for my country because despite all the bad in this nation, it’s still the best in the world,” I wrote. “And I still believe it can be better and show the world an even better example. But if I do [survive], don’t give me one of those phony hero welcomes. Because after trying to kill other young people I have absolutely nothing against except for the fact they believe differently than I do or maybe they don’t, the last thing I’ll feel like is a hero.”
Pursuing the truth
In early August, I prepared to see a movie with Steve and Dean. My budding rebellion against disco escalated to the point that I convinced them to attend a film on punk rock, which was growing in popularity. I dressed up like a punk with a sports jacket, rolled-up sleeves, sandals, and shades. Dean followed my outfit, but Steve declined. “I don’t want people to think I’m a fucking weirdo,” he said.
As I brushed my teeth before Steve arrived in his Camaro, I suddenly had a flashback to standing in a long line with some friends who included Steve to see The Empire Strikes Back that past May. I remembered the tall black man and nice-looking white woman playing Yahtzee right behind us in line. Being intrigued that someone would play that game in a line, I good-naturedly asked who was winning.
The man had smiled broadly. “She is, as usual,” he laughed. We chatted during the wait until he left to get some food. His date mentioned he had played hoops for SMU. When I recalled her saying his name, my mind suddenly clicked. The realization sent a shock of lightning through my brain, as my toothbrush fell into the sink. I couldn’t be sure that the woman with Triplett that night was Nancy Patrick. I strained my brain to recall if I had asked what her name was. I couldn’t remember.
Telling my friends about the flashback, Steve immediately remembered as well. “That’s right! He was behind us in line.” He was sure that was Triplett but also didn’t recall if we asked the woman’s name. That evening’s punk movie was a blur of loud music and drugs, as my mind was galaxies away.
The next day, I begged off playing football and drove straight for the condos where Triplett had lived. Entering the sales office, I encountered a young woman who cheerfully asked how I was. “I’m not sure,” I replied. “I’m here to look into the murder that occurred here about a week ago.”
Her face quickly turned white. “I don’t know anything,” she managed. “Ask that lady over there.” She pointed across the room. So I walked over and flashed my college media badge, asking the lady if she had known Triplett. “Oh, I just work here,” she said, eyeing me suspiciously. “I don’t know anything. Who are you with again?”
I ignored the question. “Do you have any records on file of him being here?” I casually asked.
“No, we don’t. And if we did, I wouldn’t show them to you.” The former statement was a lie — every complex has records of tenants. The latter was truthful. This was a private business and didn’t have to release anything.
I left and walked to the pool where I had read that Nancy and Triplett had been seen occasionally. Opening the gate, I approached a group of sun-worshippers lounging by the pool. A woman said she had known Triplett fairly well and didn’t think anything was going on between him and Nancy Patrick.
“Trip was a real nice guy,” she said. “I hadn’t even seen him with that man’s wife. If he was, they were just friends.”
“But what about the key Nancy Patrick had to Triplett’s place? That’s how her husband entered.”
She shook her head. “I didn’t know that.”
After driving to the scene where Nancy Patrick was killed, others told me little. Not even a former SMU coach of Triplett’s would tell me much. One guy joked that I should look into “who shot J.R.” Another said I should drop my investigation since “nothing’s going to bring them back.” That set me off.
“Look, buddy!” I yelled, pointing a finger in his face. “A man is killed in his apartment in the middle of a Sunday afternoon and nobody sees the murderer, nobody hears the shots, nobody hears the dog barking. Everyone’s more concerned with forgetting and covering it up than finding out what happened. A woman gets slaughtered in the middle of the street, and people just stand around watching. I want to find out how something like this can happen. I want to find out…”
Then, I stopped. I realized I didn’t know exactly why I was doing this. And here I was standing in the middle of a street, pointing a finger at a complete stranger and lecturing him about something I didn’t really understand.
After a few more dead ends, I decided on a bolder step. I drove to the house of Don Patrick’s parents in University Park. As I parked in front of the upper middle-class dwelling, I briefly pondered the consequences of asking the parents of a murderer who committed suicide in front of them personal, troublesome questions. But I knew it had to be done if I wanted to get to the heart of this case.
Waves of apprehension, tension, and excitement pulsed through my veins as I knocked on the door. I thought my heart was going to beat out of my chest when I saw the door knob turning. “Yes?” asked a short, elderly woman.
“Hi, uh, my name is Kevin Shay, and I, uh…am a journalist looking into that triple killing. I was wondering if I could ask you some questions.”
I expected another slammed door. But to my surprise, this lady looked at me curiously. “Well, I guess so. What do you want to know?”
I hadn’t really expected her to speak to me. All I could think of to ask was, “Why did your son do it?” That was the million-dollar question that ran through my mind.
Mrs. Patrick said her son had come to her house a week before the killings and asked her to pray for his marriage. She told her how Nancy “wouldn’t pray,” that she “loved that black man.” It was odd that she did not refer to Triplett by name, but I didn’t want to make her stop talking by questioning her about that.
Don Patrick was jealous by nature, causing him to go off the deep end because he “loved Nancy so much,” his mother stated. Finally, she turned to me and asked, “Are you a Christian?”
“Yes, ma’am,” I answered. After all, I was going through a religious awakening. The question made as much sense as any.
“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 felt he had to do? He killed two people and himself. That was what he had to do?
I asked where Shane was. “He’s at Nancy’s parents’ house. I just hope he finds some way to deal with this.”
Feeling bold, I made a mistake. I asked 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. Don’t you talk to that boy.” Slam.
Driving back home, I felt I was on to something. It was hard to tell what. But it felt like something important.
Running into brick walls
The next morning, I decided to see what I could get from the police before work. At University Park City Hall, I asked to see someone about Patrick’s suicide. A detective asked me who I was and why I was looking into the case. I told him it was for an article, that I got tired of hearing about nuts hurting and killing innocent people. “I want to see if there is some lesson that can be learned from this case,” I said.
He eyed me closely, surmising that I was sincere. “So what can I do for you?” he asked.
“What else do you know about the case? Did you interview the Patricks?”
“My investigators handled that. I’ve only read the reports.”
“Can I see the reports?”
“You’d have to get a court order.”
“A court order? I thought police reports were public record.”
“That’s our policy.”
I saw I wasn’t going to get much there. As I left, he tried to be more sympathetic. “It’s sad, but we get these kinds of domestic cases all the time. Though they all don’t turn out like this one… But there’s not a whole lot we can do.”
Driving to downtown Dallas, I recalled one of my first encounters with The Law. I was 10 on a long family summer road trip to see relatives. Dad was going more than 70 miles per hour on the Pennsylvania highway when the speed limit was 60. Sure enough, a patrolman stopped us. The officer was friendly as he wrote out a ticket. He was about to hand it to Dad when he looked into the backseat to see my six-year-old sister crying.
“What’s the matter, honey?” he tenderly asked.
“I don’t want Daddy to go to jail,” she blubbered.
“Don’t worry, he won’t,” the officer replied. He tore up the ticket, choosing to bend the law to keep a kid from getting a bad impression about the people who enforce the law. I was impressed. Then, I turned 16 and received three tickets with no warnings, including one for a mere burned-out headlight. Of course, I was alone, with no six-year-old girl to cry for me.
At the hectic Dallas police station, a secretary told me the case was closed. I asked to talk to a detective, anyway. She kept asking me who I was and what I was doing. I finally said she wouldn’t understand. She sent me back to a detective in a huff.
The detective, who was not assigned to the case, answered, “I can’t answer that” or “That’s confidential,” to every question. I told him about what Patrick’s mother had said concerning her son’s visit a week before the killings, and he said that was news to him.
After feeding the homicide unit more information than it gave me, I visited the reports section, discovering I could buy copies of reports for two dollars. They didn’t tell me much more than what I already knew. But they confirmed some details, such as how two witnesses said they saw Nancy running and heard her scream for help.
At home, I decided to call the police station and see if the detective assigned to the case was there. He was. I asked if he knew anything about Patrick being caught looking into Triplett’s condo a week before the killings. “We can’t comment on that. That’s evidence for the case,” he replied.
“What case? I thought it was solved.”
“Yeah, but we can’t comment on any evidence.”
Following a few more “no comment” answers, I hung up. I tried to ignore further questions, but that was impossible. I declined friends’ request to drink in a bar or even see a movie. After a few sleepless nights, I returned to Triplett’s condo complex. A bearded resident seemed different than most people I questioned about this.
The man said he had seen Nancy with Triplett, but then he said Triplett, the first African-American to receive a basketball scholarship at SMU, was with several women, white and black. Growing up in the more racially-open northwest Illinois city of Galesburg, Triplett apparently made friends of people from all backgrounds without too much trouble.
He told me about a brutal killing of two flight attendants who were found chopped into pieces in their refrigerator. That happened about two years previously in the same general area. I later discovered that gruesome crime occurred in the apartments right next to these condos and were owned by the same company. He told me about a man who had gone crazy, shot at some people, and tried to run over pedestrians with his car a few weeks earlier. The man had lived in the same condo complex.
“This place is really getting eerie,” he noted, uneasily.
I thanked him for his time, and he told me to come back anytime. I drove to the scene of Nancy’s killing and knocked on some more doors. An elderly gentleman said he had seen the Patricks run across his yard that day. He observed Shane courageously jump on his gun-toting stepdad. But like many, this man wasn’t a kid who reacted before thinking about the risks. “What could I do?” he asked, searching for some sign of understanding. “The man had a gun. I knew that was no place for me.”
I nodded, as I jotted down some notes. I glanced at my watch. Damn, late for work again. “Gotta get going,” I said, shaking hands. “Thanks for talking to me.”
The next day was Sunday, exactly three weeks from the day of the tragedy. I arose earlier than usual and drove to Triplett’s old complex. I stopped in front of Triplett’s condo. A man walking his dog suddenly crossed my path. To my surprise, when I told the man what I was doing, his eyes lit up. “Really? You’re just the guy I want to see.”
Mike Greaves said he lived next door to Triplett and shared the same front porch. The condos had changed from apartments about a year earlier, and the out-of-state owners “don’t want to be responsible for the upkeep and security,” Greaves charged. “They just see this place as a tax write-off.”
Robberies had occurred more often, including the same week that Triplett was killed. Security guards who were supposed to patrol the area seemed to spend more time parked at the local convenience store, Greaves said. “They don’t get out of their cars and walk around.”
Illegal immigrants lived there practically free in return for cheap labor, Greaves continued. “I’ve complained to management and security guards 10 or 12 times about punks hanging all over my car late at night. 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. “Why don’t you leave here if it’s the way you say?”
Greaves looked me in the eyes. “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.”
“I see,” I nodded. “Well, I’ll see what I can do. I know a few journalists more experienced than myself who I’ll tell.”
“Do what you can, buddy,” he said, as I entered my 1972 Pontiac LeMans. “Give ’em hell.”
At work, I used the Sanger-Harris phone to call Jim Henderson with the Herald. I asked if anyone had found out any more about the triple killing.
“No, we haven’t, unfortunately,” he replied. “After the first few days, it just died out. Everyone seemed to lose interest and go on to other things.”
I told him about Greaves’ situation. He expressed interest and said he’d check into that.
‘Truth will come out in the end’
After work, I drove back to the condo complex. It was about midnight, and I was still in my security guard uniform. I didn’t think about being in a potentially dangerous situation. I was on a mission, searching for the truth. I did say a prayer every now and then.
I parked next to a car marked “Executive Security Systems.” On the side was an emblem with the words “TRUTH,” “HONOR,” “JUSTICE” emblazoned into it. I got out and walked around but saw no signs of a guard, no signs of a patrol.
The following morning, I called the complex office and asked to talk to the business manager. I was told he was at an apartment complex in East Dallas. I drove there and managed my way into his office easily enough. I told the manager I was doing an article on the triple killing and had learned a few more details. “Really?” he said. “I’m glad you came to see me.”
That threw me a bit. Was he really glad or just saying that? “Were you satisfied with the security in place before Ruben Triplett was shot there?”
He nodded. “We had regular patrols, if that’s what you mean.”
“Did you take any additional security measures after the shooting?”
“Yes. I hired an armed guard directly who’s around there from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. We still have those guards on car patrol. But, it’s a big place… I’ve done everything I can to make it safe. I have a business to run, you know.”
“What about a simple thing like installing peep-holes in the doors? That could save some lives,” I deadpanned.
He became slightly irritated at my remark. “These incidents happen everywhere. Who’s fault is it that the woman got shot on Lovers Lane? Is it the Dallas police department’s fault?”
“I’m not out to blame somebody for what happened. I’m just trying to find out what could have been done to prevent the incident and correct the situation…. What about the robberies that some have told me about?”
“None were reported to us or the police.”
“One resident said he had complained to management about security concerns, and nothing’s been done. Did you hear from him?”
He looked disgusted. “Oh, that guy. That guy’s just a troublemaker. If he doesn’t like the way the place is run, he can just leave.”
“Have you ever talked to the guy?”
“No, but I’ve heard his complaints. His wife thinks the place ought to be run like a prison. And that’s not the way we do things today.”
“I understand. He also said that the owners use the place for a tax write-off.”
His face broke into laughter. “I can assure you it’s no tax write-off. We’re in business to make money.”
“But shouldn’t you at least hear the tenants out? Shouldn’t you at least check out their complaints to see if they’re valid?”
“We do check out complaints. We listen to our tenants as I am listening to you.”
I could see I wasn’t going to get much more. He had been more open with me than most. “Thanks for your time,” I said, shaking hands.
“Sure. Come back anytime.” Now, I knew he was feeding me a line.
I returned to the complex again after work, parking by the manager’s office. I waited. About a half-hour later, a security car drove up. I jumped out of my car and ran up to it.
After telling the guard who I was, he told me he had seen Triplett around but didn’t know him personally. He said he had just gotten on duty a few hours after he was murdered. He hadn’t heard of any robberies or other incidents. As we spoke, the guard from Executive Security walked up. He was black, in his late 40s, medium height, and slightly overweight. I took an instant liking to him. His handshake was firm as he said, “Joe Clark, glad to meet you.”
Clark had started working there about two weeks after Triplett’s murder. No one had informed him somebody had gotten killed in those condos. He found out about it one night while doing foot patrols from a resident. “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.”
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, Clark said he was fired for supposedly cussing at another employee about a week before he would have qualified for a pension. He told me about his son dying of a knife wound, 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, Clark seemed to embrace the challenges of his present job like few did.
I returned there several times after work that week. Clark was always glad to see me. He never questioned why I was concerned about the Triplett case. He saw my uniform and figured that came with the job.
At one point while walking around, he motioned for me to be quiet and pointed to a second-floor window that had been removed. A light was on in the condo. Clark 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 boxes — didn’t know how to look the other way.
During what turned out to be my last visit to that complex right after my final day as a Sanger-Harris guard, we discussed whether guns were too easy to obtain. In 1980, about half of the households in the United States had firearms, a trend that would decline to about one-third by 2014 although the number of guns per household would jump significantly, according to a University of Chicago study. “Damn right, they’re too easy to get,” Clark said. “Too many kids get them. And drugs, too. Guards like me need them for this job. But kids and those with prior criminal records? No.”
I nodded. “I had a good friend in high school who kept a rifle in his room. He was really smart and played basketball on my team. One day, he found out he wasn’t accepted to a university where he had applied. That night, he drank too much. He ended up in his room with his rifle there…. It was too easy to pull that trigger during one weak moment.” I shook my head. “I can’t help thinking to this day that had that gun not been so handy, he’d still be alive.”
Clark let the story — one that was all-too common — sink into the early-morning mist. “There are too many stories like that. Such a waste,” he finally said. While the rate of gun deaths would decline in the U.S. from some 7 per 100,000 people in 1980 to about 4 in 2019, incidents of multiple shootings by assailants in schools, shopping centers, and other public places would rocket. The number of shootings involving at least four people in the U.S. jumped by 55 percent between 2014 and 2019 to 417, according to Gun Violence Archive. The U.S. gun-death rate was way higher than other developed countries, with the only ones higher being developing nations like El Salvador, Brazil, Iraq, and South Africa.
The conversation turned to Jim Jones and his cult that had resulted in almost 1,000 deaths in 1978, a few by guns but most by mass poisoning. “He started out with a good idea, trying to build a town 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 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. It was weird. I barely knew this man. But we had bonded quickly over something more than our security badges. I wondered what would happen if he somehow scraped up the money to pursue his dream. Would it become compromised, like Eden, Brook Farm, La Reunion, Oneida, Jonestown? Or would it survive in a substantially different form, like many towns and cities that outgrew their founders’ vision?
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 almost five hours. Time really did fly when you pursued something larger than yourself. “Well, Joe, I wish I could stay longer. I have to get up early in the morning.” I still had to pack for the move back to Denton in a couple days.
“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 dreams. I wanted to say he was doing the Lord’s work as much as any preacher or missionary. I wanted to tell him he had restored my faith a bit, made all the hours on this search worthwhile during the last summer of my youth. I wanted to say that I’d rather be out here walking and looking around, helping him keep the place where Triplett died a little safer, than drinking and chasing women in some bar.
But I didn’t tell him. I think on a higher level, he knew what I wanted to say. I started to climb into the 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. I got in the car and drove away.
That was the last time I would see Joe Clark. I wish I had somehow kept in touch, but that was long before the age of email, texting, social media, and smartphones. I doubt Joe would have taken to such techno-foolishness, anyway. I soon moved back to Denton and confronted new mysteries and challenges, while trying to pursue a higher calling even as I mixed with lower ones. My clubbing and drinking days would decline significantly after that summer.
After a semester, Dean would drop out of UNT, become a born-again Christian, complete a history degree at another college, get married, have five kids, and become single again. Martin would become a bank exec and raise his own family. College dorm roommate Steve would find steady employment in accounting and get married. He would sadly pass away in 2020 of COVID-19 and related complications that included diabetes.
Basketball teammate and apartment roommate Steve would introduce me to personal newspaper ads, which would indirectly lead to my marriage with Michelle in 1995. He would find his way from Colombia to settle down a few years later. Ken would also settle down and have kids. Kurt would not. Jim would advise me and help find some jobs until he passed to a well-deserved resting site in the sky, or perhaps the ground.
In the four decades since the Summer of ’80, I would continue my quest for higher learning and the truth. I would volunteer in homeless shelters and food banks, deliver meals to needy folks, walk across the U.S. and Europe to Russia for peace and human rights, protest for environmental causes and more, not just read about God’s truth but try to live it. I would befriend psychic Frances and other spiritual teachers and pursue metaphysical truths. I would join with Roy, an older African-American man about my height, to write a Howard Zinn-inspired book on Dallas history from the view of the disenfranchised. I would divorce Michelle after 11 years of marriage, but we would form a joint custody pact and help our kids grow up to pursue their own truths.
But no summer, no period of three months, would be as transformative, as earth shaking, in my life than that Summer of ’80. I had started as a brash, hard-drinking, wild women-chasing young journalist set to burn everything to the ground and somehow found a higher calling in the space of a few months. As a lowly college student, I chased a story about rage, fear, apathy, insanity, racism, sexism, and jealousy 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. I learned to knock on anyone’s door without fear, in pursuit of truth. In the midst of the madness, I found a clear-eyed, mission-driven, tragedy-attracting human being, whose honest diligence in carrying out his job in the face of unfair and overwhelming odds spoke louder than any meandering excuses and cover-your-ass bullshit numerous others threw my way.
Sometimes, I think back on those seemingly more carefree days when Everclear flowed from apartment-clubhouse fountains, when drunken journeys through discos wound up at porno shop parking lots. In their own way, they were necessary to reach another plateau, to try to relate to and help people where they were. But I wouldn’t want to go through all that again. And I’m glad I convinced Dean not to go to Swinging Susie’s home.
Kevin James Shay is author of the humorous travel book, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Trip: On the Road of the Longest Two-Week Family Road Trip in History. More on that book and others is on his Amazon author’s page.