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Police cover ups, racism, and shoddy investigation alleged in E. Texas county

Basically, a big messy mess in a county with ties to racism
The short, narrow, wnding, woodsy road where Wright's body was found

The short, narrow, wnding, woodsy road where Wright's body was found

1998: James Byrd Jr. is dragged behind a pickup truck to his death, by three white supremacists in Jasper, Texas. Christmas 1987: Loyal Garner, a working black man, is beaten to death by three white police officers in Sabine County, Texas.

Two totally different crimes. But at the heart of each: Racism.

More and more comparisons are being drawn by the media of the recent bizarre death of Alfred Wright to the 15-year-old lynching death of James Byrd Jr. in Jasper, Texas. I have not yet noticed any comparisons to the more geographically similar death of Loyal Garner (whose family I know). The media may be wrong to draw any such comparisons. Or, comparisons might be way too close for comfort. Either way, it is difficult to deny at least some similarities...

Hopefully, Alfred Wright's death turns out to be just as it was ruled by local officials... an accident. Because if not, then what his death could be is one more heinous crime based on skin color in the woods of Deep East Texas. Hopefully, his death was nothing remotely like what happened that summer in '98 or Christmas night of 1987.

But things just keep looking stranger in the case of Wright's death, supposedly accidental, the result of a drug overdose.

By way of information, on a sweltering hot day in June, 1998, 41-year-old man James Byrd Jr. was brutally murdered in Jasper, Texas. He was killed in a most horrible manner because, well, because his skin color was brown... Not white. And because three asshole losers ... Whose skin color was white (and neck color... red) were apparently bored. Bored and angry, I suppose angry that God made man in different colors... Hell, who knows why they were angry. Maybe just they were bored and filled with hatred.

Did I say this murder was brutal? For three miles, the well-liked family man was dragged behind the pickup truck of one of the three psychos. Forensic testimony indicated Byrd did everything he could to keep his head up while he was being dragged... until the truck ran into a culvert, decapitating him. Pieces of his body were found over a distance of miles. Far as the cold blooded racist killers... One has been executed, another will be soon and the third will spend the rest of his life in an 8ft x 6ft concrete prison cell. May they all rot in Hell.

Byrd was killed on a rural country asphalt road in the small East Texas town of Jasper, Texas. The lynching was classified as a hate crime. Two of the three killers had solid ties to white supremacist groups. One had a tattoo of a man with brown skin being hanged. These men hated. And they hated based on skin color.

Fast forward to this past November, when I noticed a news story in a small weekly newspaper which recently added online coverage. The Sabine County Reporter featured an article about a missing man. Alfred Wright, a 28-year-old physical therapist and married father of three from Jasper, had been in Sabine County (approx. 40 miles from Jasper) to visit a patient or patient. Local authorities, including the Sheriff's Department, conducted a four-day search before closing the case. A body had not been found.

Sabine County Sheriff Tom Maddox announced that his department had exhausted its resources in searching for the missing man. A four-day "exhaustive" search... for a human being.

Now get this... Two and a half weeks later, volunteers connected to Wright's family (some reports say it was actually Wright's father) found his body in a wooded area about a couple miles or so away from the store where his truck broke down. (Some media reports have the body being found just 25 yards away from the store, others say a couple of miles). Whatever the distance, there is something no one in authority is denying... the very area where his body was found had already been searched by Sheriff's deputies. Specifically, his body was found down Coussons Drive, a one-lane gravel(ish) road that leads about a mile into the woods, to a wide open Texas-style cattle ranch. Coussons Road was a road completely unknown to volunteers who persisted in the search, but on the other hand, a road known well by local authorities. The only significance of the discreet road is that its entrance is about 25 yards south of the store where Wright was last seen.

Wright's death occurred in the most rural of the rural counties in Texas you could possibly find. I know this first hand because I covered news in this county for about a year in 1996. Sabine County is not so tiny in size... actually it covers almost 600 square miles of area. Most of it, however, is wooded. A huge hunk of it is water, in the man-made Toledo Bend Reservoir which borders the county to the west with Sabine Parish in Louisiana. Population in Sabine County is a fewer than 11,000 people. So it is, as you can see, as rural as rural can be.

But more striking than the sheer rural nature of the county is the kinship between government agencies in the area... I have always covered news in areas where if one agency is tight lipped or I felt like they were "holding back" so to speak (or even being dishonest), I could go to other sources (sometimes people at other agencies) and get the low down or at least be pointed in the right direction. In Sabine County, that wasn't happening for me. It was a vastly different atmosphere. I felt like everyone in office had the backs of each and every else one in office. The ability to stonewall and to stonewall in sync at that by all the people in office and those who worked for them was not just mindboggling but was pretty much job cursing for an "outsider" reporter such as myself. That wasn't the case for the local newspaper reporters... they were welcomed, but also, they never really questioned. They reported on what they were told to by the "powers that be" or at the very least, they reported how they were told to report by the powers that be.

I, on the other hand, didn't belong there. That was the general sentiment. And so getting news was tough. I was from Louisiana. I had made a bit of a name as a "muckraker" journalist. I wasn't wanted. Reading about Wright's story brings back that level of frustration I once experienced.

Back to Wright's disappearance, though. After Wright's body was found, Sabine County officials reopened the case and concluded rather swiftly that his death was accidental, as the result an overdose of meth, cocaine, and amphetamines.

Following this conclusion, a forensic pathologist from Houston was hired by Wright's family to examine the body. Her exam found otherwise. Drastically otherwise.

Dr. Lee Ann Grossberg believes Wright was probably murdered. And not just that he was probably murdered but also that her examination showed "a high likelihood of homicidal violence."

According to varied reports, her autopsy states one of the victims ears was cut off. His tongue was missing. And his throat was slit. His eyes were gouged out. Several of his front teeth were missing.

Two conclusions about one man's death could not be more different.

Grossberg had a significant disadvantage in her examination and conclusions, however. Sabine County officials are refusing to release their autopsy photographs... to Grossberg or anyone else for that matter. So she was examining a body which was partially decomposed and had been already autopsied once.

Sabine County officials merely state their autopsy showed shallow puncture wounds on Wright's left palm, left thigh, leg, and abdomen, but no evidence of severe trauma. The autopsy said what appeared to be a straight cut on his neck was from animal activity.

Wrights family believes his body was not initially found where family members found it. They believe he was tortured and later placed in the spot where he was found.

What little we do know about the night Wright died is that his truck broke down in Sabine County, just outside of the county seat, Hemphill. The truck broke down at or very near CL&M Package Store ("package store" translates around here to "liquor store). Just an FYI that probably means nothing... the initial accounts of Wright's disappearance say his truck broke down at the CL&M Liquor Store; however the current sign has CL&M Package Store, with the word Package having been later added to the store (when later is, I have no idea).

Wright called his wife for help. Because she was home with their two young children, Wright's parents went instead to Sabine County to pick up their son.

Wright's wife, Lauren, said she called Alfred's cellphone a little bit later to check on him. She said on the other end of the phone she could hear heavy breathing and it sounded like her husband was in respiratory distress. She said she heard "a gargling sound," and she could not get him to respond to any of her questions. She knew something was wrong.

When his parents arrived at the liquor store, his truck was still there but there was no sign of him.

As mentioned, his body was found 19 days later, only a short distance from the store, which is on a secluded stretch of Hwy. 87 (a two lane asphalt road which winds through the piney woods dotting most of the county's landscape).

Family members later spoke to the person who was clerking at the liquor store the night Wright disappeared. (Reports indicate she was not initially formally interviewed-- meaning her statement was never taken-- during the Sheriff's Department's investigation of the death, but I don't know this to be true). Anyway, according to family members, the clerk told them very little other than she had only seen him outside of the store and didn't get a good look at him. She said she saw him putting his phone in his sock and take off running towards town.

She said he was a good distance from her and so she couldn't notice details. When family members pressed her on how she knew he put his phone in his sock if she was having such trouble seeing him, she said she meant, "I couldn't make out features." She stuck to her story that he put his phone in his sock. "He had his phone in his hand, he bent down, he messed with his sock," she said. Then, he took off running, she said.

Though the store has a sign posted on its front windows that video and audio recording are in progress at the location, there have been no video or audio recordings reportedly presented. In fact, an empty cable dangles where a video camera apparently once was. At least one account says the camera was there prior to the night Wright disappeared.

The clerk noted that "usually, when people break down here," they come in the store and ask to use the phone because the cellular coverage in this location is "shitty."

This is from a report from KSLA News 12 in Shreveport, Louisiana (reporter Domonique Benn has perhaps chased this story most vigorously): "I think if a white guy got out of his truck and headed towards town he would have made it," says Sabine County resident Sheela Bennett, referring to the racial tensions said to exist in Sabine County. Bennett, who is also in an interracial marriage like the Wrights (Alfred and Lauren), thought she had information that could help. Three weeks before Alfred disappeared, Sheela's husband was driving down Highway 87 and was hit from behind, right in front of that same liquor store. Sheela said when her husband went to check on the damage from his truck, 2 men jumped him and started calling him racial slurs. A day after Alfred went missing, Sheela said she went to Sabine County Sheriff Tom Maddox to see if the two men had struck again. According to Sheela, she said the Sheriff stopped her mid-conversation and said her husband's incident had nothing to do with the Wright investigation. Sheela said the Sheriff told her, "This boy has done this to himself." Sheela said the Sheriff then walked her out of his office. She left completely stunned.

Sheela also said the sheriff told her that the clerk in the store thought Alfred was going to rob her and the clerk was watching him very carefully. She said the sheriff thought he was running from the law.

The Sheriff has declined interviews with KSLA News 12. Probably, at least in part, because the station is situated in Louisiana. Texas authorities (at least from this part of Texas) feel Louisianans have no business in their business. That is what I found anyway. Loud and clear.

Yahtorah Kupenda was in the search group that found Alfred's body and took pictures of the scene. Kupenda described the body as having no eyes and his ear was cut off. Kassilia Wright, Alfred's sister said she believes he was captured and tortured before being killed and dumped in the remote area. These details, too, come from KSLA.

And another FYI from my experience in Sabine County... an employee of the newspaper I worked at had told me about a white supremacist militia group and training grounds located in an area of Sabine County called Six Mile (along the lake). Six Mile is named for Six Mile Creek, which is an east-to-west creek that traverses Toledo Bend Reservoir about, oh I'm guessing two miles south of the store where Wright disappeared.

Back when I was a curious reporter with the newspaper, I became a bit interested in the existence of such a group and training grounds. I could sense racism in Sabine County, and it did not altogether surprise me that there would be such a location deep in the woods off the beaten path. And so one day, with directions and accompanied a local teen who knew about the area (she had interned for the paper), I went to see the property the militia was supposedly on. We reached our destination and there was a bit of an eerie feel to the area, but probably that was more due to what I had heard than what I was actually seeing. There were, however, in fairly clear view, obstacle courses, sand pits and muddy pits, rope courses, things of that nature. No one was there at the time... not a single soul... and truth be known, I doubt I would've stuck around to ask questions anyway because I was completely unfamiliar with the area and the girl who accompanied me was obviously getting progressively nervous and antsy. So we left and I put that in the back of my mind.

Anyway, back to the Wright case... What we know about subsequent events is fairly limited as well... the Sabine County Sheriffs Department conducted an investigation and what they deemed an exhaustive search for Wright. After they called off the search, devastated and downtrodden members of Wrights family traveled north to Sabine County to conduct a search of their own. They succeeded where the 50-man Sheriffs force could not. They (again, reportedly Wright's father) found Wrights body, almost unbelievably close to the store.

Fyi and just a btw for the heck of it, the Sheriffs office searched more vigorously for pieces of a fallen space shuttle (Columbia) in 2003. Then, most of the force spent 24-7 helping NASA and other agencies comb the dense piney woods of the county for fragments and chunks of the shuttle, which disintegrated as it re-entered the Earths atmosphere over West Louisiana and East Texas en route to its landing at Houston Space Center.

Passionate enthusiastic adrenaline pumping searches for space shuttle pieces and poor pitiful unsuccessful human search comparisons aside, Sabine County officials are finding themselves a bit on the defensive lately. And they are clearly getting quite pissed off about it.

Under pressure, the District Attorney who serves Sabine County passed the case over to the Texas Rangers (Texas' version of State Police). A Texas Congresswoman has asked the U.S. Department of Justice to step in to the investigation as well, to see if Wright's civil rights were violated. Translation: Was Wright's death a hate crime?

Concerns are mounting... and slowly but surely attracting national attention... about racism and a police cover up in the death of Alfred Wright.

Last weekend, county sheriff's deputies had to keep the peace at a protest launched by Wright's family in hopes of getting some answers into the widening mystery of his death. The New Black Panthers were among those at the protest. A Hemphill man, Nathan Ener, got pretty tied up with one of the Panthers. Ener later posted on his Facebook (or someone with his name or account), speaking of another protest in Hemphill, in coming days, which would include the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. Ener said he didn't mean it, he just wanted to scare some people, according to a media report.

Whatever the case, Wright's family said they don't want violence, or side shows, or distractions. They just want answers. They know that there is more to their dearly beloved's death than what they are told. For them, Wrights death is hardly a case closed.

26-year-old hate crime in Sabine County

Oh and just a side note... For whatever it is worth... Or isn't. When I first started my reporting career in 1991, across the state line (and giant man made lake Toledo bend) in Sabine Parish, Louisiana, I recall seeing a file in the newspaper office that intrigued me. It was the case of a young black man, Loyal Garner, of Sabine Parish, who was beaten to death in Hemphill, Texas on Christmas Day, 1987 by three white men. At the time of the heinous killing, Garner was an inmate in the Hemphill jail... and the three white men... well they were Hemphill police officers.

There were attempts to cover up, bury, hide the story.

And actually, to say Loyal Garner and his two buddies were inmates at the jail is a bit... hmmm... uninformative. The trio were stopped by Sabine County police as they entered Sabine County from Sabine Parish, where they all lived. Garner was driving. He was arrested for drunk driving, although no alcohol tests were administered. His two buddies (one of whom is a neighbor of mine and serves on the city council of the village where I live, and is actively involved in community affairs and is a volunteer firefighter) were charged with public intoxication. They were loaded into the police car, unrestrained, and taken to a holding cell at the Hemphill, Texas Jail. Being that it was Christmas Day, they began to get restless when they weren't allowed to call their families and let them know where they were... and possibly understandably, began making a bit of a ruckus. So the Police Chief of Hemphill beat Garner, with a metal weapon, in the head. Nearly to death. But not quite. And therein lies the start of the problems for Sabine County. Because another deputy found Garner in the holding cell, completely unconscious but alive, Garner was taken to the nearest metro hospital for treatment. In the Tyler, Texas (Smith County) hospital, he died. And there medical professionals concluded he had been beaten.

The Sheriff of Sabine County and the Country Judge (highest county officials in Texas) advised the Smith County medical examiner that they were coming to pick up Garner's body... By this time, Sabine County officials had ruled the death accidental.

Sabine County officials had labeled the death an accident. Case closed. 34-year-old Florien, Louisiana truck driver Loyal Garner had accidently died... with marks of abuse all over his body. That's the story they told.

Smith County would not release the body to Sabine County. This started a war of jurisdictions which continued the next two years. Sabine County officials claimed they had jurisdiction in the case, as did Smith County officials. In the end, the three officers were tried in both counties... just weeks apart in the summer of 1990.

A hometown jury in Sabine County found the three officers (one was the police chief for Hemphill and the other two were Sheriff's deputies) not guilty of violating Garner's civil rights.

"One jury acquitted the officers of civil-rights violations in a hometown trial that saw white residents cheer the verdict as if celebrating a Friday night football victory," a report of the case in The New York Times read, in 1990.

In May 1990, a jury in the more metropolitan city of Tyler, Texas (about 100 miles east) convicted the three white officers of his murder.

Racist area?

Many media accounts and even reports from residents of Sabine County are indicating, insinuating, eluding, or outright concluding that Sabine County is generally a racist community/area. Fewer than 10 percent of Sabine County's 10,600 residents are black. But does that make the county racist? From my time reporting there, I would say that the county itself is not exactly racist, but there are a significant number of racists who call Sabine County home. And when I say racist, I mean people at the very least who are offended by the very presence of black people. Among these, there are those who are filled with hatred. They are the scary ones. But unfortunately, they are all over the country, particularly in the Deep South.

I do recall as a reporter over there being a bit surprised that there were no black people elected to office. Actually, there weren't even any women elected to office that I recall. The County Commissioners Court (which along with a county judge -- who btw doesn't actually have to have any sort of law degree-- governs the affairs of the county) was made of all white men (all but one over the age of 65 as I recall, so at least we can say age discrimination is not an issue over there). The School Board was made of seven white men (three of whom were named "Buckshot"). I looked at the current commissioners court, and it is now represented by five white men. The School Board has progressed a wee bit, with four white men and three white women. But still no blacks in office.

Cross the bridge over Toledo Bend into Louisiana and the parish which bears the same name as Sabine County is a completely different situation. On this side of the lake, blacks have served on the School Board and the Police Jury for many years, including having served as president of the School Board and Police Jury (which is the equal to a county commissioners' court and is charged with managing the affairs of the parish). Four of the parish's seven municipalities are served by black police chiefs.

I am not saying there is not racism. Unfortunately, there are people who judge based on skin color basically everywhere. But the difference that stands out most to me is that in Sabine Parish, Louisiana, I strongly believe an investigation of a death would not get any sort of weighted treatment (or lack thereof) if the victim was black. I believe if Wright had disappeared in Sabine Parish, a four-day search would not have sufficed for our Sheriff's Department or another police agency. I believe there would not have been automatic conclusions of drug use because of color. And our Sheriff would never tell a citizen, "That boy had it coming to him."

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