Jimmy's Justice

Years after her son's capital murder verdict, Rachel Moore found evidence that he fired in self-defense. But they're still trying to find a way out of prison.

The headlights a block behind Bud "Jimmy" Sawyer Jr. flashed from dim to bright to dim to bright again. At 12:40 in the morning, November 17, 1992, Jimmy was looking to buy crack cocaine, a plentiful commodity in his northeast Houston neighborhood where gunshots could be heard even before sunset. Jimmy had turned at the intersection of Parker Road and Shady Lane where dealers usually loitered in a convenience store parking lot and in the park across the road.

The area was deserted.

Might as well head home, Jimmy thought. As he continued north on Shady Lane in his blue Chevy S-10 pickup, he saw the lights flickering behind him. Although it was the only other car on the road, Jimmy didn't think anyone was trying to get his attention, not until the small Geo Metro sped up next to him and tapped its horn a few times.

Visiting hour: Cobie (left) and Marsha have not seen their father in two years.
Visiting hour: Cobie (left) and Marsha have not seen their father in two years.

Jimmy pulled over to the right side of the road. The Metro stopped on the left, about eight feet away. At first in the dim lighting, he could not make out the three occupants of the car. Then he recognized the driver, Lee Varn Rayford. Rayford had sold him crack cocaine several times. In fact, he had sold Jimmy a rock some two hours earlier in the Happy Land Food Store parking lot.

Rayford asked if Jimmy had money. Jimmy pulled a $20 bill from his shirt pocket and waved it.

"Come on over here," Rayford said. "I got something for you then."

Jimmy walked over to the passenger side of the Metro. He didn't know the man in the front passenger seat or the one in the back. Jimmy rested against the window frame and waited.

Then Rayford leaned across the man in the passenger seat and pointed a gun inches from Jimmy's face. The gun was so close that it blurred in his vision. Jimmy stepped back and recognized it as a .22-caliber derringer pistol, small enough to fit in a person's palm.

"Give me your wallet," Rayford shouted.

"No, please don't do this," Jimmy said. "You know me."

The pistol was already cocked.

Jimmy reached toward his wallet in his back right pocket, but instead pulled a chrome .38-caliber pistol from his right front pocket, its handle concealed by his T-shirt. He fired once at Rayford, who sat still pointing the derringer. Jimmy shot him again. The other two men crouched toward the floor. Jimmy thought they were going for a gun, so he shot twice at the front passenger and once at the man in the backseat. As Rayford opened his car door, Jimmy fled in his truck, afraid they were coming after him.

Only the the backseat passenger, Eric Alonzo Williams, survived. Almost a year later, as the state's star witness, Williams told a jury that Jimmy Sawyer, high on cocaine, with his eyes glazed and bloodshot, had come out of his truck with that chrome gun in his hand, angry at Rayford for selling him bad crack. Jimmy, who is white, had shouted, "I'm going to kill you black motherfuckers," before opening fire, Williams said.

Jimmy testified that he shot in self-defense, sure that he was going to be robbed and killed. But police found no weapons at the crime scene. Jimmy Sawyer was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to life in prison.

In the courtroom, his family sat stunned by the verdict. Tears escaped from Jimmy's eyes. His mother, Rachel, could not understand how the jury had believed Williams, a drug dealer with a lengthy criminal history. As they led Jimmy away, Rachel vowed not to let him down. She would find a way to prove him right.

Of all of Rachel Wondrak Moore's children, Jimmy seemed one of the least likely to get into trouble. The second of eight kids, he always protected his brothers and sisters. No one picked a fight with one of Jimmy's siblings without eventually hearing from Jimmy.

Rachel's kids were raised with guns in the house. Her second husband and Jimmy's stepdad, George P. Wondrak, served as an HPD officer. At night he moonlighted as a security officer and she went with him, letting him sleep in the car as she kept watch. Later, Rachel took security jobs herself.

Rachel had grown up in the Valley in a family of migrant workers who traveled north to Michigan during the summers to pick cherries and strawberries. To fit in, they changed their Hispanic names to Anglo ones. Raquel became Rachel.

During the summer when she was 13, Rachel met Buddy Sawyer, who wrote to her after she returned to Texas. Before Buddy left for the army, he came by Houston to drop off an engagement ring. Days after he returned from Korea in 1956, they married. She worked in a downtown cafe and he at a nearby truck stop. They had four children and became friends with a cop named George who patrolled that area. When Buddy and Rachel split, Rachel married George and had four more children.

Back then, the family lived on Duff Lane in northeast Houston, near what would become the Hardy Toll Road. Like most 12-year-old kids, Jimmy wanted a horse really badly. The difference between Jimmy and most kids, though, is that his mother actually bought him one. George rented the vacant corner lot and built a horse stable. They bought another horse and a little donkey named Ginger for Jimmy's sister Rachel, nicknamed Giggs.

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