Face To Face

The murder of their loved one haunted Amy and Linda White until a Texas prison mediation program brought them together with the killer. Now they've all got their answers -- and unique justice.

 …with rejection comes anger, and with anger some kind of crime in revenge for the rejection, and with the crime guilt -- and there is the story of mankind. -- John Steinbeck, East of Eden

Five miles south of Wichita Falls and ten miles east of nowhere sits a depressing series of warehouse-type structures plopped in the midst of unremarkable pastureland. The Allred Unit prison is ringed by three chain-link security fences, 12 feet high and 50 feet apart, each dripping with row upon row of coiled razor wire. Sunlight shatters off the barbed metal, assaulting eyes for miles across the North Texas prairie.

That same stark scene extends to the Allred chapel. Except for the portable pulpit and a bookcase full of old hymnals, there's little to distinguish it from the other concrete and metal box-structures that constitute one of the world's largest prisons.

Unlike her killer, O'Daniel had an idyllic upbringing.
Linda White
Unlike her killer, O'Daniel had an idyllic upbringing.

On a Saturday last spring, Linda White and her granddaughter Amy perched uneasily on cheap metal chairs around a battered foldout table set up especially for them in the middle of the chapel. A solitary gray-uniformed guard kept watch from behind a glass partition.

The two visitors waited for the delayed arrival of the man who would take the chair an arm's length across from them, even though he was already nearby. Inmate Gary Brown, despite nine months of preparation for this meeting, was practically hyperventilating in an adjoining room. Repeated efforts to regain his composure failed. Finally, he staggered into the chapel, red-faced and trembling. Brown held his head in his hands, body withdrawn, feet pointed inward as if willing himself to shrink.

To the Whites, he was both a stranger and a force that had forever altered their lives 14 years earlier. Brown, after a life of running away, may never have felt more like running than he did at that moment. He wanted to explain. But he couldn't bring himself to look at the two women. Or to stop crying.

"I can tell it's going to be a kind of tough day," said Linda White.

On November 16, 1986, Gary Brown was on the run. A Texas Youth Council official had ordered the 15-year-old into Houston's Casa Phoenix drug treatment center that summer. And Brown was ordering himself out. "I got hot feet," he recalls. Brown took off with another 15-year-old center resident, Marion "Marvin" Berry. Their plan was to get high, and soon.

The youths left Casa Phoenix on an employee's motorcycle, then traded the stolen bike for a chunk of cocaine and a pair of syringes. They spent that Sunday night shooting up under a bridge in northwest Harris County, near the area where Berry had grown up.

The following evening, Brown and Berry stole a station wagon from a Target parking lot. Its owner had been loading furniture and had left the engine running. The stolen wagon came with a bonus: A loaded .22 Colt pistol was stashed under the seat.

The furniture was quickly sold for more dope. Brown and Berry began injecting speedballs, a potent cocaine-methamphetamine mix that produces a euphoric sense of wellness. They felt invincible. Barely 24 hours into their adventure, they'd acquired drugs, a gun and a car. They were real gangsters now.

Brown's escape -- if walking off from a treatment center can be called an escape -- was the latest episode in a dysfunctional existence. He never knew his father; his alcoholic mother left him in an orphanage for a few years.

By the time he was in second grade, a teacher noted that he lied, stole and set fires. At the age of eight, he fled home for the first of many times. He says he was trying to get away from his stepfather, who had some twisted ideas on discipline. According to the youth, "Either I could return a favor in a sexual way or I could get my butt whipped."

Brown made it to third grade before attempting suicide -- by swallowing a bottle of Tylenol. "I thought it would kill me," he says. This led to the first of four trips to Terrell State Hospital.

When he became a teenager, Brown was already abusing alcohol and a smorgasbord of narcotics. Bounced from institution to foster home to jail, he had an extensive juvenile record, mostly for stealing.

In 1984 a juvenile court judge packed Brown off to the Texas Youth Council. The 13-year-old returned a few months later to discover that his mother and stepfather had moved and left no forwarding address.

No one in his hometown of Greenville, 50 miles east of Dallas, was shocked when he was shipped back to youth correctional centers in '85 and '86 -- or that he fled both times. If there was a dominant motif in the life of Gary Brown, it was that he ran away.

The latest escape showed that Brown and Berry knew more about stealing cars than driving them. They filled the station wagon tank with leaded gas; the engine ran on unleaded fuel. The teenagers pulled the vehicle into an Exxon station near FM 1960 and Champion Forest Drive.

In a comic attempt to mix the blends of gas, Brown was bouncing on the rear bumper of the wagon, when, almost as if on cue, a tan sedan pulled up.

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