By Chris Lane
By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
It's 7:30 in the morning on the day before Thanksgiving, and here comes Helen Phillips in her pickup truck. You can set your watch by Helen. She shows up at her little blue office at 7:30 every morning, except Saturdays, when she shows up at nine. Only on Sundays does she allow herself a day of rest.
Helen is the 68-year-old manager of the Bar X Ranch Property Owners Association, the organization that governs and maintains 3,000 acres of green grass, trickling bayous and nondescript homes nestled between Angleton and West Columbia on State Highway 35. The people who live at the Bar X say they moved here to enjoy the peace of country living. In her house, Helen keeps an aerial photo of the property with a caption that reads, "A little piece of Heaven."
But today it's gonna turn into a little piece of hell.
Helen pulls into her parking spot -- the same spot she parks in every day, under a majestic oak that shades her car in the summertime. You don't dare park in that spot unless you're Helen Phillips.
She's about to get out of her truck and head to the front door where she's posted the Bar X office rules: no smoking, no cash, no profanity. But then she notices a champagne-colored Dodge minivan parked two spots to her left. The engine's not running, and it's parked facing out.
Helen knows this van. It belongs to Bruce Rogers, a 69-year-old fellow Bar X resident. She's had some run-ins with Bruce in the past; he didn't like the way she was managing the place. But she likes him all right, and she isn't scared to see the van. She just wonders what the heck he's doing here so early in the morning. So she opens the truck door to ask him.
Before she can even form the words, Bruce Rogers points the barrel of his large-caliber handgun out the window of the van, just as naturally as if he were sticking out his hand to wave hello.
Pop! There goes one bullet, straight into Helen's upper torso, right under her left armpit. She doesn't realize what's going on until -- pop! -- there's another shot.
"Bruce, don't do this!" Helen pleads, slumping down in her seat, the truck door still open.
But he shoots again. Helen searches his eyes for a reason, but he just stares at her. She thinks he looks almost bored. After he's fired as many as eight shots, he puts the gun away. Helen catches a glimpse of his van in her rearview mirror, driving out of the ranch at a normal speed.
She calls her sons, Bo and Robert, using the walkie-talkie feature of her cell phone. Although she isn't feeling the pain yet, she thinks she's going to die, and she wants to be sure everyone knows who did this to her.
"Bo, come to the office. I've been shot!" she yells. "Bo, I've been shot by Bruce Rogers!"
Helen is LifeFlighted to Memorial Hermann Hospital, where doctors tell her they are amazed she's still conscious. Meanwhile, back at the ranch, the sheriff's department finds Bruce sitting in his house, his Dodge Caravan parked out front.
The shooting looked like the act of one disgruntled old man with a gun. But a curious thing happened in the days that followed. A buzz of gossip started to build among the Bar X's 300 residents. There was the usual relay of information, the speculations and guesses about what had occurred. But there was a strange tone to the murmurs. It seemed that lots of folks weren't too surprised Helen Phillips had gotten shot. In fact, some even seemed disappointed that Bruce Rogers hadn't had better aim.
The best thing that coulda probably happened is that the old gal would die, and there would probably be a party afterward if she had," said one Bar X resident to a television reporter in the aftermath of the attempted murder.
While a couple of Helen's neighbors weren't shy about getting on TV, most of them would talk about Helen only within the relative anonymity of the telephone, their voices near whispers, as if somehow she could hear what they were saying. They're afraid of her, they admitted. She's got an ego as big as the ranch, and if you mess with her, one warned, "she'll scream and holler in your face."
"She's one of the worst people to come in contact with," said another. "We think she runs the Bar X ranch to suit her."
"She's the queen," added an older resident, "of the Hottentot."
But there's a reason Helen Phillips thinks of the Bar X as her own personal kingdom: She saved it from ruin.
In the early 1800s, the property was a 5,000-acre sugar plantation that was eventually purchased by the Mills brothers, three famous Texas siblings who became the largest producers of sugar in the state. Over the years it mutated into a cattle ranch and then rice fields, shrinking each time it changed hands. By 1978, the remaining 3,000 acres were purchased by Gibraltar, a property development company that envisioned the land as prime real estate for families. It began selling acre lots, luring potential buyers with promotional gifts like VCRs and televisions.