By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
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By Sean Pendergast
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As he would later admit, Colt Amox threw the first and only punch.
The 21-year-old former high school pitcher must have launched a phantom fastball, because when Billy Ray Johnson went down, he sputtered and gagged and didn't open his eyes for another three days.
It was about 1 a.m., and according to Cass County District Attorney Randall Lee, Amox and his three friends were standing in a pasture, wondering what to do about the unconscious, middle-aged, mentally disabled black man on the ground.
According to one person who was at the evening's pasture party, everyone they had been drinking with earlier had left, and now it was just those four and the body. A few hours earlier, one of them had picked Johnson up from the Country Store, and everyone was smoking and drinking and listening to C&W. Johnson was showing off his famous moves around the campfire. He may have had the mind of a child, but he could dance. He worked his five-foot-eight, 135-pound frame so well that he was a big hit at parties.
But now he was out cold -- dead, maybe, who knew? -- and they had a problem on their hands.
For one thing, 24-year-old Cory Hicks was a jailer for the Cass County Sheriff's Department and couldn't very well be involved with an assault. He had a common-law wife and two kids to support. His father was dead, so he couldn't rely on a parental ATM, unlike Amox, whose parents ran a successful seafood restaurant.
And this wouldn't look good for 19-year-old Wes Owens, either, since this pasture was his parents' property, and their house was right nearby. Besides, his mother worked in the county's adult probation department, and she couldn't have her son drinking with underage kids and hanging with guys who attack mentally incapacitated minorities.
And what about Dallas Stone, the youngest at 18, who had mostly black friends? How would he be able to show his face to them after word got out that one of his drunk friends had pummeled a black man who doesn't even have the wherewithal to drive a car?
If they called 911, or if they rushed Johnson to the hospital, they would be admitting their involvement. But now, the four young men had the feeling that this could just be their little secret, Lee believes. So, Lee says, they threw Johnson in the bed of a pickup and headed down Hamilton Road, which crosses Jim Bayou and turns into County Road 1617, a perilously winding blacktop route that cuts through trees harvested by International Paper Company.
According to what Lee and his investigator have been able to piece together, Amox, Hicks, Owens and Stone turned off CR 1617 onto CR 1620 and headed to their drop-off point. They pulled the truck over at a dump site for worn-out tires, dragged Johnson from the truck and dropped him on an anthill about six feet from the shoulder and about 60 feet from a mound of rotten rubber.
So much for the first part of the plan.
About three hours later, Hicks returned to the anthill to take care of the second part, Lee says. Hicks called the sheriff's department. He said he'd just found a body.
On U.S. 59 about 50 miles south of Oklahoma, in a corner of the universe known as the ArkLaTex, there's an intersection marked by a flashing yellow light, a decrepit pink motel and a gas station-convenience store where you can buy fresh pizza and fried catfish. If you turn left, you'll follow Main Street into Linden's courthouse square, or you can do like most people and head straight and forget about it.
Like other small East Texas towns, Linden has stalled out and is desperately seeking a way to get going again. Its brief dreams of oil prosperity were gone by 1948. Most of its residents work outside the county in nearby manufacturing plants.
In 1999, according to the most recent U.S. Census data available, 18.5 percent of Linden's 2,090 people lived in poverty. Poverty for individuals in 1999 meant an annual income below $8,500.
Thirty years ago, Linden was a shopping destination for all of Cass County. When Wal-Mart wanted to open a store inside the city limits, the residents sneered. They didn't want the corporate monolith killing independent business owners. So Wal-Mart just took its business 14 miles up the road to Atlanta, which destroyed the local mom-and-pops anyway.
In the mid-1990s, community leaders began looking at heritage tourism as a way to pull up their town. After all, the nearby town of Carthage had reinvented itself in 1992 by creating the Tex Ritter Museum, in honor of its most famous native son. Ten years later, the city moved its Texas Country Music Hall of Fame from a house into a $2.5 million building with a concert hall, gift shop and museum. Carthage had found a way to distinguish itself from its small-town neighbors along 59.
Surely Linden could do the same with its rich musical history. Eagles co-founder Don Henley grew up there; blues guitar master T-Bone Walker was born there. Scott Joplin, the father of ragtime, was born in the black Caves Springs community just outside the town.