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The Greater Texarkana Chapter of the NAACP and the FBI rolled into Linden to conduct separate investigations. The FBI found no signs of a struggle. Bark in the crotch of Cole's jeans indicated that Cole had shimmied up the trunk of the massive pine, wrapped one end of an extension cord around a limb, the other around his neck, and dropped. Furthermore, they couldn't find one person in town who had anything bad to say about Cole, a father and college student on the cusp of graduation.
The NAACP examined the same evidence and saw something else. They saw a black man killed in a way that echoed the South's grim past. A black man hanging from a tree was too powerful a symbol to chalk up to suicide.
At the time of his death, Cole was in a relationship with a white woman, a factor that the NAACP could not ignore. Seven years before Cole's death, a young black Cass County man named Dedrick Greenleaf was found in his car after he had bled to death from a gunshot wound to the groin. In the woods near where Greenleaf's car was parked on the highway, investigators found a dead baby deer and the man's shotgun. The official explanation is that Greenleaf happened upon the deer while driving alone at night, stopped his car, retrieved his old Stevens double-barreled from the trunk, and fired a non-fatal shot at the deer. He then was attempting to club it to death when the stock broke and the gun fired. With blood gushing from a major artery, Greenleaf staggered back to his car, where he slumped across the front seat and died. The NAACP, and many blacks, were quick to note that he was dating a white woman at the time.
"It's not healthy to have a white girlfriend in East Texas," says Bill Glenn, a private investigator who worked the Cole case for the Greenville branch of the NAACP. Although he didn't look into Greenleaf's death, he can't help but laugh when describing the young man as the one who "took this hankerin' to go deer hunting at two or three in the morning."
Glenn sides with Cole's mother, who believes someone killed her baby.
"Linden is a prejudiced little town," says Cole's mother, Azzie Lee Cole, who lives about 30 miles from Linden. "The black people up there is afraid to speak out somebody gonna pay for it one day, but I may not be here to see it."
In her initial media interviews, Cole's mother never mentioned the fact that her son was addicted to drugs and that the tree from which he hanged himself is known as a place for users and dealers to ply their trade. If she told the NAACP, they never mentioned it.
His girlfriend at the time, D'Ann Surratt, says Linden accepts black-white dating. Surratt says she and Cole were welcome in both black and white churches. When he died, blacks and whites came to her house bearing food and compassion.
"Nobody ever gave us any kind of flak," she says. "That's what bothers me so much the [stigma] about the racial thing."
She had dated black men since she was in high school and says she is currently dating a black Linden City Council representative.
At the height of the investigation into Cole's death, emotions only intensified when 32-year-old Camille Fulton dramatically walked into a Cass County hospital with the letters "KKK" carved backward into her chest.
According to her, two men with white sheets or pillowcases on their heads abducted and raped her before leaving their calling card in her skin.
What didn't make sense was why the Ks in her chest were backward. The more police poked around, the more holes they found, until Fulton fled to Arkansas. Fulton ultimately confessed to standing in front of a mirror and using scissors to carve the letters herself. She was charged with filing a false report, and although she recanted her confession, she was sentenced to ten years in prison. She served one year and is now on probation.
In July 2001, the Cole case was closed when handwriting analysis revealed that he wrote the note and an autopsy found alcohol and methamphetamine in his system. The national media disappeared, but the Klan rumor persists. Although the Southern Poverty Law Center's hate-group tracking system does not list any active Klan in Cass County, Azzie Lee Cole and other blacks -- usually older men and women -- believe the Klan is present there.
Clyde Lee, a black attorney in Texarkana who has tried cases in Cass County, also thinks there is a Klan presence. But he says he's more concerned about young black men killing other black men, which, in the ArkLaTex, happens far more often than deaths tied to hate groups.
Lee is the only black criminal defense lawyer in the area. He has a history of suspensions and probations from the State Bar of Texas for "conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation," according to the bar's Office of the Chief Disciplinary Counsel.
Black ministers, representatives of the nonprofit East Texas Legal Services, regional criminal justice professors and an ACLU attorney based in Texarkana all refused to comment on race relations in Cass County.