Strings Attached

Will Linden move on to become a music mecca or fall beneath the weight of a racist past?

Linden being the small town it is, McWaters has known Johnson for years. Pretty much everyone knew that Johnson was a little slow and lived in a trailer with a slow mother and that he was a peaceful person who walked around the courthouse square because he didn't have much else to do.

"He never did bother nobody or nothin'," McWaters says.

But Wilson has no faith in McWaters or a jury of the defendants' peers. As he and Curtis Stevenson like to say, they all go fishing together. Not even Tina Richardson, the black prosecutor handling the upcoming trials, offers any assurance.

Don Henley was the 2001 Wildflower Trails grand marshal.
Paul Ridenour
Don Henley was the 2001 Wildflower Trails grand marshal.
Bowden says he can bring stars to Linden.
Daniel Kramer
Bowden says he can bring stars to Linden.

Richardson, 33, joined the D.A.'s office in 1998 after graduating from Texas Southern University. She was raised in nearby Atlanta and is the first black attorney to work for the D.A.

But to Wilson, she is the D.A.'s "token nigger." To Wilson, that is the only way to account for an educated, articulate black person in a position of authority in Cass County.

"I think he's very concerned, and I believe the attitude he has is not uncommon if you are a minority," Richardson says. "Especially if you don't have a clear understanding of the legal system."

Four days after Hicks reported finding Johnson on the side of the road, he and Amox gave voluntary written statements to Ray Copeland, the sheriff's criminal investigator.

According to Amox's statement, he was the only one left in the Owenses's pasture after the rest of the party trickled away. Hicks and his common-law wife went to check on Hicks's hog traps. Owens went to the store to "pick up some tobacco products."

"While sitting out by this campfire alone after everyone had left, I heard footsteps approaching me," Amox's statement continues.

An unidentified black man walked toward Amox, telling him to turn down the country music blaring from his pickup. Amox wrote that although he told the man to leave "three or four times," the man "started approaching me a little bit faster than he had before. Then is when I hit him, not to intentionally hurt him, but to get him to leave. He then fell to the ground and was acting very strangely (throwing up and gargling)."

Hicks's statement has him returning to find a scared Amox. Hicks asked what happened.

"He stated that…as he waited, a black man came walking across the field…and was telling him to turn down the music," Hicks wrote. Then Amox told Hicks that he drove the man somewhere.

"[I] told him to show me," Hicks wrote. "He took me down CR 1617 and then 1620. The guy was there laying on the ground. He was still throwing up a clear substance and at which time Colt left and I called the sheriff's department and told them I found a man passed out on the ground."

But Copeland's investigation revealed that at least one of the defendants picked Johnson up at the Country Store and brought him to the pasture. Hicks's and Amox's statements weren't holding up.

A week later, all four were arrested and ultimately charged with injury to a disabled person, a first-degree felony that carries a maximum punishment of life in prison. Sheriff James "Troop" Estes fired Hicks.

Their mugs on the front page of the weekly Cass County Sun made them look like a defensive line -- all except for Stone, whose skinny neck and droopy-lidded eyes betrayed his nickname, Doofus.

The pressure proved too much for the Amox family, who sold their home, car and restaurant, and moved out of Linden shortly after Amox was charged. Stone left town as well, moving in with his father in Little Rock. None of the defendants, families or their attorneys wanted to comment for this story.

A grand jury indicted Hicks and Amox in March. Owens and Stone were indicted in May. Wilson says the district attorney is dragging his feet, that all four should have been indicted a long time ago.

It's a sentiment shared by Texarkana NAACP director Benjamin Dennis.

"Of course we understand that the wheels of justice turn slowly," he says. "But sometimes it seems as though they are turning backwards in this particular part of the state."

The NAACP's involvement fueled even more media coverage, and Linden's disdain for non-Wildflower Trails media attention is palpable. With the influx of television cameras, NAACP reps and Dallas FBI field agents, it was the Tank Cole experience all over again.

"Townspeople were taken aback by the media attention and some have complained that the media had twisted their words and 'left them' when they were told the town does not have a racial problem," Sun editor Judy Williams wrote after the charges were filed. "Parents already devastated by the charges facing their children were even more devastated by the media attention: 'Don't they know how much we are already suffering?' said one parent."

Some newspaper stories insisted that the defendants humiliated Johnson by making him dance. The information was attributed to unidentified "investigators" of nameless law enforcement agencies.

But Wilson says it's the truth -- he says he has a confidential source who was there that night.

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