Punks, Jocks and Justice
It lasted, at most, two or three seconds. Enough time to send a million impulses that ripped through her mind like neural buckshot.
They are stuck there as memories today, two years later, and Elise Thompson can feel them viscerally; she recalls the sounds, sights and sensations as though they were unfolding before her now.
The place is Amarillo, around 11 p.m. on December 12, 1997, a sharply cold winter night; she sees patches of snow on the asphalt.
She is sitting in the backseat of her friend's enormous Cadillac, and she is jerking her eyes from window to window as "chaos" wraps itself around her.
The car is moving.
She cannot form words, cannot breathe. Jagged images of bats and batons and chains crosscut the shadowy outlines of human figures chasing each other, grappling on the pavement.
Clubs and chains slam against glass and metal. The car turns, jumps a curb. She braces herself against the movements.
She hears the driver's words, floating up from the chaos, divorced from all context: "I'm a ninja in my Caddy."
She turns forward, straightens up in the middle of the backseat. Directly in front of the car, she sees a man with his arm raised up, his back to the grille. He is dressed in punk-rocker regalia. He is holding a black stick.
Instantly he turns. He is looking right at her. The look, she says, is "complete terror."
The car does not stop.
The man's body seems to roll onto the hood, then is sucked under. She feels one bump, then another.
She is hoping, desperately, that it is the median, not flesh.
She turns again, looking out the back window, and sees a crumpled figure on the pavement, limbs splayed, blood everywhere. A girl is running toward the body.
She hears more words from the driver; they have faded edges, they are less distinct. "I bet he liked that."
The car does not stop.
In tears, talking nervously about how he'd made a "mistake," about how he'd take the fall alone, the teenage driver of the Cadillac dropped off 16-year-old Thompson, his best friend, and Rob Mansfield, his buddy, who had been sitting beside him in the front seat, at their homes.
Mansfield and Thompson immediately woke up their parents. Within minutes, the families, who live across the alley from each other, were talking on the phone. Together, they escorted their children to the downtown police station, where both teens gave statements to officers.
Thompson did not sleep that night. She would go without sleep for many days.
The next morning would bring a small measure of order to the chaos. Order, but never any sense.
At 6 a.m. on December 13, Amarillo police pulled up to the home of a 17-year-old high school kid named Dustin Camp and arrested him for the death of 19-year-old Brian Deneke.
For whatever reason, Camp, universally described as a "clean-cut kid," with no criminal record, not even a traffic ticket, had not turned himself in after mowing down Deneke in his boatlike Cadillac.
Instead, he drove home and told his parents what had happened. They urged him to go to sleep; they'd do something about it in the morning. It was one of many missteps by Camp that would seem to indicate a callous nonchalance about Deneke's death.
Search warrant in hand, the police immediately examined the tan-colored 1983 Cadillac parked at the Camp home. On the hood were gashes and dings. On the car's undercarriage they found spattered blood.
An officer's affidavit shows that police seized as evidence "10 swabbings of possible blood," "2 hairs and/or fibers" and bits of paint. From the trunk, they got an "almost empty" bottle of Crown Royal whiskey and an 18-pack of Bud Light with 13 cans missing.
Dustin Camp was charged with murder.
From the accounts of witnesses in hospital emergency rooms and the homes of worried parents, police investigators pieced together an account of a colossal street fight: the jocks against the punks, or, in the derogatory tags the kids used, the "white hats" versus the "freaks."
Although as many as 50 teens were involved, no one will ever know the exact number. Most of them scattered immediately after Deneke was struck.
As cops delved deeper, the story that emerged from eyewitnesses grew uglier. Tension between the jocks and punks had existed for months. There had been constant name-calling in the halls of Tascosa and Amarillo high schools. Punks were getting jumped in the street by packs of white hats, so called because of their fondness for white caps bearing the names of colleges with top-ranked football teams, such as Notre Dame or Michigan. It's something none of the jocks wants to talk about now, but many of them appear to have made a sport of harassing the couple hundred punks, Goths and skinheads who make conservative Amarillo their home.
There was no doubt about the tribal identities of the suspect and victim.
Deneke was a punk, a wiry high school dropout with a faded blue Mohawk, spiked collar and leather jacket. He went by an unlikely moniker for a hardcore music fan, "Sunshine." Camp was the class clown, a baby-faced kid who played junior varsity football at Tascosa High, earned above-average grades and was more or less ambling toward college. Both were highly popular within their own groups.
From a distance the circumstances seem stark, the villain clear. Not so in Amarillo, where Camp's recent murder trial "split the community right down the middle," according to defense attorney Warren L. Clark. It caused a wave of small acts of retribution on both sides that are still continuing.
On the witness stand, the testimony of jocks and punks seldom jibed. Forcing his way through the many cracks in logic was Clark. He portrayed Deneke and his pals as goons, thugs and sociopaths, and Camp as a good, solid, normal kid wedded to Amarillo's favorite institutions: family and football.
It was an old courtroom trick, demonizing the victim, valorizing the perpetrator. And it worked. Dustin Camp walked free, convicted of manslaughter, not murder, sentenced only to probation and a $10,000 fine. Even the fine is probated.
The punks, and a good chunk of Amarillo's 175,000 citizens, are outraged.
"I thought it was bullshit," says 27-year-old David Trew, a friend of Deneke's. "Complete inanity that someone caught burglarizing a house or selling drugs can go to prison for 20 years, but for taking another human being's life he gets ten years' probation.
"I think when you're 17, you think you're invulnerable," he adds. "I don't think Mr. Camp understood the impact this would have on his life. We all do things in life where we say 'oops.' But murder is where I draw the line."
Elise Thompson sits in her apartment in Austin and tells the story of the "most traumatic and valuable experience of my life."
She is a freshman premed student at UT. Clear-eyed and pretty in an inconspicuous way, she is dressed plainly in college garb: khaki pants; a white, neatly pressed Banana Republic T-shirt; worn, brand-X sneakers. She crosses her legs politely and answers many questions with a soft "yes, ma'am."
Her friend Rob had blocked out all details of Deneke's death, so she would become the prosecution's star witness. People on both sides, from Camp's attorney to the punks who never knew her, would acknowledge that her testimony had the ring of truth. Her credibility was beyond question: She was the '99 class valedictorian at Tascosa High; she was the only important eyewitness who hadn't been drinking; she had no prejudices anyone could detect; she had no discernible motive for lying or blurring the facts.
The trial came at a time when Amarillo's prejudice, indignation and grief bled onto the letters page of the local newspaper and manifested itself in repeated incidents of intimidation involving both jocks and punks.
Thompson, when called upon to testify, would thread her way between the two tribes.
Out of the chaos, she drew sanity.
She remembers all the gossip at Tascosa High that Friday. A fight was gonna go down, combatants to be announced.
Word passed from a couple of football players to their girlfriends to some of the kids who occupy the spaces between the cliques in high school, kids slightly out of step with the campus mob. Kids like Elise Thompson, whose entertainment then and now centers around a weekly Young Life Bible study.
"The thing is," Thompson says, "I am so scared of fights, and I always have been. I detest violence. But fights never materialized. One side would show up, and everyone gathered in the parking lot. and you got to see all of your friends. It was just a big, fun social event, and that's what I thought was gonna happen."
When one of the punks talks matter-of-factly about his "anarchistic tendencies," he has obviously missed the irony of kids with Mohawks and pierced noses listening to the Subhumans, diving into mosh pits and digging the poetry of Jello Biafra not too far downwind from Amarillo's stinky feedlots.
They'll tell you it's tough being a punk in Amarillo. All of the kids in the "lifestyle," Goths and skins as well as punks, talk about the kind of harassment they regularly face from Amarillo's staid citizenry.
Just this morning, says Matt Bohannon, an iron-pumping skin who became the punks' informal spokesman during Camp's trial, he was run off the road on his bike by a posse of white hats in a pickup.
Some time ago, Julie Hollifield got a car stereo lobbed at her head while she was walking down the street. The guys who threw it missed, but barely.
Intimidation had become such a fixture in Deneke's life that he'd earned the nicknames "Punch," as in human punching bag, and "Fist Magnet."
"He took a lot of verbal and physical abuse from people," says his dad, 48-year-old Mike Deneke, who sells cookware for a living. "We tried to explain to him that if you dress that way, have your hair that way, people are gonna act negative towards you, and that's just the way it is.
"And he said it's not right, they shouldn't. And he's right, they shouldn't. But people do."
The young Deneke wasn't one to bow down to campus cliques. He began acquiring his unusual tastes in music and dress as a young skateboarder, zinging down homemade ramps in his parents' backyard with his older brother Jason, even vaulting over cars.
His love of skateboarding led to a clash with his scoutmaster, who once kicked Deneke's most beloved possession out the door. The boy picked it up and seemed ready to hit back, but he didn't. Camp's attorney would dredge up that incident in the trial as an early example of Deneke's "antisocial behavior."
Along with skateboarding came punk music. And as Deneke grew older, the music would eclipse his hobby.
Subhumans, Naked Aggression, Blank '77, Logical Nonsense -- Deneke's buddies list the names of his favorite bands, several of whom he lured to Amarillo for live performances. "He'd write 'em and ask them to play here, as many times as it took for them finally to agree," says John King, one of Deneke's closest friends. "He'd take money out of his own pocket and rent a place for them to play."
Deneke couldn't play instruments himself, but his passion for music got him singing in a local band. The name, White Slave Traders, had the requisite dose of cheap outrage. But if he got overly bored at home, he'd hitchhike cross-country, meeting up with punk "squatters" in other towns, getting drunk, watching bands, surviving by "spanging," as in spare-changing.
In Amarillo, Deneke had work. He painted whimsical road signs for local entrepreneur and pop-art enthusiast Stanley Marsh III, the force behind the city's famed roadside sculpture Cadillac Ranch. He often used his paycheck to cover the bills at a series of communal homes the punks shared and sometimes used as underground clubs.
Like many of his friends, Deneke would shave, bob and spike his hair in odd configurations and apply lurid hues. They eventually faded to the default color of all homemade dye jobs, a certain sickly green. He wore a black leather jacket, camouflage trousers, spiked belts and dog collars, all trademarks of a look that reached its peak in Britain in the late '70s. It survives today, thousands of prairie miles from its historical context, in places where kids know little about "Break Free From Oppression" and "Smash Government Corruption," two of the vaguely punk slogans Deneke stenciled onto his thermal underwear.
Wardrobe aside, Deneke possessed a personal magnetism that separated him from his peers. "He was real cute," says Jennifer Hix, Deneke's on-again, off-again girlfriend. "He had a really positive, outgoing personality. Instead of sitting on his ass, he'd rather do something. He was real fun."
That energy and charm fit perfectly with his role as Amarillo's 19-year-old punk impresario. He lured bands from as far away as L.A., put on his own shows and got to know just about everyone whose musical tastes ventured into the margins. At gathering places such as The Egg and a sprawling communal home for punks on Eighth Street, kids would assemble for shows, dancing and downing pints of bottled Guinness, their preferred poison.
The punks repeatedly talk about Deneke's ability to generate excitement out of nothing. And Amarillo, they remind you, is pretty close to nothing on the thrills spectrum. Daniel Kelso, who worked with Deneke, explains his unusual charisma. "Brian was probably the most self-aware, self-realized and happy-go-lucky 19-year-old I've ever run into. He was always in a good mood, always smiling, even when bad shit happened."
Rumbling with the jocks probably never fit into Deneke's idea of a good time. But punks saw confrontation and provocation as regular features of their lives and were prepared to deal with it. "You don't have to go looking for trouble in this town," King says. "If you look different, it will come to you."
Even so, everyone admits that the trifling events leading up to the big fight were just stupid.
Chris Oles, a tall, spindly punk with a hollow American Gothic face, salvaged his pride the best he could, by blowing gentle kisses to the table of jocks gathered in the side room at IHOP on December 6, a week before Brian Deneke's death.
Who started it is a cause of much dispute. Oles, now 23, says the jocks began harassing him when he was forced to walk past them on the way to the toilet. Justin Devore, one of the jocks, says Oles egged them on by repeatedly pulling up his shirt and exposing what appeared to be a knife handle. Oles denies this.
Whatever the case, the conflict amped up several notches when two other guys at the IHOP, John King and Dustin Camp, got in each other's faces.
Neither kid knew the other. But amid the exchange of macho epithets, witnesses on both sides saw Camp, a pudgy football player from Tascosa High, jab his finger into King's chest.
Wrong guy. Of all the punks, King, now 19, is known for his short fuse. Combat pants slung down low, slouched in a chair and gazing at you with half-lit eyes, he talks quietly about smashing in someone's head with a police baton. "I'm a punk," he says. He could just as well mean thug.
That night King just gave Camp a hard shove. Oles tried to diffuse things, he says, grabbing his friend in a headlock and pulling him away while someone else hustled Camp out the door.
Outside, Oles met some allies, including Deneke. Meanwhile, King strolled to Camp's car and offered a few parting words.
Camp suddenly peeled out of the parking lot and hopped over a median, recalls Kendra Petitt, who had joined the punks. "He came up behind [the punks]. I'll never know how they moved -- it all happened so fast -- but they had to jump out of the way. He was trying to hit them. He had it floored. His tires were screeching."
Camp and King both displayed their predilections that night: Camp for playing chicken with punk pedestrians, King for picking fights with moving cars. Because as the jocks drove by, King busted Camp's window with his expandable police baton.
"Yes, ma'am," Elise Thompson says with her characteristic transparency, Deneke's death is all about prejudice.
She doesn't seem to realize that the jocks take great pains to deny this.
"I think it's just human nature," she says, pressing for understanding. "I think in all high schools across America there's the stereotypes, and in general high school kids are just really intolerant of differences."
So it was on the night of December 12, 1997. It was Friday, a week after the trash-talkin' incident at IHOP, and Thompson was hanging around with Rob Mansfield. They'd tried dating briefly, choked on their familiarity with each other, then quickly retreated to being best friends again.
That evening Thompson would tag along while he went out with his jock buddies. They "house-hopped," playing pool, talking, downing a few beers at the homes of friends. She mostly chatted with the girlfriends; back then, she never drank.
Thompson and Mansfield ended up in Dustin Camp's car. She didn't know Camp well, but he was a obviously a funny guy, forever cracking jokes. Good company for a typically boring Amarillo night.
In the background, of course, was talk of the big fight. So around 11 p.m., hoping to locate a livelier scene, the kids drifted in their cars to the rumored gathering place, the all-night IHOP, home of fluffy cheese blintzes and coffee-sipping punk rockers.
Brian Deneke's final hours are a bit of a haze. He and his buddies had spent the evening at home with Guinnesses. One kid would testify that Deneke had just a few beers, but his autopsy revealed a blood-alcohol level of .18, an amount that clearly would have got him arrested had he been driving.
The punks had also heard about the fight. Of course, those who'd been at the IHOP the previous week had some inkling there could be trouble. Blame it on Amarillo's perpetual state of inertia. They drove there anyway.
"We were all drinking and stuff," says Jacqui Balderaz, "and it was kind of stupid to go up there."
When Thompson and the others got to the IHOP, the lot was so full that Camp had to park his Cadillac next door.
They walked over and joined about 20 Tascosa kids who were hanging out, talking, running around giddily. Thompson switched on her "social bug" self. She could mix with the popular kids, even if she wasn't exactly one of them.
Leaving Mansfield and Camp with the guys, she went inside the restaurant to sit with some friends. Some minutes later Mansfield came in to retrieve her.
"We're leaving," he said.
That's when things started getting creepy. She stepped outside the restaurant, right into some kind of argument.
"There's this big guy who's the manager of IHOP, and he's standing with his head out the door, and he's yelling, 'Y'all get out of here, take this someplace else.'
"To my left, there's two or three of the punk people, for lack of a better word. There was this one punk guy who was really, really tall and scary-looking, and he's holding up one of those police sticks, and he's yelling at the group of people I knew in the parking lot.
"Then there's this little guy standing next to him, and I heard him say, 'We can take 'em. I know we can take 'em.' "
John King admits he "flicked open" his expandable police baton, then handed Chris Oles a baseball bat. Oles accepted it, because the punks -- all nine of them, including four girls -- were hugely outnumbered by the herd of beefy jocks milling around the parking lot.
Depending on who's telling the story, there were a total of 30, 50 or 100 kids there that night. Strange, then, that the jocks speak of the punks as though they were omnipresent, moving in packs with animal speed from fight to fight to fight.
Thompson felt relieved when Mansfield insisted they get into the car. She presumed they were easing out of a scene that was getting altogether too tense.
But almost as soon as they sat down, Camp saw everyone streaming across the street to the Western Plaza Shopping Center. Rather than drive away, he followed them.
The way the punks tell it, Brian Deneke was running across Western Avenue with waves of kids on foot and in cars following him.
Oles got stuck in the middle of the street on the median, and some jocks in a red Blazer nearly ran him down. John King got to smash out another window.
Here the stories diverge sharply: At least four of the punks -- Oles, King, Jason Deneke and Jacqui Balderaz -- say they saw Brian Deneke curled up on the asphalt, getting clobbered by several jocks. "He was down in the fetal position," says Balderaz. "I remember kicking and hitting."
The jocks report a remarkably similar scene, though this time the kid on the ground is one of their own.
What seems likely is that so much was going on, no one person could take it all in.
"By now the fighting is in full force," Thompson remembers. "There are just tons of people, everybody's going crazy. I mean, I'd never seen anything like that. To me, it just looked like this mass confusion of people just running after each other, hitting each other with sticks and chains and bats, horrible, horrible.
"Then Rob says, 'Oh my gosh, look at Andrew [McCulloch].' "
Their jock buddy was on the ground, getting hammered by armed punks. Mansfield opened the car door and stuck his foot out, thinking he'd help rescue his friend. But Camp hit the accelerator, and Mansfield quickly pulled the door shut.
Camp maneuvered his car toward the throng surrounding McCulloch. He took aim, pushed the pedal and thunk -- that was Chris Oles's gangly frame rolling off his hood like a Panhandle tumbleweed.
Oles quickly got back on his feet; he seemed more shocked than anything.
"He just hits him, like, in the heinie," Thompson says. "Then he starts driving around, through where the body of the fighting is. I remember [chains and clubs] were being beaten on the car windows; it was really scary."
Then "just all of a sudden," Camp wheeled the car around, skipped a median and headed straight for a punk who turned out to be Brian Deneke. Off to his side, away from the car's path, Thompson saw the shape of another man. The two men were fighting each other, though she can't explain how, given the distance between the two.
"I realize, oh my gosh, we're heading directly for a human being."
She remembers no sound on impact. Just a freeze-frame of Deneke, stick in hand, looking directly at her, directly through her.
"I bet he liked that," Camp said as he drove away.
"Dustin was heading for the highway and, like, from the moment we hit him till we got on the highway, it was complete silence. It seemed like forever. And then I started, like, freaking out, rocking back and forth and stuff, and just covering my face.
"Then I just started saying, 'Oh my God. Oh my God.' Over and over again. And then I was praying -- I was crying out to God, you know, like, 'Oh my God, help me, please.' And then I sat up and leaned into the front seat, and they were completely silent sitting there.
"I said, 'What if he's dead?' And no one said anything."
Memories of Brian Deneke's final moments are tattooed in the consciousness of everyone who witnessed them, even though the details don't always agree.
Chris Oles: "You know those low-rider cars? That's what it looked like. It just went over the top of him and bounced. You know what the scary thing was? After he ran over him, they all started cheering."
Jennifer Hix: "Blood was coming out of every hole in his head. He got squished. There was blood, like, from his nose, ears and mouth."
John King: "He was saying something, but I don't think anybody understood it. There was all of us surrounding him, and Jason was like holding him in his lap. There was blood everywhere -- tons of blood."
Hix: "I felt like I was in a movie or something, like it was fake. All these Christian people were, like, saying prayers, and I said man, he's fuckin' dead. He's dead he's dead he's dead."
Deneke's body lay in a patch of snow against the median Camp's car had jumped. The crime-scene photos show him lying on his left side, arms grotesquely askew. His Mohawk is flopped to the side, like a wilted flower.
His front teeth are broken. A deep gash runs down the left side of his face. His left shoulder is ripped out of joint. An autopsy would reveal that his skull, spine, pelvis and several ribs had been crushed.
None of the jocks stopped to see what happened, much less give aid.
In the days that followed Deneke's death, the punks would turn to each other, retreating into their close-knit community.
That's what happened, but no one can tell you much about it. "I stayed drunk for a long time," Hix says. "There would be cases of beer in our house every night."
When the kids emerged from their drunken trance, they gathered remembrances of Deneke's life. Some attached bits of Jason's bloody jeans onto their leather jackets; others, such as Oles, tattooed the victim's name onto their arms. Later Deneke's family printed T-shirts with his face against a field of orange flames, with the words, "Brian Deneke: Hate Kills!!!" Another version, more popular with the girls, read, "Punk Angel -- Will You Be Mine?"
The loss hit hardest in the Deneke household. Mike and Betty Deneke had struggled to hold onto a relationship with their son as he ventured deeper into a lifestyle so utterly alien from his parents' small-town Kansas upbringing. His music, to them, was noise. They didn't understand his fondness for blue hair, or some of the creepier friends who trooped through their house, or his disdain for school.
They always fought to understand, and today their grief hides an earlier, deeper heartache, the fact that in some ways, they had lost their son long ago.
The final break wasn't any less agonizing because of it. Betty Deneke was hanging yule decorations in her living room that night; the family still spent Christmases together. Their son Jason called her from the IHOP. He was crying, but he wouldn't say what had happened.
She recalls this in words so soft, they are barely audible. But no words of explanation were needed when she arrived at Western Plaza and saw the blood, the yellow sheet and the form of her son's body beneath it.
For a while she thought she was fine. She didn't understand the pathology of shock, the numbness that allows you to live, for a time, in a mental safety zone.
It doesn't last.
Elise Thompson crashed hard after finals week at Tascosa High. She couldn't sleep; she'd awaken with horrible nightmares, like watching herself murder the girls in her Bible study.
She became so depressed, so immersed in guilt that she had done nothing to stop Deneke's death, that she shuffled around in dirty pajamas for weeks, refusing to bathe or brush her teeth. Her reasoning, such as it was, was that if he could no longer participate in the mundane activities of life, then neither should she.
Eventually Thompson went into therapy. It helped; the nightmares faded, and what she knew in her mind, that she hadn't caused Deneke's death, eventually seeped into her heart.
It was a long process, enough time to scrutinize every indelible image countless times.
After the "wreck," as she calls it, she and Rob Mansfield didn't speak to Dustin Camp, who was eventually transferred from Tascosa to an alternative high school to finish his studies. But Thompson reached some conclusions on her own.
Despite his callous words before and after the impact, Thompson decided that Camp had made a dreadful mistake, albeit one borne of prejudice, cowardice and fear.
"I don't think he was being rational," she says. "I really think that Dustin hitting people with the car was out of fear.He wanted to help his friends, but he didn't have the courage to get out and fight with his fists. So he fought with his car."
She offers her opinion without anger or guile. Yet her words softly damn him.
That same duality was present in her speech as class valedictorian of Tascosa High that spring.
What she hadn't realized at first was that Camp would be at her graduation, allowed by school authorities to collect his diploma at Tascosa. With a teenager's inordinate fear of hurting someone's feelings, she showed him the text of her speech and sought his permission to mention the wreck.
"Well, he read it," Thompson recalls, "and he looked at me, and he was like, 'This sounds great, you've done a good job, I hope it goes well.' "
As she mounted the stage at her May 28 graduation this year, she prayed silently. She recalls that the words came with ease:
"The evening of December 12, 1997, was the most traumatic and valuable experience of my life," she began. "I was a passenger in a car that hit and killed a young man during a fight, a fight which took place between two groups of people who wore different types of clothes. And yes, if time could be turned back, any person in that car would have changed the outcome."
She spoke about her guilt, her depression and being forced to measure the value of a life.
Even the value of Dustin Camp's life.
"Some are black, some are white, some are brown some rich and some poor. But always human," she said. "So I challenge you and me, all of us, to break through the stereotypes."
Something that, in the case of Brian Deneke's death, only she was able to do.
August 20, 1999. The trial will be remembered as a great Texas tragedy. The air-conditioning went out. It continued pushing air, but it wasn't cooling anything.
Local lawyers would comment that this was the hottest trial Amarillo had seen in decades. The courtroom, with 49 seats, was full every day.
Cops and bailiffs seemed prepared for the worst. Punks and jocks and their respective families were ushered to bathrooms on separate floors. In the courtroom, they occupied different sections.
Seated on opposite sides of the room, Mike and Debbie Camp, who ran a repair shop, and Mike and Betty Deneke actually looked eerily similar. Middle-aged, middle-class, small-town.
Emotions ran high everywhere. In this atmosphere, Clark, Camp's attorney, waged total war. In his opening statement, he set on end the swell of sympathy for the punks that had begun showing up on the local paper's editorial page. If anyone expected respect for the victim, even a token offering of shared grief, they didn't understand the ferocity with which Clark would defend his client.
"This is not a case about diversity or tolerance or judging people by the way they dress," he said in his tempered twang. "This case is about a gang of young men who chose a lifestyle, unorthodox as it is, designed to intimidate those around them, challenge authority and provoke reaction from others. This is a case about the consequences of engaging in aggressive behavior."
In arguments and testimony spanning 13 days, Clark successfully shifted focus from Camp's actions to the quality of Deneke's life.
It was a risky tactic; Clark knew it could backfire if he didn't do it convincingly. But he did his homework, dredging up bits of muck from Deneke's past, like the clash with the scoutmaster and an arrest for throwing a cinder block through someone's car window. At the time, he was found to be carrying a homemade blackjack.
"If Brian Deneke is this person that he's been portrayed to be -- peaceable, law-abiding, a real artist, slated for sainthood," Clark asks today, "then why does he have to walk around town with a weapon on his person?"
Clark scooped that stuff out along with generally distasteful observations about Deneke's cohorts. In the eyes of many Amarillo residents, the proceedings hit a low point when Clark called the punks "goons."
"Goons. I called them drunk goons. I don't take it back," Clark says today, before the question is even fully asked. "Goon -- someone who is wielding a club or a chain or a bat, dressed up with mascara on their face, spiky boots, dog collars, garish makeup. I can imagine what that person looks like as he approaches me with his hand up, ready to beat me. I call that an armed goon."
Slowly the defense attorney built credibility for what seemed on its face preposterous, that Dustin Camp had squashed Brian Deneke to keep him from killing one of the jocks, Justin Devore. (Something Devore couldn't recall because he'd been whacked in the head with a police baton by someone else.)
Clark didn't tiptoe around the distasteful fact that Camp had used his car as a weapon. "No doubt about it," he says now. "The law allows the use of a deadly weapon in defense of a third person, but only in the situation where deadly force is being used against the third person."
Clark's theory was a stretch. The prosecution countered with testimony from Chris Oles, John King and Jason Deneke that always pointed to the dead youth as victim, not perpetrator, a sort of James Byrd Jr. in a blue Mohawk.
It didn't help Deneke's cause that the punks sometimes appeared smug and got lost under cross-examination. Clark says getting them to contradict themselves "was like taking candy from a baby."
Neither did it help when King got on the stand and flatly volunteered that he was the one who clobbered Justin Devore as hard as he could with a metal police baton. Until then, Devore hadn't had a clue who hit him, splitting open his scalp. It took 13 staples and three interior stitches to patch it up.
The racially mixed jury chose whom and what it would believe, and in the end, Elise Thompson's eyewitness testimony would stand as the most credible account supporting a murder conviction. Her recollection of Camp's words before and after the crime provided the jury with the evidence of intent. Unlike the punks, Thompson held her ground under cross-examination.
None of the punks had known she would break ranks with the jocks and testify as she did. They admired her courage, the way she sat up straight and looked directly into the eyes of her questioner.
Somehow it didn't matter. Given the charge to choose between innocence or a conviction for manslaughter or murder, the jury chose the lesser felony. Manslaughter represented the judgment that Deneke's death occurred as a result of the defendant's reckless conduct.
Never, it seemed, had a jury wrestled so hard to fit everything around the assumption that Dustin Camp was, and shall always remain, an essentially "good kid."
Camp didn't testify on his own behalf until the penalty phase of the trial. The climax was his apology to the Deneke family: "It's a tragic deal that happened," Camp said. "It shouldn't have happened."
Several people present say he never even bothered to look at the Denekes. The impression it left with David Trew, a friend of Brian Deneke's, was that the apology "sounded insincere, like something Warren Clark wrote on a cue card for him."
Even so, the jury returned what Clark, and the district attorney, Rebecca King, admit was an uncommonly mild sentence: ten years' probation and a $10,000 fine.
It doesn't bother Clark that he stirred up so much ill will in Amarillo through his aggressiveness.
Besides, he adds, the punks, their friends, even Deneke's parents, "refuse to this day to concede that Brian Deneke bore responsibility for what happened to him. He was drunk, he was armed, and he was beating people. He was armed with a club. I can only assume that he had the intent to cause serious bodily injury or death."
Of course, Camp was also drinking, had failed to aid his victim, didn't report the incident to police and had already used his car as a weapon on two other occasions. Furthermore, Devore had no recollection of being the endangered person in Clark's scenario of self-defense.
Sitting in his modest office a couple blocks from the courthouse, Clark does an admirable job of concealing his glee that his client got off so easily.
He did it, Trew adds, "because people in Amarillo would buy it."
You cannot feel his pain.
Dustin Camp sits at home, sunken into a couch, eyes fixed on the TV. The crackling humor has dulled; Mr. Obnoxious has grown up, slowed down, something. He's not quite the same, say two buddies, Justin Devore and John Lyon, who've stuck with him through everything.
You think this is easy for him? Well, Dustin's gotta be home by ten every night. He can't even go hunting -- that involves firearms. Heck, his family is into guns. And he can't even party -- that would show up on a drug test.
He goes to the mall, and people stare. They whisper. They point.
And -- Can you believe it? -- on Mondays after work, he has to go to a rage management class. And Dustin's no angry dude, his friends say. He's a good kid. A good kid, they say again, as though repetition will convince you.
Okay, so someone got killed. No one really wanted someone to get killed.
"They think because he murdered someone, he's a bad person," Lyon says.
Life is rough.
At least it's life.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Houston Press' biggest stories.