The news was disturbing. A nice Jewish couple in their fifties living in the Westchester subdivision in far west Houston woke up Sunday morning, March 11, to find a severed pig's head on the front doorstep, with various fish parts strewn around their property.
Was this an anti-Semitic attack, a hate crime? The couple display a mezuzah on the outside of their house, a protective symbol that Jews believe guards their home from harm. Pigs are considered unclean animals by Jews. Clearly this incident was beyond the investigatory powers of the local constable's service, hired by the neighborhood to provide that extra measure of protection designed to allow residents to sleep more safely at night. So the Houston police were called.
There was also the question of whether this was the aftermath of a road rage incident that had occurred a week and a half before. Someone had cut someone off. Someone had gotten mad.
But no one had spotted anyone doing anything. Yet there sat the pig's head, shown over and over on the television news, its piggy face permanently frozen in a death smile, slits of piggy eyes, pasty piggy color. Not a Babe kind of moment. The couple, who do not want to be publicly identified, were shaken and offended.
"We definitely feel threatened by it," the woman said from her home the next day. She'd taken time off from work to interview a succession of security firms to see what protective devices could be installed in her home. She was considering a surveillance camera. She still hadn't told her two grown children away at college; hadn't figured out what to say to them.
"At 7:15 my husband went out to get the newspaper. There was a huge pig head. It was posed, very deliberately placed there. Its tongue had been pulled down through the slit in the neck," she said. Fish entrails, bits of squid, shrimp and crab as well as fish carcasses were in their bushes. Other fish bits were inside their mailbox. Discarded surgical gloves and bags from a Fiesta supermarket were in the shrubs and a neighbor's yard.
The woman was in shock. "I've lived in Houston for 20 years, in this neighborhood for seven. We live in a nice neighborhood. Things like this are not supposed to happen here. Things like this are not supposed to happen anywhere."
As it turns out, it wasn't a hate crime, something everyone from the local chapter of the Anti-Defamation League to the Houston police sound very relieved about. It was road rage. The police know it. They talked to an 18-year-old suspect, and he admitted the deed. He went to a butcher shop and got his fish and pig parts. The pig's head was affordable. He had no idea the couple was Jewish. So this makes it somewhat less awful, yes?
Apparently so, because no charges were filed. Members of the Houston police major assaults team, called in for their expertise when the hate-crime angle was still being explored, brought the case to the Harris County district attorney's office. They went away empty-handed.
There were two possible charges, says Elizabeth Godwin, who has 27 years behind her as a prosecutor and is head of the Public Service Bureau at the D.A.'s office. One would be a "threat," but the chances of getting the guy to admit he was threatening the couple would be slim. The other would be criminal mischief, a Class C misdemeanor carrying a fine of up to $200 as punishment.
Unless you can show actual monetary damages of more than $50, you can't even get a Class C, she says. And what were the damages in this case? They had to pick up a mess in their yard, Godwin says, but there was no permanent damage to property.
"It's not that we didn't think it was offensive," Godwin says, "but there's a lot of obnoxious behavior that people visit upon each other that is not part of the criminal justice system."
So what led to this obnoxious behavior? HPD spokesman Martin DeLeon says, "A couple of weeks ago, a man who just happened to be Jewish was driving on the Beltway at the Katy Freeway. This was on February 28 around 4 p.m. There was a traffic altercation."
DeLeon says the two men became confrontational over a lane change after the 18-year-old driver of a pickup felt the other had cut him off in front. The teenager yelled at the other man from his truck and followed him home. The homeowner took down the license plate number and the other guy drove off.
That was on a Wednesday. Three days later, on Saturday, the couple found cans of sardines in their yard, on their windowsill and in the bushes. They cleaned it up and wrote it off as teenagers pulling a prank. It wasn't until the following weekend and the arrival of the pig's head that they called in the police, that they became truly frightened.
A year ago, the nation was briefly caught up in a case of road rage that seemed cruel beyond belief. Never mind adults who lose their heads and come to blows over fights on the roadway -- this was the case of a dog as sacrificial victim.
A man in California reached into the car of a woman, whose driving had enraged him, grabbed her dog from her lap and threw him into oncoming traffic. No miracle escape here; the ten-year-old bichon frise named Leo got creamed, dying later at a veterinary hospital. All because his owner had nudged another car from behind.
Owner Sara McBurnett said she bumped the man's truck after he cut her off in heavy traffic near the San Jose airport. He confronted her. When she rolled down her window to apologize, he snatched Leo and tossed him into three lanes of traffic.
Police assigned a lead investigator, one assistant and a sketch artist to the case, while fielding a lot of calls from other drivers who witnessed the encounter and took down license plate numbers. A reward fund for the arrest and conviction of the suspect reached $40,000. The suspect could face felony animal cruelty charges and as many as three years in jail. But by April 2000, even though the reward fund had reached $110,000 and even after McBurnett appeared on Oprah, no one had been apprehended.
The American Automobile Association keeps tabs and presents seminars on road rage. According to AAA, road rage in the United States resulted in 218 people murdered and 12,610 injured from January 1990 to September 1996. Rose Rougeau, spokeswoman for AAA/ Texas, says it is not uncommon at all for them to hear people justifying their road rage by saying, "He wouldn't let me pass" or "He kept tailgating me."
"The things we hear that make people so aggressive are so trivial," says Rougeau. To counter this, AAA has a 21-minute video, Preventing Road Rage, showing former road ragers confessing to their irrational reactions to the give-and-take of traffic. According to the film, the number of reported road rage incidents is growing at the rate of 7 percent each year. And they often involve people with "no history of criminal activity or violence anywhere else."
There are a few behaviors that apparently set off road ragers. "Cutting someone off" is at the top of the list. Next up is "driving slowly in the left-hand lane." Then there's "tailgating," followed by "gestures" -- and these don't need to be obscene. Just showing irritation can set someone off. AAA advises you to keep your hands on the wheel and away from the horn. If another driver gets angry, drop back or pull off the road -- but don't get out of your car and settle things "man to man."
Avoid the right-hand lane at stops if you're not turning right. Don't take more than one parking space, and don't let your door strike another vehicle. Give angry drivers a lot of room. Avoid eye contact with them. "Staring at another driver can turn an impersonal encounter between two vehicles into a personal duel."
If you do find yourself in the middle of a driving nightmare, AAA says "get help." This is where our Westchester homeowner went wrong. If the other driver is following you or trying to start a fight, use a cell phone to call police or go to a police station, hospital or shopping center, AAA says. Again, do not get out of your car. And, AAA says: Do not go home.
Adjust your own attitude, AAA advises. Get away from thinking of driving as some sort of competition, with a winner. Don't take other drivers' actions personally. Get yourself some help with anger management courses.
Outrageous road rage incidents make the news and the AAA report. In 1994 a 54-year-old beekeeper killed another man with an arrow fired from a crossbow after both traveled several interstate miles arguing. In Seattle, a 21-year-old college student was killed by another man after he was unable to disarm the loud alarm on his Jeep.
People get fed up; they have little tolerance for life's annoyances. As one man related in the film, the car was the one place he thought he had control in his life. Upset that, and his last area of sanctuary was threatened.
For most it's a sudden anger thing, the rush of adrenaline that pushes aside rational, calmer thought. According to AAA, most traffic disputes start when at least one of the drivers is having other problems. A bad driving move on one person's part is often the excuse rather than the reason for the violence that follows.
Weapons of choice range from fists and feet to the ever-handy tire irons and jack handles. Baseball bats and knives remain popular, as do beer and liquor bottles. Sometimes motorists use the vehicles themselves, driving them into another car or a crowd.
In an especially appetizing section, AAA reported that partially eaten food including burritos and hamburgers was hurled in a number of highway encounters.
But nowhere was there a mention of a pig's head.
Road rage is a term that AAA believes originated in the United States. Houston, with its miles upon miles of roads and its one-car, one-driver ethos, has to be one of the prime testing grounds in the country for all manner of vehicular attacks. We deplore the violence, but start choking up immediately when someone does something stupid to us on the road.
The guy with the pig's head didn't hit anyone, didn't kill anyone. He hurled words at another driver, intimidated him by following him home and terrorized a family that didn't know who its mystery attacker was. He nurtured his rage, his desire for revenge, for days. He worked out a way to get even, to get back, to show them. And now he just walks away from the whole thing untouched.
Sometimes you just don't get justice. Sometimes you just have to let it go and go on. That's what the Westchester couple is going to have to do. And that's what the pig's head guy is going to have to do, if he's ever going to grow up at all.