It's 7:30 in the morning on the day before Thanksgiving, and here comes Helen Phillips in her pickup truck. You can set your watch by Helen. She shows up at her little blue office at 7:30 every morning, except Saturdays, when she shows up at nine. Only on Sundays does she allow herself a day of rest.
Helen is the 68-year-old manager of the Bar X Ranch Property Owners Association, the organization that governs and maintains 3,000 acres of green grass, trickling bayous and nondescript homes nestled between Angleton and West Columbia on State Highway 35. The people who live at the Bar X say they moved here to enjoy the peace of country living. In her house, Helen keeps an aerial photo of the property with a caption that reads, "A little piece of Heaven."
But today it's gonna turn into a little piece of hell.
Helen pulls into her parking spot -- the same spot she parks in every day, under a majestic oak that shades her car in the summertime. You don't dare park in that spot unless you're Helen Phillips.
She's about to get out of her truck and head to the front door where she's posted the Bar X office rules: no smoking, no cash, no profanity. But then she notices a champagne-colored Dodge minivan parked two spots to her left. The engine's not running, and it's parked facing out.
Helen knows this van. It belongs to Bruce Rogers, a 69-year-old fellow Bar X resident. She's had some run-ins with Bruce in the past; he didn't like the way she was managing the place. But she likes him all right, and she isn't scared to see the van. She just wonders what the heck he's doing here so early in the morning. So she opens the truck door to ask him.
Before she can even form the words, Bruce Rogers points the barrel of his large-caliber handgun out the window of the van, just as naturally as if he were sticking out his hand to wave hello.
Pop! There goes one bullet, straight into Helen's upper torso, right under her left armpit. She doesn't realize what's going on until -- pop! -- there's another shot.
"Bruce, don't do this!" Helen pleads, slumping down in her seat, the truck door still open.
But he shoots again. Helen searches his eyes for a reason, but he just stares at her. She thinks he looks almost bored. After he's fired as many as eight shots, he puts the gun away. Helen catches a glimpse of his van in her rearview mirror, driving out of the ranch at a normal speed.
She calls her sons, Bo and Robert, using the walkie-talkie feature of her cell phone. Although she isn't feeling the pain yet, she thinks she's going to die, and she wants to be sure everyone knows who did this to her.
"Bo, come to the office. I've been shot!" she yells. "Bo, I've been shot by Bruce Rogers!"
Helen is LifeFlighted to Memorial Hermann Hospital, where doctors tell her they are amazed she's still conscious. Meanwhile, back at the ranch, the sheriff's department finds Bruce sitting in his house, his Dodge Caravan parked out front.
The shooting looked like the act of one disgruntled old man with a gun. But a curious thing happened in the days that followed. A buzz of gossip started to build among the Bar X's 300 residents. There was the usual relay of information, the speculations and guesses about what had occurred. But there was a strange tone to the murmurs. It seemed that lots of folks weren't too surprised Helen Phillips had gotten shot. In fact, some even seemed disappointed that Bruce Rogers hadn't had better aim.
The best thing that coulda probably happened is that the old gal would die, and there would probably be a party afterward if she had," said one Bar X resident to a television reporter in the aftermath of the attempted murder.
While a couple of Helen's neighbors weren't shy about getting on TV, most of them would talk about Helen only within the relative anonymity of the telephone, their voices near whispers, as if somehow she could hear what they were saying. They're afraid of her, they admitted. She's got an ego as big as the ranch, and if you mess with her, one warned, "she'll scream and holler in your face."
"She's one of the worst people to come in contact with," said another. "We think she runs the Bar X ranch to suit her."
"She's the queen," added an older resident, "of the Hottentot."
But there's a reason Helen Phillips thinks of the Bar X as her own personal kingdom: She saved it from ruin.
In the early 1800s, the property was a 5,000-acre sugar plantation that was eventually purchased by the Mills brothers, three famous Texas siblings who became the largest producers of sugar in the state. Over the years it mutated into a cattle ranch and then rice fields, shrinking each time it changed hands. By 1978, the remaining 3,000 acres were purchased by Gibraltar, a property development company that envisioned the land as prime real estate for families. It began selling acre lots, luring potential buyers with promotional gifts like VCRs and televisions.
Helen and her late husband, who ran a trucking company and lived in Rosenberg, bought a lot in 1981, intending to use it as a weekend getaway.
"We just fell in love with it," she says. "We liked it because of the open space. My husband loved the oak trees."
But in 1989 they got an offer they couldn't refuse on their Rosenberg home, and built a new house at the Bar X. They moved, looking forward to spending their retirement in such a pleasant place.
Then the bottom fell out of the real estate market, and Gibraltar declared bankruptcy. A company called Oxford bought the remaining Gibraltar lots, but it too was racked with financial problems. To make matters worse, the management company hired by Gibraltar was still collecting maintenance fees without doing much maintaining.
"We were devastated out here," says Helen. The books were in disarray, with checks to maintenance crews and contractors bouncing left and right.
In the mid-'90s, Bar X residents slowly began to take control of the land by purchasing lots themselves and paying the back taxes. Helen and her husband bought several hundred acres to help push Oxford out of the picture. But Helen decided that wasn't enough.
"I had just sold my business, and I'd been off for two weeks and it was driving me crazy," she says. Her husband, Buddy, a stout man whom everybody else on the Bar X took to calling Big Daddy, had retired years earlier to fight emphysema, but Helen couldn't stand being around the house with nothing to do.
In July 1995 she agreed to become acting administrator of the ranch. She sifted through more disorganized paperwork than she could stand, and collected no salary. But she's quick to point out that she wasn't the only one who volunteered.
"A lot of homeowners out here pitched together," she says.
The fight between the residents and Oxford went all the way to court, where Helen led the Bar X landowners in victory. In 1997, with the ranch financially stable and solely in the hands of the property owners, Helen was officially hired by the board of directors as a paid manager. Her duties included notifying property owners of deed violations, collecting maintenance fees and organizing paperwork.
For Helen, the opportunity to manage the ranch seemed like a special gift. She thought of it as her chance to have an extended family of sorts.
A native of a tiny town in Wisconsin, she left home two weeks before her 13th birthday. Her parents, she says, were "pretty rough," so she went to live with a family for whom she baby-sat. They gave her room and board in exchange for child care.
But she was never a wild kid, Helen says. She remained the kind of person she thought her parents would have wanted her to be. Still, she couldn't bring herself to enjoy school, and never went further than the eighth grade -- still one of her biggest regrets.
One night, while hanging out with other teenagers in the town square, she saw a macho-looking guy with a good build and dark, curly hair driving slowly around the block.
"It was the naughtiest thing I ever did," she remembers. "He was driving around and my friend and I crossed the road so we'd be on the opposite side when he stopped. We stood there and talked for a long time. And I told my friend Shirley, 'Shirley, I'm gonna marry that guy.' And three days later we were married. I was 17." The young couple eventually had two sons and a daughter and settled in Texas, where they ran a successful trucking company that hauled chemicals all over North America.
Once Helen was settled as manager of the Bar X, her family and the ranch seemed to bleed together. All three of her kids took up residence, her granddaughter was elected to the board, and Helen's son Bo was hired as the maintenance man. Even Big Daddy, though he was suffering from breathing troubles, took to patrolling the ranch with his miniature pinscher, Cricket, by his side. Where some might see nepotism, Helen just saw a chance to involve her whole family in what she thought was the greatest place on earth.
Hard times came for Helen, but they didn't stop her devotion to the Bar X. Big Daddy died in August 2001, just five days before their 50th wedding anniversary, and Helen had to turn the planned celebration into a memorial service. In June 2002, she underwent her last chemotherapy treatment for breast cancer. She was so hard-nosed about beating the cancer on her own that she didn't even tell her children she had it until the night before her mastectomy. (When speaking of the shooting, she jokes that Bruce Rogers "got my only good boob.")
Despite the chemo treatments wiping her out physically, Helen proudly proclaims, "I never missed a day of work. Never missed a day of work. God gives me what I can handle, and he knows I'm a tough old girl."
Lorenda Anderson, part-time Bar X bookkeeper and Helen's longtime friend, says it's impossible to imagine anyone complaining about her boss. The woman couldn't love the Bar X more if she tried. She organizes garage sales, worries about sick residents and gets emotionally involved with everyone she meets.
"This ranch is her family, her home," says Lorenda. "She didn't have that when she was growing up. She just wants this to be the most wonderful place in the world."
But this past year a renegade Web site, an attempted coup d'état and defamation lawsuits have shattered Helen's little piece of heaven. It seemed the Bar X would never become the happy household of Helen's dreams. Or perhaps it was simply turning into a real American family: a group of highly dysfunctional people with major issues.
If Helen needed any more proof that the 2002 Bar X annual meeting had been a bust, she needed only to look at the plates of uneaten fish.
"We have a fish fry every year after the meeting, but a lot of people left and never ate," she sighs. "It was the first year we ever had any leftover food."
The April meeting was tense for several reasons. Three months before the Bar X residents gathered at the clubhouse, a few of them -- calling themselves the Bar X Ranch Improvement Committee -- put up a Web site, www.barxranch.com, that details their complaints about shoddy maintenance and rude behavior on the part of Helen Phillips and her son Bo, the maintenance man.
The Web site's language is full of righteous indignation, accompanied by photographs to prove its point. Next to a picture of some steps with a missing handrail is the explanation "Here's another example of 'maintenance' where 'if it rots or needs work just throw it away!!' " Next to a photograph of a dead deer are the words "This is what happens because the 'office' insists on mowing just before the annual meeting so that you will be impressed with how nice the place looks. There were at least a dozen of these killings!!"
The complaints go on and on. The clubhouse roof hasn't been repaired, the street lamps need to be painted, and the trash barrels are a godforsaken wreck. Also included are anonymous testimonials from various residents, as well as out-of-town Bar X landowners, thanking the improvement committee for its hard work. Some include their own angry thoughts about Helen. One tearful, two-page missive describes her kicking out a visiting out-of-town property owner and his family. Their crime? They didn't have current property owner IDs and had exceeded the allowable number of people at a picnic.
The letter from the offended reads, in part:
"Finally my husband, who is a disabled veteran and has a severe heart condition, walked from the picnic bench to the door of [Helen's] truck He asked once again for her to please give back his ID card, she refused to do so and drove off while her door was open. The door of the truck almost hit my husband."
The Web site and its developers had created such a stir that when the residents gathered in the clubhouse for the annual meeting, they knew something was about to blow. Bo Phillips got things started by allegedly physically threatening anti-Helenite Alton Davidson. Although no one can recall the exact words used, several residents claim Bo said something about his foot ending up in Alton's rear end.
But that wasn't all. There were arguments about who was and who was not following Robert's Rules of Order. Some people stormed out in disgust. And in perhaps the most stunning event of the evening, three angry residents rounded up enough out-of-towners' proxy votes to get themselves on the board of directors. Now the board was just one vote shy of being able to dismiss Helen from her position.
Fried fish was the last thing on their minds.
Many of the people angry at Helen Phillips wouldn't go on the record for this story. Most cite a defamation suit filed by Helen against Davidson and Web site creator Bob Griffith. (Bo Phillips has filed his own suit against Griffith as well.) Both defendants referred questions to their attorneys.
But Jim Turner will talk. Three-year residents of the Bar X, Jim and his family fell in love with the place for the same reason Helen did: simple country living.
"I can sit on the front porch in my underwear and drink my coffee," he says. "There's plenty of peace and quiet. The dogs chase the armadillos, and the cats chase the squirrels." Jim even keeps pictures of his property by his desk at the car mechanic's shop where he is a service manager.
Jim tacks on a few new complaints to the laundry list of anti-Helen grievances. She always seems to give the tiny number of alligator-hunting permits to her relatives, he claims. And she's circulated a secret petition to have the three anti-Helenites removed from the board (Helen says that petition was started by supportive property owners, not her). But above all, Jim is frustrated by what he thinks is Helen's ego gone mad.
He admits that back when the Bar X was about to collapse, Helen played a crucial role in keeping it alive. And he acknowledges that when she wants to, she can be as sweet as sugar. He even admits Bruce Rogers took things a little too far. Still, he says, someone needs to rein the woman in.
"She gets shot eight times and she's back at work two days later and you tell me she's just dedicated?" he says. "She loves the power. Helen Phillips is God, and we've got to uphold God's law."
Because the Bar X's voting system allows one vote per lot owned, Jim says, Helen's large amount of property gives her the natural ability to elect whomever she wants on the board. It took a lot of work and organizing on the part of the dissidents to educate the out-of-town property owners and get them to send in their proxy votes. Now that they're so close to getting what they want, he says, he plans to run for the board this coming April and hopefully become the crucial fourth vote needed to fire Helen.
"I hate to play politics -- I'm a Republican," explains Jim. "[But] we just need that one more vote. Then she can't push us around anymore."
Sitting at a conference table at the Bar X office, Helen mulls over why some of her Bar X children have strayed -- and why one of them has hurt her so.
"The thing is, to do this job you have to be a people person," she says. "These last four years it was harmony out here. And then all of a sudden this Web page." She thinks out loud: It might just be envy.
"I think they were jealous because we're doing so good, and Bob [Griffith] was not involved with it," says Helen. "You know how it is: You stir things up and you stir and you get a couple more people."
She says she didn't want to file the lawsuit, but she couldn't take the way her detractors were putting down the Bar X. The site looks official, and she fears people will get the wrong idea about the ranch.
Her friend Lorenda says the problems the angry residents are complaining about are remnants of Gibraltar's and Oxford's tumultuous reigns, and that everything can't be fixed at once.
"You look at a picture of an 'issue,' on the Web site, and they're all nice and blurry, notice that?" she says. "He's editing them. I am here to testify Helen has done the best she could."
Board member Mike George concurs. The angry residents "are always trying to stir crap up," he argues. "They're on a personal vendetta. Nine years ago this place was on the verge of bankruptcy, and Helen came up to the office and brought this place up from nothing."
Helen's friends think the Web site was the catalyst for Bruce Rogers's actions. Lorenda says the anti-Helenites took advantage of Bruce's notoriously volatile nature and pushed all the right buttons.
"Bruce's driveway doesn't go all the way to the street," she says by way of explanation.
A resident of the ranch since 1986, Bruce shares his home with his wife, Louise, a former schoolteacher. They have one grown daughter. A retired employee of Dow Chemical, Bruce moved his family to the Bar X to get away from it all. But, says Louise, the ambience has changed over the years.
"As more people have moved in, it's not as peaceful and quiet, and it does not promote a relaxed style of living that was prevalent when we moved out here," she says. Louise refuses to discuss the shooting. She also won't talk about her husband's personality or temperament, claiming that as his wife, anything nice she said wouldn't come off as credible. Instead, she asks a close family friend to describe Bruce.
"I will probably start to cry, but let me compose myself," begins the friend, who asked not to be identified. "The Rogers are the kindest people that you could ever know, the most giving people." The litany of positives is long, starting with the fact that their daughter was the valedictorian of Angleton High and is now studying to be a doctor. Louise and Bruce are churchgoers who give regularly to charity, love to sew and to garden, respectively, and attended all of her children's Little League games.
The friend was out of town when the shooting occurred, but when she returned she was horrified to see Bruce's mug shot in the local paper. "I honestly ask not to know [about the shooting] because all I want to do is be able to say what I know about Bruce -- and it's only good," she says.
But Bruce's history with the Bar X is almost as long and strained as Helen's. Most recently, in 2001, he tried to secede from the Bar X, filing papers with the county to declare himself independent of the property owners association. Helen and the board fought the move, forcing Bruce to pay his maintenance dues of $216 a year.
Brazoria County records show that in September 1996 Bruce was arrested and charged with assault for hitting Bar X residents Billy Turk and Stephanie Bell in the head (oddly enough, both residents are known anti-Helenites who would not comment for this story). Bruce spent three days in jail and paid a $100 fine.
And on April Fools' Day, 1995, Bruce showed up at the home of his then-neighbor David James. According to county records, Bruce asked David to go for a friendly little drive. But once both men were in the car, Bruce claimed that David had hurt someone Bruce cared about.
When David asked Bruce what he was getting at, Bruce mumbled and said it was not wise to cross him. Suddenly, Bruce pulled into his own driveway, went inside the house and came back with a gun. He pointed it at David, saying he would shoot him dead for being on his property. David got out of the car and walked to the street, with Bruce following him the whole time, his gun at David's back. Bruce was charged with aggravated assault.
Helen's name is also on the list of Bruce's run-ins. In 1995, when Helen was trying to get the ranch back on its feet, Bruce suggested that an accountant friend in Dallas look at the books. Helen told Bruce the books were disorganized enough as it was and that they needed to stay on the property.
Angry about the decision, Bruce closed the door of Helen's small office and stood in front of it, demanding to see all of the Bar X's books. He yelled that he would not let Helen out until she handed over the information.
"You have to understand what a claustrophobic person I am, and if I'm not in control, it's bad," says Helen. "I have to close my eyes when I'm in an elevator."
She began to panic and scream, and someone called the police. Helen declined to file charges, saying she wanted to avoid future conflict with Bruce.
"That was really the only big run-in I had with him," she says.
But Bruce didn't stir up trouble just at the Bar X -- the whole town of Angleton often got a taste of whatever was on his mind. He had the curious habit of writing letters -- as many as three a month -- to the daily newspaper The Facts. Managing editor Kelly Hawes says the topic was typically politics or current events.
In a November 5 letter, sent just a few weeks before the shooting, Bruce's short note had an Election Day theme.
"The vote, like the die, is cast!" he wrote. "Now comes the swearin' in followed closely by the swearin' at! The latter line will be longer than the one at the polling place. Find your place in line."
Bruce even penned a letter from his jail cell, but Bar X residents will never know if he expressed his thoughts on the shooting. The paper decided against commenting on it or running it, saying it gets too many letters from inmates to print them all.
But even after Bruce's long, strange history -- even though he shot and nearly killed her -- Helen says she can't be angry with him. She says that even as she lay in her hospital bed at Memorial Hermann, she asked her children to go check on Louise Rogers when they went back to the ranch. The police wouldn't allow it, but Helen says she wanted Louise to know she was thinking of her.
"I feel sorry for Bruce; I wish I knew what his reasons were," she says softly. "He has a wife and daughter. I close my eyes right now -- I haven't seen that daughter in probably ten years -- but I close my eyes and I can still see this red hair of hers walking up to my porch to sell candy for her band. That's what I picture: that red hair coming up there to that door."
It's a bright, sunny Friday afternoon, just over two weeks since Bruce shot Helen, the kind of day that sells the Bar X Ranch. The skies look bigger and bluer than they do in the city, and the sight of a deer grazing between some oak trees draped in Spanish moss gives the place a picturesque feel -- like a photograph out of a realtor's brochure.
Bruce Rogers sits in jail. Brazoria County District Attorney Jeri Yenne says the matter will go before the grand jury sometime this month, but she won't comment further on the case.
Helen is back in the hospital. It seems she pushed herself too hard after the shooting and her bullet wounds haven't healed properly.
Lorenda Anderson is in the Bar X office, sitting at her desk, shuffling through paperwork. Helen has been calling from her hospital bed all day, reminding Lorenda of this or that little thing that must be taken care of before the business week's end. Lorenda keeps telling Helen to stop worrying about the ranch for a second, to just relax and get well. But she bets Helen will be back at work, bright and early on Monday morning.
"Her heart's just as big as this ranch," Lorenda says.
But the future of the Bar X Ranch is precarious. What will happen at the next board meeting in April? Will Jim Turner win the fourth spot needed to oust Helen? Will the out-of-towners turn in their precious proxy votes? Will anyone stay for the fish fry? All Lorenda can be sure of is that Helen won't give up easily.
"She'll keep fighting until she dies, because she believes in this place," she says. "She believes in living in harmony and peace, and they don't."
Jim Turner, of course, couldn't disagree more. In a letter he recently sent out to all of the Bar X residents, he announced his decision to run for the board and railed against Helen for a full, single-spaced page.
"We pay her to do a job," he wrote. "We do not pay her to play politics on our time Am I running for board? You better believe it! I refuse to sit back and take what's been dished out any longer! What will you do?"
When asked about any recent problems at the ranch, Jim is quick on the draw: He claims Helen signed for a Federal Express package addressed to him, but never called to tell him it had arrived.
"She still plays her games," he spits. "She's still not a very nice person."
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The acrimony on the renegade Web site continues to mount, with anonymous postings like the one from "S and P" that states, "It is so embarrassing that we are all represented by her and such rudeness. It is quite obvious that this position is too much for her to handle."
Back at the office, Lorenda sighs with exasperation.
"I mean, look at this place," she insists, motioning out the window. "It looks like a place where you could live in peace and serenity and really enjoy it, and not have all these stupid, petty fights." She pauses, thinks a bit and then comes to her conclusion.
"It's a beautiful place," Lorenda says. "But I guess there's a black sheep in every family."