As he would later admit, Colt Amox threw the first and only punch.
The 21-year-old former high school pitcher must have launched a phantom fastball, because when Billy Ray Johnson went down, he sputtered and gagged and didn't open his eyes for another three days.
It was about 1 a.m., and according to Cass County District Attorney Randall Lee, Amox and his three friends were standing in a pasture, wondering what to do about the unconscious, middle-aged, mentally disabled black man on the ground.
According to one person who was at the evening's pasture party, everyone they had been drinking with earlier had left, and now it was just those four and the body. A few hours earlier, one of them had picked Johnson up from the Country Store, and everyone was smoking and drinking and listening to C&W. Johnson was showing off his famous moves around the campfire. He may have had the mind of a child, but he could dance. He worked his five-foot-eight, 135-pound frame so well that he was a big hit at parties.
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But now he was out cold -- dead, maybe, who knew? -- and they had a problem on their hands.
For one thing, 24-year-old Cory Hicks was a jailer for the Cass County Sheriff's Department and couldn't very well be involved with an assault. He had a common-law wife and two kids to support. His father was dead, so he couldn't rely on a parental ATM, unlike Amox, whose parents ran a successful seafood restaurant.
And this wouldn't look good for 19-year-old Wes Owens, either, since this pasture was his parents' property, and their house was right nearby. Besides, his mother worked in the county's adult probation department, and she couldn't have her son drinking with underage kids and hanging with guys who attack mentally incapacitated minorities.
And what about Dallas Stone, the youngest at 18, who had mostly black friends? How would he be able to show his face to them after word got out that one of his drunk friends had pummeled a black man who doesn't even have the wherewithal to drive a car?
If they called 911, or if they rushed Johnson to the hospital, they would be admitting their involvement. But now, the four young men had the feeling that this could just be their little secret, Lee believes. So, Lee says, they threw Johnson in the bed of a pickup and headed down Hamilton Road, which crosses Jim Bayou and turns into County Road 1617, a perilously winding blacktop route that cuts through trees harvested by International Paper Company.
According to what Lee and his investigator have been able to piece together, Amox, Hicks, Owens and Stone turned off CR 1617 onto CR 1620 and headed to their drop-off point. They pulled the truck over at a dump site for worn-out tires, dragged Johnson from the truck and dropped him on an anthill about six feet from the shoulder and about 60 feet from a mound of rotten rubber.
So much for the first part of the plan.
About three hours later, Hicks returned to the anthill to take care of the second part, Lee says. Hicks called the sheriff's department. He said he'd just found a body.
On U.S. 59 about 50 miles south of Oklahoma, in a corner of the universe known as the ArkLaTex, there's an intersection marked by a flashing yellow light, a decrepit pink motel and a gas station-convenience store where you can buy fresh pizza and fried catfish. If you turn left, you'll follow Main Street into Linden's courthouse square, or you can do like most people and head straight and forget about it.
Like other small East Texas towns, Linden has stalled out and is desperately seeking a way to get going again. Its brief dreams of oil prosperity were gone by 1948. Most of its residents work outside the county in nearby manufacturing plants.
In 1999, according to the most recent U.S. Census data available, 18.5 percent of Linden's 2,090 people lived in poverty. Poverty for individuals in 1999 meant an annual income below $8,500.
Thirty years ago, Linden was a shopping destination for all of Cass County. When Wal-Mart wanted to open a store inside the city limits, the residents sneered. They didn't want the corporate monolith killing independent business owners. So Wal-Mart just took its business 14 miles up the road to Atlanta, which destroyed the local mom-and-pops anyway.
In the mid-1990s, community leaders began looking at heritage tourism as a way to pull up their town. After all, the nearby town of Carthage had reinvented itself in 1992 by creating the Tex Ritter Museum, in honor of its most famous native son. Ten years later, the city moved its Texas Country Music Hall of Fame from a house into a $2.5 million building with a concert hall, gift shop and museum. Carthage had found a way to distinguish itself from its small-town neighbors along 59.
Surely Linden could do the same with its rich musical history. Eagles co-founder Don Henley grew up there; blues guitar master T-Bone Walker was born there. Scott Joplin, the father of ragtime, was born in the black Caves Springs community just outside the town.
In interviews concerning both his environmental activism and music, Henley, who lives in Dallas with his wife and kids, has fondly recalled his childhood in Linden.
"I knew everybody in town," he told the Albuquerque Tribune in 2000. "They knew me. They knew my mother. They knew my father. We had one school, one traffic light, one Dairy Queen and one sheriff. So it was a great way to grow up. I didn't have some of the cultural amenities to be had in a big city, but I had security and a great deal of freedom."
Henley frequently visits Linden, where he has raised funds for the municipal hospital and pledged money for the proposed courthouse restoration. He has also served as the grand marshal of the annual Wildflower Trails Parade.
But the town hasn't relied on just Henley to raise awareness.
With $108,000 in state funds, the nonprofit Music City Texas, Inc. transformed an abandoned VFW auditorium into the quaint 400-seat Music City Texas Theater, the opening salvo in the town's fight for economic recovery.
The town also has people in place to handle a big-scale music operation. Richard Bowden is a city councilman and guitar player who's toured and recorded with his childhood pal Henley, Linda Ronstadt, Dan Fogelberg and others. He left Linden for L.A. in 1970 and returned a few years ago, never severing ties with his industry contacts.
A plump, bespectacled man with gray hair and beard, Bowden has a laid-back demeanor and bathroom humor that made him a minor celebrity as one half of the country comedy duo Pinkard and Bowden. He continues the tradition in his solo work -- song titles on his latest CD include "Fudge Packers in Disguise," "Fat Girl Fart" and "Since My Baby Turned Gay."
Bowden's latest coup was to bring in album-oriented rock staple Jackson Browne for a July concert at the MCT Theater. He says the posting on Browne's Web site has already caused a nationwide buzz among fans willing to pay up to $100 a ticket to see the mop-topped baby boomer in such an intimate setting.
"It'll be like him playing in your living room," Bowden says.
With his stories about the wild 1970s -- barging buck-naked into a hotel lobby while on tour with Ronstadt, covered with shaving cream and asking the concierge where to buy a razor blade, for example -- Bowden is clearly the most media-friendly Music City Texas ambassador. More subdued is Russell Wright, a retired air force and commercial airline pilot who is now the executive director of the Linden Economic Development Corporation. The corporation goes after state grants, which are in turn pumped into Music City Texas Theater renovation and promotion.
"People are interested in music," says Wright, who works out of a quiet office just off the courthouse square. He was born in the Missouri boot heel and settled here a few years ago with his wife, a Linden native. Although he looks white, he says his mom was a full-blooded Cherokee and his father was half-Native American. "If you go back and you look at the depression era, people didn't have enough money to feed themselves, but on the weekends, they went dancing so music has always been where people sought relief. And we're going to play to that."
Wright and the Music City Texas board eventually want to open a museum honoring Cass County musicians, as well as a Texas Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame. These attractions would tie Linden into the planned East Texas 59 Road Trip, which would include the Tex Ritter Museum and possible music venues and museums in Marshall and Jefferson.
So they have buy-in from Henley and effective people in place able to pull in class acts. Unfortunately -- at least for success in the entertainment industry -- Linden has another hurdle to overcome. It's dry. If you want a beer, you've got to drive at least 15 miles to the nearest liquor store or about 30 miles to the nearest club.
"Personally, I don't drink, but do I think that they need to go wet? Yes," Wright says. "If this county is tax-poor, one way that you can overcome it is to have some limited avenues for social drinking. It will enhance your ability to attract the restaurant business [and] the entertainment business."
Linden law allows patrons of the MCT Theater to drink alcohol from a plastic cup -- they just can't walk around with an open bottle or can.
"Music City Texas concerts are BYOB," Wright says.
But lately, Linden has more to consider than wet versus dry and which performers could be lured to Linden.
That's because it has drawn national attention for the Billy Ray Johnson assault -- a notoriety that Wright says unfairly taints the town.
Race relations have thrust Cass County and Linden into the national spotlight before.
In April 2001, a black man named Clarence "Tank" Cole was found hanging from a tree off CR 1620, about two miles from where Billy Ray Johnson would be dumped two years later.
Cole left behind a vague note authorities found in his locked Chevy Nova, parked nearby. "I'm sorry," read the uncharacteristically shaky letters. "I love you all, but I hate myself. Don't know no other way to fix this. I'm sorry. Love u all, Tank."
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.
Lee is the only one who agreed to share his perspective.
"Violence, period, is rampant in this part of the world," he says. "That's just part of the frontierism that we still live by. There's not an East Texas home that has two males living in it that doesn't have at least one firearm in it that's a bold-assed statement, but I'm willing to stand by it."
Outside the courthouse, a Linden volunteer firefighter sits above the dunking booth while a throng of eager kids waits to whip balls at the target. It's the town's Wildflower Trails festival, a weekend of local music, arts and crafts, and, of course, down-home food.
A handful of volunteers are in the MCT Theater, preparing for the evening's T. Graham Brown concert. Brown is this year's Wildflower Trails grand marshal, a position held in the past by Henley, Kenny Rogers and Jackson Browne.
Bowden, making the rounds on the square, says he hopes to add Ronstadt and Jimmy Buffett to the heralded list of grand marshals. He doesn't believe they or anyone else should be afraid of the recent attention stirred up by the Johnson case, which he shrugs off as media hype.
"They were looking for another Jasper," he says, referring to the notorious 1998 dragging death of a black man by white assailants. "As hard as they tried to make it into that, it wasn't that."
The Johnson case has receded somewhat in the public consciousness, at least until the defendants come to trial. In its place is a debate over another part of the town's revival plans, which is to start attracting tourists to look at its historic buildings. Of course, to do so will entail spending some money on restoration.
The Cass County Conservancy is competing for a $3.7 million Texas Historical Commission grant to restore the building to its 1934 configuration. In order to qualify, the county must demolish a 3,100-square-foot wing added in 1980. Although the conservancy has pledged to raise $550,000 in cash and in-kind costs to cover the price of the restoration, some county officials and residents believe there are hidden costs that will raise their taxes in the future.
Henley, who owns three buildings on the courthouse square, has offered the county the use of those properties in the event that the courthouse is restored. He also offered $150,000 toward the cost of restoration, according to the Cass County Sun.
Wright, of the Linden Economic Development Corporation, says the restoration and Music City Texas efforts would work hand in hand. He wants to create the rock hall of fame and a Cass County Musicians Museum. The cities of Marshall and Jefferson would establish blues and jazz museums and venues.
The towns would not only draw on the past but would showcase what Wright says is a continuation of these towns' musical traditions.
They should stay in jail until they die, Johnson says of the four men who left him in the anthill that night.
It's a statement that runs counter to what everyone else says about Johnson -- how meek and harmless he is.
He's lying in a Texarkana nursing-home bed, his hair braided into tight cornrows, courtesy of one of the nurses. He's lost weight since the attack, and his hospital gown only accentuates his gaunt body. Since the beating, Johnson soils himself and coughs up his words through a phlegmy string of nearly unintelligible grunts.
Johnson says he can't remember what happened that night, which is probably for the best. According to his medical report in the Cass County Courthouse, the ants ravaged his body.
He passes the time by watching TV and listening to hip-hop and R&B CDs on a portable stereo he keeps on the nightstand. He also leafs through photo albums with pictures that include the smiling nursing staff.
His cousin Lue Wilson, a Vietnam veteran and retired Citgo Mining crush operator, is convinced that the men who harmed his cousin will get off lightly.
"Doin' that to Billy Ray was like takin' a baby out of a crib and stompin' him," Wilson says.
Wilson has kept every newspaper clipping and recorded every television news segment relating to the case. He and Johnson's brother, Curtis Stevenson, conducted their own investigation from the beginning. Wilson accuses the Linden cops of "poor-ass policing," saying he and Stevenson did their work for them. Wilson accuses Police Chief Alton McWaters and other authorities of wanting to sweep the whole thing under the rug.
Chief McWaters freely admits that his four-person police department -- which includes a black officer -- welcomes outside help, whether from civilians or other authorities. The department's budget can't cover overtime, and there are times when the officer on duty has to close the office, go home and sit on call.
"Curtis, he helped me quite a bit," McWaters says. "We try to run seven days a week, 24 hours a day, but [we] can't hardly do it."
McWaters, 51, is a short, round man who raises Thoroughbred horses and works out of a faux-wood-paneled office decorated with mounted buck heads and an ink portrait of John Wayne. Before he became chief in 1989, he worked in other cities, including Vidor, the home of a Klan chapter called the Knights of the White Kamellia.
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.
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.
"They made a monkey out of him," Wilson says. He says the defendants egged each other on with taunts of "Hit the nigger! Hit the monkey!"
But one witness at the party, who asked to remain anonymous, told the Press that Johnson was dancing of his own accord.
"When I was there, he was dancing and talking, and we weren't making him dance to embarrass him," the witness says. "They portrayed it that we made him dance around like a monkey and stuff. That's horseshit."
Wilson is upset that the district attorney isn't pursuing hate-crime charges, a decision Wilson believes was made to spare the town more bad press.
But Lee says the charges of hate crime and injury to a disabled person both carry lifetime sentences. The latter is easier to prosecute because, he says, "you just have to show that they knew he was disabled and that they intentionally hurt him."
Reactions to the charges were split along racial lines. Many blacks felt that four white defendants would never be appropriately punished for harming a black person. They thought the aggravated assault charge was not enough. Many whites looked at it and saw four otherwise fine young men who just made some bad decisions. They called it a tragedy, not just for Johnson, but for the defendants as well.
"They made some poor judgment," McWaters says. "They should've loaded [Johnson] up and took him to the hospital or called the ambulance."
Linden Mayor Wilford Penny, 72, calls it an "unfortunate situation," chalking it up to too much alcohol.
Despite the fact that the defendants are facing the possibility of spending the rest of their lives in prison, some blacks continue to believe that the defendants have been charged with lesser crimes, they're still unaware that the young men face life in prison, and they dismiss the fact that the D.A.'s criminal investigator is black and that a black assistant district attorney will try the case. Even though Mayor Penny's predecessor was black, some black residents don't feel they are represented in local government.
"I think that's somewhat of a knee-jerk reaction to the decades of not having anything to say when a black person died," says Clyde Lee, the Texarkana attorney. "The key to it is, in the vast majority of black people's minds in northeast Texas, law enforcement is not their friend. Now, when you have a suspicious death no matter what is the true reason of the death, the community as a whole believe there was some foul play. And in their minds, that burden never shifts, because they have always been powerless to do anything about it anyway."
Lee is convinced that the media attention influenced the D.A.'s decision to pursue first-degree felony convictions.
"But for the fact that this was publicized, the charges would not have been severe Because again, another Southern tradition is 'boys will be boys,' " he says. "You've got guys doing the act, and the way it's perceived by the victim, the victim's family and anybody that could possibly be related to the victim is 'this is overtly racist.' The way it's perceived by the defendants, their families and anybody possibly related to them is 'boys will be boys.' Therein lies the rub. That's why you can't bring those kind of people to the table with each other. 'Cause they don't even see the same world. And the sad part about it is, the poor white man and the poor black man in East Texas have far more in common than they'll ever have against each other. But they are manipulated by both the current political atmospheres nationally and the traditional cultural lifestyles to never be able to recognize the things that they have in common."
The trial for Hicks and Amox is scheduled for June 28. Owens and Stone will be tried August 23.
Although media attention faded shortly after the assault was first reported, there are those who are concerned that everything will kick up again as soon as Hicks and Amox enter the courthouse.
The general feeling among blacks and whites is that the defendants will get probation.
If they walk, Wilson predicts, the black community will react with a riot on the level of the Rodney King verdict. He's already resigned himself to the fact that Johnson will need someone to take care of him the rest of his life.
"Right now, he's like a baby," Wilson says, explaining that Johnson can barely walk, is not gaining any weight and continues to soil himself.
Johnson cries a lot, Wilson says. Instead of listening to his music, he'll hobble into his bedroom, sit on his bed and weep.
In the words of his brother, Curtis Stevenson, Johnson is "more retarded he don't understand stuff. You can't understand what he's saying."
Based on Lee's experiences in Cass County, he doesn't expect a jury to recommend harsh punishment.
"We have two different questions," he says. "Are people overtly racist in East Texas? The answer is, not very often. But if you ask the question, Do black people feel like they get a fair shake in the system? Of course they don't, because racism is institutionalized in the criminal justice system [in Cass County] just like it is everywhere else in the country."
So it all comes down to the decision of 12 men and women. They have to decide if Amox, Hicks, Owens and Stone are guilty of poor judgment or of outright cruelty. They also have to decide what kind of town they live in: a music mecca with a rich heritage that will draw tourists and revive the economy, or a throwback that can't outrun the region's racist roots. In that sense, the case isn't just about an assault. It's about a town's future.
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