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Bad Trip to Kerrville

It's almost impossible to find a lunatic-free zone in these perilous times, as Katy trophy store owner Chris Williamson learned Memorial Day weekend at the Kerrville Folk Festival. Williamson, fiancee Heather Hill and a half-dozen other Baylor alums from Houston made the four-hour trek to Kerrville in search of a laid-back time with a few thousand other laid-back folks. Unfortunately for Williamson, when a complete stranger bit off his ear and spit it on the ground, most everybody connected with the festival kept on laying back.

Williamson and his companions were on their first pilgrimage to the annual gathering at Quiet Valley Ranch, drawn by the festival's reputation as a refuge for folk music enthusiasts seeking a weekend escape from Houston or Austin. They had enjoyed themselves on the Sunday before Memorial Day and, around 10:30 that evening, were looking forward to Austin folkie Jimmy LaFave's imminent appearance on-stage.

It was about then that Williamson, his fiancee and his future brother-in-law Rob Hill were at the head of a line near a concession stand, adding condiments to the fajitas they had just purchased. Apparently, they weren't garnishing their fajitas fast enough for the woman in line behind them, who yelled "Hurry the fuck up" in Williamson's ear as she pressed against him. "God, what a bitch," Rob Hill muttered to Williamson.

The woman overheard Hill's observation and stomped off a short distance away, where she engaged in an animated discussion with a broad-shouldered, middle-aged man and pointed at Williamson and the Hill siblings. The man suddenly wheeled toward the trio, but instead of approaching Rob Hill, who had made the remark, he walked up to Williamson and angrily inquired, "Did you call my girlfriend a cunt?" before shoving him in the chest with both hands in the classic schoolyard fashion. Williamson, in accordance with the code of the schoolyard, tried to shove the man back. But the stranger apparently had gone to a different school.

When Williamson's hands came up, the stranger seized him by both elbows and squeezed the pressure points in those joints. What happened next, police officers and martial arts experts agree, required training, lightning reflexes and a very sick mind. The stranger pulled Williamson toward him, bit off most of his right ear with one bite, and spit it on the ground before slamming Williamson's head against a nearby railing.

As six or seven pink-shirted hospitality volunteers -- the only security present at an event that had drawn more than 6,000 people that evening -- ran toward the combatants, Williamson staggered to his feet and punched his assailant in the face before the volunteers pulled the two apart. Rob Hill, attempting to come to his friend's aid, was also restrained by members of the hospitality staff as he screamed, "Don't let him get away."

But the stranger, with his female companion urging him to "run, Bill, run," departed at high speed amid the confusion. "They let him go because he was being calm and quiet," says Heather Hill. "We were all upset and freaked, and they were treating us like it was all our fault. I went over to Chris and he told me not to look at his ear. The security guys were sitting on Rob because he was trying to go after the guy." After trailing the assailant to the festival's entrance and pointing him out to a radio-equipped staffer there, Heather Hill returned to the festival's first aid tent to find Williamson being treated by Brian Runyon, a registered nurse who has worked at the festival for the last three years.

In recounting his version of the episode to the Press, Runyon described Williamson's injury, which he cleaned and bandaged, as "very severe," but he initially refused -- on grounds of what he termed "client confidentiality" -- to say if the ear was detached. Although the incident had taken place only a few feet from the first aid tent, Heather Hill says Runyon made no effort to find Williamson's ear. Runyon, however, says he "immediately" dispatched security volunteers to look for the ear, "but they came back shaking their heads."

Hill was angered by the turn of events, as you might expect, and she was letting it show. She says her questions to "the guy in charge" about the assailant's whereabouts and whether a Kerrville hospital had been contacted were met with the observation, "Wow, your aura looks really bad. Do you want me to massage your pressure points?"

Runyon denies it was he who offered Hill the tension-reducing body rub, but he says that bad vibes did indeed abound at that point.

"I've never seen energy like that here before," he said, "and I hope I never do again."

Hill says she was told repeatedly that the police had been called, the suspect was in custody and that Peterson Memorial Hospital had been notified that an injured festivalgoer would be arriving soon. (Runyon says he offered to call an ambulance but Williamson refused.)

About 45 minutes after the attack, a volunteer accompanied Heather Hill to the site where she, Williamson and their friends were camped. They woke Amy Dunker, Rebecca Scott and Paige Hudgins to give Williamson a ride to the hospital in Kerrville. Dunker, Scott and Hudgins say the volunteer told them "we would rather not call an ambulance because, you know, it would be like a big production."

Five minutes later, Scott, Hudgins and Hill were en route to the hospital with Williamson. Dunker remained behind to search for Rob Hill, who had been escorted to the gate by the hospitality staff and, he says, threatened with jail for demanding that an effort be made to find the man who had assaulted Williamson.

Hill was finally released and allowed to re-enter the festival after being restrained at the site of the attack for about 20 minutes and outside the gate for another 20 minutes. "The Kerrville people," says Hill, "were so worried about their love-in image that we got blamed for being assaulted." Heather Hill says before she left she spoke with a volunteer who had talked with the woman whom "Bill" had demonstrated a willingness to maim for. After the woman told him that she had only met Bill about ten minutes before the attack, he allowed her to go without asking for her name or identification.

Meanwhile, back in Scott's car, Williamson had not been told the extent of his injury and knew only that the side of his head was "really stinging." At the hospital, which had not been alerted to Williamson's arrival, his friends were told that more than two-thirds of the ear had been severed. The hospital informed the Kerr County Sheriff's Department around midnight that it had a patient who had been a victim of an attack. "This was the first that law enforcement knew about the incident," says Sheriff Francis Kaiser.

Hospital personnel told Williamson's friends there was a possibility the ear could be reattached if it could be found. Scott phoned the festival to see if any effort had been made to find it but only got a recording. She and her friends headed back to Quiet Valley. At the gate, at least ten volunteers with radios were talking with a deputy who had just arrived. Williamson's friends headed to the first aid tent to inquire if the ear had been located, but say they were unable to get any assistance from the festival staff except the loan of a flashlight. But Scott says she got lucky: "I went right to it. The ear was still lying there in the dirt, just crawling with bugs." Eventually, it was placed in a paper tray and iced down (only after one festival volunteer asked Scott to quit "grossing people out" by shining the flashlight on it) and delivered to the hospital by Williamson's friends -- two and a half hours after it had been bitten off.

It took another two and a half hours to surgically reattach Williamson's ear, then he and his fiancee were taken to the house of a friend in Kerrville after being warned that the smoke and dirt of the festival would almost certainly cause an infection. Scott and Dunker returned to Quiet Valley around 4 a.m., where the volunteer who checked their wristbands told them he "could totally relate to what the guy was going through" and proved it by lifting up his hair and showing them where his own right ear had been bitten off by a dog.

After breaking camp and packing their cars, the "Baylor Bunch" left the festival around 10 o'clock Memorial Day morning. At that time, they say, the first aid tent was unmanned. The absence of anyone there probably wouldn't have come as a surprise to Kerr County officials. Sheriff Kaiser confirms that Rod Kennedy, the owner of Quiet Valley Ranch and organizer of the Kerrville Folk Festival, has drawn thousands of people to his festival every spring for the last 24 years without permits, licensed peace officers or health department inspections.

Kennedy, for his part, maintained when contacted by the Press the day after Memorial Day that the "family nature" of his event made those formalities unnecessary, and that his policy of not having an ambulance on the grounds began "about six years ago after spending thousands and thousands of dollars for 15 years and only needing the ambulance once or twice." In fact, when first contacted, Kennedy said "nobody asked the staff for any kind of help." He seemed to have forgotten that statement the next day, when he called to introduce us to Runyon.

Sheriff Kaiser indicates that the free-wheeling days of the Kerrville Folk Festival were already drawing to a close before Williamson was assaulted. In response to complaints in recent years about what Kerr County locals call the "Dope Fest," Kaiser had infiltrated the festival with several undercover deputies. On the day of the attack on Williamson, the task force made six arrests for misdemeanor marijuana possession, but the deputies had already left for the day when Williamson had the misfortune to encounter Bill.

The attack led to meetings between Kennedy and local authorities, where they discussed invoking the state's Mass Gatherings Act, which empowers municipalities to regulate nearby events which attract more than 5,000 people. Although Kennedy agreed to hire two off-duty deputies to watch over the event, a Kerr County official who spoke off-the-record described Kennedy as "giving minimal cooperation and more concerned with bad publicity than anything else."

He may have more to worry about than bad publicity. Williamson, whose ear became infected, has no health care insurance, faces a long and expensive series of plastic surgeries to repair the damage and is considering filing a lawsuit for negligence. "The worst thing," he says, "is having to look at this thing ten times a day, waiting to see what [part of the ear] lives and dies, which the doctor says is about all we can do for now."

In the meantime, if you know who Bill is, it might do wonders for your aura to call Sheriff Francis Kaiser over in Kerr County, who would find a deep sense of personal fulfillment in giving you the $1,000 reward being offered by Crime Stoppers for Bill's apprehension.

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