Cover Story: How James "Bull" Durham Became A Poster Boy for East Texas Meth

See our slideshow of James Durham's descent into meth hell.

James "Bull" Durham, Lufkin's meth poster boy, popped his first shot of that devil's potion at the age of eleven -- he says it helped him get through his day-long shifts as an off-the-books catfish skinner.

Even so, he says his life on the stuff did not become unmanageable until a few years later, when his brother Brad Durham stuck him twice in the belly with a butcher knife. It was only then, James Durham says, that he careened out of control. Since then, he's been arrested at least 48 times, and is now headed to prison for 25 years after his mother's house burned down when one of his little "shake n' bake" meth labs erupted.

But why did Brad Durham stab James? I asked James that question last month when I visited him at the Angelina County Jail. There, in the jailhouse chapel, in front of a religious mural painted by his one-time meth mentor "Iodine Mike" Russell, Durham told me an epic East Texas gothic tale.

He says it all started when he and Brad were six and eight. Early one hot summer, their father -- a 6-5, 300-plus-pound alcoholic bar-room brawler -- got called away on a shutdown for Brown and Root. He told the boys he would give them five bucks apiece on his return if they kept the family's flock of 60 silver Dominicker chickens watered. Since they had no running water, that would mean the two kids would have to water the chickens from the well, and the five-gallon buckets were very heavy. In spite of the financial inducement, the boys blew it off.

A few days later, Durham says he and his brother were watching Captain Caveman on Saturday cartoons when their mother asked them about the chickens. James told her Brad was supposed to have been doing it. Brad said no, it was James's job. Mom responded by chasing both boys out the door with a broom.

"Well, sure enough when we got to the chickenyard those chickens was dyin' o' thirst," Durham says. Still, getting that water out of the well was just too hard. "So Brad said 'Naw, wait a minute. Let's just give 'em some of that Kool-Aid out of daddy's barrel.' I said, 'That's a good ideal,' so we went and got it and poured it in their feed-trough, and man, those chickens just dove in there."

The thing is, their daddy didn't have any Kool-Aid. In fact, his barrel was full of what James calls "muskydime" wine, an East Texas libation made of muscadine grapes that grow wild in river bottoms and sloughs.

In their fragile, dehydrated state, the homemade wine was enough to finish them off. Mortified, the boys watched as every chicken in the yard staggered to early graves. Even now, Durham shudders at the memory. "Those big silver chickens was what we lived off of," Durham says. They had to find a way out of this jam, and for a little while, they thought they had found salvation.

"We thought it would be a good ideal to cut a hole in the fence and say they all ran away from home," he remembers. "They just didn't want to be there no more." The Durhams cut the hole, gathered up the dead chickens, and threw them into the creek. Hours later they watched in horror as their dogs dragged the carcasses back into their yard, tearing them to pieces, scattering feathers everywhere. Their daddy was due back in hours. There was nothing more that could be done.

"When daddy got back from that shutdown and saw those feathers in the yard, that hole in the fence and all his wine gone, do you think we got that five dollars?" Durham asks.

The boys got epic beatings, and James remembers that Brad immediately started plotting his revenge. It only dug both their holes deeper. They also had a catfish pond that provided them with a good chunk of their wintertime protein. Meanwhile, their yard was dotted with crawfish mounds, and if left unchecked, there would be so many of the little mud towers mowing the lawn became impossible. Their father would drop mothballs in the mounds to kill the mudbugs.

Brad decided to take the mothballs and throw them in the catfish pond. "What do you think happened to the pond? It stagnated. Those mothballs took all the oxygen out of it and killed every last fish in there. Every one of 'em was floatin.'"

And so both boys got another beating. Oftentimes after his own beating was over, Brad would re-beat James, not only punching him but also, as James puts it, "suffocatin'" him -- sitting on his chest until he turned blue, that kind of thing. And the reprisals would go on and on and on...

One Christmas James got a Daisy Red Rider BB gun for Christmas. It wasn't long before he was using it to extract revenge on his big brother. "He was up there in the treetops pickin' figs," he remembers. "We did not like to do that because of the bees and the big guinea wasps -- but that was how we lived: fig preserves, mayhaw jelly, plums, peaches. Anyway, I started shooting and Brad fell out of that tree. I could hear him bawlin' while he was bouncin' off the limbs on the way down. I took off runnin', and he chased me all the way back in the house, and when I got in I said 'Mama! Mama! Brad shot me with a BB gun.' Well, she whooped him.

By the time they were in their teens, the boys started fighting back against their dad, too. "It's like Hank Williams sang, 'The Family Tradition,'" said Angelina County Sheriff Kent Henson earlier that same day. "They've stabbed each other, beat each other, you name it. Lotta times when James'd come in beat up, his brother or his daddy done it to 'im. They fought like cats and dogs. There's been a few times I've had all three of 'em in the back of my car. You'd go out there and they wouldn't tell you nothin', so then everybody goes. You can't afford to leave 'em out there 'cause you know you'll just be right back. That's what we call 'invokin' the rule.'"

Durham now claims he was a productive member of society until that one time Brad's violence went a little too far. Sure, he was a meth addict, but he was able to make ends meet, keep a job and an apartment and all that, until that stabbing, which came from years and years of, as Durham puts it, "suffocation time."

In the end, he believes his life of crime was set in motion, his fate was cast in stone, by a terrible boyhood decision to feed their flock of chickens daddy's special Kool-Aid. And Brad is doing no better -- a former member of the Aryan Brotherhood, he is currently doing 35 years for armed robbery.

You can read much more here in "Texas Tweakers," this week's cover story.

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
John Nova Lomax
Contact: John Nova Lomax