Longform

Texas Tweakers

Check out our slideshow of James Durham's descent in meth hell.

The pride and shame of the Piney Woods city of Lufkin, Texas, are located about a half mile from each other. Just west of the town's east loop, there's Abe Martin Stadium, site of many a triumph for the purple-clad Lufkin Panthers, 5A state champions in 2001 and perennial contenders for the crown. About a quarter-mile up East Lufkin Avenue, there's the Angelina County Jail, the frequent home of the town's many, many meth heads, dealers and cooks, including James "Bull" Durham, one of the most frequently arrested men in East Texas history.

As jails go it's an almost cheery place. County Sheriff Kent Henson has long encouraged artistic inmates to strut their stuff, and they've obliged with murals of rodeo scenes, portraits of cops and jailers, and Texas history tableaus. Perhaps the most talented of these artists was "Iodine Mike" Russell, one of Lufkin's most notorious meth freaks and a mentor to Durham.

Iodine Mike's work dominates the jail's small chapel. Under fluorescent lights and a false ceiling, the room's far wall is adorned with Iodine Michelangelo's masterpiece: a colorful mural of three rugged old crosses in a Holy Land sunset setting. It will remain his finest achievement, as the artist died last year at age 36 of liver failure, at least partially brought on by his epic love of injecting himself with homemade red phosphorus meth.

Henson, a Pentecostal Sunday school teacher in his spare time, is very proud of the work and its message, but if he intended for this dead meth head's vision of the Promised Land to serve as an eternal warning for those following in Iodine Mike's wake, the sad fact is that too few people in Angelina County have heeded the call.

One such scoffer is Durham, who is awaiting transfer to state prison and looking at 25 years' hard time. After a long visit with his new girlfriend, Durham is at last ready to talk to the Houston Press, but first he has a few grievances to air with Henson.

"Hey James, what're you doin'?" asks Henson good-naturedly as a guard leads Durham into the chapel. A ruddy-faced, sandy-haired 52-year-old with a perpetual twinkle in his eye, Henson's the type of man who hates the sin but loves the sinner. He greets even a wild-eyed, inked-up veteran criminal like the 39-year-old Durham with a smile, and will tell you that Durham's a great guy when he's off the meth.

"Hell, what I do best," Durham sighs. By Durham's own count, this is the Angelina County meth poster boy's 48th trip to Angelina County Jail. Durham and Henson clasp hands and hold the grip for at least a full minute, as if they were two ambassadors at a peace summit — or like a meeting of Andy Griffith and Flannery O'Connor's Misfit, as played by either John Travolta or Jerry Seinfeld, both of whom Durham favors.

This summer, Durham pleaded guilty to burning down his sainted mother's home when a small, portable "shake-and-bake" meth lab erupted in his bedroom. Durham's mother lost both her home and car in the ensuing inferno and Durham's torso was scalded by chemicals. (The scabs later tested positive for meth.) That disaster was one of several in the worst of Durham's 39 years on the planet. He now claims to have been coerced into making his guilty plea in that case.

"I didn't burn that house down," Durham tells the sheriff with no more preamble. "I know you think I did and you think I'm a piece of shit, but I didn't burn that house down. I got burnt, I've been shot, I've been slandered, but I didn't burn that house down."

Durham also wants to know why nobody's in jail for what happened after the fire. While he was out on bond, two young men came by the shack where he was living, a little hovel he built behind what was once his mother's home. One of the men allegedly clubbed him with a two-by-four and the other, James Brent Shires, allegedly shot him with each barrel of an old-timey over-under gun. (One barrel fires .22 caliber bullets, the other is a .410 shotgun.) Durham says they were acting on the orders of an ex-girlfriend whose bid to rekindle their romance he had spurned. Shires was charged with aggravated assault and is out on bond, but the other young man was no-billed by a local grand jury. The woman has not been charged with any crime.

"I was laying on the ground for dead with a bullet in my guts and this man come up to me with that shotgun and shot me dead in my butt-hole," Durham cries to Henson, his voice rising. "You wanna see it?" he asks. The sheriff declines, much to a reporter's relief. "He shot me not in the ass but in my asshole," Durham continues. "And now I gotta wear a bag!" He parts the folds of his orange jumpsuit and shows us his colostomy bag.

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John Nova Lomax
Contact: John Nova Lomax