Long Dark Road: Bill King and Murder in Jasper, Texas
On a long dark road in deep East Texas, James Byrd Jr. was dragged to his death behind a pickup truck one summer night in 1998. Two of the three men convicted of the hate crime had been members a white supremacist prison gang called the Confederate Knights of America. The brutal modern-day lynching stunned the world and raised the question: How is it that such a heinous crime could take place in contemporary America?
I set out to understand how it is that Bill King, the ex-convict ringleader whose body was covered in racist and satanic tattoos, had come to commit this crime. Much of what I discovered surprised me, such as the fact that King had not been raised in a racist family and that he’d had African American friends in childhood. I interviewed King extensively on Texas’ death row (I also interviewed Shawn Berry, another of the perpetrators, who was given a life sentence), as well as his family members, Jasper residents, and law enforcement and judicial officials, in an effort to lay bare the psychological and social forces that converged in a murder on that June night in East Texas. What I found was a history of unstable family relationships and emotional vulnerability that made Bill King especially susceptible to the white supremacist ideology he adopted while in jail for lesser crimes.
Long Dark Road is my attempt to answer the question of why such a racially motivated murder happened in our time. It also offers a cautionary tale of the urgent need to intervene in troubled young lives and to reform our violent, racist-breeding prisons. I also discovered a most unsettling truth: Far from being an inhuman monster whom we can simply dismiss, "Bill King may be more like the rest of us than we care to believe."
Jasper County Sheriff Billy Rowles who concluded that James Byrd, Jr. was the victim of a hate crime and called in the FBI. Photo by Sarah Wilson.