By Thomas Fields-Meyer
June 29, 1998 12:00 PM

Something seemed to be bothering James Byrd Jr. late that Saturday night, June 6, when Michael Land spotted him across the room at a friend’s anniversary party in Jasper, Texas. Normally gregarious and playful, Byrd, 49, just sat and watched the dance floor. “I didn’t get two words out of him,” recalls Land, 36, a funeral-home chauffeur who had known Byrd for years. “It was just on him. Death was on him.”

In fact, death was just down the road. Later that night, James Byrd—grandfather, ex-convict and sometime vacuum-cleaner salesman—stepped out into the steamy East Texas air to walk alone down a street called Martin Luther King Boulevard. A few minutes later he took a lift from three white men in a passing gray pickup. He was never again seen alive, and his horrifying death became one more chapter in America’s history of race hatred and violence.

It was 8 the next morning when scrap-company worker Cedric Green, 31, driving with his 6-year-old son down a narrow dirt road through the dense yellow-pine woods just east of Jasper (pop. 8,000), a lumber town 150 miles northeast of Houston, noticed what he took to be a deer carcass by the roadside. Then he saw the shoes. “I said, ‘Son, turn your head, don’t look!’ ” Green recalls. The body was James Byrd’s. Before the day was out, law-enforcement authorities would conclude from their investigation that the men who picked Byrd up had beaten him unconscious, chained him by his ankles to the pickup and dragged him for more than two miles, tearing him to shreds. “This was not a spur-of-the-moment type of thing that lasts a few seconds,” says Jasper County Sheriff Billy Rowles. “You don’t drag a man a couple of miles without extreme hatred.”

What sort of people could do such a thing? Physical evidence and an eyewitness account quickly led authorities to arrest two Jasper men—Shawn Berry and John William King, both 23—and a third, Lawrence Russell Brewer Jr., 31, of Sulphur Springs, Texas, and charge them with murder. “There is no doubt that this crime is racially motivated,” says Rowles. According to a possibly self-serving statement police say they took from Berry, a manager at Jasper’s movie theater, the trio had been drinking late on the night of June 6 when they got into Berry’s battered ’82 Ford pickup. Just after midnight, Berry recognized Byrd and offered him a ride, over King’s angry objections that they shouldn’t pick up a “f—–g n—-r.” After a convenience store stop, King took the wheel and soon pulled over in a secluded area, where he and Brewer began beating Byrd until he apparently lost consciousness. Berry told police he ran from the scene.

Then the two men apparently tied a chain used to haul lumber around Byrd’s ankles, and King drove back to pick up Berry. “We’re starting The Turner Diaries early,” King reportedly said—referring to the lurid 1978 novel that has become a primer for some white supremacists—and drove away. Berry told police that when he asked to get out, King refused to stop and shouted, “You’re just as guilty as we are!” and “The same thing could happen to a n—r lover!”

Byrd’s body was so badly battered—his head and right arm were detached from his torso—that police could confirm his identity only through fingerprints. Identifying the suspects was easier. At the beginning of the two-mile-long trail of blood, they say they found, among other things, a wrench set inscribed with the name “Berry.”

Those who knew him well say it’s hard to believe Shawn Berry could have been involved in the nightmarish crime. “Shawn is not a racist,” says his brother Louis, 24, an unemployed laborer. “He was in the wrong place at the wrong time.” If so, it was not the first time bad fortune had befallen him. After his mother divorced twice when he was very young, Berry was raised by his paternal grandparents until they too divorced. He grew close to his mother’s second husband, who committed suicide by shooting himself in the chest with a shotgun in the early 1990s. “That was very hard on Shawn,” says Louis.

Dropping out of high school in Kirbyville—20 miles from Jasper—Berry became friendly with another dropout, Bill King. In October 1992, the two were convicted of burglarizing a jukebox warehouse. Sentenced to 10 years in prison, they were sent instead to a 90-day boot camp aimed at scaring first-time offenders away from a life of crime. “I think it helped him,” says Louis. “He didn’t want to go back there.” Afterward, Berry managed to stay out of trouble, but King violated parole and in June 1995 was sent to a maximum-security prison near Houston, where, amid hardened felons, he apparently found a place in the thriving subculture of racist hate groups.

Back in Jasper, Shawn Berry was building a life. Bill Snelson, a local tire dealer, hired him and let him live in a trailer home in exchange for work. “He’s very talented and very smart,” says Snelson, 53, who dismisses the notion that Berry is a racist, recalling Berry’s tears at the 1994 funeral of a black coworker. Berry went on to a job at the movie theater, where he met girlfriend Christie Marcontell, 22, who was twice chosen to represent her region in the Miss Texas beauty pageant. Last September she gave birth to the couple’s son, Montana. “Shawn took care of him, fed him,” says Marcontell. “Montana slept with his daddy the first three weeks of his life.” Though the couple quarreled frequently, she says they had set an August wedding date.

Last July, Bill King returned to town, paroled after two years in the prison. “When he came back, he was a person I’d never seen,” says Louis Berry. Once an amiable guitar enthusiast who played in a rock band, he now spoke of little but the racist dogma he had picked up in prison, where he’d had much of his body covered with tattoos. The words “Aryan Pride” were etched in bold, inch-high letters across his torso, and a shield with the Nazi SS symbol was emblazoned on his chest. On a prison form, King had changed his religious affiliation from Baptist to Odinism, a pagan creed embraced by some neo-Nazi groups. Still, says Louis Berry, “we always thought all that hatred Bill had would kind of wear down and go away.”

Kylie Greeney, 17, began dating King last fall. “I know that burglary is bad, but I didn’t judge him by that,” says Greeney, who is five months pregnant with King’s child. “He’s always been loving and caring, affectionate to me.” Though he had mentioned the Aryan Brotherhood and she knew he didn’t like Jews, Greeney didn’t consider him a racist. “The majority of black people he didn’t like,” she explains, “but he did have some black friends.” Greeney was wary of his anger. “Bill had a bad temper,” she says. “When we got into an argument, he knew he had to just go outside.”

In May, Berry moved into King’s Jasper apartment. Near the end of that month, Russell Brewer showed up, fresh from his own stay in prison. Brewer had once been convicted of burglary and was sentenced to 15 years for drug possession in 1989. Released in 1991, he violated parole in 1994 and was returned to prison, where he befriended Bill King. According to Greeney, who says Brewer has racist tattoos similar to King’s, Brewer had been staying with Berry and King for nearly three weeks when the three of them happened upon James Byrd.

That Saturday had been a landmark day for Byrd, whose family had lived for generations in Jasper, where blacks and whites have coexisted uneasily but for the most part peacefully for decades. (Local authorities have not ascribed a racial motive to the alleged murder of a white man by a black man in the course of a May 30 robbery.) On the last afternoon of his life, Byrd had playfully bounced his year-old granddaughter on his knee at a bridal shower for a niece and had celebrated a reunion with his six sisters. “That was a joy for him,” says Louvon Harris, 40, his youngest sister, “because he always thought he was the overseer of us.”

Though aspiring to be a family leader, Byrd, who also had a brother, never quite lived up to the role. The third of eight children of James, a dry cleaner, and Stella, a homemaker, he excelled in high school, graduating in 1967—Jasper’s last year of school segregation—but chose not to follow his two older sisters to college. A few years later, he married Thelma Adams, with whom he had three children, Renee, 27, Ross, 19, and Jamie, 16, but he had been in and out of prison since 1969, mostly on forgery and theft charges, and the marriage ended about eight years ago. Still, friends say there was no meanness in him. “James didn’t mean to hurt anybody or make you mad or anything like that,” says friend Calvin Birdlong, 31.

Around Jasper, Byrd was known less for his criminal record than for his musical prowess. From an early age, he could pick out almost any tune on the piano and was adept at spirituals and hymns, including his favorite, “Walk with Me, Lord.” He was a familiar figure in the mostly black neighborhoods of east Jasper, where he sold vacuum cleaners door to door. Unable to afford a car, he walked almost everywhere—despite a slight limp he’d had since losing a toe in a childhood accident, earning him the nickname “Toe.”

After the bridal shower, Byrd got a lift from his sisters Louvon and Mylinda Washington, 45, who dropped him at a friend’s house around 6 p.m. “I love y’all both,” Louvon recalls him saying as he grasped their hands in what would be a final farewell. “And I’ll be all right from here on.” Later that evening, he went to the party in north Jasper, about three miles from the public housing development where he lived, but when it came time to leave, he couldn’t find a ride and set out on foot.

On Sunday afternoon, Byrd’s distraught family learned of his death, but not until the next day did they realize the horror of his final minutes. By that time, police had combed the back road where Byrd had been dragged, following a trail of blood and leaving orange spray-painted circles—81 in all—marking the remains they found strewn along the way: “dentures,” “keys,” “head.” “What was going through his mind?” wonders his horrified sister Mylinda. “What was he thinking when they were doing this to him?”

Those questions would reverberate across the country as news spread of a simple man’s nightmarish fate. President Clinton telephoned to express his sympathy. Chicago Bull Dennis Rodman picked up the funeral bill and gave the family $25,000. Thousands sent condolence cards, and so many floral arrangements arrived from around the country for the June 13 funeral that they couldn’t fit into the 300-seat Greater New Bethel Baptist Church. African-American leaders—including Jesse Jackson, U.S. Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater (representing the Clinton Administration) and Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) arrived to express solidarity. “The fact that we have all rushed here,” NAACP president Kweisi Mfume told the mourners, “means we recognize that it could have easily been one of us.”

In fact, two copycat incidents were reported within days of the murder. In Slidell, La., and in Belleville, Ill., whites in moving cars were said to have seized black men and dragged them. Though both alleged attacks resulted in only minor injuries, the episodes served as a stark reminder of the hatreds that persist despite America’s strides toward racial comity. Byrd’s friends say they have often been harassed by white men on Jasper County roads. “Racism is all over the world,” says Byrd’s friend Billy Robinson, owner of a funeral home. “Lots of times people hide it under the rug. Sometimes it comes out, and you have to face the consequences.” Indeed, two Texas factions of the Ku Klux Klan have been given permits for a June 27 rally in Jasper.

Yet even as the crime exposed racial tensions in Jasper, its aftermath spurred a striving for unity. A week and a day after Byrd’s death, whites and blacks joined in a prayer vigil in front of the town’s 109-year-old courthouse, singing “Amazing Grace” and listening to clergymen appealing to the heavens for healing. “Lord, if ever we needed you,” declared local Baptist minister Ed Robinson, “we need you now.”

Thomas Fields-Meyer

Bob Stewart, Michelle McCalope and Michael Haederle in Jasper