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Unfathomable Crime, Unlikely Figure

Unfathomable Crime, Unlikely Figure


The people who know Shawn Allen Berry, some who killed time with him, drinking beer and watching the insects whirl around the street lights, some who frequently waited in vain for him to show up for work at the town tire store, often feared that he was just one more drunken joy ride away from another trip to prison.

But they figured it would be something dumb, something little, not something mean. They never dreamed he would be charged, along with two other white men, with dragging a black man to death behind Mr. Berry's primer-gray pickup, a crime so cruel it sickened people across the country.

''Maybe,'' said a former employer, Bill Snelson, ''he just got mixed up in the wrong crowd.''

That is what Mr. Berry and his court-appointed lawyer maintain: that he was an unwilling accomplice to the June 7 murder of James Byrd Jr., 49. Those who know Mr. Berry, a 23-year-old part-time mechanic, theater manager and failed burglar, want to believe him, because they do not want to think that so evil a crime has a familiar face.

In Jasper, where almost half the population is black and memories are long, people understand prejudice. But few of them, black or white, understand what could happen in a life that would make a man hate with such intensity. As they look back on the lives of the three accused, they find clues, but not answers.

In a statement given to investigators, Mr. Berry has implicated the two other suspects, both friends: John William King, 23, a onetime schoolmate here in Jasper who became his partner in the bungled burglary that landed both in a prison boot camp in 1992, and Lawrence R. Brewer, 31, a day laborer from the Sulphur Springs area who had just completed a seven-year prison term for cocaine peddling when Mr. Byrd was murdered.

By the account of Mr. Berry, who had given Mr. Byrd a lift, Mr. King forced him to accompany the two other men on the ride of death and dismemberment after they had chained the victim to the rear bumper. Mr. Brewer and Mr. King, both linked to prison hate gangs, say they did not murder anyone.

People who know the three suspects, either here in Jasper or in Cooper, Mr. Brewer's tiny hometown, describe them alternately as good boys and small-time criminals. Mr. King often used racial slurs, but that did not set him apart here.

All three men were born in East Texas, where racism can be almost a recreation -- in 1993, white supremacists in Vidor, some 50 miles from Jasper, succeeded in driving out of town the several blacks who lived there -- but Jasper had not seen such meanness in decades, people here say. The mayor, the hospital administrator, the superintendent of education and other political and civic leaders are black. The country club has black members.

''Things have changed a lot in the past 20, 30 years,'' said District Attorney Guy James Gray, who has lived here for 48 years. Certainly, blacks and whites alike say, racism is alive in Jasper, but it is a thing of lingering resentment and hurtful words, not threats or violence.

A lot of people here believe that the suspects' time in prison, where inmates tend to split off into gangs by color for their own protection, intensified racial prejudice that had been part of their culture, and set the stage for an abomination. State prison officials say that Mr. King and Mr. Brewer were both members of the Confederate Knights of America, a racist group linked to the Ku Klux Klan, and that both have tattoos that mark them as white supremacists.

But this crime was so evil, so widely denounced, that Texas klaverns of the Klan have denounced it, too. A small group of Klansmen, 10 to 20, have applied for a permit to march here this weekend or the next, not in support of the suspects but to disavow any connection with them.

In any case, friends of Mr. Berry say they are certain that when he offered Mr. Byrd a ride that fateful night, he did so as a kindness.

Mr. Snelson, who owns Jasper Tire, where Mr. Berry worked off and on for about three years, said Mr. Berry's mentor there was an old black man who was dying of cancer.

''Shawn went with me to the funeral,'' Mr. Snelson said. ''He was crying like a baby.''

Dustin Wood, 21, a worker on offshore oil rigs who has known Mr. Berry for years, echoes what many say about him: People liked to like him. He made dumb mistakes, but he did not seem to have a mean streak.

''I never heard Shawn say anything racist,'' Mr. Wood said. ''I have a lot of black friends. He has a lot of black friends. All this news has just shocked me and everyone he knows.''

Mr. Berry drank beer, mostly on the weekends; shot pool, and got tattoos, ''but there's nothing racist about tattoos,'' Mr. Wood said. ''He had a Playboy bunny, a Grim Reaper and a cow skull, if I remember right.''

He also had a child by a young woman in Jasper and, friends say, was planning to marry her.

''For the circumstances he was raised in,'' Mr. Snelson said, ''he was a good kid.''

His father died when he was a teen-ager, and he quit school in the eighth grade. ''He never did talk much about his mother,'' said Mr. Wood, one of a number of acquaintances who say Mr. Berry and his mother were never close.

''He was raised on the street,'' Mr. Snelson said. ''I tried to help the kid because I felt sorry for him,'' although ultimately ''I had to let him go because he was not dependable.''

In 1992, Mr. Berry and Mr. King, his friend from school, committed a burglary in Jasper and were sent to the boot camp, a detention center where guards used military-like discipline to try to turn around the lives of young offenders. It seemed to work for Mr. Berry, who came home and got a job at the movie theater. (The night of the killing, he had just finished showing ''Godzilla.'')

But for Mr. King, boot camp proved to be only preparation for two more years in custody. He violated parole so often that the state sent him to Beto One, a tough prison in the town of Tennessee Colony. He came out a much different person, by the account of friends and relatives, who say prison taught him to hate.

Unlike Mr. Berry, of whom people speak well even as they shake their heads, Mr. King seems abandoned by Jasper. Even his father, Ronald King, has conceded his guilt, in a letter to reporters. ''It hurts me deeply,'' the elder Mr. King wrote.

While people here acknowledge knowing John King, they refuse to have their names attached to any recollection about him, if they talk about him at all.

They remember a mannerly boy, quiet around grown-ups. His family was blue-collar Baptist. The only vice he had as a boy was snuff.

He dropped out of school in 10th grade and did manual labor. Like Mr. Berry, he was just one of the sunburned young men who cruised town in ragged pickups, a six-pack from trouble. If he was overtly racist then, the people who remember him say they do not recall.

But in Beto One, he met Mr. Brewer, who had been in and out of jail for drug and burglary convictions much of his adult life. Like Mr. King, the new acquaintance came from a solid, hard-working Texas family, ''real respected people,'' said Mr. Brewer's hometown sheriff, Benny Fisher.

''Everybody liked him,'' said Mr. Brewer's grandfather, Morris Gillham, 76, a retired electrician. ''I don't know what to say. He didn't have that makeup,'' as a boy, to do the things the prosecutors say he did to Mr. Byrd.

Relatives say Mr. Brewer too learned to hate in prison. Both he and Mr. King joined the Confederate Knights of America, a loosely organized prison gang for white supremacists, although his lawyer, Bill Morian Jr., says Mr. Brewer joined the gang for protection.

''If you don't join,'' Mr. Morian said, ''you become someone's wife.''

Texas prisons have powerful black and Hispanic gangs, in particular one called the Mexican Mafia. They, and their white counterparts, espouse racial hatred.

''The level of racism in prison is very high,'' said Mark Potok, a spokesman for the Southern Poverty Law Center. ''The truth is, you may go in completely unracist and emerge ready to kill people who don't look like you.''

Organizations mentioned in this article:

Related Terms:
Murders and Attempted Murders; Blacks

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