The Last Word
by Gary Clifton
Cellular hell erupted at 6:10 a.m.
“Detective McCoy?” The Dallas Police Alarm Office was alive and well on a Sunday morning in August.
“Yup.” I swung upright on the edge of the bed. The hangover was painful but not fatal.
“Chart shows you’re on call today. Male gunshot victim at Parkland. Semi-conscious, says his friends have been murdered.”
“On the way.” I hung up. Another barroom brawl out of hand, I figured. After 18 years as a cop, I was near the stage of saying I’d seen it all.
The disgusting, pointless combination of atrocities that we were about to confront would quickly show how wrong one fool can be. The witness struggling for life in the ER would initially recall only that one of the pair of monsters was called “Hook.” Eventually, he recalled details horrible beyond belief.
* * *
Traci Lynn Jones, an attractive, outgoing pre-med major, lived off campus in North Dallas. The complex was popular with other students. On a hot, muggy Saturday evening in August, two male students from next door were crashed on her sofa watching a Dallas Cowboys’ pre-season game. Typically trusting kids, the apartment front door was standing open, the better to draw more company.
They attracted more partiers, all right. Traci had just stepped in from the kitchen with three beers when Armageddon in the form of two disheveled men in their early twenties walked in. One was waving a pistol. Both were so stoned that their give-a-damn factors were below zero.
“Okay, rich dorks,” one slurred drunkenly. “Now the party begins.”
They locked the door, duct taped Traci’s companions to chairs, and dragged her into the bedroom. Then they beat, raped, and murdered her.
Her last hours were beyond horrible. Medical testimony would show Traci had lived for about an hour after the torment stopped. She had been butchered; her breasts mutilated, with an 8-inch knife sticking out of her chest. She died slowly from blood loss and traumatic shock.
The horror lasted until past dark. The assailants loaded the two young men into Traci’s Camaro, drove them to several locations, and forced them to withdraw cash from ATM machines. They then drove to an isolated area.
We’d later learned it was Hook who egged on his halfwit partner. “Go on, ass, kill ’em.” The partner, bolstered by chemical courage, shot each boy once in the back of the head.
Too stupid to grasp that murder is an inexact science, the shooters overlooked the first rule of survival: Some humans take more killing than others. One young man was dead. The other revived, wriggled free, crawled to a highway, and lived to testify against the monsters.
* * *
When I arrived at Parkland, the young man was in critical condition but conscious enough to describe the locations of both the atrocity and his place of execution. I called the cavalry to help look for the second kid in the weeds and to poke into Traci’s apartment. Both found a bloodbath.
I’d been on the case for two weeks. The surviving kid nearly went blind digging though boxes of mug photos I carried to his hospital bed, but we had nothing to show for it. We were under full attack from the media, the public, and the police brass. Homicide was never any fun.
* * *
L. Fenwick Benton High School was about midpoint from downtown and the affluent enclave of Lakewood in far east Dallas. In between was home to some of the sorriest human backwash in the Southwestern U.S.
In the two weeks after Traci Jones’ and her companions’ murders, schools opened for the Fall semester. On a hot Tuesday afternoon, Benton cafeteria manager, Ruth Marlow, 53, was sitting in a corner, preparing the daily bank deposit. A man wearing a ski mask pushed a 9mm pistol in her face and demanded the money.
Terrified, she pushed the rolled coins stamped “Benton H.S.” and a few bills across the desk. The man slid the small take into a bank bag, pointed the gun between Mrs. Marlow’s eyes and pulled the trigger, splattering her head on the wall behind her. The man fled out the back door. Two other employees, unnoticed in the kitchen, heard a car roar away. They described the shooter as short, white, and dirty. The take had been less than $200.
The Benton case was assigned to Detective Margaret “Maggs” Williams. Maggs had attended college on a track scholarship. She was leggy and smart. She could kick the asses of most men and could whip out a flawless report in ten minutes. She lived with a female traffic sergeant out of the Southeast District.
For another week, Maggs caught a share of complaining news media and disgruntled police management. After hours of grueling legwork, she had no more idea who had capped Mrs. Marlow than I knew about the perps in the Traci Jones case.
* * *
Snitches are to cops as men are to prostitutes; it’s hard to do business without them. I’d caught a biker “dirty” — with a couple of dime bags of drugs — three years before. His name was Dwight, street-named “Horse,” probably because he was twice as strong and half as smart as one. Horse traded prison time for turning snitch, and he was a good one. He operated a motorcycle repair and sales shop on East Main, which put him in daily contact with a hell of a lot of the aforementioned riffraff. Late one morning, he called my cellular.
“McCoy, you know a guy named Leroy John Martin?”
“I took a pistol, a nine-millimeter, from the dude... in soak.” He was using the street term for lending money, pawnshop style. “He just come in and redeemed it. It was his last day.”
“We’re into killings here, Horse, not illegal pawn shops.”
“Hey, dude, he was so high he coulda walked on liquid puke, which is what he is. He gimme rolled coins all marked Benton H.S.”
“Holy buckets, Horse! I’ll be there in fifteen minutes.” I rounded up Maggs. On the short drive up Main, I filled her in.
Horse had the serial number of the pistol, the address for Leroy John Martin, and a copy of his driver’s license. We ran up Leroy Martin’s record. With two felony convictions, possession of the gun he had just redeemed was a major hit in his ass. We had an arrest warrant within an hour.
* * *
Leroy was squatting in his grandmother’s place just off Gaston Avenue. The door was unlocked. He was zoned out on a sofa.
Leroy, dumb ass that he was, grabbed at a 9mm pistol from an end table. I canceled that plan by tossing him into a corner. His bladder failed. He exploded in tears, bawling like he’d just been told he’d have to learn to read. Maggs and I had uncovered a whiff of the dung sure enough, but we couldn’t yet even imagine the size of the pile.
I sat in the back while Maggs drove us to the Sterrett Center, the nice name for the Dallas County Jail. Leroy blubbered beside me. “Well, slick,” I said, “this pistol alone will get you life without parole, but those coin rolls from Benton High mean the needle. You’re dead, boy.”
He flushed green and laid the golden egg. “McCoy, I never knowed that damned fool would shoot that old lady,” Leroy sobbed. “I jes loaned him the gun. Oh, merciful God!”
“What ‘damned fool’?!” both of us echoed.
“Hook. And a dude named Oscar.”
“Don’t believe you, Leroy,” Maggs turned back in her seat and nearly ran over a guy on a bike who was selling ice cream.
Then the mother lode: “Hook somethin’ and Oscar Perkins. They’s the ones killed them college kids last month. Raped that girl, shot them boys. They was needin’ dope money.”
“This nine here, is it the same gun that shot the cafeteria lady and Tracy Jones?” I asked.
“Naw, I had two of ’em. Hook never gimme back the one he used to shoot that old woman. He gimme cash from that Benton Cafeteria job instead. I s’pect he shot them college kids with the same gun.”
Our lieutenant read our reports and smiled for the first time in a month.
* * *
With a partial ID, we turned the surviving kid from Traci’s apartment loose on the piles of mug photos. It took less then two hours to pin the suspects.
Johnny Melvin Hooker, called “Hook,” was from Kaufman County, southeast of Dallas. In and out of jail or prison since age fourteen, a penciled notation on the margin of his Dallas County Jail card read, “Caution: vicious little bastard.” Hook carried around a hundred-dollar a day dope habit when he wasn’t in jail.
Oscar Lee Perkins, who’d germinated around Antlers, Oklahoma, had been Hook’s cellmate before both escaped from a work party at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice Sugarland Unit, six months earlier.
Maggs and I spent a week kicking in doors in east Dallas and the Pleasant Grove District in the southeast section of the city. We slapped around Hook’s uncle, busted open the trunk of his cousin’s Ford, found his old auntie, the ugliest woman you ever saw, naked in bed with two stoned bikers, and violated the rights of numerous other “citizens.”
Yeah, yeah, we have the Fourth and Fifth Amendments memorized. Tell that to Traci and the grandkids of a cringing old lady in a high-school cafeteria. When I get to Hell, we’ll sort it all out.
It was after we had locked Oscar’s brother in the trunk of our car for a couple hours that we rang the bell. With his help, we found the two hiding in an old Dodge in the woods of Kaufman County. At the appearance of law, Hook melted like ice cream on an Dallas sidewalk in summer. He had stuffed into his waistband the nine-millimeter that had killed Mrs. Marlow.
Maggs bagged the pistol. “Idiot, dumb enough to do the crime, dumb enough to hold onto a ticket to death row.”
Both Hook and Oscar cried bitter tears, but you know what they’d say: “We ain’t did squat.” Then Hook, not exactly a rocket assembly expert, blurted: “It was Leroy Martin kilt that girl and shot them boys,” admitting knowledge of a crime we hadn’t yet mentioned.
* * *
Hook’s trial was held first, for Traci and the two boys. Mrs. Marlow’s murder was kept as our reserve parachute in case some goofy judge found a loophole in the case.
The trial lasted two days. The kid who had survived pointed out Hook, then reduced several jurors to tears as he described Traci’s screams and Hook’s and Oscar’s lustful taunts.
Lab squints testified they’d had found both defendants’ prints all over Traci’s apartment.
Leroy came blubbering in and repeated Hook’s boastful descriptions of his part in the murders. Hook’s coffin was under construction, soon to be nail-ready.
The jury deliberated a half hour before sentencing Hook to death by lethal injection. His permanent scowl remained frozen in psychopath mode when the verdict was read. He turned and muttered, “Sorry bastards” to Maggs and me while he was being led out in chains.
Maggs rolled her lovely brown eyes and grinned at me. “Obviously, the boy means you.”
Oscar’s trial was a clone of Hook’s. They’d be together again — caged in adjacent cells on Texas’ death row at Huntsville. The State never bothered to try either one for the Benton school murder; they couldn’t be executed twice. Leroy copped a deal and pled to a 25-year sentence.
* * *
A year passed, then two. Hook and Oscar drifted off our radar, but never Traci; that vision was indelible. Leroy Martin, safe in State prison, took a shank in the shower and died after several days of agony. The perp was never caught.
Six weeks before Hook’s execution date, the State notified Maggs and me that we were “cordially” invited to witness the event. Cordially. Only an executioner could think in those terms. I wasn’t interested; sadism was not in our job description.
A couple of weeks later, Maggs and I received a letter from the State. Hook’s rambling, scrawled diatribe described Maggs as a stupid-assed ape and promised to murder her whole family and mine.
Execution of a human being is an ugly business, abhorrent to any rational human. I’d had other “opportunities” to witness the process. I’d always declined. The day we got Hook’s threatening letter, Maggs dug out the crime scene photos of Traci Jones and Mrs. Marlow.
Probably from some deeply ingrained paranoia of what the pair of murderers would invariably do if they got out, Maggs said quietly, “I believe I’ll go to Huntsville, McCoy. ‘Ape?’ Damn, he’s way behind the racial-slur curve.”
* * *
Traveling to death row was pointless; we had done what we’d had to do, and the scenario was now well out of our hands. Even so, Maggs and I were on the front row on the big night. Maggs remarked that the room was so small you’d have to step outside to think twice. We assumed part of the crowd were Hook’s relatives — not that we gave a damn.
The attendants wheeled him in. Hook was draped in a white hospital gown on the partly upright gurney. I.V.’s punctured his extended arms. A guard cranked the table fully upright and turned the contraption to face the small gallery, separated only by a glass window with an opening at the top. I asked Maggs if the white cloth was to keep the condemned from dying of infection.
Hook’s reptile eyes fixated on us like a space-movie laser, trying like hell to burn a hole in the glass. Why not? His situation was society’s fault, not his. Just ask him.
Then, he managed to shoot us the finger with a pinioned hand. Spectators in the tiny room, aware we were cops, looked as a body toward us. Void of friends, shunned by family, Hook had taken his last shot at a world he’d never managed to join — an obscene gesture into a room full of mostly enemies and a few heartbroken relatives.
Maggs stunned the room, me included, by standing and saying calmly: “Better luck in the next world, you sorry son of a bitch.”
Expecting a brawl, I stood to face the room. I was sobered and overwhelmed by the spectators’ standing ovation for Maggs. Hook’s relatives either tacitly agreed with her or opted for silence. Then the poison and a final shudder.
“Hook’s life ended a hell of a lot easier than his victims’,” Maggs whispered.
While the spectators were filing out, stunned by what they’d just witnessed, the news-vultures waded in. Maggs and I refused to make eye contact. Then a kid from a Houston TV station blurted in Maggs face: “Do you think capital punishment is fair and just?”
Maggs stopped and flashed him her lovely smile. “Well, young man, it’s neither. Execution wasn’t nearly enough, but since the law doesn’t allow pulling off his nuts, it was the best that could be done.”
Maggs’ comment went viral on YouTube, and the Dallas Police officials said not a word about it; they let silence mean assent.
Although Maggs and I were again “cordially invited” to Oscar Lee Perkin’s execution four months later, we did not bother to attend.
Hook and Oscar have been at home in Hell for several years now. Somehow, I doubt they’ve been missed anywhere else.
Copyright © 2020 by Gary Clifton