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Town, Mother Cope With Burglary Suspect’s Death

November 19, 1989

MALONE, Texas (AP) _ The death of a black burglary suspect who was chased by residents and suffocated when he was pinned down in a field has this small town dodging charges of racism.

It has trapped some of its residents between a lost innocence and what they fear is the hopeless task of convincing outsiders they are not racists who chased James Oliver King Jr. merely because he was black.

″This is never going to go away,″ said James Lucko, one of King’s pursuers and mayor of the town, 60 miles south of Dallas.

A few have promised as much, including one former mayor who plans to organize a protest march against the racism he contends struck down King. About 70 of the town’s 300 residents are black.

But others say those charges are fueled by the former mayor’s grudge against the city and the loss of business at his store, and they grieve at the suggestion of racism.

″It ain’t right,″ said Martin Degner. ″Please, let us get back to our little old country life.″

Meanwhile, Pearlie Mae King of Waco is crying over the month-old grave of her son. Thursday would have been his 25th birthday, and he had promised her he was changing his life.

But like other things in King’s young life, plans went awry.

He quit school in 1982 to become a construction worker. He also became an inept criminal. Four times he was jailed for theft and burglary charges, and in 1983 he was sentenced to serve three years for burglary.

″I wanted to get some money to get him out of jail, but he told me to let him stay,″ Mrs. King recalled. ″He said, ‘I did wrong and I’m going to pay for it.’ And he went and served his time.″

He had been living with his mother and outwardly appeared to be trying to make good on his life.

But Oct. 9, he allegedly broke into a home in Malone, 25 miles to the north. Emma Piel said she came home that afternoon and found King standing in her bedroom.

He ran from the home; she hurried to Lucko’s grocery store.

Soon, several men were chasing King. The chase wound around town as the suspect jumped over gates, ran down alleyways and slid through fences. Somewhere along the way, he picked up a brick, the men said later.

″When we had him trapped for a time inside a goatpen, I told him to put the brick down,″ Lucko recalled. ″I said, ‘Just talk to me.’

″But he said, ’No, touch me and you’re going to get hurt.‴

At one point, Ray Watson said he aimed a .22-caliber pistol as King was being chased toward him down an alley. But he said he couldn’t bring himselt to fire because ″I could no more have shot that man than I could fly.″

Trying to flee across a freshly plowed field, King was quickly surrounded and overcome by three men. Lucko sat across King’s legs while two others held his arms, trying to get him to let go of the brick and hold him until officers arrived.

″After five or seven minutes, he let go of the brick and we quit restraining him as hard,″ said Lucko.

Lucko said they were stunned when a Hill County deputy told them the man was dead. Attempts to revive him failed.

″All we wanted to do is retain him. Nobody wanted to kill him,″ said Watson, who followed the chase in his truck.

John Parker, a medical examiner in Dallas, ruled King’s death a homicide, saying it was caused by sustained pressure on his chest and abdomen and strangulation. Tests for drugs and alcohol were negative.

″It was not a classic accident. That’s why we called it a homicide. It was very unusual,″ Parker said.

But a grand jury Tuesday declined to issue any indictments in the case.

″I think all of these men were doing what they thought was right and what they thought was their civic duty, and I don’t think that can be said of everybody these days,″ said Hill County District Attorney Dan Dent.

Mrs. King planted a small cedar tree on her son’s grave Thursday.

″Although I know they killed my baby, I don’t have hatred in my heart for those peoples,″ she said. ″I’m going to pray for them.

″I want justice, but it’s not going to bring him back. I just want someone to talk to me and tell me what happened.″

Watson, the town’s mayor pro tem, says he plans to invite Mrs. King to town to discuss her son’s death.

″These big-city reporters came out here and tried to glorify this. But it was not racial. It was not vigilante,″ he said.

Tommy Westmoreland is among those complaining most vigorously, saying King would still be alive if he were white. Westmoreland, who is white, ia trying to organize a protest march next weekend and hopes to invite King’s parents.

The owner of a grocery store, he acknowledges some have asked if he has an ax to grind against Lucko, who owns the town’s only other grocery store. He is embroiled in a zoning dispute with the city because officials contend he illegally built a store addition.

″I don’t have to bring Lucko down this way,″ Westmoreland said. ″But there’s racism in this town. They see me as a hell-raiser.″

If there is racism, some of the town’s blacks don’t see if that way.

″They treat me right,″ said Walter Thompson as he entered Westmoreland’s store. ″That’s all I can say. They treat me all right.″

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