Uncertainty Grips Texas Town Following Black’s Death
HEMPHILL, Texas (AP) _ Loyal Garner Jr. was only passing through this remote wooded village in East Texas last Christmas. He didn’t make it.
Since Garner’s death, Hemphill has not been able to forget the 34-year-old truck driver.
Three white lawmen, including the town’s police chief, have been charged with violating the civil rights of Garner, a black, by beating him and leaving him overnight in the Sabine County jail after his arrest on drunk driving charges. He died two days later.
″We still don’t know what happened in that place. We want to know,″ said the Rev. Will Smith, a black minister in this logging and farming community of 1,300 residents, one-fifth of whom are black, near the Louisiana border.
Garner’s widow, Corrine Garner of Florien, La., has filed suit against the town, seeking unspecified damages for what she termed a ″brutal, racially motivated killing.″
She said she hopes maximum life sentences are meted out against the men charged in her husband’s death: Police Chief Thomas Ladner, 40; Sabine County Chief Sheriff’s Deputy Bill Horton, 58; and Deputy James Hyden, 34.
″It would give them a chance, like me, to lie awake at night and think about what happened,″ she said recently. ″If you’ve got any conscience, it would bother you at night.″
The case is one of several nationwide that, like the Howard Beach manslaughter case in New York City, seem to have incited racial hostilities between blacks and whites.
Mayor Ronnie Felts, who is white, believes the case did not result from racism, and Hemphill has been unfairly judged.
″It’s caused a lot of disruption, the story has gone out all over the country,″ Felts said. ″A lot of good people have gotten ugly phone calls.″
Smith also doubts the beating was racially motivated. ″I think race relations were good. They weren’t perfect, but we weren’t throwing eggs at each other.″
Since Garner’s death, stories have circulated around town of other cases of police brutality, in which excessive force was allegedly used with little justification.
″It’s been going on for years and years,″ said former city marshal Andy Helms. ″The only reason why things are going to change is that someone got killed.″
Helms, who said he witnessed a half-dozen beatings on the job with the sheriff’s department from 1974 to 1975, pointed to the racial overtones of Garner’s case for its high profile. ″If it had been a white man, this wouldn’t have happened,″ said Helms.
Residents often linger at the lunch counters that surround Hemphill’s small central square, quietly sharing town news. Outsiders are quickly noticed, and that may have been part of Garner’s problem.
As he drove through town, police arrested him for investigation of driving while intoxicated and his two companions, Johnnie Maxie and his brother Alton, for public intoxication.
Once in the county jail, Garner and Alton Maxie began banging on the door of their cell, seeking to use the jail telephone to call family members, Johnnie Maxie said.
Garner was then beaten and left, bloodied, in the cell overnight without treatment, Maxie said. He was taken to the Sabine County Hospital the next morning.
″For all practical purposes, by the time he was brought here he was dead,″ said Dr. Grover C. Winslow, the town’s only doctor, who found a cut on Garner’s head and blood congealed around his nose.
Garner was transferred to a hospital in Tyler, about 110 miles away, where he was pronounced dead Dec. 27. An inquest scheduled for Tuesday will evaluate the cause of death and determine whether additional charges should be filed.
Pending trial, for which no date has been set, the three law officers were suspended from their jobs with pay. The charges carry a maximum sentence of life in prison.