A Question of Murder

Nine years ago, a forbidden interracial love affair in an east Texas town ended with a hanging. Was it suicide or a perfect lynching?

"Rodney knew that [some people] were doing drugs and couldn't stand it," claims Mr. Williams, a 49-year-old long-distance truck driver who had a close relationship with the boy he nicknamed "Dodie Mite." He said he suggested that Rodney complain to the coach, but Rodney said he didn't want to be labeled a snitch.

An autopsy indicated that Rodney died of "asphyxiation by hanging," but the Williamses have come to believe he died at the end of a hangman's rope. "My baby would not have hanged himself," Mrs. Williams insisted in one of her letters to Detective Cerliano, pleading with him to do something about the alleged crime.

With tempers running high in Jasper, partly because of recent attempts by blacks to leave no stone unturned as they dig into the town's racial history, some might say that Albert and Katie Faye Williams concocted a murder fantasy to attract media attention. But the lynching of James Byrd has contributed to a reassessment of race relations in East Texas, and Rodney's death, his family maintains, will always stand as a reminder of bigotry and hatred in Kilgore. Even now, Katie Faye Williams is overcome by guilt for not pulling her son out of the predominantly white community. "He begged me, 'Mama let me come home; they're prejudiced up here.' "

RESENTMENT OF BLACKS is not the kind of image Kilgore likes to project. In the little oil-rich town that was founded by plantation owners during the Civil War, spring is highlighted with blooming azaleas and dogwood trees.

One promotion claims that "Kilgore offers several ingredients that make up a great quality of life" for its 11,000 residents, 22 percent of whom are black. Its police force boasts of a department "where civic pride is justified." But the stain of racism has spread across this idyllic picture.

Blacks say the racial climate in Kilgore worsened after it was learned that it was a Kilgore police officer, Frank Baggett Jr., who shot and killed Annie Rae Dixon during the botched drug raid in neighboring Tyler in 1992. The raid by Baggett and other officers, who were out of their jurisdiction, was prompted by an informant who said he had bought crack at the house from one of Dixon's relatives. Baggett maintained that his gun fired accidentally when he stumbled through Dixon's bedroom door. No drugs were found, and no charges were filed. An inquest jury deadlocked and the case went to the grand jury, which did not indict Baggett.

"If it was not a question of murder," says Andrew Melontree, the only black-elected commissioner in Smith County history, "we were at least looking for manslaughter."

But it was murder in the case of four whites who were slain by a black gunman--and the incident triggered accusations of racism. Saying he "felt like doing something devious," DaRoyce Lamont Mosley shot the victims in the head at point blank range during the robbery of a Kilgore bar in 1994. According to court documents, Mosley was one of two men who burst into the bar just before closing and demanded money. Sandra Cash, a waitress, gave the men a tackle box with the night's receipts.

Mosley then shot Patricia and Duane Colter, Luva Congleton, and Alvin Waller, all of whom were customers. He confessed to the murders, but said an accomplice wounded Cash, who was shot three times and is paralyzed from the waist down. Mosley was sentenced to death. Last month, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals upheld the capital murder conviction against him.

Six years before this upsurge in racial violence, a wide-eyed Rodney Williams had won a scholarship to play football at Kilgore College, located in the heart of the East Texas piney woods, and home to the award-winning Kilgore Rangerettes drill-and-dance team.

The six-foot-three, 200-pound defensive end, who was studying criminal justice at the two-year community college, became one of the most popular players on the team and a big man on campus. "I always appreciated your son's attitude and cheerful disposition," Ray Woodard, one of Rodney's coaches, would later write to his parents.

Although Rodney's brief football career was plagued by injuries, he seemed to fit the definition of manhood for the coed, who fell under the spell of an interracial romance. He was her O. J. Simpson. Albert Williams says a black police officer told him that "the white girl stayed many nights in Rodney's room. So Rodney's involvement with her was no secret."

"I for one objected," says Katie Faye. "I told her he was not safe there all by himself because it was a prejudiced town; she could get him in trouble."

On October 4, 1989,the young woman began to bare her soul about the stormy affair, hinting sadly in love letters to Rodney, which were released by the Williamses, that theirs was no common relationship.

"Hello Sexy," one missive began. "How's your day? I hope you feel a whole lot better than you did last night. I shouldn't have asked you to walk me to the library and shouldn't have stayed. . . . But I'm glad that I did. I like you holding me. I was tossing and turning but you still managed to hold me and to keep me covered up. . . . I hope you get better so you can play good Saturday."

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