To his loved ones in Paris, Texas, Brandon McClelland was affectionately known as "Big Boy," a 284-pound gentle giant. He was a devoted family man—babysitting his little cousins, caring for his mother after she suffered a stroke and a heart attack, cooking up dishes of "Mexican spaghetti" for his disabled grandmother. He had a large circle of friends and regularly invited them over to play dominoes and to barbecue in the front yard. He always looked out for them, making sure the ones who had a little too much to drink got home safely. Though he was African-American, he didn't pay much attention to race. He had acquaintances of all colors, and, in fact, his best friend was a white girl he met at church.
One day last September, McClelland, 24, went to work hanging Sheetrock with two other white friends, Shannon Finley and Charles Ryan Crostley, both 27. When they finished, the three men went out drinking and, later that night, decided to go on a beer run in Finley's pickup truck. What ensued is unclear, but McClelland never returned. Just before dawn, Texas troopers found his mangled corpse on a deserted country road miles away from Paris. His head was cracked open, and his body was dismembered and partially disemboweled. Finley and Crostley told authorities that the three had argued about whether Finley was too drunk to drive—at which point McClelland exited the truck, and they drove off. But prosecutors allege that the two intentionally ran over McClelland, whose girth caused him to get lodged in the undercarriage and dragged along. In December Finley and Crostley were indicted for murder. (Both men have pleaded not guilty and are in jail awaiting a trial expected to start this spring.)
As someone with such a conciliatory soul, McClelland might shudder at the racial tempest his death has provoked. Long-simmering tensions in Paris have flared anew, with African-Americans accusing law enforcement of mishandling the McClelland investigation and whites complaining that out-of-town opportunists are inciting conflict. In November, a courthouse protest drew representatives of the New Black Panther Party, the Nation of Islam and the NAACP on one side and white, Bible-waving hecklers and a self-identified grand titan of the Ku Klux Klan on the other. Things have reached such a nadir that the Justice Department has deployed its Community Relations Service—a sort of civil-rights SWAT team —to mediate discussions among Paris residents. "This town is being forced to look at things they never wanted to look at before," says Brenda Cherry, who lives in Paris and cofounded Concerned Citizens for Racial Equality.
Yet it's not at all clear that race even played a role in McClelland's death. He and the two defendants were close and had no known history of racial discord. "They were the best of friends," says Vickie Finley, Shannon's mother. "All my children and grandchildren thought the world of Brandon." In an act of supreme loyalty, McClelland even tried to help Finley avoid prison once. In 2003, Finley shot and killed another friend (who was white) in what he claimed was an accident as he tried to defend himself against two supposed assailants. McClelland attempted to cover for him by providing police with a false alibi; he ended up convicted of perjury and served a two-year sentence (Finley served three years for manslaughter).
McClelland may have been a victim of drunken rage more than racial animosity. According to an arrest affidavit, Finley admitted to a friend that he intentionally ran over McClelland and dragged him for about 40 feet. Finley then circled back and saw McClelland's mutilated body and pools of blood in the roadway, the affidavit states; he and Crostley later went to a car wash to clean the truck. But apparently they didn't do a very thorough job: investigators found human blood in numerous spots on the pickup's underside. Later that day, the two went to visit McClelland's mother, Jacquline, and offered the same version of events they'd given troopers—that there had been an argument, that McClelland had exited the truck and that they'd driven off. But Finley wouldn't look her in the eye, Jacquline tells NEWSWEEK. He tried to hug her, she says, but she refused. "I got the coldest feeling come over me," she recalls. "It let me know right there, he killed my child." (Attorneys for both defendants maintain their clients' innocence but declined to discuss the case.)
Though race may not have contributed to McClelland's death, it quickly dominated debate in the aftermath. That's not surprising, given the town's turbulent racial history. Paris was the site of some of the country's most notorious lynchings after Reconstruction. At the county courthouse, a towering statue commemorates "Our Heroes" of the Confederate Army, and plaques mark the location of former "Negro"-only toilets. Two years ago, Paris drew national media scrutiny for the story of Shaquanda Cotton. A black, 14-year-old freshman with no arrest record, she was sentenced to as much as seven years in juvenile detention for shoving a teacher's aide. About the same time, though, a white student who admitted to arson received only probation. The disparity galvanized many of the town's African-Americans, who account for about one fifth of the 26,000 residents. Cherry, the Concerned Citizens founder, and Lone Star Legal Aid, a nonprofit law firm, had compiled statistics showing that the Paris school district punished black kids eight times more often than white ones, even though blacks make up a minority of the population (the U.S. Department of Education, however, ruled that there wasn't enough evidence to attribute the discrepancy to racism).
That context framed the response to McClelland's case. Many African-Americans immediately called the incident a hate crime, comparing it to the dragging death of James Byrd in Jasper, Texas, a decade ago. Some townspeople argue that troopers conducted the initial investigation carelessly because of McClelland's race. "The attitude is, 'It's some black kid. Oh, well, no big deal'," says Sharon Reynerson, an attorney with Lone Star Legal Aid who has been following the case closely. When Jacquline and an entourage visited the scene of her son's death several days after it occurred, they were shocked to find pieces of what they considered important evidence, including empty beer cans and bone fragments, which they preserved for possible use at trial. (A spokeswoman for the Texas Department of Public Safety says she is unable to comment on specifics of the case.)
Now blacks are pointing to other examples of alleged racial harassment or inequality. Last spring, for instance, an African-American man accused of sexual assault found graffiti outside his apartment threatening him to MOVE OUT N––––R OR DIE, WHICH was signed KKK. In a more recent incident, says Cherry, two white men who broke into a home and allegedly stabbed a black man who was staying there were only charged with burglary. (The police report mentions only an "assault," not a stabbing.)
Many whites in town consider such examples aberrations. Allegations of unequal justice are being fueled by misinformed gossip, says Gary Young, the Lamar County district attorney, who recused himself from the McClelland case because he represented Finley in his manslaughter case. In his four years on the job, he notes, no convicted murderer has been sentenced to less than 35 years—white or black. Mayor Jesse James Freelen says: "We need to quit pointing the finger" and focus on dialogue. But "I think we're really heading in the right direction." A new exhibit on African-American history at the county historical society explores the area's brutal legacy of lynching. And a year-old Paris Diversity Task Force is bringing together black ministers, county officials, law enforcement and civil-rights activists to work through racial matters.
Last Thursday evening, more than 100 people gathered at the Paris fairgrounds—the town's historic lynching post—for the third community dialogue on race sponsored by the Justice Department. At times, the gathering grew contentious. A young African-American woman from the New Black Panther Party's Dallas branch seized the microphone to complain about her alleged mistreatment in Paris. "We've never burned a cross on anybody's front lawn!" she shouted. "We've never lynched anybody!" Later, however, Vanessa Preston, 53 and black, said: "Yes, Paris has problems … But I am proud, damn proud of this little town." Throughout the discussion, many residents struck a pacifying tone. "If we don't have love in our hearts and understanding," said Rexi Stamper, 56 and white, "there is no way we can bridge the gaps." McClelland would undoubtedly have agreed.