Fatal Perfection

Don Crowder was obsessed with being the best--as a lawyer, family man, and friend. So why did he kill himself?

Crowder's support was not limited to sports. "There were kids who came to live with us because their families were having troubles. Most of them would stay a few months, and Don would show them how to get back on their feet," remembers Carol. "Other people in Lucas keep horses. We kept kids."

Not that Don was the gentlest of hosts: He expected hard work and discipline from the kids, and he coached little league as if it were the major league. Some parents complained of the intensity of the drills; so did some of the kids.

"My father was a mean coach," recalls his daughter Christy, laughing. "Sometimes by the time you got through practice, you wouldn't want to see him anymore...But he was so serious about it, he made you feel like you could really do something."

An eye injury might have prevented him from becoming a pro, but if Crowder could help it, nothing was going to stop these kids, his kids, from the sports careers he thought they deserved. His fierce coaching style turned them into the best athletes they could be, and his money and influence took care of other obstacles.

Crowder sent his son Austin, Jason Ziegler, George White--another aspiring football player who lived with the Crowders for two years--and several other promising players to football camps all over the country. He wrote hundreds of enthusiastic letters to universities recommending them for scholarships.

"He hired a man to make highlight tapes of our football games, and then he would mail these tapes off to colleges. He did this for so many kids, even friends of mine he barely knew," Jason says. "Don was trying to get us to the NFL, which was where he had wanted to go. It was almost like he was trying to live through us."

Crowder surrounded himself with kids, thriving in the obvious admiration they had for him. When his family visited their winter vacation home in Montana, each of the four Crowder children brought two or three friends along. For years he took the basketball team to the family beach house for a week to challenge the Galveston Boys Club. There, he would entertain them on the Strand and give kids from Allen, Fairview, Wylie, and Lucas a chance to play on the beach.

"He could yell, he could get upset, but the kids really respected him," says Carol. "He was like the Pied Piper."

Though not a religious man, Don went along when Carol joined the one-room United Methodist Church of Lucas. As his wealth grew, he became one of the church's biggest donors and a member of its board of trustees. At this church, among its tightly knit fellowship, Don Crowder came to know a woman who would someday become his most notorious client: Candace Lynn Montgomery.

The old Collin County courthouse once stood as the most imposing building in McKinney's modest red-brick-paved downtown. Now, it's a 19th-century memento, lending its charm to the town's sleepy business section--mostly antique shops and tea rooms capitalizing on its quaint, small-town feel.

On the afternoon of October 29, 1980, however, the cool, late-fall atmosphere was anything but provincial. The air crackled with anxiety as curious spectators waited in the crowded courtroom. The jury was deliberating its verdict in the most dramatic criminal case ever seen in this placid county: the Candace Montgomery ax-murder trial.

"Candy" Montgomery, a petite blonde housewife and mother of two, was charged with murdering Betty Gore, her friend and fellow church member, with 41 blows of a three-foot ax. Long before this afternoon, the local and national media and public opinion had turned against her; in their eyes, she was guilty as could be.

Montgomery's broken-off affair with Allan Gore, Betty's husband, became the talk of the town. Newspaper articles detailed Candy's relationship with Betty: They sang in the church choir together, and Betty trusted Candy enough to let her 7-year-old daughter spend the night with Candy's daughter. It was hard to say whether the Collin County residents hated Montgomery more for the gruesome murder or for her daring to flaunt local mores.

When the police found clues linking Montgomery to the crime scene, the first person she went to for help was Don Crowder. He was a lawyer, but most important, his was a familiar face she could trust. So the most explosive case ever seen in those parts landed in the hands of Crowder, a civil lawyer who had never handled a criminal trial. Crowder enlisted the help of Robert Udashen, a young attorney three years out of law school who had been taking the criminal cases at Crowder & Mattox.

Both lawyers' inexperience and Crowder's forceful personality combined to make their defense of Montgomery rather unconventional. One of the things neither anticipated was "how aggressive the press would be," recalls Udashen, or how much Crowder would enjoy the attention.

"I woke up one Saturday morning and saw a headline in the Dallas Times Herald that said, 'Lawyer dares police to arrest ax murderer.' They were talking about me. It made me more leery about talking to reporters. Not Don; he loved it. He kept on giving them all this misinformation...I was afraid at the time, but in the end it helped us; the district attorney had no idea what our defense was going to be until we were in court."

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