Fatal Perfection

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

Playing the media had its costs: Before the trial even started, Crowder violated Judge Tom Ryan's gag order and racked up 24 hours of jail time and a $100 fine.

"Judge Ryan ran everything in Collin County back then," says Udashen. "For some reason, he just wanted Candy convicted, and he was giving us as hard a time as he could. Don was not a person to back down from anyone, judge or not, so he would stand up to Ryan." The old county judge wasn't used to that. He wasn't about to surrender control of his courtroom with the whole country watching.

"The joke around the courthouse was who was going to get more time, Candy or Crowder," recalls Howard Shapiro.

True to form, Crowder believed that Montgomery was innocent, and his in-your-face aggressiveness and unorthodox legal theories kept the prosecution off-kilter. The state might have been prepared for an insanity plea or an alibi defense, but Crowder stunned many courthouse observers when he raised the issue of self-defense at trial. The idea that she could be defending herself by hacking away at her aggressor 41 times with an ax seemed, at best, absurd.

Crowder called to the witness stand two psychiatrists who testified that Montgomery suffered from a "dissociative reaction" stemming from childhood trauma. They claimed that when Betty Gore first touched Montgomery, it triggered memories that prompted Montgomery's defensive response.

After a four-month trial, the jury finally delivered its verdict: not guilty. The perplexed silence that fell over the courtroom indicated that the only people who bought Crowder and Udashen's self-defense argument were the 12 who really counted. Montgomery was free to go--if only she could make her way through the hostile crowds who shouted out "Murderer!" as she moved among them.

The Candace Montgomery case became a best-selling book, Evidence of Love, which in turn spawned a popular made-for-TV movie, Killing in a Small Town.

"In the community, a lot of people were upset with Crowder for having defended this brazen hussy," says Jim Atkinson, who co-wrote the book, along with John Bloom. "As far as he was concerned, however, it just fed his sense that he was a hero. He had defended this poor woman no one else would defend. He just had this way of looking at everything as if he were in a movie."

Crowder wanted leading man Tommy Lee Jones to play his part in Killing in a Small Town. Ever proud of his athletic built, Crowder was disappointed when the director instead cast portly character actor Brian Dennehy.

"That case made Don both famous and infamous," says Mattox, who was then running for a seat in the U.S. House. "A lot of people in civil practice couldn't understand how he could defend a criminal, a murderer."

"After it was over, Don got death threats," Carol remembers. "People that were supposed to be our friends wouldn't sit by us when we went to football games."

But the scorn of those in the community didn't stop Crowder from trying to parlay his notoriety into grander plans. "In the original deal he struck with me," says Mattox, "Don would practice law so I could be in politics. Don kept that deal, but it could just as easily be cut from the other direction."

Crowder certainly had political ambitions. After an aborted attempt to run for the state legislature in 1969, when he was only 26 years old, Crowder never lost his taste for politics.

In 1972, he joined up with Mattox as North Texas coordinator of U.S. Senator Edmund Muskie's campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, and in the following years, he served as treasurer for Mattox's successful campaigns for the Texas House, the U.S. Congress, and Texas attorney general. Apart from his responsibilities as Allen city attorney, Crowder became president of the Lovejoy school district, and then a member of the Lucas City Council.

So in 1986, when Don Crowder announced he would run for governor, he was only following the pattern he had laid down for himself years ago: If you want it, go for it, no holds barred.

"I was lying in bed one day when he walked out of the closet, where he had been hanging his clothes--he was a very neat person--and announced he was going to run for governor," says Carol. "I almost fell out of bed. 'Most people start at the bottom and work up,' I told him."

Not Don Crowder.
He made headlines only when he called incumbent Gov. Mark White a "nerd" and a "low-life scumball," threatening to trail him around the state until White agreed to debate him. "Don was a progressive, populist individual, and he saw politics as a means of attacking some of the hypocrisy that exists in our society," says Mattox. "His run for governor was a Don Quixote challenge--he ran with very little money."

In the Democratic primary, he received 118,530 votes--more than 11 percent of the total--enough for Carol to consider it a "relative victory for an unknown," but certainly not enough for Crowder.

"He told me--and he really believed this--'If I'd had 30 more days, I would have been governor of the state of Texas,'" recalls Shapiro. "He told me, 'I am the most recognized political name in the state.'"

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