Anarchy in Amarillo

Being a punk in the Panhandle was never easy. But when Brian Deneke crossed paths with an angry mob of football jocks, he never imagined it could get him killed.

From a distance, the circumstances seem stark, the villain clear. Not so in Amarillo, where Camp's recently concluded murder trial "split the community right down the middle," according to defense attorney Warren L. Clark, and caused a wave of small acts of retribution on both sides that continue to this day.

On the witness stand, the testimony of jocks and punks seldom jibed. Forcing his way through the many cracks in logic was attorney Clark, who portrayed Deneke and his pals as goons, thugs, and sociopaths, and Camp as a good, solid, normal kid wedded to Amarillo's favorite institutions, family and football.

It was the oldest trick in the book, demonizing the victim, valorizing the defendant. And it worked. In the end, Dustin Camp walked free, convicted of manslaughter, not murder, sentenced only to probation and a $10,000 fine. Even the fine is probated.

For a while, Brian Deneke worked painting whimsical signs for Stanley Marsh III, the force behind Amarillo's famed roadside sculpture, Cadillac Ranch, visible here in the background.
Henry Bargas
For a while, Brian Deneke worked painting whimsical signs for Stanley Marsh III, the force behind Amarillo's famed roadside sculpture, Cadillac Ranch, visible here in the background.
Mike and Betty Deneke struggled to accept their son's unusual lifestyle and dress. His death opened their eyes to Amarillo's prejudice.
Henry Bargas
Mike and Betty Deneke struggled to accept their son's unusual lifestyle and dress. His death opened their eyes to Amarillo's prejudice.

The punks, and a good chunk of Amarillo's 175,000 residents, are outraged.

"I thought it was bullshit," says 27-year-old David Trew, a friend of Deneke's. "Complete inanity that someone caught burglarizing a house or selling drugs can go to prison for 20 years, but for taking another human being's life, he gets 10 years' probation.

"We all do things in life where we say 'oops.' But murder is where I draw the line."


Elise Thompson sits in her apartment in Austin and tells the story of the most horrifying experience of her 18 years.

Today, she is a freshman pre-med student at UT. Clear-eyed and pretty in an inconspicuous way, she is dressed plainly in college garb: khaki pants; a white, neatly pressed Banana Republic T-shirt. She crosses her legs politely and answers many questions with a soft "yes, ma'am."

Her friend Rob had blocked out most details of Brian Deneke's death, so she would become the prosecution's star witness. People on both sides, from Dustin Camp's attorney to the punks who never knew her, would acknowledge that her testimony had the ring of truth. Her credibility was beyond question: She was the '99 class valedictorian at Tascosa; she was the only important eyewitness who hadn't been drinking; she had no discernible motive for lying or blurring the facts.

The Camp trial came at a time when Amarillo's prejudice, indignation, and grief had bled onto the letters page of the local newspaper and manifested itself in numerous incidents of intimidation involving both jocks and punks.

Thompson, when called upon to testify, would thread her way between the two tribes.

Out of the chaos, she drew sanity.

She remembers all the gossip at Tascosa High that Friday. A fight was gonna go down, combatants to be announced.

Word passed from a couple of football players to their girlfriends to some of the kids who occupy the spaces between the cliques in high school, kids slightly out of step with the campus mob. Kids like Elise Thompson, whose entertainment then and now centers around a weekly Young Life Bible study.

"I detest violence," she says, "but fights never materialized. One side would show up, and everyone gathered in the parking lot, and you got to see all of your friends. It was just a big, fun social event, and that's what I thought was gonna happen."


When one of the punks talks matter-of-factly about his "anarchistic tendencies," he's obviously missed the irony of kids with mohawks and pierced noses listening to the Subhumans, diving into mosh pits, and digging the poetry of Jello Biafra not too far downwind from Amarillo's stinky feedlots.

They'll tell you it's tough being a punk in the Panhandle. All of the kids in the "lifestyle," and that includes goths and skinheads, complain about the harassment they regularly face from Amarillo's staid citizenry.

Just this morning, Matt Bohannon, an iron-pumping 27-year-old with a shaved head who became the punks' informal spokesman during Dustin Camp's trial, was run off the road on his bike by a posse of "white hats" in a Mustang, he says.

Some time ago, Julie Hollifield got a car stereo lobbed at her head while she was walking down the street. The guys who threw it missed, but barely.

Intimidation had become such a fixture in Brian Deneke's life that he'd earned the nicknames "Punch," as in human punching bag, and "Fist Magnet."

"He took a lot of verbal and physical abuse from people," says his dad, 48-year-old Mike Deneke, who sells cookware for a living. "We tried to explain to him that if you dress that way, have your hair that way, people are gonna act negative toward you, and that's just the way it is.

"And he said it's not right; they shouldn't. And he's right -- they shouldn't. But people do."

Brian wasn't one to bow down to campus cliques. He began acquiring his unusual tastes in music and dress as a young skateboarder, zinging down homemade ramps in his parents' back yard with his older brother Jason, even vaulting over cars.

His love of skateboarding led to a clash with his scoutmaster, who once took Brian's most beloved possession and kicked it out the door. The boy picked it up and seemed poised to hit back, but didn't. Camp's attorney would dig up that incident in the trial as an early example of Deneke's "antisocial behavior."

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