By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
They always fought to understand, and today their grief hides an earlier, deeper heartache that in some ways, they had lost their son a long time ago.
The final break wasn't any less agonizing because of it. Betty Deneke was hanging Christmas decorations in her living room that night; the family always spent Christmases together. Jason called her from the IHOP. He was crying, but he wouldn't say what had happened.
She recalls this in words so quiet, they are barely audible. But no words of explanation were needed when she arrived at Western Plaza and saw the blood, the yellow sheet, and the form of her son's body beneath it.
For a while, she thought she was fine. She didn't understand the pathology of shock, the numbness that allows you to live, for a time, in a mental safety zone.
It doesn't last.
Elise Thompson crashed hard after finals week at Tascosa High. She couldn't sleep; she'd continually awaken with horrible nightmares, such as watching herself brutally murder the girls in her Bible study.
She became so depressed, so immersed in guilt that she had done nothing to stop Brian Deneke's death, that she shuffled around in dirty pajamas for weeks, refusing to bathe or brush her teeth. Her reasoning, such as it was, was that if Brian could no longer participate in the mundane activities of life, then neither should she.
Eventually, Elise went into therapy. It helped; the nightmares faded away, and what she knew in her mind, that she hadn't caused Deneke's death, eventually seeped into her heart.
It was a long process, long enough for her to scrutinize every indelible image countless times.
After the "wreck," as she calls it, she and Rob Mansfield didn't speak to Dustin Camp, who was eventually transferred from Tascosa to an alternative high school, where he finished out his studies. But Elise reached some conclusions on her own.
Despite his callous words before and after the impact, she decided that Camp had made a dreadful mistake, albeit one borne of prejudice, cowardice, and fear.
"I don't think he was being rational," she says. "I really think that Dustin hitting people with the car was out of fear...He wanted to help his friends, but he didn't have the courage to get out and fight with his fists. So he fought with his car."
She offers her opinion without anger or guile. Yet her words softly damn him.
That same duality was evident in her speech as class valedictorian of Tascosa High that spring.
What she hadn't realized at first was that Camp would be present, allowed by school authorities to collect his diploma at Tascosa. With a teenager's inordinate fear of hurting someone's feelings, she first sought his permission to mention the "wreck."
She says Camp read the text of her speech in the living room of his parents' house. "Well, he read it," Elise recalls, "and he looked at me, and he was like, 'This sounds great. You've done a good job. I hope it goes well.'"
Elise was relieved.
As she mounted the stage last May at her graduation, she prayed silently. She recalls that the words came with ease:
"The evening of December 12th, 1997, was the most traumatic and valuable experience of my life," she began. "I was a passenger in a car that hit and killed a young man during a fight, a fight which took place between two groups of people who wore different types of clothes. And yes, if time could be turned back, any person in that car would have changed the outcome."
She spoke about her guilt, her depression, and being forced to measure the value of a life.
Even the value of Dustin Camp's life.
"Some are black, some are white, some are brown...some rich, and some poor. But always human," she said. "So I challenge you and me, all of us, to break through the stereotypes..."
Something that, in the case of Brian Deneke's death, she was finally able to do.
August 20, 1999. The Camp trial will be remembered as a great Texas tragedy: The air-conditioning went out. It continued pushing air, but it sure as heck wasn't cooling anything.
Local lawyers would comment that this was the hottest trial Amarillo had seen in decades. The courtroom, with 49 seats, was full every day.
The cops and bailiffs seemed prepared for the worst. Punks and jocks and their respective families were ushered to bathrooms on separate floors. In the courtroom, they occupied different sections.
Seated on opposite sides of the room, Mike and Debbie Camp, who run a car repair shop, and Mike and Betty Deneke actually looked eerily similar. Middle-aged, middle-class, small-town.
Emotions ran high everywhere. And in this atmosphere, Camp's attorney, Warren L. Clark, waged total war. In his opening statement, he set on end the swell of sympathy for the punks that had begun showing up on the local paper's editorial page. If anyone had expected respect for the victim, even a token offering of shared grief, they didn't understand the ferocity with which Clark would defend his client.