By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Three weeks ago, Herbert Lee Madison celebrated his 47th birthday. Alone. But he was safe inside his home, at least, away from the terrifying posse of police officers and squad cars that converged there on the afternoon of August 19 to arrest him. Madison will never forget it: One officer yelled, "You killed a cop!"
He never expected an elaborate birthday party anyway. Money is scarce, and he and his sister live humbly in a rickety frame house in Oak Cliff. The birthday gifts didn't exactly pour in. Some of the church folks gave him a little money, his sister gave him a crucifix, and his mother sent a card. He couldn't even go see her.
His life, in fact, consists of nothing but work, church, and sleep these days. He is under house arrest, with work and church privileges, and he wears a plastic dog collar on his left ankle to keep him in his cage. So by 7 p.m. on October 4, Madison was at home, eating leftovers out of warped Tupperware containers and watching TV on a snowy screen.
And he was happy. As happy as can be expected.
Just six weeks earlier, he had been sitting in a Dallas County jail cell, accused of causing a car accident that ended in the death of an exemplary Dallas policeman, then failing to stop and render aid. His birthday meal of reheated hash tasted so much better than the three squares the county served up. And his mother and sister were just a local phone call away--not the collect calls his family couldn't afford while he was incarcerated.
It took just an instant, and a chance encounter, to blow Madison's comfortably settled life to bits. At about noon on August 19, Senior Cpl. Harold Baird Jr. of the Dallas Police Department was riding shotgun in a squad car driven by rookie trainee Michael Jones. The rookie was gunning it, heading to an "officer assist" call--a fellow patrolman had pulled over a stolen car with four suspects inside. This was a Code 3, a high-priority call that warrants use of siren and flashing lights. The officers were speeding south on Lamar Street in South Dallas when someone made a fatal error.
The officers came up behind Herbert Lee Madison's car. The Oak Cliff man was on his way to the junkyard in his big old hooptie, a 1985 Chrysler Fifth Avenue, hoping to scavenge a $5 taillight. According to the police report, the officers had their lights and siren on, and Madison switched into the left lane without signaling. Everyone knows, of course, that you're supposed to pull over to the right when an emergency vehicle is moving up behind you. But Madison claims he never heard a siren, never saw flashing lights.
The cop car, which was going 70 to 80 mph, clipped Madison's front left bumper right before the Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard overpass. One of the squad car's rear tires blew out, and the cruiser careened down the street for several hundred feet and crashed into a telephone pole. Officer Baird, who was seated on the passenger side that bore the brunt of the impact with the pole, died within hours of massive injuries. Jones, the driver, was also hurt, though he is expected to recover fully.
What happened after the accident got Herbert Lee Madison in big trouble with the law. According to police, Madison fled. He didn't stop to call 911, he didn't talk to the officers who arrived at the scene, and worst of all, he didn't stop to aid the dying officer Baird. In the eyes of the authorities who sought the most severe criminal charge possible against Madison--manslaughter--he had, indeed, killed a cop.
But interviews with eyewitnesses, including one who saw the entire incident unfold, as well as two extensive interviews with Madison, cast doubt on the police version of events. According to these eyewitnesses, it is unlikely that Madison ever saw the police car strike the telephone pole, because the pole was several hundred feet from the initial point of impact with Madison's car, and his view of the wreck was obscured by a hill and pillars supporting an overpass.
The eyewitness accounts suggest that officer Baird's death was simply a tragic accident, and that Madison shouldn't be blamed.
The second is that Madison obeys authority, period. This is what "Mother Madison" taught him, and he still obeys her every command. Which is why, as soon as he realized that a police car had clipped his front bumper, he pulled into a nightclub parking lot and called his mother from a pay phone.