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"I got good name recognition in this area," he says. "I have been one of the ones who has been reformed."
The kids he's helped call him Big Murk for good reason. He stands more than 6 feet tall, still holding an impressive girth and presence, despite his 56 years and chronic limp from knees injured while playing football. White hair grows like scrub brush along his cheeks. He's quick to joke, keen to spin long-winded tales, and eager to share handfuls of Jolly Rancher candy with anyone who comes to the office. Murkledove's extroverted, intractable, and fearless.
"Big shots don't like Billy because he speaks the truth," says one former city co-worker. "The administration is like, 'Oh no, he's opening his mouth again!'"
According to conventional park department wisdom (i.e. wagging tongues), the reason Big Murk can speak without fear from on high is because he rests comfortably under the political umbrella of County Commissioner John Wiley Price. (Price did not respond to requests for an interview.) It took Murkledove several years and several internal disputes before he landed a job without direct oversight in the MLK Center in South Dallas, where car thieves sometimes ditch stolen cars on the parking lot when the cops are in pursuit. His connections gave him the physical space he needed to get things done his way.
When the emphasis of the gang unit was firmly focused on Hispanic neighborhoods, there was a push to put Hispanics in charge of the project. Murkledove turned this to his favor; he pointed out that the city's easiest way around the problem was to put Murk on his own turf in a black neighborhood.
"If I'm having all these problems with the Hispanic community, let me provide this service in South Dallas," he says of his reaction to complaints that the program was underrepresenting Hispanics, who made up two-thirds of all gang members. "They put everyone else under direct supervision in rec centers, but they left me alone." His office became a haven for troubled kids seeking advice, whether gang-related or (more often) not.
Murk's connections come from a lifetime in the neighborhood. He has many legacies: a tragic star athlete, a dangerous street thug, a tenacious community activist. He has used the luster and lure of all these experiences to drag himself and anyone else out of the criminal life.
"I was voted most likely to succeed in athletics in high school, but I blew it," he says, thinking of the scholarship money he lost when he was sent to prison for attempted murder and robbery. "I mean I really blew that opportunity. All those scholarships I had went down the drain."
Flashback to 1961: Billy Murkledove is on the brink, and he doesn't know it. All the signs point in a dark and dangerous direction. The 17-year-old is dating an older woman, one of the kitchen workers at his high school, Madison. The star athlete, co-captain of the football team, is quick to anger when people challenge him or his girl on the streets, where he drives a Ford Fairlane his crew stole as it was being loaded on a train. The relationship makes him enemies: Thugs of all ages challenge the brash kid. He gets shot at while at football practice and jumped on the street. Murk responds by buying a shotgun. The barrel is cut so short the buckshot scatters in a wide spread, like a blunderbuss. Aiming is virtually unnecessary.
"I shot a couple people and never got arrested for it," he says now. "I was living two lives. This came out in my trial."
The halls of the newly opened Madison are tense as well. When the school opened, it brought kids from distinct neighborhoods under one roof. Cliques form, fights are common, and weapons in hallways aren't considered a social crisis, simply life insurance.
Football players make up the nucleus of Murk's crew. They amuse themselves by stealing and fencing cars and car parts, getting bent on drugs, and robbing drunks as they come out of bars. "We'd watch those drunks like buzzards...Back then, it was all this Tom Sawyer/Huck Finn shit," Murkledove says. "Now the kids catch cases."
But Murkledove's destined to catch a criminal case, too. One night on the way to a pep rally, a friend stops at an A&P for cigarettes. He sees a manager counting money and gets an idea: a quick holdup. Murk, shotgun always at the ready, agrees, and they enter the store. He wants to rent a convertible for the prom, and he figures the theft will make that possible.
The impromptu robbery is botched: The manager takes shelter behind bulletproof glass and makes a grab for Murk's partner as he reaches for a pile of cash. As his partner dashes off, the 17-year-old Murkledove fires two shots on his way out the door. No one is hurt. The next morning, detectives arrest him at his home. News of the robbery had spread around the pep rally, and a parent called police.