By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
The young man is slumped over, dimly visible in his steel-mesh cage. He mumbles when he speaks, and the words that make it through the metal are plain and crude and soaked in a back-alley drawl. Billy Ray Dennis Jr., sentenced to life in prison for killing a Dallas teacher, can't explain why he turned out so bad. His vocabulary is too scrawny to fit around life.
"I didn't think about, like, should I do good, should I do bad," Dennis, 18, says with a shrug. "I was just doing bad for no apparent reason. Just doing bad. Just always doing bad."
What he does know is he'll probably never go home. "It ain't no guarantee I'm never see daylight," he says.
Four years ago, a prosecutor would intone in a Dallas County courtroom that Dennis, though small and cute and barely 14, had murdered a man in cold blood. "Little Billy," as the kids in the neighborhood called him, was, in fact, a 95-pound crack-selling, car-jacking gangster who could read only the simplest sentences and had been nurtured more or less on the streets. On March 15, 1997, in a bombed-out South Dallas neighborhood, he pulled a bandanna over his face, ran up to the van in which Abdul-Rasheed Sabour was sitting, shoved a loaded .380 automatic in his face and demanded his money. When Sabour gestured no--something witnessed by at least two other people in the liquor-store parking lot--a single shot was heard. Dennis insists it was an accident.
He immediately ran, tossing aside the gun on his way to an apartment he and his homeboys used to "get messed up at." Dallas police found him there a few hours later, hiding under clothes in a bedroom closet.
Sabour, a husband and father of four, a man who'd worked his way out of the projects in New Orleans and returned to the inner city to teach, was dead at the scene with a bullet through his heart.
As the eyewitness accounts and events from Dennis' delinquent past were drawn out in the courtroom, the jury saw a picture of something even scarier than a grown killer's calculation: the absence of thought. Here was a boy who, just weeks before the Sabour shooting, had pulled out a gun and shot a woman who simply turned away when he demanded that she "suck my nigger's dick." Once again, the crime took place smack in front of stunned eyewitnesses. From all appearances, Billy Ray Dennis Jr. was a boy who did not reflect and did not care, and his 14 years of life traced a long, ragged trail of wreckage and recklessness.
That trail is best followed in Dennis' juvenile court records. Starting in 1993, when he was 10 years old, Dennis assembled a rap sheet better suited to a career criminal: six arrests for offenses ranging from running away and criminal mischief to burglary, auto theft and evading arrest. Most of the cases, including his alleged assault of the woman, were pending when he was arrested. He'd already been referred to the Dallas County Juvenile Department seven times, had "successfully" completed one nonresidential rehabilitation program in 1993 and had escaped from his latest probation by snipping off an electronic monitoring device and running away from home.
A juvenile department report from January 17, 1997, less than two months before the killing, recommended that Dennis and his mother receive family training. It never happened. While Vonda Dennis reportedly told juvenile authorities she'd welcome the help, they apparently lost track of her. It was the worst possible time to let a little boy slip away. Right then, Dennis was in the midst of a crime spree--five alleged offenses committed over a span of three months, including three car thefts.
Dennis' success in eluding punishment appears to have made him bolder and far more violent. By February, he would pick up a gun and allegedly shoot the woman.
Today, Billy and Vonda Dennis, whom the Dallas Observer could not reach for comment, might have benefited from an intensive family counseling program such as Dallas County's Intercept, modeled after a program that has proven successful in lowering recidivism rates in Memphis, Tennessee, and other locales. But juvenile records indicate that, while officials were in sporadic contact with the Dennises, Billy received no treatment at all. (Billy's father, a convicted thief, had little contact with his son after splitting up with Vonda Dennis when Billy was about 10.)
The juvenile department's nine-page social report, which peers into Dennis' messy home and freewheeling street life, sketches an unrelentingly dim scene. His school record is repeatedly summed up with the words "poor grades and attendance," beginning in kindergarten, and when the juvenile department tested his reading skills, he registered at the first-grade level and in the bottom one-tenth of a percentile on a standardized test. He is, nonetheless, of normal intelligence, the report says. It is tempting to fault the system, to lay the blame at an old underachiever, the Dallas public schools, but the record shows at least one small heroic act of duty. While Dennis was on his way to flunking the fifth grade for the second time, a DISD vice principal named Janice Tollette tracked down his mother at her home to inquire why her son was constantly truant. Tollette "stated that the mother became angry with her for trying to force the subject to attend school."