The Superpredator

Think it's brutal to send a 14-year-old boy to prison for decades? Meet Billy Ray Dennis, and think again.

He talks about the things he misses. Wandering around the State Fair, where he's ridden every ride. Eating a corny dog. Going to movies in the West End. Hanging out with his homeboys.

Whatever happens to Dennis between now and 2037, no one is lamenting his lost childhood. Housed in a high-security wing of the Darrington Unit in Rosharon, south of Houston, Dennis is exactly where most people want him to be. The juvenile system and the jury deemed him beyond hope, and Dennis hasn't done much to prove otherwise.

While in the Dallas County jail awaiting trial, the prosecutor's record of "extraneous crimes or bad acts" shows that Dennis tossed a cup of tea on a jailer, tampered with the cell locks, threw urine and started a fire in front of his cell.

Billy Ray Dennis Jr., top, says the killing of DISD teacher Abdul-Rasheed Sabour, below, foreground, was an "accident." Sabour's oldest son, Malik, is pictured at his left in a tux on his wedding day.
Mark Graham
Billy Ray Dennis Jr., top, says the killing of DISD teacher Abdul-Rasheed Sabour, below, foreground, was an "accident." Sabour's oldest son, Malik, is pictured at his left in a tux on his wedding day.

Even the lawyer who represented him at the hearing in which he was certified to stand trial as an adult, Laura Peterson, noted his goofy behavior and his mother's seeming indifference. "In a lot of ways, he was still very much a little boy," Peterson recalls. "They [juvenile authorities] would want to know his sophistication level, and for chores he'd say he did things like mow the lawn. I said, 'Billy, you mow the lawn like I flew to the moon yesterday,' and he started giggling. It's the unsophisticated 14-year-old's attempt to manipulate a system he doesn't understand. He didn't seem terribly sophisticated to me--hiding under a pile of clothes to evade police."

Dennis' family life, she says, "was just a disaster." Vonda Dennis showed little interest in helping her son prepare a defense and showed up only once in Peterson's office. That one visit, though, was unforgettable. Dennis brought her 2-year-old son. "He was wild, a client waiting to happen," Peterson says only half-jokingly. At one point, he wriggled away from his mother and ran up to a receptionist in the Public Defender's Office "and bit her in the butt."

In TDCJ, Dennis blew his last, best chance at rehabilitation: the fledgling Youthful Offender Program at the Clemens Unit, run by Coates, a dedicated psychologist and former Dallas County Juvenile Department employee who spends some of her evenings and weekends trying to stretch the capabilities of the low-budget program.

"When he first got here, he was the youngest person we'd ever had in our facility," Coates says. "He got a lot of attention--from staff, inmates, media. The spotlight was on him. We tried so hard with him. Any time he had a problem, we were right there. Billy had a problem, staff would respond to it."

Looking back, Coates doesn't know if that was good or bad. Dennis didn't exactly return the favor: He assaulted the staff, got in fights, chucked lightbulbs, became a chronic rule violator.

"He was careless," says Matias Silva, who was briefly a cell mate of Dennis' at the Clemens Unit.

"He doesn't care, literally," adds another inmate, Bill Everett, who was imprisoned for aggravated robbery.

Sitting in the program's daily menu of school classes and counseling sessions, Dennis' inability to express himself verbally became a big handicap, one Coates and her team were unable to remedy.

Everett, who successfully graduated from the Youthful Offender Program and is looking forward to getting out of prison soon, could sympathize a little with Dennis. "He'd sit in that cell and think about his time, and he'd get frustrated, despondent. He'd give up hope."

Malik Sabour doesn't buy the accident excuse. Or, for that matter, the familiar laments about broken homes, bad neighborhoods and lack of opportunity. His father, Abdul-Rasheed Sabour, grew up in that milieu, and with a bit of structure and strong determination overcame it.

Sabour, 30, recalls with some bitterness the odd parallels between Dennis and his father, who was 48 and a teacher at DISD's Thomas A. Edison Middle Learning Center when he was gunned down.

The elder Sabour grew up in a single-parent home in a New Orleans housing project. "Ironically, he went through certain things that Dennis did," Malik says. "My father had been a mischievous person, in and out of jail twice himself before his senior year in high school." He dropped out, volunteered for the Army and went to Vietnam. In the military, something clicked: With structure and routine, he found he could thrive. When his two years were up, he married his school sweetheart, earned his GED and graduated from Xavier University.

When the Dallas public schools recruited him from New Orleans, he was a respected teacher who was looking for a better environment for his family, which now included four children. Malik was the oldest. Sabour was tired of New Orleans' crime, weak economy and entrenched corruption. Dallas seemed like a safer, more progressive place.

Sabour started out teaching in a school near Garland where most of the kids were white. While he loved his job, he longed to return to the inner city and work with kids who grew up like he did, in the core.

He got his wish at the predominantly black Edison. As one of only a few African-American men who taught there, he became a student favorite. "He wanted to make more of a difference," his son says of the shift to Edison. "And he loved it to a point. There were times when we talked, and it was depressing. Sixty percent of his students were being raised by their grandparents. He would go into the projects and knock on the door and hear, 'His mama's on crack, I don't know where his daddy's at...'

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