By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
"He saw himself in those kids."
What he saw before Billy Ray Dennis' gun discharged in his face at point-blank range, Malik Sabour is still desperate to know. He isn't sure exactly what his father, a practicing Muslim who never touched alcohol, was doing that evening at Cherry's Liquor Store, which doubles as a grocery shop. The last time Malik's mother saw him, he was planning to gas up the car and look for an auto parts store. He ended up on the main drag in South Dallas, eight minutes away from his home in Pleasant Grove.
This was Little Billy's stomping grounds. According to two girls who turned him in, this was the corner where Dennis sold crack--an occupation that earned him $200 a day, according to juvenile records.
"I'd like to know what really happened in his last moments," Malik says. "Did he just walk up and shoot him? I guess I want closure."
It was Malik who, after hearing about his father's murder and driving all night from Atlanta to Dallas, sobbing the entire way, arranged the funeral and took care of the things he didn't want his family to see, like his father's blood-spattered rings.
That was only the beginning of his family's loss. "My brother graduated from high school the following year," Malik says, "and he didn't even want to walk across the stage because his dad wasn't there." His own two children, he says, will never know their grandfather.
Abdul-Rasheed Sabour was a strict parent, one who taught his son about responsibility, never making excuses. Those are lessons Malik fears Dennis' younger brother will never learn.
Malik got a glimpse of the little boy at Dennis' trial. He heard a woman cackling like she was high, laughing at the oddest moments in the quiet courtroom. He turned around and saw Dennis' mother, rocking the baby and giggling, laughing and rocking.
"Her son is on trial and could be put away for life, and she's laughing," Malik says in disbelief. "I said a prayer for that little boy."
The South Dallas neighborhood where Little Billy hung out has changed a lot in four years. Cherry's Liquor Store is still there on MLK Boulevard, doing brisk business on Friday and Saturday nights, with a loitering gaggle of "jig heads" propped nearby in cast-off kitchen chairs.
One man with scraggly hair and clothes was crawling along the sidewalk, shaking like an old dog.
Less than two blocks away, on a dead-end residential street, is the site where Dennis allegedly whipped out a gun and shot the 29-year-old woman whom Peterson describes indelicately as "just some crack whore who disappeared" before the trial.
This part of town used to be crack city, and while a few young men lounge suspiciously in apartment driveways, eyes alert, several very modest new homes have gone up in place of the original South Dallas stock, with its clapboard siding and sagging roofs. Most appear to house young Hispanic families, and their children play on plastic toys in neatly fenced-in yards.
In 2037, when Billy Ray Dennis Jr. is eligible for parole, there's no telling what this neighborhood will look like. Chances are, with the signs of new life evident today, it will not be a place where pint-sized hoodlums blend in easily.
The world has passed him by.
All he can do is sit in his cell and think about why the state threw the book at him, which seems to be the main thing on his mind during a two-hour interview in August, when he comments repeatedly on the case of Nathaniel Brazill, a 14-year-old Florida kid who was convicted earlier this year of killing his favorite teacher.
"I read about a young dude--he had a murder case, and they gave him 28 years," Dennis says, his voice rising. "I don't see how that happened. They give him slack. They didn't give me no slack.
"Why couldn't I get 28 years?" he asks, not realizing that the request seems bizarre to anyone in the free world, where the loss of a single day is cause for pain.
"He hit the gun when it went off," Dennis says. "It wasn't like I shot him or nothin', know what I'm sayin'? Accident."
These days, Dennis lays his predicament on the "paper chase." He wanted to get some money and buy his mother the nice things--big-screen TV, fancy car--that it seemed everyone around him had. He sold drugs, he says, to be a man and provide for his mother.
"I'd just tell her I found it," Dennis says. "Somebody dropped their wallet. I don't think she believed it, though. I was just her baby."
With the rest of the loot, he'd "buy...stuff and get high all the time and just have fun."
Even in the midst of a drug-infested neighborhood, people who knew him saw exactly where he was going and took the time to tell him.
"My old homeboys always say, 'Little Billy, you gon' to the penitentiary some day--you bad all the time.'"
And if Little Billy ever gets out of there, he will emerge like some of them as an elderly ex-con with no skills or realistic prospects--a man who says several times how much he loves and misses his family, but hasn't a clue what a normal family is.