By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
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."
Sometime afterward, Vonda Dennis upped and left with her son and refused to give Tollette her new address. She had earlier told juvenile authorities that Billy played football, had good grades and attendance in school and was, literally, a Boy Scout.
The juvenile department's social report on the boy does yield one moment of unintended comedy. Under "Hobbies, Leisure Time," the report states cheerily, as though it were a menu of cruise-ship activities, "The subject indicates that he enjoys smoking cigarettes, smoking marijuana, snorting cocaine, selling crack, playing billiards, gambling (dominoes, dice, poker) and just hanging out with his fellow gang members."
In everything but his stature, Dennis seemed to fulfill the image of the superpredator: the young thug without a conscience, roving the streets and searching for random victims.
Dennis had already made a mark of sorts by becoming the youngest-ever juvenile certified to stand trial as an adult in Dallas, a status made possible by a series of get-tough juvenile justice reforms championed by Governor George W. Bush and passed by the state Legislature in 1995. Born of the crack epidemic of the late 1980s and early 1990s, pushed onto the national agenda through frightening reports of rising juvenile crime, the reforms included a provision lowering the age of certification for kids who committed violent crimes from 15 to 14.
Lead prosecutor Robert Dark knew what the public wanted to do with young thugs like Dennis: lock them up. Forget juvenile detention, forget rehab, give them hard time. Dark hit that note in his closing arguments, telling the jury, "He acts like an adult. He commits crimes like an adult. He must be punished like an adult."
And so he was. After nearly seven hours of deliberation, the jury would return the toughest verdict possible, guilty of capital murder. The defense, operating on the premise that Sabour's killing was an accident, had not called a single witness.
When the sentence was read--life in prison, with a minimum of 40 years--Billy's mother broke down in the courtroom.
Billy, who had scowled at Sabour's son when he took the witness stand but otherwise remained expressionless during the trial, lost it when he got back to his cell in the county jail. He remembers crying there. But the weight of his sentence didn't hit him until he was transferred to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice's Clemens Unit in Brazoria, which has a special program for juvenile offenders sent to adult prison. His first meeting with counselors is stuck in the memory of Diana Coates, the program's director.
"We met with him, and he started crying," she says. "I remember he said, 'I just want to go home.'"
In a rare show of emotion, Billy Ray Dennis Jr. goes silent and hangs his head.
The question: When are you up for parole?
"2037," he murmurs.
No longer a skinny boy, Dennis is 5-foot-9, in the prime of young adulthood and built like a cornerback, with sculpted muscles and a compact frame.
In 2037, he will be a 54-year-old man.
"I ain't going nowhere," he says. "It ain't even possible, man, that I'm gonna be here 40 years and come up for parole and they let me out. Way it's going now, I'm gon' be dead before I go home."
The only reason he hangs in there, he says, is because of his mother, who is raising Dennis' little brother somewhere in the Dallas area. "That's the only reason my heart still pump, because of my mother," Dennis says. "I miss my family."
He paints an idealized picture of Vonda Dennis, even though his juvenile file tells another story: of neglect, of drunkenness, of constant instability. She has never visited him in prison, though she writes often. Dennis, in fact, has had only one visitor, in '99: an aunt.
"My mama did her best for all us kids, right?" he says. "I don't blame this situation that I'm in on my mother. It's on me, because I wasn't thinking what I was doing."
He stops short, though, of accepting the blame for his crime. He claims Sabour hit the gun, causing it to fire. Yes, the gun was loaded, he says; yes, he approached Sabour and pointed it at him, but his finger wasn't on the trigger. It was "'round about the trigger."
Besides, it was someone else's fault that he got caught, even though the shooting took place in front of several people: "Jig heads--like drunks. A bunch of dope sellers, gangsters." A young girl, he complains, who "was supposed to be my homegirl," saw what happened and told police. She testified against him.
As for the earlier shooting, which took place just 25 days before the killing of Sabour, Dennis blames it on another person altogether, even though the victim picked him out of an eight-person lineup, and an eyewitness identified the shooter as "Little Billy." Police were looking to arrest Dennis on the aggravated assault charge at the time of the killing.
It is a dreary life in administrative segregation--"That's where they keep the bad apples at," Dennis says. He says he spends his time talking to his neighbors, joking around, working out and reading sports and entertainment magazines. TDCJ, it turns out, has yielded the one little bit of progress in Dennis' life: He can now read.
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.
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...'
"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.
A man who has never worked a day in his life.
Billy Ray Dennis may be the only person who still holds out a bit of hope.
"They gave that boy in Florida another chance," he says, just before a guard cuffs his hands through a slot in the door and leads him away. "Everybody's good for another chance."