God & Monsters: The Reverend Jeff Hood Brings the Gospel to Texas' Death Row

Death-penalty opponent Jeff Hood in Huntsville
Death-penalty opponent Jeff Hood in Huntsville
Troy Fields

The Reverend Jeff Hood pushes against the yellow caution tape serving as a barrier to hold back the dozen protesters standing outside of the Huntsville prison where Pablo Vasquez, called a “satanist” and a “vampire” by the media, faces execution for a murder he committed nearly 20 years ago.

Bald head freshly shaven, brown beard long and flowing, the 32-year-old former Southern Baptist minister from Denton wears his signature stained and tattered white clergy robe and John Lennon glasses as he stands before several guards who watch him warily.

This Wednesday evening in early April, Hood is joined by two nuns from a local Catholic church, an Episcopalian monk, a former prosecutor from Vasquez’s hometown near the Mexican border and a Sam Houston State criminal justice professor who’s been holding candlelight vigils for death row inmates since he moved to Huntsville in 1986.

“I know people who work the tie-down squad, some very close relationships, and none of those people are sadistic,” the professor says. “None of them like what they are doing. They don’t relish it.”

The last time he protested an execution, Hood was arrested for crossing the tape, simply raising his hands and walking forward. He spent seven hours in jail before paying $500 bail.

Part of him would like to cross the yellow tape tonight, but he can’t afford another criminal charge with five kids, all under the age of 5, at home with his wife Emily, who’s studying for a doctoral degree in art at the University of North Texas.

Hood sits on the board of the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, a statewide advocacy organization, but he looks at himself as an activist preacher willing to use civil disobedience to spread his message. He keeps photos of his arrests in his cluttered office, along with other memorabilia like his photo on the cover of the Dallas Voice, leading a protest near Oak Lawn Avenue last fall.

“But when I got arrested in Dallas [in December 2014], that was like nobody gave a shit,” Hood says. “I spoke at the rally that night. I was the only white speaker that night. So this was when tensions [about the Ferguson, Missouri, police shooting] were very high. So they started arresting the front lines, and I was on the front lines, leading the protest.

“I’ll never forget, man,” he adds. “The Cathedral of Hope, those chicken shit assholes — I was working there at the time — didn’t even announce that I had been arrested at church. They didn’t say anything about it, because it’s embarrassing to them. And that’s when I realized that that was going to be the beginning of the end with them.”

Hood was never officially associated with The Cathedral of Hope, although he was a member. He worked for Hope for Peace and Justice, a Christian-based nonprofit organization located in the church but not part of the church. “I haven’t heard anything about [Hood’s arrest],” says the Reverend Neil Cazares-Thomas, senior pastor at Cathedral of Hope. “But we’re always supportive of members.” Hood was an independent minister who’s no longer associated with Hope for Peace and Justice because, Cazares-Thomas says, it closed its doors late last year. “Just because he’s not with us, doesn’t mean that we’re not doing social justice work,” he says.

Hood says he’s anointed “to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” “Jesus wasn’t a Christian” is one of his sayings. He thinks “Jesus has a vagina” may be another one. “Jesus is queer” is one that spurred hundreds of rebukes from Christians across Facebook, calling him a “false prophet,” a “charlatan,” and “nothing more than a left-wing activist.” Some of his former congregation put him in the ranks of scandalous TV evangelists like Jim Bakker. To some death penalty abolitionists, he’s a modern-day saint, willing to put himself in harm’s way, a reformed Southern Baptist preacher with the uncanny ability to draw media attention and raise awareness of their cause. His activism earned him the Equality Award for Activism and Service from PFLAG, a grassroots advocacy organization focused on issues affecting the LGBT community.

“I don’t know anybody else who would carry [a] cross down the road from Livingston to Huntsville,” says Pat Hartwell, a longtime death row abolitionist. “Jeff epitomizes what he’s supposed to be doing as a preacher. We look to Central America and these radical priests who made these movements. When people enter the ministry — Catholic, Protestant or whatever — one of their goals is to serve the people, and Jeff has found his niche in life.”

But this “modern day John the Baptist,” as a supporter pointed out, doesn’t see himself as doing anything special. He believes he’s following in Jesus’ footsteps, calling on Christians in Texas to “love thy neighbor as thyself” even if the neighbor is someone who murdered a 12-year-old boy and drank his blood.

Death row protests in Huntsville are usually small unless someone notorious is about to be executed.
Death row protests in Huntsville are usually small unless someone notorious is about to be executed.
Troy Fields

Hood’s ministry began with a startling revelation from an old mentor. He’d been attending school at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kentucky in 2007 when he received a phone call from the elderly man who served several Southern Baptist churches and later was affiliated with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. He was dying and wanted to see Hood.

Hood’s mentor, whom he wishes to remain anonymous, had guided him into the ministry at a young age. Hood came from a family with money and steeped in Southern tradition. His grandfather developed a lucrative carbonation technique for Coca Cola and other soft drinks. Hood’s mother was a school teacher, and his father was a fire chief who worked his way up through the ranks. Hood wanted to be a lawyer, and he enrolled in law school at Faulkner University, a Christian university located in Montgomery, but the call to the ministry was too strong for him to ignore.

He’d been raised as a Southern Baptist conservative on the south side of Atlanta. He’d been led to believe that Adam and Eve were real, gays are sinners and the fires of hell await all who do not repent before judgment day. He grew up surrounded by fear in his household, in his Baptist church and in his community of southern Atlanta which, he says, was rapidly shifting from white to black.

He also suffers from bipolar disorder, which sometimes means hallucinations and bouts of paranoia. So much of this fear, he says, was exacerbated by his mental condition. “The Southern Baptist culture was very skeptical of mental illness,” he says. “If it does exist, it’s because of sin. But you’re sick and have all this anxiety and paranoia. It makes you even crazier.” He didn’t seek treatment for his mental illness until his mid-20s.

Hood’s mentor, though, was a light in his mental darkness. He was someone who had a lot of compassion, a white guy who had served as a pastor at black churches. He helped Hood to explore what it meant to be from the “cradle of the civil rights movement” and how he connected to it. He also encouraged the Rock Baptist Church, Hood’s family church since the late 1800s, to ordain Hood at the age of 22 in September 2005. In the family photo taken that day, Hood looks like a 12-year-old boy with thick brown hair and dimples, smiling alongside his mother, father and younger brother.

He enrolled at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kentucky shortly after he was ordained as a Southern Baptist preacher. He wanted to become a better minister, but he still struggled with his mental illness and his faith. Christianity was a religion based on love, but all he saw was hate and fear of anything outside their constructed norm. The university was a majestic place where some of his classmates, he later learned, hid their sexuality because of the persecution they felt they were sure to face.

“You can’t live in the South and not realize how much the church has been implicated in slavery and discrimination,” Hood says. “There are still Southern Baptist churches without black members, and LGBT issues are even worse. I always felt like Jesus ran to save evil folks. He was always going to convert the pharisees. That’s what I wanted to do for a living. Well, there’s not much of a living in it.”

He left the seminary in the middle of the night in late 2007, driving through the backwoods of Tennessee to reach his mentor’s home in Atlanta. He walked into the bedroom where he lay on his deathbed. He remembers his mentor’s cold sweaty hand grabbing his own. It felt like death, smelt like death in the room. “I’m gay, and I always have been,” his mentor, who was 75 at the time, told him before he took his final breath.

“In that moment, there is nothing else that he could have told me that would have been more shocking,” Hood recalls. “I felt like I had never known a person who was gay. If I did, they were immediately kicked out of the church. It was really shocking and really unnerving.”

His mentor gave him the charge, Hood recalls, to “never stop fighting for those who have no voice,” and the young Southern Baptist minister soon realized that “spiritual people” within the Baptist faith had forced his mentor to live in the shadows, to become one of the voiceless, and he was determined to vanquish that fear no matter the sacrifice he had to make.

After his mentor’s death, Hood finished his master of divinity in pastoral ministry at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, then enrolled to study church history at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, which is where he first came in contact with the black LGBT community. He befriended an openly gay aspiring minister named Lucas Johnson, who was later ordained as a Baptist minister with the Alliance of Baptists, a more progressive version of the Baptist faith. “Jeff will always be a heteronormative white boy from Georgia,” says Johnson, who now works in Amsterdam as the international coordinator of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, an interfaith nonprofit organization working to end violence. “What I admire and appreciate is that he’s not understood by a lot of people. It’s because he knows who he is.”

Hood’s realization of his spiritual self fueled his journey in academia. He completed his master of theology at Emory and continued acquiring more degrees from different universities, including a couple more master degrees from the University of Alabama and Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska, and a doctoral degree in queer theology from Brite Divinity School at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth. He sought help for his mental illness, and also delved further into issues affecting the marginalized and the oppressed such as the LGBT community, studying identity and the problem with identity, working on his own queer theology and exploring what it would be like for the church as a whole to go queer.

“Nobody would have ever imagined that I would be like this,” says Hood, whose bald head and long beard seem to shine as he flashes a perfect white smile. “I would never have imagined that I would be doing anything like this.”

Jeff Hood and convicted murderer Will Spear on Texas' death row
Jeff Hood and convicted murderer Will Spear on Texas' death row
Photo provided

Hood’s ministry on death row began with a simple letter. Before moving to Texas from Tupelo, Mississippi, where he worked on another graduate degree, he’d taken part in the fight to save Troy Davis, an African American man whom the state of Georgia sentenced to die for the 1989 murder of an off-duty police officer. Hood’s new wife, Emily, joined him. They were part of the public outcry for clemency, one that included notable figures like Pope Benedict XVI and former President Jimmy Carter.

Davis was executed in September 2011. His killing traumatized Hood, partly because he thought a family friend, a “good Christian man” who served on the board of pardons and parole, would vote to stop Davis’ execution. But he didn’t. “Even good people, when they become institutionalized, can be part of great evil,” Hood says. “The death penalty makes killers out of even the best people.”

He moved to Texas with Emily a few months after Davis’ death so she could begin work on a doctor of arts at the University of North Texas. They found each other on eHarmony, an online dating site, and met in person a few months before Davis’ execution, discovering they shared a love of travel and faith. His willingness to help the oppressed and the marginalized drew them closer together. They married shortly after meeting and began a family — so far, two sets of twins and another child, all under the age of 5. They both make money being creative, she as an artist and he as a writer, but they also receive help from friends and Hood’s 88-year-old grandfather, who still doesn’t quite understand his grandson’s ministry.

Hood’s younger brother Justin points out that “Jeffrey Kyle,” as his family calls him, has made many transformations, from a typical ’80s Georgia boy with a bowl cut, to a star student adolescent who loved rap and country music, to a popular kid in high school, to a non-drug-using college frat star, to a troubled seminary student, to the “family man and bearded, hip social reformist we all know today.” His older brother has been challenging the concept of “normal” ever since they were children, Justin says. “Jeffrey Kyle embraces controversy. In fact, he enjoys it.”

Hood decided to write a letter to a criminal on death row because he’d always been against the death penalty and wanted to minister to the marginalized and oppressed, and show the innocents and the murderers on death row that a different kind of Jesus loved them: a queer one. (Not queer in the sense that he’s a God attracted to the same sex, but queer in the sense that God is infinite, unidentifiable and often misinterpreted.)

In the first letter he sent to a death row inmate, Hood decided to include a picture of his family (his wife and two children at that point). The inmate responded by writing a letter to Hood’s wife, asking for more photos. “I’m like, OK, that’s probably not the guy to write,” Hood recalls. The next death row inmate tried hustling him for money. Then other death row inmates started sending him letters, which is how he met Will Spear.

Spear, who’s 42, claims he was mentally and emotionally damaged by physical and mental abuse when, at the age of 16, he killed his friend’s father. “My self-esteem and self worth had become so low that I was willing to do anything to make, or keep, a friend,” Spears, a large but jolly-looking killer, wrote on his blog. “That overwhelming desire led me into putting a false friendship above the life of another human being.” But he didn’t receive death for killing the man. He landed on death row for killing another inmate.

Spear, whom Hood says is Jewish, invited him to come to death row in 2013 to have a conversation that would eventually lead to a spiritual relationship. Like many death penalty abolitionists who visit inmates on death row, he says he didn’t see a monster in Spear. He saw someone he could minister to, discussing stories of Jesus being imprisoned and what it was like for God to be on death row. “When you go back there and you look around, you’re seeing the failures of our society,” he says. “We’ve got to get to a point where we are no longer thinking that these guys have failed. We’ve got to get to the point where [we see how] we have failed.”

Hood’s friend and fellow death penalty abolitionist Dave Atwood agrees. “When you visit these guys on death row, you learn who they really are,” he says. “Some of them are innocent, but most of them have done horrible things. But when you understand the circumstances of their life, my God, I’ve always said, ‘So here’s a little kid who’s been abused horribly when he was a child and he grows up and he becomes fucked up and probably develops a drug and alcohol problem.’”

The next death row inmate Hood met, Kerry Allen, was a 56-year-old child murderer with a clown fascination. He loved to color pictures of clowns, but he didn’t look like one. He looked more like a scarecrow, Hood says, a rail thin, dark-skinned “hollow person.”

When he sat down to speak with him, Hood says he thought Allen was going to talk about something lighthearted because he was smiling. Instead, he discussed his raping and murdering his girlfriend’s 2-year-old child. Hood put down the phone in the visiting booth, leaned back and prayed, “God, I’m trusting you’ve sent me here for a reason.” Then he picked up the phone, looked at Allen, who was still smiling, and discussed the child murderer’s favorite topic: clowns.

“I want to make it very clear that I am under no illusion that a lot of these killers are awful human beings,” Hood says. “These cases haunt me. These people haunt me. I’ve come face to face with some of our worst, and I refuse to turn my head and turn back because I don’t believe that Jesus would come face to face with the worst in our society and turn away.”

Along with ministering to death row inmates, Hood joined the board of the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, a statewide grassroots advocacy organization. Atwood founded the organization in the mid-’90s with a handful of volunteers and grew it to more than 10,000 members and supporters and 23 organizational affiliates across Texas.

Like other death penalty abolitionists, Hood travels to the executions in Huntsville and stands firm against the yellow caution tape. Like Atwood, he’s willing to cross the “arbitrary line” separating the protestors from the prison and spend the night in jail to make a statement. He was also willing to carry a large cross 200 miles to raise awareness. In the summer of 2014, he journeyed through the backwoods of Livingston toward Huntsville, then Austin, carrying the cross on his shoulder. Articles about Hood’s adventure appeared in publications from Huntsville to New York. To Atwood, he became a saint for his ability to capture the news media’s attention, something that comes in spurts over the years, depending on the nature of the killer’s crime or mental condition.

“Thank God for Jeff. He’s the best representative in the whole state as far as I’m concerned,” he says. “A lot of these churches have official statements against the death penalty. The Catholics do. The Methodists do. Presbyterian, Lutheran. But they never talk about it. It’s only on paper.”

Hood’s friend and fellow minister Father Fred Clarkson, a Houston-based Episcopalian, says another constraint on preachers’ involvement is maintaining the institutional structure. “There is a fine line that passes as a social club and what is said to be church,” Clarkson says. “It’s very difficult to push that social club to do something mission [related]. I think one of the things that Jeff does very well is promote thought where culture is so powerful and has such a powerful pull over people. Jeff will throw a grenade, and there is nothing you can do about it.”

“But it’s thought provoking,” he adds, “because it tackles different spiritual and biblical aspects all at once in a way that your culture has kept you from seeing it.”

Sometimes Hood’s aim is off, and the grenade explodes at his feet.

Parked on a dirt road by an abandoned gas station outside of Livingston in early April, Hood discusses Pablo Vasquez’s final moments.

He doesn’t know Vasquez. He only knows the 38-year-old South Texas man is being put to death later today for the 2001 murder of David Cardenas, a 12-year-old boy. Vasquez’s death, Hood says, will bring some closure to Cardenas’ family, who’ve been waiting nearly 20 years for justice, but leaves Vasquez’s family as victims of the state.

“I said in an interview [with a local news outlet] during Holy Week, that it is heretical for us to require blood for sin,” Hood says. “You can’t believe that Jesus’ blood was shed to atone for sin and then all of a sudden believe that more blood is required. It creates a blood lust.”

He pulls away from the prison’s Polunsky Unit and drives the final path Vasquez will take in a couple of hours to Huntsville. He walked Vasquez’s final path through the backwoods of Livingston a couple of years ago. It’s a scenic route through a thick southeast Texas woodland.

“The farther I walked, the sun was going down,” Hood recalls as he drives his silver Cadillac across the same long bridge he once crossed on foot in the summer of 2014. “There was a breeze flapping my white robe, and I could feel almost like hands were on my back as if someone were saying, ‘You’re going to make it. It’s good. You’re going to make it.’ It was a real spiritual moment for me hearing the voice of love, the voice of God, ‘Lo, I am among you until the end of the age.’”

But it must have felt like God had punched him in the gut when he realized some members of his old congregation from Mabel Peabody's Beauty Parlor and Chainsaw Repair, the only gay bar in Denton, had created a website called “Spiritually Safe Spaces” to reveal what they called the “real Jeff Hood” — a straight, white, privileged male assaulting their culture by claiming the word “queer” for his God.

“He does not belong to a sexual minority,” one former church member posted online. “He does not differ from the cisgender, heterosexual norm, and has no claim to that label, much less does he have the right to try to steal the word from the oppressed community that birthed it and change it to mean what he wants it to mean.”

Hood didn’t start the church at a gay bar. He started meeting with a few people at his home in northeast Denton. The more he spread the message of his queer God, the more people began to show up. Soon, his house couldn’t hold everyone. He decided to move the church over to Mable’s because it’s “the center point of the queer community in Denton” and a “radically inclusive space” for everyone, a space where he could share his message of an unidentifiable queer God who loves everyone regardless of their sexual orientation, gender identity or criminal activity.

“When I first saw a flier for the first incarnation of this church, I was excited that there would be a church which was expressly and purposefully about including the LGBTQ community and addressing issues they face,” one former member’s testimonial reads on the “real Jeff Hood” website. “Although I’m not Christian myself, I thought that it might be very healing and empowering for the large number of Bible-Belt, Christian-raised LGBTQ people who are still hungry for spirituality and for God but have been thoroughly rejected, humiliated and demonized by the Christian church at large. Unfortunately, the beauty of this idea was twisted into something ugly by a narcissistic leader.”

Hood’s gay bar church lasted less than a year. He made every mistake listed in the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary’s blog post of “Top 5 Rookie Pastor Mistakes.” He had high expectations of his church, failed to embrace the church’s unique culture, invoked pastoral authority without earning pastoral credibility, mistook preference for conviction and showed fear or anger in the face of opposition. Hood’s former congregation captured this failure in their posts.

“After working within the church for several months as an ‘elder,’ it became apparent that a lot of the leader’s misogynistic white male privilege kept showing, regardless of how much he would hide it under a thin veil of faux hipster economic struggling,” one former member wrote. “When various issues or statements regarding upsetting comments that could be perceived as misogynistic or offensive were brought to the leader’s attention, they were usually met with a defensive, self-pitying martyrdom which was served to give him immunity from any and all criticism.”

Another wrote, “No criticism of the pastor was allowed. If someone challenged his behavior, he told lies about them to the congregation. If someone brought up problematic elements of the church, they were immediately silenced. It wasn’t until I spoke with other people who had left that we began to realize the amount of lies that we had been told about [one another]. I left the church because I experienced firsthand the pastor’s lies, manipulation and lack of boundaries. I fully support a progressive space for spirituality, but I want it to be one that is safe.”

Not all of his gay bar church members felt he was manipulative or misogynistic. Instead they thought that some of the other members were “injustice collectors” whose feelings were hurt because, in part, he didn’t check his white privilege enough and failed to create healthy boundaries with the congregation when he invited them into his home and into his personal life.

Hood’s applying the word “queer” to God doesn’t offend all gay people either. The Reverend Kim Jackson, chaplain at Absalom Jones Episcopal Center at the Atlanta University Center, claims Hood’s 2015 book The Courage to Be Queer opened her eyes to her normative ways of thinking based on her culture. “I am black. I am woman. I am priest. I am lesbian,” she wrote in the afterword of his book. “Ostensibly, I am about as ‘queer’ as one can be in this current American context. […] The Courage to Be Queer is my awakening — my call to embrace and to remember my made-in-God’s image, true queer self.”

Hood didn’t want to discuss the failure of his church, but he did discover the “real Jeff Hood” website in the summer of 2014 on his 200-mile trek through East Texas. “It was horrible,” he says. “I’m out here about to fucking collapse, sweating through the damn hot road, and that’s all I’ve got to keep me company. The truth be known, I really have some PTSD over it. But I don’t want to talk about it. I don’t want to have anything to do with it. What I am interested in is talking about the difficulties along the journey, the critics along the journey.

“That’s been a big part of my journey, dealing with critics, dealing with failure, finding the church in the streets in my activism in the streets,” he adds. “That’s the story right there.”

Mabel Peabody’s Beauty Parlor and Chainsaw Repair Shop seems like a world away as Hood stands in front of the yellow caution tape blocking the street in front of the old red-brick prison. Church bells mark the hour of Vasquez’s execution.

Vasquez is strapped to a gurney, apologizing to his victim’s family, according to local news reports. “This is the only way that I can be forgiven,” he says. “You got your justice right here. My trust is in Jesus.” He looks over at his family. “I’ll see you on the other side.”

Hood isn’t alone standing in front of the yellow caution tape. Other members of the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty join him in advocating for Vasquez, whom they claim is no longer the same man who committed the horrible crime that sent him to death row. They hold pink “Abolish the Death Penalty” signs with a photo of Vasquez, who looks almost angelic in his white prison uniform. It’s a small crowd that only seems to grow, they say, those times when the local college students find out the news media is coming or the execution draws the national spotlight.

When he first arrived in Huntsville earlier that afternoon, Hood drove over to G & O Barbershop to shave his head for the protest later that day. Located inside what looks like a small trailer house, the barbershop is filled with memorabilia showcasing the lives of the barbers. A metal cut-out of a cowboy holding his horse reins in one hand, his cowboy hat in the other, and kneeling in front of a cross hangs outside the barbershop’s front door. One of the local barbers shaving Hood’s head compared living next to the prison where inmates are executed to living next to railroad tracks. “Once you live near there long enough, you don’t hear the train anymore,” she said.

One person who still hears the train is Juan Angel Guerra, the former district attorney of Willacy County, where Vasquez committed his crime. He’s not the DA who charged Vasquez, but he did bring charges of murder against former Vice President Dick Cheney for his part in privatizing prisons nationwide. Guerra claims he could have proved his case if he hadn’t lost his re-election bid in the March 2008 Democratic Primary after the news media crucified him for being “cuckoo,” as he recalls.

Public support for the death penalty has waned slowly over the past two decades, according to a survey by the Pew Research Center. Most counties in Texas, Guerra points out, can’t even afford to try death penalty cases, including Walker County, which houses the old red-brick prison where more than 400 inmates have been killed since 1982.

Vasquez’s mother had helped Guerra on the campaign trail for his most recent district attorney bid, which he lost. He knew Vasquez when he was a child growing up in the small border town of Donna, but the former DA lost track of him when Vasquez turned 16 and moved to California, where he fell into drugs and began hearing what he thought was the devil’s voice. Guerra didn’t see him again until about an hour before the execution, when he spoke with Vazquez one final time.

“He said, ‘Mr. Guerra, if you talk to the media, tell them that kids need to talk to the parents and parents to talk to the kids,’” Guerra recalls. “I know we know that. But unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way. Peer pressure. Once you put drugs into your system, it’s like driving a car with no brakes.”

Guerra offered to cover Vasquez’s funeral expenses if his family wanted to bury him in South Texas, but Vasquez wanted to be cremated. His wishes will be carried out in the morning when officials ship his body to the burner in Houston.

As Hood and the other protesters move away from the yellow caution tape and gather on the corner of the street to read a poem in honor of Vasquez, the sixth person executed in Texas this year, Guerra recalls Vasquez telling him before he died, “If I had just called my mom in California and told her what was going through my mind, I don’t think [killing David] would have happened.”

Hood bows his head and prays. “Giver of life, we pray that Pablo will be the last person to die for a lie, to die for a lie.”

Vasquez won’t be the last to die. Charles Flores is scheduled to die on June 2, followed by Robert Roberson on June 21, Perry Williams on July 14, Ramiro Gonzales on August 10 and so on.

Jeff Hood in Huntsville, TexasEXPAND
Jeff Hood in Huntsville, Texas
Troy Fields

Inside the Grace Baptist Church on the outskirts of Huntsville, Hood holds hands with Vasquez’s family, all gathered around Vasquez’s body near the altar and praying. Nearly an hour has passed since Vasquez’s execution, but no memorial flowers sit nearby, no photos, only a few family members devastated by a tragedy of his own making.

Vasquez’s short dark hair is pushed back from his forehead, his face pale. He finally resembles the “vampire” portrayed in the news media. He looks almost peaceful lying on the gurney, unlike his 12-year-old victim who died in horror.

In his taped confession posted to YouTube a couple of weeks before his execution, Vasquez described how he killed the seventh grader. He appeared devoid of emotion, except for moments when he reenacted the killing. Then he looked at times lustful and at other times as if he were simply having a conversation about a dead armadillo in the middle of the road.

He beat the boy’s head in with a pipe three times. But the boy kept pleading for his life. So Vasquez pulled out a pocket knife and slit the boy’s throat. Yet he still wouldn’t die. Instead he gurgled for help as Vasquez lifted him in the air by the chin and shook him like an old rag doll raining blood.

“He was still saying something,” Vasquez told Donna police investigators on April 17, 1998. “I picked him up in the air, and the blood was dripping, and it got all over my face. I don’t know, something just told me to, ‘Drink, drink, drink.’

“I took a drink of it,’” he finished, with his hands held up in the air as if he were still holding the 12-year-old before him.

“You drank what?” the detectives asked.

“His blood,” he said before looking away. “I don’t know. My face was covered in his blood. I flipped out because I felt weird.”

Cardenas’ nightmare wasn’t over. Vasquez’s 15-year-old cousin, who was later sentenced to 35 years in prison, picked up a shovel and bashed the boy in the face five times.

Huntsville prison officials sent Vasquez’s body over to the Grace Baptist Church in a black mini-van. He was already in front of the altar, his family cradling one another in sorrow, when the Baptist preacher finally allowed Hood to enter the sanctuary.

When he killed Cardenas, Vasquez left him in a ditch and tucked him in with a stack of sheet metal. Vasquez’s mother wails as she mourns the loss of a son she really lost nearly 20 years ago when the devil, he says, urged him to kill Cardenas.

Hood doesn’t see a vampire or a demon-possessed satanist as he holds hands with Vasquez’s family members on this evening. Instead he sees the state creating another class of victims with Vasquez’s family.

As the Grace Baptist preacher leads the family in prayer, Hood steals a couple of glances toward him. He looks like a typical Southern Baptist preacher with a conservative hair style, wearing a suit and a tie instead of a clergy robe like Hood, who draws attention to himself.

When he approached the Grace Baptist Church with his robe drawn tight around his slim body, Hood claims he knew it was going to be one of these “born again salvation holy rollers” type of places. He’s dealt with churches like this one, he says, many times in the past.

“As soon as the preacher walked up, I knew that he was ready to kick us out, and then he was ready to get us saved,” Hood later recalls. “It’s interesting how a Baptist postulates between getting people out and getting people saved.”

The private viewing ends as it began: with tears. One of Vasquez’s pen pals, an elderly gentleman from Germany, takes a photo standing next to the vampire whom he’d been visiting for more than a decade. Europeans are fascinated by the death penalty, Hood says, and Josefine Hinder traveled from Switzerland to support her German friend through his loss.

Hinder told the Observer earlier at the Hospitality House, where the killer’s family gathered before his execution, that she met the German, who also leads the German Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, in Livingston last year when she came to visit her pen pal friend on death row. It took her a year, she says, to start up a pen-pal relationship with 35-year-old Juan Castillo, since she knew he was sentenced to death for being the trigger man in a robbery gone wrong. A friend of a friend of a friend had encouraged her to write him.

Like many European pen pals, Hinder thinks her friend is innocent of his crime.

“When I first came to Texas, I was really shocked that the death penalty would happen here because we don’t know that,” she says. “It was never in my mind that a country like the U.S. would do that.”

For Hood, it’s not complicated at all. The state, which is known for its Christian values, is wrong much like the church that ignores Jesus’ charge “to love thy neighbor as thyself.”

“Did Pablo Vasquez love his neighbor as his self by killing the little boy? No,” he says. “But I think about the Amish where the guy came in and killed five little girls, brutally killed them. It was an awful crime, but the Amish immediately wanted to show that they had forgiven him. Our society cannot continue in an ethical way, in a healthy way or even in a remotely spiritual way by emulating killers.

“Loving my neighbor as myself, seeking to be with those who are in prison, seeking to find the beauty of Jesus among them. I’m not asking anybody to have sympathy,” Hood adds. “I’m just asking them to live out the way that they believe.”


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