Chris Beamon, a pudgy, freckle-faced 13-year-old boy, nestles beside his mother on the living-room couch. For the next few minutes, mother and son play out a scene that, if scripted for a TV sitcom, could pass as one of those requisite moments of domestic tranquility.
Mom strokes a tuft of Chris' strawberry-blond hair as she chats about her job as an assistant to occupational therapists. Chris, dressed in jeans and a T-shirt, listens studiously as his mother talks.
But as the adults prattle on, he grows bored. He starts muttering in her ear and twisting his face into strange, exaggerated expressions.
Finally, with a look of feigned disapproval, Jan Beamon interrupts her conversation and acknowledges the prankster, her son. "Oh, he's just mocking me," she says. She pretends to swat him on the head.
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It's all kind of cute. But nothing about the Beamons' predicament these days is particularly funny. Chris isn't just any old kid, after all; he's the boy from Ponder, Texas -- the one whom a local judge put in juvenile detention for up to 10 working days after he submitted a disturbing Halloween horror story to his high school English teacher. The one whose tale has been told worldwide, making a laughingstock of his rural hometown. And the one who is now exiled to his mom's lonely little version of a homeschool while his peers enjoy the camaraderie of seventh grade.
Chris Beamon's real-life story illustrates what can happen when a small town's parochial sensibilities collide with the practical reality of a post-Columbine, "zero-tolerance" policy on violence. In this case, common sense -- and a kid from the wrong side of the tracks -- didn't stand a chance.
While Beamon's Dallas lawyer threatens a lawsuit against "everyone, including the cows that come home" and journalists as far away as Germany and China have checked in to report on and frequently poke fun at the events in Ponder, most of the adults who played a role in putting a 13-year-old boy in jail because of his homework have begun ducking for cover.
Looking at the events leading up to Chris Beamon's detention, it's easy to see why.
"A story starter that will make your kids jump out of their skin!"
So began the instructions for a homework assignment given to Chris and his classmates by their English teacher at Ponder High School, Amanda Henry.
The kids had been asked to complete a Goosebumps-like story titled "Things that go bump in the night." Chris would turn in a muddled and messy first-person tale about shooting three classmates and his teacher and snorting Freon. "...[A]bout 20 kids started cracking up & it pissed me off so I shot Matt, Jake, & and Ben started laughing so hard that I acssedently [sic] shot Mrs. Henry," Beamon wrote.
The story, which Beamon read aloud in Henry's language arts class on October 27, frightened some of his classmates -- including the real boys mentioned in the story.
The students complained to their parents. The parents called school officials. Then the officials called the Denton County sheriff's office.
Things developed rapidly from there.
A day after Beamon read his story in class, a deputy sheriff hauled him off to the Denton County juvenile detention center. The following day, juvenile court Judge Darlene Whitten ordered that he be detained for up to 10 working days for engaging in delinquint conduct. At any time, the judge now notes, Beamon's lawyer could have requested that the case be reviewed.
Dazed by the series of events, Jan Beamon spent three days spinning her wheels, trying frantically to get her boy released. Her court-appointed lawyer started preparing an appeal, but no one else would help. Meanwhile, in kiddie jail, Chris Beamon ate bad food and missed his mom. He read his Bible. He cried.
On her son's fourth day of incarceration, Jan Beamon called a media-savvy Dallas lawyer named Bill Short, the husband of a former boss. A real estate lawyer who was thrilled to have a case with some Constitutional bite -- "This is what I went to law school to do," he says -- Short called TV reporters.
The news vans trooped up to Denton. The reporters worked themselves into a tizzy, raising the obvious issues about Beamon's First Amendment rights and the seeming disproportion between punishment and crime. The following day, Denton County District Attorney Bruce Isaacks dropped the charges against Beamon. Denton County Judge David Garcia ordered the boy released. (Judge Whitten was out of town.)
It was way too late for Ponder to save face. The onetime farming community, with a population of 500, seemed to get smaller and sillier by the media moment. Jan Beamon would appear on NBC's Today show, and editorialists nationwide had a field day at the local officials' expense. "The Denton County district attorney has generously decided not to press charges," wrote Mike Rosen of the Denver Rocky Mountain News. "Press charges for what? For writing a stupid, scary story? For having bad judgment? Having bad judgment is part of being a kid."
Newspaper writers dissected Beamon's two-page essay, replete with syntax, grammar, and spelling mistakes. Some seemed more appalled that he'd received a 100 mark for his sloppy homework than by the fact that he'd ended up in detention because of it.
The media interest would eventually fade. But now, the finger-pointing has begun. No one, it seems, wants to take responsibility for putting the boy in jail.
Judge Whitten, on the bench since 1990, initially told The Dallas Morning News, "I do want people to understand that, just like making a threat at an airport, a threat in a school situation is very serious, even if it was in jest. The system has got to take such words in an earnest way."
Mike Whitten, her attorney husband, has told reporters that his wife was acting solely on the information presented to her in a probable-cause affidavit. "There was no evidence...that what Mr. Beamon had written was a school assignment, a homework essay, a fictional story, or a Halloween story," Mike Whitten said in a written response to an interview request by the Dallas Observer.
Judge Whitten, who agreed to answer questions only about juvenile court procedures for this story, said, "The affidavit suggested something other than what the newspapers have reported."
The D.A. also deflects blame. Isaacks said his office had asked for detention on the basis of misleading and inadequate information. He wouldn't say who provided the information, though the Denton County sheriff's office investigated the alleged terroristic threats with the assistance of Ponder school officials. "I don't hold anyone accountable," Isaacks said. "Let me just say that the information contained in the affidavit did not -- to quote Paul Harvey -- have the 'rest of the story.'"
Meanwhile, officials at the Ponder Independent School District, whose overreaction started the whole mess, shift all responsibility back to the D.A., the judge, and the sheriff.
"We just made the referral," says 35-year-old Ponder High School Principal Chance Allen. "Anytime a student feels verbally or physically threatened, we call in the authorities. I cannot tell the judicial system how to run their business. I am not going to second-guess them. I am comfortable with what our school district has done."
A pair of pliers jammed into the hinge keeps the Beamons' chicken-wire gate swinging. The gate and adjoining fence hold all the creatures inside.
The Beamon family collects animals. Seven dogs, two cats, five mules, four horses, eight hens, and two roosters, to be exact. Before she moved from Corsicana two years ago, Jan Beamon used to work at an animal shelter.
She admits she has a weakness for strays. That may go some way toward explaining her relationship with Chris' stepfather, Mark Morton. Beamon describes Morton, a 20-year resident of Ponder, as "an old country boy who has a simple way of thinking."
Around town, according to Ponder librarian Betty Foster, for whom Chris shelved books, Morton is known as "The Mule Man." At parades and fairs, he brings his mules for children to ride. But when one of Beamon's relatives called Ponder City Hall after Chris had been put in detention, an anonymous official, not knowing to whom he was speaking, offered this personal take on Morton: "Oh, I've known that ol' boy for years. He's mentally retarded."
Given her current situation, Jan Beamon says she'd leave town if she could. Harsh economics stand in her way. Having divorced Chris' father, who lives in North Carolina, Beamon moved in with Morton two years ago. Morton owns the land near a trailer park on a country road called Florance on one side, Florence on another.
When the Beamons first moved there, they lived in a trailer. Last year, they bought a prefab house. Now both structures sit on the property along with rusted farm equipment. "We're still paying off the mortgage for this and the trailer," Beamon says from her living room. "We can't afford to move."
Inside her home, Beamon displays her diploma from Navarro College, a two-year school in Corsicana where she earned a nurse practitioner's degree. The framed diploma hangs in a prominent spot in the kitchen. A handmade quilt decorates one side of the wood-paneled living room. On the other side, a large television with a library of videos dominates the space.
"Do movies count?" Chris asks when informed by an adult that his ambition to become a writer is more likely to be realized if he reads voraciously.
In his less than articulate manner, the seventh-grader tries to make the adults understand his side: He wasn't trying to kill anyone, and his story was fiction. "Nobody died, and we don't even have a doorbell," he says, alluding to the first few lines of his Halloween story, in which the doorbell rings.
Chris lets his mom do most of the talking. "I'm tired of reporters," he says, glaring from the couch.
Jan Beamon tells how, in the middle of the night after her son's release from detention on November 2, someone drove past their home and chucked about four eggs.
"It sounded like gunshots," she says. "We went outside to look, but they had already driven off."
A week later, Byron Welch, superintendent of the Ponder schools, informed her that Chris would have to attend an alternative school for children with disciplinary problems for six weeks unless she appealed to the district's board of trustees. "I have concluded," Welch wrote to Beamon, "that Christopher's paper did cause a substantial disruption to the school, based on the content of the essay and the perceptions of the named parties."
Instead of fighting the superintendent's decision, Beamon has opted to homeschool her son. She has scaled back her work hours and teaches him three hours a day.
"I miss going to school and seeing my friends," Chris says.
But his mother worries about sending him back. "He's afraid of everything now, afraid to stay in the house by himself," she says. "He's afraid the police are going to come back and get him."
Homeschooling might do the boy some good. His academic record at Ponder High wasn't exactly stellar, with one ironic exception -- the language arts class for which he wrote the Halloween story. Chris earned his highest grade, a 97, and the teacher, Henry, marked on Chris' report card that he was an "outstanding student." Most of his remaining grades are 80 or below, and his reading teacher notes that Chris exhibits "behavior [that] obstructs learning."
Mrs. Henry's language arts class ranked among Chris' favorites. "I thought she was pretty cool," Chris says about Henry, who has taught at Ponder High since 1984 and did not return phone calls for this story.
Jan Beamon says she called Henry after her son's first day in jail. "I asked her if she had felt threatened by Chris," she recalls. She says the teacher told her there wouldn't have been any problems if Chris hadn't named the children specifically.
Matt, Ben, and Jake, the three boys named as the shooting victims in Chris' story, are a trio of friends with whom Chris has quarreled. In language arts, he admits he used to put his feet on Jake Howard's chair.
"I do it just to aggravate him," Chris says.
Jan Beamon chimes in that Jake is a "crybaby," an "itty-bitty thing."
But Jake, whose parents did not return telephone calls for this story, is also the son of Angie Howard, a long-time Ponder resident, former Ponder High cheerleader, and full-time secretary to the PISD superintendent. Matt, meanwhile, is also connected at school. His stepfather is a PISD trustee.
It stands to reason that Chris, the kid from the trailer park, picked the wrong children to name in his essay.
Asked why he wrote he story the way he did, Chris says simply: "I wanted to finish my work."
He did the assignment when he was out of school on a three-day suspension. On October 20, school officials suspended Beamon for the first time because he'd been "Disrespect[ful], rude, profane, and disruptive," according to his disciplinary record.
Specifically, Chris had passed a note in the hallway to a female student that said, "Here comes fucking Mr. Phillips." Dean Phillips, the history teacher, was not one of Chris' favorites. He gave the boy an 80 on his report card but also checked three negative points about his behavior. He noted that the boy "obstructs learning, often appears inattentive," and "comes to class without materials."
When Phillips read Chris' note, he was not amused.
Chris has his own reasons for targeting Phillips. "He doesn't call me by my name," he complains. "He calls me boy."
Jan Beamon had devised her punishment for Chris' suspension. She made him paint the trim on their house during his three days out of school. That task, Chris says, left him very little time for homework.
It read, verbatim: "My flashlight went out and I heard someone right behind me and I turned in a very slowly scared way and boom the lights came on and the door bell rang. I walked very slowly and creepy and turned the knob ding dong the door bell went again. I said just a minute & I will be right there and I looked through the little hole in the door and Robin said Boo. I told him to come in and have a seat and we both wated and wated for Ismael [a friend of Chris'] because he was supposed to bring the oz so we could get high but a half an hour later still no Ismael so I got the idea of freeon and we grabbed a bag and a knife and ran out back to the airconditionar. We througth the bag over the nostle and covered it tightly and used the knife to press the volv. We started to hear something after we got high so we ditched everything we quickly run to the door to see who it was & there wasn't anybody there then we heard someone at the back door to see who it was I thought it was a crook so I busted out with a 12 guage and Ismael busted out with 9 mm & we step off the porch & this bloody body droped down in front of us & scared us half to death and about 20 kids started cracking up & it pissed me off so I shot Matt, Jake, & Ben started laughing so hard that I acssedently shot Mrs. Henry. Ismael saw somebody steeling antifreeze so Ismael shot over ther near the airconditonar & hit somebody they also scattered out & went home & my mom drove up and everything was back to normal but they didn't have any heads."
For the reader who manages to wade through the unpunctuated prose, the drug-taking, gun-toting motifs surely raise some huge red flags.
Jan Beamon explains that a family friend had lectured Chris about air-conditioner freon, which some kids inhale for a cheap high. "I don't think for a minute that my kid is doing that," she says. "If he was, he wouldn't have written about it to a teacher."
Chris learned about guns from TV, she says. And he'd written about them before -- in 5th grade -- with no repercussions.
In 1999, after Columbine, everything is different.
On October 27, Chris read his horror story aloud in class. He got the 100 mark solely for reading his essay aloud, Principal Allen insists.
The next morning, Jan Beamon went to the high school to talk to Ted Heers, the assistant principal, about "avoiding an impending fight" between Chris and another student, who was not mentioned in the story. (Heers did not return calls for this story.)
According to Beamon, the assistant principal listened at first. But then he told her: "Chris is in really big trouble." Chris had threatened other students and a teacher, Heers said. He handed her the essay. She read it and then asked the assistant principal how Chris had made the threat. "Right here in the essay," he told her.
"This is an assigned essay, a work of fiction, not a threat," she responded.
"Well, he has stepped over the line," Heers said.
"What line?" Beamon recalls asking.
"The line of common sense."
"What 13-year-old boy has common sense?" she replied.
Beamon requested a conference with the teacher to straighten things out. Heers left the room, she says, and returned to ask whether she wanted to meet at 9 a.m. or in the afternoon. Since she was late for work, she opted to meet in the afternoon. She claims Heers told her that Chris would be disciplined no matter what, but that they could still meet that afternoon.
Within two hours, she got a phone call at work from Principal Allen. He told her that the sheriff had been notified and that Chris had been taken to the juvenile detention center in Denton. The principal told her then, she says, that Chris probably wouldn't stay the night.
By 2 p.m., she decided to drive to the detention center herself to get Chris. When she got there, an official told her Chris would be spending the night. He had a court date at 8:15 the next morning.
In the waiting room, Chris came out to visit with her in prison garb -- a blue jumpsuit and slippers. He had a look of shock on his face, his mother says.
Judge Whitten presided at the pretrial hearing the next morning. A 54-year-old former junior high English teacher, Whitten ran unopposed in her last election in 1997. She is the mother of three sons, ages 29, 21, and 16.
She had not previously earned a reputation for being tough and unbending from the bench. "Most of these kids will not become adult offenders," Whitten told an audience at a conference on juvenile crime in June 1998, according to an article in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. "Getting kids turned around is the norm."
At the prosecutors' table that day was an assistant D.A., Debra Bender. Beamon says she'd been told she didn't need a lawyer and hadn't contacted one. The seriousness of her son's predicament was only beginning to dawn on her. She sat silent, she says, while the prosecutor, Bender, told Judge Whitten that her son had written "terroristic notes" to two children.
Beamon couldn't believe what she was hearing. "I'm just listening with a copy of the essay in my hand," she recalls.
Finally, she interjected.
"Your honor," she recalls saying, "there has been a horrible mistake. It was a graded paper."
She says she held out her hand to offer the judge her copy. The judge began to reach out, Beamon says, when the prosecutor butted in.
"Judge," the prosecutor said, according to Beamon's recollection, "I have everything she has in my file."
The judge turned her attention away from Beamon. The prosecutor continued.
"This child has been a discipline problem since the beginning of school," Bender said, according to Beamon. (No recording was made of the hearing, and Bender declined to answer questions for this story.) She then proceeded to read from Chris' school discipline file. Since the school year began, Chris had managed to rack up quite a few offenses and had spent a total of eight days in school detention. Apart from the profane note to his history teacher, most of the infractions were picayune, even by seventh-grade standards. He had failed to turn in registration forms, talked in class, smart-mouthed teachers, and littered on the school bus.
But at the hearing, Beamon says, the prosecutor implied much worse.
"This just goes on and on," Bender told the judge while waving Chris' record, according to Beamon.
In the end, Judge Whitten decided that Chris could be held for up to 10 working days.
His mother was speechless. "I was in so much shock," she says, "I didn't even see him leave."
It was WFAA-Channel 8 reporter Vince Patton who called Beamon to tell her she could pick up her son.
The night before, her lawyer, Bill Short, had asked whether he could contact the television stations.
"I'll run down I-35 naked if you can get Chris out," Beamon responded.
Publicity seemed to work. Isaacks dropped the charges. With Judge Whitten out of town at a judicial conference, her colleague Garcia, who typically doesn't handle juvenile matters, signed the order releasing Chris. A pack of reporters met Jan Beamon as she walked into the detention center to retrieve her son. Then they all trooped over to Taco Bell, where Chris ordered the bean burrito he'd been craving in jail.
Beamon says Chris bided his time in jail reading his Bible. She also says he hurt his knuckle when he got into a fight with a bigger kid in the showers.
"How does she know that?" Chris asks, looking up angrily at his mom when a reporter inquires about the injury. She brushes him off.
Jan Beamon says it took intense press scrutiny to get the D.A. and the court to re-examine their decisions. In some ways, though, school officials have managed to dodge their share of the blame for the Beamon fiasco. "If those kids really felt threatened, shouldn't they have asked Chris to apologize to them? And if they really worry he has psychological problems, why didn't they have him visit a school counselor?" Beamon asks.
Her lawyer is still talking about suing, even though legal precedents firmly establish the judge's and D.A.'s immunity. It's a different story for those at the school and the sheriff's office who may have been involved in the creation of the probable-cause affidavit, a document that is not available to the media in a juvenile case. Any misrepresentations on their part open up lawsuit possibilities.
But Denton County Sheriff Weldon Lucas, whose deputy took Chris to the detention center, says despite all the judge's and D.A.'s remarks to the contrary, he doubts the document was misleading. He wouldn't reveal who signed it.
For the Beamons, life is forever changed. Working fewer hours so she can homeschool, Jan Beamon consequently has less money. She has received some cruel letters about her son, as well as some supportive notes. A woman who claimed to be the mother of an infant wrote a note scolding her about child-rearing.
"I'm thinking," says Beamon, "call me in 12 years. Wait until he gets a mouth and a mind."
Chris, for his part, is sour. Asked whether he really wants to see the children named in his story get their heads chopped off -- which is what happens in his work of fiction -- Chris doesn't hesitate.
"Now I do," he says.
Editor's note: Judge Darlene Whitten and Denton County District Attorney Bruce Isaacks have sued the Dallas Observer for publishing a satirical story on the Beamon incident that chronicled the implausible plight of a fictitious 6-year-old girl jailed for writing a book report on Where the Wild Things Are. The story included fictitious quotations attributed to Judge Whitten, Isaacks, and others.