Three weeks ago, Herbert Lee Madison celebrated his 47th birthday. Alone. But he was safe inside his home, at least, away from the terrifying posse of police officers and squad cars that converged there on the afternoon of August 19 to arrest him. Madison will never forget it: One officer yelled, "You killed a cop!"
He never expected an elaborate birthday party anyway. Money is scarce, and he and his sister live humbly in a rickety frame house in Oak Cliff. The birthday gifts didn't exactly pour in. Some of the church folks gave him a little money, his sister gave him a crucifix, and his mother sent a card. He couldn't even go see her.
His life, in fact, consists of nothing but work, church, and sleep these days. He is under house arrest, with work and church privileges, and he wears a plastic dog collar on his left ankle to keep him in his cage. So by 7 p.m. on October 4, Madison was at home, eating leftovers out of warped Tupperware containers and watching TV on a snowy screen.
And he was happy. As happy as can be expected.
Just six weeks earlier, he had been sitting in a Dallas County jail cell, accused of causing a car accident that ended in the death of an exemplary Dallas policeman, then failing to stop and render aid. His birthday meal of reheated hash tasted so much better than the three squares the county served up. And his mother and sister were just a local phone call away--not the collect calls his family couldn't afford while he was incarcerated.
It took just an instant, and a chance encounter, to blow Madison's comfortably settled life to bits. At about noon on August 19, Senior Cpl. Harold Baird Jr. of the Dallas Police Department was riding shotgun in a squad car driven by rookie trainee Michael Jones. The rookie was gunning it, heading to an "officer assist" call--a fellow patrolman had pulled over a stolen car with four suspects inside. This was a Code 3, a high-priority call that warrants use of siren and flashing lights. The officers were speeding south on Lamar Street in South Dallas when someone made a fatal error.
The officers came up behind Herbert Lee Madison's car. The Oak Cliff man was on his way to the junkyard in his big old hooptie, a 1985 Chrysler Fifth Avenue, hoping to scavenge a $5 taillight. According to the police report, the officers had their lights and siren on, and Madison switched into the left lane without signaling. Everyone knows, of course, that you're supposed to pull over to the right when an emergency vehicle is moving up behind you. But Madison claims he never heard a siren, never saw flashing lights.
The cop car, which was going 70 to 80 mph, clipped Madison's front left bumper right before the Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard overpass. One of the squad car's rear tires blew out, and the cruiser careened down the street for several hundred feet and crashed into a telephone pole. Officer Baird, who was seated on the passenger side that bore the brunt of the impact with the pole, died within hours of massive injuries. Jones, the driver, was also hurt, though he is expected to recover fully.
What happened after the accident got Herbert Lee Madison in big trouble with the law. According to police, Madison fled. He didn't stop to call 911, he didn't talk to the officers who arrived at the scene, and worst of all, he didn't stop to aid the dying officer Baird. In the eyes of the authorities who sought the most severe criminal charge possible against Madison--manslaughter--he had, indeed, killed a cop.
But interviews with eyewitnesses, including one who saw the entire incident unfold, as well as two extensive interviews with Madison, cast doubt on the police version of events. According to these eyewitnesses, it is unlikely that Madison ever saw the police car strike the telephone pole, because the pole was several hundred feet from the initial point of impact with Madison's car, and his view of the wreck was obscured by a hill and pillars supporting an overpass.
The eyewitness accounts suggest that officer Baird's death was simply a tragic accident, and that Madison shouldn't be blamed.
If you talk to him, Herbert Lee Madison doesn't seem like the sort of man who'd disobey the law, or the kind who'd refuse to help his fellow man. In fact, a few things about him immediately stand out. The first is his time-warp youthfulness. He just turned 47, but you'd never know it by looking at him. He stands about 5 foot 7, shoulders slightly slumped yet broad. He sports a little bit of an Afro, in a style outdated by at least 15 years. It's thinning on the sides, but his forehead isn't the least bit wrinkled. He looks naive and has the bashful demeanor to match.
The second is that Madison obeys authority, period. This is what "Mother Madison" taught him, and he still obeys her every command. Which is why, as soon as he realized that a police car had clipped his front bumper, he pulled into a nightclub parking lot and called his mother from a pay phone.
He says she told him to go on home.
During two recent interviews with the Dallas Observer, Madison offered a few scraps of information about his life. He's the son of a Methodist preacher, he says, even though he's a Baptist now, and he grew up observing a strict interpretation of God's word. Every chapter and verse, from "do unto others" to "watch therefore: for ye know not what hour your Lord doth come," holds a literal meaning for him. He has never married, never even had a serious girlfriend, and works days as a lab assistant at Quest Diagnostic, making $8.45 an hour. His duties consist of mundane things such as filing and running slides between pathology and cytology, although he doesn't know what either of those departments does.
Madison says "suh" after every sentence, a sign of his old-school upbringing, and scratches his ankle constantly and sweats a lot. While his words fall short of eloquent, he is extremely polite, bowing his head as he talks. When he gets excited about something, he speeds up his speech and trips on his words, causing him to stutter. At other times, he sits in a praying position, hands together and head bowed. Sometimes he mutters, telling himself he's sorry. He wonders aloud whether his actions resulted in the death of another man, a Dallas policeman who, by all accounts, was an outstanding officer.
He doesn't think he caused it, but at the same time, he's not used to thinking about matters of such grave consequence.
He'll be forced to do so on January 22, when he's scheduled to go on trial for the felony charge of failing to stop and render aid. According to Madison's attorney, John Key, prosecutors are seeking the maximum five-year sentence, because the initial manslaughter charge against Madison was dropped, and a grand jury failed to indict Madison on a lesser charge of negligent homicide. Key says that when he talked to the prosecutor assigned to Madison's case, Fred Burns, he was told up front there would be no deals. (Burns won't comment publicly about the case.)
Madison says he's worried about his trial, but at the same time, it appears as if the actual consequences aren't registering with him. He's still shocked by the situation, taking one truth away from the tragedy: "It's amazing how a few minutes can change your entire life."
Senior Cpl. Harold Baird Jr. was the type of cop who did everything right. He fought crime and injustice in the field and was admired in South Dallas, a distinction that not many cops have. Even some of the street people knew him by name and respected him, because he offered the same respect in return.
He also made a difference to his fellow cops, one that caused some controversy. In 1993, Baird, who was white, lent his name to a class-action reverse discrimination lawsuit concerning what he believed to be unfair promotions, risking a backlash if the suit failed. But the plaintiffs prevailed in Baird vs. City of Dallas. Senior Cpl. Jeff Price says a lot of Dallas police corporals have "Hal" Baird to thank for their current status, himself included.
Price served with Baird for the last 10 years. The two were colleagues at work and buddies outside the office. He describes Baird as a patient man who got the bad guys not by brute force, but by sheer inventiveness. From time to time, the two officers would team up and ride together on the same watch. Price recalls one particular occasion on Beat 341 in South Dallas, when residents asked Baird to get certain drug dealers out of the neighborhood. Price says that usually when you see drug dealers run, you jump out of the squad car and run after them. But Baird, he says, didn't operate like that.
"He would pull up, and there were three guys standing there," Price recalls. "Two of them took off running, and one stood there. Well, obviously the one with the dope took off running, and the other one probably had a gun, who knows. The third one, he doesn't have anything, he just stands there." Baird approached the one who remained and started a regular conversation. "How's it going? What's been going on in the neighborhood? Any drug dealing going on?" And of course, the suspect gave him the obligatory "No, sir."
The next day, the same exact thing happened. Two guys took off and one guy stood there, and Baird engaged him in friendly conversation.
By the third day, all three of them just stood there, Price says. "He [Baird] starts to talk with them. He looks over at me and says, 'Now jump out and grab him.' And we got him. We got dope. We got guns. We shut down the dope house. It was patience and experience. He was just that way."
Price said that about 1,500 people came to Baird's funeral. In his 11 years on the force, he'd received 41 commendations, and in all that time, he'd never had a sustained complaint against him. It was no surprise that 33-year-old rookie officer Michael Jones was paired with Baird for training.
The police version of events puts the blame for the fatal accident squarely on Herbert Lee Madison for two reasons: He didn't pull over to let Baird and Jones' car pass, and he didn't stop to render aid after the accident. That's what Baird's wife of 16 years, Kelly, has to go on. She says she's day to day, sometimes overcome with emotion. Her husband was taken from her so abruptly. She hangs in there for her two children, ages 12 and 7. She is understandably upset, but stops short of condemning Madison as a killer. Nevertheless, she misses her Hal and wonders why Madison has never called to apologize.
Mrs. Baird has followed Madison's case all the way up to his indictment on September 21. She says she doesn't know enough about the legal system to know why Madison was charged with three different crimes and indicted on one, failure to stop and render aid, but doesn't think he intended to cause the accident that killed her husband. "But there are rules of the road and laws that govern how someone should drive when an emergency vehicle approaches," she says. "He did not do that. There's no way if he'd have checked his mirrors that he wouldn't have seen him. There's just no way. And regardless of whether he intended to cause an accident, I wish there was some way he could be punished just for the fact that he was so careless."
Kelly Baird says she's talked to officer Jones since the accident, and he didn't express any guilt for his role. "And he shouldn't," Mrs. Baird says. "He's not responsible, and he's not guilty. As far as I'm concerned, both my husband and officer Jones were innocent victims of someone else's complete and utter stupidity and carelessness. People cannot accept the fact that cops can be innocent victims too. I'm not vindictive, and I don't want to say I want him [Madison] put away forever, because that would be out of proportion with what happened, I think. But I don't think he should get off scot-free for being so careless."
August 19 was one of those scorcher days that kept Dallasites indoors all summer. It was a mean 104, and the whole city was sweltering.
Just before noon, Herbert Lee Madison set off for a South Dallas junkyard. Hot as it was, he drove with his windows down, because the air conditioning doesn't work. Neither does the radio: The antenna is broken, and the speakers have been pulled from the rear of the car. For these reasons, Madison says, he could hear what was going on outside as he approached the 3000 block of South Lamar Street. The way he describes it, he was going 30 mph--because "that was the speed limit and I observe the speed limit"--when out of nowhere, a car hit him.
"The car came by and moved over in my lane and hit me and kept going," Madison says. "And that's when I saw the back of it, and it was blue and white. And I said, 'Oh my, that's the police.' And I just wanted to find a phone. I just wanted to get a phone."
The rear end of the squad car collided with the front end of Madison's car. The bumper flew off Madison's car and broke pieces off the cruiser as well. The police car kept going at a high speed.
Immediately after the impact, Madison turned left into the parking lot of Cry Baby's nightclub and used the outside pay phone. The club was closed, but there was a worker painting lines in the parking lot. The nightclub is the only structure on the east side of Lamar before the MLK overpass. The pay phone abuts a grass hill, with heavy MLK traffic just yards away from the phone's receiver. If you visit the site, you can see that there is no view of anything south of the pay phone, except the grass hill and huge concrete pylons that hold up the MLK overpass. And it's noisy here during the day. The sound of tires echoes loudly under the bridge, and tractor-trailers rumble around the loading docks at the B Way Corporation, which manufactures metal containers across the street from Cry Baby's.
Telephone company records confirmed to police that Madison used the pay phone to call his mother. "I called her up, and I said, 'Momma, you won't believe this. An officer just hit me and kept going,'" Madison says. "I told her, 'I'm scared. I don't know what's gonna happen. I don't want them thinking I did anything.' And I told her I don't know what to do. I mean, I'm waitin' for them, and no one's coming back."
His mother told him to go home and sit, and he says that's exactly what he did. First, he collected his bumper, which was lying in the middle of the road. It's a big, clunky thing, and he was afraid someone would get into a wreck because of it. Madison says that he looked both ways and ran out into the middle of the street to retrieve the bumper but that he never saw the accident because of the four huge concrete pillars blocking his view.
On the other side of those concrete pillars, however, some 600 feet away, officer Jones was using his flashlight to bust out his squad-car window. A witness said Jones was yelling that he couldn't breathe and begging some of the onlookers to break out his window. On the other side of the car, Senior Cpl. Harold Baird lay dying in the arms of a man he didn't know. His chest was constricted, and he was gasping for air. Hours later, he was pronounced dead at Baylor University Hospital. According to the Dallas County Medical Examiner's Office, his death was caused by multiple blunt-force injuries.
Two eyewitnesses who spoke with the Observer offered accounts of the accident and the events leading up to it that differ in important details from police reports, even though both of these eyewitnesses were also interviewed by police.
Paul Rebeles and his girlfriend were driving to Rebeles' mother's house. He says that he was behind officer Jones' squad car and that the officer blew his horn when he got to the intersection of Industrial and Corinth streets. Rebeles says the cruiser's lights were flashing, but he didn't hear any siren. After the squad car took a right on Lamar Street, Rebeles momentarily lost sight of it.
"We get up a few more blocks, and I look over to the left and I just see him wrapped around the telephone pole," Rebeles says. "There was still dust and smoke in the air, and there were a couple of guys trying to pull the driver's-side door open. I pulled over right next to the cop car, and I jump out and me and these two other guys are trying to pull the driver's-side door open. Then somebody pulls up in this white Ford pickup and put a chain around the doorpost and around the front bumper of the pickup."
Rebeles went around to the passenger side of the squad car. "The door fell open, and officer Baird just falls out like a sack of potatoes. I looked right at him, and I had this eerie feeling come over me." Rebeles says he was one of the first people on the scene. He cut his hand trying to open the squad-car door. When other officers showed up, he says, a cop came and bellied up to him, yelling for him to get back. So he got in his car and was about to drive away, when another police officer ordered him to stop. He gave the officers his phone number, and the next day, detective Linda Kimberlin called him for his statement. A couple of days later, Rebeles says, she brought him an affidavit--in her handwriting--to his workplace for him to sign.
"I started reading it, and I get to the point where it said, 'Mr. Rebeles observed officer with lights and sirens on,' and I said, 'Wait a minute, I didn't say that he had his siren on.' And she said, 'Oh, well, go ahead and sign it, and then I'm going to type it out when I get back to the station and omit the word siren out of there.' So I signed it, like a dumb-ass, and the very next day, I come to work and she had faxed me a copy, only this time it was notarized and everything, and the word siren was still on there." The report was not notarized in his presence, Rebeles adds.
At this point, detective Kimberlin had sworn testimony from Rebeles stating that officer Jones had his siren on. "I'm not trying to stick up for Madison, and I'm not trying to stick up for the cops or anything, you know; I just calls them as I sees them," Rebeles says.
Detective Kimberlin declined to be interviewed by the Observer.
While Rebeles was several hundred feet behind the accident, which he didn't see, Michael Crowe was headed directly at it. He was on his way to work, driving northbound on Lamar. He says Madison was in the right lane going south, and seemingly out of nowhere, the squad car came up on Madison's bumper. Only after the cruiser got right up behind Madison did he put his lights on, Crowe says.
Madison switched lanes from right to left at the same time the police car was trying to pass him on the left. When the police car went around him, it ended up heading straight toward a black four-door Lincoln in the left northbound lane. To avoid a head-on collision, the police car veered back into the southbound lane and hit Madison's car. That, according to Crowe, was the reason for impact.
After the two cars hit, Crowe says, the squad car started to speed up--in an apparent attempt to steer through the crash, as officers are taught to do instead of slamming the brakes. "I seen him coming," Crowe says about the police car. "The whole time I'm wondering if he's gonna stop or what. And he kept speeding up, getting faster and faster. That's when the car turned sideways and hit the pole."
Crowe picked up Senior Cpl. Baird off the pavement when the door of his cruiser came off. Baird lay in Crowe's arms, wheezing. "I thought he was gonna die in my arms," Crowe says. As far as he knows, the black Lincoln just kept on going.
Crowe says he was so close that he saw the faces of the two officers just before impact. "I can see it right now. I can still see them coming at me. He [Jones] didn't look freaked out at all. He was mashing the gas so hard to where he was pushing back in the seat. He was trying to get the car back in control, I mean real calmly, like that done happened to him plenty of times. [Baird] had his right arm holding the handle above the window. Didn't neither one of them looked panicked. But a situation like that one there, you're probably so panicked that you don't have a facial expression.
"People say they was wondering why Madison didn't hear the wreck, but I can tell you why he didn't hear it: It wasn't really loud. It was just like crumpling. It didn't even really make a sound. The side of the car hit the pole, not the front. When he hit the pole, I was probably only five feet away, and I barely heard anything. I can honestly say that I don't know Mr. Madison, but for me looking at it, from the distance when he hit him and Mr. Madison turning up in there [Cry Baby's], he had no idea what happened...Put it this way: Everybody has a conscience. We slow down when we see police officers writing someone a ticket. If we see a wreck and it just happened in front of us, we definitely curious animals. We curious creatures. We want to render aid naturally. And for something like that to happen and you not running down to the scene to see what was going on, then you didn't know it was happening."
Crowe says that if Madison didn't want to render aid, he wouldn't have made a phone call, and he wouldn't have stopped to pick up his bumper, two events Crowe didn't actually witness. Crowe figures Madison would have turned that car around and gotten out of there as fast as he could.
The witness painting lines in Cry Baby's parking lot told police that a man had made a phone call from there around the time of the accident. Police obtained the pay-phone records and traced the call to "Mother Madison." Dallas police quickly assembled a case against her son. Detective D.T. Marchetti initially told reporters that Madison had given police a statement in which he admitted causing the accident. Madison, however, denies that he is at fault.
Madison has had only one brush with the law in recent years, according to Dallas police records. As he describes it, he used to drive a car with some nice rims--and nice rims get ripped off all the time in his Oak Cliff neighborhood. In 1997, he says, a car was tailing him too closely at night and mimicking his every turn--even the illegal ones he was making intentionally in order to shake whoever it was behind him. So he sped up to get away from his unknown pursuer.
That pursuer turned out to be a police car. After several blocks of pursuit, the officer turned on his lights, and Madison, pulling off the road, hit a parked car. He ended up doing 12 months of community service after pleading guilty to a misdemeanor charge of evading arrest. According to Dallas police, Madison had no other convictions and no outstanding warrants.
Key says, however, that Marchetti testified at Madison's bail-reduction hearing that he tried to evade arrest when police showed up at his house on the day of the accident. According to Key, under questioning, Marchetti said that Madison "took off running" when police approached his house, and that he led police on a foot chase of "about 20 feet." (Detective Marchetti would not return phone calls from the Observer.)
That account differs from the recollection of John Rivera, Madison's next-door neighbor. Rivera says he was washing his mother-in-law's car in his front yard when Madison came out of his house to talk to him on the afternoon of August 19.
"He came out and told me that a squad car had just hit him and wanted to know if I knew a good body shop," Rivera says. "He didn't say nothing about no accident. He said the cops kept going." Not more then five minutes later, the police arrived. Rivera says one police car pulled onto Madison's front yard, and the others blocked the driveway. "He was scared," Rivera says. "He just stood there. He didn't run."
Madison, for his part, says he did exactly what the authorities told him to do. "The first thing they said was, 'You have the right to remain silent,' so I had to be quiet. I was in shock because I didn't know why I was being arrested." Then, he says, they took him into custody peacefully. There was no 20-foot chase, no resisting arrest. Madison was taken downtown in handcuffs and told he was being charged with manslaughter--one of the officers, with a finger in Madison's face, chimed in that he killed a cop. Madison recalls that when he was in the back seat of the police cruiser, Detective Kimberlin said to him, "Man, you were just in the wrong place at the wrong time."
Since the arrest, a DPD official accident report has cited the rookie officer's "unsafe" speed as a contributing factor to the accident. The report also faults Madison for his improper left turn and failure to yield. An internal investigation is still under way.
It didn't take long for some members of the public to get the impression that the DPD was piling on Herbert Lee Madison.
Publicity about the accident may have put pressure on state District Judge Lana McDaniel to reduce Madison's bail from an extremely high $500,000 to a still unusually high $75,000. News reports about the accident also weighed upon the consciences of two people who came forward, anonymously, and posted bail for Madison, a man they had never met. They originally thought they had to pay the entire $75,000 and were prepared to do so. (Ten percent is required for a bail bond.) Only Madison's attorney knows the identity of these people, and he won't say anything about them except that they're not overly wealthy, and they aren't related to Madison.
With all of the attempts to pin the blame solely on Madison, one would think his family would be up in arms and screaming into the wind for justice. But they're not. Madison's sister Rose, speaking on behalf of the family, says that their faith will see them through this difficult time--not lawyers and reporters. "His character remains the same, no matter what the police do," she says. "Fortunately, on our side, we do have a lot of people vouching for him. If it hadn't been for God on our side, Herbert wouldn't have been out [of jail] at this time. We trust God no matter what people think."
Madison says he prays for officer Baird's family. "I'm just so sorry that police officer got killed," he says. "Lord, am I ever sorry. But I didn't kill him."
Along Lamar Street, there are still reminders of what happened on August 19. Glass shards and metal scraps from the police car lay in the dead grass and in the cracks of the street. The curb still bears tire marks from the squad car, and someone has posted a plaque about 10 feet up the telephone pole that reads, "On August 19, 2000 at this location Dallas Police Officer Sr. Cpl. H.F. Baird #6004 died in the line of duty." There's also a homemade cross crafted from a Dallas police water-rationing poster. On the front, someone has written in blue marker, "Job Well Done."
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On the other side of the Trinity River, Herbert Lee Madison has come to Sunday worship at Tel Star Baptist Church in Oak Cliff. The church isn't much to look at from the outside, with chipping paint and weathered siding. The glass window in front forms a cross with mismatched orange panes, filmy and neglected. When the wooden doors open, a large woman greets churchgoers with open arms, blessing them as they enter. Inside, every pew is packed. Soft white lights hanging from the ceiling cast an even softer glow on dulling, off-white walls and faded red carpet. Everything about the church is worn and outdated, except for the speakers, which are new. A beat-up microphone, emitting feedback, resonates clearly from the amped-up speakers. Children sing with an organist and band playing in the background. The youth have powerful voices that ring out like beacons in the sanctuary.
It is a warm atmosphere, friendly and comforting. Herbert Lee Madison sits front and center, swaying to the music. He's dressed in his Sunday best and knows everyone around him. The only service he's missed in years was when he was in the county jail.
After the service, he chats with some people while keeping a close eye on his watch. This is his routine. Work, church, and sleep. That's it. He isn't upset that, as a condition of his house arrest, he has to be home by 7 o'clock every weeknight. He says he's usually home by 6 p.m. anyway.
When Tel Star's service is over, the people file out into the street in an ebullient spirit. Kids run around in their church clothes and play makeshift games. Madison can be found in the midst of them. If he had his choice, he says, he'd spend every waking minute in the church with the people he loves. But this day he is nervous. If he doesn't get home by 3 p.m., the dog collar on his left ankle will sound an alarm, landing him right back in the county jail.