Bill Everett is one of the Youthful Offender Program's success stories.
Bill Everett is one of the Youthful Offender Program's success stories.
Mark Graham

Prison, Sweet Prison

From the counter at Mingus' only bank, the teller could see a tall skinny guy in baggy clothes, hat turned backward, eyes sunken in. His buddy looked just as scruffy, and they were banging on the glass door. "Hey! Let us in! Hey!" they hollered. The teller reached for the button that unlocked the inside door, then pulled back as if she'd touched a hot griddle. This didn't look quite right.

When the boys realized they weren't going to get past the second set of glass doors, they ran off. A post office worker saw them a while later, walking down railroad tracks with bandannas around their necks.

Meanwhile, the bank employees held a little pow-wow. What was this all about? One of them picked up the phone and called her brother, Palo Pinto County Constable Jim Roberts. "I don't know if we've had an attempted robbery," she said, "but I think so."

And so, on October 5, 1998, the tiny municipality of Mingus, Texas, population 212, experienced its greatest excitement in some years: an attempted bank robbery. "That was a comedy of errors," says Roberts, a county constable for 13 years. "They were idiots."

As Roberts later found out, the young perpetrators, one of whom was 17-year-old William R. Everett IV, had been watching a video the night before--Heat--and got it in their heads to rob a bank. They stole a gun, and they had a motive: drug money. Mingus and Palo Pinto County are havens for methamphetamine labs, and to hear Everett tell it, you can practically park yourself in the grass on the weekend and watch the noxious fumes arise from meth tents dotting the prairie.

"They'd seen robbers leaping over the counter in movies and figured they'd do that," Roberts says. "'Bill,' I asked, 'why didn't you just go around the counter?'"

Turns out, of course, that they didn't make it that far. The boys forgot that the bank had two sets of glass doors, and the second set was always locked. So much for the perfect crime.

What might have been treated as a prank in Dallas, though, was serious business in Palo Pinto County. Everett woke up in his trailer the next morning with a gun barrel shoved in his eye, courtesy of the Palo Pinto County Sheriff's Department.

Everett confessed.

To this day, he doesn't know exactly why he told the truth. It certainly wasn't his habit; he had a long, glorious past of knitting elaborate untruths. "Attack of conscience, honesty, God, I don't know what," Everett says. But he admitted they were trying to rob the bank. And they had a gun, tucked in his buddy's waistband. No one at the bank ever saw it, and the sheriff wouldn't have known about it had he not mentioned it, but its mere existence upped the charge to attempted aggravated robbery.

Everett had recently turned 17--an adult, in the eyes of Texas. He got eight years.

It isn't difficult finding a possible origin for Everett's problems. It is his earliest memory; he was nearly 3. He can still see the little house trailer, and the middle bedroom, and his mother reaching into the curio cabinet. "I'm sittin' on that bed and she's got a bag open in front of me, and she's putting all her jewelry and knickknacks in it--little porcelain dolls, little crystal figurines. I remember I was looking in her bag, digging through everything she threw in the pack, seeing if there was anything cool in there."

Soon afterward, Mom took her three kids and unloaded them at a neighbor lady's house. She kept the bag. She never came back.

That left Dad alone with three kids in a small town north of Santa Fe, New Mexico. Bad, bad combination.

Dad hit the kids. Smacked them, belted them, threw things, clobbered them with whatever was handy: a dog collar, or the metal crutch he bent over Jennifer's back as she crouched in her closet, hiding her face. "He'd just go into this blind rage," says Jennifer Martinez, Everett's 27-year-old sister. "I don't even remember half the reasons. It was never something you did. He was mad about something else, and he'd just go off." One time, she says, her father got so intense during a beating that he went outside and vomited afterward.

As Everett got older, he was afraid to suit up in gym class; he was ashamed of the bruises. He and his sisters had a grim sort of drill. They'd hear the popping sound of gravel in the long driveway as their father came home from work. They knew they had about 20 seconds before Dad parked, grabbed his baseball cap from the seat next to him and walked in the front door. By then, the TV had to be off, the dishes washed, every child hidden behind a schoolbook, eyes low but dead alert.

Dad was in the house, and if anything was out of place, "it was on," Everett recalls. If you met him today, he says, "You'd think he's just the coolest old fart in the world. And he can be. That's what really made it hard growing up. He'd be smiling, telling a joke, and the next second just like a light switch he'd be throwing you out the door and kicking you. Me and my sisters used to joke about it; we called it flying lessons, because he literally threw us around."

In school, Everett, a bright student, conjured up a range of distractions. He started drinking at 12, and soon he was smoking pot heavily. He'd steal stuff, skip school. That made his father feel even more out of control, Martinez says.

Today, Everett's father makes an unusual admission on the phone. "There was physical abuse," he says. "I have nothing to hide. I was accused of child abuse a number of times with the other kids, too. I considered them all serious discipline problems. I had no control over them. They never took those kids and took them to a doctor. It was all a bunch of social workers deciding they'd been abused."

It's not exactly total surrender, but "Bud" Everett, 46, admits his behavior had an ill effect on Bill, the youngest child. "Things started going downhill when he was 9," the father says. "I'm sure that has something to do with the way I handled the discipline. It snowballed. He got worse. I got worse."

The elder Everett, however, dismisses his son's last recollection of life with Dad. They do agree on the time frame: July 25, 1995, the day a lady from social services rolled up in her Honda and took 14-year-old Bill away for good.

The night before, Bill says, his father beat him with a dog collar, then grabbed him by the neck and choked him till he passed out on the front lawn. As is often the case, Bill has forgotten why. He came to a few moments later with his father splashing cold water on his face. (Bud Everett says he never choked his son and calls Bill's recollections "totally untrue.")

Martinez remembers that her brother called her, hysterical. He knew he had to get out. "I packed a backpack full of clothes and burned," Everett says.

His next few years were spent shuttling around between foster homes, doing drugs and getting into trouble--like the time he burglarized his dad's house. One day, when he figured he was about to get arrested for another misdeed, he bought a bus ticket and headed to Mingus. He'd heard his mother was in the area.

Oh, he found his mom. Like it mattered. She had a new life, a new husband and didn't want her son's presence lurking over her. "I felt like I'd been abandoned a second time," Everett says. The 20-year-old is sitting today in a rec room at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice's Clemens Unit in Brazoria, dressed in prison whites. He's just been turned down for parole, and the exact words are burned in his mind: "a vicious, brutal criminal with no thought to the rights of others and society." He laughs it off. The parole board has its own pressures, he figures. What do they know?

Everett and his mentor in TDCJ's Youthful Offender Program, Diana Coates, know better. They know that nearly a year after his graduation from the program, he has a spotless record in the general population at the Clemens Unit. That he's learned to put up with the taunts of cellies who have contempt for him, who look down on his goody-goody record and his newfound commitment to Christianity--something he adopted the night of the robbery, when his girlfriend's father took him aside and told him it was time to get his life straightened out. Everett knew it was time. "I was relieved," he says. "But I knew in my heart that I was still going to the penitentiary."

Everett credits three things for his apparent turnabout: his faith, "Miss Coates" and the fact he's in prison at all, which he considers a good thing. "I've been running all my life; I'm tired of running," he says. "I even called my dad when I was locked up, and I told him, 'Don't even bail me out; don't do nothing. I'm going to sit this one out.'"

The Youthful Offender Program is the typical destination of young, low-security inmates, including several kids under 17. It's set up as a "therapeutic community," and its staff ushers the young men (and women, at the Hilltop Unit in Gatesville) through a packed schedule of school, therapy and trade instruction. Constant motion keeps the kids focused. The program, led in Brazoria by Coates, a psychologist, has a personal touch and a hopeful attitude not found in the wider prison system. Coates, in fact, got all over Everett for his lying, manipulative ways. Even though she found out about Everett's brutal upbringing, she refused to let him play the victim and shunt the blame. "She has helped me in ways you could never imagine," Everett says. "She has been, to me, a mother figure I could respect and learn from when I needed just that in my life. There's still things I've got to work on, like I have a bad attitude sometimes. But I really think I hold a record in the penitentiary, 'cause I've been locked up three years and I haven't been in a fight yet."

At the Clemens Unit, he admits he's stepped on some toes. A big guy, some 200 pounds, he's stood between a sexual predator and his intended prey, he says. He tries to do right, and he's spent his time learning a trade--plumbing--that he hopes to parlay into a useful life if he gets out as expected in early 2003.

One thing sets him apart from many of his fellow inmates. He unequivocally takes responsibility for his crime and the behaviors that got him there. "It makes all the difference in how well one is able to deal with his time," Everett wrote in a letter. "If someone goes around blaming everyone but who is responsible for his crime, he will never be able to make positive use of his time. He will never change or solve the problems which brought him here.

"I see guys all the time who want to blame the judge or the DA or their lawyer and in the next breath talk about how when they get out the first thing they're going to do is sell some dope or rob someone to get back on their feet."

Everett doesn't think he'll be one of those. His father, though, remembers Bill the liar. "A model inmate--I believe that they believe that," he says. "He can be the biggest little brown-noser you ever saw. The parent in me hopes it's true."


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