Shot in the Dark
It began with a seemingly harmless joke, the kind good ol' boys in the rural North Texas community of Whitewright traditionally enjoy.
Down at the Quick Check, an early-morning coffee stop, someone placed a donation jar on the counter, attaching a handwritten sign that urged contributions to a fund that would help purchase a badly needed four-wheel-drive vehicle for the local police department.
The reason for the prank jar was well-known in the community. On a cold, damp evening in late November 2000, a fleeing driver led officers on a winding chase along the scrub brush of Grayson and Fannin counties' back roads. At some point, the police patrol cars--one from Whitewright, another from nearby Bells--got stuck in mud, and the white pickup they had been pursuing got away.
It didn't take long for word to spread through Whitewright, population 1,740, that the police had to phone for a wench truck to come to their rescue. By the next morning, good-natured mocking greeted 53-year-old Corporal Jim Lamance, an officer in the four-man police department who had been driving one of the cars that night. Soon the "donation" jar was in place.
Lamance, normally friendly and good-natured, didn't find it amusing. More than embarrassed, he was angered by the coffee shop jibes directed his way.
It was viewed as no-harm-meant fun by most locals--until a few weeks later when a similar chase ended in a bizarre late-night gunfight that left Lamance, just two years into his law enforcement career, slumped in his patrol car, dead from a single gunshot wound to the face. The Lamance family spent Christmas week preparing for a funeral, a well-liked farmer and manufacturing plant worker was arrested and held on a $1 million bond and Whitewright became a community divided.
Now, two and a half years later--after details of the tragic story have repeatedly changed, bitter accusations have been exchanged and two controversial trials have been conducted--it remains so.
Peel away the layers of grief and suspicion, legal sleight of hand, vicious rumors and shrill-voiced disappointment in the judicial system, and the question remains: Who killed Jim Lamance?
The investigating authorities concluded it was Richard Carl Hicks, the same man Lamance was chasing along the maze of rural back roads for the third time in a matter of weeks, who fired the fatal shot. Hicks, who admits his involvement in two previous chases, insists he had nothing to do with the officer's death and was, in fact, at home in bed when the tragedy occurred. A highly regarded Dallas forensic pathologist, after reviewing the evidence, came forward with an alternate scenario too horrifying for the Lamance family to even consider. Still, in May 2003, a year after a jury had quickly acquitted Hicks of capital murder charges in state court, a federal judge ruled that the evidence against him was more convincing than the jurors had believed.
Last month the 54-year-old Hicks began serving a 15-year federal prison sentence, convicted not of murder but, instead, violation of a protective order that was sworn out against him by his ex-wife three years earlier. It had nothing directly to do with the death of Jim Lamance. But in the minds of many it had everything to do with a manipulative legal system's embittered determination to see Hicks punished for a greater crime it was convinced he committed.
It is a tangled story, one that lacks satisfactory resolution. Friends and family of Lamance continue to grieve, as do those convinced that Hicks has been unfairly treated by authorities that managed to find a way to skirt the legal issue of double jeopardy. Too, the police, sheriff's departments and Texas Rangers that investigated the case have been roundly criticized. Even by the man who ultimately decided Hicks' fate. From the bench during Hicks' sentencing hearing, U.S. District Judge Paul Brown stated that "there's no question that it [the investigation] could have been handled and carried out better" and that "certainly it won't be written up in any textbooks."
No winners, only lives lost and ruined. Police placing black tape over their badges in honor of one of their own, friends of the accused wearing yellow ribbons to demonstrate their support. All because of the lingering echo of questions about what actually occurred on that tragic December night.
If you want to know what's going on in Whitewright, 65 miles northeast of Dallas, forget the weekly Whitewright Sun or the 6 o'clock news out of nearby Bonham and Sherman. Just stop in for a cold Bud or a game of eight ball at the Dusty Saddle, a tiny beer joint on the edge of town; it never takes long for regulars to begin discussing the death of Lamance and the imprisonment of former patron Hicks. There, just a half-mile from the block-long downtown area that houses the bank, a home-cooking cafe, several antique shops, a renovated movie theater and an auto-parts store, news travels fast.
On a recent afternoon, a quick poll of the dozen customers hiding from the 95-degree heat found no one there who believed that Hicks, who spent every day of his life (except the two years he was in the Army) in Whitewright, shot and killed anybody.
"My husband and I have known Richard for years," says local resident Lea Head. "He's one of the most honest people you'll ever meet. He's a good, plain, God-fearing man who would be the first to admit it if he'd done what they accused him of." (To emphasize her point, she notes that it was Richard's demand that his son tell the truth when called to the witness stand that played a major role in his being sentenced to serve federal prison time.)
Although friends and supporters proclaim his innocence, they admit he had a drinking problem that only grew worse after his wife filed for divorce. "I fussed at him about it constantly," says his mother, Geraldine. "After the divorce he started spending more and more time at the Dusty Saddle. He'd come home and call me late at night, just wanting to talk. I kept telling him he had to stop drinking and get on with his life." So did his father, Glenn. "I never saw him take a drink of whiskey," he says, "but he was drinking way too much beer."
Friends at the Dusty Saddle agreed. Since it was well-known that the local police routinely patrolled the private club's parking lot, waiting to stop departing drivers they suspected of being intoxicated, it was a good bet that Hicks was destined for legal troubles. His record included one DWI and a couple of arrests for public intoxication.
The chases he led the police on became part of Dusty Saddle folklore. There was the night when, after speeding along the caliche roads that border the flatland grain fields of the countryside and losing those chasing him in the process, Hicks returned to the home he shared with the younger of his two sons, pulled into his driveway and simply sat in his pickup, awaiting the inevitable arrival of the police. He was asleep--or passed out, depending on which story you believe--when Jim Lamance and his 43-year-old brother Kevin, an unpaid reserve officer who had recently graduated from the police academy, finally arrived. "I knew they'd be coming," Hicks later told friends, "and I didn't want them busting my front door down. So I waited outside for them."
Though hardly Public Enemy No. 1, Richard Hicks was no candidate for sainthood. He acknowledged, for example, that it was him the police were chasing on the night their patrol cars became stuck in the mud. By his own doing he'd made himself a closely watched target of the Whitewright police. "He called me one evening, just a couple of days before the shooting," friend George Varner says, "and suggested we go have a beer. When I told him I'd meet him [at the Dusty Saddle], he asked if I'd come by and pick him up. He said that every time he left his house after dark, he was afraid the police would pull him over."
Still, it all seemed like typical life in small-town Texas. Until the early-morning hours of December 23, 2000. Until Jim Lamance was shot dead.
Jim and Kevin Lamance were riding together when they passed the Dusty Saddle and noticed a new white pickup parked on the east side of the small building. "Looks like Richard Hicks has bought himself a new truck," Kevin remembers commenting.
It was, he recalls, 5:30 in the afternoon when he saw the truck at the bar. He says that several times during their evening patrol he and his brother noticed the pickup still parked at the members-only club. It was, according to police records, nearing 1 a.m. when the Lamances saw the truck weaving along the highway. Making a U-turn, Jim Lamance, believing the driver was likely intoxicated, turned on his deck lights, began following and attempted to pull the pickup over. The driver sped away and the officer pursued. Eventually, the high-speed chase left the Grayson County main roads and continued along the darkened one-lane Fannin County Road 4510.
The younger Lamance says they were closely following the pickup when it suddenly made a left turn into an open field bordered by Bois d'Arc Creek and came to a stop more than 200 yards away. The officers parked on the dirt road and radioed the Fannin County Sheriff's Department for assistance, describing the pursuit, giving their location and, although they had never actually seen the driver's face, stating they believed it to be Richard Hicks.
Moments later, Kevin Lamance recalls, he heard a rifle shot and felt the rush of a bullet past his face. He and his brother ducked down, and the elder Lamance quickly called in a "shots fired" message. "I heard a second shot," Kevin would later recall, "and suddenly felt the [patrol] car rolling forward." It was as he reached over to put it in gear and stop the movement that he saw his brother slumped over the wheel. "I knew he had been shot," he says.
A fatal shot had entered Jim Lamance's right eye and exited the back of his head. A coroner's report indicated that the shot had ruptured the eye, nearly pulpified the brain and fractured the officer's skull.
The recording of Kevin Lamance's call to the Fannin County sheriff's dispatcher is chilling: "Oh, God, get someone here quick. He's been hit in the head..." Then he's heard to say, "He [the shooter] is taking off back toward his house...get somebody after him." Though he admits neither he nor his brother actually saw who the driver of the pickup was that night, the "he" Lamance referred to was Richard Hicks.
The reserve officer says he then attempted to draw his weapon but nervously dropped it in the floorboard. After a frantic search for the gun, he attempted to unholster his brother's service revolver but was unable to do so. Finally, he found his own 9-millimeter handgun, got out of the car, crouched behind the right front fender and began shooting in the direction of the pickup. He fired at least half a dozen shots before the truck exited the field and disappeared over a small bridge. One of Lamance's shots, it would later be determined, had lodged in the hood of the patrol car.
After the truck fled, Lamance says, he went to the driver's side of the car to help his brother. "He was choking pretty bad, and I pulled him out of the car and laid him down. I held his head up because he was having a hard time breathing," he says.
In the pre-dawn hours, with Department of Public Safety helicopters flying overhead and officers from two sheriff's departments and several neighboring police departments surrounding Hicks' rural home, he was arrested. After firing tear gas and concussion grenades into the house, members of the Grayson County Sheriff's Department Special Response Team entered and found Hicks in his bedroom, clothed only in his underwear, putting out a small fire on the carpet caused by one of the incendiary grenades.
During a recorded interview conducted by Texas Ranger Lee Young shortly after Hicks' 6:20 a.m. arrest, he was asked if he'd recently fired a gun. "No," Hicks said. Did he know why he was being taken into custody? "No," he again replied.
At daybreak, the crime-scene investigation began. In the muddy field, more than 200 yards from the road, Fannin County Deputy Mike McClellan found tire tracks, boot prints and two spent 30-30 shell casings that ultimately would be matched to a borrowed rifle found in Hicks' home.
One week later, as 200 area law enforcement officers paid their last respects at Lamance's funeral, his accused killer had already begun a 15-month stay in jail, charged with capital murder and attempted capital murder.
Hicks repeatedly told friends and family he did not shoot Jim Lamance. "The first time I visited him in jail," his father says, "I asked him straight out if he did it. He said, 'Daddy, I didn't shoot that policeman.' Since that day he's never said anything different."
At his trial in spring 2002, the tragic story would take a new twist, raising many questions that remain today.
On December 22, 2000, the day that led to that nighttime killing, Richard Hicks, accompanied by longtime friend Waymen Anderson, had traveled to Durant, Oklahoma. There he purchased a new white GMC pickup. After returning to Whitewright shortly before 5 p.m., Hicks checked on his cattle and visited his parents on the way home. "It was 5:30 when he got here," his father, Glenn, says. "I take my insulin shot at that time every day. That's what I was doing when he walked in."
The elder Hicks recalls walking to the driveway to look at his son's new truck. In the cab, he recalls, there was nothing but a tin of Copenhagen snuff and a Coca-Cola can. "He stayed maybe 30 minutes, then went on home."
Hicks' lawyers would later point out to a jury that the white pickup the officers said they had seen parked at the Dusty Saddle at 5:30 p.m. could not have belonged to Richard Hicks. In time, Kevin Lamance's recollection of the events leading up to his brother's death began to change. He later stated that he and Jim had not gone on duty until 7 p.m., and it was more likely that they'd first seen the truck at around 7:30.
At 7:30, however, 22-year-old Casey Hicks, driving his father's newly purchased truck, was pulling into the parking lot of the Bonham Wal-Mart, 25 miles away, to pick up his girlfriend, who was getting off work. The girlfriend testified that they drove directly to Hicks' home, where he was working on a malfunctioning heater in the living room. Richard was still there, she recalled, when they later left in Casey's pickup.
As well, several patrons of the Dusty Saddle who had been at the club between 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. said they had not seen Hicks. "My husband and I had agreed to meet there that night," Lea Head remembers. "We arrived in separate cars and I stayed awhile, then drove on home. Johnny [her husband] was leaving at 10:15 and met Richard as he was coming in the door."
In time, Kevin Lamance re-remembered that it was actually about 10:15 p.m., shortly after his brother had written a ticket to a local motorist, that they first noticed the pickup in the parking lot.
Dusty Saddle bartender Carey Mitchell says that Hicks did, in fact, arrive shortly after 10 and remained until the bar's midnight closing. During that time, she testified, she did not serve him enough beer to cause him to be drunk. It is tradition for the last customer to stay while she cleans and locks up, then walk her to her car. Richard did so, she said.
Hicks later would tell friends and family that he'd then driven directly home and gone to bed. He was sleeping, he explained, when he woke to the smell of burning carpet caused by the flash grenade.
Nevertheless, Fannin County Attorney Myles Porter proceeded with plans to try Hicks for capital murder.
Veteran Sherman attorney Mike Wynne, who had represented Hicks on his earlier DWI case, says his client had to battle a prosecutorial "runaway train." With limited experience in criminal law, he sought the help of Bob Jarvis in defending Hicks against the new charges. A prosecutor for Dallas County District Attorney Henry Wade in the early '80s and the Grayson County attorney for 12 years, Jarvis had recently lost a bid for re-election and was set to enter private practice. He reviewed the evidence and quickly concluded that the case against Hicks was built on assumptions, bad police work and outright lies. "There's no other way to describe it," he says.
"We began making a chart that listed all the things that weren't right," Jarvis says. In addition to the changing time frame Lamance offered, the list was lengthy. To wit:
Forensic experts had been unable to conclusively match soil samples taken from the field where the shooting occurred to that on Hicks' impounded truck. (Though the field had been muddy that night, there was nothing but what experts described as "road film" on the truck.) Tracks in the field could not be matched to the tires of Hicks' truck. There was indication that the fleeing truck had run over several large, water-darkened logs that had floated up from the nearby creek, yet no matching particles were found in Hicks' truck's tire treads or on the undercarriage. Two pairs of boots taken from Hicks' home after his arrest could not be matched to the prints found in the field. Although they had mud on them, it did not match the soil samples taken from the scene of the crime. A gunshot residue test, used to determine if someone has recently fired a gun, was administered to Hicks shortly after his arrest and proved negative. No fingerprints were found on the 30-30 casings located by Deputy McClellan the following day or on the rifle taken from Hicks' home.
By the time the case went to trial, Jarvis points out, critical evidence was no longer available. The patrol car Lamance had driven that night had been sold. Whitewright police Chief Bob Wallace acknowledges that Kevin Lamance had not been asked to surrender his weapon that night.
"It is our policy," Wallace says, "to have an officer surrender his weapon only if he fires at someone and injures them. None of the information I had that night indicated that Kevin Lamance had shot anybody." The chief says he remains comfortable with the investigation of Corporal Lamance's death. "There is," he says, "no perfect criminal investigation."
What of the tragically perfect long-distance shot that was attributed to Hicks? Investigators measured the distance from where the pickup was parked to the Lamances' patrol car at 217 yards. "This incredible shot," Jarvis says, "was made in the pitch dark. And there was a slight rise between the truck and the patrol car, making it impossible to see anything but the top of the car parked on the road."
Both windows of the patrol car were partially rolled down, yet two bullets had to have entered the driver's side--one whizzing past Kevin Lamance's face, the other striking his brother--and exited the passenger's window without leaving a trace. Despite five days of searching, crime-scene investigators found neither bullet.
Edward Hueske, a firearms expert and criminal justice instructor at the University of North Texas, later attempted to duplicate the fatal shot on a firing range. In daylight and under ideal conditions, he had managed to hit a 10-inch target only once in nine tries. "I can't say doing it [firing the shots credited to Hicks] is impossible, but it is very difficult, pretty remote."
Still, according to the DPS forensic lab tests, the Remington shell casings found in the field were a match to the Marlin 30-30 taken from Hicks' home the night of his arrest. "Actually," Glenn Hicks says, "the rifle was mine. I'd bought it and a partial box of shells from a friend for $100. At the time, I was having trouble with wolves coming around the place." He'd loaned the rifle to his son and grandson, he says, when they were invited to go wild-hog hunting in fall 2000.
If the authorities were so certain that Lamance died from a rifle shot, the elder Hicks, sitting in his living room, wonders why Texas Ranger Lee Young twice visited his home to ask if Richard owned a 9-millimeter handgun. "He got on the stand and swore he never did," Glenn Hicks says, "but he [Young] sat right in that chair on two different occasions and asked me."
The testimony of Dr. Linda Norton, the Dallas-based forensic pathologist, provided the likely answer.
She believes the long-distance rifle shot theory is the result of a badly flawed investigation. More often a witness for the prosecution, she agreed to review the evidence of the crime at attorney Wynne's request and concluded that Jim Lamance's death was not a murder but, rather, the result of a tragic "friendly fire" accident.
It was, she testified, a bullet from Kevin Lamance's handgun that killed the victim.
"I could find no case in history where a 30-30 fired from such range ever hit someone in the head," she says. "I also found it preposterous to think that a bullet could enter through a half-open window and exit the opposite [half-open] window." She says that an inexperienced medical examiner who conducted the autopsy had difficulty even determining which was the entry wound and which was the exit wound and concluded that death had been caused by a "high-powered rifle" only because authorities who delivered the body to the medical examiner's office had told her the shot came from a 30-30.
Additionally, while examining the autopsy photos, Dr. Norton detected what she determined to be "stippling," small specks of gunpowder residue on the victim's face that indicated the fatal shot had come from close range, not 217 yards.
"The physical evidence is just not consistent with [Kevin] Lamance's testimony that his brother was slumped over the steering wheel," she testified. Her re-creation of the nightmarish event suggests that it is most likely that driver Jim Lamance was standing outside the patrol car when his brother, having exited on the passenger's side, began shooting.
"The individual [Kevin Lamance] panicked. He began to fire wildly, and his brother probably looked over at him and was shot in the eye," she says.
After hearing her testimony, it took the jury less than three hours to acquit Hicks.
Sherman Herald Democrat reporter-columnist Jerrie Whiteley spoke for many when she wrote "...I don't know who shot Whitewright Officer James Lamance. For that reason, I don't know if the verdict allowed a guilty man to go free or if it finally sent an innocent man home."
Finally free on a reduced bail of $20,000 (because of the still-pending attempted-murder charge), Hicks--jobless after his lengthy jail stays and badly in debt because of almost $300,000 in legal fees--returned home to a celebration staged by family, friends and former co-workers. Though there was speculation that a second trial for the attempt on Kevin Lamance's life was being contemplated by County Attorney Porter, nothing has come of it. (Porter did not respond to calls about the status of the case.) A civil wrongful-death suit, filed by the Lamance family, continues to slowly make its way through the legal system.
"For a while, everything got quiet," Jarvis says, "until we began to hear that several of the same people who had testified at the state trial were being summoned to a federal grand jury." Jarvis knew what was coming.
It had been during the state murder trial that witnesses were called in an effort to demonstrate for the jury that Hicks was hardly an expert marksman. Hicks' friend Anderson told of persuading Richard and his sons to accompany him on occasional hunting trips two years earlier. Innocent and insignificant as the testimony might have sounded at the time, it set in motion a plan that eventually resulted in new charges being filed.
Shortly after their divorce was final, Hicks had allegedly driven to his wife's home in April 2000 and fired a shot in the direction of the house before speeding away. Though no one saw Hicks, no bullet hole was ever found and no charges were filed, his wife sought a protective order against him. Among the numerous restrictions placed on him by court order was that he "could not possess firearms or ammunition."
On a rainy day this past October, ATF agents appeared at Hicks' home and placed him under arrest for this violation--despite the fact the two-year order had expired. "It was pretty clear," Jarvis says, "that this was far more than an arrest for violation of a protective order. That was obvious the minute we read the indictment and saw that one of the allegations was that during the time the order was in place, Richard had been in possession of the two 30-30 casings found in the field after Jim Lamance's death."
What the state had failed to do, the federal system would have a go at. Jarvis and Wynne prepared for a retrial of the alleged murder in which the prosecutorial bar would be lower. In state court, a conviction can result only if a jury finds the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. In the federal system, guilt is determined when the jury is convinced beyond a preponderance of the evidence.
Even though the maximum punishment for the new crime Hicks had been charged with is generally a year or less in jail--often the sentence is probation--federal prosecutors urged the judge to employ the little-known procedure of "cross-referencing" the sentencing guidelines if it was proved that one crime (the protective-order violation) led to another (the murder of Jim Lamance). By using the procedure, the judge could assess a penalty that ranged from 15 years to life in prison.
"The [protective-order violation] statute was put in place to protect battered women," defense attorney Wynne says, "not to go after someone already acquitted of capital murder." At no time did Hicks' ex-wife ever make any complaint about him violating the order.
Still, a guilty verdict on the federal charges came quickly, helped by the testimony of Hicks' son, who said his father carried a gun on the hunting trips during the time the order was in effect. "It was a hard thing for Casey to do," George Varner says, "but he said his daddy had insisted that he tell the truth when he took the stand. That tells me all I need to know about the character and honesty of Richard Hicks."
The two-day sentencing hearing that followed, however, had nothing to do with protective-order matters. Instead, U.S. Attorneys Arnold Spencer and Jaime Pena did exactly what Hicks' lawyers had anticipated. Many of the same faces that had appeared on the witness stand during the state trial were back. Kevin Lamance retold his version of the tragic event. And Dr. Norton again argued that Jim Lamance's death had resulted from a shot fired by his brother. Meanwhile, Dr. Lynn Salzberger, who had conducted the criticized autopsy at the Institute of Forensic Sciences in Dallas, testified that she had seen no gunpowder residue on the victim and remained firmly convinced he had been shot with a high-powered rifle from long range.
The defense's attempt to have the victim's body exhumed to settle the issue had earlier been denied.
Judge Paul Brown ruled that the evidence presented was compelling enough for him to cross-reference his sentence. Unlike the state trial jury, he had been convinced that it was Hicks who killed the Whitewright officer.
"This," U.S. Attorney Pena says, "was a righteous prosecution, and in the end justice was served." He points out that there was no double jeopardy involved since the earlier Hicks trial had not involved the protective-order violation.
Allowed to make a statement before being sentenced, Hicks stood before the judge and said, "If I had killed Mr. Lamance, I would have pled guilty to it. I would not have put my family or his through this." With that, his voice broke and he began to sob.
Outside, dozens of Hicks' supporters milled about, many of them in tears. Nearby, attorney Mike Wynne talked to a media gathering. He'd been in practice for 20 years, he said, and had never before represented a client who had such unwavering support from friends and family. He talked of those who had taken off work to be in the courtroom day after day through the two trials, of the letters they had written the judge and state politicians on behalf of Hicks, of the support they'd provided his family during his incarceration.
"We should all have friends like that," Wynne said.
While Richard Hicks sat in the Seagoville federal prison, awaiting assignment to whatever facility he will soon call home and the appeal his lawyers are preparing, he was far from forgotten at the Dusty Saddle, where his fate is still part of the nightly conversation. Since he is in transition, authorities would not permit him a visit or phone conversation with the Dallas Observer.
Meanwhile, the lives of others who were involved in the case have taken strange twists.
Kevin Lamance, hired to fill his deceased brother's position at the Whitewright Police Department, stayed only a year before taking a better-paying position on the force in nearby Bells. He left there to join the Tom Bean Police Department. He now works for a private security firm. (The Observer's attempts to contact Lamance were unsuccessful.)
Mike McClellan, who found the incriminating 30-30 shells nearly three years ago, resigned from the Fannin County Sheriff's Department in March and is now living in Oregon with Lynn Lamance, the slain officer's widow.
Letters to the editor of local papers mirror the division that remains in the community. Some say justice was finally accomplished for Jim Lamance; others decry Hicks' imprisonment as "stinking to high heaven" and reminiscent of law enforcement black eyes "like Ruby Ridge and Waco."
Rampant rumors continue. On Mother's Day, May 12, 2002, a young Bonham woman named Jennifer Harris disappeared, her body found a week later floating in the Red River. Recently, word that Fannin County Attorney Myles Porter was soon to be arrested and charged with her murder became so widespread that he was forced to publicly discount them. "It's shocking...ridiculous...malicious gossip," he told the Sherman Democrat.
The story, he suggested, had been started and spread by people still upset over his prosecution of Richard Hicks.
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