Anarchy in Amarillo

Page 2 of 9

There was no doubt about the tribal identities of the suspect and victim.

Deneke was a punk, a wiry high school dropout with a faded blue mohawk, spiked collar, and leather jacket. He went by an unlikely moniker for a hardcore music fan, "Sunshine." Camp was the class clown, a baby-faced kid who played junior varsity football at Tascosa, earned above-average grades, and was more or less ambling toward college. Both were highly popular within their own groups.

From a distance, the circumstances seem stark, the villain clear. Not so in Amarillo, where Camp's recently concluded murder trial "split the community right down the middle," according to defense attorney Warren L. Clark, and caused a wave of small acts of retribution on both sides that continue to this day.

On the witness stand, the testimony of jocks and punks seldom jibed. Forcing his way through the many cracks in logic was attorney Clark, who portrayed Deneke and his pals as goons, thugs, and sociopaths, and Camp as a good, solid, normal kid wedded to Amarillo's favorite institutions, family and football.

It was the oldest trick in the book, demonizing the victim, valorizing the defendant. And it worked. In the end, Dustin Camp walked free, convicted of manslaughter, not murder, sentenced only to probation and a $10,000 fine. Even the fine is probated.

The punks, and a good chunk of Amarillo's 175,000 residents, are outraged.

"I thought it was bullshit," says 27-year-old David Trew, a friend of Deneke's. "Complete inanity that someone caught burglarizing a house or selling drugs can go to prison for 20 years, but for taking another human being's life, he gets 10 years' probation.

"We all do things in life where we say 'oops.' But murder is where I draw the line."

Elise Thompson sits in her apartment in Austin and tells the story of the most horrifying experience of her 18 years.

Today, she is a freshman pre-med student at UT. Clear-eyed and pretty in an inconspicuous way, she is dressed plainly in college garb: khaki pants; a white, neatly pressed Banana Republic T-shirt. She crosses her legs politely and answers many questions with a soft "yes, ma'am."

Her friend Rob had blocked out most details of Brian Deneke's death, so she would become the prosecution's star witness. People on both sides, from Dustin Camp's attorney to the punks who never knew her, would acknowledge that her testimony had the ring of truth. Her credibility was beyond question: She was the '99 class valedictorian at Tascosa; she was the only important eyewitness who hadn't been drinking; she had no discernible motive for lying or blurring the facts.

The Camp trial came at a time when Amarillo's prejudice, indignation, and grief had bled onto the letters page of the local newspaper and manifested itself in numerous incidents of intimidation involving both jocks and punks.

Thompson, when called upon to testify, would thread her way between the two tribes.

Out of the chaos, she drew sanity.

She remembers all the gossip at Tascosa High that Friday. A fight was gonna go down, combatants to be announced.

Word passed from a couple of football players to their girlfriends to some of the kids who occupy the spaces between the cliques in high school, kids slightly out of step with the campus mob. Kids like Elise Thompson, whose entertainment then and now centers around a weekly Young Life Bible study.

"I detest violence," she says, "but fights never materialized. One side would show up, and everyone gathered in the parking lot, and you got to see all of your friends. It was just a big, fun social event, and that's what I thought was gonna happen."

When one of the punks talks matter-of-factly about his "anarchistic tendencies," he's obviously missed the irony of kids with mohawks and pierced noses listening to the Subhumans, diving into mosh pits, and digging the poetry of Jello Biafra not too far downwind from Amarillo's stinky feedlots.

They'll tell you it's tough being a punk in the Panhandle. All of the kids in the "lifestyle," and that includes goths and skinheads, complain about the harassment they regularly face from Amarillo's staid citizenry.

Just this morning, Matt Bohannon, an iron-pumping 27-year-old with a shaved head who became the punks' informal spokesman during Dustin Camp's trial, was run off the road on his bike by a posse of "white hats" in a Mustang, he says.

KEEP THE DALLAS OBSERVER FREE... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Julie Lyons
Contact: Julie Lyons