Longform

Postcard from Texas Meth Country

The pride and shame of Lufkin, Texas, are located about a half mile from each other. Just west of the town's east loop, there's Abe Martin Stadium, site of many triumphs for the Lufkin Panthers, 5A state champions in 2001 and perennial contenders for the crown. About a quarter-mile up East Lufkin Avenue, there's the Angelina County Jail, the frequent home of the town's many meth heads, dealers and cooks, including James "Bull" Durham, one of the most frequently arrested men in East Texas history.

As jails go it's an almost cheery place. County Sheriff Kent Henson has long encouraged artistic inmates, and they've obliged with murals of rodeo scenes, portraits of cops and jailers and Texas history tableaus. Perhaps the most talented of these artists was "Iodine Mike" Russell, one of Lufkin's most notorious meth freaks and a mentor to Durham. Iodine Mike's work dominates the jail's small chapel, including his masterpiece: a colorful mural of three rugged old crosses in a Holy Land sunset setting. It will remain his finest achievement; he died last year at age 36 of liver failure.

Sheriff Henson, a Pentecostal Sunday school teacher in his spare time, is very proud of the work and its message, but if he intended for this dead meth head's vision of the Promised Land to serve as warning for those following in Iodine Mike's wake, too few have heeded it. One such scoffer is Durham, who is awaiting transfer to state prison and looking at 25 years' hard time. After a long visit with his new girlfriend, Durham is at last ready to talk. But first he has a few grievances to air with Henson.

"Hey James, what're you doin'?" asks Henson good-naturedly as a guard leads Durham into the chapel. A ruddy-faced, sandy-haired 52-year-old with a perpetual twinkle in his eye, Henson's the type of man who hates the sin but loves the sinner. He greets even a wild-eyed, inked-up veteran criminal like 39-year-old Durham with a smile, and will tell you that Durham's a great guy when he's off the meth.

"Hell, what I do best," Durham sighs. By Durham's own count, this is his 48th trip to Angelina County Jail. This summer, Durham pleaded guilty to burning down his mother's home when a small, portable "shake-and-bake" meth lab erupted in his bedroom. Durham's mother lost both her home and car in the ensuing inferno, and Durham's torso was scalded by chemicals. That disaster was one of several in the worst of Durham's 39 years on the planet. He now claims to have been coerced into pleading guilty.

"I didn't burn that house down," Durham tells the sheriff with no more preamble. "I know you think I did and you think I'm a piece of shit, but I didn't burn that house down. I got burnt, I've been shot, I've been slandered, but I didn't burn that house down."

Durham also wants to know why nobody's in jail for what happened after the fire, when he was out on bond and two young men came by the shack where he was living, a little hovel he built behind what was once his mother's home. One allegedly clubbed him with a two-by-four, and the other allegedly shot him with each barrel of an old-timey over-under gun. (One barrel fires .22-caliber bullets, the other is a .410 shotgun.) Durham says they were acting on the orders of an ex-girlfriend whose bid to rekindle their romance he had spurned. The alleged shooter was charged with aggravated assault and is out on bond, but a local grand jury declined to charge the other. The woman has not been charged.

"I was laying on the ground for dead with a bullet in my guts and this man come up to me with that shotgun and shot me dead in my butt-hole," Durham cries to Henson, his voice rising. "You wanna see it?" The sheriff declines. "He shot me not in the ass but in my asshole," Durham continues. "And now I gotta wear a bag!" He parts the folds of his orange jumpsuit and shows us his colostomy bag.

"It's all 'cause I'm Bull Durham, Lufkin's most hated," Durham grouses.

"Naw, you're James Durham," the sheriff says.

Henson eventually gets an earful and reminds Durham of the time he caught him stealing his lawn mower. Durham says he had no idea how the lawman's mower wound up in his truck. He didn't even know that house belonged to the sheriff.

It ain't easy being Lufkin's Most Hated, and Lufkin's Most Wanted, but that's who Durham is, at least in his own mind. He's tattooed those descriptions across his elbows, where they compete for space amid the blue-black welter of jailhouse tats that cover his whole bullet-ridden, shotgun-blasted, hernia-addled, meth-burned, knife-poked, razor-slashed, colostomy-bagged body.


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John Nova Lomax
Contact: John Nova Lomax