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.
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Carlton Stowers
Contact: Carlton Stowers