Longform

The Girl Who Played Dead

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In a court file was a name: Lizzie Williams. That led to a photograph of an attractive girl, grinning like a South Dallas Mona Lisa at the jailhouse camera. I carried it with me and knocked on doors. I found her the day after April Fools', sitting in a metal folding chair in an empty courtyard surrounded by two levels of apartments with freshly painted red doors. Two men sat on either side of her in a sort of crooked triangle, arranged for conversation, but no one was talking.

"Is that where Lizzie Williams lives?" I asked, pointing to an apartment door where I'd heard she lived.

There was a quiet moment; the woman smiled.

Lizzie Williams looked at me in the sun, face scrunched up slightly. She was still youthful, with smooth, coffee-colored skin and remarkably clear brown eyes. There was a small scar on her lower lip, like she had a habit of chewing it. She didn't seem the least bit surprised to be suddenly accosted by a reporter 13 years after an attack that's still remembered in these neighborhoods. She stood up and walked to stairs made of scabrous concrete.

A woman stole a look at us from the upper floor; a man watched us from the shadows in a corner of the compound.

"You saved your cousin's life," I said.

Lizzie chuckled, shrugged her shoulders and looked away shyly. "That's what they tell me."

We talked over a span of three days, as much as we could. One day I pulled out a sheaf of papers, transcripts of Lizzie's testimony in two murder trials, where she boldly identified two of the young men who'd shot her friends. It was a courageous act; one of the witnesses--her cousin, LaTonya Williams, also 16 at the time of the shooting--was so terrified that she went on the run before the first trial, nearly blowing the state's case. The prosecutor finally had to put her in jail to get her to testify.

Lizzie listened to the familiar names, smiled faintly and tried to sift through her mind's debris. Eventually, I turned my attention to those who knew her, then and now, and I tracked down each of the survivors of the bathtub shooting. I also interviewed two of the gunmen and a woman who witnessed the events leading up to the attack. I searched through hundreds of pages of court and police records that revealed bits of Lizzie's story and those of her friends, and I spoke with the detective and prosecutor who handled the case.

Because it soon became clear that the girl who played dead remembers nothing.

Apocalypse Then

Those were crazy days, the era of running gun battles with the police and barricaded traps, of Uzis and TEC-9s and Too $hort and the Geto Boys. If you weren't there, it's hard to understand just how bad things got. The numbers tell part of the story: 442 murders in 1990, 500 in 1991--still a record--and much of the violence took place in the few square miles known as South Dallas, south of Interstate 30, between Lamar Street and Fair Park, just north of the Trinity River.

Crackheads would literally line up down the block in South Dallas--"like you getting ready to ride the roller coaster at Fair Park," one former user told me--pushing to be next to get a hit. Drive through South Dallas' side streets in the evening, and bands of young men dripping with gold and menace would block the way, brazenly asking if you "need anything?"

That was the blood money side of things, the users, the sellers and those they corrupted. Then there was everyone else, people whose lives were circumscribed by fear--the thick ladies in housedresses, tucked away behind multiple deadbolts, telling you in weary voices that Jesus would return to get them, to snatch them out of Sodom just in time. If you're middle-class and live in the grassy reaches of North Dallas, it's hard to relate to. Consider that everyone in South Dallas--I mean everyone--can tell you the name of a friend or relative who was murdered. Or the name of an aunt, a mother, a brother, whatever, who was or is strung out on crack. It's part of normal conversation: how so-and-so is a dope fiend, how he'd sell his mama for crack.

So many people got caught up in crack in one way or another, it's like an entire small town that went to war. "That was a stormy era in Dallas," says Dallas police Sergeant Chuck Hudson, who handled the bathtub murder investigation. "Man, it just grabbed us. Kind of like what happened in New York on 9/11."

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Julie Lyons
Contact: Julie Lyons