The corner of Bryan and Fitzhugh is a quiet place near midnight. A 24-hour 7-Eleven draws occasional clusters of people making last-minute beer runs. An Oriental seafood market used to occupy one corner, but it burned down a couple of years ago. Hall’s Hobby House, bristling with burglar bars, and Jimmy’s Food Store occupy the other two points of the intersection. Both stores close in the early evening.
The night is warm, unlike the night of February 27, 1987, when it rained hard and a cold wind blew. I gather my courage and ask a lone man if he knows anything about the events of that night. He does not. Another does not speak English. So I stand and watch. I’m waiting, I suppose, for the man who killed my brother.
In my imagination I have seen him a dozen times, appearing out of the shadows. He slowly walks into the center of my vision, not knowing I am there, and surveys the scene, looking satisfied. I picture him through a secondhand description of a man seen by a 7-Eleven customer that night. He is Hispanic, dressed in a blue T-shirt and red headband.
How convenient, and how much like a cheap crime novel. The return to the scene. I would silently walk up to him, taking him by surprise. Before fleeing or coming at me with a knife, his eyes would meet mine, and in that instant I would know that he was the one.
Of course, nothing happens. The night brings no neat resolution to this baffling crime and no answers to the questions that have haunted my family for 18 months and may haunt us forever. I am in bed by 1 a.m., thinking as I do every night of my brother’s death and the life that preceded it.
"Dan, this is Dad," I vividly remember the voice inside the telephone saying early one Saturday morning. "I’m afraid I have some very bad news. Paul has been mugged."
After a long pause, he answered my unasked question: Paul had suffered "massive brain damage." We were on the phone for about 20 minutes, much of it silence broken by sputtered phrases of disbelief. Somehow arrangements were made for me to take the next available flight out of New York to Dallas.
In the middle of the conversation, my dad started talking about Paul in the past tense. My brother was not expected to be alive when I got home; he was lying in a coma in a Baylor hospital intensive care unit, being fed intravenously. He was attached to a respirator and a host of other machines. Paul had sustained numerous stab wounds in the face and head, probably from an ice pick. Two of the wounds had gone all the way through his cerebral cortex into his brain stem.
It was a nightmare, the days I spent with my family, seeing him breathe through a tube, strapped down on his bed. I watched his eyelashes flicker, wondering if he was going to die, live to be a vegetable, or live to be my brother again. We all hoped and those who could prayed. A series of doctors explained things to us. We were ready to commit everything we had to whatever recovery he could sustain. We talked about what meaningful life was, about whether what the doctors did was merely protracting, or potentially enhancing, his life. Then, after 13 days, he died.
We pieced together a few details about the attack. Paul had gotten off his bus at Live Oak Street late that night and walked through a neighborhood east of downtown where slums meet urban gentrification projects, where PTA meetings are often held in four languages: English, Spanish, Khmer, and Vietnamese. He was on his way to work the graveyard shift at the Seidler Community House, a halfway house for first offenders located on Fitzhugh. It’s an area dotted with apartment buildings—low rents and high crime rates. He was attacked at the corner of Bryan and Fitzhugh.
The police have no suspects and no motive. The man with the red headband may be real and he may not be. About all that is reasonably certain is that the killer was not a Seidler House resident; they were all accounted for that night. I am therefore left with neighborhood drug dealers, former Seidler residents, random killers, and just about the rest of the city of Dallas to consider as my brother’s murderer.
I wish someone could tell me what Paul’s death was about, that Paul’s killer was psychotic, that he came from a broken family, that he had to prove something to someone, that he was conditioned by too much violence on television, that he wasn’t breast-fed as an infant—something. But there is only an investigating officer who says the case is still open and that he can’t eliminate "just pure meanness."
Suffice it to say no one remotely understands this crime. Behind the statistics about random urban violence, the questions lurk. Who would want to kill someone who never raised his voice, rarely imposed his will or even his opinion on anyone else? Who would want to kill someone who spent much of his free time in church and Sunday school classes or reading the Bible to himself? Who would want to kill someone born with what is alternately called severe dyslexia and minor brain damage? Who would want to kill someone who, after struggling with his handicap through high school and most of college, decided that his calling was in helping those less fortunate than himself? Who, and why?
Who would want to kill someone who never raised his voice, rarely imposed his will or even his opinion on anyone else?
Most people who grew up in Highland Park, as Paul did, have rarely set foot near anything like Seidler House. It is the type of facility they have rarely seen and would fight with all they have to keep out of their neighborhood. Though Seidler houses only those who were convicted of nonviolent crimes, the residents are hardly pillars of the community. Many of them did something to violate the terms of their probation. A high percentage of them come from difficult home situations or no home at all. After spending their allotted time at the house, they often stay in the neighborhood and come back to the house for counseling, to chat, or just to watch television.
Seidler House and its parent Homeward Bound, both nonprofit, nonaffiliated organizations, see their function as providing a drug-free, violence-free environment and people to talk to during a critical time in a convicted criminal’s life, a time when a little home life and a little support could be enough to keep him from committing another crime. Residents must either have a job or be looking for one, with Seidler’s help. Everyone is expected to participate in the upkeep and governance of the house.
Paul’s normal duties included making sure residents came in when they were supposed to, fixing sandwiches for their lunches, waking people up in the morning, taking care of a little paperwork, and just being available if anyone wanted to talk. Occasionally there would be a fight or argument among the residents, and Paul would unemotionally walk up, cross his arms, and ask what was going on. "He had a way of making a person calm," says former resident Alonzo Williams. "Maybe it was his voice. I don’t know.’"
If asked, Paul would say he did his job to give those down on their luck another chance. A few days before Paul was attacked, my dad asked if he should keep his eye out for any jobs. Paul said that if he could find a similar job that paid more, that would be fine; otherwise, no thanks. Paul was making about $6,000 a year.
Paul was so unimposing that when counselor James Anthamatten first met him at Seidler House, he handed Paul a broom and told him to start sweeping, not realizing he was a staff member. Paul went right ahead and started sweeping without a word. He had a way of being almost invisible. Though there were many photos taken at the house, he appears in none of them. He rarely spoke up in staff meetings or initiated a conversation about anything other than professional sports. He never voiced any complaints. "I used to think he wasn’t doing his damn job," Anthamatten says about Paul’s habit of never raising his voice at any of the residents.
Paul’s affiliation with Seidler House always astounded me. He is proof that not everyone under 35 is interested only in BMWs and Gucci shoes. He doesn’t provide much support for Allan Bloom’s thesis, in The Closing of the American Mind, that his generation has no yardstick to measure right and wrong, or the claims of many others that young people are too confused—due to too much television, war, corruption, the lack of real leaders, etc.—to know what they want. He probably had more reason to rebel than anyone, but he didn’t. He did just the opposite. He really knew exactly what he wanted and achieved it, despite his handicap.
Much of this has to be attributed to his faith. Paul’s church, the Trinity Church in Cedar Hill, is something to behold. Far from the sober Methodism of Highland Park United, it boasts a congregation of 3,200 after just 11 years of pulpit-pounding sermons, teary-eyed confessions, eerie incantations in tongues, and uplifting hymns accompanied by electric guitarists, drummers, trumpeters, and a host of other musicians, including a line of young tambourinists who bounce off the balls of their feet and kick up their legs.
A recent service I attended reached a crescendo after three-and-a-half hours when the preacher enjoined his enemy: "Devil, get your hands off Dallas! Devil, get your hands off Dallas! Devil! Get your hands off Dallas! Dallas belongs to God! Dallas belongs to Jeeeesuus!" while behind the stage a 30-second shot clock—the sanctuary is apparently used for other purposes during the week—flashed 00.
Each week Paul attended two services, a Sunday school class and a prison ministry class. He sat in the same place at the back of the sanctuary (his wife Susan was in the choir). He didn’t carry on like some of his brethren, but then I wouldn’t have expected him to. It wasn’t the showiness of an Assembly of God congregation that attracted him but the intensity. A Sunday spent at Trinity was an opportunity to express his faith over and over again, to be told over and over again that the meek and the righteous will win out over evil. It was the fuel he burned those long nights in inner-city Dallas, his rod and staff, his reason for not fearing as he walked through the valley of the shadow of death.
And with Paul’s religion came the added satisfaction of doing something that no one in his family had done before him. Picture what it is like to have problems with writing compositions when your father translated the philosopher Althusius—without any prior study of Latin—as part of his doctoral dissertation from the University of Chicago; when your mother breezed through her Ph.D. work while raising a family; and when your two older brothers both graduated near the top of their high school classes, were top-notch swimmers, and went east to college. Only in his underachieving younger brother, me, could he find solace.
Paul tried to compensate for some of his shortcomings. At one point he became an expert on gourmet food while his brothers were still discovering TV dinners. At another, he worked on his multiplication tables so long he could crunch three-digit numbers in his head in less than a second. He was always in the middle of about four books, though I doubt he retained much of any of them.
Though he was four years my senior, Paul always followed my lead when we were kids. We both had imaginations and personalities that did not lend themselves well to the real world. With his assistance I created a pantheon of animal athletes. We would combine cartoon characters like Tom and Jerry and Daffy Duck with our stuffed animals and puppets to create two imaginary football teams. We’d act out their games in the front yard, quickly switching to conventional catch if a friend showed up. Sometimes we’d be on the same team, dodging imaginary defenders, and sometimes we would be foes. In the latter case I might be, say, Pinky Winky (a stuffed pink rabbit missing an eye) taking the snap from Gumby. I might roll out left and throw the ball (straight up in the air, of course) to Mighty Mouse. Paul might be defensive end Pokey or linebacker Daffy Duck going in for the tackle. And Paul would always let my team win.
In those days we spent a large part of our waking hours together, but by the time he died I was seeing him only once or twice a year. We would talk about the house on Cornell Avenue in Highland Park, about the Dallas Cowboys, about Seidler House, about anything. Both of us realized there was something wrong with the amount of time we spent apart, but we had changed in a lot of ways. Paul was married and religious; I was neither. Paul settled in Texas; I took off at the first opportunity and lived in Oregon, Alaska, West Africa, New York City, and now North Carolina.
Paul’s death has become submerged in my consciousness. It is often what I think about when I am alone.
Coming back to Dallas to write about Paul was a strange experience. Knowing so little about Seidler House and Trinity Church, so little about everything Paul had been doing for the last five years, I found myself interviewing people about my own brother. Talking with police and reading their reports, I was often seized with a desire to stop them in midsentence and say, "but this is Paul we’re talking about. You know, Paul."
And then I remembered the clinical language of the police reports, and I knew that only my effort of memory would keep Paul from becoming a forgotten statistic.
Complainant Carney was alone at the time with no one near him and was bleeding profusely from the head. DFD #717 responded to the scene and transported complainant Carney to Baylor University Medical Center in critical condition.
More than a year later, the police have no witnesses. The man in the red headband has never been found. Nor has the 7-Eleven customer who described him to the clerk, who later told police.
The investigation into my brother’s death consists of little more than questioning criminals brought in from that part of town. At the time of the assault, the investigating officer also interviewed a number of past and present Seidler House staff and residents and left a number of business cards around the area. A crime stopper video has been aired several times in an attempt to bring the customer, or anyone else, forward.
At this point, no one expects the killer(s) to be caught. Too much time has passed, too little is known. In the absence of any hard evidence or a suspect, theories of why and who abound. Two of the wounds went through the skull and all the way into the brain stem, causing my father to speculate that the killer knew what he was doing and was possibly professional. His scenario has Paul being silenced for having seen something, or a victim of mistaken identity.
Doug Denton, the director of Homeward Bound, which oversees Seidler House, suggests that Paul may have simply wandered into something on a rainy night when it was difficult to see. Several people think that it could only have been someone so full of drugs or so deranged that he had absolutely no conception of what he was doing.
The most intriguing theory I heard involved a particular former resident who was terminated from Seidler House after violating curfew, being absent without permission, and arriving at the house drunk. His probation was revoked after Denton testified to such in a hearing in 1986. He was described to me as dangerous, unstable, and psychologically "not all there." The police took him in and questioned him, along with one other former resident, but did not find enough to charge him with anything. There was no evidence whatsoever tying him to the crime scene, police say.
I guess I like this theory because it comes with a much more plausible motive, one that makes sense and makes Paul’s death more than a freak accident or a random occurrence. That person could have felt some need to take vengeance against Seidler House and found Paul easy prey; Paul, walking up the street one night thinking everyone was or could be as good as he. But it’s only a theory, a far cry from an explanation.
Paul’s death has become submerged in my consciousness. It is often what I think about when I am alone. It overtakes me sometimes in midconversation, leaving me silent and staring blindly at a glass in my hand or a sign on a wall. Friends have worried about me when I’ve suddenly gotten up and gone for two-hour walks. I just need a little fresh air, I tell them—which is about all I’ve gotten from a lot of long walks and a lot of wondering why.