What Really Happened in the Dallas County Jail?

What really happened in the Dallas County Jail on the night of August 8, when 20-year-old Kenneth Coppinger Jr., was brutally slain by fellow inmates, is still bottled up by the courts. But in the weeks that come, some interesting testimony is likely to come to light.

We know that Coppinger was locked up on a bogus charge. We know that his record was among the least violent in his cell block. We know that about two hours after he was imprisoned he was strangled, stabbed repeatedly (“There are 13 penetrating wounds of the anterior chest,” says the Medical Examiner’s report), strangled some more, then cut from ear to ear and left to die.

We know no motive. There is no evidence of passion, no deep anger, no jealousy or hate, no money or sex motives. Was it just a thrill kill? Was it perhaps just picking on a weaker person? Was it a follow-up to a bizarre “black mass?”

The cell, 6S4, was located upstairs in the old jail. Coppinger threw his mattress and other gear on the dayroom floor, and awaited assignment to a bunk. As is the case with most new prisoners to the Dallas County Jail, the assignment was made not by a guard but by a prisoner – Wayne Maddox, the “cell spokesman.”

Two detailed accounts of the murder have been made public. Here is a third, given exclusively to reporter Tom Ste-phenson by Alva Eugene Lytle, one of the inmates accused of the murder.

Lytle says Maddox told inmate Steve Valentine that a jailer had said that Coppinger was imprisoned for “baby rape.” He said the two talked for a while and then asked the other prisoners what they thought about Coppinger. Lytle claimed the two had talked earlier that day about killing someone. “They never said how or why they wanted to kill someone, they just wanted to,” Lytle said.

According to Lytle, Valentine and Maddox talked of decapitating Coppinger and hanging his head on the bars. “Steve made the statement that it would be neat if they hung his head on the beehive, where the Captain [jailer] came in,” Lytle said. Lytle also accused Maddox of practicing the “black mass,” and said Valentine joined Maddox in burning a bible in front of the murder cell.

Lytle said inmate David Villalon agreed to join in the attack and waited while Maddox called for Coppinger to come to a bunk in the cell. According to Lytle, Villalon waited behind the door with a leather strap and caught Coppinger around the neck when he walked in. Lytle said he saw Valentine hit Coppinger three or four times in the side, but that he did not see him with a weapon. Maddox then joined the attack, according to Lytle, pulling his knife and stabbing Coppinger in the chest and stomach.

“All this time,” Lytle said, “David Villalon still had the strap around Coppinger’s head. The strap broke, and Coppinger broke free and cried for help before Maddox used his bare hands to choke him.”

Lytle said that Villalon then gave Maddox another strap and that Mad-dox choked the victim for about five minutes, then asked Valentine to hold the strap. Eventually, all three attackers choked Coppinger, Lytle claimed.

While Coppinger was lying on his mattress, Lytle said, the three attackers debated if he were dead. Then Maddox “got a razor blade. . .and cut Coppinger’s throat all the way across.” Deciding he was dead, they dragged Coppinger into the hall and threw his mattress on top of him, Lytle said. He lay there for about 20 minutes until a jailer came by. “It sounded like he saw the body and walked away,” Lytle said. Then the inmates began yelling for a jailer, but no help arrived “for at least 20 or 25 minutes,” Lytle said.

Lytle claimed he did not interfere with the assault because he feared for his own life, but was “at the sink, a few feet away” when the killing took place.

While much of Lytle’s testimony can be labeled self-serving – to get himself off the hook – Valentine corroborates part of Lytle’s story in testimony made public several weeks ago. Valentine agrees that Maddox talked with Villal-on, Lytle and “a few times, myself about killing somebody. Valentine claims the talk centered on hanging someone by his feet and cutting him from stomach to throat, making everyone in the cell stab the victim at least once “to keep everybody from snitching,” and then writing the words “Helter Skelter” on the wall in blood. Valentine, not surprisingly, testified that he was not involved in the murder.

Here are some other interesting aspects of the case:

●Coppinger’s previous conviction wasnot, as first reported, child molestation.In November of 1975, Coppinger, then19, and a 15-year-old companion, pickedup two young girls who were planningto run away from home. One of the girlswas 13. Her parents found her atCoppinger’s Kleberg apartment andfiled statutory rape charges, to whichCoppinger pleaded guilty. He receivedthe lightest of sentences – five years onprobation. Apparently the girls’ parentswere content because the words “Complainant [the parents] agrees to probation” were written on Coppinger’s record.

●Coppinger had spent no previoustime in jail – the only other blemish onhis record was a citation for loitering inthe Lake Grapevine area. His arrest on August 8 for violation of probation resulted from the probation officer’s confusing Coppinger Jr. with Coppinger Sr., who had been arrested for driving while intoxicated.

●The Coppinger family has filed a $5 million civil damage suit charging Sheriff Clarence Jones and Probation Officer Waylon Vernon with negligence. In the more than 35 depositions he has taken since the murder, Charles L. Caperton, counsel for the family, says he has uncovered damaging testimony, including the following by inmate Steve Valentine.

Caperton: Did they take any pictures where [Coppinger] lay before they moved him out?

Valentine: Yes, sir. They took two or three pictures I know of before they even touched him. . .they didn’t even lift up the mattress until they had taken pictures. A younger captain, talking to another captain, lifted the mattress off him and said he was already turning blue and for somebody to get the nurse. And she started checking and said, “He’s still alive.”

Caperton says he will base his case on a Fort Worth civil appeal ruling, which says in part: “If a jailer whose duty it is to care for and protect his prisoners from harm would, in the exercise of ordinary care, have discovered the presence of weapons and removed them and thereby prevented the death of one prisoner at the hand of another, jailer and his principal, the sheriff, would be responsible in damages.”

Caperton said his depositions have revealed testimony from inmates stating they have not been searched for weapons in months. In a recent tour of the jail, two inmates presented Channel 8 reporter Rita Flynn with two makeshift knives and prisoners told this reporter they had not been shaken down” in three weeks.

● County Jail corrections director Tom Craig doesn’t believe that jailers revealed Coppinger’s previous conviction to the inmates. Craig is the man most observers agree is responsible for vast upgrading in jail conditions over the past 18 months. He says, “My gut feeling is that none of our detention officers said anything about Coppinger’s sentence. They are instructed not to and they all know what can result from something like that.”

Craig would not rule out the possibility of a trusty having access toCoppinger’s record. Inmates work in theID section of the jail and perform dutiesranging from fingerprinting new arrivals to typing reports. These reports include previous convictions or charges.Craig has asked the County Commissioners for added clerical help to relieveinmates of these duties, but has beenturned down.


Keep me up to date on the latest happenings and all that D Magazine has to offer.