VERY NIGHT BEFORE HE LEFT HIS office, Marion Price Daniel Jr. put his law library in perfect order. He reached above his head, gently pushing on the spines of lawbooks, and reached below his waist, gently pushing, again and again. One by one he got them flush, so that no volume stood out more than the others. Ever since he went off to college at Baylor, Price Junior had employed a maid to iron his shirts because he couldn’t accept the way laundries fold collars. Price wanted them ironed straight up. He wanted to fold his collars by hand, at the moment he put his shirts on, in a style appropriate for the day. He had discovered another advantage to self-folding, too: Upturned collars don’t fray as quickly, because the fabric is not under the strain of a fold while hanging in a closet, waiting to be worn.
Price had a passion for order in every detail of his daily life. Tool racks and pen holders and check stubs and file folder labels were icons to him, for Price believed, with an almost religious intensity, that appearances count and thriftiness pays. He was the man for whom divider trays were invented.
One afternoon in May 1976, after assuring himself that he and his work quarters were as proper as parson and pulpit, Price Junior got into his LTD and drove toward the Dairy Queen on Highway 146 in his hometown of Liberty, which sits midway between Houston and Beaumont. Price didn’t usually go out for coffee. It wasn’t his habit. In fact, Price Junior seldom left his law office from morning till dark except to cross the street to the county courthouse. But Price had a reason for visiting the Dairy Queen that afternoon. He had a plan; he always had a plan for anything he did. This time, however, the plan would eventually get Price killed.
Though Price was careful never to engage in gossip, rumors about a woman at the Dairy Queen had caught his ear. The woman-girl was the term Liberty men used for her-the girl was in her late twenties, thin but with admirable breasts, long platinum tresses, darting brown eyes, and a very friendly manner of speaking. She drove a racy, red LeMans Sports Coupe, and the word was that she had been separated from her husband all year. Her name was Vickie Moore; she was what Liberty men, in raucous tones, call a dee-vor-cee. Only this girl Vickie hadn’t filed for a divorce yet, perhaps because she couldn’t hire a lawyer on Dairy Queen earnings. Vickie might need a man like him, Price figured.
Price went up to the Dairy Queen counter and ordered coffee, black, from the girl with the platinum tresses. He studied her figure and face. Neither was entirely up to his standards or expectations. Her arms were a bit fleshy, her cheeks a little plump. She could have been thinner in a few places, some men would say. Her face, full as it was, could not conceal a certain look, an empty hollowness, an in-a-cave condition about the eyes so often seen on the faces of the white poor from East Texas to Ap-palachia. She could have been prettier.
But her smile made up for all that. When Vickie handed Price the cup of coffee, her thin lips parted and her tight jaw opened, as if to cue him to speak. As she counted change into his hand, Price Junior recited the lines he had planned.
“What’s your name?” he asked.
“It’s Misty,” the girl lied.
Price knew better.
“Are you married?” he asked.
“Well, yes, sort of,” she said, handing his change back.
“Are you sure you’re married?”
“Well, yes, but I’m getting a divorce,” she blurted, wishing she hadn’t told him.
“Oh? Who’s your lawyer?” Price asked.
“I haven’t got one,” she shot back, almost glaring at him. Vickie knew who Price was, everybody in Liberty did, and she thought she knew what he wanted.
“Well, by golly, why don’t you give me a call?” Price chirped, turning to go.
“Yeah, maybe,” Vickie said, as if the thought depressed her. The fact is, she was tired of pretenders.
TWENTY-EIGHT-YEAR-OLD VICKIE Carroll Moore wasn’t the kind of woman Liberty men thought she was. She wasn’t entirely different from their preconception, either. She had married young, at 20, and she could have said-in all truthfulness-that until her marriage she never used cosmetics, went to beauty parlors, or wore pants or jewelry. She didn’t do those things because she respected the Pentecostal beliefs of an older brother, Franklin, who had helped rear her.
After Franklin died, Vickie dyed her brown hair blonde. She discovered that it was true, what the commercials said, that blondes have more fun. Being blonde made men take a second look. Before that, a lot of them hadn’t bothered to look, even once.
She had her ears pierced, too. That alteration was not to please herself or any man, but to accommodate her daughter. The child had come home from school wanting her own ears pierced and had told Vickie, “Mother, I want you to do it, too.” Though she felt like a Jezebel for a few days, Vickie came to like the way she looked in her earrings, just as she liked her tinted hair. Improvement never hurts, that’s what she believed.
Vickie had charm, and she used it. She was the sort of woman who winked her way out of traffic tickets. When Vickie was in a hurry, she would ask people to let her cut into waiting lines-and they made way. If it was 5:04 p.m. and a business Vickie wanted to deal with closed at five o’clock sharp, Vickie would call or go by anyway. She was attended to as often as not. Vickie didn’t intend to send sexual messages when she got cute; she merely intended to get her way. As far as she was concerned, there were very few privileges in the hands of East Texas working women, and if charm was one of them, it deserved use.
People often misinterpreted the things Vickie did and said, as they did her almost girlish cutesiness. Even her husband of eight years, a heavy equipment operator named Larry Moore, found her motivations nearly impossible to fathom. Vickie had a mind of her own. She was volatile, her tongue was tricky, she changed her mind from morning to night. She woke up in a new world every day, Larry thought. But that fascinated Larry as much as it annoyed him. It was Vickie who asked for the divorce.
Vickie was many things to many people. Four years later, in courtroom testimony and casual conversation, some friends would remember her as a Sunday school teacher and Cub Scout den mother; others would recall her as a coquette. At 28, Vickie was divorced and moving out on her own. She was living day by day, but she was also looking for a setting in which she could find expression and praise.
One glance at Price told Vickie that he was anything but Larry Moore. No biceps stuck out; Price strutted with confidence, not muscle. Larry was a big, rustic man, six feet tall, with a laborer’s toughened hands. Price was slender and short, with coiffured mahogany hair, glittering blue eyes, and a city slicker’s cool. Vickie wasn’t used to men like Price, and she was not immediately smitten.
Besides, she had a suitor already. He was a big man with handsome dark eyes, perfect teeth, and brown hair. He was a home boy and a homebody with a college degree in business. Her suitor was kind to her children, Kimberly, 7, and Jonathon, S. Vickie thought he would make a good husband. She needed a lawyer, but she thought it was best to be wary. She decided to let Price’s offer wait.
PATIENCE WAS NOT ONE OF THE virtues friends attributed to Price Daniel Jr. In May 1976, Price had no reason to be a patient man. June 8 would be his 35th birthday. Thirty-five is the age when a man knows just where he stands in the world, and when he knows what he is supposed to want, even if he hasn’t decided what he wants for himself. It is a time when a man is mindful that his biblical three score years and ten are half gone, and that if he is to live up to the ambitions he has harbored since adolescence, he had better fish or cut bait. Thirty-five is the age of resolve.
Price had been born and bred to the legacy of a big man. His father had been a state representative, Speaker of the House, United States senator, Texas attorney general, and three times governor of Texas. In the spring of 1976 he was an associate justice of the Texas Supreme Court. He cast a long shadow. Price was his father’s first-born son.
Price Junior had spent most of his adult life preparing to take the mantle his father wore. Like his dad he had gone to Baylor, become a lawyer, and opened a practice in Liberty. In 1968 he had run for, and won, the legislative seat that nearly 30 years before had first sent Price Senior to Austin.
Price Junior was elected to three successive terms in the House. By the end of the second he had measured up to his father’s record in his final term as governor: He was too liberal for the conservatives, too conservative for the liberals, and too principled for both factions. He had not stooped to compromise or strained himself at arm-twisting the way ambitious legislators do. But in 1973, its leadership discredited by the Sharpstown stock fraud scandal, the legislature badly needed an inviolate spokesman. Price fit the bill painfully well, and he was elected ’ Speaker of the House.
During his term as Speaker, Price made himself known as an advocate of reform and a friend to the minorities. He guided unprecedented reforms to passage: the open meetings act, the public records law, a half-dozen other sunshine and disclosure measures. But his election as Speaker resulted from exceptional circumstances, and he had campaigned on a promise to resign the post after one term. In June 1973, when Price Junior stepped down as Speaker, he was uncommonly popular. He had nowhere to go but up.
He returned to Austin in 1974 to be elected president of the Texas Constitutional Convention, or Con Con, as it was called. The Con Con was convened to create a new charter for state government, but after months of legislative wrangling, its proposed new constitution fell dead, three votes short of the majority needed to pass it.
Some editorialists and others blamed the Con Con’s failure on Price Junior. The realpolitik crowd derided him as “Half Price,” saying that the Old Man, Price Senior, would have acted more decisively. Even Price Junior’s allies conceded that he had been weak-willed, prissy, aloof, and diffident-in short, a weenie-in the House as well as at the Con Con. Price Junior had learned a harsh lesson in a harsh way: Sometimes standing in a shadow is a more difficult task than casting one.
IN 1940, PRICE SENIOR MARRIED Jean Houston Baldwin, a descendant of Sam Houston and of the oil-blessed Liberty County Part-lows. Price Senior and Jean did very well for themselves, not only in politics, but in matrimony. Their marriage was not touched by divorce, separation, or scandal. In 1966, Price Junior went to the altar. He married Dianne Wommack, the granddaughter of Texas Governor Thomas M. Campbell. Eight years later, in the aftermath of the Con Con cave-in, Dianne filed for divorce. By the time he turned 35, Price Junior was out of politics and out of marriage, with nowhere certain to go.
By May 1976 Price Daniel Jr. knew that if he was going to run for office again he needed to remarry as soon as possible. If Vickie Moore needed a lawyer, Price Junior needed a wife.
Price knew very well what electoral life demands. The office seeker, like a magician, must present his audience with an illu-sion of extraordinary power and control. He must convince us that he is what we wish we were. In May 1976 there was a flaw in Price’s illusion, a flaw in his public image. He was no longer a family man.
In Austin, Price Junior could have found a passel of women to; woo. But, wounded in his first marriage, he was wary of women who were worldly-wise. Friends agreed that on his second time around Price should pick a bride who would stand by her man, be he a Texas leader or an obscure lawyer. Price was tired of haughty, highborn women. He was looking for a woman to ac-cept him for what he was in Liberty, and, if need be, for what he might become in Austin.
He began courting Vickie with the intensity and eye for detail that characterized all his projects. He sent roses to her at work, the gift cards signed “Your Pal.” He mailed cards and memento books to her house and sometimes sat with her in a Dairy Queen booth, discussing personal tastes, life, and the future.
On June 8, his 35th birthday, Price stopped by the Dairy Queen to visit Vickie again.
“It’s my birthday,” he told her, after a few minutes of conversation.
“So why don’t you go find somebody and have a good time?” she teased.
“Well, 1 was kind of hoping to go somewhere with you.”
“I’ve got to work,” she told him.
“What would really make my birthday is if you would come out to supper with me,” he said, unruffled.
“Don’t you think you’re on the wrong side of the tracks?” Vickie asked him. She wasn’t teasing. She was hostile.
Price was stunned, and hurt. He asked her what she meant. Vickie told him plainly that men of his class usually associated with women of hers only when they had sexual adventures in mind.
Price responded with a short little speech containing the essence of the liberal democratic dream. If Vickie did not believe she was inferior, he said, she did not have to remain in a humble station-she could do anything she wanted.
“Oh, yeah? Could I be president?” Her tone was sporting, not defiant.
“Yes, Vickie, I think if you set your mind to it, you probably could,” Price replied.
Although Vickie did not go out with Price that evening, again ex-plaining that she had to work, in a lighthearted way the birthday conversation furthered the courtship by bringing into the open a question that dogged their relationship: the question of class prejudice. Like everyone else in Liberty County, Vickie had heard the dark legends about the wealthy Daniel family, and she, too (if only in a small way), felt the resentments that surface when the Daniels are mentioned among poorer folk. The word was that the Daniels had walked with kingmakers too long, had lost the common touch. The Daniel family is not the only unappreciated clan in Liberty-one hears the Mecoms, Picketts, and the Partlows mentioned in a similar vein – but it is perhaps the most prominent subject of a pervasive East Texas tendency.
IN MANY WAYS, RURAL EAST TEXAS HAS A MENTALITY OF ITS own. The optimism and goodwill of West Texas, the Panhandle, and the cities are absent in the piney backwoods. Hardship and history have made many East Texans sallow, fatalistic, and bitter. In the state’s more thriving areas, people of good fortune are not resented because wealth and power are presumed to be available just around the corner, for anybody with the gumption to get them. It isn’t so in East Texas. Though the region is beginning to flourish again – abandoned oil fields are being retapped and city dwellers are flowing in – East Texas has not been prosperous since the cotton and petroleum heydays of the Teens and Twenties. A few families got rich in those days. Others stayed on to remember old wrongs and hard luck.
Liberty County is typical of East Texas. In 1899, most of its residents were tenants or land-poor yeomen: struggling rice planters, cattle tenders, or timber cutters. A year later, when oil was discovered less than 50 miles away at Spindletop, grandiose rumors of wealth buffeted the region like a hurricane. When the turbulence and expectations subsided, a few families were millionaires, but a great many more were still laboring by hand and horse. Hard work and thrift, many of the county’s inhabitants came to believe, yielded little more than poverty. Wealth, these skeptics thought, came unearned and almost by chance. Since nobody had acquired land with an eye to royalties, the losers in the oil lottery never forgot that the region’s elite owed their rise to blind luck. And when the county’s backwater economy failed to produce new opportunities for wealth, local misgivings deepened.
In West Texas, the Panhandle, and the big cities a man may be called a so-and-so, but that is a judgment made on his merits and in the present tense. Those areas are either too new or too mobile to support the weeds of historic resentment. But in rural East Texas, when people dislike you, it may be-and this is the case with the Daniels – because somebody disliked your father, or your grandmother, or your cousins two generations removed. Hoary events and harsh words do not ricochet in West and Panhandle Texas where the land is barren, new, and flat, and not in the cities, where nobody has time to listen. But rural East Texas is a virtual echo chamber.
A generation ago, it was said that M.P. Daniel, Price Junior’s grandfather, made himself rich by hoodwinking poor Baptists in land-grab maneuvers. Today the gossip is that Price Senior cheated black folks out of their holdings by, among other things, arranging food stamp certification in exchange for acreage. Though none of these rumors has been documented, the oral legend makes the Daniels unpopular. As one oilfield worker said, “In Liberty County, if you’re not a Partlow, a Pickett, or a Daniel, you’ve got no rights. Even your vote won’t count. Those people steal elections here; they name the judges and everything.”
Even Vickie Moore’s suitor, who had only recently come to Liberty, was affected by the Daniel mystique. When he was apprised that Price Junior was also courting her, he simply backed out. “I know about that man and I know how he operates,” he told Vickie. “If Price wants something, he’ll get it. He wants you, and there’s no sense in somebody like me trying to compete.”
Vickie, of course, had grown up hearing rumors about the Daniels, just as Price grew up on rumors about poor whites. But Vickie was willing to believe that Price Junior was not responsible for any of the supposedly ill-gotten gains of his father or grandfather; for his part, Price Junior didn’t embrace the belief that poor folk are dull, sleazy, and undeserving.
Vickie provided plenty of evidence from which a thoughtful man could conclude that she did not lack native ability, even if she was a high school dropout. She could not discourse on current events, as Price and his friends did, but she knew the lives of movie stars as if they were her intimates; she had read about them. She had never been formally schooled in literature, psychology, or history, but from her somewhat haphazard and diverse reading she had learned words she pronounced hesitantly – words like candidacy-or that she spelled out because she could not pronounce them at all-words like eunuch. It was in such a relatively sophisticated realm that the relationship between Price and Vickie would rise and fall. Sophisticated words and high-flown concepts were the domain in which Price Junior thrived.
BY THE SUMMER OF 1976, PRICE HAD FALLEN IN LOVE WITH Vickie. Or, since what constitutes love is a controversial issue, we can say he had developed a fascination with her. Talks at the Dairy Queen and a few ventures out to supper had convinced him that she was not an ordinary Dairy Queen maid. Vickie had a natural joie de vivre, a haunting, almost instinctual knowledge of people at large. Price did not mix well socially; extended small talk came hard for him. Vickie would speak to everybody about almost anything for as long as anyone cared to listen, and most people seemed to like talking to her. When Price was with her, even when her two children were in tow, it was easier for Price to relax, to reach out to others. When they visited townspeople, Vickie broke the ice and kept up lighthearted, witty chatter. She was not up to the conversation of Price’s social circle, but Price believed that she had the stuff to rise above her background. He believed she would make a good campaign partner.
In July, Price took his son, Tom, on a Caribbean cruise he had planned for months. Vickie sent a basket of fruit to Price and Tom at their boarding station in Miami, and from every port Price sent her a card or note. Her co-workers at the Dairy Queen told Vickie that Price had his heart set on her, but she wasn’t persuaded, even by the deluge of Caribbean mail. After all, a man wanting to conquer a woman can make gestures – sending flowers, cards, and gifts – without being at all sincere; a man can do those things without revealing his soul. Vickie was waiting for better evidence that Price’s affections were real. She was also waiting to see if her own feelings would gain the depth and power of that emotion she regarded as love.
When Price returned from the cruise, he presented Vickie with a heart-shaped pendant and a matching set of earrings. Vickie wore the gift, but she was skeptical. The heart jewelry, she thought, looked like dime store merchandise. Vickie wondered whether Price was tightfisted but sincere – or just tightfisted.
She wasn’t convinced that Price really cared for her until the day he passed her a vending machine bubble as he paid her for a Dairy Queen purchase. The bubble, one of those plastic balls used to dispense trinkets to children, was another cheap gift, or a gag gift, Vickie thought. Rather than show her embarrassment, she placed it in her purse and did not look at it until later in the day when she got home from work. Its top half was green, the bottom half clear plastic, and it contained a note written on orange paper. Vickie opened the bubble and read the note: “You’re beautiful.”
The bubble was not meant for display, like roses or jewelry. And unlike a card it was not a traditional, safe expression. It was a simple, human demonstration of love, childlike in its nature. Vickie believed that it confirmed what her intuition had already told her about Price: Behind the lawyer-politician was a blue-jeaned little boy. The bubble gift appealed to her maternal instinct. Vickie had had a catch-as-catch-can rearing and she wanted more than anything to be a mother and a wife. Price seemed to offer both opportunities in himself.
Late that summer, Price again invited Vickie to his house for supper. He did his best to put on a traditional romantic display. He failed in a way Vickie found laughable but appealing. Price served barbecue from a catering house, spinach souffle from a deep-freeze counter, and macaroni with cheese, a packaged dish any fool could concoct. He set the table with candlelight, but that was because he had no lamps in the room. They had been forfeited in his divorce, and Price hadn’t gotten around to replacing them, though it had been more than a year. Vickie thought his dinnerware comic, too. Price served her on enamelware, the type of metal dishes in style during the late Sixties when Price was married to voguish Dianne. Vickie thought they were camping plates.
During the supper, and at other times, Price seemed to Vickie to be the sort of man she could admire, on one hand, and out-charm on the other. With Price she felt comfortable and safe, as she would with a father, but respected and awesome, as with a son. The trouble was, Price had an analogous impression of her. Vickie was a woman who needed him, who would look to him for guidance. With her he could feel safe in his position as husband, father, and leader. And with her he could step back from his formal, paternal, lawyer-politician role. He could be a child again.
Before long, Price and Vickie began to consider marriage. They were ready and they weren’t, as divorced people often are. As late as October both were talking about reconciling with their former mates; in early October Vickie went so far as to apply for a license to remarry Larry Moore. That patching-up ran aground on old troubles, and by late October Vickie Moore promised Price Junior her love.
On Halloween she took her first plane ride. She and Price flew to New Orleans, where Price’s sister lived with her husband, a minister. On the morning of November 1, in the Christian Church chapel on St. Charles Avenue, the marriage vows were read. Vickie wore a white suit, and Price’s sister gave her away.
VICKIE LORETHA CARROLL WAS BORN BE- tween two brothers, tenth in a family of 11 children. Her father was a short, tattooed, quiet laboring man, her mother a dark-skinned, attractive mover and shaker. The two divorced early in Vickie’s childhood. Vickie’s mother worked, and moved, and worked, and moved to restaurant and retail sales jobs in a half dozen towns in the Baytown area-preaching a hard doctrine of hope to her brood, setting a stern example, placing expectations high. The chaos and strain of home life sent Vickie packing at age 12 to live with an older brother, Franklin. When Franklin’s health began to fail, Vickie returned to her mother, who had remarried. In the eighth grade Vickie dropped out of school, later entering a church-affiliated children’s home in Waxahachie.
There, for the first time in her life, Vickie’s familial hunger was satisfied, and her native skills were rewarded. There was no cottage father in the house where she lived, and the cottage mother had her hands full, but here Vickie, as the eldest child on hand, helped in cooking and dressing the younger girls and lent a hand at discipline. In the children’s home she caught a glimpse of settled domestic life- and saw a promise for her own future. She saw that she had the strength, authority, and intuition to be an exceptional mother. Around children, Vickie behaved like a cat with nursing kittens.
As a child, Price lived in a mansion where the senator or governor – Dad to him – was often absent attending to some far-off political engagement, the sort of commitment a child does not understand. Price made his first campaign speech at the age of 11, when his father was running for office, and he learned early that the male heirs of statesmen behave more circumspectly than other boys. Price grew up virtually under glass. He never publicly complained about his upbringing, but he was determined not to repeat it. He wanted to raise a family outside the glare of the spotlight.
Both Price and Vickie were happy when their first child, Franklin Baldwin Daniel, was born in late July 1977. Price had always doted on Tom, his son from his first marriage. He kept a room in his Liberty ranch house-the house that became his and Vickie’s home-just for Tom, with toys only for Tom’s play on Tom’s visits. Price talked frequently to the boy by telephone, and would not begin celebrating Christmas with Vickie and her two children, Kimberly and Jonathon, until Tom was at his side. Now Price would begin showing equal ardor for Franklin.
Though Price was attentive to his own children, it was Vickie’s belief that he wanted to be no more than a stepfather to her previous offspring. Franklin gave Price and Vickie a future, but Vickie felt that Price had not squared with her past. The couple quarreled over many things, even when the marriage was showroom new, but as the months stretched out, they quarreled especially over the children from their previous marriages.
They quarreled over career issues, too. In May 1977, on a talk show aired by Liberty’s radio station, Price Junior declared his intention to enter the 1978 Democratic primary as a candidate for Texas attorney general. On September 7, 1977, he formally christened his candidacy with a banquet at the Elks Lodge hall in Liberty. Vickie had hoped to return to New Orleans with Price to celebrate their first wedding anniversary, but as his campaign got moving she realized that she would be at home, most likely alone with the kids, when November 1 rolled around.
Vickie wasn’t prepared to share Price with politicians and voters. Before marrying him she had never voted. Like many working people in East Texas, she viewed politics as a vast patronage scheme, a game that made sense to play if there was something in it for you personally, but one that was foolish to play if there wasn’t. Though her marriage to Price gave her a stake in politics, Vickie didn’t think the prize was worth the sacrifice to marriage and family. Sure, she wanted to be accepted in the world of legislators and lawyers and kingmakers, but she didn’t want to live as they did; she found some of them to be decent as individuals, but most reminded her of puppets. Politicians and their women were the sort of people who, if they dropped a fork from a supper table, would not let out an exclamation of surprise, humor, or disgust. Instead they would act as if nothing had happened, or as if they weren’t startled at all.
Vickie decided to startle Price and the politicians into heeding her. Late in October, she walked into the courthouse office of County Judge Harlan Friend. The judge, a local seasoned foe of the Daniels, agreed to represent her if she wanted a divorce. A petition was filed, and someone called the wire services. Price, his family, and his managers, learning of the action from newspapers, ran to the telephone to change Vickie’s mind. Price came home, promised to make amends in the marriage, and, acting as her attorney, drew up a motion to withdraw her divorce suit. Within 48 hours the petition for divorce was void. But no one forgot easily. In the midst of a political campaign, filing for divorce is almost like committing sabotage.
By spring, Price’s campaign was encountering other troubles. Polls showed him running neck and neck with opponent Mark White, who had begun the race as an underdog. Friends and allies urged Price to blanket the state with television commercials in the closing weeks of the primary campaign; but advertising costs money, and Price was already some $80,000 in debt. From the time he undertook a newspaper route in his boyhood to the day he considered the expensive television campaign, Price was a thoroughly parsimonious, bottom-dollar man. He didn’t want to go into debt or obligate himself to those lobbies that might reach into their war chests to win a new friend in office.
So Price decided not to splurge on the television ads. He thought he might win the election anyway. Even his most skeptical friends conceded that he had an advantage that might not be apparent until election day: Overwhelmed by a plethora of new names and new candidates, many voters, including some disposed to favor White, would be inclined to rely on their feeling of familiarity. Price had name identification. No matter how much they confused him with his father, and no matter how often they put an “s” at the end of the surname, the voters were likely to feel at home with the name Price Daniel. Price had been a Junior since the day he was born and had paid for the privilege in a thousand restrictive ways. Now it was time for the name to pay him back for the hours of childhood missed, for the unfair expectations foisted on him by those who knew his dad.
On primary day, Mark White beat Price Daniel Jr. 850,979 to 778,889. Friends who spoke to Price in the following days say that he didn’t show a trace of disillusionment. A master of poise if not of politics, Price was determined to carry on – that above all. Like preachers, politicians are not necessarily accepted as prophets in their hometowns, but Liberty County gave Price a margin of 63 per cent, and he decided to settle in.
Had Vickie been an ordinary Dairy Queen maid, and had Price been an ordinary Liberty lawyer, it might have worked. Liberty is a town full of retired minor politicians, and they are not expected to lead exemplary lives. Retired politicians are let off the pedestal, allowed to put their illusionists’ equipment away. But the problems that had surfaced in Price and Vickie’s marriage did not wither when the election posters came down.
Vickie and Price continued to quarrel over the children, and there was a new wrinkle: Vickie turned up pregnant again. (She had never liked oral medications of any kind, and because she disliked taking birth control pills, her first husband, Larry Moore, had a vasectomy.) For more than a week after she told Price she was pregnant, he and Vickie were at odds. The quarrel ended when Vickie went to Houston for an abortion she did not want.
Their troubles were complicated further by an old difference about drinking. Price, like most Texas lawyers, was not a foe of whiskey, but he was usually a moderate drinker. Because he was also a politician, he was discreet. He was not a car-driving drunk, or a party-going drunk; Price did his drinking at home. But in the months following the campaign loss, he drank more often and more extensively. Vickie, a teetotaler, grew alarmed.
That summer, neither business nor leisure went as smoothly as Price had planned. Associates in his law firm began to drift away, and before long even Price’s performance at a favorite hobby was flawed by the carelessness of an assistant-Vickie.
Price was an amateur magician. As a teenager he had bought and practiced the magic tricks sold in novelty shops. As an adult he attended conventions where professional charlatans compared tricks, and while married to Vickie he had rebuilt and expanded his own repertoire. In August 1977, during a family reunion, Price Junior had put on his first magic show for the children of the Daniel clan.
During the summer of 1978, Price planned his second family magic show. Vickie contributed a new trick to Price’s bag, one in which the magician holds out an inflated balloon, then pierces it with a needle. According to the instructions that Vickie read, if the magician secretly dips his needle in oil, the special balloon will not burst. But Vickie neglected to tell Price about the oil.
The trick was Price’s last that day, and when he pierced the balloon, it burst. The audience of children laughed: The hand of the master had slipped. Price glared over at Vickie. She chuckled, and whispered to him the forgotten instruction about the oil. He repeated his trick, using a new balloon, and this time it did not pop. But, as when Vickie filed for divorce, the illusion was gone.
All the magic had not gone from his life, however. Price still had the touch in court, and he proved it in November with the case of Ted M. Thrasher. Thrasher was a young college graduate, a resident of Con-roe, who traveled around East Texas oil counties as a representative for a drilling supply firm. In December 1976, he went into a convenience store in Cleveland and picked a can of Dr Pepper from a cooler shelf. A sign above the cooler advertised the drink for 29 cents a can, but the clerk insisted on charging Thrasher the regular price, 35 cents. Thrasher paid the higher price, but just to keep the store honest, he tore down the notice advertising the sale. The clerk called the police, and Thrasher was arrested for a misdemeanor: destruction of private property. Price sued the convenience store on Thrasher’s behalf. On a retainer of $150, Price researched the incident, took depositions, and filed a suit under the state’s Deceptive Trade Practices Act. He asked that Thrasher be awarded six cents in actual damages and $2000 in compensation for the shame of arrest.
A jury was convened, arguments were heard, and the jury came back with a verdict awarding Thrasher $6700.16 in damages-including some $2000 for attorneys’ fees. Price had turned a six-cent loss into a $6000 award. The opposing attorney called it luck. Price Junior’s admirers called it magic.
In May 1979, Price and Vickie took a cruise, their first together, because they both wanted to avoid the divorce they had come to see as inevitable. Although both of them enjoyed the tour-it was Vickie’s first venture out of the U.S.-neither Curacao, nor Venezuela, nor Haiti had sufficient charm to dissuade Vickie.
She did shelve her divorce plans, however, almost as soon as she and Price returned. Vickie once again had the symptoms a woman knows. In Liberty, her physician confirmed that she was pregnant. Price would not want her child, she told the doctor, and she did not want another abortion. Vickie decided that she would make a final effort to save the dreams she and Price had shared during their Dairy Queen courtship days.
By then the marriage had degenerated. Contempt, though not often physically manifested, was open enough to be witnessed by the children. Late that summer, before August, when Vickie’s son Jona-thon was sent to live with Larry Moore, Price and Vickie got into what courtroom intimates of the marriage refer to as “the TV fight.” Price was a Dallas Cowboys fan, and when games were aired he liked to keep two or more of the family’s four television sets tuned in. The practice saved him from missing a minute of play, even if the telephone rang or a child needed attention. According to depositions from Kimberly and Jonathon, a dispute developed one night over a color television located in the children’s playroom. Price wanted it tuned to the football game, but Vickie had a different preference. Price told Vickie and the children to watch the black-and-white television in Kimberly’s room. Husband and wife began dueling with the channel selector in the playroom, then spread their selector-switching contest to sets in other rooms of the house. By the time the brouhaha was over, Price had Vickie down on the bed in the master bedroom and Kimberly was pounding on his back, instinctively defending her mother. No one was bloodied or slammed unconscious, but the fight gave rise to another of Price and Vickie’s separations. This time Vickie did not go to visit her mother or a sister. Instead, she went to the Del Rey Motor Inn on Highway 90 in Liberty. That is probably where both parties drew up the peace pacts that were later turned over to a Liberty district court after Price’s death.
The documents draw a picture of a marriage with common but ominous troubles. Price initiated the negotiations with terse, lawyerlike instructions: “List 10 things that you would want me to do differently, improve on, or change if we were ever to go back together. Also list 10 things that you would do differently, improve, or change. Be specific. No general statements permitted.”
In a scratchy scrawl with frequent misspellings, Vickie listed 17 points on which she wanted amends from Price, 11 of which she promised to improve herself. Her appeals to Price included “Listen to me when I’m talking to you”; “Come home to relax, not work”; Clean up after yourself; “Cut down on your drinking for your own sake”; and “We should go to church regularly together.” She also made complaints of an emotional tenor, such as “I don’t like fakes. I think you should express your own true feelings… to your family and friends.” Another item recalled the couple’s days of courtship and the class distinction that had once separated them: “I think you should eat at the table and not have me serve you in the playroom. I’m not a waitress anymore, I’m your wife.”
Vickie’s list of promises was less extensive. Goals such as “Learn to cook to your specifications” were written in stingy, short sentences. On other points she was sarcastic. “I shouldn’t be jealouse”-the spelling is hers – “even though you go sit at another womans table or talk all evening about how much you like a person of the fern. gender … I should never watch t.v.,” she continued, “unless you like the show and are watching it too.”
Price’s confession and list of demands each contained 12 items. Both lists reflect a mature, thrifty, decorous, and possibly stale man, a man who was perhaps more suited to be a father than a lover. His first and third demands are similar: “Always have a pleasant greeting when I come home from work (even if it has to be faked). .. .Always have a pleasant greeting in the morning (even if it has to be faked).” He adds to both demands a word of advice: “If you try to do these things and don’t particularly like doing them, you will do them anyway out of habit – a good habit, not just with me, but with everyone.” The advice is that of a man raised in politics.
He made a point of denying affairs with other women, and insisted that Vickie stop being jealous. “I am not running around, flirting, etc.,” he wrote. “I am working my tail off.”
Other notes on the list asked Vickie to plan weekend activities with him. He wanted to clean, do shopping, and work in the yard with Vickie. He was specific about meals: “I would like a good, hot meal Saturday noon and a hamburger with 2 slices of cheese Sat. night – or visa versa.” He reproved her for shopping at convenience stores, asserting that “they charge 20% to 40% more on everything,” and was emphatic on the subject of sweets for the children. “Quit completely, stop absolutely forever and ever stopping at Sonics and Dairy Queens, etc., for Cokes and ice cream. Not only a waste of money, but a bad habit.”
Price’s confession of errors, although also comprising a dozen points, occupied half as much space as his set of demands: three legal-length pages versus six. He promised “to try to provide Vickie with more money or charge accounts,” and added, “We need a deep freeze and a new lawnmower.” The subject of credit and money was an especially touchy one in the household, for Price had never made Vickie his financial equal. She operated the household on money he doled out to her, usually $300 a month, an amount she found insufficient. Price had credit cards -Saks Fifth Avenue, MasterCard, VISA, Frost Brothers, American Express. The only credit card he gave Vickie was for Gulf gasoline.
Price’s confession made note of his smoking habit-he consumed between two and three packs of cigarettes a day, although he never smoked in public-and in the note he promised to quit smoking in bed. The text indicates that he was not up to Vickie’s standards for bedroom duty. His ninth promise to her is “More sex,” and the twelfth, “Even more sex. Remember her special cravings, wild desires, and constant needs.”
The 1979 lists, though replete with promises, read like documents penned by tired authors, and Vickie, in a postscript to her pact with Price, predicted that the reconciliation wouldn’t work. “To be really honest,” she wrote, “I’ll have to tell you that I can’t change. Miracles just don’t happen like this. We are both too proud to give in.” Price and Vickie did reconcile, however. Hope for the child she carried brought them together once again. In their Del Rey pacts, both of them referred to the expected child, though in different contexts. “Price, I want this child, please understand,” wrote Vickie, “it’s part of you, probably the only part you can give.” Price in his list of promised amends, noted his tendency to hyperactivity, and expressed his belief that the expected child would “drain” some of his abundant energy away.
The Del Rey reconciliation, which came at the end of 1979, was only a prelude to a year of renewed matrimonial war, a year in which Price would seek his escape in business affairs and Vickie would once again seek relief in a divorce petition. For both Price and Vickie, 1980 was a year in which lines were drawn for what would be, early in 1981, their final encounter.
MORE THAN ANYWHERE ELSE HE HAD lived, Price had been able to be a boy in Liberty. There, the family had resided in humble homes, and if the family was renowned or despised, its life was not set in a rarefied context: People were used to having the Daniels around, and they knew that the Daniels were fallible. In Washington, D.C. and Austin, the Daniels had been the representatives of a far-off, common-folk constituency. In Liberty they were expected to be common, too. If, after his rebuff in the May primaries, Price wanted to rebuild his native character, Liberty was the place to begin.
He began in November 1979 by moving his offices from a downtown building to a double-width trailer on Highway 146. The walls of his former office had been heavy with plaques and photos and certificates of political accomplishments. Price put those totems in a box, and in the new office setting exhibited only two such items, a photo of Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter and one of Lyndon Johnson. Even these were not hung proudly; they were not hung at all. Price left the pictures standing on the floor, leaning against the wall of his carpeted office, even after a friend noticed and joked, “Your admiration for the Democrats has fallen that low, eh?” Price rarely mentioned politics in the new office. When summer came, at the urging of his sister, Jean Murph of Richardson, he signed a petition endorsing the candidacy of maverick Republican John Anderson.
Before his defeat in the 1978 primary, Price had dealt in real estate with several partners, but land speculation was a second-line affair; his legal work came first. At the new office, Price hung his Liberty Land Company sign above the marker for his law firm and directed his energies accordingly. Before 1980 was over he was a director of a dozen corporations, most of them dedicated to real estate or trailer court development. Liberty County was growing again-oil and proximity to Houston had brought reanimation-and the way Price saw it, there was a fortune to be made in the housing market. Price wanted to be the trailer court and subde-velopment king of Liberty County.
His drift away from being a lawyer-politician was evident in other ways, too. He forsook his three-piece business suits for glorified jeans and Western shirts. His turn towards informality was obvious and announced; he complained to his office staff each time he had to strap on a suit for a day in court. In February, partly because his new work demanded it, Price bought himself a Ford pickup. Vickie encouraged him. She favored his turn back to his Liberty roots, and had told him half jokingly that to be a man in Liberty one must drive a truck.
Sometimes Price would come to work in the morning, prop his demi-boots on his desk top, turn on the office’s music system, and call out to his secretaries, “Say, I don’t feel like working today. Let’s take it easy.” Then for a few minutes he would lean back in his chair like any Liberty executive, smoke a cigarette, take in the music, and muse. His spasms of relaxation were rare and brief, but Price’s employees had never seen anything like it from him before.
Vickie would have been pleased had Price taken this turn years earlier, before the marriage developed its conflicts, but Price had not listened to her then. Price may have hoped he could live as naturally as Vickie did. On the other hand, the change came hard for Price, and inspired in him a great deal of sometimes explosive resentment.
One evening Vickie was playing a somewhat dated country-and-western 45 rpm by Crystal Gayle, a song called “Ready for the Times to Get Better.” The couple’s record player, either by accident or Vickie’s design, was set to repeat the recording it had last played. Crystal’s voice sang over and over again:
“I’ve got to tell you, I’ve been wracking my brain, Hoping to find a way out. I’ve had enough of this continual rain, Changes are coming, no doubt. It’s been a long, hard time, With no peace of mind, And I’m ready for the times to get better.”
Price was piqued. He went to the turntable, picked up the 45, smashed it, and threw the pieces into a waste can. An argument ensued that brought to light only one point: Vickie wanted Price to hear those lyrics and Price didn’t want to hear them.
During 1980, Price’s associates and secretaries knew that he was trying to mark off a new career and life for himself, and though he did not talk about his troubles, they saw the strain reflected in his musical choices. Once while the office music system was playing, Price cited an old Judy Collins record as his favorite song. Those who worked with him considered Stephen Sondheim’s doleful lyrics significant:
“Isn’t it rich, isn’t it queer,
Losing my timing, this late in my career,
But where are the clowns, there ought to be clowns.
Well, maybe next year.”
Another stanza seemed to speak to his personal troubles:
“Just when I start opening doors, Finally knowing the one I wanted was yours,
Making my entrance again, with my usual flair,
Sure of my lines, but no one is there.”
However sentimental Price might have become, and however much he may have warmed toward business associates, he did not cease being that firm taskmaster they had always known. He did not give up the role, either at home or at the office. As always, Price kept a tight rein on financial affairs. His office bill-paying, for example, was a laborious, exacting affair. Checks and their envelopes were made out by a secretary, Betty White, then passed to Price, who proofread them. Then he signed the checks and passed them to a typist, Pam Locke, for a third perusal before mailing. On days when she wasn’t tied up in real estate transactions, Price insisted that yet a fourth person, Liberty Land Company agent Mary Cain, follow Pam Locke in the check-reading ritual.
At home, money was expended in a similar way, as notes from Price and Vickie bear witness. At one point Vickie requested that Price allow her to buy several items, the sort most housewives purchase on their own authority: plastic cotton covering for twin beds, sheets and cotton pads for a baby bed, a bathroom rug. Price authorized charging the twin bed covering to his Sears account, but denied Vickie permission to make the other purchases.
Wrapped up in his work as he had always been, Price had never developed a regular lunch schedule in his former office. Because he wanted someone on hand to answer telephones and get typing work done, he often had employees and junior partners skip lunch until a project at hand was completed. But in the trailer office, Price and the staff had lunch together regularly. Sometimes he took his associates to Liberty and Dayton restaurants; when he did, the firm picked up the tab. More often, one of the secretaries prepared a light meal in the trailer’s kitchen. By midyear, Price and his secretaries were shopping for groceries together, and Price, as he walked the aisles, would pick up items for Vickie’s pantry at home. Price shelved the office items at the trailer, turning the labels on each can and box outward, front and center like toy soldiers in a museum case. After the office stock was shelved, he would carry a bag of household groceries home to his wife, who did her shopping in the company of her children.
As often as not, Vickie’s shopping was done with detailed orders in hand from Price. One of his notes to her instructed Vickie to “go to the Minimax and get the following specials.” Listed were “5 paper towels Yellow Decorator.. .$2.00; 1 bag apples and get another bag free, 1 lunch meat and get another free; 3 cans First Pick corn. . .$1.00; 3 TV Biscuits 10-ct. cans. . .$.49,” and so on.
On February 2, 1980, while Price’s venture into self-discovery was still on new legs, his second son by Vickie was born. Price, in casual talk, had referred to the fetus as George. After delivering the boy, Vickie, in an attempt to win loyalty, decided that she would name the child Marion Price Daniel IV. Price opposed the idea. A father who names a son after himself dares the children to measure up to the father’s accomplishments, and Price, who was casting off a family legacy, did not want to do so with his newborn. But it was Vickie, not Price, who was asked to supply the Houston obstetrics personnel workers with birth certificate information.
Price never really acknowledged that the boy was his namesake. He called the child Bob, apparently after a black youth, Robert Broussard, who did trailer court and yard work for Price, and who lived with the family from about November 1979 until May 1980, the month of Vickie’s hysterectomy. The operation, which Vickie sought for medical reasons, was perhaps the turning point in their marriage.
IF THE ROLE OF MOTHER TO A DYNASTY was ever envisioned for Vickie-by her, by Price, or by his parents-the hysterectomy put a limit on it. Perhaps more importantly, it widened the chasm that separated Price and Vickie: They could never again face each other in bed as progenitors, only as lovers. If Price was reluctant to show affection for Vickie, and if he cared for her more as a mother of children than as a woman, the hysterectomy heightened that conflict.
In the weeks after the operation, he and Vickie moved to separate bedrooms. Their in-house estrangement, which would last until the end of their marriage, also took a legal form. Late in May, as Vickie prepared for her operation, Price drew up a new will. It named not Vickie, but his sister, Jean Daniel Murph, to be executor of his estate.
As relations in his house grew colder, Price turned with more warmth to his office staff, particularly to one of his three full-time female employees, Betty White, a pretty blue-eyed divorcee with a fashion model’s figure.
Early in 1980, because Price had sold the house Betty was living in, Betty was facing eviction, with nowhere for herself and her two children to go. She appealed to Price and Vickie for help, and Price hit upon a solution: Betty should buy a trailer house, paying it off over a period of five years. Price, a law associate, Betty, and two other secretaries looked over potential trailer homes and selected a model with Betty’s consent. Price co-signed Betty’s mortgage note. The trailer was moved to Twin Oaks Park, a mobile home community behind the double-wide office that Price owned in partnership with trailer house dealer Pat Chapman.
Betty’s move to the trailer court, on Price’s mortgage, provoked gossip and scandal in Liberty. But Price’s relationship with Betty, as with all his employees, was only paternal. Price was not the kind of man to view sexual activity as a hobby, and Betty, for her part, was not at all attracted to Price. Betty was one of those women who view white-collar men as sissi-fied. She was drawn to rugged, blue-collar types, men like her first husband, an electrician.
Betty was Price’s favorite secretary, not because she was lovely, not because she was skilled, but because she was feisty. As a divorced woman and the mother of two girls, she had learned that “a woman has got to take up for herself.” She was not cowed by Price’s precision and his confident style. She complained about salary and working conditions to him, and she – and she alone in the office-kept Price on the defensive.
As the year wore on, Vickie became jealous of the office staff. Her jealousy was not sexual; it didn’t have to be. She knew Price well enough to know he was not a womanizer, but as a wife and mother she resented the time Price spent with associates rather than with her and the kids. That feeling was heightened by the birthday incidents.
Betty had complained about her gas-guzzling, rattletrap car. The garage bills had become more than her budget would bear, so she asked Price for a raise of $400 a month. Price, in typically calculating style, proposed that he give Betty a $100 raise, cosign for the car, and delay the first installment payment until Betty’s 1980 tax refund came in. On Wednesday, December 3, Price, his law associate Mark More-field, and two office secretaries helped Betty pick out a new Ford Granada. The next day Price made banking arrangements for the purchase, and the vehicle was delivered.
Betty’s birthday, and the new car she had to mark it, were celebrated on December 5 at a seafood restaurant in nearby Dayton, Texas. Price took the office staff and picked up the tab. At his invitation Vickie showed up, but her mood was cool, not festive. Her own birthday had been less celebratory.
On Vickie’s birthday, September 12, she had been invited to a luncheon held by a group of Liberty women. The women, who gather each Wednesday in Yvonne’s, a Liberty buffet house, assembled that afternoon to salute Vickie and another townswoman. While they were celebrating, Price, Mark Morefield, and the three office secretaries walked in. They did not join Vickie and her friends. Price, with his usual aplomb, greeted Vickie and those at her table, but only in passing. His office staff did not acknowledge her at all. Vickie turned silent and aloof, as she often did when displeased or troubled. In her mind the birthday incidents were more proof that Price cared more for those at his office than for his wife and children.
Price gave his co-workers the impression that he knew his marriage was beyond saving, and that he was waiting for Vickie to file for divorce. He was waiting, one of his close observers believed, because in Liberty County, gentlemen do not divorce their wives. Men, in rural mythology, are expected to be capable of handling any problems that come their way, including domestic ones. Women, the weaker sex, are expected to give up first, to surrender to fatalism, to go to court. Price, his associates believed, was waiting for Vickie to file, maybe next year. The resolve he had known at 35 had turned to cool disappointment, his nervous impatience to a silent fatalism. Price was 39. He was also a changed man.
By Thanksgiving, Vickie had made up her mind to leave Price. Earlier that month she had worked briefly as a cashier in a Baytown supermarket, either because she wanted to raise money for Christmas gifts-she complained that even at Christmas, Price was tightfisted – or because she wanted to put together a war chest for a divorce. Late in November, she rented a warehouse stall in Baytown where she stored household items for which there was no room at home-items that might help her reestablish her family if she separated from Price. Shortly after Christmas she saw a lawyer, and on December 31 she filed.
Vickie had never been a woman to seek professional advice, but in the spring of 1980, at Price’s request, she had seen a psychiatrist, even though Price refused to reciprocate. To Vickie’s ears, the head-shrinker’s evaluation was vague and slow in coming. There was nothing in his words that Vickie could put her finger on, no one or two or three things she could change to save the marriage. For several years Vickie had looked occasionally for answers in newspaper horoscopes, and more than once she had consulted an astrology manual on Price’s bookshelves. Its advice was clear, straightforward, and frightening. It said that Virgos like her and Geminis like Price make dismal marriage partners.
Vickie and Price did not separate, as their divorce petition said they had. They remained in their ranch-style house on Governor’s Road, carrying on their daily life, talking by night about a settlement. Price, thrifty as ever, offered Vickie $350 a month in support for each of the boys she had borne him. Vickie argued that her children should be treated the same as Tom, Price’s son by Dianne Wommack, who rated $500 a month in child support.
During the negotiations, Price urged Vickie to buy a trailer home, the purchase of which could count into her financial settlement. In mid-January she visited mobile home sales lots in the area and selected a favorite model. The trailer she wanted was a fancy affair with sheer nylon curtains, an elevated bedroom, tinted plastic bathroom windows, and a garden tub. With Mark Moorefield, who had been a mobile home salesman while in law school, Price visited the lots and proposed an alternate choice, a more staid and sturdily built trailer. Moorefield’s opinion was that the more sedate model was the more sensible choice because it was better insulated. He and Price urged Vickie to choose it, saying that the beautified trailer would cost an extra $30 to $50 in monthly utility bills. Their opinion was that the gussied-up model had been designed for sales to single, amorous women.
Price wanted Vickie to station her trailer house at Twin Oaks, the park where Betty White lived-a site in plain view of his double-wide trailer office. Price said he wanted Vickie and the kids nearby to make it easier for him to visit the children. Although Vickie acknowledged that advantage, she suspected that Price wanted her near for another reason as well: to spy on her comings and goings.
Pondering her options, Vickie decided to turn back to one she and Price hadn’t discussed to her satisfaction, that of her buying a house. At her request, Price and Liberty Land Company agent Mary Cain scouted the market. Price gave Vickie a list of several comfortable but not luxurious homes in the area, and went with her for a walk-through inspection of one. Again Vickie was undecided; nor did Price throw open the doors for her exit. Both parties were hesitant, both seemed to want to avoid a divorce agreement. It was as if they weren’t through fighting yet.
Price’s office associates say he did not whine or wince even once while negotiations with Vickie were going on, and they deny that his cultivated facade was hiding anything. On the contrary, they say, divorce maneuvers cheered him up. On January 15 he decided to put an end to the check-writing ritual. From then on, he said, Betty White would write and sign all checks herself. Price declared raises for everyone and in addition offered Mark Moorefield a partnership in the law firm, for free. It was as if he had decided to adopt his co-workers to replace the family he was losing.
On the morning of January 19, his workmates saw a sleepless look on Price’s face and a note in his hand. He showed the note to Betty White. “You raised Betty’s salary so she could afford the new car you helped her get,” Vickie had written. “Why can’t you raise the childrens’ child support for only 3 yrs., so they can have a place to stay?… You felt so sorry for Betty and found a way to get some extra money, why can’t you do the same for your boys? If Betty is so special to you then maybe you had better start letting her do more for you… Let Betty feed you, don’t ask me to ever wait on you again! She is getting paid and I’m not!”
That morning Vickie telephoned Judy Moore, her first husband’s current wife. She and Judy chatted about the divorce and the question of child support; that was still unresolved in Vickie’s discussions with Price. That afternoon Vickie went to pick up their son Franklin from the Powell Pre-School, a private kindergarten in Liberty. There she talked with a friend of hers, Susan Daniel Parker, a cousin to Price Junior. Vickie told Susan that she and Price were still eating on “camp plates,” and that Price wanted to keep the microwave oven he had given her as a Christmas and birthday gift. Vickie’s mood, Susan recalls, was cheerful but apprehensive. About 4:30, Vickie telephoned ex-husband Larry Moore to ask for help in moving out of Price’s house on Thursday. Larry, who was not surprised by the request – Vickie had called on his muscle at other junctures during her marriage to Price-said he’d help, as he always had.
Price did not leave his office until about 6:30 that evening. The day had been a busy one. One of the tasks he had accomplished had been the issuance of a check for $1250 in Vickie’s name. The check was left in his office desk. It was intended to pay for the expense of moving Vickie to an apartment she had found in Baytown, and to underwrite her expenses during the days that would pass between the Thursday separation and the date of divorce. There had been drizzle in Liberty all day; as Price drove home, the sky began growing dark.
Vickie Daniel is the only adult survivor of the next 90 minutes of Price Junior’s life. What happened to her, to him, and to the marriage during that brief time is publicly known only through testimony this spring in Vickie’s child custody trial in Liberty.
After he came home, Price presented Vickie with a set of papers, she said. The papers are believed to have included an accounting of the assets he and she owned as community property. Vickie testified that Price asked her to sign the papers. She refused, saying she wanted her attorney to review them, and she threw the sheaf down onto a dining table, knocking over a drink Price had prepared. Price jumped at her, Vickie told the court, gripping her about the neck as if to choke her. A tussle developed, and Vickie cried out for help. Her 12-year-old daughter, Kimberly, came out of a bedroom to find Price on top of Vickie, who was lying face up on the floor. The child pushed on Price, trying to free her mother. Price pushed back and ordered Kimberly out of the room. He and Vickie got up, and according to Vickie’s testimony she went to the kitchen to make supper for the children. Price went off toward the master bedroom and gathered up some personal items. He may also have gone out to his pickup to load items he planned to take away.
After a few minutes he went to a small hallway several yards from the kitchen, where he lowered a set of pull-down attic stairs. Moments later, according to testimony Vickie gave, Price called to her, asking where his “stuff” was. By “stuff” Vickie understood him to mean a small amount of marijuana that she had discovered a few months earlier and had flushed down a commode. She testified that she told Price she had done away with the stash. For reasons she did not fully explain – to listen and watch, she said-Vickie started up the stairs after Price. According to her testimony, Price, standing halfway up on the staircase, kicked her in the forehead, knocking her off the stairs. Then, the testimony says, Price descended the stairs to pummel Vickie again. She got up and ran to the back door of the house which led out to the carport where Price Junior’s pickup was parked. But Vickie couldn’t open the door, she said, because she was too rattled to deal with its security devices: a dead bolt, a bolt, and a night latch or burglar chain. In frustration she reached into a closet of the hallway, right by the door. Two .22 caliber rifles and a .410 shotgun were kept in the closet.
Vickie (who had learned to hunt while married to Larry Moore) picked up one of the rifles, a clip-loaded, bolt-action Remington. She threw the bolt back, allowing what she remembers as a “gold thing” – a live round-to enter the breech, then pushed the bolt forward, shoving the shell into the firing chamber. Going back to the foot of the folding stair, she told Price, “Please leave. I’m warning you to leave.” For a moment, she said, he did not respond or move, but then he yelled out a threat of his own. Vickie says he warned her he would stick the gun “up my ass.” She fired what she calls a warning shot. The bullet went up the stairwell, missing Price. The court record speaks dramatically of the next event:
Q. Then you shot him again. Right?
A. He came down the stairs real fast and said he was going to kill me. And I backed away. I was scared he was going to hit me again and I closed my eyes and I heard something real funny … and I opened my eyes and he was walking away from me.
The sound that Vickie described as “real funny”-she later told a psychiatrist it sounded like an object hitting water-was another shot from the gun in her hands.
At the foot of the stairs Price apparently dropped a set of keys to his parents’ house – the keys had been in a hiding place in the attic-then turned his back on Vickie and walked away, towards the rear door of the house, the door with the several locks.
Turning away, at a moment like that, was quintessential behavior for Price. He was a man who had always guarded his appearance-a man who had until recently lived for aplomb.
A. 22 shell had entered Price’s abdomen about two inches below the navel. A .22 bullet is a tiny thing, barely big enough to knock the word “WE” off the back of a dollar bill. An ordinary .22 round, like those in Price’s house, is rarely lethal unless it strikes a vital organ. The bullet that entered Price’s abdomen passed upward, splitting as it went. A segment of it severed his aorta.
A person with a ruptured aorta has seven to eight seconds to live; he bleeds to death almost instantly. Price Daniel Jr. made it to the hallway that led out of the house, and as his eyes found the many-locked door he fell dead. At 39, Marion Price Daniel Jr. died in the style he had lived, discreetly and with poise. No last words were heard, no protest came from his throat, no public was on hand to witness his private end. Price Junior was killed by a bad marriage and by ballistic bad luck.
When his sister, Jean Daniel Murph, reviewed his office files after his death, she came upon several Valentines Price had planned to send family members, business friends, and Vickie. The card for Vickie had three panels designed to be read in series, like frames in a comic strip. In the first panel a humorously drawn little man is scratching a message with a stick into the sand of an ocean beach. In the second panel, as he finished the message “I Love You,” waves rise on the surf. In the third and final panel the little man is gone, washed away by a wave, but the words on the beach remain.
THE MURDER TRIAL AGAINST VICKIE Moore Daniel will begin in October; pre-trial hearings are already underway. The prosecution may argue that the door of many locks was open wide until Vickie fastened it shut, or that Price Junior was heading up the stairway, not down it, when the fatal shot was fired. It may argue that she planned the shooting as far back as May. The prosecution will try to convince the jurors that Vickie is guilty, if not of premeditated murder, then of murder of a lesser sort or manslaughter. It can be expected to present a rationale for her conviction on a range of charges.
Vickie has good counsel, perhaps the best defense attorney in Texas, in Richard “Racehorse” Haynes of Houston. Haynes is likely to use the standard defense technique in cases like this, the technique perfected by Percy Foreman, of trying the victim. Haynes will probably suggest, as he did during the custody trial, that Price was a drunken, dope-crazed, wife-beating bisexual and pederast, a man whose smiling public face concealed perverse desires. As he has done in famous trials past, Haynes will also probably offer a series of explanations that may give each juror his or her own different and compelling reason to be convinced that Vickie Moore Daniel is not guilty of murde-at least not beyond a reasonable doubt, as the law requires. Thus, Haynes probably will argue, among other things, that Vickie did not kill Price Junior, or did not intend to do so, or for myriad reasons was justified in doing so if she did.
The jury will at some point, perhaps as late as December, recess for deliberations and reach a verdict. Given the precedent of the custody case, in which the jurors sided with Vickie and her defense, given the traditional leniency of juries in assessing “six-gun divorces,” and given a whole stack of other mitigations too numerous to number, it is probable that Vickie Daniel will not serve a day in jail. If convicted, as a first-time felon she would be eligible for a probated prison term, but in this case I suspect that the most likely verdict to a charge of murder is “not guilty.”
The jury’s verdict will be hailed by some, damned by others. But the jury verdict, whatever it is, will not and cannot be anything but ironic, futile, and late. Spouse-killings are not discouraged by courtroom verdicts. They are not encouraged by them, either. Every marriage is a trial, every day, a trial of all our virtues and all our flaws. And in marriage, there is no jury of 12. There are only two.