What really triggered the fight last March in that South Dallas parking lot when Andrew Pigg, a black man, and white police officer Gary Blair grappled for pistols and fired the shots that left both men dead? A jury apparently concluded that it was a case of a rogue cop tearing into an innocent citizen for no good reason. But an investigator has turned up so-far undisclosed information that suggests the fight actually was the final, fatal episode in a longstanding feud. The two deaths may have been the tragic result of an old-fashioned lovers* triangle.
Lawyers who won acquittal in December for Charles Tillis, accused of murder because he admitted jumping into the fray between Pigg and Blair, convincingly sold the crazed-cop theory. Blair, they argued, was an officer going bad. Rookies trained under him had noted a vicious streak in written reports filed with their superiors. One testified that Blair seemed to delight in turning civil conversation into bitter confrontation.
The Dallas Police Department, already facing a congressional investigation into repeated allegations of brutality and racism, suffered another blow. Commanding officers knew-or should have known- that Blair was a ticking bomb, Tillis’s attorneys contended. Not only did supervisors do nothing to control the officer, they also tried to cover up the rookies’ reports that ultimately proved so damning.
No one cares to second-guess defense attorneys who win acquittal for a munier defendant in a difficult and complex trial. But it was a defense investigator who uncovered tacts indicating a connection between Blair and Pigg that was not revealed at the trial: Pigg and Blair had both dated the same young black woman for at least a year before the shooting. According to investigator Marvin Crenshaw, now a candidate for mayor, witnesses recalled seeing the two men and the woman together and claimed that Blair sometimes used his police cruiser to tail Pigg.
In preparing their defense, Roger Joyner and co-counsels Peter Lesser and James Murphy (who represented Tillis without fee) apparently considered | offering a love-triangle argument. They issued a subpoena for the young woman so she would be on hand to testify if needed. And they attempted to disqualify Judge Ron Chapman, who presided at the Tillis trial, basing the motion on their vendetta scenario. The motion claimed that Ron Chapman knew that Pigg and Blair were “involved in a persona] relationship with a woman known personally to each of the individuals who were killed in this incident” and accused the judge of suppressing that evidence.
As it turned out, though, Crenshaw’s witnesses were not called to testify and the possibility of a personal feud between the two dead men was never raised. The senseless shootings seemed to reaffirm the negative impressions of the Dallas Police Department held by many, especially in the minority community. Outside of the defense team, hardly anyone knew that the killings might be explained another way.
“It would make a great TV movie if we had done it that way,” says Lesser, an unsuccessful candidate for district attorney in last year’s Democratic primary. “It would have had everything-sex, violence, an interracial love triangle. But I think the case we presented got at the real truth of what happened. Blair was a bad cop who liked to pick fights with people. This time he picked someone who was stronger than he was, and they both got killed.”
Lesser concedes that a vendetta might have been easier to argue than the case he and Joyner presented. A jury might sooner believe Tillis sprang to the aid of a friend in a personal fight than that he interfered justifiably when a police officer went berserk. However, the lawyer says, “We never had the smoking gun. We talked with the woman, but we never got a direct statement that she was having an affair with both men.”
Without the smoking gun, Lesser explains, the best way to defend Tillis was to discredit the rogue officer and the police department that loosed him for his final rampage. But the lawyer also makes no secret of his belief that the Dallas Police Department is laced with overbearing, brutal officers. Frequently describing law enforcement here with phrases like “power crazed” and “out of control,” Lesser insists that “the community needs to understand that the police don’t always act right. Introducing a woman into this case sort of muddies the water around what the real issue is. Gary Blair was going bad and the department wasn’t doing anything about it.”
So intense is Lesser’s conviction that we asked whether his personal beliefs may have colored preparation of Tillis’s defense. Was it possible that he and Joyner skirted the love triangle issue in order to get the clearest shot at Blair and the police department in general?
Joyner will not comment on defense strategy. But Lesser responds, ’To an extent, this trial was a vehicle to get at something else. We all have our own ideals. The best strategy for our client just happened to coincide with a philosophical position that I believe in. But don’t think that we gambled with Tillis for some social purpose.” He adds, “I disagree with the press accounts that we were trying Blair or the police department. That’s either sour grapes or it shows a tremendous lack of knowledge of how the judicial system works.”
So why was the jury given no information about the possible personal relationship between Blair and Pigg, a relationship that might have explained why two men fought and died that night?
“A previous connection between Pigg and Blair would be something the jury would want to know,” says Lesser. “But then again, we thought we had the truth about why what happened happened. Even if Blair was hassling Pigg over a woman, all that means is we’re back to the starting point [Tillis aiding Pigg] from a different direction.”
Right now, as the Dallas Police Department submits to intense investigation into its motives and methods, a different explanation of the Pigg-B!air incident may be worth considering. If the two men did in fact know each other, if they did harbor private animosities, the shooting may deserve little attention in the coming congressional probe, which could begin as early as next month.
But even now that Tillis has been found innocent. Lesser urged us not to write this story. “It is so easy to excuse Blair’s actions in a love triangle. People see that on television and read about that, and they figure it is a personal thing. All you’ve got to do is put a woman in this and 98 percent of the people are going to overlook the greater problem in the police department. As somebody who believes there’s a bad sickness in this community, I think that’s a disservice.”