Savage Klan killing stuns America

Evil on the road: black man torn limb from limb by white racists who gave him a lift
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The Independent Online
FEW CORNERS of the United States feel as forlorn as the flat and featureless borderlands of Texas and Louisiana. A journey through the dense forests reveals scattered towns where Kentucky Fried Chicken and McDonald's offer the only distractions. And at this time of year, as the oppressive heat sets in, the roads are dotted with road-kill, mostly squashed armadillos.

The remains strewn along a stretch of rural road outside the town of Jasper last Sunday morning, however, were not of some animal. They were the mangled body parts of 49-year-old James Byrd Jr.

Late on Tuesday, three white residents of Jasper were charged with his murder. The case is grisly almost beyond imagination. It risks inflaming racial tensions that simmer in the American South more than three decades after desegregation - and it has sickened the entire nation.

Along a two-mile stretch of road, seven miles east of Jasper, police officers have sprayed red circles on the tarmac - 75 in all. These are the exact spots where parts of Mr Byrd were found; a pair of dentures here, an arm there. Elsewhere his neck and, not too far away, his battered head.

As the three suspects were charged on Tuesday, the Jasper police offered a version of what they believe happened to Mr Byrd. It was a picture filled out by one of the accused, Shawn Berry, 23, who spilled details in police interviews, claiming he had played only a minor, reluctant role.

The other suspects, Law-rence Brewer, 31, and John King, 23, have tattoos that suggest affiliation to white supremacist groups. "The evidence shows it will be racially motivated," Jasper's sheriff, Billy Rowles, said of the alleged murder. All three men have served time in prison, as had Mr Byrd. Mr Byrd and Mr Berry shared a probation officer and knew each other.

Mr Byrd, a musician, was walking home on Sunday evening after attending a bridal shower for a niece in his parents' home. Mr Berry, who was riding in a pick-up truck with two friends, spotted him and suggested they give him a lift. He told police Mr King was unhappy about having a black passenger. After a visit to a shop, ,Mr King took the wheel.

When Mr King began to drive out of town to the east, Mr Berry apparently asked what he was doing. The answer, Mr Berry told police, was chilling. He was "fixin' to scare the shit out of this nigger". One of them allegedly added: "We're going to start the Turner Diaries early," in a reference to a novel about white hate, popular among the white supremacist groups.

In a remote wooded area, Mr King allegedly pulled over and dragged Mr Byrd from the passenger seat. He and Mr Brewer are then said to have knocked him to the ground and kicked him until he was unconscious.

Mr Berry said it was only after they drove off again that he realised what the pair had done next. Mr Brewer turned around and noted: "That fucker is bouncing all over the place".

Mr Byrd had been attached to the back bumper by a long chain round one of his ankles. As the vehicle gathered speed, his body came apart. His last journey, police said in affidavit, lasted for about two miles.

The police found more than just human remains on the road. Crucial evidence includes a spanner that has been traced to one of the suspects, and a cigarette lighter bearing a Ku Klux Klan symbol.

Nowhere is the shock deeper than in Jasper, a timber town of 7,500 people that is about 45 per cent black. Fear of racial violence stalks this region. At a press conference, Sheriff Rowles played down the influence of hate groups in his town. "We have no Aryan Nation or KKK in Jasper County," he declared, a statement that received derision from black people in the audience.

Kevin Kipp was among white residents to voice dismay. "I'm ashamed people could act like that around here," he said. "I grew up here and I can't even remember anything close to this". But blacks in Jasper are less surprised. Whispers have spread that the killing of Mr Byrd was a warning. "It's rumoured that they are going to get two more blacks," Joe Shankle said. "I think they are sending a message to the black community."

One version doing the rounds has it that a note was found near the victim's body that read: "One down, two to go". Lessie Adams, another black resident, noted: "Racism is like death in Texas. You are always going to have it."

Richard Bishop, pastor of Church on the Rock in Jasper, added: "Everybody is afraid this will trigger off violence between blacks and whites. We're integrated by law, but segregated by heart. It took something like this to bring that sad fact out."

The president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the former congressman Kweise Mfume, was leading calls for the Attorney- General, Janet Reno, to turn the murder charges into a federal crime.

There was dismay that under Texas law police were unable to charge the three with capital murder, which would carry the possibility of execution. If federal charges are brought, based on a violation of Mr Byrd's constitutional rights, capital murder charges might be possible.

The case will spotlight the myriad hate groups still thought to be flourishing across the United States. Charles Lee, the grand-dragon of the East Texas KKK chapter, refused to say whether the hate group had members in Jasper County.

Mr Byrd, meanwhile, was being mourned by his relatives. Renee Mullins, one of his three children, said that her father was trying to go straight after a prison term for theft. "He had flaws," she said. "He got his life together, got him an apartment."

Stella Brumley, one of Mr Byrd's sisters, saw him for the last time at the bridal shower on Sunday afternoon. She reminded him about a big Father's Day gathering that the family was planning. She said he had promised to be there in his best suit. "I'll see y'all. I love y'all", he had said. He then left for his fateful encounter with the pick-up.

The route that Mr Byrd took holds one of the most poignant ironies of his sorry end. It was Martin Luther King Boulevard. The road where he ended up had no name. It ran alongside a cemetery.