By JEFF CARLTON - Associated Press Writer
PARIS, TEXAS - In a gruesome case with powerful echoes of the dragging death of James Byrd a decade ago, a black man was killed underneath a pickup truck in East Texas and two white men have been charged with murder.
Black activists and the victim's mother are calling last month's killing of 24-year-old Brandon McClelland a racist attack. But prosecutors cast strong doubt on that Friday.
McClelland died after going with two white friends on a late-night beer run across the state line to Oklahoma, investigators said. Authorities said he was run over and dragged as far as 70 feet beneath the truck. His torn-apart body was discovered along a bloodstained rural road on Sept. 16. His mother said pieces of his skull could still be found three days later.
The case has raised racial tensions in Paris, a town of 26,000 with a history of fraught relations between blacks and whites.
To some, it sounded like the Byrd case, in which a black man in the East Texas town of Jasper, about 200 miles south of Paris, was chained by the ankles to the back of a pickup by three white supremacists and dragged for three miles. Two of the killers are now on death row; the third is serving a life sentence.
Prosecutors in the McClelland case said they are looking into whether one of the defendants, Shannon Keith Finley, was in a white supremacist gang while in prison for killing a friend.
But they said they have seen no evidence so far that McClelland's slaying was racially motivated. And they noted the three men had been friends for years.
"This is a group of guys who had black friends and white friends," said Allan Hubbard, a spokesman for the Lamar County district attorney's office. He added: "Any comparison to Jasper and James Byrd is preposterous."
Autopsy results are expected back next week. While investigators don't believe McClelland was tied to the truck, they planned to look closely for marks on the body that would indicate precisely how he was dragged.
Community activist Brenda Cherry said authorities have not seriously considered the possibility this was a hate crime. "There's a problem in Paris, Texas," she said. "I don't see a difference in getting dragged behind a truck and getting dragged under a truck."
A flier advertising a Saturday memorial service for McClelland said he was "the victim of a brutal and racist hate crime." The New Black Panthers met with investigators and held a news conference at the courthouse promising to examine the killing.
"I truly feel that race played a part in it," said the victim's mother, Jacquline McClelland. "It is a racist town, and Paris has always been a racist town."
The city is perhaps best known for its 70-foot Eiffel Tower replica topped by a giant red cowboy hat. Paris, which is 73 percent white and 22 percent black, was in the news last year after a black girl was sentenced to up to seven years in a juvenile prison hundreds of miles from her home for shoving a teacher's aide at school, while a white girl was sentenced by the same judge to probation for burning down her parents' house.
At the town square, decorated with pumpkins and hay bales for Halloween, the mother of the black girl said Friday that she began to feel Paris was a racist town after moving there from Oklahoma.
"There's a certain amount of fear that is pressed into black people when they live in Paris," said Creola Cotton.
According to court papers, Finley and Charles Ryan Crostley, both 27, told police they left the dry town to get beer in Oklahoma, and on the way back, the three men, all apparently drunk, argued about who was sober enough to drive. McClelland, an unmarried maintenance worker, decided to walk home, taking some beer with him, the men told police.
But Finley's estranged wife and one of his friends said they had been told by the two defendants that Finley began to bump McClelland with the front of his truck until McClelland fell, and Finley drove over him, according to court papers. Crostley and Finley then allegedly drove to a car wash to clean off the blood.
Crostley and Finley are jailed on charges of murder and evidence-tampering. Finley's attorney did not immediately return a message. There was no answer at the phone listing for Crostley's lawyer.
As in many small towns, some of the players are connected. The district attorney, Gary Young, was once the court-appointed lawyer for Finley, who was charged with murder in 2003. Finley eventually pleaded guilty to manslaughter and was sentenced to four years.
In that same case, McClelland pleaded guilty to perjury for providing a false alibi for Finley. He was sentenced to five years' probation but served some jail time when he violated its terms, prosecutor Bill Harris said.
McClelland's mother said that on the day her son died, he had called Finley to ask for his help on a home repair project at another friend's house.
"For the life of me, I cannot understand it," she said. "They didn't have to run over and kill my baby. They could have brought him home."