Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Court Day Is Nigh - a country outlaw music legend faces serious chages in a beer joint shooting near Waco

By Jim Parks

Honey I rode a fast train to Georgia.
I wasn't born no yesterday.
I've had a good Christian raisin' and an eighth grade education,
Ain't no need in y'all a'treatin' me this way.
- Billy Joe Shaver, "Fast Train To Georgia"
LORENA, TX --The couple had been out taking pictures of local graveyards. They planned to use the in a new record album about religion and the hard changes of rural life.
They stopped in to have a cold beer under the neon moon of a roadside beer joint on Interstate 35 in Lorena, about 20 miles south of their home in Waco.

He is a country singer-songwriter with a national following and a list of hits recorded by big names as long as both your arms. Entertainers such as Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, John Anderson and Kris Kristofferson have recorded his songs. He has appeared in several films with Robert Duvall, the iconic character actor who portrayed Texas Ranger Captain Augustus McRae in the filmed version of Larry McMurtry's "Lonesome Dove." In fact, Duvall participated in the production of a documentary film about the writer's career that was screened at Austin's South by Southwest Film Festival.

She is divorced from him now, but his wife at the time of the shooting married him twice after his first wife died in the middle of their third marriage. ZZ Top guitarist Billy Gibbons presided over the ceremony in Las Vegas.

What happened next will be a matter of extreme controversy in a Waco courtroom.

The prosecution will attempt to convince a judge or a jury that Billy Joe Shaver, a Corsicana man who penned songs exclusively for Bobby Bare after he left caught a ride to Nashville on a cantaloupe truck, then went on to help found the Outlaw movement among Texas country musicians, made an unprovoked attempt to kill a former in-law of his wife with a handgun after an argument. He has been indicted for aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and the unlawful carrying of a firearm on premises where alcoholic beverages are sold and consumed.

Mr. Shaver's attorney will tell the court and jurors that he acted in self defense.

Aside from the fame of the defendant, the fact that he was carrying a gun as a licensee under the provision of the Texas Concealed Carry Handgun License law complicates the matter and somehow adds to the appeal.

If convicted, Shaver could be sentenced to as many as 10 years in the penitentiary for carrying the firearm into the bar, no matter the status of his license. He is seventy years of age.

Running your head about a happening in a Texas beer joint is like what old Coach Darrell Royal of the University of Texas football dynasty always said about the forward pass.

There are at least four things that can happen as a result; three of them are bad. The pass play could wind up in an interception, an incomplete reception, or a fumble. Three to one odds oppose a completion for a gain in yardage.

An appearance to answer felony charges in a court of law offers even more bleak odds. Famed attorney Clarence Darrow often told people a defendant has already lost before he ever strolls into the courtroom. Many savvy attorneys have echoed his sentiments.

Football, beer joints, guns - Texas politics, you got it.

There is nothing more controversial than these topics and Texans are no shrinking violets when it comes to talking about any of the them, in or out of the beer joint.

Though religion is a social convention that is taboo and universally considered off limits in any conversation within the walls of a cantina, the truth is that the way most Texans feel about guns, football and politics borders on certain aspects of religious fervor.

Getting back to the beer joint and what happened at Papa Joe's Texas Saloon on March 31, 2007, the bare bones facts are that when Shaver, who was 68 at the time, and his wife, the former Wanda Lynn Canady, walked in and took a seat at the table where owner Gloria Tambling and friends were seated tipping a cold one, Ms. Tambling introduced him to Billy B. Coker, a man who at the time was 50 years of age.

They talked for more than an hour and soon discovered that Coker is a first cousin to a man who left Wanda a widow after he committed suicide with a firearm.

The terrible truth is that some members of that family have blamed her for his rash suicidal action ever since. This represents the most severe form of conflict in family politics and that controversy reached a tragic climax at Papa Joe's in a fight between two men who had nothing to do with the unfortunate and tragic original suicidal event.

The evil of murder, even if it is of the self, often has that kind of ripple effect.

In the acrimonious discussion that arose, Coker took out his pocket knife and began reaching across the table, using it to stir everyone's drinks. When he stirred Shaver's beer, the outlaw musician objected to this distasteful action with strong disfavor.

He told him that a beer needs no stirring.

So, Coker wiped the blade of the knife on the sleeve of Shaver's denim shirt - three times - and from there the ugly incident escalated very quickly, according to an account Shaver gave a Houston news writer.

Shaver made a quick trip to the bathroom. While in there, he decided that he just couldn't put up with all that. The mean discussion about the former husband's suicide, stirring drinks with the pocket knife, wiping it on the sleeve of one of the denim shirts he always wears with faded jeans and boots - in his book, it all added up to way, way too much.

He made a decision to correct Coker.

He went to his car and got a .22 pistol he carries when he's on the road performing.

He has a Texas license to carry it concealed. The license is recognized in a large number of other states.

He has a demonstrated need for it. Most club owners pay musicians in cash. Often, thugs wait in the parking lots at clubs, motels and restaurants to try to steal the money back. In his professional career, an enterprise that spans almost a half century, Billy Joe Shaver has any number of times used a firearm to good effect to hang on to his money and his life.

You might say it is a piece of business equipment.

Billy Joe Shaver was ready for a confrontation.

When he went back in the bar, he invited Coker to go out the back door with him, then followed him out where he was heard to say "Don't ever tell me to shut up."

Though no one will admit they saw it, the witnesses all seem to agree that Coker still had his knife in his hand as they left.

Then, people say, they heard Shaver ask Coker, "Where do you want it?" He took aim from a short distance and fired. The bullet passed through the fleshy part of Coker's cheek and exited.

It caused a nasty flesh wound, nothing more.

A lucky man, Coker was treated and released at an area hospital within a short time. The bullet missed the facial and cranial bones; it did not affect and the jaw and teeth.

Facial and head wounds from .22 pistols and rifles are often fatal because the bullet penetrates, but is not powerful enough to pass through the cranial vault; as a result, the projectile rattles from hard surface to hard surface, glancing off and causing massive damage to soft tissue. It's hard to stop the bleeding. When the bleeding is brought under control, the prospect of infection remains; even with today's antibiotics and intensive care techniques, it is very severe.

The .22 is the weapon of choice used by hit men in brush-by shootings on crowded streets, on sleeping victims and in face to face confrontations.

There is little doubt of the intentions of an assailant who aims a firearm at a man's head and pulls the trigger. The action more or less speaks for itself.

Having left the building to get the firearm from his vehicle, then returning and leaving by the back door where he shot his antagonist, Shaver set himself up for the aggravating circumstance of malice aforethought, as well as carrying a firearm into licensed premises where alcohol is served and consumed. After all, he could have simply collected his wife and driven away.

One can only ask the question and wonder, however, as to what he would have hauled away with him had he left the bar without attempting to do anything about Coker's provocative behavior.

He is as lucky as Coker that the bullet wound was not fatal. Had his attack resulted in a fatality, there is little doubt he would have been charged with capital murder.

After the shooting, Shaver and his wife left quickly. When he went to Austin a few days later to play a concert appearance at the record store home of his label, Waterloo Records, he tried to turn himself in at the Austin Police Department, but they had no warrant for his arrest and sent him on his way. Not long after that, he surrendered in Waco, where he was charged and released on bond. Grand Jurors indicted him in September of 2008.

* * *

PAPA JOE'S TEXAS SALOON is located in a building sheathed in metal and erected on a concrete slab situated within a few yards of the roar of the streaming northbound traffic of I-35.
It is a stream of traffic, much of it involving the NAFTA trade, that rarely sees anything like the posted speed limit of 70 miles per hour. Eighty, even 85 are more likely the pace.

The frame of an old motorcyle, without engine and transmission, is perched high atop the ridge of the roof. "Papa Joe's" is painted in letters at least six feet tall on the south wall of the building. Wooden lattice work shields the front door from the full intensity of the western sun and there is a small porch on the east side overlooking a back parking lot.

Inside, all is softly lit by the glow of neon beer signs and splashes of light over the pool table and jukebox. An ersatz brothel and hotel is built at the top of some steps on one wall while a tin shed is projected over the bar. The sheetrock walls are painted flat black.

The juke box is playing a recording of Prince doing "Purple Rain."

Tables built at the height 55-gallon oil drums with tops made of sheets of plywood are strewn around the floor, surrounded by bar stools.

Two signs, one in English, the other in Spanish, proclaim the rather enigmatic message, "51%".

Printed in red, it is superimposed over the contrasting text of the law regarding the most severe punishment for those caught carrying a firearm on the premises. The penalty is as much as ten years in jail, a $10,000 fine, or both.

A small group is sitting at the table under a pool of light.

I ask, "What the hell does that business about "51%" mean?"

A woman of an age with short hair and a face worn with decades of running a beer joint business hard by the superhighway often called "America's Main Street" speaks up and says, "It means our business is at least 51% based on the sales of alcoholic beverages. You can't be carrying no gun in here. That's the law. That's what it means."

I give her my card.

She shakes my offered hand and introduces herself as Gloria Tambling, "Spelled just like gambling with a 'T' instead of a 'G.'"

We all laugh.

"I'm the owner of this beer joint. Hell, you can find me easy. I'm all over the internet since that shooting happened in here two years ago."

The crowd laughs nervously again. She looks at me expectantly.

I explain I'm hunting facts regarding that very shooting and just thought I would drop by to see Papa Joe's and talk to her and some of the patrons. After dark, it's the kind of spot that offers live country music.

A man in a cowboy hat who is nursing an afternoon beer speaks up and says, "Ain't no one in here saw nothin'."

Horse laughs and guffaws follow on the heels of his remark.

"I'll tell you one thing for sure, man," Gloria Tambling says. "I'm plenty mad at Billy Joe Shaver and Billy B. Coker for what they done. It affected my business. It's still way off, but it's picking up all the time...Before that, we had a nice, quiet little beer joint here. This thing scared people off."

So, it develops, both Coker and Shaver did something?

She sniffs. It's clear she's through talking. After all, she is a witness, there has been a Grand Jury proceeding, and the case is still under investigation. With what is at stake, there is not much doubt that there will be a trial before a judge and jury.

She is a business woman.

"I respect that," I tell her.

She nods perfunctorily and sighs.

"Don't either one of them come in here any more. Billy Joe Shaver and Billy B. Coker just aren't customers since this thing happened."

Clearly, she got nothing in return for the violent confrontation.

Another man wearing a gimme cap, slightly toasted from an afternoon of drinking cold Budweiser, speaks up and says, "I have no interest in it. I saw nothing and I just don't care about it."

We introduce ourselves and shake hands. I aasure him I understand his attitude completely.

In fact, we all agree that what we're talking about is bad, bad for business, bad for people, something that ends by just getting on a person's nerves. In a conversation I had with a man who has been known to shoot assailants after confrontations over the years, he told me,

"Shooting a guy n the face just about always plumb takes all the fight out of a feller."

Ms. Tambling asks me what it is I want. I attempt to explain myself again. It tell her I am following the case because of its extreme controversy. There is the issue of concealed carry handgun laws, a violation of a state law regarding alcholic beverages and firearms, the right to self defense - the works. It's all there El Rancho Deluxe, in technicolor.

The man in the gimme cap speaks up. He continues explaining his professed disinterest in this way.

"Well, it's an old, old story, man. You've got two fellas with testosterone, both of them mad as hell about something. Add cold beer or any form of alcohol and see what you get.

"I think it's pitiful that a person has to become a victim before they can defend themself with a firearm."

Au contraire, I assure him. The law has changed in that respect. All persons are authorized to defend themselves with deadly force if they are not in violation of any law, they are where they are at the time legally, and are under no obligation to retreat. A person attacked in Texas may meet force with deadly force.

The concept is carved in stone.

"Well, it didn't used to be that way...I think if someone comes into Luby's Cafeteria and starts attacking people with a gun, people should be allowed to defend themselves with their guns."

So, he agrees with concealed carry handgun permits?

"I think everyone who graduates from high school in Texas should be required to be proficient with a handgun." He pauses and thinks, nods and says, "I think every high school graduate should be issued a handgun by the state of Texas and be required to show that they are proficient using it before they can get a diploma." He nods again at the logic of his pronouncement.

"Other than that, I have no interest in the matter."

He has spoken. There is a slightly peeved tone to his voice. I hand the barmaid a five and tell her he will be needing another cold beer - on me. Discretion being the better part of valor, I finish my Coke and leave Papa Joe's Texas Saloon.

In a nutshell, that is the nature of conventional wisdom and popular opinion about concealed carry handgun permits in areas where licensees are allowed to carry their guns.

Most legal authorities see concealed handgunners are as "force multipliers" for the thinly spread resources of policemen certified as peace officers.

Waiting for the cops to take a complaint and start an investigation is an option many victims of violent crime refer to as "Suicide by 9-1-1."

Proponents of going armed with a concealed handgun often say, "I'd rather be judged by twelve than carried by six."

Policemen do a bang up job of investigating crime and testifying about the offenses. There is not much they can do to prevent violence. There really are not very many of them.

I decided it was my time to leave. I escaped the neon moonlight and twanging country music, abandoning it for the glaring afternoon sun of a very hot Texas summer day in which it was both the heat and the humidity - there, outside the refrigerated and darkened den of Papa Joe's - in the blackland cotton fields in what would soon be the darkness at the edge of town.

* * *

THE MCLENNAN COUNTY COURTHOUSE is a dazzling white rococo Italianate building situated on a bluff overlooking the Brazos River. Perched on a high foundation of rusticated granite blocks surrounded by leafy pecan trees, its double domed, multi-storied rotunda gives on courtrooms and offices. The District Court Clerk's office is in an annex reached by crossing over a walkway built between the old building and a newer structure attached to the jail and District Attorney's offices.

Complaints, indictments, pleadings and the dockets of each case are kept in "red jackets" in the clerk's office. They are pubic records, so called because the manila folders in which these permanent records are contained are a flaming scarlet; otherwise, they are just like any other legal file. The area of controversy in the lawsuit is between the defendant and "The People of the State of Texas," against whose "peace and dignity" an alleged offense has been charged and an indictment returned.

The court coordinator says there will be a pre-trial hearing for Shaver on September 18 in the 54th District State District Court before Judge Matt Johnson. The trial date is tentatively scheduled for September 28 at 9 a.m. If the prosecution and defense reach a priority setting before then, a trial date will be automatically scheduled.

How would one learn of that date?

"Call," she says, smiling from behind her desk behind a counter on a side corridor in the old courthouse. It sounds like one of those ads in a gun sale circular that say "Call" where ordinarily the price would be posted for a firearm or ammunition.

Austin criminal defense attorney Joseph A. Turner has not filed any pre-trial motions.

A quick check of the documents in the scarlet folder shows that Shaver's bond was set at $50,000, that he showed financial responsibility and that he has been enjoined not to approach or contact Billy Coker in any way. He is furthermore prohibited from carrying or possessing a firearm.

I am reminded of the scene in the academy award-winning Clint Eastwood western,
"Unforgiven," when English Bob is relieved of his pistols by Little Bill, the hard sheriff of Big Whiskey, Wyoming.

"Now, Bill, you wouldn't leave me at the mercy of my enemies, would you?" mouths veteran character actor Richard Harris. This is just before Gene Hackman, who is playing Little Bill, pastes him in the mouth and stomps him into the dirt of the street.

The 19th century moniker for Waco, Texas, was "Six Shooter Junction."

Numerous fatal gunfights occurred within earshot of this same building and there were more than one lynching involving the live immolation of a man of color on the public square.

A final chilling note is that the trial folder shows the original attorney of record was Dick DeGuerin out of Houston, Texas. A former associate of the flamboyant and well-known criminal defense attorney Percy Foreman, he has been highly effective about keeping his clients out of the execution chamber.

He was the man who interviewed the apocalyptic gun merchant, Davidian David Koresh in the front door of the Mount Carmel compound following the "ill-fated" Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives raid in which four agents were killed and just days before everyone who stayed inside the compound was burned alive in a sudden conflagration after the FBI smashed through the walls with tanks that filled the building with a potent form of tear gas.

It was the only time Koresh spoke with an attorney who was willing to help defend him.

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