originally published April 26, 2012

Today’s is a story about corruption, murder, cover-up and conspiracy. Ms. Wiki locked me in solitary with Ellis Unit, a high-security prison that served as a Death Row facility from its opening in 1965 until 1999. One tiny paragraph caught my eye enough to actually do some non-Wikipedian research for today’s article. You can thank me later, and ensure I am paid accordingly.

Why this event only merits a line and a half of text in this article is a mystery to me. Krzysztof Grodzicki, a Polish artillery general who died in 1659, gets twice as many words.

Director of the Texas Department of Corrections George Beto designed Ellis Unit himself. He wanted it to be the strictest, most hardcore prison in the Texas system, which is a little like trying to create the fuzziest Muppet – there’s already a lot of competition.

Ellis was a tough joint. The prisoners were put to work, laboring in a garment factory and doing outdoor farm tasks under the Texas sun. Eventually, a man named Wallace Pack, who had a reputation for particularly cruel treatment of mentally challenged prisoners at other facilities, was appointed warden.

Enter Eroy Brown, a career criminal who had spent much of his thirty years in the Texas penal system. Most recently he’d been locked up for stealing $27 worth of men’s socks in a robbery. Don’t judge – he had a heroin problem, and junkies steal weird things sometimes.

Eroy kept his head down at Ellis, and was eventually put in charge of the toolshed, changing tractor tires and doing general farm stuff. In the spring of 1981, Brown was three months from parole. What could go wrong?

Well, plenty, otherwise this would be a fantastically dull article. Let’s meet Billy Max Moore, who came to run the prison farm in 1979. Moore was allegedly quite the dick. He made sure everyone knew he was in charge, and he made particular use of the farm’s facilities, providing free oil changes and lube jobs for himself and his friends, and skimming tires out of inventory for some quick cash. Eroy knew what Moore was up to – he had to go along with it and keep his mouth shut.

Until once he didn’t. On April 5, 1981, Eroy grumbled to another prisoner, “After all I done for Billy Moore, I don’t see why I can’t get no furlough.” It was an off-hand remark, but it was overheard by the tractor supervisor, Bill Adams. Adams took the same kind of liberties as Moore; he got the feeling that Eroy was going to flap his gums to the wrong person.

And there were plenty of people that would listen. Four months earlier, federal judge William Justice (who has the best name in the history of judginess) cracked down on the brutality, the poor medical service, and the overcrowding in Texas prisons. The FBI and Justice Department were listening to prisoner stories of abuse and mistreatment; they would certainly listen to Eroy’s story of corruption.

But Eroy had no intention of stirring up controversy. He was slightly disgruntled, that’s all. Still, Adams wasn’t about to take the chance. He summoned Billy Moore, who ordered Eroy into a truck, then drove him down to “The Bottoms”, a remote spot on the prison grounds routinely used for ‘alternative’ discipline of prisoners.

Moore called for Warden Pack to meet up with them. There were other prisoners about a hundred yards away, but having them witness a bit of prisoner-bashing wasn’t a big deal.

Then Pack pulled out his gun. They yanked Eroy out of the truck and had him spread his arms on the hood. They kicked him. Pack held the gun to Eroy’s head and told Moore to grab the handcuffs out of the glove box. Eroy was bargaining for his life at this point, insisting that people would come investigating if he died suddenly. Moore slapped the first cuff on Eroy’s wrist. Pack cocked his pistol.

Eroy tried to lean away from the gun, but Moore shoved him against the truck. Eroy then swung his hand and knocked the gun down from his head, and Pack squeezed the trigger. The bullet travelled through Eroy’s foot.

Eroy went for the gun, and he and the warden were wrestling for control of it while Moore tried to pull Eroy back with the dangling handcuff. At this point all three of them probably suspected that this was not going to end well. Eroy got the gun and aimed it at Pack and Moore. Then he fell down. It’s hard to keep control of a situation when your foot has a fresh hole in it.

More and Pack pounced, and everyone was once again struggling for control of the pistol. Two shots were fired, both finding their way snugly into Billy Moore. Warden Pack ran off and ducked out of site beside a bridge. Eroy hobbled in pursuit, calling to the warden that both he and Moore needed medical attention.

Eroy threw the gun into the creek below the bridge. But Pack wasn’t about to let this drop – he jumped out and the two started fighting again. The melee continued down into the creek, where Pack had Eroy pinned face-down in the mud. Eroy slipped free and soon he had Pack pinned. Pack wasn’t quite as agile: he stayed pinned until his last breath.

After a mistrial, Eroy Brown was acquitted in both deaths. The juries decided it was self-defense. He was released, and enjoyed a very brief period of freedom before robbing a Waco convenience store for two candy bars and $12 in cash. Because of his habitual commitment to criminal activity, Eroy was handed a 90-year sentence. For twelve bucks and a Twix bar.

It seems as though Eroy was mistreated at Ellis, and I understand a larger sentence for someone who can’t seem to exist legitimately in society. But the other two guys involved in the Waco robbery had similar records, yet they were offered a deal to testify against Eroy in exchange for their charges getting dropped. And Eroy has been denied parole seven times. Without ever having been convicted of a violent crime.

Seven times. Is the state of Texas getting a little revenge for the Moore/Pack killings? They clearly hold those two in high regard: Pack has a prison named after him now, and they are both enshrined with a memorial monument at Ellis, praising their “devotion to duty”.

Eroy is now 60 years old, and will be up for mandatory release in five years. His was not a life of merit and accomplishment, but he may have been handed some fairly sketchy justice in Texas.

If you love stories like these, but find the notion of limiting them to a thousand-page article somewhat ridiculous and ineffective (Hey!), Michael Berryhill has a book coming out next month called The Trials of Eroy Brown. It looks like it’ll be a good read.

Or, you could stick around here and see when I write about bacon-infused beer next. (hint: soon!)

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