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Sunday, March 2, 1997

What happened to Steve Davis?

By LORETTA FULTON Regional Editor

COMANCHE - At 11:30 p.m. on Friday, May 17, 1996, Steve Davis called his sister to ask to borrow her van for a trip to Austin, where he hoped to pick up a prize in a poetry contest.

He was happy, excited about the prospect of actually being honored for writing poetry, something he wanted badly to do. He was leaving at 6:30 the next morning and needed to borrow the van.

He had told his co-workers at Golden Peanut in De Leon, "I'll work any time but May 18. I've got to be off that day. I'm going to Austin," his sister Fredda Jones recalled in a recent interview.

"He was convinced he had a shot at winning," Jones said.

He had better than a shot. Steve Davis won the contest, but he wasn't there to pick up his prize.

"He didn't live to know that, apparently," his sister said.

Intriguing circumstances

On Feb. 6, nine months after Steve Davis failed to pick up his poetry prize, the remains of a body were found in a wooded area near Lake Proctor by the owner of a package store who was checking her property after a grass fire.

Dental records proved the remains, with the skull and torso found 60 feet apart, were those of Steve Davis.

The mystery of what happened to Stephen Franklin Davis had just begun. Death was the end of the story, but what about the middle?

An autopsy performed by the Tarrant County Medical Examiner is complete but no written report has been issued. Even when a report is made, family and friends don't expect an answer.

"We've known from the first that it's going to be inconclusive," Jones said.

On the evening of Thursday, Feb. 6, the day the remains were found, officers from the sheriff's department and the Department of Public Safety came to the home of Fredda and Rick Jones to tell them of the discovery.

One DPS officer had more news: Steve Davis had hanged himself with his shirt, investigators had ascertained.

"Impossible" and "incredible" are the words spoken by those who knew Davis well.

"Life was good at 11:30," Fredda Jones said, recalling the conversation with her brother about borrowing the van. How is she supposed to believe that circumstances changed drastically enough by 1 a.m., the last time her brother was seen, for him to have killed himself?

Not satisfied with the current investigation, the family has requested a special prosecutor be named. 220th District Attorney B.J. Shepherd has not yet made a decision on the request.

Family and friends cannot buy the idea that Davis killed himself. On the other hand, local attorney and friend Jim Parker said, "I don't think anybody intentionally killed Steve Davis."

If he didn't kill himself and no one intentionally killed him, what happened to Steve Davis?

"This is about as intriguing a set of circumstances as I've seen," Parker said.

Death was not an option

Fredda Jones didn't think anything about her van still being in the driveway the next morning after her brother said he wanted to borrow it. Steve was a 38-year-old free spirit, a former attorney whose disregard for conventional wisdom and law enforcement had landed him in prison back in 1989 and had resulted in a beating by two Comanche County deputy sheriffs in November 1995.

He may have changed his mind about the van and didn't think to tell his sister.

"I knew Steve was not going to miss going to Austin," Jones said, whether he took her van or found other transportation.

Jones dismissed the idea that anything had happened to Steve, a sandy-haired guy who always had a big smile. He was a happy-go-lucky sort who marched to the beat of his own drummer.

"It would never occur to him that we would worry," Jones said.

Two days after the phone conversation, Sunday, May 19, Jones left for Nashville, where she has associates in the music publishing field. She wouldn't return until the following Friday.

A few days after Jones left, her husband Rick learned that Steve was missing. He hadn't showed up in Austin, and no one at work had heard from him.

The last time he had been seen was at 1 a.m. Saturday, May 18, when a deputy sheriff said Davis fled on foot from an interrogation.

"Supposedly they stopped him for running a stop sign," Jones said.

The deputy sheriff said Steve took off on foot in an area behind a row of stores near Lake Proctor.

Other officers were called in, including Comanche County Sheriff Billy Works. A woman in Davis' pickup was questioned and then taken home.

"We did a search for him that night," Works said. "We were unable to locate him."

A warrant was issued for Davis, charging him with fleeing officers.

"I just assumed he had run off," the sheriff said.

That assumption fit, family members said. Steve had twice gone to Europe and the Philippines carrying nothing but a paper sack full of his belongings. It wouldn't have surprised his sister or his boss, lifelong friend Dan Holland, if Steve had just decided to go to Mexico for awhile, counting on a friend to send a hundred bucks now and then.

"Anybody in town who knew Steve would tell you that was a powerful possibility," his sister said.

Of all the possibilities, death wasn't among them. At that point "death just simply was not an option," Jones said.

But nine months later, death not only proved to be an option, it was a reality.

He went his own way

In 1972, Comanche High School English teacher Patsy Boyd realized she had a very gifted student in her freshman class. Steve Davis not only was the fastest boy on the football field and the best field goal kicker, he also had a talent for writing.

After Boyd read Steve's poems, she knew she had come across someone special.

"He wrote beautiful poetry," she said. "And he was an excellent student."

Boyd, who spoke at Steve's standing-room-only memorial service, knew all the family well. They were exceptional athletes, including Fredda, who was a member of the Comanche girls' track team that set a national record.

Boyd, now retired, remembered that Steve was very likeable and sociable but didn't mind being alone.

Steve was not a loner, she said, but he was comfortable enough with himself to be alone with himself.

"He understood himself better than others did," she said.

A characteristic Boyd remembered was one that others would remember, too, and one that led to trouble later for the gifted student who was voted Most Intelligent his senior year.

"He didn't always go with the crowd. He just sort of went his own way," Boyd said.

Compassionate guy

Steve Davis went his own way once too often, and it earned him a trip to prison, his former associate Jim Parker said.

After graduating from Tarleton State University, Steve earned a law degree from St. Mary's University in San Antonio in 1983. He came home and worked with Parker.

"He was a heck of a lawyer," Parker said. "His won-lost record was pretty impressive."

But, as a former high school English teacher had noted, "he just sort of went his own way."

That included doing legal work for clients for free, with no thought as to how the law firm's bills would be paid, Parker said.

"Steve was the most compassionate guy I ever knew," Parker said. "Before I knew it, a guy was our client for free."

It wasn't long after leaving Parker's office to set up his own practice that his compassion and disregard for conventional wisdom got Davis into trouble.

He was asked to help some illegal aliens with their documentation, and he did.

"That's what got Steve into trouble with the feds," Parker said. "He was trying to help people out."

In 1989 Davis pleaded guilty to charges of helping illegal aliens fraudulently qualify for amnesty. He spent 18 months in prison.

He would later joke to Parker that he made 12 cents an hour buffing floors at the federal facility in Fort Worth, and if he applied himself, he could work up to 17 cents an hour.

Grand jury investigation

After his release, Davis returned to Comanche, his sense of humor intact, but stripped of his license to practice law and his view of law in general tainted.

"Steve by that point had pretty much lost respect for the system," Parker said. "He had little or no respect for law enforcement, and it showed."

It was not much of a surprise then when Steve Davis was hauled into jail the Wednesday before Thanksgiving 1995, beaten so badly he required a trip to the emergency room for stitches.

Parker and another Comanche attorney, Keith Woodley, demanded a grand jury investigation. A grand jury meeting in January 1996 was to hear evidence against Davis for resisting arrest in connection with the November incident.

The attorneys wanted the grand jury to investigate the beating at the same time.

In a letter to then-District Attorney Andy McMullen, the two attorneys wrote, "When you hear the facts of this case, you should be appalled."

Another letter accused the two deputies of using excessive force in subduing Davis.

"In fact," the letter stated, "they just beat the hell out of Steve Davis."

Sheriff Works acknowledged that Davis took a pretty good beating.

"He just lost the end of the fight," Works said.

Works said Davis was taken directly to the emergency room. While being treated he gave a statement to an emergency medical technician, Works said. The statement was used in the grand jury presentation.

According to the statement, Davis took responsibility for the incident.

"I was fighting them with a chair," the sheriff quoted from the statement.

"It wasn't a coerced statement," Works said. "He said it out of our presence."

Beating was avoidable

Accounts of what happened that Wednesday before Thanksgiving Day 1995 differ. According to the sheriff, two deputies stopped Davis in the Lake Proctor area near his home for running a stop sign coming onto Highway 16 from the PAR Country Club Road.

"They (deputies) were coming down the road, and this vehicle runs a stop sign in front of them," Works said.

Davis stopped the pickup, got out and was talking to the deputies when he suddenly jumped back into his pickup and took off, Works said. The deputies then pursued him to his nearby house, Works said.

Once there, Davis "jumps out of the pickup and runs into his house and they follow him," Works said. "Inside the house is where the fight occurred."

Works acknowledged that Davis had cuts and bruises on his arms and hands. He noted that Davis was not hit in the head.

Whatever the outcome, Works pointed out it was avoidable.

"If he had stayed there and been interviewed on this thing, then nothing would have happened."

Not his style

But staying there and being interviewed was not Steve Davis' style, according to acquaintances.

Davis was extremely intelligent and knew the law well, said Parker, his former law associate.

"He knew where he stood with an officer," Parker said.

Parker said Davis showed the deputies his driver's license and proof of insurance. Parker theorized Davis then said something to the effect of "Am I under arrest, or am I free to go?" and then left.

"They either write him a ticket or arrest him, or he goes on about his business," Parker said. "He knew exactly what he could do under the law."

"I'm sure he said, 'See you guys later' " and then left, Parker said.

Both Parker and Davis' sister Fredda said witnesses who lived near Davis at the lake insisted nothing happened to provoke a beating.

They said they saw Davis go in his house and a few minutes later the deputies showed up.

"Then they heard sounds of people hollering," Parker said.

Parker said what impressed him the most and caused him to question the need for using force was the amount of time that lapsed before the deputies arrived at Davis' house.

"It clearly was not a hot pursuit," he said.

Wherever he was, they were

After that incident, Steve Davis was not quite the carefree young man he had been. He told Parker and Parker's paralegal that "they would catch him out some night and he would 'resist arrest' and they would kill him."

"I thought he was overreacting," Parker said.

Fredda noticed a change, too, when Steve was at her house.

"Every 60 seconds he would go over there and look out that lace curtain," she said, pointing to an outside door with a lace-covered window.

She said that after the beating, Steve continued to be harassed by the sheriff's department, although Works denies that.

According to the sheriff, the only contact his deputies had with Davis were the night of the beating and the night he disappeared.

"He wound up fleeing both times," Works said. "To my knowledge that was the only two times we had anything to do with him."

But others insist Davis was the subject of harassment.

"For whatever reason the harassment didn't seem to stop - wherever he was, they were," his sister said.

After the January 1996 grand jury failed to return indictments in connection with the beating, Fredda thought further action was needed.

"I thought if he filed a suit against these guys it would scare them into backing off."

The lawsuit was set in motion.

"We had a draft of a suit," Parker said of him and attorney Woodley. Steve dropped by Parker's office in early April of last year, but the suit was not ready, Parker said.

On April 16, Parker left for New York, and while he was gone Steve picked up a copy of the suit, Parker said.

The suit, alleging violation of Davis' civil rights, named Comanche County, the Comanche County Sheriff's Office and agents of the sheriff's department, Parker said.

It was never filed because Davis disappeared.

Not a witch hunt

The family of Steve Davis may never get a satisfactory answer to the cause of his death. It would take more than the current evidence to convince them he hanged himself.

"We're not on a witch hunt," Fredda said. But both she and Parker believe there are too many unanswered questions. Among them:

- Steve had confirmation from the state that his law license would be reinstated, according to Parker.

"Things were looking up. Why would he kill himself?" his sister asked.

- How did a deputy sheriff happen to be at the entrance of a closed park at 1 a.m. when Steve allegedly ran a stop sign? A woman who was with Davis said he had pulled into the park entrance to turn around to go toward his house.

"That's when the (patrol car) lights hit 'em," Parker said.

- How could a 6-foot tall man, weighing 170 pounds hang himself from a 5-foot tree with a short-sleeve shirt?

- Why had a decomposing body lying close to four stores not attracted attention in nine months? Why had there been no signs of preying animals in the area?

According to the sheriff, on the night Davis disappeared he was pursued by only one deputy, contrary to the family's belief that two were involved. Works said the deputy stopped Davis, again for running a stop sign. He also was driving with a suspended license for DWI, Works said.

According to Works, Davis stopped his pickup, got out, and as the deputy was trying to administer a field sobriety test, ran into a wooded area behind four stores near the lake.

"The deputy did not pursue him because he knew he had run before," Works said. "As he (Davis) went around the building and went into the dark, (the deputy) came back and got the keys out of the pickup so he couldn't leave there," Works said.

Shortly thereafter, Works said, three highway patrolmen arrived at the scene, followed by Works.

"We walked around a little bit, around the building and shined the flashlight," he said.

"I just figured he would cut across and go past the golf course and go home."

Works said the officers did not go as far as the area where Davis' body was found nine months later. Further investigations were not conducted because the family did not file a missing persons report.

"I actually thought the family was hiding him," Works said.

You never know

His family and friends actually thought Steve was hiding himself.

"He might have decided he was tired of everything and all the hassle," said Dan Holland, Steve's lifelong friend and boss at Golden Peanut in De Leon, where Steve took a job cleaning peanuts when he was released from prison.

"Deep down I thought he ran off," Holland said.

The two had known each other since first grade. They were so close in fact that Steve, divorced 17 years ago, had named his son Dan after his friend.

Holland knew what Steve faced coming out of prison, although the crime he confessed to was not a violent one.

"He knew what he did was wrong when he did it," Holland said. "He thought he paid his debt to society" when he fulfilled his prison term.

But some people treated him "like a murderer," Holland said.

At work, Steve was just one of the guys and got along well with is co-workers. After Steve was beaten in November 1995, "he was more scared than bitter," Holland said.

His good friend warned Steve to keep his nose clean. Steve liked to drink beer, Holland said, and he warned the free-spirited Steve to be careful about drinking and driving.

Holland has thought several times about his old friend since the remains were identified. He has read his friend's poetry.

"I can read some loneliness and sadness in his poems," Holland said, but also joy.

Like Steve's family, it is difficult for Holland to believe Steve Davis took his own life.

"He seemed like he didn't have a care in the world," Holland said. "I don't think he would commit suicide. But you never know."

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