Page 40 of The Last Juror

The funeral for Mo Teale was held at the Willow Road Methodist Church, number thirty-six on my list and one of my favorites. It was barely in the city limits of Clanton, south of the square. Because I had never met Mr. Teale, I did not go to his funeral. However, there were many in attendance who had never met him.

Had he died of a heart attack at the age of fifty-one, it would have been sudden and tragic and his final service would have drawn an impressive crowd. But being gunned down in a revenge killing by a freshly paroled murderer was simply too much for the curious to resist. The mob included long-forgotten high school acquaintances of Mr. Teale's four adult children, and meddling old widows who seldom missed a good funeral, and out-of-town reporters, and several gentlemen whose only contact with Mo was the fact that they owned John Deere tractors.

I stayed away and worked on his obituary. His oldest son had been kind enough to stop by the office and give me the details. He was thirty-three - Mo and his wife jump-started their family - and he sold new Fords over in Tupelo. He stayed for almost two hours and desperately wanted me to assure him that Danny Padgitt was about to be hauled in and stoned.

Interment was at the Clanton cemetery. The funeral procession stretched for blocks and, for good measure, swung by the square and proceeded down Jackson Avenue, just outside the Times. It did not disrupt traffic at all - everyone was at the funeral.

* * *

Using Harry Rex as an intermediary, Lucien Wilbanks arranged a meeting with Sheriff McNatt. I was specifically mentioned by Lucien, and specifically not invited. Didn't matter; Harry Rex took notes and told me everything, with the understanding that nothing would get printed.

Also present in Lucien's office was Rufus Buckley, the District Attorney who had succeeded Ernie Gaddis in 1975. Buckley was a publicity hog who, though reluctant to meddle in Padgitt's parole, was now anxious to lead the mob to lynch him. Harry Rex despised Buckley, and the feelings were mutual. Lucien despised him too, but then Lucien disliked virtually everyone because everyone certainly disliked him. Sheriff McNatt hated Lucien, tolerated Harry Rex, and was forced to work the same side of the street with Buckley, though he loathed him in private.

Given those conflicting sentiments, I was quite pleased not be invited to the meeting.

Lucien began by saying that he had talked with both Danny Padgitt and his father, Gill. They had met somewhere outside of Clanton and away from the island. Danny was doing fine, working each day in the office of the family's highway contracting firm, that office being conveniently located within the safe harbor of Padgitt Island.

Not surprisingly, Danny denied any involvement in the murders of Lenny Fargarson and Mo Teale. He was shocked by what was happening and angry that he was widely considered to be the chief suspect. Lucien emphasized that he grilled Danny at length, even to the point of irritating him, and he never showed the slightest hint of dishonesty.

Lenny Fargarson was shot on the afternoon of May 23. At that time, Danny was in his office, and there were four people who could vouch for his presence there. The Fargarson home was at least a thirty-minute drive from Padgitt Island, and the four witnesses were certain that Danny was either in his office or very close to it throughout the afternoon.

"How many of these witnesses are named Padgitt?" McNatt asked.

"We're not giving names, yet," Lucien said, stonewalling as any good lawyer should.

Eleven days later, on June 3, Mo Teale was shot at approximately nine-fifteen in the morning. At that precise moment, Danny was standing beside a newly paved highway in Tippah County, getting documents signed by one of the Padgitt construction foremen. The foreman, along with two laborers, was willing to testify as to exactly where Danny was at that moment. The highway job was at least two hours away from Ned Ray Zook's farm in eastern Ford County.

Lucien presented airtight alibis for both murders, though his small audience was very skeptical. Of course the Padgitts would deny everything. And given their capacity to lie, break legs, and bribe with serious cash, they could find witnesses for anything.

Sheriff McNatt voiced his skepticism. He explained to Lucien that his investigation was continuing, and if and when he had probable cause, he would get his arrest warrant and descend upon the island. He had spoken several times with the state police, and if a hundred troopers were necessary to flush out Danny, then so be it.

Lucien said that would not be necessary. If a valid arrest warrant was obtained, he would do his best to bring the boy in himself.

"And if there's another killing," McNatt said, "this place will erupt. You'll have a thousand rednecks crossin' the bridge and shootin' every Padgitt they can find."

Buckley said that he and Judge Omar Noose had spoken twice about the killings, and he was reasonably confident that Noose was "almost ready" to issue a warrant for Danny's arrest. Lucien attacked him with a barrage of questions about probable cause and sufficient evidence. Buckley argued that the threat by Padgitt during his trial was ample reason to suspect him of the murders.

The meeting deteriorated as the two argued heatedly over nitpicking legalities. The Sheriff finally broke it up by announcing he'd heard enough and walked out of Lucien's office. Buckley followed. Harry Rex hung around and chatted with Lucien in a much more relaxed setting.

* * *

"You got liars protectin' liars," Harry Rex growled as he paced around my office an hour later. "Lucien tells the truth only when it sounds good, which, for him and his clientele, is not very often. The Padgitts have no concept of what the truth really is."

"Remember Lydia Vince?" I asked.

"Who?"

"The slut at the trial, the one Wilbanks put on the stand, under oath. She told the jury Danny was in her bed when Rhoda was murdered. The Padgitts found her, bought her testimony, and handed her to Lucien. They're all a bunch of lying thieves."

"Then her ex got shot, right?"

"Just after the trial. Probably got hit by one of the Padgitt goons. No evidence other than the bullets. No suspects. Nothing. Sounds familiar."

"McNatt didn't buy anything Lucien said. Neither did Buckley."

"And you?"

"Naw. I've seen Lucien cry before in front of juries. He can be very persuasive at times, not often, but occasionally. I got the impression he was working way too hard to convince us. It's Danny, and he's got some help."

"Does McNatt believe that?"

"Yep, but he has no proof. An arrest is a waste of time."

"It'll keep him off the streets."

"It's temporary. With no proof you can't keep him in jail forever. He's patient. He's been waiting for nine years."

* * *

Though the pranksters were never identified, and they had enough sense to take their secret to their graves, there was considerable speculation in the months that followed that they were the two teenaged sons of our Mayor. Two youngsters were seen sprinting away from the scene, much too fast to be caught. The Mayor's boys had a long and colorful track record as creative and brazen jokesters.

Under the cover of darkness, they boldly sneaked through a thick hedgerow and came to a stop less than fifty feet from the corner of the front porch of Mr. Earl Youry's house. There they watched and listened to the crowd of friends and neighbors camped out on the front lawn, protecting Mr. Youry. They waited patiently for just the right moment to launch their attack.

A few minutes after eleven, a long strand of eighty-four Black Cat firecrackers was tossed in the general direction of the porch, and when they began popping Clanton almost erupted into an all-out war. Men yelled, ladies screamed, Mr. Youry hit the planks and scurried into his house on all-fours. His sentries out front rolled over in their lawn chairs, clawed around for their guns, and hid low in the grass as the Blacks Cats bounced and popped in a smoky frenzy. It took thirty seconds for all eighty-four to finish exploding, and during that time a dozen heavily armed men were darting behind trees, pointing their guns in every direction, ready to shoot anything that moved.

A part-time deputy named Travis was jolted from his sleep on the hood of his patrol car. He yanked out his.44 Magnum and dashed low and hard in the general direction of the Black Cats. Armed neighbors were scampering everywhere in Mr. Youry's front yard. For some reason, and neither Travis nor his supervisor ever revealed the official explanation, if in fact there was one, he fired a shot into the air. A very loud shot. A shot heard well above the firecrackers. It caused another itchy finger, someone who never admitted to pulling the trigger, to unload a.12-gauge shotgun shell into the trees. No doubt many others would have commenced firing and who knows how many might have been slaughtered had not the other part-time deputy, Jimmy, screamed loudly, "Hold your fire, you idiots!"

At which point the gunfire ceased immediately, but the Black Cats had a few rounds left. When the last one popped the entire gang of vigilantes walked over to the smoldering patch of grass and inspected things. Word spread that it was just fireworks. Mr. Earl Youry pecked through the front door and eventually eased outside.

Down the street, Mrs. Alice Wood heard the assault and was running to the rear of her house to lock the door when the two youngsters blew by her back entrance, sprinting and laughing furiously. She would report that they were about fifteen and white.

A mile away, in Lowtown, I had just walked down the steps of Miss Callie's front porch when I heard the distant explosions. The late shift - Sam, Leon, and two deacons - jumped to their feet and gazed into the distance. The forty-four sounded like a howitzer. We waited and waited, and when all was still again Leon said, "Sounds like firecrackers."

Sam had sneaked inside to check on his mother. He came back and said, "She's asleep."

"I'll go check it out," I said. "And I'll call if it's anything important."

Mr. Youry's street was alive with the red and blue lights of a dozen police cars. Traffic was heavy as the other curious fought to get near the scene. I saw Buster's car parked in a shallow ditch, and when I found him a few minutes later he told me the story. "Coupla kids," he said.

I found it funny, but I was in the distinct minority.


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