Dixie One Stop is like a lot of small-town Florida convenience stores. It
has rickety old gas pumps out front and the obligatory Ho-Ho's snake cakes
and Pringles chips along with the more provincial boiled peanuts (try the
Cajun flavored if you're brave) and Moon Pies on cramped metal shelves
inside. You can wash down the consumables with any variety of cheap beer
or a sulfury-tasting, fix-it-yourself, fountain soda. The One Stop sits on
desolate, dusty stretch of U.S. 19 in the heart of Dixie County, Florida-a
part of Florida you won't find depicted in a poster on the wall of a
Cincinnati travel agency. The locals, when they finish a hard day at the
saw or pulpwood mill, ease their rattling pickups off the weather-cracked
highway onto the uneven, potholed, ungeometric blob that is the One Stop's
parking lot and head inside for some refreshments. They call the man
behind the counter by name, mill around, shoot the breeze, and lean up
against the cinder block walls in their dirty jeans, workboots, and NASCAR
ball caps (Earnhardt's "three-car," as they say it, seems to be
the most popular). They're dark faces are appear to be tanned to the tenth
subdermal layer behind bushy walrus mustaches or out-of-control goatees.
They have the proud swagger of hard-working, hard-living, poor, Southern,
white folk. They take don't take any guff off anybody and try not give
much back. If you decide to mess with one of these fellows or their kin,
you'll be in for a tussle, which isn't uncommon around here. So on April
9, 1999 they put on amused smiles and started a general gravitation toward
the gas pumps where two youngsters were going toe to toe. These old boys,
so acclimated to the rough and tumble reality of their community, weren't
prepared for the kind of violence they were about to witness.
Dixie County, population 14,000, is couched between the Suwannee River and one of the most sparsely populated swaths of Florida's Gulf Coast. This is the area of Florida that Stephen Foster referred to as his "good old home." It's the land of cypress-lined, dark-water rivers and oak scrub flatlands. All rural communities must have a local festival and Dixie County's is Red Belly Day--in celebration of the rusty-colored bream that the locals pull out the Suwannee with their cane fishing poles. A humorous dedication to the Red Belly theme is a flop contest wherein locals propel themselves off of a dock trying to perform the best (or worst?) flop. They emerge looking like the fish the festival honors.
Cross City is the county seat and home to the tiny Dixie County Courthouse, which the cashier at Hardee's said was easy to find because you just turn at the third red light and "there ain't but three red lights." Leaning lazily across the counter, the young girl provided colorful insights about many of the local institutions. As she complained about the local paper, the Dixie County advocate, providing a jail log but no TV guide, a charter bus from Provo, Utah unloaded its cargo of senior citizens into the warm, Spring afternoon. The people, 30 or 40 of them, in their polyester and pastels, looked bewildered. Perhaps it was because exactly one cashier and one cook were on duty, or perhaps because this was one part of the Sunshine State not represented in their travel brochures. Dixie County is 150 miles from Florida's tourist attractions, but could just as well be on another planet. In place of condominiumed beaches and live Disney Characters, the vacationers saw the dusty country roads and young men in dirty jeans and ball caps. The old folks were not at home. They soon realized that getting everyone's order filled was going to be impossible. As the tour bus re-filled and pulled out, the cashier looked at the cook and said, half amused, "Three people from the bus got waited on."
Just up the road from Hardee's is Dixie County High School, which "lets out at three but if you're worried about a traffic rush, there ain't one." It's a small group of redbrick buildings connected by open sidewalks. It looks like the elementary schools of some larger towns. After classes, a history teacher who looked young and blonde enough to be a student was on the phone in the main office trying to arrange a service project for her students. They'd be happy to decorate the graves of veterans in the local cemeteries she told someone on the other end. Principal Charlotte Lord said those are the kind of people that live in Dixie County. Her students come from the homes of good country folk who still believe in traditional values: God, Country, and Family. They're often willing to fight for these values, especially the one about family. In fact, she explained that's what the altercation at the One Stop was apparently about. Donald Chavous, one of Prinicpal Lord's best students, heard earlier in the day that Marion "Opey" Pate, a young local criminal and all-around trouble maker, had run his sister-in-law off the road by driving erratically. When Donald spotted Opey at the One Stop, it was natural to confront him. Anything else would have been cowardly. In Dixie County families are tight and you stick up for your kin. Most of the onlookers knew the boys, and the confrontation that turned quickly to fists seemed to be a fair fight, just two youngsters duking it out, one on one. Witnesses said Donald seemed to be getting the best of Opey. That may be partial explanation for the horror that happened next, but there are still more questions than answers.
Opey Pate was as well known to Principal Lord as Donald Chavous. He had come to her early last year asking to be readmitted to school. He had dropped out some time ago. She explained to the young man that coming back after a long time out of school could be difficult. She told him he would be expected to follow the rules and work hard. The principal commended him for his desire to come back. Opey struggled, though, and came to her office one day to tell her she had been right, it was tough to come back. He appreciated the opportunity, but would be leaving school.
Opey, had no doubt found Dixie County High School different kind of place then the one he left some years before. When Lord received the appointment to serve as principal, she was an administrator at neighboring Cheifland High School. She was brought in to get DCHS under control.
"TV 20 came and put cameras in my face and said, 'There are riots at Dixie County High School. What are you going to do about it?'" she said. Lord thought the TV station was exaggerating a bit. But there was a prevailing attitude that fighting was OK. She said it's part of the local culture. Adults fight, kids fight.
She seems to be right. Most folks in the county tell you fighting is a way of life. In many ways, the community doesn't seem to have evolved beyond the rough, Southern, frontier land it once was. In 1997 a member of the school board was arrested for taking out his pocketknife and cutting a man in the neck over a minor altercation in the parking lot of a store. The incident reportedly occurred when the school board member, thinking he knew the man, said hello. When the other man told the elected official they didn't know each other, he pulled the knife and cut the man after repeatedly asking, "Are you calling me a liar?"
It always starts that way, with a few words, some questions mingled with curses-a short superfluous opportunity for the offender to explain himself. That's probably how it started on April 9, at the One Stop. Opey was at the gas station with his mother, Julie Cooke, who was gassing up her car when Donald approached. She watched, the gasoline nozzle still in her hand, as Donald confronted her son about running his sister-in-law off the road. It got ugly, as these things often do, and soon Julie was watching Donald get the best of her son. Since that day, people have speculated about what went through Julie Cooke's mind as she stood there watching her boy take a drubbing. Mothers are the ones who have the easiest time comprehending what she did next. While the two boys flailed away within steps of her, Julie approached Donald and soaked him down with gasoline. It happened too fast to really comprehend, everyone said later. One second the boys were pounding on one another the next Donald was soaked and the heavy fumes of gasoline filled the air. Then Julie pulled out the cigarette lighter. Yes, A LIGHTER. She flicked the flame to life and went started a weird dance of death with Donald. She came at him with the open flame. They grappled as Donald tried to avoid the little torch. The first swipe missed because because Donald was able to brush her off. Miraculously, his gas-soaked clothes didn't light. But she came back for him, determined. On the second attempt, the flame found the fuel and Donald Chavous burst into a ball of fire. Bystanders, Donald's brother among them, ran to the burning boy, knocked him down, and tried to rip his burning shirt off. Julie Cooke and Opey Pate simply got in their car and left. The deputies would arrive a few minutes later. Donald's sister came upon the scene and had to be told the burnt figure on the ground was her brother. She was unable to recognize him.
Donald was doing what he was supposed to. It's what you do when somebody messes with you or your family. You take care of business. The good folks of Dixie County accept it as a way of life. A good, hard ass-whipping will usually rectify a situation. What the old boys at the One Stop had just witnessed, though, left them in cold shock. According to national reports, this tradition of violent confrontation over perceived wrongs or insults is a regional epidemic. In crime statistics published by the FBI, the South consistently leads the nation in violent crime. A Department of Justice study of national homicide trends from 1976 to 1997 found that the rate of murder was highest in the South and often more than double the rate of the Northeast or Middle Atlantic States. Psychology professors Richard E. Nisbett and Dov Cohen, authors of Culture of Honor: The Psychology of Violence in the South (Westview Press 1996), claim they have proven through scientific research that Southerners are more likely to react violently to confrontation, especially if they believe their honor has been offended. In one experiment, subjects were chosen at random and intentionally bumped into in a hallway by a research assistant. The research assistant would continue walking and mutter the word "asshole." The researchers found that northerners were more likely to be amused by the behavior of the person who bumped into them, while southerners were more likely to react angrily and show the physiological signs of preparing for a fight.
Principal Lord said there is definitely "a tradition of not backing down" in Dixie County.
She had been able to curb the culture of violence, at least at school, by implementing tough measures such as mandatory 10-day suspensions (five days home/five days "in school") for anyone who threw a punch. Still, it was difficult. She told the students repeatedly to come to her office to have their problems mediated. Sometimes the best she could do was getting them to agree to have their brawl somewhere off campus.
Ironically, on the day Donald was burned, students were on vacation for spring break. As local EMS personnel worked on Donald, a helicopter was dispatched from the trauma unit of Shands Hospital in Gainesville. The young man had severe second and third degree burns over forty percent of his body. EMS officials at the scene told deputies the injuries would cause permanent disfigurement. In the Shands burn unit later that night, Donald's mother, Sarah Hunt, said her son cried from the pain. Because of the weakened condition of his body doctors feared painkillers might be life threatening. And so Donald had to ride it out. Burn wounds are excruciating. Your body can go into shock. You literally shake from the pain. Sarah stayed with her boy, frustrated because she could do nothing for him.
Julie Cooke and Opey Pate were picked up at their house by deputies and taken to the Dixie County Jail, where Cooke was read her rights and charged with attempted murder and aggravated assault with permanent disfigurement.
"I couldn't believe it," said Sheriff Dewey Hatcher of the incident. "You don't expect it to happen here." The Sheriff, with his easy-going manner and twangy soft Southern drawl, is a local boy born and bred. He leaned back behind his desk with his hands resting on the back of his head. His star and his weapon, the emblems of his authority, were no where to be seen. The sheriff seemed like the type who runs his office by persuasion rather than force. He explained that he was in his third year of his first term, and this incident was strange stuff for his small force that usually deals with property crimes and domestic squabbles. He talked with a resigned smile about the "attention" the county had received. The look on his face said it's not the kind of attention he would have preferred. He mentioned that a reporter from a paper in Chicago called about the incident, after seeing a story about it on the Internet. The Sheriff proffered, shaking his head, that the amount of information available on the net is "scary."
Hatcher had just finished a meeting with two of his investigators, who emerged grinning from his office in the rear of the courthouse. They had warm greeting for the folks waiting to see the Sheriff. They weren't dressed like the detectives on TV, but just like their boss, in jeans and casual shirts. The only uniformed officer to be seen was the Sheriff's secretary, a serious, older woman who wore a full dress uniform with the bars of a lieutenant on the collar. Sheriff Hatcher said he's known both families involved in the incident all of his life.
"It's senseless," said the Sheriff. "In five seconds, two lives were ruined."
Hatcher was relieved that Cook was denied bond by a judge and held at the Dixie County Jail. It's best that she was denied bail, the Sheriff explained, because he hoped to avert further conflict between the two families. Family members seeking vengeance would not be unusual. It was a terrible thing that happened, said the sheriff. Boys will fight and get hurt, that's natural, but there wasn't any need for this type of thing.
Sarah Hunt had to borrow rides to get to the hospital that is an hour's drive from her home. Her "piece of junk" wouldn't make it. It's chancy to even drive it around town. Sarah loves her boy, though, and was there every day. She even had to miss much needed hours at work and put off some of the washing she takes in to support herself and Donald. Sarah said her former husband, Donald's father, walked out on the family a few years ago. It was an Easter Sunday, she remembers. Her other two children, from another marriage, are both adults. She lives in a mobile home on her mother's land, "a little piece of my Momma's dirt," she called it.
The family never had much money, but she did all she could for Donald who she's extremely proud of. A few months ago, one of her paychecks, the whole paycheck, went to buy his class ring. She recounts proudly how he saved his grandmother from drowning in the Suwannee River a few years back. When he saw she was in trouble he jumped right in behind her. He never hesitated. You protect your family. A member of the state legislature sent a letter commending his bravery. Sarah spoke softly when talking about Donald, but her voice changed when she was asked about Julie Cook.
"You're not human to do that people," said Sarah, angrily. "She needs to pay for what she's done."
Sarah explained that her son is not a troublemaker but he will stand up for himself and his family. Since her break up with her husband she has had to take on the chore of being both a mother and a father. She roamed the woods and rivers taking Donald hunting and fishing, things that a father should do. She said she raised a good boy, who can take care of himself.
"There's people in this town that are bullies," she explained. "At least they think they're bullies."
Sarah said she's normally an easygoing person, but she would die to protect her family.
"There's things you don't mess with--my young 'uns, and my momma."
Julie Cook must have thought she protecting her son guessed Charlotte Lord, trying to inject some reason into the madness. She saw her boy in trouble and she reacted. Still, the principal said, it's hard to justify the brutality of it. Lord was concerned about the effect the incident would have on the Cooks' daughter, a student at the high school. The Cook family had declined to comment about the incident on the advice of their attorney. Cook's son Opey Pate, who the Chavous family believes ran Donald's sister in law off the road that day, had been a troubled young man. Dixie County Criminal Court records showed he was arrested in 1998 for brandishing a handgun on the campus of Dixie County High School. He allegedly pointed the gun at a young black man and called him a "nigger." Court records said Opey couldn't read, so some of the documents were read to him. He received three years probation for the gun incident, a condition of the sentence was that he "make a good faith effort" to obtain his GED. He was also arrested for a fight in the Wal-Mart parking lot in Cheifland. That case appeared to be in a state of stalemate after having been batted back and forth between juvenile and adult court, because the alleged crime occurred before he turned 18. Neither Julie Cook nor Donald Chavous had criminal court records in Dixie County, at the time of the incident. Donald and Opey weren't charged for fighting that day. Boys will fight, Sheriff Hatcher reminds us.
Donald Chavous' voice sounded low and faraway as his liquidy southern drawl came through the receiver. A week after the incident, his voice was slowed even more by the labored breaths he was taking in between sentences. He said "yes sir" when he answered questions. It was impossible not to like the kid. He was humble and gracious; and judicious in his remarks. Sarah was not just being the proud, prejudicial mother. She had, in fact, raised a good boy. He said he remembered everything right up to the point when he burst into flames. After that, it was all dark. He had to have skin-graft surgery to repair some the damage. He said the doctors were amazed at his rate of recovery. His mother thinks his brother and other witnesses saved his life by tearing the burning clothes off of Donald's body. Now he was at home, not yet finished with the pain of further burn treatment; the scraping and baths to remove dead skin. He knew he would have to return to the hospital periodically. The doctors'strict instructions included taking it easy, only wearing clean cotton clothing over his heavily bandaged wounds, and using powerful sun screen if he had to go outside. He said his friends made pilgrimages to the hospital to show their support and his family literally "wore themselves out," trying to care for him. The doctors, he said, were "excellent."
Sarah Chavous said she thanked the doctors and "Almighty God" for her son's recovery. Donald claimed to have no ill feelings at all toward Opey Pate. He and Opey were settling just settling a conflict.
"I've got nothing against the boy," he said. "The woman is evidently not right. If she woulda had a gun, she woulda shot me." He says it resolutely. Donald had thought about that. The violence taken to another level by the addition of an unstable person and an available weapon.
What did he think should happen to her? Donald didn't want to say. He had other things on his mind, like catching up on schoolwork so he could graduate with with his class in May. He had been on the A-B Honor Roll.
Donald Chavous did walk the aisle while the "Pomp and Circumstance" played on a hot night in May. He had worked hard to recover academically and physically. He stood with his mother by his side. He was wearing his class ring, the one his mother bought for him, on the wrong hand. The other one still had to heal.