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MURDERS HE WROTE

Jan. 19, 2012 at midnight
Updated Jan. 18, 2012 at 7:19 p.m.

ABOVE MIDDLE: Georgia Jones, center, fights tears as Kevin Hailey pleads guilty to the murder of her former sister-in-law.

ABOUT THE BOOK COVER

Victoria Advocate multimedia editor Robert Zavala designed the cover for "Among Murderers and Madness." Zavala, who has other book covers to his credit, has also been a graphic artist at the San Antonio Express-News and the Beaumont Enterprise. He was also graphics editor at the Orange County Register in California. His artwork has won state, national and international awards. One of his graphics is on permanent display at the Alamo.

Murder is the most unforgiving story a reporter can write.

I say "unforgiving" instead of "unforgettable" because a lot of stories are unforgettable.

Take last year's Twilight Rapist case that I covered for the Victoria Advocate - definitely unforgettable.

But other cases I've covered for the newspaper like 8-year-old Crystal Ramirez, starved to death by her adoptive parents, and Texas Game Warden Justin Hurst, shot down senselessly in the prime of his life - those are forever embedded in my memory with the lingering question, "Why?"

Unless on the crime beat, no one seeks out writing about murder and a reporter could go an entire career without ever dealing with that particular carnage.

The same held true for me until a wet January morning almost 20 years ago, Jan. 27, 1992.

I started a community newspaper in newsletter format the previous spring in Atlanta, Texas, but wasn't prepared for what was about to unfold that day.

The bodies of three people - Gerri Faye Butts, 29, and her two daughters, Jessica, 11, and Mackenzie, 2 - were found in their mobile home.

All dead. All murdered.

As I approached the crime scene that day, excitement was the driving force as the adrenaline of the moment overtook any other emotions that might have come to the surface at that time.

Those would come later.

I couldn't get within yards of the simple trailer, tan with brown trim. Two or three pine trees dotted the small lot. A girl's bicycle leaned against the side of the humble dwelling. Another smaller bike with training wheels stood nearby.

I used a long lens and took a couple of photos of the trailer with yellow crime scene tape around it, but most of the activity here was done.

What followed was nearly two decades of murders unpunished.

I have recorded how things unfolded from my perspective in a new book, "Among Murderers and Madness," set for release later this week through CreateSpace, an Amazon.com company.

I tell the tale through not only personal experiences and observations, but also through the voices of those closest to the victims and to the suspect - even the suspect himself - and through media reports of the case.

Along the way, a cast of characters emerge, some good, some bad, some even bizarre.

The role of the media covering the case is also examined, not only my publication but also the other local newspaper, area newspapers and television stations, as well as the national media, including "Gentleman's Quarterly," "The Maury Povich Show," "Inside Edition" and "A Current Affair."

CAREER

I never gave murder a thought when I began my journalism career on the Cook High School (Adel, Ga.) yearbook and newspaper staffs.

When I decided to join the Army in 1976, I initially asked if any training was available in finance. I wanted to be trained in something I could use after I left the military.

Fate took a giant step into my life at that point.

Nothing was available in fiance. I asked if there were any jobs that had to do with writing or journalism.

There were.

I became a military occupational specialty 71Q, information specialist (journalist) and spent the next four years doing some exciting jobs in the U.S. Army.

Highlights included serving as editor of the Fort Ord Panorama in California and working in public affairs for the 3rd U.S. Infantry (The Old Guard) near Washington, D.C.

While with The Old Guard, I was fortunate enough to cover - because we had units participating- the opening ceremony of the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, N.Y., the memorial service for the servicemen killed in the raid on Iran trying to free the American hostages, as well as many ceremonies on the White House lawn and at the Pentagon.

After the military, I went to Auburn University, in my dad's hometown, and as a student worked in the Sports Information Office. I later worked in the Southeastern Conference Commissioners Office in Birmingham, Ala.

After the SEC, I spent time with Host Communications, writing and editing college athletics media guides and game programs, mostly for the University of Texas at Austin, where I would also earn my master's degree.

I eventually landed in Atlanta, Texas, as sports editor of the Atlanta Citizens-Journal, a bi-weekly newspaper.

After leaving the Journal, I began my own publication in Atlanta, the Pine Country Bulletin.

It first hit the streets in March 1991, less than a year before the murder of the Butts family.

THE BOOK

Why the murder of the Butts family was so important to me and why it's a story that I feel so strongly needs to be told is best revealed in the introduction to the book.

That introduction reads, in part:

Did I shake hands with a baby killer?

I grasped the same right hand that could very well have held a 2-year-old face down in a bathtub and strangled an 11-year-old with a telephone cord.

We were practically face to face. I was standing in line at a crowded Subway restaurant in Atlanta, Texas when he walked in. I couldn't slug him. So, I stuck out my hand and he stuck out his.

I don't think Kevin Hailey, who many others also believe killed the 2-year-old, her 11-year-old sister and their mother felt very comfortable. I began to think about Hailey and the crimes I believed he committed.

I looked at my hand.

Hailey and the woman with him didn't stay long enough to order. She was the first woman to cut my hair in Atlanta. I knew she had a young daughter, a pre-teen. She wouldn't look me in the eye. What in the hell was she doing with him?

I felt some of the same sadness as I did on that January day in 1992 when Gerri Faye, Jessica and Mackenzie Butts were found dead in their East Texas mobile home.

Three days later, my dad died, and somehow these deaths have become forever intertwined, unforgettable to me. The emotion I attach to losing my father, I also attach to the Butts murders. I couldn't just let this story go. It was the worst week of my life and the worst of theirs.

And their last.

...I promised Gerri Faye's mother that I would never let the public forget what happened to her daughter and her granddaughters.

"Among Murderers and Madness" keeps that pledge.

When trying to interest agents and publishers in this story, I was once asked, "Why are these murders different from any other trailer trash murder?"

How rude was my immediate reaction, but of course realized what was being asked and why even if the choice of words was less than tactful.

I often thought the correct answer, in part, was the three different manners of death, the suspect being a deputy sheriff's son, logical case-related differences.

But as the final pages of this book were being put together and sent off for publication nearly 20 years after three lives were taken, the real reason finally occurred to me.

These murders are different because they affected me.

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