I don’t care what the international lawyers say. We are going to kick some ass.
George W. Bush, September 2001
Stroman’s madder than hell, but he’s not insane. He certainly isn’t fixing to get himself shot. The moment the attendant reaches under the cash register for his .22, it’s time to act. And he’s quick! If Stroman hadn’t come prepared, he’d be in real trouble. His gun recoils violently, upwards and to the left. A flame a foot long shoots from the barrel.
The bullet, a copper-coated .44, strikes the attendant just above the left collarbone. Coming as it does from a range of just two feet, the vast majority of the muzzle velocity remains intact. The collarbone fractures and the slug moves on, breaking the first three ribs, penetrating the left lung, then shattering three more. It travels 8[1/2] inches through the victim’s torso, coming to a rest just beneath the skin of his lower back. The attendant collapses.
Stroman will later state that he was somewhere else when all this takes place. Not that he will deny the crime (he admits this immediately), rather that the adrenaline, the shooting and the flame that leaps from the revolver’s barrel affects him in some way. Time neither slows nor accelerates, but rather does both simultaneously, so that, while the flame emerges from the barrel in slow motion, like in a movie, everything else appears to take place instantaneously.
‘It’s like I was floating above the room,’ he says. ‘Like someone else was doing it.’
This dissociation may account for Stroman’s inability to recall what happens next. But that’s clear. It’s all on CCTV. He shoves the revolver back in to his waistband and shouts at the attendant: ‘Open the register!’
Reaching over the counter he scrabbles about frantically apparently trying to get to the cash, failing and knocking the keyboard on to the floor. ‘Open the register now or I’m gonna kill you! open it! open it!’
Stroman’s desperation is now palpable. He reaches for the revolver again.
‘I see that gun down there! Open the register or I’m gonna blow your brains out!’
A glance at the window – is someone coming? – apparently persuades him not to make good on his threat. Instead, he turns, disappears through the door, climbs into a silver Ford Thunderbird and accelerates across the garage forecourt. As he does so, a regular customer, Sam Bradley, pulling in to the station, is forced to swerve to avoid a collision. Stroman brakes sharply, turns around, eyeballs Bradley and then, incongruously, waves a thank you. He pulls out into the traffic and heads south, towards Interstate 30.
What thoughts are going through Stroman’s mind at this point? Elation? Probably. Exhilaration? Certainly.
‘Ye-es!’ he says. ‘God bless America!’
The Shell station is now silent apart from the attendant’s radio, which is broadcasting an interminable weather forecast. The attendant is going into shock. Worse, he is bleeding into his own chest cavity; his left lung is filling up with blood. Although nothing can be seen on the CCTV tape, we can hear him rasping, struggling for breath. Occasionally, there is a scuffling sound behind the counter. What’s he doing back there?
It seems reasonable to assume the attendant is not aware of – is
certainly no longer listening to – the weather forecast. Crime-scene photographs of the station’s checkout area, in no particular order, reveal a state of unimaginable carnage. There is blood, of course, seeping through the rubber matting. There is the .22 on the floor, its magazine partially ejected – presumably a result of the fall. On the counter there is the cash register, its drawer still tightly shut; beside it, a carton of Texas Lotto tickets. Then, back on the floor, there is the telephone, off the hook. It is clear from the state of the phone that the attendant has tried to place a call.
We can make a fair guess as to the destination of that call. Some of the numeric keys have blood on them. There’s a distinct fingerprint on the number 1, a bloody smear to the bottom right of the keypad, below the 9. The attendant has dialled 9-1-1.
Polunsky Unit Death Row Inmate #999409’s correspondence is plastered with US flags. Occasionally, it comes on stars-and-stripes writing paper. Elaborately courteous, the letters are couched in biblical imagery, topped and tailed with little prayers. Guardian Angel, Beacon of Hope, runs one, Empower me to endure and cope. Sometimes there are attachments: True Americans, American Me, ruminations on patriotism. Other times, press cuttings and photographs: himself, his children, a wedding. Occasionally, however, there are little indiscretions, slips, that hint at something less polished.
‘If you are not happy with the way our country and beliefs are,’ #999409 writes in February 2008, ‘then you should pack up and get the hell out.’ Later, he continues: ‘My uncles and forefathers shouldn’t have had to die in vain so that you can leave the country you were born in to come here and disrespect ours and make us bend to your will.’ Four months after this, an aside on my plans to visit Iraq: ‘Why the hell would you want to go to sand land and interview them ragheads is beyond me.’
On the face of it, this is a simple story. On 4 October 2001, Mark
Stroman, a convicted felon, killed Vasudev Patel, a gas-station proprietor. The full ramifications of the Patel/Stroman incident have yet to be played out, but when they are two wives will be widowed, six children orphaned. It’s a tragedy, certainly, but hardly a complicated one. Like so much of what follows, however, the truth is harder to pin down.
Is Stroman a patriot or a racist? ‘Evil’ or misguided? Was his crime very American or very un-American?
‘I did what every other American wanted to do,’ he told KDFW-TV shortly after his arrest, ‘but didn’t have the nerve.’
Is that true?
‘I’m very, very sorry.’ How about that? Scratching the surface of this story reveals a seething mass of contradictions, an orgy of serpents – and all draped in the American flag.
Many, including Stroman himself, would later argue that Patel’s death was the result of events that took place in Washington and New York on 11 September 2001. To an extent, they were right. But there was more to it than that. All of the elements necessary for the murder, bar one, were in place well before 9/11. The roots of Vasudev Patel’s murder, and the various tragedies that would follow it, lay further back in time.
From the moment he was born on 13 October 1969, it was clear that Mark Anthony Baker’s mother was ill prepared for parenthood. Sandra Baker was a high-school dropout; the pregnancy had been unplanned. She was just fifteen years old. Things never improved. When Mark was a toddler, she ran away from home. A year later, a call from the local hospital alerted the family to the fact that she had been found, pregnant with twins, inebriated in a gutter. That her husband Doyle Baker was not the twins’ father (they were later given up for adoption) was no great surprise: he wasn’t Mark’s father, either. Nor was he the father of Mark’s two half-sisters. What he was, was a bully.
Doyle Baker maintained a not-so-secret predilection for beating Mark, slapping him around the head and, on occasion, hitting him in the
face with a cowboy boot. He frequently berated the boy for his misdeeds, both real and perceived. If Mark got into a fight at school and lost, Doyle would beat him up as a punishment. When Mark was naughty, he was locked in his bedroom for days at a time. Even outside his room, he was not allowed to use the furniture in the house in case it got dirty. Sandra’s sister Sue would later testify that Mark’s parents lived ‘in their own world’ to the extent that ‘nothing is important to them except them’.
Then there was the alcohol. Sandra and Doyle drank heavily, often as a precursor to fighting. One Christmas Day Mark’s grandfather Robert came for dinner to find no sign of the children. Doyle informed him they had been locked in their rooms for the day and would eat their dinner there.
Mark’s grandfather ‘came unglued’. ‘I’m sorry, Doyle,’ Robert told him, ‘but it’s Christmas. You are not going to do this to these children.’
But the Bakers were going to do this to these children. Sandra repeatedly told Mark that he was worthless and she wished she had got a dog rather than had a child. On one occasion, she sat him down and informed him that she had been $50 away from having an abortion while pregnant with him. She should, she told the thirteen-year-old, have borrowed the money.
Unsurprisingly, Mark followed his mother’s example and took to running away from home. After climbing out of his bedroom window, he cycled to the house of the only relative he felt actually cared for him: his grandfather. The journey took thirty minutes by car, but far longer by bicycle. Mark was eight when he first made it. Other forms of escape followed. In 1980, aged eleven, he was excluded from school. He got into drugs, smoking marijuana from the age of eleven or twelve, messing with harder drugs shortly after.
He cut classes repeatedly and was made to resit grades so many times that, when he reached the eighth grade, he was four years older
than his classmates. By now he was uncontrollable, a hazard to those around him. Teachers characterized him as ‘acting out’. There was nothing he would not do to attract attention. The more appalling the behaviour, the more of it he received. He provoked strangers into fights, had a swastika tattooed on his chest, and told friends that Hitler had had the right idea. Here, it seemed, was a young man with a unique talent for breaking things.
When Mark was sixteen, he again emulated his mother’s example, dropping out of school and becoming a parent himself. On his wedding day, Sandra refused to sign the marriage certificate, revealing for the first time that his real father was not Doyle Baker but Eddie Stroman, a friend of his grandfather’s.
In 1990, Mark (now Stroman) was finally convicted of theft and sent to jail for two years. By the time he emerged, his wife had left him, his grandfather had died, he had a criminal record, no job and an eighth-grade education.
Stroman’s attorneys wouldn’t bother denying in court that their client was a racist. Evidence to the contrary – presented with some glee by his prosecutors – was overwhelming. There were the Southern Nazi T-shirt transfers, and the ‘If I Had Known This, I would have picked my own cotton’ sticker on the back of his Thunderbird. There were the unprocessed 35 mm negatives from the glove compartment (preschool children saluting a Nazi flag) and the photographs of Stroman and a friend, one pretending to choke a black man, the other holding an AK-47 to his head. Jesus, the guy had a swastika tattooed on his chest!
From the look of it, racism was something Stroman appeared to have spent the best part of his life advertising. At one point, even his own lawyer described him as a ‘racist dog’.
The attorneys probably made the right call, figures Kevin ‘Bear’ Hartline, Stroman’s best friend. Stroman, he tells me when we meet
in Dallas in June 2008, is a ‘100 per cent hardcore racist’. Virtually all of his friends agree.
‘Yeah, he was pretty much prejudiced. He didn’t like niggers,’ says one. ‘But, I mean, who does?’
Through the bulletproof glass of the Polunsky Unit’s death-row visiting centre, Stroman himself is expansive on the subject, his views pretty much in tune with the common-sense rhetoric of right-wing nationalists the world over.
There are the assumptions that, somehow, racial minorities are not ‘proper’ Americans; that non-Caucasians are flooding into the country and outnumber Caucasians, or soon will; that ‘the’ immigrants are ‘taking advantage’ of American charity. Behind these beliefs, unmentioned, lurks the heady notion of racial purity, coupled with a fear of contamination not a million miles removed from the domain of the closet eugenicist.
Perhaps naively, I tell Stroman I find it ironic to hear these views in the United States, a land of immigrants established with the sole purpose of eliminating intolerance. Wasn’t it, after all, American tolerance that allowed him to emblazon his own curious brand of nihilism on his T-shirts (Fuck you, you fucking fuck was one presented at his trial)? Wasn’t it American tolerance that allowed him to demonstrate his own intolerance – in the form of the black doll hanging by its neck from the rear-view mirror of his Thunderbird? The tolerance only seems to work in one direction.
Pushed on the subject, Stroman agrees that, if there had been no Italians in America, there would be no pizza; if there were no Mexicans, there would be no tacos; and that without the Germans there would be no hamburgers. And without the Chinese . . . ?’ I venture.
Stroman shakes his head. ‘I don’t like Chinese food,’ he says.
If Stroman’s attitudes towards blacks were harsh, they were considerably more lenient than his feelings towards other ethnic minorities. At
least blacks were American. The bottom of the food chain was reserved for those who weren’t. The only thing worse than a nigger was a sand nigger.
This attitude is common among his friends, a number of whom tell tales of purported injustices regarding recent immigrants. The Asians come over here, they say, and receive government grants for cars, apartments and businesses. They buy up all the convenience stores and gas stations and motels. They drive Americans out of business. Then they invite their relatives over and multiply like rabbits – or more appropriately if you hold this world view viruses.
Initially, these opinions are expressed in a jokey fashion.
‘You just want them to speak clear English when you’re asking for a pack of cigarettes!’ explains one of Stroman’s friends. ‘Repeat yourself fifty times and they still don’t understand! Everybody thinks that way: come over here and speak English!’
Attitude is another bugbear.
‘These people,’ says Ronnie ‘Shy’ Galloway, ‘they come from other countries, and they come here – especially the sand niggers – they don’t know how to treat people. They talk to you real bad.’ Shy shakes his head. ‘I done come across people in Texas: Taliban, whatever you wanna call it. Same way! They don’t know how to treat people. So I have a problem with ’em myself
It’s a surprising admission, coming from a black man like Shy.
Traditionally, America’s most recent immigrants are supposed to disappear into the community and pay their dues for a generation or two, or at least until they’ve learned to speak the language properly. Asians, however, tend not to play by these rules. They invest; they work; they buy up corner stores and gas stations where they are highly visible. Most of all, they succeed. They jump the queue. How do these guys make so much money so fast? They must have some unfair advantage, some kind of winning lottery ticket.
‘They let too many people in here,’ complains Shy. ‘Give ’em loans,
build ’em houses. Man! I been here all my life! I got to save my money get it myself! That’s the problem with the United States!’
For Shy and his friends, the issue is not simply that immigrants are successful, it’s that their very presence constitutes a dilution, a corrosion of the values that make the United States a great nation: a strike at the heart of America itself.
‘Look at the hotels!’ explains another former employer. ‘All the hotels, the motels, the convenience stores. They own them! From India, whatever!’
Through the glass at Polunsky Stroman agrees. ‘What...