S2/E8: Brian Deneke

https://www.podbean.com/media/share/pb-etsjj-7ee46d

 

It’s a tale as old as punk music. Jocks vs punks. I was on the punk side in my high school days, and remember the mutual hatred of the group we called the jocks. It never went further than a fight here and there, but in 1997 on a cold December day in Amarillo, Texas, the clash between jocks and punks became deadly.

This is the story of Brian Deneke.

1974

Mike and Betty Deneke were married in the tiny town of Concordia, Kansas, with a population of just under 7,000. They soon moved to Wichita, Kansas; a city with nearly 40 times the population.  

 

February, 1976

Their first son, Jason Michael Deneke was born..  

 

March 9, 1978

Just a little over two years after having Jason, the Denekes welcomed their second child: Brian Theodore.

 

1981

After living in Kansas for most of their lives, the Denekes moved to Amarillo, Texas, population 170,000. Mike was a cookware salesman and had been transferred by his employer. Betty worked as the manager of a photo-processing lab. They bought a house on the southwest side of the city… just one in a neighborhood of unremarkable, similar-looking houses with tan walls and flat yards.

In his early days of schooling, Brian was known as a precocious, outspoken, friendly kid who was always on the move. He was interested in understanding his Native American roots and even became a Kwahadi dancer. The Kwahadi were originally a band of Comanche people from the high plains of Texas. Amarillo has a rich native culture and is still considered the unofficial capital of Kwahadi dancing.

Brian also joined a Boy Scout Troop. His teachers recall him as being bright, with a questioning mind, but not especially motivated by grades. Thin and impatient, he was both physically and mentally more suited to individual endeavors than team sports. Over time, he seemed less and less interested in trying to fit in with the athletic, white-ball-cap-wearing popular crowd.

 

1991

Brian Deneke got a skateboard, and started skating around the neighborhood. As he spent more and more time with other skate rats, he became drawn to punk music, and, inevitably, the culture of punk that came with it. The high energy music with a disdain for authority and the tendency to hide a heartfelt message under barely-intelligible lyrics appealed to the high energy, empathic kid who couldn’t seem to stop questioning the “powers that be”.

His father, Mike, was concerned when Brian began sporting the bedraggled denim and t-shirt look of the skate rats; he was outright mortified when Brian gravitated toward the tight black jeans, bumper-sticker-slogan t-shirts and leather jackets of the punk crowd. Brian stood out even among the other punks. He shaved the sides of his head, let the top grow long, and used fistfuls of Knox Gelatin and Kool-Aid to form an unmissable, sunshine-spiked, bright green mohawk. In fact, this hairstyle earned him the nickname “Sunshine”.

Mike later said “At first there were arguments and fights about how he looked, and once I even tried to cut his mohawk off. But he had real strong opinions that it shouldn’t matter how he had his hair, how he dressed. Even though he was right in a theoretical sense, it didn’t matter. We knew that society would judge him, and that there would be consequences.”

Over time, his parents realized that other families were experiencing serious, even permanent, rifts, and they knew that their son was not a bad kid.  Mike said “We thought that if we didn’t accept him, we would lose him. You get to the point where you can keep battling with your children, but you realize you’re not going to change them.”

 

1994

Brian had become a leader within the punk subculture. He made friends easily and was willing to talk to friends and strangers alike at any time. He also solidified his place as an outsider from the prep crowd and continuously received epithets, insults and threats. Over time, harsh words gave way to physical violence, and by high school, Brian was regularly sucker-punched and jumped by several jocks at one. His friends started calling him “Fist Magnet”  He tried to laugh it off, but the tension steadily rose.

His brother, Jason, spent time with the more hard-edged, insular punks known as the Bomb City Skins, who adopted the workboots-and-shaved-heads appearance of skinheads but decried their racist attitudes. Brian was more gregarious than his bookish brother and always seemed to find a smile and a greeting for even his most skeptical observer. His girlfriend, Jennifer Hix, stated that he tried to win over his detractors, saying, “He’d point out how ignorant they were, try to broaden their horizons, and sometimes they’d listen.”

More often, however, the preps would find ways to up the ante, looking for a reaction from the “freak” as he walked around town.

By the tenth grade, Brian had grown to expect some form of verbal or physical assault whenever he was in public. He wore a “smiley,” a chain with a lock hanging from a belt loop, as a signal that he was prepared to defend himself if necessary. His father explained, “Brian was not about violence. Yes, he wore chains and things like that. He did that because he had to. He had to defend himself. But he didn’t go out looking for fights.”

One afternoon, a car deliberately splashed him with several mud puddles as he walked to lunch. The 16-year-old Brian threw a rock at another student’s pickup truck in response. No one was injured, but the truck’s owner informed police and Brian was placed on juvenile probation. He immediately decided to drop out of school, which his parents reluctantly accepted, on the condition that he complete his GED. He agreed, and earned his GED at 17, before most of his classmates finished high school.

 

1997

After moving around the country several times, Brian and his girlfriend Jennifer, had returned to Amarillo and were living in the Eighth Street House; a rundown, abandoned house that had become a refuge, gathering place and impromptu concert hall for the punk scene in Amarillo.

Brian began working for Stanley Marsh 3, an eccentric real-estate-investor turned artist and operator of the Cadillac Ranch, which featured ten frequently-repainted cars, buried nose-deep in a field. Marsh also owned the Dynamite Museum: an art installation that placed  irreverent mock road signs  in various locations around Amarillo. Marsh had said of Brian- “he looked bizarre, but he could walk toward people with his hand out, grinning, and they would like him before he got to their front door.”

When not going door-to-door on behalf of the Dynamite Museum, Brian talked about establishing a more durable form of the Eighth Street House, to give outsider kids a place to spend their time constructively. He also drank frequently and struggled to align his ideals with the world around him. He saw his friends, and himself, as targets of a small-minded conformist attitude, and he continued to experience verbal and physical abuse by old rivals and strangers alike. He still sported a chain on his belt loop, and he knew that the preps had started carrying baseball bats. In response, some of Brian’s friends began carrying them as well, in case they were harassed.

Meanwhile, 17-year-old Dustin Camp was a high school junior who desperately wanted to play varsity football, but was not quite big enough or fast enough to advance from the junior varsity team. He rarely voiced this frustration, however. Instead, he seemed to be a laid-back guy who loved nothing more than to crack jokes and play pranks in the locker room. He spent his off-time working out, trying to bulk up by eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in between meals, and working at the family auto repair shop. He lived in the more affluent section of Amarillo, near many of the other jocks and preps. He seemed to want nothing more than to live a life of stability and predictability… the same life that Brian Deneke, just two years older, wanted so desperately to avoid.

 

December 5, 1997

Like many towns across the country, Amarillo had few attractions for teenagers on weekend evenings, and so this Friday, like most others, saw punks walking around town while preps drove by and hurled insults. A small scuffle started in an International House Of Pancakes parking lot, during which someone’s baseball bat cracked the windshield of Dustin Camp’s car. Witnesses reported that Camp got in the car and swerved toward the group in a threatening manner before driving away. Camp denied this, but rumors began to spread within the high school and throughout the town, that there would be a bigger confrontation the next weekend. The White Hats — the jocks and preps in their baseball caps — and the punks were going to fight.

 

December 12, 1997

After a week of trading insults, scuffling and making threats, the two groups met again in the IHOP parking lot. Stares turned into spitting, punches were thrown, but then there was a lull in the fighting. The crowd scattered when the IHOP manager told them to leave, only to reform even more intensely in a parking lot across the road. Estimates vary, with reports ranging from 0 to 50 people gathered.

One thing is certain- the preps outnumbered the punks by at least three to one.

Words, then fists, then bats and chains began to fly, with the combatants aiming their rage at anyone dressed like the other side: white hats versus mohawks, varsity letters  versus leather jackets. Onlookers began to appear on the fringes, but no one had bothered to call the police. They were there simply for the spectacle.

Dustin Camp began the night by picking up two friends, another football player named Rob Mansfield rode shotgun while a smart, quiet girl named Elise Thompson sat in the back seat. As he turned his 1983 Cadillac onto Western Street, he could see several of his friends already fighting, and he aimed his car directly toward the melee,

He accelerated, and knocked punk Chris Oles to the ground, who returned to his feet, shocked and confused. Camp then drove across the parking lot, but, instead of driving away or getting out of the car, he again aimed at the ongoing fight and gunned the engine. Camp had just turned the 4000-pound vehicle into a weapon. He brought a car to a fistfight, with fatal results. Someone finally called the police, after realizing that the fight was quickly becoming out of control.

Camp noticed Brian standing slightly apart from the group; he later claimed that Brian was in the process of beating one of Camp’s friends with a chain, but most witness accounts suggest that Brian had turned to run from the car. Brian swung his beltloop chain at the car, but it was a futile effort. Camp knocked him down, then drove over him. A chorus of cheers erupted from the preps.

Brian was dragged a short distance before the car drove over his upper body, crushing his skull and chest.  Police later reported that there were no tire marks on the pavement, which supported witness statements that Camp never touched the brakes. Camp immediately sped away from the scene and drove home.

Brian Deneke lied in a pool of his own blood as his brother, Jason, and girlfriend, Jennifer rushed to his side after witnessing the attack.  Jason cradled Brian’s head in his lap and began sobbing. He knew his brother wasn’t going to make it. He was right. Brian died in his brother’s arms before first responders arrived.

Elise Thompson, from the back seat, was an unintentional eyewitness to a violent, irrational burst of adrenaline and teenage rage, fueled by mindless antipathy toward those who dress differently and disdained everything Camp valued. She later said, “The car hit him…he came up on the hood and then rolled underneath. I felt two bumps, and was just praying that the bumps had been the median and not his body.”  

Speaking of Dustin Camp, she said “Right after Brian was gone, he said, ‘I’m a ninja in my Caddy. I bet he liked that one.’ Elise leaned up between the two front seats and asked “What if he’s dead?”…her question was met with silence.

Camp went to bed upon returning home as if nothing had happened. When police arrived the next morning to investigate, they found the Cadillac in the driveway with damage on the hood, and blood spattered on the undercarriage.

During questioning, Camp said “I saw a guy swinging a bat at one of my friends. I was just going to knock him down with my car. It was icy on the ground. My car slid and I guess he slipped and my car went over him.” He was arrested and charged with murder, but was released on bail the same day.

 

August 1999

After nearly two years, Camp finally saw his day in court. There had been ample eyewitness and forensic evidence to indicate that Camp was not in immediate danger, that the pavement was not icy, as he had claimed, and that Brian Deneke was not actively harming one of Camp’s friends. Despite all this, the case was anything but a slam-dunk for the prosecution.

The defense largely ignored the prosecution’s approach and instead, in the time-honored tradition of domestic abuse, rape and gang-violence trials, emphasized the victim’s lifestyle and insisted that Camp was acting in defense of a friend.

While most saw the incident as the mainstream being unable to accept differentness, the defense insisted that the punks were adults, dressing in an intimidating manner, and had engaged in a “conspiracy to kill and maim these high school students”.

Defense attorney Warren Clark stated, “Camp had to take immediate action and he took it. And if he had to live it over again, he would do it again.” He described Brian as a goon, a thug, and “a mean drunk with a weapon.”

He repeatedly pointed to Brian’s blood alcohol level, while downplaying evidence that Camp had also been drinking. Several empty beer bottles and an open bottle of Crown Royal had been found in his car. The clothing Brian had been wearing, including camouflage pants, combat boots, chains and a leather jacket, were held up in stark contrast to Camp’s khakis-and-button-down appearance in court. Brian was labeled a high-school dropout, despite having completed his GED by the time he was Camp’s age.

This sort of defensive strategy holds very little relevance to the actual legal factors at play, but it is a common ploy for a reason: it works. Dustin Camp was found guilty of manslaughter, but his sentence was one final insult toward the marginalized freak: ten years probation, released on time served.

Camp ultimately served eight years in prison due to a number of parole violations, including underage drinking and driving without a valid license. He has since attempted to settle into the predictable, stable life he always seemed to want, working at his parent’s auto repair shop and living in Amarillo. He will remain a symbol of small-minded intolerance, of violence far out of proportion to the situation, of the fear we often feel when someone else looks different.

While it is certainly true that he overreacted to the fight on that December night in 1997, it is unknown whether he ever intended to actually cause anyone’s death at all, let alone Brian Deneke’s in particular. It’s possible that he might not have had any conscious intent at all, allowing adrenaline, testosterone and alcohol to fuel a permanent, fatal mistake, but his actions caused the loss of a beloved son, brother and friend, and he will likely always face a hostile community that believes he got away with murder.

Brian Deneke had served as unspoken leader of the punk crowd, a unifying factor among a diverse group of kids for whom the phrase “Question Authority” was a positive statement, not a threat or insult. Another punk, Dan Kelso, said, “He was the face of the scene here. He was visible, smiling, standing tall. When he was killed, part of these kids died too.”

In the wake of his death, the community of Amarillo was vocal in taking sides between the self-defense story and the intolerant-murderer view. A majority of news sources and private citizens weighed in on behalf of the Deneke family and expressed criticism of the court’s leniency.

Rather than focus on their anger and grief, the Deneke family has tried to channel their energy into raising the visibility and respectability of those who identify with the punk movement. A series of benefit concerts, first regionally and then nation-wide, have been held in honor of Brian Deneke, to celebrate his life and to help surround other punk kids with support and resources.

At the Unity Through Diversity Festival held in Amarillo in the summer of 2008, Mike Deneke spoke to a hushed crowd, asking them to spread a message:  “Tolerance and understanding. Caring about each other. Not paying attention to what’s on the outside, but what’s on the inside. Not resorting to violence…. which doesn’t accomplish anything.”

Several songs have been written about Brian Deneke and the night he died. The Dropkick Murphys song “The Fortunes of War” was a direct tribute to Brian and can be found on their 2001 album “Sing Loud, Sing Proud”. Total Chaos, a band I’ve spent years listening to, released two tracks- “A Punk Killed” and “Murdered” in memory of Brian.

 

SOURCES

 

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amarillo,_Texas

http://amarillo.com/news/local-news/2016-06-21-0

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Death_of_Brian_Deneke

https://www.texasmonthly.com/articles/the-outsiders/

http://www.nytimes.com/1999/11/26/us/after-a-murder-trial-amarillo-asks-is-this-a-tolerant-place.html

http://amarillo.com/stories/072606/new_5198806.shtml

http://www.dallasobserver.com/news/slippery-tale-6420062

20/20 (ABC)  “A Town Without Pity,” airdate 1/6/2000

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AvOvh4zd1SQ

 

All Things Considered (NPR) “Amarillo”, airdate 11/22/1999

 

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