This is the third in my series of true crime shorts, a 17,000-word piece on an infamous Texas murder. You may know me as a bestselling true crime and mystery author, but I spent two decades traveling the U.S. reporting on sensational cases for magazines. It was a great way to learn about courtrooms and investigations.
The Texas Love Triangle Murder is the first case I ever covered. At the time, in the mid-eighties, I was a fledgling reporter for the now defunct Houston City Magazine. It’s an amazing murder case, one involving racial tension and a small-town love triangle. I vividly remember driving Liberty County’s backcountry roads, knocking on doors, piecing together all I could about those involved and what led to the killing of junior school coach Billy Mac Fleming. It was an eerie experience, one I’ve carried with me through the years. After the original article, I’ve extensively expanded the piece to include an account of the trial and the aftermath.
So come with me. It’s 1985, and we’re in the small town of Daisetta, nestled into Texas’s mysterious Big Thicket. The junior school coach is missing, and all eyes are on the principal, a man named Hurley Fontenot. They both loved the same woman. Did their rivalry lead to murder?
LAURA NUGENT KNEW SOMETHING WAS WRONG. She had been sitting for hours on the porch of her parents' small home 40 miles east of Houston, waiting for her lover, Bill Fleming, to drive up in his white pickup truck. He never came. He had said that he'd be there by 4:30 to have supper with her family. It was already six, but she still expected him to arrive at any moment. By seven she paced the porch of the white clapboard house, nervously tugging the ends of her long, ink-dark hair. By eight that April evening in 1985, she was frantically driving the dark country roads near her home, searching for him. On Saturday, she used her key to check his apartment. It was empty.
On Sunday, Laura found Bill's truck parked at Hull-Daisetta Junior School where he coached, but Bill wasn't there either. Fearful and discouraged, she again took to her car, driving slowly down deserted roads, watching for any sign of the man she loved.
By Monday night she was frantic.
She lay in her bed, going over and over her weekend's desperate search, remembering the phone at his apartment that rang endlessly without answer. Bill hadn't shown up for work that morning at the school, and the district's superintendent had called the police, reporting him missing. Bill’s pickup, still parked in the school lot, hadn't been moved all weekend. Now, despite her exhaustion, Laura had difficulty sleeping. When she finally drifted off she had a hazy dream: Bill stood in the distance. She ran toward him, but just as she came close enough to touch him he turned away. He couldn't see her. Laura bolted upright in bed.
"I knew it then," she whispered. "I knew then that Bill was dead."
On a quiet Monday morning a week later, Don Griffin, a retired electrician, found the body. While supervising workers cutting a road to his brother-in-law's land in the pine forest off FM 943 in southeast Polk County, Griffin noticed dewberries growing on bushes. As he popped a few into his mouth, Griffin smelled a peculiar odor. Edging toward a clearing he saw it – the decomposing body of a large man lying face up. The body was dressed in shirt and jeans but had no shoes or wallet. There was a ring, however, from Stephen F. Austin State University, dated 1973 and engraved with the initials BMF.
A month later, a grand jury indicted the principal of the junior school where Billy Mac Fleming taught. Before long, stories of a love triangle involving the accused black principal, the slain white coach, and the white school secretary, Laura Nugent, spread quickly throughout the little towns. Photos of the three from school annuals were published in newspapers and national tabloids with headlines that linked the love triangle with murder. The principal, Hurley Fontenot, with light tan skin and thinning brown hair, appeared on the television news turning himself in to the Liberty County Sheriff. He was charged with pumping two small-caliber bullets at close range, execution style, into the back of Bill Fleming's head.
THERE'S AN AURA of frustration in these small east Texas towns that border the Big Thicket, the nearly mystical expanse of pine forests and swamps that merge Texas and Louisiana. The bucolic landscape thinly veils an underlying uneasiness. The murder of Billy Mac Fleming would lay open a tale of love, small town politics, and racial tension. And at the middle of the vortex was Hurley Fontenot.
In his law office in Liberty, Hurley's brother, Walter, displayed a portrait of their blond, blue-eyed great-grand¬father. Garand Fontenot, born in 1831, was the family patriarch. Walter had a plaque made to hang beneath the portrait that traced the family through Garand's migration from France to Canada, and then Louisiana. In Louisiana Garand was known as "the one-armed sheriff of Opelousas Parish." The plaque didn't mention Hurley and Walter's great-grandmother; she was biracial. In this part of Texas even in the 1980s, racial lines were still carefully drawn, and for locals, a drop of African blood was considered enough to label a family as black.
It was Garand's son, Desilva Fontenot, who moved the family to East Texas. Other Creole, French-Canadian, and biracial families set-tled nearby and established a community. They were better educated than many of their black and white neighbors. Many of the families spoke French, and they tended to marry among themselves. In Raywood, a town with a population that hovers around 200 residents, the Fontenots were one of the more prominent families.
The combined school district ran like an artery through Hull, Daisetta, and Raywood, tightly binding the three little towns together. Once bustling oil centers with much of their land and mineral rights owned by companies like Mobil, Tenneco, and Gulf, they grew rapidly in the Twenties when the Hull-Daisetta oil field was discovered. In the Sixties, when Hurley returned after teaching four years in a neighboring district, Daisetta's mayor, Jim Hale, vowed to bring industry to the area and widened the main highway, FM 770, to attract business.
By the Eighties, however, the streets were lined with boarded-up storefronts. The oil slump, as well as faltering rice and soybean markets, had devastated the economy. The population aged as many of the area's young people left to find jobs in Houston or Beaumont.
HURLEY’S FATHER HAD BEEN THE PRINCIPAL while Hurley was a student at Woodson High, the black school before integration. In 1966 the schools were combined, and Woodson became Hull-Daisetta Junior School. Townspeople describe both father and son as strict disciplinarians who were admired by the students. But, unlike his father, Hurley Fontenot was uncomfortable with his Creole heritage, using racial epithets when referring to his black neighbors. Theresa Metoyer, who ran the small grocery store across from the school, remembered many of her light-skinned neighbors and relatives who left for California "where they could blend in and no one knows."
For sixteen years, Hurley taught at Hull-Daisetta Senior High, building a power structure within the school district. Many long-time residents talked about his success with the agriculture program. He helped students win national awards. And when they did, he submitted articles to the local newspapers along with pictures of his students and himself celebrating their successes.
It was difficult, however, for Hurley to hide his personal problems. The two biggest were that Hurley liked to gamble and drink. A regular at Delta Downs in Vinton, Louisiana, he bet on the horses at least two to three times a week. Hurley never liked to talk about his wins or losses, but friends say he became heavily in debt.
In the summer of 1980 Hurley Fontenot's life started to rupture.