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Violent night still resonates

Ten years ago, a white teen was beaten to death during a confrontation that turned ugly. Do the racial tensions that fueled that night still exist?

By DAN DeWITT

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 19, 2000


BROOKSVILLE -- Kenny Schreffler has stuck to his version of what happened the night his friend Russell Coats was murdered 10 years ago.

The fatal brawl, he said, was really more of an ambush; he, Coats and a few of their white buddies were attacked by a crowd of black teenagers and young men carrying boards.

The newspapers, Schreffler said, unfairly singled him out for instigating the night's violence, and the judge and prosecutor picked up on this scenario and sentenced him to the unreasonable term of 41/2 years for violating his probation from earlier convictions. In prison, he had to fight for his life against black inmates who knew his reputation.

He is a skinhead now, and a segregationist. His neck is marked with a tattoo of a flaming swastika. He works with his father assembling Harley-Davidsons because he doesn't want to be employed in a place where he might have to associate with black people.

"I wasn't racist then," said Schreffler, 29. "I was pushed that way by what happened to Russ."

Coats' death, 10 years ago today, may be the most infamous episode in Brooksville's history, one that, at least for a few months in the spring and summer of 1990, made its name a byword for a small-town bigotry. It was a night of violence that seemed to have been channeled in from the city's more overtly racist past.

White and black teenagers who had attended school together, played sports together and eaten meals in one another's homes ended up calling each other "cracker" or "n-----." They beat one another with bottles, chains and boards. And, eventually, Coats, who seems to have been the least deserving of such a fate, died horribly.

"I rolled him over," said Brooksville Police Chief Ed Tincher. "I saw the young man's body, and as long as I live I will never forget what I saw."

It was the sort of event that demanded, from the young people involved, their parents and the community, answers to difficult questions: Why did the city's teenagers have nothing better to do on a Friday night than hang out in parking lots, drink and fight? What was the source of the racial hatred that exploded that night?

Mostly, these questions have not been addressed. If Schreffler's story is especially disturbing, it is typical in one way: Ugly scars are far more common than signs of healing.

A hard life, but a gentle side, too

"Pretty much, I cried for a good year," said Russell Coats' mother, Carol Wade, 51, who lives in Pinellas County.

Wade was absent from the news media coverage after the killing partly because, for many years, she was absent from her son's life. Russell's father and mother split up soon after the birth of their younger son, Brandon.

The boys lived with her, along with her two younger sons from a later marriage, only for the three years that their father, Gene Coats, spent in prison as a result of a 1978 armed robbery charge.

She hasn't talked to Brandon since Russell's death. She didn't know that he has a horse-shoeing business in Kentucky or that he is due to be married later this month.

Like Schreffler, and almost all of the eight young men sentenced in Russell Coats' death, Coats came from a broken home with at least one family member having served time in prison. But, Wade said, just a few weeks before Coats died and seven years since she had last seen him, "He called me."

The boys visited their mother several times, including on Mother's Day, the Sunday before Russell was killed. When Brandon started playing too roughly with Wade's two younger sons, Wade said, Russell told him to take it easy. Once, when Russell was leaving her house, he had tears in his eyes.

"My son was a very gentle boy," she said.

But he also had a hard side that she and her sister, Jeanne Tymeson, say was a result of growing up with Gene Coats. When Russell died, he was carrying a knife he apparently never used.

"Russell was still a sweet kid, but he grew up in his father's image. He was a fighter. On one of those visits (to his mother's) he had his knuckles all bloody," Tymeson said.

"That's the bottom line: If you go around provoking violence, it's a pretty good chance you're going to end up in a coffin."

The living room at the Coats house in Brooksville was furnished with a weight bench and a heavy boxing bag. Gene Coats, 63, said his son "was probably one of the best welterweights in Florida."

The Coatses' informal boxing gym attracted kids, black ones included, from all over town. John Walter Smith III, most commonly identified as the teenager who delivered the fatal blow to Russell, was a regular there. So was Smith's younger brother, Greg, who became one of Brandon Coats' best friends.

Teaching his sons to fight is far different from teaching them to provoke fights or to be racists, Gene Coats said, neither of which he did.

"I never marched with or held hands with the KKK when they came to town (shortly after his son's killing)," he said. "I don't think that organization has ever done any good."

His take on the night's events and the assignment of blame is essentially the same as Schreffler's.

Schreffler had been in one fight earlier in the night at a pool party at Candleglow Apartments (see accompanying chronology). But that fight, both said, was unrelated to a fight Schreffler later had with Smith, after the party had drifted to the Hernando Plaza shopping center parking lot.

"Smith took an a-- whipping," Gene Coats said. "It was an ego thing he couldn't handle because white boys aren't supposed to be able to jump or fight."

When they returned to confront the white kids near Oak Park Apartments, the black attackers were not only ready to fight, according to this version of the story, they were armed with boards; the white youths were peacefully drinking while Schreffler nursed his wounds.

"Next thing you know, there's 30 f---ing black guys coming out of the woods," Schreffler said.

After several minutes of fighting, one of the young black men, Tyrone Owens, fired a gun. Everyone ran, Coats fell, and two or three black people stood over his body, beating him.

"They didn't kill him because he was good-looking. They didn't kill him because he was rich and they wanted to rob him," Gene Coats said.

"They killed him because he was white."

Far from regretting that his son stood up to the black crowd, Coats said, "I'd rather he had a gun in his pocket that he could have used to shoot four or five of those guys so I could visit him at FSP (Florida State Prison in Starke) on Saturdays rather than at the Brooksville Cemetery."

From a confusing night came conflicting stories

Tincher and the lead investigator, Capt. Terry Chapman, remember the Coats investigation as pressure-packed and frustrating.

The main problem was not too few witnesses, but too many with conflicting stories. Probably the most crucial statement came from a young black man named Skip Washington, who identified seven of the defendants. He said they armed themselves, mostly with boards, and went looking for Schreffler and his friends.

"They had prepared to engage in some form of battle," Tincher said.

But Washington later recanted, and the muddy collection of facts in the case not only made it difficult to prosecute, but has since allowed many people to claim they were victims.

According to most of the black witnesses and a couple of the white ones, Schreffler and several of his friends had baited a group of black teenagers at Hernando Plaza. And later, once Schreffler had Smith down, some witnesses said other white teenagers kicked him, hit him and yelled out racial slurs.

So the black people had reason to want to avenge that beating, said several of the parents of the young people who served time for the killing.

Four of the eight young men are currently in prison. John Walter Smith III, the only one still serving time for his original sentence, is the only one of the eight who has not been convicted of another crime. Bobby Tyrone Owens, 29, who installs computer equipment, has the only steady job.

These lives might not be so sad if the police had not taken such a scattershot approach -- charging eight people with a murder that only one or two committed, said Idella Benjamin, mother of Jonathan Mathis, 28, who was convicted of third-degree murder.

"I'm not an angry person," said Benjamin, 51. "But I had a lot of anger in me at the time, because I saw a lot of things that were handled shabbily."

Though her son dropped out of high school and had started hanging out with a tough group shortly before the killing, she said, he had never been arrested. He was also raised in a relatively stable home, with her and his stepfather, Byron Benjamin, a school custodian and minister.

"My children were brought up in the church," she said.

After his original sentence, Mathis returned to prison on violation of probation in 1994. Since his second release he has been convicted of several crimes, including selling cocaine. He now finds work through a temporary employment agency, mostly as a road construction laborer.

"He doesn't talk about it, but I know it has affected him, being falsely accused," she said.

Michael Lee, one of Pearlean Outlaw's sons, was convicted of manslaughter in the killing of Coats; another, Sammy Lee, was convicted of third-degree murder. This makes her the only mother with two sons charged in the case.

Her grievance with the Brooksville Police Department, though, goes far deeper than that.

In 1987, her 15-year-old son, Tommy Lee, eluded police for more than two months after jumping, with his legs shackled, from a bathroom window on the second floor of the old Hernando County Courthouse.

In one confrontation with police before he was apprehended, he accidentally shot Sammy Lee in the back. When Tommy Lee later made a botched effort to surrender, her oldest son, Isreal Paige, was shot and killed by police.

"I feel for that family," she said of the Coatses, "because their son was killed just like my son was killed."

But unjust arrests, she said, have led to the ruin of two more of her sons' lives. Michael Lee broke his back shortly after his release from prison when he crashed a reportedly stolen car while speeding over the railroad tracks on Summit Road. In 1996, about a year after Sammy Lee was released from prison, he was sentenced to another term behind bars for selling drugs and battery on a law enforcement officer.

"I got good boys. The only trouble my sons have been in is selling drugs," she said.

"All I got out of this whole (Coats) thing that happened is a lot of hurt and pain."

Could it happen again? Tensions have lingered

The same is true, mostly, of Brooksville.

The official public response, at least initially, was to deny that the killing was racially motivated. Gradually, city leaders seemed to accept its racial component and tried to alleviate what were seen as core problems: lingering hostility between the races and a lack of economic and recreational opportunity for white and black young people.

John Tucker, who was mayor at the time, formed the Hernando County Community Alliance, a biracial group intended to ease racial tension.

"I didn't want to do nothing. ... I didn't want some other racial incident to occur in Brooksville," Tucker said.

In 1990, voters elected the only black City Council member in the city's history, Luther Cason.

When current School Board Chairman Jim Malcolm served as Brooksville city manager in 1993 and 1994, he initiated a program to recruit and promote black workers. He advocated applying for a $600,000 federal grant that was used to replace the decaying sewer pipes in a predominantly black neighborhood. The city also sponsored the AmeriCorps program, which was to deliver a variety of social services to south Brooksville.

More recently, the city donated land and offered to operate the Jerome Brown Community Center, which will officially open this weekend. Earlier this year, it eliminated one of the worst ongoing insults to Brooksville's black residents: By completing a new sewage treatment plant on the west side of town, it was able to close the old, stinking, leaking facility that operated for more than 40 years at the end of School Street.

But, it seems, the city has also taken several steps back.

Lack of participation caused the Community Alliance to disband after little more than a year of existence. Cason left the council after one term without ever trying to represent black residents. The city dropped its sponsorship of AmeriCorps. And the police department, as has been the case for most of the past decade, does not currently have a black officer.

Local NAACP president John Wallace is still stinging from his appearance last month before the Hernando County Commission. He had asked the county to pay the dumping fees for a cleanup project near Summit Road. It refused, partly because Wallace owned some the property.

"We have a mean-spirited majority of public officials who refuse to help clean up a public dump," he said.

The larger issue is that economic opportunities have actually declined "in this little slice of heaven called south Brooksville. That, really, is at the root of the problem," Wallace said.

Whether young people don't have anything better to do or choose not to do it, Tincher said, the scene on the streets of Brooksville has not changed much in the past decade. Crowds, as large as they ever were, gather to sell drugs in certain spots of south Brooksville. In other parts of the city, groups of kids, usually all white, drink and hang around in parking lots.

"The opportunity exists," Tincher said, "for these events to reoccur every Friday or Saturday night."

The defendants

Eight young men originally were charged with first-degree murder in the killing of Russell Coats. All ended up being convicted on lesser charges. Here is a rundown on the outcomes of their cases. Except for Smith, who remains in prison as a result of the Coats case, all have had subsequent run-ins with the law.

JOHN WALTER SMITH III, 27, third-degree murder; sentenced in May 1991 to 15 years in prison, as well as seven years for an earlier non-fatal shooting in Pasco County. Smith is the only one of the defendants still serving his original sentence. His release date is in 2002.

SAMMY LEE, 31, third-degree murder; with a previous conviction for aggravated battery and sale of cocaine, he was sentenced in May 1991 to 10 years in prison. Lee was released after serving less than half his sentence, and in 1995 was arrested on several charges, including sale of cocaine and battery on a law enforcement officer. He was sentenced to prison in 1996 as a habitual offender. His scheduled release date is in 2006.

DOMINIC CAVALIER HART, 26, third-degree murder; sentenced in May 1991 to seven years in prison and released in 1993. In January of this year, he was sentenced to 22 years in prison for armed robbery and aggravated battery after he held up a man in an apartment parking lot in Brooksville. His release date is 2021.

WILLIE GENE NIXON, 29, third-degree murder; sentenced in May 1991 to six years in prison and nine years of probation. Nixon was released in 1993, and later that year he was convicted of fleeing and eluding a police officer. He was sentenced to prison in 1998 for violating his probation on his conviction in Coats' killing and in a 1995 Pasco County charge of throwing a deadly missile. His scheduled release date: 2003.

MICHAEL LEE, 25, manslaughter; nine-year sentence amended in November 1991, sending Lee to a boot camp program. Lee was released in March 1992. Three months after his release, he broke his back in a car accident and is paralyzed from the waist down. The car had been reported stolen and was traveling more than 100 mph over railroad tracks in Brooksville when it overturned. In 1993, he was convicted of several drug charges and served time in the Hernando County Jail. He has been convicted of several subsequent drug-related charges. He lives in Brooksville.

JEFFREY JOYLES, 26, possession of a firearm with intent to commit a felony; sentenced in September 1991 to 13 months in prison. Joyles was released in January 1992. He returned to prison in 1993 after pleading guilty to two counts of sale of cocaine. In 1995, he was again convicted of selling cocaine and sentenced to five years in prison. He has since been released and now lives in Texas.

BOBBY TYRONE OWENS, 29, aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and accessory after the fact; sentenced in May 1991 to five years in prison and five years of probation. Owens was released in August 1992. He was convicted of sale and possession of cocaine in 1995 and sentenced to 21 months in state prison. He lives in Brooksville and works installing computer equipment.

JONATHAN MATHIS, 28, third-degree murder; sentenced in May 1991 to six years in prison. Mathis was released in 1993. He was convicted of selling cocaine in 1994. He was convicted of sale of cocaine, battery and driving with a suspended license in 1998. Mathis lives in Brooksville and works as a day laborer.

Source: Florida Department of Law Enforcement, state Department of Corrections and family members.

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