“This is not an April Fools’ joke,” Paul said when he called me eleven years ago today. It wasn’t. He called to tell me that our mutual friend Lou had been murdered. Over the next days and weeks, details followed. It was painful.
Lou was killed by a disturbed young man in his mid-twenties named Seth Tatum. Seth had recently been released from jail, had been consuming drugs and alcohol, was unsuccessfully checked into a mental health facility two nights before, had brutally beaten his mother’s boyfriend, and was wandering the neighborhood on foot when he showed up at Lou’s South Austin rental.
There were no witnesses. However, things his next-door neighbor heard, along with subsequent events, painted a reasonably clear picture of what likely happened.
Seth ended up at Lou’s house because it was in a secluded cul-de-sac. Lou’s neighbor said she had heard them talking, perhaps a couple of times. Lou was killed just inside his front door with an ax that was lying in his yard. He kept a defensive weapon hanging inside his back door. It wasn’t used.
Seth stole Lou’s car, then showed up at the county jail in Austin early the next morning. When a sheriff’s deputy sitting out front for a smoke told him he couldn’t leave his car there, Seth’s response was: “That’s okay. I think I killed the guy who owns it.” When I reclaimed Lou’s car for his daughter several days later, it was nearly out of gas. Seth probably had driven around all night until the tank was depleted.
The trial of Lou’s killer tested my opposition to the death penalty. I must admit that my position on the death penalty had “evolved” over the years. As a young man, I believed it to be appropriate punishment, at least in some extreme cases. But the older I got, the less rational this seemed. Perhaps I was always uneasy.
Lou and I were unlikely friends. We met in a class at the Jung Society of Austin titled Myths for Men. I was there during my healing from a difficult divorce. Lou and many of the other men attending were continuing their work in the Mythopoetic Men’s Movement, that first came to public attention after the 1990 Bill Moyers PBS program A Gathering of Men.
Though I vaguely recalled Lou from the class, we connected more deeply that summer at a men’s retreat in Ocamora, NM (near Las Vegas). Our mutual interest in depth psychology, literature, film, and frankly, long discussions about important things created a deep, though unusual, friendship. At the time I was a university professor. Lou was living off a small inheritance after having done a short stint in federal prison for dealing cocaine. When the inheritance ran out, he drove a cab.
Lou was an interesting character. He was part of the beginnings of independent film making in Texas, having starred in Eagle Pennell’s The Whole Shootin Match — a film sometimes credited with inspiring Robert Redford to start the Sundance Institute. Sonny Carl Davis, one of the “characters” in the film Bernie, also starred with Lou in the Eagle Pennell film. We Texans also recall Sonny from some anti-Cruz commercials during the 2018 elections.
Eagle and Lou were both posthumously honored in the closing credits of Bernie. Jack Black is purported to have said that Lou should have been in the movie. Lou also had some small acting parts in such films as The Blues Brothers, Poltergeist, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, and Boys Don’t Cry. It was kind of fun hanging out with a “movie star”, even if just a minor one.
Sometimes mine and Lou’s conversations (especially those enhanced by tequila) trailed far into the night. And somewhat often, the death penalty came up for discussion. We both opposed it, primarily because its primary intent seemed to be revenge (not even retribution), especially considering the lack of evidence for deterrence. The irony was not lost on me that I was being called upon to reflect on those discussions — discussions that seemed far less personal during those tequila-lubricated nights.
Lou was brutally murdered by a young man he did not know. His murder seemed particularly senseless, especially in view of how much he empathized with troubled young men, probably including the one who took his life. But there was no doubt about Seth’s guilt.
The Travis County District Attorney wanted to charge Seth with the death penalty. My friend’s only daughter, knowing her dad’s beliefs, was against it. She asked me to write a letter to the DA explaining her dad’s beliefs. She gave me permission to express my own beliefs as well.
My personal desire for revenge was overcome in large part by those late-night discussions with Lou, especially knowing of his compassion for troubled young men. Likely because of Lou’s daughter’s feelings, the death penalty was never threatened, though she did become seriously incensed when the DA suggested that his “horror movie fans” should be queried about the death penalty. Fortunately, that never occurred.
Seth Tatum received a life sentence without the possibility of parole until he had served at least 40 years in prison. It was some comfort to Lou’s daughter that his killer would not be free until he was at least as old as her dad was when he died.
After Lou’s death, Lou’s daughter was faced with cleaning out his “stuff”. She had only a few days to deal with decades of pack-ratting. Lou had quite a collection of interesting and unique things — but also many items of questionable importance or value. It was difficult for his daughter. She ended up letting many pieces of his memorabilia travel to his friends who knew something of their importance — including me.
One of those things was a set of heavy, heavy, heavy cast iron andirons. I recall them adorning Lou’s outside space in the two homes he lived in when I knew him. They’re too big for our fireplace, so they’re again outside, adorning our outdoor space. I think I’ll put them in a fire pit.
Lou told me that these andirons were passed down in his family, having arrived in Texas “on a covered wagon”. I couldn’t let them disappear.