Click. Click. Click.
The photographer seemed to take dozens of photographs of the body. Once filed, the pictures would become part of the body of evidence that would touch the lives of three people in the city. The murder of Vonda Harris would entangle them so tightly that not even decades of legal maneuvers, prayers, or solicitations could break them free. In addition to the family and friends of Vonda Harris, these three uninvolved, disconnected lives were about to be uprooted, unsettled, and troubled by the scene captured in the pictures.
Each of the unsuspecting men was about to be drawn into a web of circumstance as a result of a murder, police anxiety, necessity, and perhaps Divine providence. The body in the alley was about to bring their divergent paths together in a search for truth for decades to come.
Morris “Buck” Perkins
He was unaware of the murder or the large crowd that watched a police photographer snap photos of the body from every possible angle. Berg Jones Lane was in a completely different area from the Booker T. Community alley where the body was found. For those with transportation, but the immobile found it foreign territory.
For Morris "Buck" Perkins, it could have been a thousand miles away because he walked everywhere he went and had never seen that part of the city. Buck occupied himself by walking up and down the streets, sometimes laughing to himself and smiling. If there had been a bomb blast in Booker T., he would not have known it unless it happened in front of his eyes. He filled his world with the mundane. He did not watch the news, read the papers, or keep up with current events. If he had seen the crowd around the body, he would not have stopped or watched because it was not on his radar.
Buck had been walking for five months. The old black Chevrolet he drove finally played out on him. It was fifteen years old. When a car gets to fifteen years old, too many things go wrong. The moments he was able to ride around in his 1961 black dream car were far less than the time he spent trying to keep it running. Finally, it just stopped running and sat around for weeks in disrepair. In September of 1976, a friend, Matt Matthews, and his cousin, Charles Harris, helped him load the old clunker onto a truck to have it scrapped. At least he could get something for it, instead of watching it become an eyesore in his front yard. It was just a useless pile of junk stripped of its seats, gas tank, and radio. It served no purpose.
At the junkyard, Buck watched as a giant magnet picked up the old Chevrolet and slowly glided it through the air, and released it on top of a growing mountain of other cars, trucks, and materials. Everything in the pile, including his Chevrolet, waited to be crushed into small squares, loaded on a train car, shipped away, and finally melted down. He would never see it again. It was like saying farewell to a friend.
"Here you go, son," said the attendant as he handed Buck the receipt and cash for his car. The little slip of paper was inconsequential at the moment, but the date and the description of the vehicle would be the subject of court battles and appeals for many years.
"Thank you, suh," said Buck. He smiled as he looked at the cash in his hand, balled up the receipt, and stuck it in his pocket. He never thought to look at the receipt or to check whether it contained the correct information. Buck was glad to have the money in his hands. In the months that followed the sale of his Chevrolet, Buck walked the streets of South Monroe. He bothered no one, minded his own business, gave a toothy smiled to everyone he passed, waved to those in cars who passed him, and responded cheerfully to those who greeted him. He lived in his own world, oblivious to the troubles and concerns outside his universe. His was a simple life, serene, trusting, and full of hope. He had achieved the peace and tranquility that others sought through his childlike innocence. When he had no money, he did odd jobs and charged just enough to hear the jingle of coins in his pocket or to buy a burger and fries. He had no bank account, savings plan, insurance, or investments, but felt secure just the same.
Many in the Berg Jones neighborhood saw him walking back and forth daily. They secretly admired his carefree life that contrasted their worries about bills, rent, and love affairs. Buck was immune to insults, ridicule, and criticism. Either he didn’t understand those who ridiculed him, or he didn’t care. When neighborhood bullies made fun of him, he laughed and waved as their insults bounced off and never touched a nerve. Being called “airhead” or “idiot” would have crushed or infuriated anyone else. They ridiculed him, but deep down, they strangely envied him. He was at peace with himself.
Some couldn’t resist teasing him, mostly about his Chevrolet.
"How you doing, Buck?" asked one neighbor, sitting on a porch as Buck passed, swinging his arms and almost bouncing.
"I'm doing fine. Doing just fine," Buck answered, smiling.
"Where's your car?" the neighbor asked, trying to hide a smile.
"I had to sell it, suh."
"What you gon' do all day? You spent most of your days trying to keep that thing running," said the neighbor, chuckling.
"Guess I'll have to walk, suh. I don't mind. I don't mind at all," Buck answered.
“If you just need one to work on something, you can get under my hood. I got a loose radiator hose. It’ll keep you busy,” the neighbor said, taunting him and laughing.
“I’m fine. Buck is fine. Thank you, though. Hope you get your hose fixed,” said Buck with a wave.
The neighbor asked the same question nearly every day, and Buck gave a similar answer. It became the neighborhood ritual for some to tease and take advantage of Buck’s gullibility. That’s what happened in August of 1977 when a youth he frequently saw on his walks offered to sell him a shiny red lawnmower for $5.
“Buck, you need a lawnmower?” asked the youth, about 16-years-old. Buck had seen him standing at the fish market with other teens. He was no stranger, but Buck didn’t know his name.
“Don’t have one,” said Buck, looking at the mower that looked practically new. Its bright red color glistened in the sunlight.
“I’ll let you have it for $5,” said the youth.
“That’s all you want? It sure is pretty,” said Buck walking around the mower to get a look at it from all sides.
“That's the deal. Take it or leave it,” said the youth. “Is this your mower?”
“What you care, you want it or not?” asked the youth.
Buck thought how he could use the mower to earn extra money cutting yards. All he needed was a gas can and some gas, and he’d be in business. Besides, the mower was so pretty. It was an offer he could not refuse. He reached in his pocket and counted out $5 in one-dollar bills and coins. He didn’t ask for a receipt or think twice about why this teen sold him a practically new lawnmower for just five dollars. He took the lawnmower home and wiped it with a rag. He didn’t have his Chevrolet, but he had a shiny red lawnmower that belonged to him.
Buck pushed his lawnmower along the street, waving at passersby and looking and pointing at the mower with pride. He loved the mower like he loved his Chevrolet. Two days after he made his purchase, Buck pushed his mower past Miss Ethel’s house. She was a pretty lady who waved at him.
“Morning Buck, you got a new mower, I see,” she said.
“Yes ma’am, Buck looking for some yards to cut,” Buck said.
“Wish you luck,” she said, as she glanced away at a group of boys walking up the street. They were football players at Wossman High School.
The boys stopped Buck and admired his lawnmower.
“Say, Buck, I see you got you some new wheels,” said one of the youths, teasing him.
“Almost new. Got it for five dollars,” said Buck, showing off his mower.
“It looks pretty Buck. Does it run?” asked one of the youths. They called him Gerald. He was nice to Buck.
“You be sure to lock it up at night. In this neighborhood, a lawnmower like that could disappear,” said Gerald.
“I takes it in the house at night,” said Buck.
“Good luck,” said Gerald as he patted Buck on the shoulder and walked away with the group of boys. They glanced at Ethel Ridley standing in her doorway. She wore a housecoat that was partly open. It appeared that there was nothing underneath. The boys looked at her hard.
“Damn, look at her,” said one of them.
“She fine,” said another.
“But she’s an old lady, fine or no fine. She could be your grandmama,” said Gerald, laughing as they passed Ethel Ridley standing on her porch.
Buck turned the corner and pushed his lawnmower down another street, looking for a yard to cut. Every day, he walked back and forth through the neighborhood, smiling and waving with memories of his old Chevrolet splashing through his head. He was a happy man.
Buck’s happy thoughts were interrupted when a police car pulled up next to him with its lights flashing. They told him that his pretty red lawnmower had been reported stolen. Buck told them that he had paid $5 for the mower, but he didn’t have a receipt. He couldn’t tell them the name of the kid who sold him the mower because he did not ask. Even if he did know, he wouldn’t have told his name if it meant getting the nice boy in trouble. When they placed handcuffs on him and carried him to jail for receiving stolen goods, Buck was unaware of the seriousness of the charge or that within a week, he would be connected with the murder of Vonda Harris, which happened six months earlier. He knew nothing about the body found lying in the mud miles away in another section of the city. Neither did he know that the simple act of scrapping his car would become crucial evidence related to the murder of a woman found naked, face down in the mud. He didn’t know that his pretty red lawnmower would place his name in circulation as a suspect in a murder.
As the photographer took the last pictures, the crowd that watched was quiet as some stood with their hands over their mouths in disbelief. The photographer took photos of every item on the site. He pointed his camera at the pile of clothes.
Then he pointed it at the two-by-four board.
Click. He snapped the body from every possible angle.
The stab wounds.
The naked corpse.
The police tried to hide the scene from their prying eyes, but some were able to see, even at a distance that something terrible had happened.
As police took photos of the crime scene, seventeen-year-old Gerald Manning walked the halls of Wossman High School on the other side of town. Like most of the students, Gerald was unaware that a pretty mother of two children lay naked in the mud in the Booker T. community. His world had one focus and one pursuit: he wanted to become a professional athlete.
Gerald was a popular all-around athlete at Wossman High School. He was magic on the football field and was indispensable on the Wildcat basketball team. On the athletic field, he succeeded in ways that he did not manage well in the classroom. He was tops when he handled a basketball. He was average in the classroom, sometimes less than average. Every Wossman student dreamed of successful careers, becoming famous or living lives of luxury. Many saw high school graduation and college as their paths to success. Gerald had dreams, too, but he didn't see academics as his pathway to the future. He saw a career in the NBA or NFL as his ticket, and he concentrated on that goal nearly every waking hour.
The looming figures of basketball stars peered over the horizon of millions of boys like Gerald. Like Moses Malone, he could see himself scoring 19 points a game or getting the cheers and screams of the crowd with a famous style like Kareem Abdul Jabbar's skyhook or making baskets the easy way like Julius "Dr. J." Ervin. The NBA was not impossible because Bill Russell, one of the greatest players of all time, was born in Monroe and walked the same dusty streets that he walked. In spite of his Ouachita Parish origins, Russell became a star. Those who were not great in the classroom often looked to the one place they had control: the athletic arena. It became their world. It absorbed their every waking moment leaving little room for anything else. His thoughts were focused on basketball, certainly not the murder of a beautiful woman in an alley on the other side of town.
Like Buck Perkins, his life was routine and without excitement beyond the basketball court. He rarely watched the news, other than sports, and didn't read the newspapers. He watched television and enjoyed hanging around with his family members and a few friends. He bothered no one, never caused trouble at school, and was the kind of son that every mother described as a "good boy." Buck Perkins and Gerald Manning lived in what seemed galaxies apart from the scene in the Booker T. neighborhood. They had rarely traveled to that section of town, and neither of them knew Vonda Harris. Despite the separation of their worlds, the two young men who were neither friends nor acquaintances were being drawn into a series of events that would change their lives forever.
Paul Henry Kidd
In a completely different world, Paul Henry Kidd sat in his law office on Monday morning reviewing notes for an upcoming case. He, too, was unaware of the photographs taken by the police photographer or the body that lay crumpled in the mud. Those photographs, that body, and the ensuing events would soon engage him in a legal fight that would last for the rest of his life.
Kidd stood tall and bulky and spoke with a slight nasal draw that revealed a touch of Yankee rebellion in his voice. He cropped his mustache in the center, and his hair fell across his face. Kidd was not known for stylish dress or polished manners. Most who knew him thought he was sloppy and eccentric, especially since his suits were crumpled and his shirttails frequently hung out of his pants on one side.
The rich and powerful considered Kidd a troublemaker. They said he tried to build his career representing poor Negroes in civil rights cases. They spoke his name with the same venom former slave masters used to describe Yankee carpetbaggers who came to the South after the Civil War. Carpetbaggers helped "Niggers" to forget their place and even rebel against their former masters. Kidd was hated like a carpetbagger because he represented Negroes in civil rights suits against established businesses and institutions in the city led by some of the most outstanding men in the parish. When whites spoke his name, the words they used were mixed with spent tobacco and venomous descriptions that placed him a little lower than the demons of hell.
When all other local attorneys refused to handle civil rights cases that would force the integration of schools in Ouachita Parish, Kidd accepted them. He became one of the few attorneys in the area who represented Negro civil rights organizations. For most of the decade, Kidd kept local officials in open court, forcing them to testify to their bigotry. Representing the Black Citizen's Council, NAACP, and other civil rights groups, Kidd dragged them all into federal court, claiming that their good old boys club endorsement of racism resulted in de facto segregation in schools and government.
As Kidd won each of his cases, the segregation walls began to fall. The Ouachita Parish Police Jury, which had nineteen members, was reorganized down to six, electing Abe E. Pierce, III, as the first Black police juryman since reconstruction. Kidd sued the parish school board, and its nineteen members were also scaled down to seven. That action resulted in the election of its first Black member Clem T. Toston. In Richland, Lincoln, and other parishes, the name Paul Kidd was hated in the white community. He was seen as the ultimate enemy of the white race; he was a white attorney who abandoned his own people and represented "Niggers.” He was the ultimate traitor. His was an unpardonable sin.
Among Negroes, Kidd was a hero. He was welcomed in Negro churches, praised by its political leaders, and heralded as a champion of the Negro cause by the Negro Press. Kidd was so comfortable in the Black community that he often challenged Negroes to stand up and fight for themselves. It was ironic that Kidd was welcomed in Negro churches since he never admitted a belief in God. He often expressed his belief that religion was a tool that oppressors used to control the masses of the poor, superstitious, and illiterate. But the Negroes didn't know that, and the invitations kept coming.
At one meeting in 1970 at the Mt. Zion Baptist Church, Kidd was the featured speaker at a civil rights program. It was no surprise to the packed house when Kidd took off his coat and leaned his massive frame over an announcement podium, and asked, "What does it take to get you Negroes to fight for yourselves? Aren't you tired of drowning in the white man's spit?" He ranted and waved his arms, pushing them to take action to fight the powers that worked against the poor and against Negroes. Instead of being angry at his tirades, the crowd cheered him and joined local efforts to desegregate businesses in Monroe that refused to hire Negroes.
Little did he know it, but Paul Kidd would soon be drawn into a legal battle that would consume his time and resources for the rest of his life. In a few short months, the body lying in the mud would involve a suspect selected by the rich and powerful to absorb the blame for a multiplicity of tragedies to clear its books. As if crying out for help, the body would etch itself in the legal mind of Paul Kidd. Since the local NAACP would come to view it as an issue of police refusal to respond to a growing problem of rape and violence in the Black community, Paul Kidd would be at the front of the battle.
In the '70s in Monroe, Paul Henry Kidd was the towering voice of the man beaten by a police officer or the youth locked away without bond and forgotten. He relished the headline cases that placed him at the forefront of courtroom battles that allowed him to expose hypocrisy and defend the underdog. His courtroom antics often stirred the ire of the elite. The more they were angered, the more excited and determined Kidd became. Most Negroes in Northeast Louisiana spoke his name with regal reverence. He could do no wrong.
If the truth about this body in the alley could be discovered and the real murderer found, Negroes were confident that Paul Kidd could do it and not rest until justice was served. At the very least, there would be a fight if the system tried to unload its inept case file on an unsuspecting victim. The Negro community knew Kidd loved the big fights. It was an image that Kidd relished and carefully shaped. He enjoyed the spotlight and often represented the innocent without charge. He enjoyed fighting the system, challenging the old guard, and righting wrongs.
The body in the alley would draw Paul Kidd into a realm that would first solicit his attention and then demand his heart and soul. It would be a world where he would be called upon to defend an accused murderer whom the system had labeled as the Perfect Patsy.