Upshur preserving McFadden’s cell draws protest

The Upshur County Commissioners Court’s plan to preserve the onetime jail cell from which the late Jerry (Animal) McFadden escaped in 1986, triggering what was then reportedly the largest manhunt in Texas history, is drawing a protest from the family of the woman McFadden was convicted of murdering.
While the county has said its plan is intended as a memorial to the three young people McFadden was charged with killing, Suzanne Harrison’s relatives contend in a letter to several newspapers that the plan “glamorizes” McFadden and that the proposal would “bind” his victims to him. (View the letter here)
The 87-year-old courthouse is undergoing a nearly $13 million historic renovation, and plans call for preserving the cell on the fifth floor, which was the county jail’s longtime site until only months after the escape. The jail was relocated to its current housing, the Upshur County Justice Center in Gilmer.
McFadden was convicted in 1987 of capital murder for the May 1986 sexual assault and strangulation of Harrison, who was 18 and from Hawkins. Convicted and sentenced to death by a jury in Bell County, where the trial was moved on a change of venue, McFadden was executed by injection Oct. 14, 1999.
He was charged, but not tried, for the deaths of Harrison’s two companions, Gina Turner and Bryan Boone, who were allegedly kidnapped with her on May 4, 1986 as they were going to Lake Hawkins.
When he escaped July 9, 1986, he struck a deputy sheriff in the head and forced a female dispatcher to drive him to Big Sandy. The dispatcher soon escaped from a railroad car in that city before McFadden was re-captured in a nearby vacant house two days after escaping.
During last Thursday’s meeting of the commissioners court, Marion County Judge Leward J. LaFleur, who was hired by Upshur County to oversee the Gilmer courthouse restoration, said the cell’s preservation was designed “to remember the victims.”
When a reporter at the meeting had asked whether the proposed memorial involved a plaque, County Judge Todd Tefteller said it would involve “some kind of writing” about the three victims and details of the massive manhunt.
Tefteller said some people told him the county shouldn’t recall a criminal, but “that’s not what we’re doing.”
Precinct 3 Commissioner Michael Ashley said he would like for “his (McFadden’s) name not to even be up there,” and LaFleur said that could be done.
Defending the proposed preservation of the cell, Sheriff’s Chief Deputy David Hazel pointed out that the Texas School Book Depository in Dallas, from where President Kennedy was allegedly assassinated by Lee Harvey Oswald in 1963, wasn’t demolished. It now houses a museum about the tragedy.
Hazel said it was a “great idea to use that opportunity” to preserve the cell, and that the sheriff’s office has “artifacts” of the escape which it could contribute to the display. (They are currently displayed in the Stanley Jenkins Training Center near the courthouse.)
Precinct 2 Commissioner Dustin Nicholson also defended the proposal, saying “Jesus died on the cross. We don’t need to eliminate the cross.”
The Texas Historical Commission, which is helping the county fund the courthouse project with the requirement that the building’s interior be restored largely to its original 1937 appearance, granted a variance for how the former jail space could be used.
Plans call for converting the fifth floor to office space.
LaFleur told the court “everything’s going smooth” on the restoration, which began near the end of 2023, although he added that deconstruction of the fifth floor is taking longer than expected.
Overall, he said, the project was about a week and a half ahead of schedule. Asbestos abatement is completed, and “a lot of (interior) demolition work” is being performed, he added.
The building is fenced off, but LaFleur warned that a “lot of things are falling off the side of” the structure, and that “the public absolutely should not be over there.”
He also said it was illegal for the county to give away anything removed from the building.

– By Phillip Williams

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