The Killing Trail

February, 1995

On a frigid night in east Texas in 1993, just a few weeks before Christmas, a 23-year-old gay man named Nicholas West is abducted from Bergfeld Park in Tyler. He is taken to a hilly isolated area of red clay nicknamed the Pits, a place where pleas for mercy evaporate under the cold shine of the stars. He is punched, kicked and slapped across the face with a .357 magnum. When he falls to the ground, utterly alone and helpless in that marrow of darkness, blood oozing out of his eye, his three abductors gather around him with their arsenal of loaded weapons. Then the shooting begins, so many entrance and exit wounds that by the time of the autopsy, West's body looks like a stickpin doll. There are at least 9 bullets, the first in the abdomen, then several through the arms and hands, then at least 4 up the back in a pattern as neatly spaced as the buttons on a shirt. Eight shots at that point, but Nicholas is still alive, his breath reduced to a tiny gurgle, until the final shot is fired into the back of his head. Then he is left on that field of red clay, face down, without shoes or pants, his arms by his sides and his legs spread apart like those of a sleeping child, the bottom of his socks red from the clay, and his underwear soiled by a fear that none of us could ever know.

After the murder, one of the killers rides around in the red Mazda truck that West had driven to the park that night. Impressed by the power of the truck, he squeals the tires the way the drag racers do it. Then he goes on over to the laundromat on Troup Highway in Tyler to do a load of wash.

"I do not like homosexuals. I do not care for them", said a 29-year-old convicted felon named Donald Aldrich in the confession he gave to investigators in the murder of Nicholas West in Tyler. "And a lot of times, homosexuals are known for carrying quite a bit of money on them. So that's where it comes in with hitting them. Kind of more or less like a vengeful type thing. And then a lot of kids, a lot of teenagers, they'll tell you, well, let's go fag-bashing".

Last August in a courtoom in Kerrville, where Aldrich was on trial for capital murder, Hardy-Garcia listened to the testimony of a 15-year-old boy who had been part of a group that liked to go fag-bashing in Tyler. What she saw was a child, a "baby boy" who was scared to death, and she became convinced that what he felt in his heart for homosexuals was the product of an environment in which gays are depicted over and over again as perverts, predators, and pedophiles.

Behind the impenetrable windows of the prison waiting area, where death-row inmates in the state of Texas entertain all visitors until they are executed by lethal injection, Donald Aldrich tries to explain some of the psychology that went into the killing of Nicholas West that November night in 1993. Aldrich's features are flat and bland: narrow lips, a high crown of a forehead leading up to a thinning crust of hair, frozen blue eyes that, like a broken clock, send nothing out and take nothing back.

Some of what he says is eminently predictable: the way he regrets what happened on that field of red clay, how there wasn't supposed to be shooting that night ("the guns were there to stop the violence", he says in a surreal parody of an NRA slogan), the sorrow he feels for Nicholas West's family, and his own never-ending bad dreams.

And yet Aldrich holds back little on the subject of gays. His resentment at how their rights seem to take precedence over his is palpable as he invokes God and the bible in calling homosexuals sick and unnatural. He notes that some of the teenagers he hung with hated gays even more than he did. He says they made fun of the way gays talked, and called them "queers", "fags", and "dick suckers" when they weren't plotting ways to rob and beat them.

In Donald Aldrich's view, the queers had everything. He had only his life in a trailer park over in Rockwall, his 10th-grade education and a bad marriage. He had only his go-nowhere restaurant jobs at places like Popeyes to fill the time between the burglary sprees and the prison stints.

"I work all my life tryin' to have something nice and make something of myself", he says. "About the best job I can get is working in a restaurant makin' minimum wage or just barely over it, and it's like, I get no breaks. From the time I was a kid, it seemed like there was a lot against me, and yet here they are, they're doing something that God totally condemns in the bible. But look at everything they've got. They've got all this nice stuff. They've got all these good jobs, sit back at a desk or sit back in an air-conditioned building not having to sweat, not having to bust their ass, and they've got money. They've got the cars. They've got the apartments. They've got all the nice stuff in 'em. So yeah, I resented that".

But Aldrich also says that it wasn't all fags he hated, just the ones he called the perverts, the ones who prey on children the way he says he was preyed on by an older relative. Aldrich can offer no independent corroboration but he says he was repeatedly forced to perform oral and anal sex on a relative for 3 or 4 years from the time he was 9 years old. Aldrich describes himself as being defenseless because of a 7-year age difference. but he also paints an image of himself as a raucous and wild fighter at the time of the alleged abuse. Aldrich says that on one occasion, when he was 11 or 12, he was in a fight with 2 twins who lived in the same trailer park in Rockwall, then squared off with the twins' father and used a baseball bat to break his collarbone, his arm and 7 of his ribs.

Turning to the subject of the murder of Nicholas West, Aldrich begins by explaining that he didn't have a phone where he lived in Tyler, so he liked using the one in the middle of Bergfeld Park between the picnic tables and the restrooms. He used it to make late-night calls to his fiancée. He loved to call and croon his favorite Garth Brooks lyrics while she played the CD at home. But in the middle of his calls, those damned fags would often come on to him. Sure, Aldrich knew, as just about everyone in Tyler knew, that the park had become a meeting place for gays after dark. But this was a matter of principle. "It got to where I wanted to carry a gun up there and every time one of 'em came near me I was gonna shoot 'em for coming near me. You know, here I am, I'm not gay. I'm in a public park using a public phone and yet I'm going to get harassed by these homosexuals, but when I do something against them, I'm breakin' the law".

Aldrich says that the whole idea of fag-bashing for fun and profit wasn't his, but was first suggested by the 13-year-old sister of one of the Tyler teenagers whom Aldrich had hooked up with after his release from prison. Once the suggestion was made, it seemed to damned good to pass up, given the general reluctance of queers to report crimes to the police.

The group, according to Aldrich, started its spree of gay-bashings in Tyler sometime before the spring of 1993, when he became involved. More often than not, Aldrich acted as the lure who reeled in the victims under the pretense of a pickup. In some of the fag-bashings, the primary motive was robbery. In others, it was bodily harm, like the time Aldrich and his gang went out with baseball bats, clubs and crowbars, or the time they held a man at bay in a freezing lake for several hours while they fired shots over his head, as if they had created their own human version of duck hunting. The intention, Aldrich says, was to install fear, to see that pure, unadulterated look of terror on the victim, who didn't know if he was going to live or die or get tortured. Don Aldrich isn't shy about describing what he felt at these moments. "You could say I got a litte bit of pleasure out of it".

Then came the Nicholas West incident. Aldrich had been working that night with 2 teenagers named Henry Dunn, then 19, and David McMillan, then 17. According to Aldrich, the 2 teens, interested in West's red Mazda truck with its pulsating stereo system, had been trying all night to get their potential victim into Bergfeld Park under the guise of a pickup. But he just wouldn't take the bait, says Aldrich. Then something wonderful happened. "West clearly came on to me after I got off the phone with my fiancée. When West came on to me, I'm like, Why, don't this just make it easy?"

Then the true fun began. Aldrich says the 2 teens pushed West into the car they were driving and put a shotgun on him while Aldrich took the Mazda pickup. Then the little caravan headed off in the direction of the Pits. On the way there, Aldrich stopped and started ransacking the truck. Then the other car showed up, and Aldrich began questioning West about how much money he had, and said he better not be lying to him, because if he was, he was going to tie him to the damned bumper of the car and drag him the remaining 15 miles to the Pits. But hell, it wasn't really 15 miles, just a mile or so, and from the vantage point of Aldrich, it was all kind of good-intentioned at that point, just a little game of Sacare the Fag. The very worst he had in mind was tying West to a tree with duct tape and leaving him until someone found him. And just to be kind about it, Aldrich wasn't even going to make him strip all his clothes off.

Once they got to the Pits, West was forced out of the car and told to start walking up a little hill. And this is where it got really good for Don Aldrich, when he discovered that West was so scared that he had defecated in his pants. "I thought it was hilarious", he says. "When you scare a man so bad that he literally shits on himself, that man is scared". He described the sensation as like being on drugs. "I enjoyed it", he says. "I really did".

But after this "adrenaline high", things began to go haywire. West was ordered to remove his pants and shoes, and when he did so, Aldrich discovered a $10 bill, meaning that West hadn't been dealing straight with him on the money issue. And that set Aldrich off, because it meant the queer had lied to him, so he "bitch-slapped" West across the face with the .357 magnum. And then, according to Aldrich, Henry Dunn decided he wanted to fight Nicholas West, but West didn't want to fight. So Dunn set West's hands in a fighter's stance, but still West wouldn't fight. So Dunn hit him anyway with his ring-filled fist. But West still wouldn't fight and investigators believe this pissed off Dunn even more, just the kind of fag-assed behavior you would expect from a queer. So Dunn hit him a few more times and kicked him and then said, "To hell with this", and took the .357 magnum and shot West in the stomach. At this point, the other shots followed: 2 by Aldrich, 1 by McMillan, and 5 more by Henry Dunn, including the final bullet in the back of the head. "It wasn't going as smooth as it was supposed to", says Aldrich.

Roughly a day later, investigators arrested Aldrich, Dunn and McMillan, and the 3 were indicted on charges of capital murder. So far only Aldrich has gone to trial, and it took the jury an hour and 17 minutes to sentence him to die. In his confession to homicide detectives, which filled 103 pages when it was transcribed, and was the key piece of evidence against him, Aldrich wrongly assumed that the more cooperative he was, the easier he might get off. Aldrich also decided to openly express his feelings about gays, in part because of a calculated assumption that "if I produced the right air or the right attitude, knowing how a lot of the cops felt towards gays in Tyler, that it might get some of the charges dropped. I thought it might help me get a lesser sentence or a lesser charge".

He miscalculated, and as investigators listened to Donald Aldrich, as they heard his laughter over Nicholas West's humiliation and suffering, and watched Aldrich's body language, they saw not a man who was posturing but a man who truly had difficulty understanding why the victim really was a victim. "He thinks he's a good guy", said an investigator on the case for the Smith County Sheriff's Department, recalling what he believed to be the mind-set of Aldrich as he confessed. "He's not perceiving he's doing anything wrong, because this is a fag. This is not a store owner or a preacher. This is a fag".

 

 
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  SOURCE: Vanity Fair magazine