Judge Glenda Fuentes caressed her left ear. “Is he serious?” The neatly-typed words had started to blur. She really didn’t have time for this. But, she read it anyway. Nathan Hagel was already dead. Poor little bastard, she thought. He really believed in himself. He really thought he was the victim.
“I hope you all realize what you have done to me. I know if I told you this in person you’d just laugh. But, I’m not laughing. I did not kill those people. I told you over and over I had nothing to do with it. I was there, yes. But, I didn’t take part in it. I didn’t know that was going to go down like that. I had no idea my brother and sister-in-law wanted to kill anyone. I knew James was mad at his neighbors. But, I didn’t know he was that mad! Mad enough to want to not just hurt them, but kill them. I still don’t think he planned to kill them. I seriously don’t think that. I still think he just wanted to scare the shit out of them.”
Of course, thought Fuentes. A lot of killers say that: I just wanted to scare them; teach them a lesson; make them understand whatever. But, I didn’t mean to kill them. In her nearly two decades on the bench, she’d heard that claim more times than she could count.
Nathan and his older brother, James, had a rough start in life. Their father abandoned them and their mother, when the boys were little. Nathan, in fact, never really knew his father; couldn’t recall ever talking with him. Nathan had told his defense attorney the only clear memory he had of his father was when the old man lay in his coffin. He and James had learned by chance their father had been killed in a bar fight in Arkansas. James was laid up at home after a car accident, so Nathan drove to Arkansas by himself for the funeral.
The Hagel boys’ mother provided them no greater comfort. A “paranoid alcoholic” is how Nathan described her. The boys were pretty much left to fend for themselves from a very young age. Why didn’t someone in the family take them in, wondered Fuentes. That was the question a lot of people – inside and outside of the court – asked. Tarrant County Child Protective Services failed them, too.
But, Fuentes reminded herself – and several others – at some point, the Hagel brothers knew right from wrong. If James and his wife, Sandy, had such trouble with their neighbors, why didn’t they seek legal counsel? How could a property line dispute turn so violent?
“My mother used to beat the living crap out of James,” Nathan’s letter continued. “He’d let himself get beat up, so she wouldn’t turn on me. He didn’t want me to get hurt. Even after I got grown and could care for myself, he still tried to protect me from stuff.”
According to police records, James and Sandy had dialed 911 more than twenty times to complain about their neighbors, the McFarrells. They all lived in a relatively older section of Fort Worth – not far from where they Hagel boys grew up. The McFarrells had moved into their house next door to James and Sandy less than two years before they died. Apparently, animosity developed from the start; beginning with a new fence the McFarrells built on their property. They had to tear down the old fence, which meant getting onto the Hagel’s property. That’s where the trouble started. James and Sandy had called police some twenty times. But, the McFarrells and others in the neighborhood had also called 911. There were, in total, about sixty calls to police from that one block – all related to the Hagel – McFarrell property dispute.
Where is this, mused Fuentes. West Virginia? No, it was Fort Worth, Texas, and we don’t solve property disputes with a gun.
“I think my mother was insane,” Nathan wrote. “I really do. She would do the craziest shit. We never knew what kind of mood she’d be in. She would just go off on us. And, everyone else.”
Fuentes had heard that sad story before. So, had Nathan’s court-appointed attorney, Mark Gaston. Gaston – who looked a circus side show reject – leaned heavily on Nathan’s upbringing as a reason for his behavior. “A reason,” he emphasized, “not an excuse.” Nathan understood the consequences of his actions for the most part, Gaston insisted, but he let himself get caught up in the drama of his older brother and sister-in-law. Besides, violence was all they knew growing up.
Huh? The statement perplexed everyone involved in the Hagel case. Okay, Nathan knew it was wrong to take the shotgun when his brother offered it to him. And, he knew it was wrong to follow James next door to the McFarrells’ house. Nathan knew bad blood flowed between James and Sandy and the McFarrells, like swamp water left over from a hurricane. But, somehow, he still really, in a strange sort of way, wasn’t completely and totally responsible for his actions?
“No, he wasn’t!” Gaston proclaimed during his closing arguments, answering the very question everyone had in mind.
“That neighborhood where James and Sandy lived – it was such a dump anyways. It’s like it was born dirty and rotten. But, that house was all they could afford. Then again, that’s all we knew – dirty, rotten houses and neighborhoods.”
Gaston had subpoenaed the Hagel brothers’ mother, Sheila. When she arrived in court, she was on probation for drunk driving and looked as if she was still intoxicated. Nathan didn’t even look up at her; not once. He kept his eyes down.
“I’ve had some problems,” Sheila mumbled on the witness stand. “I almost wish I’d never met their father.”
The courtroom expelled a collective gasp, which prompted Fuentes to pound her gavel. But, she understood the shock. This wretched woman was essentially trying to say she wished James and Nathan had never been born. That’s an awful thing for a mother to say – with one son already on death row and another headed there to join him.
“I don’t believe in no god or heaven or hell or afterlife. I think that’s all bullshit and anyone who believes in that is stupid. Since I don’t believe in that, I know nothing will happen to me after I die. But, for those of you who believe in god, may he, she, it, whatever damn you and your family. But, I also hope all of you suffer for what you did to me and my brother. Suffer bad. I hate you. I hate every fucking one of you!”
Sandy Hagel had been given immunity in return for her testimony. She was in the house when her husband and brother-in-law decided to walk next door and confront the McFarrells. She could have easily called the police – which she did. But, not before she heard the gunshots. She mentioned how both the McFarrells had stood outside on their back porch and waved their own guns towards the Hagel household. “They called us trash,” Sandy said in court. “But, they were just as trashy.”
Prosecutor Carly Watson had no sympathy for any of them. She never showed concern for criminal defendants. She smirked in court when Gaston mentioned the Hagel brothers’ rough upbringing. “Cry me a river of spit!” she told reporters after the jury in James’ trial issued its guilty verdict. She repeated herself after Nathan’s trial – the exact same verbiage. The statement made it onto the front pages of local newspapers. It was such a typical Texas-style response from someone sworn to uphold the law. “If everybody who had a rough childhood could get away with murder, we’d have dead bodies piled up in football stadiums, instead of morgues!” she groused. “I don’t feel sorry for the Hagel boys one single bit. They knew what they were doing. No one forced them to pick up guns and head over to the neighbor’s house.”
That night, Sandy testified, the McFarrells had stood on their back porch, waving their rifles towards her and James – again. The new fence was already up and bushes were planted.
“So, what was the problem?” Watson asked her.
Sandy paused for a minute. “They kept waving their guns at us. Like they were itching for a fight. We didn’t want no more trouble from them. We just wanted them to leave us alone.”
“Why didn’t you?”
“But, your husband and brother-in-law went over there anyway! Didn’t they?!”
“Because they called us.”
“Yes. They called us three times earlier that evening. I don’t know why. Just to be mean.”
“What did they say to you?”
“Just stupid stuff.”
“Define ‘stupid stuff’ for us, would you please.”
Sandy sighed heavily. “That we were ugly and stupid. That we’d better watch our backs. We thought things were settled once the new fence was put up. But, they kept at us. Kept haggling us. We didn’t want any more to do with them.”
So, as Sandy recounted, James and Nathan grabbed a couple of James’ shotguns and marched next door to the McFarrell home. They merely planned to stand on the sidewalk out front, waving the firearms in the night air; the same way the McFarrells had waved theirs to the Hagels so many times before. Sandy didn’t know why James and Nathan decided to step onto the McFarrells’ front porch and force their way into the house.
“James always looked out for Nathan,” Gaston noted in his closing argument. “They were all they had. They had no one else. No one cared for them. No one cared about them. They had to take care of themselves. Always! And, the police had not helped much in this dispute on Warren Lane. They just told everyone to be neighborly and then went on their way.”
Even after other neighbors reported the McFarrells often marched around their front yard with guns in hand, as if they were guarding a vault filled with diamonds, the police still did nothing. The McFarrells had waved their firearms at other people on that street. Some had avoided walking in front of the house altogether. They’d step into the street and make a wide arc, far from the McFarrell home, before returning to the sidewalk. Gaston made certain these other neighbors testified in court.
“None of these people were pulled from the nearest church pew,” Watson announced after James’ trial.
That was nearly two decades ago. James was already gone. Sandy had disappeared into another life far away from Fort Worth. Now, Nathan had a date with the chamber. A week before, he penned this letter. Then, he slit his wrists and his throat with a piece of metal he’d somehow spirited into his cell.
“But, I hope all of you suffer for what you did to me and my brother. Suffer bad.” For some reason, Fuentes kept reading that part over and over. Suffer – that’s such a cruel word.
She finally dropped the paper onto her desk and called for her assistant, Janelle. “Can you get Ms. Watson on the line for me?” She had yet another death penalty case to discuss.
“Right away, Judge,” replied Janelle.
Fuentes returned Nathan Hagel’s letter to its envelope and wished Gaston had never wasted her time with it. “I guess he can just come pick it up,” she murmured.
Janelle stumbled into the office, sounding breathless. “Your Honor!”
Fuentes was startled. “What?! What happened?”
“I just called Ms. Watson’s office. Her secretary said she’s been in a serious car wreck.”
“A car wreck?!”
“That’s what he said.”
“This morning – on her way to the office. She’s at JPS right now.”
John Peter Smith took the worst of the worst.
“Oh, my God!” crowed Fuentes. “That’s awful!”
“Let me make some other phone calls. I’ll see if I can found out more.” She wheeled back out towards her desk.
Fuentes sat back in her designer leather chair. “Damn! A car wreck! Good God!” She leaned forward to stand up – but her vision seemed to explode, driving her back into the chair. “Oh, God!” she screamed.
“Judge?” Janelle called out. She was already on the phone.
Fuentes stood. Another fucking migraine! She thought she’d rid herself of those years ago. She reached for her desk. This one was different, though, from what she remembered. She managed to stand.
“Judge?” Janelle repeated.
Fuentes tumbled face down. She probably didn’t feel her nose splinter when she hit the floor.