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February 02 Issue

‘Noose Man’ Gets Vengeance on ‘Hollywood’
Jeff M. Hardison
No one could imagine murder as the cause of Leon’s death.

When he drove over the Suwannee River bridge between Hamilton and Suwannee counties, reporter Jesse Christison saw two Suwannee deputies’ cruisers and an ambulance parked on the Suwannee side of the river.
Sitting on the southeast corner of the intersection of Highway 441 and the river, the vehicles reflected the midday sun into his eyes. They shined like harbingers of news to the veteran journalist. It was the summer of 1981.
Three days earlier, 15-year-old Leon Taylor had drowned upriver from the bridge. Jesse had heard a couple of different versions about the incident leading to the black teen‘s death. Local people sought Jesse. They “cottoned to” this member of The Fourth Estate more than any other reporter in that region of North Florida.
Jesse could write nothing more than the bare facts this week. It was deadline day. He saw the indicators of big news on his way to the office based in Live Oak as he drove south to layout the newspaper which covered Jasper.
His newspaper was The Jasper News.

One account of how Taylor drowned came from a group of teenagers. Some Hamilton County boys had told Christison that some white boys, from Suwannee County, had started shooting .22 caliber rifles across the river at Leon. The victim had grown up next to the river, but never had learned to swim. All of the people to whom Jesse spoke, and he had interviewed a wide spectrum of family, friends, neighbors and schoolmates in the three days before the body rose to the surface, had said Leon was a great kid. No one could imagine murder as the cause of Leon’s death.
Leon Taylor’s family lived in White Springs, where Stephen Foster had composed the famous song about the Suwannee River more than a century before.
Taylor was born inside his parents' shanty in White Springs.
According to teen gossip in Hamilton County, the Suwannee County boys were “just trying to scare” Leon. The victim lost his footing, fell in the river, and drowned. This version of reality, nevertheless, was not the “official word.” In the three years he had been there, Jesse had found that the sheriff and deputies often distorted the truth. They had created the “official word” and people who failed to accept it were found hanging from one of the many live oak trees.
Sheriff’s department documents showed that Leon was playing next to the river. The boy allegedly fell in. No one could save him, according to the report.

When he saw the cruisers and ambulance near the river that hot, July morning, Christison's adrenaline pumped. He felt his heart quicken.
It figures, the 30-year-old reporter thought. The body usually floats after a few days. I've got to get this now. I hope Marion doesn't mind me being a few minutes late.
Jesse knew his editor, Marion Levy, expected him to be either on time or early. The reporter had beaten all deadlines during their three-year stint as colleagues. Jesse felt that he and Marion were friends, but they never associated with each other outside of work.
In fact, Jesse had let his life disappear, except for reporting, ever since he finished college eight years ago.
Jesse drove his 1964 Chevrolet Impala onto the east shoulder of Highway 441. He grabbed his Canon AE-1. He snatched his clipboard. He locked the doors of “Ol’ Nellie.” It had become a conditioned response after living in Gainesville for eight years. Criminals preyed upon the University of Florida students. The 1973 U.F. graduate had never fallen victim to thieves or scalawags while he went to school, but some of his classmates did not fare as well as he had.

When the young reporter started walking toward the crime scene, he looked back at his big, baby-blue Chevrolet. Christison liked older cars. Christison named this 17-year-old steel sled, just as he had named all of her predecessors 'Ol ’ Nellie and it continued to serve him as a professional journalist thus far.
It’s time to confront Live Oak’s finest, again. God help me, Christison thought. What is it with these cops? Why aren’t they civil like the ones in Hamilton County?
The reporter strode down the steep bank through the thick grass. He sauntered into the woods. Giant, old, oak trees kept the area shaded. As usual, Christison was overdressed for the weather. Wearing a long-sleeve white shirt and a blue tie, the reporter looked the part of a professional.
Some deputies in Hamilton County had nicknamed him “Hollywood.” It was more of a term of endearment than a vicious tag. Most of the Hamilton County law enforcers addressed Christison as “Mr. Christison.”
Hearing voices and seeing deputies near the river's edge, Christison jogged along a short path of white sand. He noticed sunbeams streaming through the giant oaks’ branches. Perspiration gathered on his forehead and in his mustache.
The thick musky smell of summer at the Suwannee River hung in muggy midday air.
“Hello. My name is Jesse Christison. I'm the reporter for The Jasper News.”
He always introduced himself, even after three years in the Live Oak area. The sheriff and his deputies ignored him. The elite corps of Suwannee deputies never accepted anyone born anywhere other than in their neck of the woods. Deputies focused their attention downstream.

A medium-sized outboard boat towed something behind it. Tied by a rope to the stern, the five-foot corpse left a separate wake from the 14-foot aluminum boat’s waves. The boat made its way against the current. All of the officers watched the boat, its pilot and his one-man crew.
The reporter took the lens cap off his camera’s lens. Christison's Canon served as his eye to the world for his readers. He aimed at the corpse. He focused and shot.
Christison had heard the sound of his camera's shutter thousands of times before. He never gave it a second thought. During that particular five-hundredths of one second, though, the shutter’s snap resounded like a loud cannon shot, which shattered the stillness of the hot July day.
“What the hell do you think you're doing?” said the largest man in the group of officers.
“I'm taking pictures for the newspaper. My name is Jesse Christison. I’m the reporter for The Jasper News. I announced that when I arrived.”
“I know who you are. I heard you. And you, Mr. Hollywood, know I am Sheriff Monroe Broward. You won’t be takin’ no more pictures here.” Towering well over six feet tall and weighing more than 200 pounds, the sheriff presented an intimidating image. And once he spoke, Sheriff Broward could make even the meanest Florida panther freeze in its tracks.
Christison knew the law. And he had heard about this epitome of Good Ol’ Boys in North Central Florida too. In all his years as a reporter, Christison never saw a deputy pull a night-stick across anyone’s throat. One of Christison's predecessors, however, told him that one of Broward’s deputies killed a man that way for no reason. And the deputy got away with it.
There was no investigation. There was no trial.
That former reporter had told Christison, “Broward said it was like squashing an ant. Deputies can kill ants, aunts, uncles, or anybody in Suwannee County. It’s Broward’s law.“
The big, burly sheriff outweighed Christison by 50 pounds. That difference was all muscle, too. The buck-toothed farm-boy sheriff could mop the riverbank with the thin, well-groomed reporter. Sheriff Monroe Broward had plenty of help on hand, too.

When Christison first arrived in Jasper, the St. Petersburg native had learned what some locals thought of him.
“Where ya’ from, boy?” a man had asked Christison on the reporter's first day in Jasper in 1978.
“I’m originally from St. Petersburg. Most recently, I'm from Newberry, where I was a reporter after graduating from the University of Florida.”
“Oh. So, you're one of them southern Yankees.”
For the most part, Christison had overcome Hamilton County residents’ prejudice against outsiders. There were still a few hard cases in Suwannee County -- like Broward and his thugs.

The reporter stood in the midst of Suwannee deputies.
Christison got a second wind. He clicked off a few more shots. If the high sheriff of Suwannee County tried stopping him from taking a picture of a black teenager’s corpse being dragged from the river, then there was only one thing Christison could do. He must shoot more pictures.
“All-right, boy,” the sheriff said, putting a special emphasis on “boy” and holding a pair of pliers in the air. “If you take one more picture, I’m going to break that Goddamn camera and throw it in the river.”
The journalist backed away while he continued to shoot. Click. Click. Click.
He smelled blood. He felt his heart pounding. It beat so hard, Christison thought it would explode.
The four deputies and two ambulance attendants looked as if they had seen a man walk up to a hungry lion and dangle a juicy steak in front of the ferocious cat.
Christison started writing. His camera hung loose around his neck. His pen raced across the paper on the clipboard in his left hand. He showed no fear. He continued backing up, to distance himself from the deputies. Then, he stopped and watched.
I must record this while it's happening, the writer thought. This is strange. Something's wrong here.

© Jeff M Hardison 2002

St. Petersburg, Florida, U.S.A.


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