Victims’ relatives reject Upshur County plan to preserve escapee’s jail cell

Jerry Walter McFadden was the focus of a massive manhunt in 1986.

By Michael MarksMarch 14, 2024 2:22 pm,

In the summer of 1986, the nation briefly turned its eye on rural East Texas – specifically, the Upshur County Courthouse. 

There, authorities held Jerry Walter McFadden, a recently paroled convict who was suspected of murdering three young adults nearby.

McFadden was guilty. And rather than face trial, he tried to escape. On July 9, he overpowered one guard and took another hostage. He was caught after a two-day manhunt, thought to be the largest in Texas history, and eventually executed by the state in 1999.

Fast-forward to today: The Upshur County Courthouse is about to undergo a major remodeling effort, and there’s a proposal on the table to keep McFadden’s notorious cell untouched. But not everyone is pleased about that idea.

Jordan Green, a reporter for the Longview News-Journal, spoke to the Texas Standard about the controversy around the plan.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: First, tell us a little bit more about how big of a deal McFadden’s escape was back in 86 when it happened. 

Jordan Green: Well, the best way to summarize that would be to quote the words of the county judge, who recently told me that “this was a national crisis,” because it was. Hundreds of law enforcement officers descended on this little bitty East Texas town – somewhere between 700 and 1,200 – to find this man who had nicknamed himself The Animal.

So he had captured this Upshur County jailer in his escape and forced her to help him get out of town. This was major news, and nothing like this had ever happened in Gilmer, Texas, or even the region, really. So this was a shocking ordeal.

He was in jail because he had killed three local teenagers, and obviously the townspeople were just not only in shock about that, but then to find out that their most notorious criminal of all time, even to date, was out on the loose, had to be disturbing. And it was. National media descended and covered this thing to the hilt.

Now, let me ask you, though: This would have been also a traumatic event, I would imagine, for the community, and I’m wondering why the county would want to preserve this cell as it was when he escaped. 

You’re right. So the philosophy behind the county’s decision thus far has been to preserve history. Some say that they believe that this will be a testament to the fact that he got justice when he was executed – now, that’s kind of the words of the county judge. He was telling me in reporting that some people do believe that Animal McFadden got justice by being executed.

And the Marion County Judge Leward LaFleur, who is advising Upshur County on its courthouse renovation project, he said that it’s important to memorialize the victims in this matter. Of course, the family, they view it otherwise. The family does not accept the county’s notion that this will honor the victims in any way. In fact, they wrote that they believe this will actually sensationalize and glamorize the jail’s most infamous prisoner done under the guise of honoring the murder victims.

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What about other members of the community? Does it seem like there is public opinion moving one direction or another? 

That’s a good question. I personally don’t know. However, this will be on the county Commissioners Court agenda for tomorrow. And I have heard from some other community members who have reached out and kind of voiced a little bit of views on this. But tomorrow, which is Friday, the Upshur County Commissioners Court will hear from the family of Suzanne Harrison, which has of course been very outspoken about their views on this matter.

And the Commissioners Court agenda states that the commissioners will discuss and take action to demolish the Jerry Animal McFadden jail cell. So it looks like what the family has been saying may well have gained ground and sway the opinion of the court.

I’m a little surprised by the fact that this occurred so long ago. We’re talking 1986. Do people still talk about this in town? 

They absolutely do. This is not just a Gilmer thing, either. This is an East Texas thing. You can find information about this murder online anywhere. The Big Sandy Museum has quite an exhibit regarding the manhunt for McFadden. That’s been compiled by a local law enforcement officer.

But the thing that people don’t understand is that this family and all the people involved in this, they’re still living like this thing happened yesterday. When the family members speak about this, you can still hear how they are still grieved by the loss of Suzanne Harrison. You can still hear how the law enforcement officers involved were still deeply affected, and even today, are still deeply affected by what happened.

This is still on people’s hearts. People have not forgotten about the lives that were lost here.

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