The West Side firebombing.
In terms of body count, it’s probably Fort Worth’s worst mass murder. But you may not have heard of it. In fact, when the Star-Telegram in 2006 conducted a poll of readers to rank Fort Worth’s “Crimes of the Century,” this crime was not even mentioned alongside high-profile mass murders such as:
the Lake Worth murders in 1982 (five killed)
the Glass Key Café murders in 1990 (four killed at the scene; one died five days later)
the Wedgwood Baptist Church murders in 1999 (seven killed)
The murderers in these three crimes killed with guns. They pulled a trigger and watched their victims die. The murderer in the West Side crime killed with a weapon much more amorphous, more ephemeral than a gun but ultimately just as lethal: smoke. And he did not watch his victims die.
He struck a match, tossed it, and ran away.
On the night of May 5, 1968 twenty-five to thirty-five patrons were crowded into a modest cinder-block nightclub at 5518 West Vickery Boulevard across from the Texas & Pacific railroad tracks.
Officially the nightclub was named “Lucky’s Drive-in Café.” But because of its macabre décor, which included mock coffins and skulls, patrons referred to the nightclub as “The Grave.”
Some details of what happened that night were debated; the consequences were undeniable.
About 10:45 p.m. a male patron left the nightclub. Some witnesses say the patron had argued with a waitress and been asked to leave. One witness said the patron had left of his own accord. Still another witness said the male patron nursed a grudge against the club owner.
About thirty minutes after the patron left the club, people in The Grave heard a “whoosh” and felt an invisible fist of heat hit their face. The dimly lit space suddenly was brightly illuminated as the floor at the entrance erupted in yellow flames. The flames found bamboo curtains and climbed them to the ceiling. The confined space became an oven. As patrons rose from their tables to flee, flames raced along the floor toward their feet. The club’s decor—mock skulls and coffins—burst into flame as patrons fled the hellish scene.
One witness later said that the fire and smoke spread “as quick as you can snap your fingers.”
People panicked. Gasping, they stampeded, stumbling over each other and feeling their way through the smoke from the front of the nightclub to the rear. Most escaped through a back door.
One patron kicked out a window to escape.
But others rushed into a storeroom at the back of the building where pool tables and pinball machines were stored. But the room had no windows. And its only door to the outside was boarded up.
These patrons were trapped.
Escaped patrons outside the building could hear the trapped patrons pleading for help, pounding on the walls.
One witness said: “I heard a lot of screaming in there. That’s all you could hear.”
When firefighters broke through the boarded-up door of the storeroom they found seven bodies in the storeroom and one near the front of the club. The eight victims, between the ages of nineteen and thirty, had died of smoke inhalation.
The wording of the lead paragraph of the Star-Telegram story locates this crime in our cultural history. (The death count was later amended to seven African Americans and one Caucasian.)
One witness told police that about 11:15 p.m. he had left the club to check on his car in the parking lot and had just stepped back into the club.
“I was walking in when a guy told me not to go back in.”
“‘Hold up, man. Don’t go back in.’”
“Then he walked out of the building, picked up a pail—it looked like a water pail—and walked back and threw it inside the door. I don’t know what it had in it, gasoline or what . . . it burned.”
Other witnesses told police that a man—Caucasian, some witnesses said; African American, other witnesses said—tossed a container—can, some said; bucket, others said—of liquid in the front door of The Grave and ran. Some witnesses said the bomber lit the liquid in the container; others said he lit the liquid after it was spilled.
One survivor told a reporter at the scene that in the dense smoke of the fire he grabbed a woman he thought was his girlfriend and ran out of the club with her. When he got outside he realized that he had grabbed the wrong woman.
“My girl is still in there,” he said.
A witness identified Freddie Lee McKenzie, twenty-seven, as the man who tossed gasoline into the nightclub and set it ablaze. Tarrant County authorities charged McKenzie with murder in one of the eight deaths: that of Willie Charles Davis Jr., twenty-five.
Witnesses also identified McKenzie, truck driver for a local cement company, as the man who had bought two gallons of gasoline at a North Side service station just before the firebombing.
McKenzie, although charged, was still at large.
Fort Worth police issued a nationwide alert for McKenzie. And after Fort Worth police learned that McKenzie had planned to go to Mexico on vacation on the day after the firebombing they alerted authorities along the Texas-Mexico border.
The crime was news from coast to coast and even in Canada.
Two days after the firebombing, police in Juarez, acting on a tip by an AWOL Fort Bliss soldier whom McKenzie had picked up hitchhiking near Odessa, arrested McKenzie at a Juarez hotel. He was registered as “Lonnie Smith.”
Mexican authorities handed McKenzie over to U.S authorities at the international bridge.
McKenzie told police that he set fire to The Grave after another male patron fired a gun at him during an argument over a woman.
McKenzie said: “This man had been messing around with my woman. He threatened me. I got upset, and I left the nightclub. . . . I wanted to get the gas because I was going to burn Lucky’s Club to get back at the guy inside who had given me trouble earlier. I came back out, got the bucket of gas, walked back to the front door, threw the gas inside, struck a wooden match to it and ran.”
On October 14, 1969 Freddie Lee McKenzie went on trial for murder. The state sought the death penalty. McKenzie, despite admitting the crime, had pleaded not guilty.
One witness, Ernest Wilson, told the jury that McKenzie “probably” started the fatal fire at The Grave, although Wilson claimed that he did not witness enough events to be positive.
Wilson said that on the night of the firebombing he drove McKenzie’s car as the two men went to a service station because McKenzie wanted to buy gasoline for someone who “had run out of gas.”
Wilson said McKenzie filled a bucket with gasoline and put it in the trunk of the car, and the two men drove to The Grave.
After the two men circled the block, Wilson said, McKenzie got out of the car, took the bucket of gasoline from the trunk, and disappeared near the front of the nightclub building.
Wilson testified that at that point he “got scared” and left the scene without McKenzie.
The two men later met at a cafe. According to Wilson, their conversation went something like this:
McKenzie: Did you see anything?
McKenzie: What you didn’t see don’t hurt you.
Wilson: Were you satisfied?
Justice, too, was satisfied: Freddie Lee McKenzie was found guilty and assessed the death penalty.
In 1972 the U.S. Supreme Court struck down capital punishment. The sentences of McKenzie, Melvin Stuart Pittman, and Kenneth Allen McDuff were reduced to life imprisonment. The three men had killed a total of at least twenty-three people.
(Thanks to Bud Kennedy for the tip.)
My mother was killed in this fire; I was 9 months old. The man who said he ran out of the club with the wrong woman and his girlfriend was still in the club, that was my mom.