It's hard to say whether Eddie Hatcher has ever been in a worse situation than the one he is in right now. After you've taken a local newsroom hostage at gunpoint, fled your home state on the run from law enforcement (twice), been locked up four times, stabbed and infected with HIV while in prison, paroled, shot and robbed of almost everything you own, worst moments are tough to pick.
This one just might qualify, though. Hatcher, who drew national attention to Lumberton in a brazen 1988 hostage-taking at The Robesonian newspaper, has spent the last 16 months in prison and is facing his most serious legal crisis yet: felony assault and first-degree murder charges. His long-awaited trial dates have just been set, and District Attorney Johnson Britt says the state will seek the death penalty.
But the rebel of Robeson County, though clearly under stress, isn't noticeably discouraged. "I'm feeling all right," Hatcher told The Independent in a telephone interview from jail on Sept. 26, his 43rd birthday. Ever the optimistic underdog, he then launched into a vigorous, rapid-fire explanation of why things don't necessarily look so bad, even from where he's sitting.
"I think the state didn't count on this case getting as much attention as it's got. I think they thought that because it was a murder case, that people would look down on me or something. And it's backfired on them. Because people who know me know this is not me. They know it."
Hatcher's upcoming murder case, like his first trial back in 1989, may well turn on the question of how much it draws attention and sympathy to his role as a crusader against racism, government corruption and economic inequality. Though the legal system may out-power him, he says he's still got the supporters he needs to contest injustices both personal and societal. A few mainstays from his 1980s efforts are still in his corner, and joining in the effort is a new generation of activists who have become some of his most vigorous defenders, taking the "Free Eddie Hatcher" message to the streets in a series of public rallies in Raleigh and Lumberton.
Despite some reports to the contrary, Hatcher says, he retains the support of a silent majority of the citizens of Robeson County. "I lived here before I got locked up, and there was never a time that I went to a grocery store or hardware store or post office or wherever, that somebody from this community didn't come up and want to shake my hand or hug me or thank me for what I done back in the '80s.
"I'm depending on them 12 people that'll be in that jury box," he said in describing his legal strategy. "There's going to have to be some of them up there who have supported me and know that I ain't done what they're saying I've done."
Whether Hatcher is a menace to society or a noble, albeit sometimes reckless, folk hero is a debate that started long before he was charged with murder last summer. As he prepares for his two upcoming trials, the first one slated to begin Oct. 23, Hatcher, along with everyone else monitoring his case, knows that his controversial past will play a role in jurors' decisions about his guilt or innocence.
That past, in many peoples' minds, is symbolized by one pivotal incident: the Takeover. That's how people refer to the events of Feb. 1, 1988, when Hatcher and fellow Tuscarora Indian Timothy Jacobs conducted a desperate siege to call attention to corruption in Robeson County. Armed with shotguns and a pistol, Hatcher and Jacobs seized the offices of The Robesonian newspaper and held 20 staff members hostage. All hostages would be released, the two pledged, if then-Gov. Jim Martin would commit to an independent investigation of allegations of crooked county government, unsolved murders and rampant drug-trafficking in the area.
Hatcher and Jacobs stood down 10 hours later, when Martin signed their list of demands. All hostages, 10 of whom had been released earlier in the stand-off, were set free unharmed. It was, as Hatcher once described it, "a violent action as close to nonviolence as I could get." He was arrested and charged with federal hostage-taking and weapons violations.
It was only the beginning of Hatcher's roller-coaster ride--a long, strange legal saga that may now be careening toward death row. Released on bond in July 1988 to await trial, Hatcher learned six weeks later that the Fourth Circuit Court had revoked his bond. "I was living in Raleigh, and as soon as I knew that they had revoked it, I went and got somebody," Hatcher later explained. "I said, 'Take me to Chapel Hill.'"
Once in Chapel Hill, Hatcher made a bee-line for Internationalist Books, which was then located on West Rosemary Street. The store was, as it is now, a well-known gathering spot for left-wing activists, and its founder and owner, the late Bob Sheldon, had become acquainted with Hatcher after the takeover. Quickly and quietly, Sheldon arranged for friends to shuttle Hatcher out of the state.
He popped up in New York City, surprising his lawyers--famed radical attorneys William Kuntsler and Ron Kuby--with a phone call alerting them that he was in their neighborhood. An alarmed Kuby told Hatcher that if he continued to run from the law now, he was going to have to run forever--and besides, he would make a great defendant. Hatcher agreed to fly back to North Carolina and surrender.
At a two-week trial that began in October 1988, Hatcher staged his second shocking coup: He represented himself, arguing that the takeover was a well-intentioned last resort, and he convinced a jury to acquit both him and Jacobs. A free man once again, Hatcher quickly got back to work on his campaign to clean up the county, launching a petition drive against the local sheriff.
The authorities struck back in December, when a Robeson County grand jury indicted Hatcher on state kidnapping charges. The North Carolina National Council of Churches, which would later call Hatcher a "political prisoner," raised his bail, and, once again, Hatcher went on the lam.
This time the fugitive covered more territory than he had in his first flight from the law, spending stints at Native American reservations in New York and Idaho and then sojourning in San Francisco safe houses. One day in March 1989, Hatcher paid a visit to the Soviet Union's consulate in that city for a little agitprop. He requested political asylum but was rebuffed by bewildered Soviet diplomats.
Suddenly a fugitive from backwoods North Carolina was taunting the U.S. justice system on the world stage. It was to be a short-lived publicity tour. Hatcher was promptly arrested and extradited back to Raleigh.
Exhausted, Hatcher decided to cut his losses and plead guilty to the state charges, drawing an 18-year prison sentence. Hatcher could expect to make parole long before that, but prison was no picnic. In September of 1991, he was stabbed four times with an ice pick. At some point during his incarceration, Hatcher contracted HIV, leading the state to grant him an early parole in May 1995.
Under the terms of his release, he was required to stay out of Robeson County until his parole ended in early 1997. Then he moved right back into the belly of the beast. "I couldn't stand not being here," he explained to one local reporter. "I'm back and it's not going to be the way it's been." In his mind, corruption and injustice were still running rampant in the county.
"I ain't going to let it be," he declared.
It was only a matter of time, some Robeson County residents believed, before Hatcher, one way or another, would wind up in hot water again. In November of 1998, he was shot in the arm, but he refused to give police any details about the incident. "It was an argument, we were fighting over a gun," Hatcher told The Independent. "They tried to get me to say who it was, and I wouldn't, because I wouldn't press no charges. To me it was just a private matter, I didn't want to involve law enforcement. This is a private matter; this is Indian business, stay the hell out of it."
Then, the month of May 1999 brought tragic events that pushed Hatcher's problems outside the realm of "a private matter."
First, the matter of the felony assault. On May 15, Hatcher says, his house was robbed of nearly everything he owned. In the following days, he heard through the grapevine that 17-year-old Michael Anthony Locklear, whom Hatcher knew, was selling the stolen goods. Locklear, for his part, denied robbing Hatcher. On May 19, the two showed up at the same convenience store in nearby Maxton at the same time, setting the stage for the first shooting Hatcher is charged with.
Here is Hatcher's account of how he came to fire on Locklear, as told to The Independent: "This day I was in the store, and I was at the counter getting cigarettes, and when I started to go out, another girl working in the store said, 'There goes little Mike.' And the woman who owns the store and was handing me my cigarettes, she said, 'Now Eddie, he's got a gun on him.'
"He had turned around when he seen me coming out the door and walked back to [his] car. Well, I had to go on my passenger side to get in my truck because my handle had broke off the door on the driver side.
"So I had walked around, fixing to get in, and my shotgun was laying across the seat with the barrel sticking down to the floorboard. So I set my bag on the floor and by this time he was like 10 feet in front of me, and he squared off and looked at me. And I looked at him, and he stuck his hand in his pocket and I actually thought he was fixing to shoot me. So I just swung my shotgun, swung it around the door, and didn't even raise it up; that's why he got hit in the feet like he did. I never raised my shotgun up, I just swung it around and fired on him. He didn't even move! I don't even believe it hit him the first time. And that's when I fired it again and that's when he run."
At that point, Locklear ran into the woods, "and I fired one more time in the air," Hatcher says. Locklear was released from the hospital two days later after receiving treatment for minor injuries.
Why didn't Hatcher file a police report when he learned that Locklear had allegedly robbed him, which probably would have averted this showdown? "We just don't call the law for every little thing," Hatcher says. "We just don't do it. Because first of all they probably aren't going to do anything, and second of all, I don't feel like it's none of their business."
In raising this argument, Hatcher displays both his disdain for the authorities and his belief in the idea that Native Americans can settle their affairs without government interference. The state of North Carolina, needless to say, is not swayed by such notions.
Though he admits to shooting Locklear, Hatcher says he felt at the time he had no choice. On Oct. 23, when Hatcher goes on trial for the shooting, he says, "I'm going to plead self-defense, not guilty." He thinks that a jury of his peers will find his defense plausible when he explains that "I wasn't fixing to let this little bastard shoot me, after he broke into my house."
Even if he's able to steer clear of an assault conviction, Hatcher will then face the far graver matter of the murder trial, scheduled to begin Jan. 8, 2001. In that case, the District Attorney asserts that on May 31, 12 days after he shot Locklear, Hatcher fired a rifle into a small home in Maxton, killing 19-year-old Brian McMillian and injuring 15-year-old Amelia Travis. The authorities have characterized the incident as a drive-by shooting, perpetrated from a pick-up about 200 feet from the house. The State Bureau of Investigation located Hatcher a day later in nearby Hamlet, hunched into the back seat of a car that contained a rifle and a pistol. He did not resist arrest.
Hatcher has steadfastly maintained his innocence in the McMillian murder, and says he was shocked to hear that he was the main suspect. Hatcher says that he was until then solely concerned about the fallout from the Locklear shooting. Shortly after that shooting, Hatcher heard that local lawmen had shoot-to-kill orders if they saw him. "At that point, that's when I hid," Hatcher says. "I just laid low and hid in the woods, hid different places around the community. I never left within a mile of where I lived at."
The night of the incident, Hatcher says, "I was close by but I was nowhere over toward where Brian lived."
Hatcher says he has a hunch about who might have committed the murder, but no evidence to back up his theory. He does think that the answer that could clear his name is out there. "I believe the police know who done it. I believe they knew that night who done it. Just automatically, somehow my name came up, and they made it stick. I believe they said, 'Yeah, here's the opportunity to get Eddie Hatcher, he's running from the law already for shooting somebody. We can just put all this on him.'
"What people don't understand is that this government bears a grudge against me," Hatcher says.
Government officials aren't the only ones who've had it with Hatcher. When he was arrested last summer, Hatcher's hometown newspaper, The Robesonian--the one he had once held hostage--let loose against him in an editorial titled "Hatcher is Nobody's Hero." Calling Hatcher "an ego-driven publicity hound," the newspaper declared that his support had justly dwindled. "It seems hard to believe now, but there were a lot of people--and probably a few remain--who credit Hatcher for positive change in this county. We have heard him called a hero, an activist, even a prophet. He is none of those. Never has been. Never will be."
Hatcher says he's not surprised to hear that some people overlook his support base, which isn't always apparent to the naked eye. "There are a lot of people in this county who support me and who love me, but they're not gonna get out there vocally and holler and say, 'Yeah, we love Eddie Hatcher.' But, in silence, they've always supported me and they've always looked up to me and they've cared about me. Government officials don't see this; they don't understand that. Some reporters, they don't see it because they're not out in the fields everyday."
Whatever the extent of his local support, Hatcher now has a statewide coalition of activists taking up his cause. They say that he is being railroaded, and that his case has come to represent the price of dissent in rural communities rife with racial injustice. Some draw comparisons to other politically minded prisoners who have clashed with the justice system and garnered widespread support.
The ultimate example is Philadelphia's Mumia Abu-Jumal, the radical black activist convicted of killing a police officer in a trial judged a travesty by his thousands of supporters. Hatcher, like Abu-Jumal, has used the cell block as a sounding board, issuing a steady stream of statements critical of the U.S. political, judicial and prison systems even while incarcerated. "They're both very articulate political commentators," says John Johnson, a 20-year-old UNC-Chapel Hill student active in the Campaign to End the Death Penalty and the Eddie Hatcher Defense Committee. "Eddie's a bit more down-home and funny."
Johnson helps Hatcher disseminate his political statements and appeals for assistance to an international audience via the Internet, running a Web site at www.eddiehatcher.org. Hatcher, like Abu-Jumal, is backed by dedicated supporters like Johnson who see him as a clear victim of political repression and are willing to do something about it.
The drawing power of Hatcher's story is evidenced in supporters like Susan Westmoreland, 38, from Greensboro. Currently enrolled in a architectural training program, Westmoreland says that "until I started pen-palling with Eddie, I wasn't politically involved at all." Her breakthrough came courtesy of North Carolina Public Television, which broadcast the documentary Takeover: The Trials of Eddie Hatcher, a film co-directed by Independent contributor Taylor Sisk.
Takeover, which chronicles the tumultuous incidents in Hatcher's life up until his late-1990s release from state prison, hit Westmoreland hard. "It was unbelievable," she says. "I had to know more."
Today she's very involved in the Hatcher support network. In addition to corresponding with Hatcher, Westmoreland has made several visits to Lumberton; befriended Hatcher's mother, Thelma Clark; asked around about Eddie and what he is really like; investigated the county's criminal justice system; and spread the word about what she's learned in the Greensboro-based publication COPWATCH.
B.J. McManama, 45, a freelance journalist from Asheville, says she was drawn to Hatcher's case through her work in support of Leonard Peltier, the imprisoned American Indian Movement activist convicted of killing two FBI agents in another controversial case. "Eddie Hatcher, for us and a lot of other people, is a symbol of government repression against American Indians." Peltier, who, like Abu-Jumal has drawn support from a wide variety of activists and some leftist celebrities, has plenty in common with Hatcher, too, she says.
Referring to the 1988 takeover, McManama says that "Eddie's actions were motivated by the same desire to help not only his people but the people of his area. His case is similar [to Peltier's] in the fact that yes, he is American Indian and yes, he is an activist, and he does work for the people, even as he is in jail. With the knowledge he has gained working on his case, he has come across precedents and statutes that will help other inmates. So he is doing what he set out to do, even in prison."
The Hatcher support movement is a unique animal, of course, even though it picks up strength from cases of other high-profile prisoners. A striking feature of the present group of Hatcher supporters is its large number of teenagers and people in their early 20s. "There's more younger people involved today than there were back in '88," Hatcher says. "They kind of look back on that like that was a long time ago in history. They kind of look up to that and what I did back then, and see that maybe I really am being done wrong now because of who I am. They've stuck by me, I have to say."
Another Hatcher pen pal and advocate, Dawn Peebles, of Chapel Hill, first got to know him during his late-1990s respite from jail. Peebles, 23, is presently the manager of the recently renamed Internationalist Books and Community Center, now located on West Franklin Street. She remembers finding Hatcher a likable and helpful hand at Food Not Bombs events, where members of that group give out free food to the community.
Hatcher has drawn support from young activists, Peebles says, because his struggle touches on a number of the issues they are concerned about, like inequality, police misconduct and racism. "So a lot of it has to do with the fact that he is such a symbolic victim, and I think that new generations of activists are looking for something to represent the causes that they want to follow through with." Groups of young activists from Asheville, Greensboro, Chapel Hill, Charlotte and Greenville have taken up his cause, she says, because "he's local, he's had a connection with this community before, and he's a really great person."
It is this view of Hatcher, perhaps as much as anything else, that will be on trial in Lumberton. But District Attorney Britt, in pre-trial hearings, has said that he won't need to impeach Hatcher's character. There is concrete physical evidence and witness testimony, Britt says, that tie Hatcher to the murder.
Hatcher and his supporters insist that the murder charges are nothing more than retribution from the legal system he has ardently questioned. "He's been done wrong before, so it wouldn't surprise me if he's been set up on this one," Westmoreland says. "The way things go down there, if you stand up, you know, you get whacked down."
"While the State Bureau of Investigation and Johnson Britt work to manufacture and construct evidence, I sit with absolutely nothing to counter their illegal activity," Hatcher said in a recent press release. When the murder trial is finally underway, Hatcher says, he'll have the chance to prove his allegations--about how the state has concocted a case against him.
"They've counted me out before. In fact, if you talk to sensible people down here, they'll be the first ones to tell you, 'No, I'm not counting him out yet.' Because I keep coming back."