How a shooting at the Mule Lip Bar led to new state park in Texas

Kevin Parsons refused to leave.

It was early morning on Dec. 5, 2008, at the Mule Lip Bar, and the 43-year-old Parsons, a man whose life needed new direction, was being more annoying than troublesome.

Will Copeland, a Mule Lip regular, was irritated.

The bartender, Cynthia McGee, was trying to close for the night and had begun counting the cash inside the bar, which takes up space near the intersection of Texas 108 and Texas 193 in Mingus, a remnant of a town about 70 miles west of Fort Worth.

Copeland was at the bar with his grown daughter, Anna Belle, but said he didn’t want to leave McGee — a former girlfriend — alone with Parsons.

Copeland, who lived on a ranch outside the neighboring town of Strawn, told Parsons it was time to leave, but Parsons insisted on nursing his beer.

A few minutes later, Copeland stepped outside and grabbed a 20-gauge shotgun from his pickup.

Copeland walked back into the bar, the shotgun fired and a blast of buckshot hit Parsons, tearing a hole in his black Peterbilt cap and his head — a deadly encounter that started the wheels turning on a bizarre Texas tale of lawsuits, family feuds, rich real estate deals and the seeding of land for a nearby state park.

The roughly 4,400-acre playground — tree-covered land featuring hills and valleys, stock tanks, creeks and wildlife — is still at least four years away from opening, and while its official name is Palo Pinto Mountains State Park, some locals have nicknamed it “Mule Lip State Park.”

“What kicked this whole thing off is a piece of property from this lawsuit over the murder in Mingus,” said Jeff Francell, director of land protection for the Nature Conservancy of Texas, which purchased the property on behalf of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.

Considering the circumstances, both the Copelands and the Parsons say the results are agreeable.

“I think the state park was the best thing that could happen,” said Dean Parsons, Kevin’s dad. “It was one hell of a sordid tale.”

‘He shot his self’

There’s not much to Mingus. Its population hovers between 200 and 250, and the Greystone Castle hunting ranch, visible from Interstate 20 to the south — near the ghost town of Thurber — may be the most visible landmark in the area.

Over the years, the town garnered somewhat of an outlaw reputation, though all but two of its bars have been shuttered.

A 1975 Star-Telegram article refers to the town’s nightspots as being home to the “superbowl of barroom brawls.” One patron was quoted as saying the motto was “no guns — unless they can get to their pickups fast enough to get one.”

Last year, after the shootout among bikers at a Waco restaurant, a Cossacks Motorcycle Club rally near the town was canceled “for the safety of Mingus.”

On the night of the deadly shooting, Parsons had started out at another local bar, the Boar’s Nest, where Anna Belle Copeland told investigators he was asking nosy questions about her family.

Anna later met her father at the Mule Lip, a fairly typical West Texas bar with neon beer signs, a NASCAR schedule, a 10-point buck mount and rifle hanging over a door.

Parsons showed up around midnight.

McGee said Parsons ordered a beer and sat down on a red vinyl bar stool next to Anna Belle. McGee said she had never seen Parsons before.

After getting the beer from the bartender, Parsons told McGee, “I’m going to take you out and f--- your brains out,” McGee recalled in a Texas Rangers report.

She said she was somewhat taken aback by the statement but really didn’t pay it any mind — it comes with the job.

McGee said she didn’t get the idea that Copeland and Parsons were arguing. She said they were just conversing as bar patrons do and that she heard Parsons talking about “aliens and how they were watching them through the jukebox, television and radios.”

She said she stayed at the other end of the bar because she was mad at Copeland because of comments he had made about her relationship with another man. She was Copeland’s former girlfriend.

But as she was clearing out the cash register she heard Copeland say: “Kevin, it’s time for you to get your ass out of here,’” according to the Texas Rangers report.

About 15 minutes later — with Parsons still at the bar — Copeland went out to the pickup to grab his shotgun. His intention, Copeland told investigators, was to scare Parsons into leaving.

What happened next is a point of debate.

Copeland told investigators that Parsons grabbed the shotgun, jerked the barrel upward and it went off, killing him on the spot.

Anna’s statements to investigators backed up her father’s.

McGee was standing behind the bar, turning off the lights in the beer coolers, and saw “Parsons’ arm go and then heard a loud boom,” according to the Texas Rangers report.

“Actually I didn’t shoot him,” Copeland told investigators. “He shot his self.”

McGee looked around and said Copeland had fallen backward across a table and was “white as a ghost.”

Parsons was on the floor, blood pooling around his head.

‘I’m pretty sure he’s dead’

Neither McGee nor the Copelands called authorities right away. Instead, they called the bar’s owner, JB Ballinger, who drove down to the bar.

At some point Copeland took the shotgun back out to his pickup.

At 2:46 a.m., Ballinger dialed 911.

When a dispatcher asked if they needed to send an ambulance, Ballinger told them none was needed.

“I’m pretty sure he’s dead,” Ballinger said.

Chad Jordan, who was the Palo Pinto County Sheriff’s Department investigator on the case, wasn’t the least bit surprised that it took a while for the law to be called.

“When they get scuffles in those bars, it’s not unusual for a bar not to want to call law enforcement,” Jordan said. “It’s not like it was back in the heyday. There was a time when it was rough when there were seven bars. Now it’s down to two.”

Copeland gave a videotaped statement to investigators early that morning and was arrested later that day.

Normally a small-town bar shooting would simply become the stuff of local lore and that would be the end of it.

But not this one.

The chatter started almost immediately on online forums, with questions being raised about the delay in calling authorities and whether the shooting had gone down as the witnesses had said.

“Those conspiracy theories always follow a death like this,” Jordan said.

In Strawn, the shooting split the community.

“It was pretty evenly divided between ‘Will was a coldblooded murderer’ to ‘It was just a deadly accident,” said one Strawn resident who asked not to be identified.

‘In a great mood that day’

Parsons family members were worried that Copeland, member of a prominent ranching family, would escape justice. The family said they kept up the pressure on investigators to pursue a criminal case against him.

“We really had no hope he would be prosecuted,” said Kevin Parsons’ brother Tim Parsons, who hired Stephenville attorney Bob Glasgow, a former state senator, to pursue a civil suit.

Kevin Parsons’ death was ruled a homicide and after a lengthy investigation, Copeland was indicted on April 1, 2009, by a Palo Pinto grand jury on four charges including murder and criminally negligent homicide.

“The best we could figure out was that Kevin grabs the shotgun with Will telling him to let go of it,” said Jordan, who is now the county emergency management coordinator. “As Will was pulling the gun, Kevin was also pulling on it and it just goes off.”

A jury found Copeland guilty of criminally negligent homicide, and a judge sentenced him to two years in prison on Jan. 8, 2010.

On the day he was killed, Kevin Parsons had been paid for doing some mechanical work for a local business.

“We all tried to help him get his life straight,” said older brother R.D. Parsons, who lives in Saginaw. “He wasn’t lazy. When he worked, he was a hard worker but sometimes he just couldn’t.”

He was homeless and living in pickup in a creek bottom just outside of Mingus when he was killed.

“He dropped by that day to pay me back,” said Betty Baker, a cousin to the Parsonses who lives in a small trailer in Mingus.”He was in a great mood that day.”

He had previously been committed to a Wichita Falls mental health facility, Dean Parsons said.

“If he took his medicine, he was fine,” Baker said. “If he didn’t, he was kind of wishy-washy.”

She had tried to persuade Parsons to move into a storage shed behind her mobile home but he refused. She regularly fed him, sometimes cooking him a steak or sending food with him that he would cook himself.

In the storage shed, Baker still has clothes, including a winter coat, that she planned to give him for Christmas — three weeks after he was killed.

“He was like a son to me,” Baker said.

While Parsons had issues, the most important thing to him were his two daughters, Sara and Stephanie.

“He loved those two girls dearly,” Baker said.

Sara Parsons still lives in North Texas; Stephanie and her mother, Lesa, live in Colorado, Tim Parsons said.

‘A drunk and a bully’

Copeland was released from prison on Jan. 2, 2012, and returned to a quiet life in Palo Pinto County.

His health began to deteriorate and he died on Valentine’s Day of this year at age 57. In his obituary, Copeland was remembered as a self-employed rancher who “enjoyed social gatherings with friends.”

R.D. Parsons described him differently: “He was a drunk and a bully.”

Copeland is buried in Mount Marion Cemetery on the southern edge of Strawn, where a large wooden marker says, Will Copeland “Po Campo.”

About 100 yards away, in a corner of the cemetery, is the marker for Kevin Matthew Parsons. It includes the image of an 18-wheeler and an inscription that says, “We Love You Daddy.”

Dean Parsons said he once considered Will Copeland a friend and still has no hard feelings toward the Copeland family.

But nonetheless, the family filed a wrongful death suit against Copeland, who eventually settled out of court and agreed to sign over 1,330 acres to the Parsonses. The land would eventually be sold to the state of Texas to start the park.

The lawsuit became a point of contention among family members, and Dean Parsons said the $400,000 settlement he received from the sale left him estranged from most of his six sons. None of them received a penny.

“We didn’t go into it for money,” Tim Parsons said. “The only people that were deprived were Kevin’s two girls. They lost a daddy. As far as I’m concerned, he [Dean Parsons] didn’t deserve a damn thing.”

Dean Parsons also said he has no contact with Sara and Stephanie, who both received $277,500 and 30-year annuities in the settlement.

Glasgow’s firm received more than $666,000 in the settlement. Calls to Glasgow’s office were not returned.

The search for a new state park

At the same time the criminal case and the lawsuits were in the works, officials with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department were in the midst of a search for a new state park site within an hour’s drive of Fort Worth.

The state had earmarked 400 acres it owned along Eagle Mountain Lake for a state park but later determined that it wasn’t big enough.

In April 2008, the Tarrant Regional Water District, with the help of donations, bought the 400 acres. It is now the water district’s Eagle Mountain Park.

Legislators approved using the $9.2 million proceeds from the Eagle Mountain sale for a new regional park, and the search for property intensified.

The Nature Conservancy of Texas, which has a mission of protecting ecologically important lands and waters, was hired by Texas Parks and Wildlife to be its land agent. Conservancy officials focused their efforts on the Cross Timbers region west of Fort Worth.

“They hired us to do that because they don’t really have the staff to knock on the doors,” said Francell, the conservancy’s land protection director. “They put that labor in our laps. It took us three years to find the right piece.”

One area of interest was Alice Walton’s ranch near Graford, but that didn’t work out, officials said. Another tract off the river in Palo Pinto County had environmental concerns from the coal mining days that once revolved around Thurber, south of Mingus.

“There were times when we threw up our hands and said, ‘What now?’ ” Francell said. “Knowing we had the money made it impossible to give up.”

Eventually, Francell discovered the property that Copeland had signed over to the Parsonses. Francell said officials became intrigued with the land, which was largely unimproved but also untouched.

“It was for sale for a long time,” Francell said. “It was incomplete. We didn’t have enough features for a state park. We had to see if we could add land around it.”

Much of that land, it turns out, was owned by other members of the Copeland family, who didn’t always get along.

‘They don’t make any more land’

Palo Pinto Realtor Janna Brimer, wife of former Arlington state senator and representative Kim Brimer, helped put the deal together, working with other brokers and the Copeland clan.

“We had a lot of family disputes to settle, owners of different parcels of land that are on the park now but they didn’t get there easily,” Brimer said.

One such parcel was owned by Will Copeland’s brother, Shalor Copeland II, who died on Jan. 4, 2010, two days after his brother was sentenced to prison.

His estate would become a point of dispute among his wife, Phyllis; his daughter Kipi; and his son, Shalor Copeland III.

“Lawyers were involved,” Shalor Copeland III said. “We settled in mediation.”

Phyllis Copeland didn’t return phone calls and emails left by the Star-Telegram.

At first, Shalor Copeland III wasn’t interested in selling.

“Whenever we were approached about it, the land wasn’t for sale at all,” he said. “That’s where I grew up working cattle and riding horses. My childhood was there. That’s where I learned to be a country boy who learned to hunt and fish. And as my granddad always said, ‘They don’t make any more land.’

But as he and other family members struggled to settle the estate, his mind began to change.

“What’s that old saying? ‘It’s a lot easier to divide money than land,’ ” Shalor Copeland III said.

When the sale of 1,960 acres from the Shalor Copeland II trust closed on Oct. 27, 2011, Phyllis Copeland and daughter Kipi were in one building while Shalor Copeland III and his wife, Kimberly, were in another. Brimer said she walked the documents back and forth between the two buildings for signatures.

Two other tracts — 1,330 acres from the Parsonses’ lawsuit and 42 acres from another landowner — were also sold that day, creating a footprint for the state park.

Two months later, an additional 650 acres was added from two purchases, and 307 acres was added in 2013.

Brimer said the properties became available as if preordained.

“It all just kind of started clicking but it took four years for it to click and every piece of property to come in line,” Brimer said. “So now we’ve got about 4,600 acres of pristine land that would never had been put together for a park without the Mule Lip Bar.”

More funding needed

Though most of the land is in place — the state would like a little more — Palo Pinto Mountains State Park won’t open until more funding becomes available.

The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department will seek funding from legislators next spring to pay for cabins, roads and other facilities needed to open the park. Earlier this year, Brent Leisure, the department’s director of state parks, estimated it may cost as much as $30 million to finish out the park.

In June, he said the figure may be even higher.

“Most likely, it will be a little bit more than that,” Leisure said. “We’re probably looking at tens of millions of dollars that will likely be part of a broader request.”

One complicating factor will be the estimated $40 million damage suffered by state parks across Texas from the recent flooding. Both the Nails Creek and Birch Creek units at Lake Somerville State Park & Trailway were flooded. Stephen F. Austin State Park is also closed until at least September from flood damage. The damage totals could climb higher since water hasn’t receded in all of the areas.

A meeting is expected to be held in Fort Worth this summer to generate interest and share more information for the park.

Leisure is aware of the Mule Lip shooting and said state parks always have great stories to tell. The San Jacinto Battle Monument and Museum and the Goliad State Park & Historic Site are examples of deadly battles that helped shape Texas history.

Leisure said he will be curious to see if the Mule Lip Bar becomes part of the park’s lore.

“So many places across Texas have such a colorful history to them that it becomes part of the park’s mystique and story,” Leisure said. “We love telling those stories across the system. It will be interesting to see how that influences the park’s development.”

Dean Parsons offered this assessment of the shooting and its aftermath:

“I don’t really know what happened that night. All I know is there was a time bomb between him and Will Copeland. Two damn idiots got together in that bar and ruined everything.”

Bill Hanna: 817-390-7698, @fwhanna