The headine read “‘Hate’ Blamed,” and hundreds of police from across Texas came to the funeral.
The homicide lieutenant said the sniper “shot at a uniform. … He wanted to kill a policeman.”
It was Oct. 29, 1971, and one of the most sorrowful weekends ever in Fort Worth.
Two nights after Fort Worth officer Edward Belcher was shot dead from long range outside a South Riverside Drive nightclub, TCU Horned Frogs football coach Jim Pittman died on the sideline during a game.
Belcher, 24, was one of two dozen officers on a call breaking up a long disturbance after police investigated an earlier complaint about gambling outside the Electric Circus club. Witnesses testified that the rock- and bottle-throwing had mostly calmed when Belcher arrived and was shot.
Star-Telegram reporter Bob Ray Sanders, sent to cover the disturbance, heard the shot and saw Belcher down in the parking lot as other officers drew their guns. In a 2006 column, he called it “my most frightening moment as a reporter.”
Belcher’s funeral brought a crowd of 750 mourners to Greenwood Memorial Park. One of the pastors, the Rev. Elmer Glazener of First United Methodist Church of Richardson, quoted the Apostle Paul: “Let everyone be subject to the authorities. … Those who resist will incur judgment.”
When an 18-year-old resident of the nearby Riverside Village Apartments was identified as the suspect, homicide Lt. Oliver Ball told The Dallas Morning News the shooting was not racially motivated: “Everything indicates that he shot at a uniform without knowing the identity of his victim. He wanted to kill a policeman.”
At a time of desegregation and strained race relations in Fort Worth, high school dropout David Lee Nelson surrendered personally to Sheriff Lon Evans at a friend’s home in the Lake Como neighborhood. Evans said Nelson feared being killed by police.
No witness saw Nelson shoot Belcher. At Nelson’s 1973 trial, he told the all-white jury of eight men and four women that he didn’t do it and that he had run home when the disturbance broke out.
But prosecutors for the new district attorney, Tim Curry, successfully argued that circumstantial evidence pointed to Nelson, including three witnesses who saw him with a rifle that night and his fingerprints on a stolen .30-06 rifle and cartridge ditched in a nearby flower bed.
Nelson, already serving probation over a March 1971 burglary, told the jury that he owned a rifle but not that gun. One witness said he saw another man with a sniper rifle that night.
After Nelson was convicted and sentenced to life in prison — the U.S. Supreme Court had suspended states’ use of the death penalty — a boisterous crowd of relatives and supporters shouted and shoved their way through the courthouse hallway. They knocked down WFAA/Channel 8 photojournalist Reggie Ward’s camera and pushed Fort Worth Press photographer Gene Gordon.
Fort Worth police historian Kevin Foster has interviewed officers about the fear and uncertainty stoked by Belcher’s death and the racial discord of the time.
“For many of the officers, it took years to move past the events,” he wrote in an online message.
“I have spoken with some of the officers that were on the scene that night and men who stood next to Officer Belcher when he fell. … The killing was a senseless and cowardly act. It solved none of the problems of the community and only served to tear a good and honorable young man from his family and from the law enforcement community.”
Under parole rules of the time, Nelson served 10 years.
He would be 62. According to records, he has successfully completed all parole obligations and lives in Texas.