I’ll never forget Eugene Duke’s boot. The one on his left foot. The one that helped carry him to get a sack of groceries. The one that snuck out from under the white sheet police used to cover him after he was shot to death on Lehman Street.
If you don’t know the details of Mr. Duke’s death, you can read about it on today’s front page. The short version is that, last Thursday, the 65-year-old man walked to a store on North Shepherd to buy some food. As he walked back to his apartment at 910 Lehman St., a man pulled up in a car and demanded Mr. Duke hand over his groceries.
He didn’t, and he died the most humbling of deaths, mere steps from the safety of his apartment. He was gunned down over a small bag of groceries, his body baking on the hot Houston street where a crowd of police analyzed his last breaths.
I don’t know why Mr. Duke’s death has stuck with me for the past week. I certainly didn’t know the man, and I’ve stood outside the police tape of plenty of crime scenes over the past 20 years. For one year in college, I worked inside a hospital and part of my job was to transport dead bodies to the morgue.
I’ve seen crime, and I’ve seen death, yet the sight of Mr. Duke’s boot hanging limp on Lehman Street still keeps me breathing slower, still makes my brow furrow.
Part of it may be the ambiguity in which he died. There were no TV cameras on scene to capture the medical examiner hauling his body to the forensics lab. In fact, not a single TV station or major newspaper covered this homicide. If you watch local TV news, there’s not a major crime they don’t cover. Why didn’t Mr. Duke get his final minutes of fame?
I think his death struck me for more important reasons, though. People like Mr. Duke deserve to have their story told. He deserves something better than what he got – both in life and in death.
We don’t know much about Eugene Duke. One lady wrote a brief note to The Leader to tell us she had known him for 40 years. She called him “Geno,” but when we asked her to help us tell his story, she disappeared.
We asked Houston Police if they could give us any information about Geno’s next-of-kin, and they couldn’t. In fact, HPD had to send Mr. Duke to the Harris County Forensics Lab just to confirm the deceased was, indeed, Mr. Duke.
When I walked up to the scene last week to take pictures and ask police what happened, I saw a couple of neighbors standing outside the apartments where Mr. Duke lived. I asked them if they knew him, if they could tell me anything about him. Both of those men turned around and walked away from me.
I didn’t know Mr. Duke. I don’t know if his face was wrinkled or his hair was gray, but I want to tell his story because he deserves it.
Mr. Duke wore boots. He used them to walk to the grocery store. He probably used them to walk everywhere, including to public transportation stops, because it doesn’t appear he owned a car.
Mr. Duke was 65 years old. Police know that he was white, but that doesn’t really matter. He didn’t die because he was white. This wasn’t about race.
Mr. Duke didn’t seem to have a lot of money, based on where he lived, which is perfectly OK. His neighbors – the two that sent us comments – seemed to respect him. They didn’t know him all that well or they would have sent us pictures and told stories about trips they took together. It’s probably safe to say he lived in relative solitude, venturing out to grab a meal every once in a while.
Mr. Duke probably lived on a fixed income. At some point in his life, he probably worked a blue-collar job, because he seemed comfortable in those boots. Why else would a 65-year-old man wear them? What’s sad is that nobody really knows. There are no funeral services set for him. We haven’t had any calls from a family member asking to place an obituary celebrating his life.
All of that, of course, is complete conjecture. The only thing we really know about Mr. Duke is what he did in the final 15 minutes of his life. He left his apartment sometime before 11 a.m. on Thursday, Oct. 12. As he walked back with a sack of food, some punk drove up and told him he wanted that food. Mr. Duke said no.
What makes a man say no to a person holding a gun? For that matter, what makes a person with a gun pull the trigger when a lonely old man won’t hand over the slices of bread he planned to use to make a sandwich? Why couldn’t that murderer get back in his car and try to rob someone else who would have gladly handed over his groceries?
But Mr. Duke didn’t, and that says a lot about the man. He must have been desperate to eat. He must have been angry that someone would try to rob him of the essentials for living. He must have been a resolute man, who kept to himself and ignored all the mess around him.
Instead, the last image we have of Mr. Duke is his boot, stealing the last bit of sunlight as the rest of his body lay unceremoniously on a strip of road, his arms extended as on a cross, his blood staining the edges of his last blanket.
I didn’t know Mr. Duke, but now I wish I had. He deserved something better in the last moments of his life. He deserved to have his boots carry him somewhere nice. He deserved to have his story told.