That demon, by the way, is the thug who carried a gun to a fist fight. That demon is the one who apparently wanted Geno’s sack of food.
The background to the story goes something like this: A poor man walked to the store two blocks from his apartment. He bought a few groceries and walked back home, just in time for lunch.
During that short walk through some bushes and toward his last known address, a small car – police say it was either white or gray and missing its front left bumper – began to case Eugene “Geno” Duke III. Just out of view of the only surveillance camera that captured Geno’s last steps, one of the two men in the car hopped out and told Geno he wanted his food, or maybe it was his wallet. Neither would have been considered a score by the most wretched of criminals, but Geno said “No.” He wasn’t giving up his backpack, filled with six cans of Vienna sausages, a 3-liter bottle of Orange Crush, some toilet paper and a bag of chips.
Police think the idiot with the gun had robbed plenty of people in his life, but no one ever had the courage to refuse his advances, especially when he pulled out a .380 pistol full of deadly lead.
But Geno said “No,” and those were the last words he ever uttered. Police say within five seconds, Geno was flat on the ground, a bullet shutting down his heart.
Last week, I told you about a man I didn’t know. Now let me tell you about the one I do.
Eugene Duke III’s extended family showered me with wonderful stories about him over the past week.
Geno was a brute of a man – great hair, burly frame but a little slow later in life. As best I can tell, he was George Milton, the loveable force from Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men.”
His cousins told me stories about fall afternoons in the fields of Buffalo, Texas, where his family owned some land.
“He was an incredible hunter,” one second-cousin told me. “He could shoot a bird out of the air with a bow-and-arrow.”
Those afternoons hunting may have been an escape from a dose of dysfunction at home. Geno’s parents divorced when he was a teenager; one lifelong friend said Geno’s mother fought suicidal tendencies.
Geno grew up on Pecore Street in the Heights, and one of his uncles still lives there today. He certainly didn’t grow up poor, because his grandfather, Eugene Duke, owned a thriving medical practice, Duke Optometry. That business was sold and, today, it is Texas State Optical, with locations all over the city.
Last week, I told you Geno seemed comfortable in work boots, and now I know why. He worked construction nearly all his life, until around 2007, when he fell off some scaffolding that nearly broke his back. He never recovered from those injuries and he never went back to work.
And this is where the heart of Geno starts to open. He never filed for disability, never sued his employer for lost wages.
“He wouldn’t do that,” his aunt told me as she held a file full of Geno’s last paycheck stubs she found in his apartment. “He just did odd jobs to make enough to get by.”
Geno lived off Social Security and the occasional check from someone who needed a little help. In fact, the last time he was seen by a family member was the week before his death when his uncle asked him to help move some furniture.
Other than sporadic visits from family or a couple of friends, Geno lived a life of solidarity.
“He didn’t like crowds of people,” his aunt said.
The only crowd he liked, it seems, gathered at St. Rose of Lima Church, where Geno would slip in the door for mass. The church, within walking distance of his apartment, is the only place his family said he would go – other than the Family Dollar where he spent his last dollar on Oct. 12, 2017, at 10:50 a.m.
When police discovered his body, they began an investigation into Geno’s life. Det. Christopher Elder’s face lit up when I asked him what he found in Geno’s apartment.
“It was the most immaculate place I’ve ever seen,” Elder said.
Police and family members say Geno’s small apartment was full of hand-carved crucifixes that hung on the walls, rested on tables. Those crosses were decorations around the notes they found – the notes written to God, asking for forgiveness for his past sins; asking that Eugene Duke III have a place in Heaven when he died.
Family and friends don’t like to tell bad stories about the deceased, and those close to Geno were no different in his death. But it’s clear Geno probably needed forgiveness for a few things in life – maybe the years of drug use that blurred his mind.
It also seems God may have been the only thing Geno had left. He lost his ability to work. He lost a girlfriend two years ago from a brutal battle with cancer. He lived in a chasm of emotional instability, broken by the daily pain he felt in his apartment at 910 Lehman St.
I don’t know why I’ve struggled with Geno’s story. For most of us, he will leave no legacy at all – he had no children, left no inheritance, didn’t write a lasting novel. But knowing what I do now, knowing that Geno was a decent man who sought and found his God, maybe we can find a purpose in this man’s life.
Eugene Duke III was an everyman who died facing a bright blue sky. When I saw his body two weeks ago, his legs were straight, his arms were extended out, and I can only assume that he found a peace during his last few breaths.
For years and years, Geno sat in that apartment just off North Shepherd and carved wooden crosses. When police covered his body with a sheet, he rested in the exact pose that he whittled a hundred times before.
No one deserves to die the way Geno did, and someone must pay for this crime. But as I’ve gotten to know the man in death, I’m forever touched by his life and the fortitude he carried to his last step.