Race Eyed In Texas Assault

Two men were arrested and warrants were issued for two others in the beating of a mentally handicapped black man who was left unconscious on a east Texas roadside.

All four suspects are white and the FBI is investigating whether the attack was a federal hate crime.

John W. Owens, 19, and James C. Hicks, 24, were jailed on a complaint of aggravated assault, said police Chief Alton McWaters. The names of their attorneys were not immediately available.

Billy Ray Johnson was severely beaten after drinking with several men in a pasture at the Owens family farm, then dumped about two miles away. Owens' father was out of town at the time, McWaters said. Johnson, 42, was found along a small road, lying on a fire ant mound in isolated woods dense with oak and sweetgum trees.

Johnson, who had a gash in his lip and a bandage covering his face, said from his hospital bed that he still remembers hearing laughing and taunting while a group of men beat and kicked him.

Surrounded by family and friends, Johnson was able to speak some, but mainly answered questions with a "yes" or "no."

When asked how many men beat him, he answered "A bunch." When asked if any racial slurs were used or if he thought the beating was racially motivated, he said he didn't know.

Some residents insist Johnson's beating was racially motivated. The town of about 2,200 is about 25 percent black.

"They made a monkey out of him. They made him dance for them, and when they got through making him dance, they decided to kill him," said Lue Wilson, Johnson's cousin.

Relatives and the police chief said he suffered brain hemorrhaging and will require about two months of rehabilitation.

Johnson lives in a clapboard house outside town with his mother and brother, and is a well-liked fixture around town, relatives and townspeople say. He's known to wander into town for soda and a sandwich, which he would often eat in the courthouse square.

Civil rights advocacy groups sent representatives this week to meet with Johnson's family.

Linden is near the Louisiana and Arkansas borders.

By Penny Cockerell