The tragic drowning of three black teenagers during a Juneteenth festival in Texas in 1981

Mildred Europa Taylor March 26, 2020
A photo of Lake Mexia flooding (Ken Molestina - CBS11)

Thousands of residents at Mexia, Texas were on June 19, 1981, celebrating at a festival commemorating the freeing of slaves when a tragedy occurred. That night, three teenagers, who were arrested on suspicion of smoking marijuana at the Juneteenth festival, drowned while being transported in a boat with three law enforcement officials across a lake.

The teenagers, Carl Baker, 19; Steven Booker, 19, and Anthony Freeman, 18, were said to be handcuffed when the boat ferrying them capsized, even though authorities maintained that their handcuffs were removed before they were placed on the boat.

On the night of the arrest, the teenagers were at Comanche Crossing, which rests on the shore of Lake Mexia, for the Juneteenth celebration, marking the day in 1865 when Texas slaves heard they were free. 

Booker, Freeman and Baker were arrested that night by deputies Kenny Elliott and Kenneth Archie, a black man. Probation officer David Drummond accompanied them.

There was a two-lane bridge over Commanche Crossing at Lake Mexia but it was blocked by about 5,000 celebrants on the shore. Thus, the officers decided to use a small aluminum fishing boat to ferry the teenagers across Lake Mexia to patrol cars some 200 yards away on the other side of the lake, about 80 miles southeast of Dallas, according to reports.

But about 40 feet into the lake, the boat began taking on water and it capsized. The teenagers, who were not given life vests alongside claims that they were handcuffed, drowned.

White officers Elliott and Drummond swam to shore while black deputy Archie was rescued. Archie later said he was upset that people on shore couldn’t help.

“Thirty, forty, fifty people or more were there … but didn’t none of them move,” he said. The bodies of Baker and Freeman were pulled from the lake Saturday while that of Booker was found Sunday.

An eyewitness, Arthur Beachum Jr., said he saw searchers remove handcuffs from Baker’s body before bringing it onshore.

“I saw them pull the body from the lake and it still had the handcuffs on it,” Beachum said. “One officer took them off and put them in his pocket.”

Baker’s brother, Anthony, also wondered how his brother could have drowned. “My brother could swim,” he said.

When Freeman’s body was found, news reporters said officials circled it with three boats before pulling it from the water.

“They shielded the body from our cameras onshore. They took a while before they pulled the body out, but we couldn’t see what they were doing,” said a Texas television reporter.

Booker’s mother, Virginia Nelson, also hit hard at authorities for putting the teenagers on a boat.

“They should tell us some more. I want to know if they were handcuffed and why they didn’t have on life jackets.”

“They didn’t have any business putting them in that boat. They could have walked them around to the car,” she said.

Authorities indicated that no life jackets were in the boat because they were not expecting any individual arrests at such a gathering, or that a boat would have to be used.

A year after the incident, an all-white jury acquitted the three law enforcement officials who were in the boat with the teenagers after they were found not guilty of criminally negligent homicide.

They were, however, suspended from their jobs. To date, questions surrounding the deaths of the teenagers have contributed to the atmosphere of suspicion between law enforcement officials and the black community.

Last Edited by:Kent Mensah Updated: March 26, 2020


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