SARATOGA, Texas — Eighty years have gone by, but one Hardin County murder remains a mystery. Sheriff’s Deputy James Reddicks was shot and killed on June 30, 1939. The number one suspect was E.B. Means.
Robert Coward is Means' nephew. He found out about the murder when he was 16, from a classmate at West Hardin High School.
“One day he just came up to me and said, ‘hey, did you know your uncle, E.B., killed a deputy?’ and I said ‘no,’ and ‘you’re a liar,” Coward said.
But Coward's classmate had proof. His mother had some old newspaper clippings.
“Sure enough, there was my uncle, being finger printed for the murder of a deputy.”
Coward confronted his mother, Lena Means Coward. He remembers it like it was yesterday. He said she was washing dishes at the time.
“Her head snapped around and she looked at me like only a mother can, and she said, ‘we don’t talk about that,” Coward said.
They didn’t speak of it again until 2002, when Coward found his next opportunity to bring it up. Means died at the age of 86, and Coward brought it up on the way home from the funeral. Coward told his mom that now that he was dead he couldn’t be held accountable for the murder, and asked once again if he was responsible.
“She said ‘he sure did,’ and she told me the whole story,” Coward said.
By that point, Coward’s mom had advanced Alzheimer’s. He said she could remember 60 years ago like it was yesterday, but she couldn’t remember yesterday. A year later she died, and that’s when Coward really started to research what happened.
He spent seven years piecing the story together, and interviewed about 50 people. His research would eventually become a book, now available for purchase on Amazon, called 'The Keeper’s Dare.'
The interviews took him back to the boom town days.
“Saratoga went from a population of about 300 to 3,600, almost overnight, when they discovered oil,” Coward said.
He learned that even though the population was at a high, there wasn’t much law enforcement around. The closest agency, apart from Deputy Reddicks, was in Kountze.
Reddicks, according to Coward, had a reputation. He learned in his interviews with Reddicks' grandchildren that he was involved in graft and corruption on every scale, and potentially murder.
The day Reddicks was killed, a traveling tent show was in town. Coward says during that time it cost about 10 cents a person to go, and not everyone could afford it.
“My uncle was, I guess, being neighborly to the local kids and was lifting up the tent letting them sneak in, and he was caught, and Deputy Reddicks was called to come in,” said Coward.
This wasn’t the first encounter between Reddicks and Means. Means was a known street fighter, a trait he picked up from his uncle, a man Coward describes as a hardcore criminal.
When Reddicks saw it was Means causing trouble at the tent show, he didn’t hold back.
“He didn’t take any prisoners, Coward said. "He came in with his billy-club and beat on my uncle pretty good."
Means didn't take the beating well.
"My uncle said, in front of about 15 or 20 people, 'I'm going to go get my dad's gun, and I'm going to kill you," Coward said.
Calvin “Pee Wee” Tomlinson, one of the kids Means was caught sneaking into the tent show, later interviewed with Coward.
“E.B. left and told him, I’ll be back in about fifteen minutes,” Tomlinson said.
Reddicks left as well, going back to a café he owned called, “The White Kitchen.” There he sat in front of a window facing the street. Just across from the street was a shed.
“Sure enough, in about 15 minutes, someone walked under the shed, fired two shots,” Tomlinson said. "He rolled over that counter on that floor, deader than a hammer.”
Fifteen minutes later, Reddicks was pronounced dead, and a manhunt for Means ensued.
“My grandfather hid him out because he was afraid if the deputies found him, first they would just kill him,” Coward said.
Coward’s grandfather made a deal with the sheriff to bring him in the next day, and they held and tortured Means for six days. His mom told Coward by the time they got him out of jail, he was unrecognizable.
Despite the beating, Means didn’t budge. Coward said he never confessed, and from his understanding, he never even told them his name.
Means was later indicted in September of 1939. Coward said it was held under indictment for two years, but they couldn’t get any witnesses to testify.
“They had sent out fifty-five subpoenas for witnesses and they kept coming back, cannot locate, cannot locate; will not testify, will not testify,” Coward said.
Coward said the witnesses were either intimidated by Means' uncle to keep quiet, or were happy the deputy was gone. The district attorney had no choice but to dismiss the case.
“As far as they were concerned, old style justice had been served for this community and it didn’t matter if you were Christian, non-Christian, whatever, that’s the way they went with it, and no one was going to talk about it,” Coward said.
Through his research, Coward believes his uncle was the one to murder Reddicks, but admits, his grandfather could have done it. He was very protective of his family. However, he felt that since everyone thought it was Means, their best chance at getting away with it was to let him take the fall in the beginning, and hope he kept quiet.