by Pamela Colloff
MOST MORNINGS, the sky was still black when Mickey Bryan made the short drive from her house on Avenue O, through the small central Texas town of Clifton, to the elementary school. Sometimes her car was the only one on the road. The low-slung, red-brick school building sat just south of the junction of State Highway 6 and Farm to Market Road 219 — a crossroads that, until recent years, featured the town’s sole traffic light. Mickey was always the first teacher to arrive, usually settling in at her desk by 7 a.m. A slight, soft-spoken woman with short auburn hair and a pale complexion, she prized the solitude of those early mornings, before her fellow teachers appeared and the faraway sound of children’s voices signaled, suddenly and all at once, that the day had begun.
One morning, Mickey did not show up for work. It was a Tuesday in the fall — Oct. 15, 1985 — and the air was damp from a heavy rainstorm that rolled through town the previous night. Mickey’s classroom was dark when a fifth-grade teacher, Susan Kleine, walked by at 7:15 a.m. She stopped, puzzled, and looked inside; she tried the door, but it was locked. At first, she figured her fanatically punctual friend was running off photocopies on the other side of the building, but by 8 a.m., there was still no sign of her, and Kleine hurried to Principal Rex Daniels’s office. “Did you forget to call a sub?” she asked him, bewildered. “Mickey’s not here.”
Daniels asked his secretary to call the Bryan home, but no one answered. He knew Mickey’s husband, Joe, the longtime principal of Clifton High School, was out of town at a conference, so he directed his secretary to phone Mickey’s parents, Otis and Vera Blue. They did not know where their daughter might be — they last saw her the previous afternoon when she stopped by their home on Avenue L — but they promised to go check on her right away. “I felt something was wrong,” Daniels later wrote in a statement for the police, “and left school to go to Mickey’s house.”
Clifton lies 100 miles southwest of Dallas, on an empty stretch of prairie land gouged by creeks and river valleys. The town was, and remains to this day, populated by some 3,000 people, many of them descendants of the Norwegian farmers who settled in southern Bosque County before the Civil War. Both Bryans were familiar and beloved figures around town. Mickey, who was 44, once held the title of Miss Clifton High School, an honor bestowed on her by her classmates, though she shied from attention. She was guarded even around the few people she allowed to get close, while Joe, who was a year her senior, thrived on human connection. Warm and expressive, with a gift for putting people at ease, he had an open, friendly face and blue eyes that were always animated behind his large wire-rimmed glasses. At the high school, he was an ebullient presence, an educator with such enthusiasm for his job that at Friday-night football games, he seemed to be everywhere at once, calling out to students and their extended families without stumbling over a name.
Mickey and Joe had known each other since elementary school. They first crossed paths when Joe, who grew up on a farm about 40 miles southeast of Clifton, on the outskirts of Waco, visited a cousin in nearby Mosheim, where the Blues then lived. They did not begin dating until more than two decades later, in 1968, when they were earning master’s degrees in education: she at Baylor University in Waco, he at Trinity University in San Antonio. Joe was getting over the dissolution of a four-year marriage that had never taken root, and in Mickey, he found a centering force. Mickey was quiet, unflappable and fiercely practical — a woman who, despite the norms of Texas beauty, eschewed makeup and favored flats. She was charmed by Joe’s demonstrativeness, and when he told a story about her or publicly praised her, as he often did, she patted his arm with bashful affection. They wed in 1969 in a private ceremony in the home of Joe’s childhood pastor. Mickey did not want the fuss of a church wedding.
The Bryans shared a common sense of purpose; they believed in the trans-formative power of teaching, and when they moved to Clifton in 1975 after Joe was offered the job of principal, they immersed themselves deeply in the lives of their students. If families’ budgets fell short, Joe and Mickey stepped in, quietly paying for hot lunches, senior trips, new clothes. Together they devoted part of each summer to devising lesson plans for Mickey’s incoming fourth-graders and brainstorming new ways to reach her most reluctant learners. In the evenings, Joe often sat beside Mickey and helped her grade papers. They were different from other married couples, a number of women who knew them noted appreciatively; Mickey and Joe seemed more like a team. They both loved being around children but were never able to have their own — an immutable fact of their marriage that seemed to only draw them closer. Nearly every evening, they went on long walks around Clifton, where it was common to see them strolling hand in hand down the town’s wide residential streets, absorbed in conversation.
Daniels was the first to arrive at the Bryans’ single-story brick house, which overlooked a well-tended yard on the southernmost edge of town. The garage’s double doors were up, and Mickey’s brown Oldsmobile was parked inside. The day’s Waco Tribune-Herald and Dallas Morning News lay in the driveway. Daniels rang the doorbell. The house was dark and quiet.
Moments later, the Blues hurried up the walkway with a spare key, and Daniels followed them in. Vera led the way, calling out her daughter’s name. She was the first to reach the master bedroom, and when she stepped inside, Daniels heard her cry out. He and Otis followed close behind her. In the bedroom, blood was everywhere — spattered across the bed, the ceiling, all four walls. Daniels immediately took hold of Vera and instructed her and Otis to go to the living room. He did not step any farther into the bedroom, but as he stood in the doorway, he could tell that Mickey was dead.
Her body lay across the length of the unmade bed, her outstretched legs dangling over the mattress’s edge. Her pink nightgown was drawn up to the top of her thighs, and she was naked from the waist down.
Daniels rushed to the phone in the kitchen and called the police. “It looks like someone broke in and shot Mickey,” he said.
Word of the killing traveled quickly around Clifton that morning. “We were all dumbfounded,” Cindy Horn, who worked as a teacher’s aide at the elementary school, told me. “We couldn’t wrap our minds around it. How could anyone hurt Mickey?” Amid the collective anguish and shock that everyone felt, she said, “our first thoughts were about Joe — that Joe was going to be completely devastated.”
One hundred and twenty miles away, at the Texas Association of Secondary School Principals’ annual conference in Austin, Joe was taken aside by the organization’s executive director, Harold Massey, not long after 10 a.m. The two men had known each other for years, and as they huddled in the foyer of one of the Hyatt Regency’s conference rooms, Massey got right to the point, telling Joe what little he knew: Mickey had been shot to death in their home. “Are you sure you have the correct information?” Joe stammered. “Mickey Bryan of Clifton, Texas?” Massey helped him to a chair as he grew unsteady on his feet.
Three principals whose help Massey enlisted found Joe near the check-in desk. He appeared unmoored, his face gone slack with shock. He sat by himself, holding his head in his hands. They took him upstairs to his hotel room, where he lay down in bed, shivering. Still dressed in his suit and tie, he pulled the covers over himself.
Two longtime colleagues of his from Clifton — Richard Liardon, the school superintendent, and Glen Nix, the assistant elementary school principal — arrived around noon to take him home, and when Joe saw them, he broke down. Before he slid into the superintendent’s car, Joe handed the keys to his black Mercury to one of the principals who had come to his aid; he agreed to ferry it back to the Waco area. “Very little was said,” Nix told me of the more-than-two-hour drive from the state capital to the green, rolling hills of Bosque County. “Joe sat in the back with his head down and cried the whole way.”