You'd be surprised at the outrageous events that have unfolded in the history of Amarillo, Texas.

Memories tend to be short when it comes to the scandals that changed the landscape of the Texas Panhandle; yet, the impact is long lasting.

Skeptical? Here's two words to change your mind: Danny Hill.

Beyond the Last Word

The name Danny Hill may sound familiar to those who have ascribed to the fanciful saga of 'The Last Word', a locally produced film marketed as a documentary. The film hawks the claim that an executed death row inmate Johnny Frank Garrett was innocent of his crime. According to the refurbished tale, Garrett had (miraculously, given his low-functioning mental state, per his supporters) placed a complex curse on any and everybody involved in his conviction and execution.

Danny Hill was the prosecutor in Garrett's case.

Hill committed suicide on April 9, 1995, and supporters of the Last Word have since used the death as the go-to "proof" that Garrett's curse is real. However, to summarize Danny Hill as victim of a curse discounts the severity of the events that unfolded in his final years of life.

A Problematic Prosecutor

Danny Hill was the Potter County District Attorney from the late 1970s until 1995. At the time he took office, he was the youngest District Attorney in the state at age 34. He was charismatic, he could command a room with ease, and he was exactly what one expects when they picture a Texas prosecutor.

Legislative Ref. Library of Texas
Legislative Ref. Library of Texas
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But Danny Hill was also an alcoholic. And like many with the affliction, he lived day-to-day ravaged by the disease. But worse than that was the shocking inaction and silence of the high ranking peers who stood by and did nothing as their colleague fell further down the black void of alcoholism.

In one such well-known incident, a fundraiser BBQ was held for the Amarillo Police Department. Hill attended the event and imbibed far too much at the open bar and got into his vehicle afterwards. On his way home, he plowed into the back of another car, totaling it and his own car.

The police were called out and they escorted him home. No investigation was done, no charges were filed. The next day, perhaps in a preemptive move to do damage control, Danny Hill went to the TV stations and gave multiple interviews stating that the rumors of his being drunk were false.

The catch, however, was that as he gave these interviews, he sported the scratches and bruises from the previous night's collision. He was hardly convincing. Yet all the county officials around him remained silent and allowed their colleague to carry on.

The County Attorney Who Had Enough

The problem that arises from having a District Attorney afflicted with alcoholism is twofold. For one, the DA is a creature of the Texas Constitution which is what makes him or her so powerful. Secondly, when you have someone in such a powerful position, they must wield that power responsibly. A DA who is a slave to the whims of alcoholism is an addict in a position of power, and that power tends to be abused in order to obey their master--addiction.

Only one person had enough. The county attorney for Potter County, Sonya Letson. She began an investigation into Danny Hill's alcoholism as the basis for removing Hill from office.

In March 1995, Letson deposed the assistant district attorneys who had worked under Hill. All gave damaging testimony to Hill's behavior in office. Their testimony painted a picture of an attorney who showed up to work intoxicated, mumbling and incoherently drunk as early as 10 am., and so on.

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There were also incidents that were well known. Such as a public demonstration staged by the Texas DPS that aimed to show the impact even a minimal amount of alcohol had on driving. A large parking lot was used for the event and participants were given a small amount of alcohol to drink and then were to navigate a vehicle through a course of barriers and cones without mishap.

The participants included local law enforcement and politicians, including Danny Hill. Each individual would blow into a breathalyzer at the start, before consuming alcohol, and again at the completion of the course. When it came to Hill's turn, he blew into the breathalyzer and promptly registered at a .03 or .04. Hill had drank so much the night before that his system was still awash with booze.

A Harrowing End

One recurring incident was when Hill would visit his wife's house on Julian Boulevard, drunkenly brandishing a handgun and claiming he would shoot himself. Every time Hill made his visit, the police would come out persuade the attorney to hand over his weapon. Then they would quietly escort him back home.

Had it been any other individual, there is no doubt that they would have been promptly taken to the county jail on a litany of charges--including criminal trespass, aggravated assault, disturbing the peace, you name it.

In the months leading up to his death in 1995, his downward spiral was alarming. Hill was charged with misdemeanor DWI in February, his guilty plea came a month later and coincided with the depositions from the attorneys who had worked under him.

The fall from grace was near, and many could see it plain as day.

Taking the Good With the Bad

When Hill committed suicide on Palm Sunday, April of 1995, it was a sorrowful end to the chapter of a charismatic District Attorney who had one weakness, alcohol. See, Danny Hill was not entirely defined by his disease.

By all accounts, Danny Hill consistently surprised other attorneys with his warmth and sincere kindness. Furthermore, Hill had worked tirelessly as an advocate for children and was a strong opponent of crimes against children. Yet, for a period of time, all of Hill's accomplishments in legislature, the legal field, and the community were overshadowed by the shocking scandal of those final years in office.

But to write his death off as the result of a convict's curse is to erase the lesson that Hill's death offers: accountability and the stigma that is the grip of addiction.

The suicide of Danny Hill was the end result of a life of raw talent, alcoholism, and the pitfalls of undue power bestowed upon the district attorney in the state of Texas. And one would do well to remember the lessons from such a sad event, rather than simply leave it at the 'last word'.

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