Galveston’s most compassionate jury

Texas City police investigate the scene of a double murder near the intersection of Loop 197 and Hwy. 3 in 1971. (The Galveston Daily News)

Texas City police investigate the scene of a double murder near the intersection of Loop 197 and Hwy. 3 in 1971. (The Galveston Daily News)

Most jurors believe they’ve done their duty if they carefully consider the evidence and render a just verdict. But the men and women called to decide Fred Andrew Propst’s fate in 1973 wanted to do more.

A Galveston County jury indicted Propst, 26, and James Douglas Zink, 29, in January 1972 and charged them with double murder in the shooting deaths of John Davidson and Grover M. Looney III. Motorists found the victims’ bullet-riddled bodies on Dec. 1, 1971, near Loop 197 and State Hwy. 3 in Texas City. Because their wallets were missing, investigators assumed it was a robbery gone bad. Police quickly focused on Propst after investigators found several of the victims’ credit cards near where his tractor-trailer had been parked at a Texas City plant.

Police in Oak Ridge, Tenn., arrested Zink on an unrelated charge and found several more of the victims’ credit cards, along with the murder weapon, among his things. They eventually agreed to extradite him to Texas, where he went to trial in March 1973. It took a Galveston jury just two hours to convict him of murder and 20 minutes to sentence him to life in prison. Zink pleaded guilty to the second murder and got another life sentence.

But Propst maintained his innocence, insisting Zink forced him to keep quiet about the murders or suffer the same fate. On Oct. 25, 1973, he pleaded with a jury to show mercy.

Propst’s unwilling connection to Zink began months before their trip to Galveston County. The men met working as long-haul truckers in Middlesboro, Ky. In November 1971, Zink told Propst he was having trouble at home and asked if he could stay with Propst and his family. A few days later, Zink’s wife and children joined him. That first night, the Propsts overheard Zink and his wife talking about how he was wanted by the FBI for armed robbery and possibly murder. FBI agents had ransacked their house looking for him. When Zink found out his friend knew his secret, he threatened to kill him and his family if he told anyone.

Propst kept quiet for a few days, but eventually he decided he had to report what he knew. Claiming he had to check in at work, Propst called the local FBI office and told them Zink was staying at his house. But no one investigated during the next week, and Propst eventually got the call to go to Texas City to pick up a load of chemicals for a pipe manufacturer in Tennessee. Feeling like he had no choice, Propst agreed to take Zink with him.

Texas City police investigate the scene of a double murder near the intersection of Loop 197 and Hwy. 3 in 1971. (The Galveston Daily News)

Texas City police investigate the scene of a double murder near the intersection of Loop 197 and Hwy. 3 in 1971. (The Galveston Daily News)

They weren’t far from their destination when a car behind them began flashing its lights and signaling the truck to pull over. Not sure what was wrong, Propst pulled the big rig to the shoulder. The car pulled over behind him. Zink, who was riding in the passenger seat, climbed down from the cab and went to talk to the car’s driver, who had come around to his side of the truck. A few minutes later, the man, who turned out to be Davidson, climbed into the cab of the truck, with Zink close behind. The men talked for a few minutes and Davidson put his hand on Propst’s leg. When Propst said he wasn’t interested, Davidson and Zink climbed back out of the cab. A few minutes later, Propst heard gunshots. While he watched in horror, Zink walked to the car and started shooting into it.

Zink came back to the truck and set two wallets on the console. Propst later told jurors he was terrified. He asked Zink why he had shot the two men.

“He said the only way he could feel free was killing people,” Propst recalled. Zink also told him if he said anything to anyone about what had happened, he would kill him.

On the way back to Tennessee, Zink ordered Propst to pull over so he could buy a newspaper and find out whether he’d made the news. After Propst dropped off his load, Zink demanded to be left at a hotel in Tennessee. Finally free from Zink’s threats, Propst sped home to Kentucky and packed up his wife and children. They went to his father’s house in Whitesburg first, quickly moving on to Lexington in hopes Zink would never find them. Police caught up with Propst not long after that.

During his trial, several of Propst’s former employers testified to his honesty and trustworthiness. One former boss recounted how he trusted Propst to transport large sums of money and never worried about him stealing it. Although no one from the FBI testified in person, the agency sent a sworn statement acknowledging Propst had called them about Zink a week before the Texas City trip and offered to help catch Zink, who was considered armed and extremely dangerous. He was wanted in Tennessee for murdering a woman several weeks before he went to stay with Propst.

Propst’s wife, Debbie, testified the couple lived in fear of Zink, and jurors believed her. They took just 39 minutes to find him not guilty. After the judge dismissed them and set Propst free, one juror shook his hand and wished him luck. He had spent 21 months in the Galveston County jail. With tears of relief streaming down his face, Propst said he intended to go back to Kentucky and try to rebuild his life.

Several days later, a reporter with The Galveston Daily News discovered the jurors had raised $97 (almost $500 today) to help Propst and his wife get home.

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