Gray remembered after 35 years

Capt. Danny Gray got what he wished for, but not what was coming to him.

When he was killed 35 years ago this week, he had just fulfilled a dream. 

To nab an armed robber. 

He went to Gary’s Coffee Shop – where he liked to play John Denver songs – and excitedly told friends about the arrest.

It wasn’t uncommon for Gray to be up at that hour. He often worked the graveyard shift. 

At 2:30 a.m. he called District Attorney Jim Sharon Bearden to say he and other officers had surprised a masked gunman – Charles Dowden – coming out of a 7-11 store. 

He had plans to go to an FBI school and was thinking about getting a college degree. Ninety minutes later the 31-year-old was dead – leaving behind a wife and two kids.

Bearden got another call around 7 a.m. telling him Gray had been killed.

“He was as good an officer as any,” says Bearden, now in private practice. “I’d definitely put him in the ‘Top 5.’”

Gray is remembered today at the Orange police station with the Danny Gray Room, the building’s largest community and training area. It includes a picture of Gray with a memorial plaque. 

According to a 1999 newspaper account, officers Ronnie Denton, Gray and Bryan Windham were doing paperwork when Billy Wayne Dowden (Charles Dowden’s brother) and Clifford Blansett walked into the station with weapons and demanded the prisoner’s release. 

Gray knocked one of the intruders into a hallway and guns started firing. Gray was hit by a fellow officer’s bullet, but in the trial that ensued Bearden put Blansett away on capital murder because his actions had led directly to Gray’s death. A statute, new at the time in Texas, allowed for that. Bearden says the case may have been the first in the state to use it in a prosecution. Billy Wayne Dowden pleaded guilty.

The men got life sentences, safety precautions were beefed up within the police department and Gray is remembered for his humor and heroism. Blansett and Billy Wayne Dowden died in prison several years ago.

Bearden remembers the trial as being a long one. “It was the jury selection that took the most time,” he says. Buddie Hahn, now a district judge, represented Blansett. 

“[Billy Wayne] Dowden was clearly the bad guy in the thing,” Hahn said. “He was the one that fired the gun. I think he stood outside a window and fired into it. Blansett never wanted to plead to capital murder, but he admitted to several other things he was wanted for. Many believed he had hit Danny with [the butt of] a shotgun … Among the questions they were asked, the jury had to find that he had committed acts of violence and would continue to be a threat to society. I put three former district attorneys on the stand … and every one of them said they didn’t think he was a violent man.”

Pat Clark, Bearden’s assistant at the time, is also a district judge. 

“I never knew Danny Gray, because this was around the time we had just moved back from Fort Hood,” Clark says. “It was right before the Fourth of July, and they had promised me a job as an assistant district attorney. So I said to [my wife] Rosalie, ‘I guess I better go down to the courthouse and see if I still have a job.’ And when I got there, all hell had broken loose.”

No one interviewed for this story was sure what happened to Gray’s widow and daughter. 

A 2004 news article said his son, Stephen Gray, had attended criminal justice classes at Sam Houston State and was working as a probation officer in San Antonio. The same story said that he had few memories of his father, except for attending the funeral.

Hahn remembers that Stephen Gray called him a few years ago to get contact information for Blansett. 

“I think he was doing some kind of ‘follow up’ and wanted to talk to [Blansett],” Hahn says. “And eventually I think he did talk to one of them or both of them.”