Remembering a sacrifice made in the line of duty
Pictured is Captain Danny Gray who loved being a police officer
Many recall when Captain Danny Gray was killed during a jail break forty years ago this week.
June 28, 1974 started out quiet in Orange, but the day had all the twists and turns of a badly written western movie script, complete with armed robbery, a shoot out during a jail break and a posse rounded up to catch the bad guys.
Sharon Bearden, now a private attorney in Orange was the district attorney at the time, says that “the death of Danny Gray was the low point of all the law enforcement years in Orange County.”
Gray, a 31-year-old Captain for the Orange Police Department had a wish come true early in the morning, then lost his life hours later in a tragic confrontation. Gray, a ten year veteran of the Orange Police Department, had told fellow officers that he wanted to stop an armed robbery in progress some day. Around 1 a.m. Gray and four other officers on his shift, arrested Charles Dowden, for committing armed robbery as he left the Sak-N-Pak drive-in grocery on Green Avenue.
Bearden said that Gray had called him early in the morning all excited about making the arrest, not knowing that before the dawn of that morning he would receive another call saying that Gray was dead.
At 4 a.m Gray, Ronnie Denton and Bryan Windham were doing paperwork in the dispatch office when two armed men walked in saying that they were there to get Charles, Billy Wayne’s brother, out of jail. One of the men then kicked open the dispatch office door. Gray knocked him into the hallway and shots were fired in the confusion. The two intruders, Billy Wayne Dowden and Clifford Blansett, fired shots with Denton and Windham returning fire. Gray’s pistol never left its holster. One of the shots fired struck Gray in the head. The assailants then fled into the darkness. Gray was rushed to Orange Memorial Hospital where he was pronounced dead.
Events moved quickly that morning and that afternoon, law officers from throughout the area and Louisiana converged on a small frame house in Forrest Heights, in northern Orange County, south of Deweyville. Nearly 70 officers surrounded the house with a helicopter flying overhead and horses and bloodhounds standing by.
Chief Deputy Charles Morvent, Jr. telephoned the house and said, “Billy Wayne, I have a warrant for your arrest,” and that there was a “small army” around the house.
Dowden and Blansett surrendered to Orange Police Chief L.C. Jones, Sheriff Allen (Buck ) Patillo, Morvent and Texas Ranger Haskall Taylor.
Judge James D. Stringer, the justice of the peace for Precinct 1, set the bond at $500,000. Bearden, the district attorney, was responsible for the case against the men.
Billy Wayne Dowden and Clifford Blansett were indicted on capital murder charges. When the ballistic tests were returned they showed that the bullet that killed Gray didn’t come from either of the men’s weapons, but from Windham’s gun. The prosecution was stymied for a while, then Bearden, utilized a recently passed statue that said if someone’s actions caused a death then murder charges could be brought. The case prosecuted by Bearden was the first time that the statue was used in the State of Texas.
Dowden pleaded guilty and received a life sentence while Blansett opted to go to trial. The trial for Blansett lasted three weeks. Blansett also received a life sentence when the verdict was returned. He has since died in prison.
The Dowden brothers still remain the Texas prison system and have now been locked up for 40 years. Billy Wayne Dowden is 77 years old, currently in the Texas Department of Corrections Stiles Unit in Huntsville. Charles Dowden, now 78 years old, is currently in the TDC Ellis Unit in Huntsville.
In June of 1974, Captain Danny Gray turned 31 on the 5th, celebrated nine years of marriage with his wife, Gail Powell, on the 8th and gave his life in service on the 28th.
“Danny had such wonderful plans for our lives. He loved being a police officer. He worked his way up from a patrol officer with such commitment and dedication to be a captain after only 10 years on the force,” Gail said.
He was an honorable man; honest, hard working, gentle and kind, with a great sense of humor.
“It was hard to be mad at him. He made everyone laugh and feel comfortable to be around him,” Gail added.
She misses Gray. They had two beautiful children together that made life complete. Their daughter, Stephanie, now lives in Florida and has five boys. She and her husband, John, live very busy lives.
Their son, Steve and his wife, Norma, live in San Antonio. Steve is a federal officer and the couple has two daughters and a son.
Gail remarried Randy Powell and says he has been a wonderful step-father. He encourages the family to talk about Gray and share their feelings. Gail and Randy have a daughter, Jennifer, who lives with her husband, Jeremy, and their two daughters.
“Danny left a great legacy for his children and grand children by leading the life he did,” Gail said. She is proud to have been Gray’s wife.