Son of slain officer just wants to see justice happen
For The Record
Throughout history there have been two significant peaks in the numbers of law enforcement officers killed in the line of duty. One was in 1930 during alcohol prohibition when 304 police officers lost their lives. The other hits closer to home in 1974 when the number of shootings began to rise. Danny Gray, of the Orange Police Department, was one of the 280 officers who lost his life that year.
Captain Danny Gray, 31, became the third police officer killed in the line of duty on June 28, 1974 during an attempted jail escape. Gray was a 10 year veteran of the department and a graduate of Stark High School in Orange.
Before the shooting occurred, Gray would accomplish something he had always wanted to do which was to catch a suspect during a robbery.
The day started out when he was dispatched to a convenience store located at 10th Street and Green Avenue. The robber, Charles Dowden, walked out of the store still wearing his mask. He was stuffing the pistol into his back pocket when he saw the officers. Dowden reached back for the gun, but realized it was too late and he surrendered.
At about 4 a.m., Charles Dowden’s brother, Billy Wayne Dowden, along with his accomplice, Clifford Blancett, arrived at the jail to break his brother out. Charles Dowden was upstairs in a jail cell when the chaos began.
Billy Wayne Dowden, wearing a mask, entered the building by suddenly bursting through the door. Blancett waited outside. Once inside, Billy Wayne Dowden suddenly went through the door of the dispatcher’s office demanding the release of his brother. He coldly put a pistol up to the dispatcher’s face, Ronnie Denton.
Gray, who was standing near the dispatcher’s window, hit Dowden in the face which knocked him into the hallway. By this time, Blancett had come into the building and struck Gray over the head with a shot gun which caused the gun to break. Dowden attempted to use Gray as a shield to once again enter the small dispatch room, according to Denton.
In the mean time, Denton ran back to the area near the stairwell and quickly grabbed a gun and began loading it. Denton looked up and saw the door opening again and began shooting. At the time, Denton didn’t know his fellow officer had been shot.
The next thing Denton knew, Dowden was standing in the hallway at the dispatcher’s window.
Denton had a clear shot of the suspect and knew he had to act quickly. As bullets were fired into the small room, Denton thought of his wife and children and questioned if he was going to live through the gunfire. Denton tried to fire the gun again, but all he heard was a click. The gun failed to fire.
Dowden returned fire a total of nine times. The room grew quiet and Denton seized the opportunity to call for help from other officers.
Dowden was out of bullets so he and Blancett fled the scene.
Dowden fled to Louisiana to get help for his injury to his ear which was bleeding. The friend panicked and called police. Dowden fled to his residence in Hartburg where he was apprehended.
Blancett was found hiding in a houseboat in West Orange.
After all the commotion and shooting, Gray lay dead with a bullet to the head. It was a tragic end to what began as an exciting night for Gray.
Billy Wayne Dowden and Clifford Blancett were indicted on a capital murder charges. After the ballistics report showed the bullet didn’t come from either man’s gun but a fellow officer’s gun, District Attorney, Sharon Bearden briefly scrambled. A new statute at the time allowed the charge to stand because the two men’s actions caused Gray’s death.
Charles Dowden, received a life sentence on charges of murder and aggravated robbery. The jury wanted to give him the death penalty but it was abolished in 1973. Prior to the death of Danny Gray, Charles Dowden was convicted of murder and received 25 years in prison. He shot and killed a man in a bar, according to Stephen Gray.
‘This man’s rap sheet is beyond comprehension,” Stephen Gray said. “He is extremely violent and has committed the worst crimes imaginable.”
Nevertheless, he was released from prison last year and lives in Orange. He is currently on state parole. The Gray family feels their rights as victims were not considered or met under the law. They did not know he was being considered for release, but, they were notified a short time before he was actually released and of his address.
Blancett also went to trial. He refused to plead guilty to murder but pleaded guilty to other charges, such as felon in possession of a firearm. However, his sentence was truly a life sentence since he died in prison.
Billy Ray Dowden pleaded guilty and received a life sentence. His case is currently under review by the parole board.
Stephen Gray never met Charles Dowden but did meet his brother, Billy Wayne Dowden, and Clifford Blancett years later while they were behind bars. Both of them continued to blame others for their actions and never took responsibility even after 25 years of imprisonment, according to Stephen Gray.
At the time of Danny Gray’s death, he had a wife, daughter, 7, and a four-year-old son, Stephen. Over the years Stephen Gray has fought fiercely with the parole board to keep the men in prison. His friends and family members have joined in the fight by writing letters to the parole board too. They feel strongly Billy Ray Dowden should remain in prison.
Stephanie Gray stated in her letter to the parole board how they cannot count the special moments in their lives that have not been witnessed by their dad.
“It would take us days to give you example after example of what my dad has missed,” Stephen Gray said. ” Not only for me and my sister growing up, but all that he has missed with his grandchildren.”
In February 2015, Stephen Gray’s 16-year-old daughter won a singing contest in San Antonio. Due to the accomplishment, she was able to sing on stage in front of 15,000 people. As Stephen Gray, along with his wife, watched their daughter perform, he thought about how proud his dad would be of his granddaughter.
“A moment he missed due to his untimely demise,” Stephen Gray said.
Over the years, it has been the Gray’s strong faith in God which has helped them remain strong. It was also his mother and step-father’s love and support.
“My faith is active and it’s a part of who we are,” Stephen Gray said. “It’s who I am.”
Friends of Danny Gray have often said his son looks and acts like his father. For Stephen Gray, that is a compliment he will proudly take.
“I have never been bitter or wanted revenge, ‘ Stephen Gray said. “I just want justice to happen.”
Stephen Gray has followed in his father’s footsteps, not only as a Christian man, but in criminal justice. Stephen Gray works in federal law enforcement. Danny Gray actually received his letter of acceptance into the FBI academy on the day he was killed.
Anyone interested in sharing their thoughts or memories of Danny Gray can do so on the Officer Down Memorial Page at odmp.org.