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if ;MIMI 110 $ mmtvogrim< $:$$$r$r ""'"?..MV't '"rs ,`": FEATURE Getting Plucked Texas chicken farmers become modern-day sharecroppers BY DAVE MANN A Sanderson Farms billboard in Austin. photo: Jana Birchunt t was Monday morning and Barry Townsend headed to work with a bag lunch and his wife's .38-caliber revolver. He slid into his red Ford F-350 pickup and began the drive from the Townsends' farm outside Bryan toward New Waverly, where he worked as a machinist. Cindy hadn't noticed her gun missing that morning. Before leaving, Barry simply told her, "I'm going to work." Barry Townsend was not just a machinist. He and Cindy also raised chickens for the Mississippi-based company Sanderson Farms. They were one of about two dozen families that the company had recruited in a 100-mile radius around Bryan to work as contract growers. The work was hard, and the hours much longer than the Townsends had anticipated. Every year, their expenses increased, and the money they earned was never enough. Their financial situation strained their marriage, and they argued often. Cindy occasionally wept at the thought of the bank foreclosing on their farm. Among the small community of chicken growers, it was no secret that the couple was struggling. About an hour after Barry Townsend left his farm that morning, January 8, 2001, police responded to reports of gunshots at the Sanderson Farms regional headquarters in Bryan. Townsend, according to police reports, had requested a meet ing with managers Kevin Crook and Larry Ryals. When the three men gathered in a small conference room, Townsend turned to Crook and told him to call Cindy and apologize. Crook was confused. "Barry, we don't know what you mean," he said. Townsend immediately became agitated and, cursing, insisted on an apology. Then he pulled the .38. Crook nervously agreed and picked up the phone. But he was too flustered and couldn't dial the number. "I'll dial;' Townsend said, moving the two men aside. He began pushing the wrong buttons and couldn't get an outside line. "Push that button;' Crook said, gesturing as he moved toward the phone. Townsend was edgy and the movement startled him. He jumped back and shot Crook in the chest, killing him. Then he turned and shot Ryals, who raised his arm in self-defense. The bullet gashed through Ryals' forearm and lodged in his shoulder; he would be the lone survivor. Barry Townsend put the revolver to his own head and pulled the trigger. He was 46. After a month-long investigation, police closed the case and told local reporters it was unlikely that anyone would ever know what had caused Townsend to kill one man, wound another, and take his own life. Unofficially, however, a simple explanation coalesced: Townsend had been convicted of child molestation in 1998 for groping Cindy's oldest daughter. According to conventional wisdom, Barry Townsend was a 6 THE TEXAS OBSERVER MARCH 18, 2005