by Sherry Lucas
Lovejoy Boteler was 18, in a field on his family’s farm north of Grenada, when a pair of escaped convicts from Parchman penitentiary — one them, Albert Lepard, serving a life sentence for murder — kidnapped him.
Now 68, Boteler’s the author of a new book that weaves his own story about that day into the larger tapestry of his captor’s life, “Crooked Snake: The Life and Crimes of Albert Lepard” (University Press of Mississippi, $25). A book signing (5 p.m.) and reading (5:30 p.m.) are Thursday at Lemuria Books.
His appearance on “Thacker Mountain Radio Hour” will air at 7 p.m. Saturday on Mississippi Public Broadcasting. Boteler’s book tour schedule includes a presentation at Art Nights April 9 at the Mississippi Museum of Art, plus additional April appearances throughout the state. He’ll also be part of a panel at the Aug.17 Mississippi Book Festival at the State Capitol.
A Jackson resident since 1977, Boteler has lived in Fondren for 16 years. He’s taught construction and been band director in public schools in Amite and Scott counties. He continues to build custom furniture.
The nonfiction “Crooked Snake” is Boteler’s first published book — a volume prompted by his wife Jill’s suggestion that he write about the day he was kidnapped. “I thought it would be interesting, but it’d be a very short story,” Boteler says. He found the scrapbook his mother had made in 1968 about the incident. He hadn’t looked at it in years.
He read the newspaper clippings from The Clarion-Ledger and The Commercial Appeal and “for the first time, realized the scope of this criminal’s life.” At that time, Lepard had escaped from Parchman five times. It’d ultimately be six escapes before Lepard met his demise while trying to rob a store.
Boteler wondered if any of the people from those 1960s newspaper stories were still alive. “I don’t know exactly what compelled me, but I just felt compelled to learn this story.” His research led to interviews with 70 people, from north Mississippi to Biloxi, over three years — including law officers who’d been on the manhunts, old convicts who’d escaped with Lepard and people he’d tied up and robbed on other escapes.
“What happened to me that day — I discovered it was just one small story out of a whole lot of stories.” Boteler uses those interviews to flesh out a narrative that also delves into Lepard’s dirt-poor, hardscrabble early life in Newport in Attala County, the heinous murder that sent him to prison for life and his trial.
“It was like a big jigsaw puzzle until I had the whole picture clear enough that I could put the story together,” Boteler says.
In his own part in that puzzle, Boteler recalls the day he saw the two men walking down the field where he was working and the overly friendly way the small, red-headed one (Lepard) did all the talking. Though uneasy with their insistence, Boteler agreed to give them a ride to town. “I’d pulled about 50 feet down the field road when the red-headed fella sitting next to me stuck a revolver in my side and said, ‘We’re escaped convicts from Parchman. Stop the truck and get out.’ I thought they were getting ready to kill me.” Fortunately, no. They changed seats and forced him back in.
They freed Boteler in Memphis and, after he called law enforcement, were captured in a low-rent hotel on the Mississippi River. Boteler picked them out of a lineup that night. His parents came to Memphis and he finally got back home around 3 a.m. “It all kind of came to an end, until Jesse Strider, our Grenada County sheriff at that time, told my dad the Lepard fella was really, really bad news and I was very, very lucky.”
In interviews decades later, Boteler would hear similar descriptions from several convicts he interviewed, “He was a small fella, but the toughest man they ever saw in their life.”