James Laster says he wants to make amends to those he hurt



DAVID TAFFET  |  Senior Staff Writer

“It took 45 seconds to throw away eight years of my life,” 36-year-old James Laster said, speaking through a glass partition in the visitor’s building at the Ramsey Unit prison in Rosharon. Laster is serving an eight-year sentence at the Texas prison unit south of Houston after pleading guilty to charges stemming from the 2011 gay-bashing attack on Burke Burnett in Reno, Texas, just outside Paris.

Laster said he keeps himself busy in jail. He gets up at 4:30 in the morning and does 300-400 pushups. After breakfast, he works as a teacher’s aide in cabinetmakers class.
“I’m good at it,” he said.

LasterHe said he enjoys showing others who’ve never touched a skill saw or a drill how to use them to build furniture. He called his job therapeutic.

Later in the day Laster said he works on his associate’s degree. He’s taking four classes this semester — government, history, geology and English. After dinner he spends time out in the rec yard, reads, does homework and writes. He has a TV in his cell, but said he rarely has time to watch it.

Laster was charged with three counts of aggravated assault after the October 2011 attack. He pleaded guilty to one count of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon (his hands and feet).

Burnett said everyone at the party they were attending that night was drunk. He said that when a fight broke out, several people — including Laster — attacked him, leaving him with cuts on his face, neck and arms from a broken bottle, contusions and burns resulting from when he was thrown or fell on a burning 55-barrel drum used to heat the barn.

Laster takes exception to some of the claims, saying Burnett wasn’t thrown onto a bonfire, as some news outlets reported, but fell on the burning drum, and that at least some of what police called stab wounds were from Burnett falling on his own broken beer bottle.

But Laster willingly takes responsibility for his part in the attack on Burnett, acknowledging that as he hit and kicked Burnett, he also called him “faggot,” which led to hate crime charges being leveled.

Another attacker, Micky Joe Smith, who was 25 at the time, was sentenced to 10 years in prison. Charges were dropped against a third man, Daniel Martin, after Laster told police Martin had already left the party when the fight broke out. Burnett said he remembers more than two people attacking him, but no one else was charged.

Laster wrote to Dallas Voice in January. In his letter, he said he wanted to make amends to the LGBT community. We get letters from inmates all the time, but there was something introspective and interesting about Laster’s missing. Not only was his contact with us timely, coming as it did within months of a rash of attacks on gay men in

Oak Lawn last fall, he also seemed to be taking responsibility for his actions. So I arranged a visit with him through the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

The prison wasn’t easy to find. Google maps sent me to the wrong place — or more accurately, the map stops about four miles short of the prison’s location. But I was able to find someone who gave me accurate directions.

Laster was a little rattled as he came into the meeting room and sat behind a partition of glass and metal mesh. A guard had gotten him out of his class and brought him to the warden’s office before escorting him to our meeting. He said he’s trying to stay out of trouble, so a trip to the warden’s office can be quite upsetting.

As a result, we were both a little anxious as we began to chat and started by just introducing ourselves to each other.

“I love to write,” he told me. “If I’m frustrated, I can get a pen and paper out. Sometimes I write five pages.”

In part, he said, his writing is what got him to Ramsey Unit. He began taking classes before being moved to the South Texas location. Ramsey Unit is the only prison in the Texas penal system that not only allows a student to get an associate’s degree, but lets them advance their education to earn bachelor’s degrees and even master’s degrees.

Several hundred inmates at the unit are taking classes, Laster said. After he’s released, he’ll be responsible for reimbursing the state for his tuition.

Laster insists he’s not the same person he was when he entered prison. Burnett, reading Laster’s first letter, agreed, saying he didn’t recognize him from before, either.

“For the first two years, they punished me,” Laster said about his current sentence. “Now, I choose to try to do something productive and become a better person.”

He was first incarcerated in a prison near Palestine, where he described the treatment of gays and child molesters and said, “You see how they’re treated. You see the mentality. It begins to mold you.” Then, he said, he decided he was going to act like the kind of person he wanted to be treated as, and his behavior paid off.


James Laster, above, sits behind a glass partition during the interview for this article. Burke Burnett, here, seen just after he was attacked.

Laster said he’s thankful to be at Ramsey, where fighting isn’t tolerated. He said prisoners who are repeatedly caught in fights find themselves on a bus for another unit.

How did he get here?
When Laster was 15, his mother died. He had no relationship with his father, at the time, and no place to go. Child Protective Services had no options for him.

So some friends took him in and that’s when he got involved in dealing drugs. Within a few months, Laster was arrested for possession with intent to distribute and put into the juvenile detention system, where he was housed with violent prisoners.

“There should be some alternative for non-violent crimes,” Laster said of his first incarceration. “The state surrounded me with violence. All they did was prepare me for this” future of crime and violence.

But Laster is quick to stress that he isn’t trying to dodge responsibility for his actions. “That’s not an excuse, but an explanation,” he said of his assessment of juvenile detention.

When he was released from Texas Youth Commission, Laster lived first in a group home in Marshall and then with his sister, who’s less than a year older than he is. He described his work record outside of prison as spotty, and noted that he spent time in jail more than once, and when he was out, he often supported himself by selling drugs.

In his mid-twenties, Laster had a son, gaining full custody when the child was 18 months old. Laster raised his son himself — right up until the time his son was 7 and Laster was arrested for the attack on Burnett.

His son is still a source of great pride for Laster, whose eyes twinkle as he talks about his boy. “I taught him how to read and write,” he said. “He plays the trombone. He’s in National Honor Society and he’s extremely smart.”

Laster described what he called the best memory of his life — sitting with his son on the sofa, eating cookies and watching Sponge Bob Squarepants — before remorsefully acknowledging that he threw that away. “I chose this [violence and a prison sentence] over my son,” he said.

Laster gets to talk to his son on the phone from prison, but not often enough, he said. Prisoners can only call approved numbers, which must be land lines or cell phones that are billed monthly. His ex has a cell she pays monthly, so that number can’t be on his approved list. That means he only gets to talk with his son when the boy visits Laster’s aunt.

Laster recalled one instance when his son once asked him, “Why are you in there?”

“I told him I was at a party,” Laster said. “I told him I made a very foolish decision and I assaulted someone. I hurt this guy.”

“How hard did you hurt him?” his son asked.

“Pretty bad,” he said, adding that he apologized to his son for not being there for him.

Laster said his son was always a good kid he never had to spank, which means his son has “never seen the violent side of me.” That makes him happy, Laster said, because his violent side scares even him.

“One of the worst feelings in the world is not being in control,” he said. “I don’t like that I’m subject to hurt someone.”

He said that violent side only comes out when he’s drunk or high and he wishes there was counseling available. Since there isn’t, he has taken a course in prison called Christians Against Substance Abuse. But every time they were about to talk about an issue, like anger, the subject changed to the Bible, and since, Laster said, he’s not particularly religious, those classes didn’t help him very much

But classes did encourage him to read some self-help books that were helpful.

“I was mad at myself, at everyone else, at the system,” Laster said of what he has learned about himself. “My go-to feeling was, ‘I don’t care.’”

He described the night of the attack as one that began badly and quickly got worse. Already drunk, he got a ride to the party rather than drive himself. At one point he left and says now he wishes he hadn’t returned.

What’s next?

Laster had his first parole hearing last year. He described it as 10 minutes with people who wouldn’t be voting on whether to grant him parole.

He said they asked him: “Why did you stab this person so many times?” Laster disputed that characterization, telling them that he was in prison for assault with his hands and feet. But, he noted, the parole board sees all the charges as well as his full criminal history, which includes earlier drug charges and two DWIs.

Laster insists he’s planning to remain sober. That’s why, when he’s released, he doesn’t want to return to Paris where he’d be surrounded by people who are still doing drugs.

“My sobriety is very important to me,” he said several times during our visit.

In prison, among other skills, Laster said he has learned welding and hopes to find a job in that field when he is released. He also hopes to make amends to his son for not being there for him during the years he was locked up.

If he serves his entire sentence, Laster will remain in prison until Nov. 2, 2019.

Final words
Before I left Dallas, I asked Burnett if he had a message for Laster. He said nothing in particular he wanted me to relay, but told me I could tell Laster anything I thought was appropriate.

So I told Laster that after the sentencing, Burnett took a year to recover physically and emotionally, but now he’s living near Dallas, has done a lot of good in the community helping other attack victims and has a very happy life.

During the two hours we spoke, Laster repeated that he took full responsibility for his actions, and stressed that he didn’t want anything I wrote to sound like he was making excuses.

So, just before I left the prison, I asked Laster if he had a message for Burnett. Tears came to his eyes, and he thought for a moment.

“I apologize,” he said.

He tried to find additional words, then shook his head.

“Tell him I apologize.”

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition March 4, 2016.

—  David Taffet

North Texas Drag Racer Shangela to host new show at the Paris Las Vegas


D.J. Pierce was born in Paris, and now that’s where he’s headed back to.

Yup, Pierce — known to most fans as former Drag Racer Shangela —was born in Paris, Texas, but will now be the host of a new sexy show in Las Vegas, set to open at — you guessed it — the Paris Las Vegas Hotel on The Strip.

Shangela will join the cast of 53X, a “fun dance showcase catering to the modern-day partier,” which was created by Chippendales producer Bryan Cheatham, who recently revamped the all-male revue for the neighboring Rio Casino.

Full disclosure: D.J. and I are friends, and he’s kept this news from me, but called to give me the skinny. “It’s been a big secret for a while. They’ve been working on it since the fall, but I joined the rehearsals in January. The boys and girls are sexy and fun and to come in and not just host but perform alongside them [is amazing],” he said.

This also means Shangela might not be coming to Dallas as often as she used to … and bitch owes me a sushi dinner at Steel!

“Yes, I’m in a condo on The Strip,” he said. “This is my first time being in one place for this long and doing five shows a night, so the adjustment has been an adventure in itself. I was just on Bravo’s Watch What Happens Live with J.Lo and I told her during one of the breaks, ‘You know we’re neighbors — we’re showgirls together.” Shangela will also be making guest appearances on the new season RuPaul’s Drag Race, which kicks off Monday.

53X will be performed in the Chateau Nightclub and Rooftop. Opening night is March 11, with performances Wednesday–Sunday. Tickets are just $29.95 ($49.95 for VIP). It’s scheduled for just 90 minutes, “but if they let me loose on that mike we might be there three hours!” Congrats, Shangela!

—  Tammye Nash

Take a stand

Je suis français
‘inna aleiraqi
‘inna lubnani
Today, we need to all realize that we are all HUMAN. We must stand with Paris. We must stand with Bagdad. We must stand with Beirut.
We must all stand together, and we must all stand against extremism and violence, in all their forms.


3 Flags

—  Tammye Nash

The thoughts and prayers of the world are with France


—  Tammye Nash

Paris restaurant owner denies anti-gay rant but admits Chick-fil-A promotion

A tipster over in Paris (Texas, that is) alerted us to this thread which accuses a restaurant owner in the East Texas town of making “anti-gay hate speech publicly.” The thread provides few concrete details of the allegation, but here’s the first comment:

Those present who heard it were shocked at the homophobic rant that he launched into, hate speech rhetoric such as “fa**ots are taking over everywhere”. Gay and lesbian community- of which HE HAD SEVERAL GOOD CUSTOMERS- will now be boycotting the establishment…

Read all 120 subsequent responses for yourself if you have time, but the restaurant owner, Drew Crawford of Crawford’s Hole in the Wall, told Instant Tea it’s not true.

“It sounds to me like somebody just had a grudge and like they started up something,” said Crawford, who’s owned the restaurant a block from the Lamar County Courthouse for the last 10 years. “Somebody says I made a speech bashing gays. It’s not true. I’ve never bashed anybody.”

Crawford did, however, acknowledge that this summer, at the height of the Chick-fil-A controversy, his restaurant offered free lunches to people who presented receipts from the chicken chain. He said an employee posted the promotion on the restaurant’s Facebook page — and we found the above photo on Flickr of the promotion advertised in chalk on an exterior door of the restaurant.

Crawford compared it to other periodic promotions, such as  free lunch for anyone who works in a hospital. Because the nearest Chick-fil-A is in Sherman, he said the restaurant gave away only one lunch valued at $7. Crawford said he believes marriage is between a man and a woman. But he said he doesn’t hate gay people, he has regular customers who are gay, and everyone is welcome in his restaurant regardless of sexual orientation.

“Do I like Chick-fil-A? Yes. do I like waffle fries? Yes. Am I married to a woman? Yes. Do I have kids? Yes. Everybody’s got their opinions,” Crawford said.

“Do I support gay rights or whatever? No, I don’t, and there’s nothing wrong with that, just like if the gay community doesn’t support something we do, there’s nothing wrong with that,” Crawford said. “Somebody just states their opinion, and then you turn it into, ‘I hate queers and hate faggots.’ … There’s never been a speech. There’s never been nothing.”

Or at least nothing we can verify at this point other than a promotion supporting a company that’s funneled millions to anti-gay hate groups over the last few years.

—  John Wright

1st of 3 suspects in brutal anti-gay hate crime in Reno, Texas, sentenced to 8 years in prison


Victim Burke Burnett is shown after the attack.

James Mitchell Laster

One of three suspects in a brutal anti-gay hate crime in East Texas in October has been sentenced to eight years in prison.

James Mitchell Laster, 33, pleaded guilty to aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and was sentenced to eight years in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice on Thursday, Feb. 23, a representative from the Lamar County District Clerk’s Office confirmed today.

Lamar County District Attorney Gary Young was in a jury trial and unavailable for comment this afternoon, according to his office. However, Young told the Paris News last week that Laster also “pled true to the hate crime allegation.” Young said Laster must serve a minimum of four years before he’s eligible for parole.

Laster was one of three suspects charged with multiple counts of aggravated assault, in addition to hate crime enhancements, in the beating of 26-year-old Burke Burnett.

Burnett, who’s gay, suffered second-degree burns and needed more than 30 stitches following the attack at a private Halloween party in Reno, a small town just east of Paris and 100 miles northeast of Dallas, in the early morning hours of Oct. 30.

Burnett said his three attackers yelled anti-gay slurs as they sucker-punched him in the eye, stabbed him in the back and arm with a broken beer bottle, and threw him onto a lit burn barrel. The case made national news after graphic photos of Burnett’s injuries were posted on Dallas Voice’s website.

Burnett, who now reportedly lives in Houston, couldn’t immediately be reached for comment this afternoon.

The other two suspects in the attack, 25-year-old Micky Joe Smith of Brookston, and 33-year-old Daniel Shawn Martin of Paris, are awaiting trial, according to online Lamar County court records.

Laster was initially charged with one count of aggravated assault causing serious bodily injury, hate crime, repeat offender; and two counts of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, hate crime, repeat offender. The other charges reportedly were dropped in exchange for Laster’s guilty plea. Aggravated assault is a second-degree felony punishable by two to 20 years in prison. However, the hate crime designation could have enhanced the charge to a first-degree felony, punishable by life in prison.

—  John Wright

Gay man stabbed with broken beer bottle, thrown onto fire in apparent hate crime in Reno, TX

Burke Burnett says he was punched in the eye, stabbed with a broken beer bottle and thrown onto a lit burn barrel early Sunday at a party in Reno, Texas. View more photos of Burnett's injuries below.

UPDATE: Three suspects have been arrested in connection with this crime. Read more here.

A 26-year-old gay man says he was the victim of a brutal hate crime early Sunday in Reno, Texas — a small town just east of Paris and about 100 miles northeast of Dallas.

Burke Burnett said he was at a private party at about 1 a.m. when four men suddenly attacked him, stabbing him at least twice with a broken beer bottle before throwing him onto a fire. His attackers yelled things like “pussy-ass faggot,” “gay bitch” and “cock-sucking punk,” Burnett said.

Burnett said it took 30 stitches to close stab wounds to his back and forearm, as well as a cut above his left eye. He also sustained second-degree burns and severe bruises.

“They knew I was gay,” Burnett said Monday. “I’m convinced they were trying to kill me.”

Jeff Sugg, interim chief of the Reno Police Department, released a statement Monday afternoon saying: “The Reno Police Department is currently investigating an aggravated assault that took place last weekend. The investigation is ongoing and additional information will be provided when available.”

Reno police officials declined to further discuss their investigation.

Burnett said the officer investigating the case told him the attack will be classified as a hate crime. But Burnett said his attackers, whose identities are known, remain at large, and the officer told him it could be two weeks before they’re arrested.

“I’m scared for my life,” Burnett said, adding that he’s staying with a family friend. “I’m scared to go home. These guys have nothing to lose.”

—  John Wright

President Obama appoints 1st male, 1st openly gay White House social secretary

Jeremy Bernard (Photo by Karen Ocamb)

Jeremy Bernard, a native Texan formerly on staff at the U.S. Embassy in Paris, today became the first male AND the first openly gay person to serve as social secretary in the White House,according to this report in the Los Angeles Times.

Bernard worked in the financial industry in California and was a consultant for Obama’s 2008 campaign. He also served on the LGBT Advisory Committee for the L.A. County Sheriff’s Office, the L.A. Police Department and the mayor’s office. And he’s done work on behalf of A.N.G.L.E — Access Now for Gay and Lesbian Equality — and the National Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund.

In appointing Bernard, President Obama said, “Jeremy shares our vision for the White House as the People’s House, one that celebrates our history and culture in dynamic and inclusive ways.”

—  admin

Paris Hilton in Vegas Coke Bust

PARIS HILTON X390 (GETTY) | ADVOCATE.COMParis Hilton was arrested for cocaine possession Friday night in Las Vegas, her third drug-related incident this summer. Daily News

—  John Wright

Gay Texan may be last villain on 'Law & Order'

Ash Christian
Ash Christian

It was a bit stunning earlier this month when NBC announced unceremoniously it was canceling “Law & Order” after an amazing, record-tying 20 seasons as the longest-running primetime drama series, along with “Gunsmoke.” Well, the final guy to die on “Gunsmoke” was famously Gary Busey; it may be that the final bad guy ever on “L&O” will be Ash Christian.

Ash is an actor and director who was born and raised in Paris, Texas. He debuted with “Fat Girls,” which was a festival hit, and is in post on his second directorial effort, “Mangus and, if the episode plays out as hoped, he could also be one of the final actors to appear on “L&O.”

I’ll be TiVo’ing it. Maybe Ash could become the next Busey … you know, with an Oscar nomination, not horrific mug shots and embarrassing character parts into his dotage.

siteконтекстная реклама работа

—  Arnold Wayne Jones