The photo is shocking: A massive sea turtle lies dead in the back of a pickup truck, its speckled front flippers so big they stretched far beyond the width of the vehicle. A chain is wrapped around its neck, and its bear-sized head, which looks injured, hangs limply over the open tailgate. On the back of the picture someone has scrawled “giant turtle in back of truck, 1954.”
I had stumbled across the image while looking through photos belonging to my grandfather Vic, who died when I was ten. It wasn’t clear if he caught the turtle himself or, as I hoped, had merely come across the strange scene while fishing at his shack on the Intercoastal Waterway, a channel that runs along the Gulf Coast. In Corpus Christi, Texas, where my family is from, the Intercoastal is better known as the Laguna Madre, a shallow, hypersaline body of water that slices off the mainland from Padre Island. On warm days during low tide, the Laguna Madre stinks, her mudflats bubbling up rotting remnants of the sea. When I drive over the JFK Causeway, leaving the rest of Texas behind, it’s this smell that tells me I am home.
My father never had much good to say about Vic, but his love of nature deeply influenced me as a child wandering around his South Texas farm. I knew he had been a complicated man — even violent at times — and when I found the photo, I had been researching his life and trying to wrap my head around the dissonance. This possible new wrinkle in his story somehow crossed a line for me: I wasn’t prepared to accept my grandfather as someone who claimed to love nature, yet killed a dinosaur-sized sea turtle.
No one in my family had any memories of the photo, which led me on a research trip to the historical archives at the central Corpus Christi library, a four-hour drive from my home in Austin. I spent a day there digging through anything labeled “sea turtle.” Amid gruesome magazine recipes for turtle soup (“Simply decapitate the turtle, hack off the flippers and shell and cook the meat for seven hours…”), I found a newspaper article from 1954 headlined “West Texans Catch Turtle.” The photo showed two men standing on either side of a truck, each hoisting up the front flipper of a half-ton turtle whose head hung down, a chain wrapped around its neck. The similarity was undeniable. Right away I noticed another important detail: The two men looked nothing like my grandfather. I felt a strange relief: A sea turtle was dead, but my grandfather wasn’t the culprit.
“It’s hasn’t yet been decided whether C.M. Ward of Idalou and Billy McClaran of Lorenzo made a ‘catch’ or a ‘kill,’ but one thing’s for certain: They’ll never find anything like what they bagged in any West Texas stock tank,” began the article in the Corpus Christi Caller. “They hooked the turtle, then shot it in the head with a shotgun.”
The article didn’t name the species, but just like in my grandfather’s photo, it’s obviously a leatherback. The largest turtle species in the world, leatherbacks can weigh up to two thousand pounds. They get their name from their flexible, ridged carapaces that contract and expand, allowing them to dive deeper than nearly all other marine animals. Abundant as late as the 1950s — a newspaper article from then described a nearshore gathering of more than a hundred mature leatherbacks feasting on a thick wave of cabbage-head jellyfish — they would face near-extinction in the subsequent decades, a future even more precarious than other sea turtle species, largely due to their enormous size.
Like any child of the beach, I loved sea turtles, but I never saw them in Texas as a kid. I simply thought they didn’t exist in the Gulf of Mexico, or were maybe even mythical. As an adult, fortunately, I have accidentally (and joyously) swum with them several times, in Texas waters and beyond. In those brief, incredible moments, they were either green sea turtles or olive ridleys. Never a leatherback, the gentle giant of the sea.
This was all basically good news about Vic, but the turtle in the photo wasn’t done with me yet.
“So awful! The turtle was shot in the head!” I told my husband the evening after my library trip. I snapped my mouth shut, realizing I had said something similar all my life about Vic’s youngest son, my Uncle Steven. Before one of my friends met him, I’d always quickly tell his story.
“He can’t talk very much, but he understands you,” I’d say. “A long time ago, when I was a baby, he was shot in the head right here.” I’d point to the spot between my eyebrows. “He’s kind of a miracle, really.”
“Man in Speeding Auto Shot During Chase” the next-day headline said. I was not quite two years old when it happened. The details from that night are unclear, but according to the article in The Austin American-Statesman, it started with a confrontation in the parking lot of a dive bar.
Everyone was drunk. Words were exchanged. There might have been a scuffle. My Uncle Steven, twenty-one at the time, got into a car with his friends and either chased or was chased by the guy with whom they had been arguing. As they sped down Ben White Boulevard in South Austin, the two cars pulled alongside each other. A man in the other car pulled out a 9mm Luger and shot twice into Steven’s vehicle. One bullet went through the cheek of his friend; the other hit Steven between the eyes.
"One second [the gun] was there, and a second later it was over," the article quoted my uncle's friend as saying.
Just like that, nothing was ever the same. Doctors told my family that if Steven lived he would likely be a "vegetable”— the callous term to describe someone with an active brain stem, but not much else.
While he slowly healed over the days and weeks, the Steven that emerged was far from a vegetable: He was not paralyzed and had retained his vision. But the bullet macerated the part of his brain that controlled speech and communication, which was the biggest and most noticeable impact. And there were many other damages: He lost his sense of smell and the hearing in one ear, struggled with things like fine motor skills, short-term memory and executive functioning, had far less energy than before, and had seizures that required lifelong medication with its own serious side effects.
"What is your beef with us?” was the last full sentence he spoke.
The alleged assailant was a man named John Michael Lemmon. At thirty-one years old, he already had a long rap sheet, largely due to his identity as “The Enforcer” in the Bandidos, a violent motorcycle gang that still wreaks havoc today. According to newspaper reports at the time, Lemmon was found in Arizona several days later and charged with attempted murder.
And then the headlines related to the case abruptly stopped: There was never any trial, never any sentencing. By the time I was old enough to ask what happened, my family had moved on. In fact, I hadn’t thought about the shooter much at all until I recently stumbled across the leatherback in Vic’s photo.
This strange coincidence with the turtle that had been shot in the head finally galvanized me to ask my Aunt Linda, Steven’s older sister, why no one went to prison for the crime. She and my grandmother Vera had sat vigil in the days after Steven was shot. Linda said the police kept calling for updates: Was he dead? Was it time to change the charge to murder? When Steven’s friends found out the shooter was a Bandido named The Enforcer, they approached Linda and Vera with a request: to drop the charges. They were terrified of what the Bandidos might do if the case went to trial. Because the police agreed that homicidal retaliation was a real risk, and that Lemmon would likely be in prison for other reasons, Linda said OK.
This turned out to be a wise decision. A year later, while Lemmon was in federal prison for an unrelated explosives and weapons charge, he escaped days before he and several other Bandidos were to be questioned in connection with the 1979 murder of a U.S. district court judge and the attempted murder of an assistant U.S. attorney. After his escape, it took a dozen state and federal agencies to find him. When they did, he jumped onto his motorcycle and took his pursuers on a seventy-mile chase through the Arizona desert before crashing.
Steven’s then-girlfriend and future wife, my Aunt Martha, told me she has mixed feelings about whether the charges should have been dropped. At the time, she wasn’t included in the family decisions regarding Steven’s shooter. After Steven was released from the hospital, she was his primary caregiver. She often wondered why the police never contacted Steven, but eventually, she had to focus her efforts on Steven getting better. He had steep medical bills and a lifetime of therapeutic care in front of him.
Two months before Steven was shot, a new federal law set aside a large swath of critical habitat for the leatherbacks in the U.S. Virgin Islands. It was the first step of many required to overcome the enormous threats to their survival, which included (and still include) degradation of nesting and hatchling habitat; marine pollution and debris; over-harvesting of their eggs and meat; accidental bycatch in commercial fishing; and watercraft collisions.
One other thing that has helped, at least in the U.S.: Harming a sea turtle is a criminal act punishable by a fine up to $100,000 and a year in prison.
When I was growing up, Steven joined us a few times at the beach, a place where he had also spent a lot of time as a child, trailing behind Vic. On our beach visits, I remember how he loved to stand motionless and let the wet sand slowly absorb his feet. He’d sink into the sand, holding his Big Gulp while he leaned sideways, pretending everything was normal as he defied gravity.
“I mean uh, I mean uh…ZZ Top,” I remember him saying once after he spotted a bumper sticker on one of the cars driving down the beach. “Long time ago, Corpus Christi, you know, I mean, I like music.” Martha walked over, ready to help. By that point, they had devised a communication system in which Steven would rapidly spell words out in the air with his forefinger, and she’d say aloud what he had spelled. It sometimes took a long time, and only the two of them knew how to do it, but it worked. It was transfixing to watch.
“Oh, you started listening to ZZ Top when you were in high school?” she asked.
“Yeah. I mean, long beard, like me,” he added, chuckling and pointing to his much-shorter but still impressive beard.
He lost a lot of things, but never the ability to laugh.
Even with modern medical care today, only about ten percent of people shot in the head will live. These survivors almost always face serious permanent disability and a lifetime of expensive, exhaustive rehabilitation. As Steven shows, though, they are not a lost cause.
The same is true when it comes to saving an endangered species. It takes tedious, expensive efforts that must stay in place indefinitely, girded by smart laws and smart science. While arduous, it does help, as evidenced by a recent report in the Herpetological Review, titled “DERMOCHELYS CORIACEA (Leatherback Sea Turtle). REPRODUCTION.”
In contrast to the quippy 1954 newspaper article celebrating the “catch or kill” of a mature leatherback, the report documents the painstaking retrieval and incubation process of a large nest of what were thought to be ninety-seven green sea turtle eggs found on South Padre Island in 2021. After they hatched, the scientific team discovered they were baby leatherbacks. Ten of the ninety-seven ultimately survived and were released into the Gulf of Mexico when they were large enough. While this may seem like a low survival rate, the scientists were pleased, ending the report on a promising if understated note: “We anticipate additional nesting by D. coriacea in Texas.”
When I was five years old, Steven married Martha in my parents’ scrubby South Texas backyard. I threw heat-wilted flowers on the path before the bride and groom, who stood in front of our turquoise above-ground pool to say their vows. It had been nearly three years since the shooting. By then, “I do” was a phrase Steven could easily say.
In 2012, Steven died of metastatic colon cancer. In those final years, Facebook became an invaluable way for him to reconnect with the world before he left it. He typed as he spoke. When Martha shared an old photo of him with his niece, he commented “Sara was tiny long time of goes! Steven, big 6" tall & 275 weights. Sara little & Steven big.”
In my wallet, I keep a business card he had printed up with the logo from the Texas Head Injury Association. Steven “SQUATCH” Victory it says, the nickname he gave himself, short for Sasquatch. As his obituary said, he was indeed a “big, strong, gentle guy” who “persevered against enormous odds and survived a life-threatening injury.”
My daughter Adela, born the year after Steven died, will never truly know how unique he was, though I talk to her about him, his injury and how it affected the rest of his life. His gentle spirit is important to keep alive in my heart, and to pass on to her.
It is no different for my love of the ocean, even though we live hours away. On a recent weekend trip back home, she and I swam in the waters of Padre Island on a clear, calm day. A blue crab scurried after a school of ribbonfish shimmying in the green water. As we watched a pelican nosedive toward the school, a large brown blur moved toward us, seemingly also on the hunt. We stood still, silent, watching. I whispered: “Is it a flounder, a stingray or …”
“A SEA TURTLE!” We yelled when it came up for air, terrifying the turtle, who quickly darted back underwater. Though it was a more common green sea turtle, and not a leatherback, the sighting was heart-stopping for both of us. We held hands and waited, hoping she’d return.
A few seconds later, in the blue distance, she surfaced, took another breath, kicked her flippers hard, and dove into the ocean’s netherworld, hungry for life.
Joy Victory is the managing editor of HealthyHearing.com and lives in Austin, TX. She is currently working on a memoir set in her hometown of Corpus Christi. Most recently, her writing has been published in the literary magazine Montana Mouthful, and she's also been published in a wide variety of media, including Cosmopolitan magazine, Vice News, ABCNEWS.com, and others.