Dinker is Dead

Dinker’s real name was Harold Davey Cassell. Craig Cohen, the publisher of Powerhouse Books that published “Like A Thief’s Dream”, forwarded me a voice mail last night with a note saying someone had left me a message. The recorded voice was a heavy mid Texas accent, an accent just like Dinker’s. It was Dinker’s cousin. You could tell from his voice he was very anxious to speak with me.
“Maybe Dinker died,” I said to Nancy.
I hadn’t seen Dinker in years. My last visit was to the South Arkansas Tucker Unit where Dinker was imprisoned. I took my daughter Rebecca with me, then a projectionist in Chicago, just so she could have the experience of visiting someone in a maximum security unit. I recall having to walk back to our car in the parking lot to leave a handkerchief. Security didn’t want me to bring it inside.
It was a pleasant visit, what the prison called a contact visit. We sat around a table with some vending machines we were free to use. I made microwave popcorn. At the time Dinker had been in custody for twenty-seven years. In 1979 he was convicted of murder, the murder of a young Arkansas policeman. He wasn’t guilty. He wasn’t even in the state when the policeman was murdered. But he was with “the Renton gang” the night before, plotting a burglary which he never took part in. Instead he went off to rob a Piggly Wiggly grocery store with his partner, skipped that and drove to a motel in Oklahoma. None of this seemed to matter at his trial. Dinker refused to testify against his fall partner, Renton, and he refused to take the stand at his own trial. He had been in prison ever since.
On an earlier visit I had with him in Tucker, the same max unit Renton had escaped from, they brought him out in chains. Nancy and I spoke to him through a heavy metal screen, and when he turned to Nancy and said, “The most amazing thing about your husband is that he is not in jail. ” I thought it was the highest compliment I’ve ever been paid.
Later I went inside the Tucker Chapel to film Dinker for my film “Murderers.” https://vimeo.com/280011607
He had it set up so I’d be left alone in the chapel with his two good friends, Pinky Sheridan and Mojo Rhodes, both of whom were also in for murder . My dog Sam , an eighty pound Australian Shepard, was outside in the parking lot, and the men went to a slit window in the chapel to watch him run back and forth. Tucker was a prison farm with men out in the fields all day, guards watching over them from horseback. Dinker never worked outside. He was a teacher. When I came into the chapel he was sitting on a bench with a prisoner that was illiterate. Dinker was teaching him to read. The prisoner was fifty years old. When I finished Murderers I ran a title at the end that said Dinker was innocent. When I spoke to Dinker about the amount of time he had already served, he said, “Oh, there’s a black guy back there that’s been here for forty years.” That was fourteen years ago. This year it would have been forty years for Dinker. He didn’t make it.
Its really hard to get a person out of prison. That they are innocent doesn’t seem to make much difference. There are many wonderful groups such as the Innocence Project that do just that. https://www.innocenceproject.org . But if DNA isn’t involved in the case, they’re not much they can do.

(Caption: Dinker with Pinkie and Mojo in the Tucker Prison chapel, during the filming of murderers.)

When you know someone in prison, its like a part of you is in prison too. You write letters and get letters back. You can accept collect phone calls from them at extremely overpriced Verizon rates. You visit if you can, sometimes through a wire screen or sometimes in a room. But as the years go by its hard to keep up the friendship. Your life goes on, but the person that is locked up just stays locked up. Usually in the same place, with the same friends, sometimes in the same room. And then one day you get a message. Where do you want the authorities to send a box? They left you everything they owned, it was under their bed.

I don’t know where Dinker is buried. I don’t even know if they buried him. His cousin said he was cremated. His cousin didn’t know why they didn’t tell me he was dead. They didn’t tell him either. And it doesn’t really matter that Dinker was innocent. Lots of people like Dinker die in prison. Thousands and thousands of old people are kept there until they die. It never used to and doesn’t have to be that way. In Texas in the 1970’s you could discharge a life sentence in twelve years flat. I had friends that did that. One of them murdered two people, was released after nine years and has never committed another crime. Charlie Lowe beat a sadistic prison guard to death with a bat, was discharged in twelve years, and has been a solid citizen ever since. What is the matter with us? Do we know the word forgiveness? Do we know the word mercy? Do we even know what they mean? Let us open the gates. Let them out. And then let them vote.

https://bleakbeauty.com/2010/03/15/danny-lyon-like-a-thiefs-dream-signed-copies-for-sale/thiefsdream/

 

Glenn Gustofson and Don Moss, on the right, both paroled out of Life sentences, in less than twelve years. Renton, on the right, died in the Santa Fe Unit of the New Mexico State Prison. The picture was made by Robert Frank with Lyon’s Leica in 1969.

Comments
4 Responses to “Dinker is Dead”
  1. Glenn Gustafson says:

    Danny was allowed to roam around with his camera at The Walls in Huntsville. He easily became friendly with a lot of convicts, some of whom were doing long sentences.

  2. Scott McGrath says:

    I’m Scott Mcgrath, I’m Dinkers son, it took me 3 days just to get a call back from the Chaplin’s office at the prison to let me know he had passed. His remains were sent to me.. at Christmas my mother and my sister split Dinkers ashes, and he is with people who loved him and missed him. I wish he could have got released and been given a chance to show the world his love and passion!!! But to have a piece of him with me after so long has been a great source of peace to me and my family.

  3. Aryan says:

    May he rest in peace. It’s so sad to die in prison. Especially if the person is innocent or wrongfully accused.

  4. Peter says:

    It’s very heartbreaking if someone died while in prison. It’s very rare for someone to not feel lonely while prison. According to research, the second leading cause of death in prison is suicide. This reflects how stressful or lonely to be in prison. Rest in peace to Mr. Dinker.

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