AMARILLO, TX — At about 11 P.M. on December 12, 1997, tragedy came to the parking lot of Amarillo’s International House of Pancakes restaurant.
Local teenage contingencies of “jocks” and “punks” had been brawling throughout the previous months (and maybe even years), but tension reached a volcanic point this particular Friday evening, as the usual fisticuffs turned lethal.
After breaking free of the fight, 17-year-old high school football star Dustin Camp took off and climbed into his Cadillac — which he’d been accused a week earlier of attempting to intentionally plow into a group of punk rockers.
This time, though, Camp appeared at first to be driving away, but, instead, he swung the car around, floored the gas, and ran down Brian Deneke. In front of the shocked crowd, then, the 19-year-old, green-Mohawked, leather-jacketed Deneke died on the spot.
Camp did not go to the police. He returned home, told his parents what happened, and they told him to go to sleep, that they’d handle the whole mess in the morning.
When cops showed up to arrest Camp several hours later, he immediately claimed the impact happened by accident, and that he had just been racing back to the melee to help a friend that Deneke was pummeling.
But a multitude of witnesses claimed otherwise — including his best friend, Elise Thompson, who had been seated in the back of the Cadillac as it killed Brian Deneke.
Thompson testified against her former friend, stating that as Camp sped toward Deneke “with his tires screeching,” he announced:
“I’m a ninja in my Caddy!”
After the car slammed Deneke, Thompson also said Camp declared, “I bet he liked that one!”
Later that Saturday, Amarillo Police charged Justin Camp with first-degree murder.
Local conservative teens known as “white hats” rushed to support Camp, just as the town’s population devoted to punk rock, heavy metal, goth, and/or industrial music — the “freaks” — mourned their fallen comrade Deneke.
Each youth loomed large in their respective subcultural communities. Camp was a “clean-cut” honor student, “devoted Christian,” and an accomplished athlete at football-loving Tacosa High School.
In contrast, Deneke was a tattooed high school dropout who played abrasive music, participated in art pranks, and mounted punk shows at a venue called Bomb City.
As the case headed to trial, the divisions that tore the teenagers apart expanded and engulfed many of Amarillo’s adults as well.
Defense attorney Warren L. Clark attacked Deneke’s character, dredging up a previous fight as a Boy Scout and an arrest for throwing a cinderblock through a car window. In the courtroom, Clark also painted Deneke an “armed goon” and the other punks as “drunk goons,” proclaiming:
“This is not a case about diversity or tolerance or judging people by the way they dress. This case is about a gang of young men who chose a lifestyle, unorthodox as it is, designed to intimidate those around them, challenge authority, and provoke reaction from others.”
Clark also said that Camp’s use of his Cadillac was justified, since he believed his buddy’s life was in danger, later stating:
“The law allows the use of a deadly weapon in defense of a third person, but only in the situation where deadly force is being used against the third person.”
The jury bought it — for the most part. Rather than murder, the 12 men and women of different races convicted Dustin Camp of voluntary manslaughter. He got 10 years probation and a $10,000 fine.
The entire episode shook Amarillo to the core, and it continues to cast a long shadow over the city. As Mayor Kel Seliger said at the time:
“It was not a community verdict. It was 12 people.”
For his part, Dustin Camp was not able to stay out of trouble. In 2001, he got picked up for underage drinking and other parole violations and landed an eight-year prison sentence. He was paroled in 2005.
In the years since Brian Deneke’s death, numerous documentaries and media explorations of the case have cropped up, including an MTV production, Criminal: Punks vs. Preps.
In February 2018, Bomb City, an acclaimed narrative film about the incident, opened in theaters.
Mike Deneke, Brian’s father, praised the movie not just for its dramatic presentation of the facts, but for its being balanced. He said that while Dustin Camp is shown clearly doing wrong, “It didn’t make Brian and his friends out to be angels of any kind.”
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Main photos: Brian Deneke [Wikipedia]; Dustin Camp [Randall County Sheriff’s Department]