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A Town Torn Apart

updated 08/14/2000 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/14/2000 AT 01:00 AM EDT

The men had known each other since early grade school and shared a special affinity for their hometown of Burkesville (pop. 1,800), a quiet treasure of a place set amid the splendor of Kentucky's Cumberland Mountains. But there the similarities ended between Fred Capps, 46, the town's popular prosecutor, and Eddie Vaughn, 49, a lifelong troublemaker with a violent temper. It wasn't that the two men were ever on a collision course, just that if their paths did cross, there was destined to be an explosion.

That moment came right after dawn on Monday, June 5, when Vaughn, who was to face charges of child molestation in court that same day, shot his way into the Burkesville home of Capps, who was prosecuting the case. Armed with an assault rifle, Vaughn confronted Capps, who emerged from the first-floor master bedroom with his .357 Magnum, ready to defend himself and his wife, Cathy, 42, and their two children. In the fierce exchange of gunfire that followed, both men collapsed, mortally wounded. "You could say that they died as they lived," says David Williams, 47, a lawyer and a friend of Capps's who had known both men since childhood. "Fred Capps was a leader, a hero. Eddie Vaughn was the town bully."

Around Burkesville, where many families go back generations, no one symbolized the stability and virtues of the town better than Capps and Cathy. Both had been born there. Fred's mother and father, Roy, 75, and Delcie, 71, both retired factory workers, still live in Burkesville. Fred and Cathy's home, where they lived with their son John, 16, and daughter Lydia, 11, is the same one that Cathy grew up in from the age of 8. Cathy and Fred had started going out when she was 14 and he 18. "We just clicked," she says, "and then it grew." They wed two years later and eventually attended law school together at Northern Kentucky University's Chase College of Law. "We bought one set of books and had every class together," says Cathy. "It was a wonderful time."

The couple knew they wanted to return to Burkesville to raise their family. They joined the same law practice there in 1982, and 12 years later Fred won election as the commonwealth attorney, a job that covered four counties. Cathy became his assistant. A tough prosecutor, Fred was also known as a friendly face who always had time to shoot the breeze with townsfolk. "Everyone liked him, looked up to him," says Keith Riddle, the town barber since Capps was in high school. When locals were uncertain about political candidates, "they'd come in and ask how Fred was going to vote. 'That's good enough for me,' they'd say."

The assumption was that someday soon Fred would win himself a judgeship. But as much as he loved the law, there was something that seemed to stir an even greater passion in him: baseball. In a town with few diversions for young people, he made it his mission to ensure that the local baseball complex Veteran's Park was the best that time and money could buy. Last year he spearheaded an effort to have the infields redone with pricey Alabama red clay, the same material used in the major leagues, and even paid part of the tab out of his own pocket. "He just loved being out on that baseball field, fixing it up, working with the kids," says Cathy. "He'd come into the office early, sometimes at 3 in the morning, so he could be out there by noon. That was his joy." In May the couple spent the evening of their 26th wedding anniversary at the field watching son John, a star pitcher for the Cumberland County High School Panthers, compete in the regional championship. "It was a wonderful anniversary," says Cathy, "right where we wanted to be."

But if Capps was the consummate builder, Vaughn early on seemed bent on destruction. The oldest of nine children of Versie Young, 68, and Frank Vaughn, 80, whose work as tenant farmers barely kept the family clothed and fed, Eddie was a notorious ruffian who seemed to delight in picking fights. "You heard his name, you knew it was trouble," recalls Williams, now president of the Kentucky State Senate, who was three years behind Vaughn in elementary school in Burkesville. "You saw him coming, you went the other way." Vaughn, who dropped out of school in the fourth grade, never learned to read or write and evidently lived most of his life on public assistance, handouts from relatives and odd jobs. Over the years he was arrested for public intoxication, disorderly conduct and resisting arrest.

In adulthood Vaughn directed much of his cruelty toward his own family. According to his only child, Tommie, 23, who works as a bank clerk in Louisville, Ky., Vaughn was a heavy drinker and an abusive husband who seemed to take particular pleasure in tormenting his wife of 24 years, Patricia, 39. "My childhood was spent in the house listening to how he was going to kill her," says Tommie, who left home at 16 to get away from his father. "That was an everyday occurrence." Many times, say family members, Vaughn would beat his wife if she so much as talked to another man. "She'd go to the store and he'd say she was flirting with the grocery people," says Patricia's mother, Betty Budd. "He almost killed her about five years ago, fractured her skull."

Still, Tommie, for one, is skeptical about the molestation accusation. (Vaughn was charged with two counts of sexual abuse for allegedly touching a girl younger than 12 on her chest twice through her clothing.) But Capps took the matter seriously.

Before the trial, he reportedly offered Vaughn a deal: Plead guilty and get a minimum of three years in jail. Tommie says that his father was angry because he thought the charges would be dropped and that he said he would not admit to something he didn't do. A local official says that Vaughn had offered to plead guilty and stay away from Burkesville but that the offer was rejected. "He was totally bummed out," says Tommie. "He asked me if Capps would have had to okay the plea bargain. And I told him yeah."

Shortly before 6 a.m. on Monday, June 5, Vaughn, who was out on bail, drove to the Cappses' home on the northwest edge of town. After blasting the lock off the front door with his semiautomatic rifle, he barged into the front hall, where he encountered Capps. With Cathy looking on and kids John and Lydia in their bedrooms upstairs, Vaughn shot Capps in his right hand. Capps then shifted his .357 to his left hand, and they traded bullets from 10 feet apart. Both men fell dead. In the aftermath Cathy and Williams said he had talked about the dangers that his job posed to himself and his family. "In a small town things are personal," says Williams. "They know you and your kids. They know where you live, and they resent that someone they know has authority over them."

At the scene that day, police arrested Vaughn's wife, Patricia, and his brother James, 44, who had driven with him to the Cappses' home. They were later charged with complicity to commit murder and are in jail awaiting possible indictment. (Their cases were scheduled to go before the grand jury on Aug. 2.) But Tommie insists that his father must have forced them to go along. He argues that Eddie hated James, a logger, and that Patricia would have been afraid to oppose her husband. "She's never done a violent thing in her life," he says.

As for Cathy Capps, she was offered her late husband's old job as commonwealth attorney, but she declined. "My children need me now more than ever," she says. And she has been overwhelmed by the kindness of townsfolk. "People have been wonderful," she says. "My friends have been there for me." Yet, like everyone in Burkesville, she knows her world has been irreparably shattered. "Obviously my heart is just broken," she says. "The Lord's hand is holding me up, and all the memories and the children—all that's sustaining me."

Bill Hewitt
Margaret Nelson in Burkesville

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