After 17 months of facing a possible death sentence 20-year-old Bryan Shankle has broken his code of silence.
On his right arm are tattoos of a skull, knife and barbed wire. On his left are the words "thug in" and "In God we trust." Dressed in a jail issued orange uniform, leg irons and handcuffs, Shankle recounted his life story.
His story doesn't have a fairy tale ending; it's a story of a boy who grew up street smart and ran with a tough crowd. The boys he hung out with had a simple code -- never rat on a friend.
His favorite companion is his cousin, Bobby Woodrum, 19. Woodrum and Shankle have a special bond; they grew up close and looked out for each other. In fact, Shankle said Woodrum might be his brother, but he isn't positive.
Most of his life was spent in foster homes and institutions. He grew up all over Fulton and Izard counties -- Salem, Ash Flat, Oxford, Horseshoe Bend, Melbourne and Calico Rock were his stomping grounds.
On the rare occasions when he lived at home it was with his mother, his two brothers and sister. His father wasn't around much. His favorite uncle is Woodrum's father. He was the only person he thinks who tried to have a positive influence on his life.
He couldn't recall any special time in his life. He couldn't recount a single positive memory of his childhood, so instead he told the chain of events that led him to a future where he will grow old behind bars.
He described Woodrum as his best friend. The two boys did everything together. They depended on each other.
Sometime after the age of 6 he was placed in a foster home with his brother in Calico Rock. From there he was transferred to Arkansas Children's Hospital in Little Rock for evaluation.
He said he felt abandoned; the only two people who cared about him were his cousin and his uncle.
He couldn't recall a single time his parents attended church with him. He could not recall anyone ever telling him they loved him, nor did he remember ever receiving hugs from his family.
Before the age of 7 he moved to Florida with his mother, his stepfather, a brother and a sister.
After his youngest brother was born his mother left his stepfather and the family moved to Michigan. He said his stepfather inflicted harsh beatings on his mother and the rest of the family. Finally she left him when his brother was about 18 months old
Life wasn't any better in Michigan. He said he wasn't close to his mother because she subjected her children to numerous boyfriends. He said his mothers always put the men in her life before her own children. "It pissed me off. That was one of the reasons I was getting into trouble all the time," he added.
At the age of 8 Shankle was an accomplished thief thanks to the encouragement and skills taught to him by his mother's boyfriend. "If I didn't steal he would beat me, too," he said. Shankle said his mother stood by while he was beaten.
He remembered a time when his mother left the children for three weeks. He said they all eventually ended up in a shelter for abused women. "Her boyfriends never liked us kids," he added. Shankle said he ended up in foster care at his own request.
"I didn't talk much when I grew up," he said, because those around him told him to keep his mouth shut. At a young age he was diagnosed with depression so he didn't stay in any foster home for long.
His mother left the children alone often, he said. Since he was the oldest son it was his responsibility to watch after the others at the age of 8. "I tried to take care of everybody. I was the oldest boy. There wasn't anybody else around," he said.
He said he did pretty well in school but got into fights with other classmates. He described himself as athletic. He played football, baseball, soccer and basketball. He also enjoyed fishing and hunting.
While he was playing high school football his parents never attended a game, he said.
He couldn't recall a school teacher, counselor or social worker who went out of the way for him.
He was attending the Alternative School in Glencoe in an attempt to earn his GED but he was placed in a youth detention boot camp in Alexander after being charged with theft of property before he took the examination.
He was placed in the Serious Offenders Program during his stay in Alexander.When he turned 17 he left his last foster home in Mammoth Spring. He said his foster mother was decent to him.
Even though he has been in trouble he said he dreamed of having a wife and children. "I told myself I would be there for my kids. I didn't have a mom or dad that was there for me," he said.
The night of the homicide, June 24, 2002, is a tragedy Shankle said he will never forget. The chain of events spiraled downward. The lives of five young men will never be the same again.
The five boys went looking for trouble the night of the murder, but killing an Agnos man was not part of the plan. The plan was simple -- get some money from a man who owed Woodrum, steal a car stereo and break into a couple of coke machines, he said. But things went bad.
He regrets ever entering Fulton County, he said. His cousin regrets what happened because the victim was his friend, Shankle added.
Shankle, Woodrum and Timothy "T.J." Est had been smoking marijuana, taking methamphetamine and drinking beer the night of the crime. Est had been living with Shankle in Batesville. "I thought we (Est) were pretty good friends," he said.
He said he didn't know the other two, Billy Jack Wilson and Jesse Petty, very well.
Shankle, Woodrum and Est, along with two females, drove to Russell "Joe" Fisk's home the afternoon of the crime but Fisk was not home. Shankle said Fisk always told them never to bring females or strangers to his house.
The group returned to Batesville and Est kept talking about "jacking" someone. He said Petty and Est discussed the possibility of robbing somebody. Later that night Shankle, Woodrum, Est, Petty and Wilson drove back to Fisk's house to borrow a tire iron from the victim in order to rob a couple of vending machines.
Shankle and Woodrum entered the Fisk house and the others remained in the car, but Est walked to the road.
After about 45 minutes the other three entered the house and Fisk grabbed his gun from an unlocked filing cabinet, he said.
Shankle said he grabbed the victim's arm to keep him from shooting anyone. Both Shankle and the victim fell to the ground. Est and Petty jumped on Fisk's back and Wilson held his legs down. Est told Woodrum to give him his belt and he complied. Est placed the belt around Fisk's neck and told Petty to pull on the belt, he said. The two pulled so hard it lifted the front part of the victim's body off the floor before the belt snapped, he said.
Fisk was still conscious and fighting so Woodrum hit him in the head with the tire iron. Shankle said Est ordered Woodrum to keep hitting Fisk so he hit him three or four times, Shankle recalled.
Fisk became unconscious and the five stole items from his house, including the gun he allegedly drew on the boys. Shankle said since he had touched the gun he didn't want to leave it at the scene as evidence.
They fled from the scene but Fisk was still alive, he continued. As they were driving away from Fisk's residence Petty said the group needed to burn Fisk's house down, Shankle said. The others agreed they needed to return to the scene to get rid of any evidence they had left behind in the haste to leave, Shankle said.
They all agreed it was necessary to return to the scene but only Woodrum and Est entered the house on the return trip, Shankle said. Est could not find any gas so he told Woodrum to "stick him" (Fisk) and he did.
Shankle said when the two returned to the car Woodrum was shaking. Woodrum told Shankle he had grabbed the sharp end of the tire iron and hit Fisk in the head which killed him, Shankle said.
After leaving the scene they threw the tire iron somewhere off a bridge somewhere between Ash Flat and Batesville, he said.
They returned to Shankle's house and he told Est he needed to leave. He said he thinks Est went to a family member's house and the others went home.
But before everyone left the group discussed the possibilities of getting caught so Woodrum and Shankle agreed they would take the blame for the murder because two of the others had children, he recalled.
Shankle said when he and Woodrum agreed to take the rap for the crime they believed in their hearts they would not be charged because it was self-defense, or so they thought.
The following morning he heard that authorities were asking questions around town about the murder.
The two cousins decided to lie low and went camping at Boggy Landing in Elizabeth but were caught after three days by the Arkansas State SWAT team.
Petty, Wilson and Est were arrested June 28, 2002, in Independence County.
Charges were filed against Woodrum and Shankle for capital murder. The other three were charged with first-degree murder but charges were dropped against Wilson after he agreed to testify against the others.
The two still agreed they would not talk about the others' involvement in the murder. After all, you don't rat on anyone, Shankle said.
"We grew up, we weren't snitches. It's just the way we grew up," he added. He said he and his cousin had debated on whether to tell the truth but the code of silence kept them from telling. According to his way of thinking the fewer caught the better, and Woodrum agreed, he said.
He said he knew down the road Petty, Est and Wilson would not remember what the two had done for them but at least they had helped them out.
But the tables turned when the other suspects began confessing and laying all the blame on the two cousins.
That's when Shankle decided to tell the truth, he said. In his first statements to authorities he told investigators that he and Woodrum were responsible for the victim's death and the other three had remained in the car.
He said the whole incident would have been less complicated had they told the truth from the beginning.
Woodrum was sentenced Nov. 5 to life in prison without parole.
Shankle was sentenced Nov. 7 to 60 years in prison.
Even though he had his day in court he thinks his sentence was too harsh. "I felt like it wasn't fair because they (authorities) don't know what actually happened," he said.
When the victim's family read their statement at Shankle's court hearing Nov. 7 Circuit Judge Tim Weaver asked Shankle if he wanted to make a statement but he declined. He said after he listened to the family he didn't feel like talking because they think he played a major role in Fisk's death.
He regrets that decision now. He said he would like the family to know that he and Woodrum didn't plan it like it happened.
He said he worries about his brothers and sister; he doesn't want them to end up like him. He said he worries most about his little brother since he still lives at home with their mother.
He said he wonders what his life would have been like if the Department of Human Services had taken him, his brothers and sister from their home and found permanent homes for the four.
Shankle said he escaped some of his problems as a child by drawing. He said someday he would like to be an architect.
He found another escape -- drugs. "I wasn't in the real world then." he said.
He said since he has been incarcerated he has started reading the Bible. "I trust in God to help me," he said.
He doesn't want to be remembered as a cold blooded murderer. He said, "Most people I know can tell you that I'm not."
He has a message he wants relayed to his little brother: stay in school and keep out of trouble. "If you're in here, you can't go anywhere. You can't play with your friends." He said he would also tell him to stay away from drugs and alcohol, and not to give in to peer pressure. And choose your friends carefully, he said.