When the mutilated and partially dismembered body of Brandon McClelland, a 24-year-old black man, turned up lying in the middle of a rural east Texas road one morning last month, the police immediately pronounced the case a hit-and-run by an unknown driver.

Within a few days, however, suspicions turned toward two white friends who had picked up McClelland in their truck a few hours before he was found dead early on Sept. 16. Despite signs that the truck had been washed, authorities discovered blood and other physical evidence on the undercarriage and arrested the two men, both with long criminal histories, for murder.

Now this small, racially divided town--already seared with a racist label by civil rights groups last year over differences in how blacks and whites were treated by the local justice system--is on edge yet again, wondering if it's got a horrific new hate crime on its hands.

The district attorney insists race had nothing to do with McClelland's death and police investigators are portraying the case as an apparent falling-out among friends.

But McClelland's relatives and Paris civil rights leaders are less certain. Citing the violence done to McClelland's body and reports that one of the alleged assailants, Shannon Finley, had white supremacist ties, they are demanding that Paris authorities investigate the case as a possible hate crime akin to the infamous 1998 lynching of James Byrd Jr., in Jasper, Texas, 250 miles south of here.

Byrd was dragged to his death behind a pickup truck by three white supremacists who were later convicted of murder. McClelland was walking in front of the pickup when Finley, 27, and a friend, Charles Ryan Crostley, 27, who was also arrested, allegedly ran him down and then dragged him 40 feet along the road until his mutilated body popped out from beneath the chassis, according to a police affidavit accompanying the warrant for Finley's arrest.

"If you take somebody out to the country like that in the middle of the night and do that to him in that way, that's how they do black people around here," said Brenda Cherry, a local activist working with McClelland's family. "To me, it smells like Jasper."

Paris' race relations came under withering national scrutiny last year after the Tribune reported the case of Shaquanda Cotton, a 14-year-old African-American youth who was sentenced by a local judge to up to seven years in a youth prison for shoving a hall monitor at her high school. Just three months earlier, the same judge had sentenced a 14-year-old white girl to probation after convicting her of the more serious crime of arson for burning down her family's house.

The discrepancy in the treatment of the two teenagers provoked protests from national civil rights groups and led to Cotton's early release from prison. Now McClelland's family fears that Paris officials, eager to protect their city of 26,000 from another round of negative publicity over race relations, are purposefully downplaying potential racial overtones in McClelland's murder.

"At the crime scene, it looked like these boys went back and poured beer on my son's body," said Jacqueline McClelland, Brandon's mother. "Two beer cans were lying out there, but the police didn't even pick them up, they just left evidence out there. They won't even consider the racial issues. That's the way it is in Paris."

Even the editor of the local newspaper, normally an impassioned defender of Paris' reputation, has cautioned law enforcement officials to be thorough and "leave no stone unturned" in their investigation.

"Hopefully, this community has learned from its past," Mary Madewell wrote in the Paris News. "... Even if our worst fears prove to be true, let us realize that the actions of single individuals should in no way bring condemnation to an entire community."

Family members and other critics are also concerned about the impartiality of Lamar County District Atty. Gary Young, who five years ago, before he was elected prosecutor, served as Finley's court-appointed defense attorney when Finley pleaded guilty to manslaughter for shooting a friend to death.

Young has declined to state whether he will recuse himself and other prosecutors in his office from handling the McClelland case.

Although the victim in Finley's 2003 manslaughter case was white, race played a role in the incident. Finley told police he was sitting in a pickup with his friend in a park when two gun-wielding black men supposedly walked up alongside and tried to rob them. Finley said he grabbed his friend's handgun and fired at the robbers, but instead shot his friend.

An autopsy determined that the victim suffered three gunshot wounds to the head, but the district attorney at the time accepted Finley's contention that the shooting was an accident and offered him a plea bargain on a reduced manslaughter charge. Finley served three years of a 4-year prison sentence. The alleged robbers were never found.

That manslaughter case also tied Finley and McClelland closely together. McClelland furnished a false alibi for Finley, testifying before a grand jury that Finley was with him at the time the shooting occurred. That lie under oath earned McClelland a conviction for aggravated perjury, for which he served two years in prison.

Largely because of that connection between McClelland and Finley, police discount the possibility that race played a part in McClelland's death. "I don't see how it was racial, being as how they were good friends," said Stacy McNeal, the Texas Ranger who is the lead investigator on the case.

But McClelland's relatives say they have heard that Finley fell in with white supremacists while in prison and that he had grown upset over Brandon's overtures to a white girl--factors they say the police ought to investigate.

"I always told Brandon that Finley was bad news and he should stay away from him," said Ervin Barry, a friend of McClelland's. "But Brandon thought they were good friends."

Race relations in Paris, Texas: An update

SHAQUANDA COTTON: The black high school freshman whose sentence of up to seven years in prison for shoving a school hall monitor drew national scrutiny to the town's justice system was released from prison in March 2007. Now 17, she is studying for her GED certificate and hopes to attend junior college.

TASK FORCE: Citizens concerned about racial fissures in town exposed by the Cotton case convened a local Diversity Task Force, which has held several meetings and last month hosted a community-wide block party attended by several hundred residents.

INVESTIGATION: The U.S. Department of Education last month concluded a two-year investigation of allegedly discriminatory disciplinary policies in the Paris public schools. The agency said it found "insufficient evidence to support a conclusion" that black students were being disciplined more harshly than whites.

hwitt@tribune.com