Don’t Pick Up Hitchhikers

It’s always tragic when a young man makes a bad choice and pays for his foolishness with his life. Those of us who may have momentarily strayed from the “right” path before finding our bearings on the road to manhood should look at the sad tale of Jeff Mays, whisper a prayer of thanks and say, “but for the grace of God…”
Jeffrey Leon Mays was a straight-A student until he discovered pot. Marijuana, while not physically addictive like cocaine, nicotine or methamphetamine, can cause psychological dependence in some people; some pot smokers find a special bond with the drug that makes it hard to kick.
Jeff’s marijuana use caused problems at home, and in February 1983, the 17-year-old Praco, Alabama, teen decided to run away with his high school buddy, Bee Landrum. The two of them left Alabama in Bee’s 1973 Maverick with $8, some food and a buck knife Landrum took from home.
They headed west to look for work and along the way picked up hitchhikers to help pay for gas. One of their fellow travelers, John Sly, suggested that they spend one night in the Salvation Army dorm in Lafayette, Louisiana. In the dorms, Mays, Landrum and Sly hooked up with Robert “Frenchy” Drew and his friend, Frank.
The next day, February 21, 1983, Sly left the group to sell plasma and Mays and Landrum agreed to take Frank and Drew to Franklin, Louisiana, about 30 miles from Layfayette. When the crew got to Franklin, Frank visited his bank and then treated everyone to pizza and beer. He filled the car’s tank and gave Drew $65. Mays and Landrum agreed to take Drew to Houston and they headed west.
Passing back through Lafayette, they picked up John Sly once again and continued toward Texas. Mays was driving, and everyone else was drinking beer when they picked up a fifth hitchhiker, Ernest Puralewski. After the group smoked a joint, Puralewski announced that he was “on the run” and that he had served time in prison with Charles Manson.
While Drew and Puralewski got along OK, Mays was apparently unnerved by the new hitchhiker. At a stop for gas and more beer, Drew took the keys to the car and he and Puralewski went inside. Landrum said later he noticed that they were talking and pointing at the car. He suspected that they had hatched a plan to rob the others.
The group drove on for awhile when Mays announced that he was going to stop to make a phone call. After returning to the car, he told the riders that his father had suffered a heart attack and that he intended to go back to Alabama. In fact, Mays never called home, but used the stop as a ruse to get rid of Drew and Puralewski.
Drew sucker punched Mays in the face with a closed fist and accused him of lying to avoid going to Texas. Adopting what Sly later referred to as “a mean mood,” Drew “said a prayer” for Mays’s father and convinced the teen to resume the trip.
Things had clearly changed among the travelers.
Holding a knife on Landrum, Drew said, “I ought to cut your throat in a second.” He repeated this threat to Sly, saying “I am scooter trash and I’ll cut your throat this second.”
After they had driven on for a few minutes, Drew ordered Mays to pull over. Puralewski, who had earlier borrowed Landrum’s buck knife, grabbed Sly and ordered him from the car. After they got out, Puralewski threw Sly against the trunk and demanded his money. When Landrum tried to get out after them, Drew turned to him saying, “if you try anything you are dead.”
After robbing Sly, Puralewski gave him a shove and told Sly to “get your ass out of here.”
Puralewski and Drew ordered Mays into the back seat and told Landrum to drive. Drew and Mays got in the back and Landrum later testified that Drew was hitting and punching Mays in the face and throat until his blood “splattered on the door and seat.”
Landrum also testified that Drew repeatedly told Mays that he was going to die and “told Jeff that he was bleeding on his leather jacket.” Drew wiped blood on Landrum and licked Mays’s blood off his hands, while telling him that “nobody gets blood on me for nothing.”
At this point, about 10 p.m. on February 21, Puralewski ordered Landrum to stop the car and told Drew to rob Mays. They took his wallet and watch and made him get out of the car.
Landrum testified that before the car pulled away, “Jeff said something under his breath or something like you are not going to get away with this or you are on the run or something.” His attackers got back out and forced Mays back into the car. Landrum stated that one of the men “said that he should have kept his mouth shut and now he is going to die.”
The men debated about who would kill Mays before deciding that they would both do it. Landrum was ordered to pull the car to the side of an access road on I-10, where they pulled their victim out of the right side of the car.
Watching through the rear view mirror, Landrum saw Drew pull Mays’ head back and make a slashing
motion across his throat, while Puralewski stabbed him. Landrum stated that he “heard Jeff’s lungs or something,” and that it sounded “like letting air out of something.”
The killers rolled the teen’s body down the side of the road.
Mays sustained seven stab wound to the left side of his chest and six to the right side of the midline. He also received “two cutting type wounds on the neck.” Three stab wounds penetrated into the chest cavity and were lethal. Two of the wounds penetrated the left lung and one pierced the pericardium of the heart. It was the three chest wounds that caused the death.
Landrum drove for “ten or fifteen or twenty miles” to a service station where the older men bought some beer. One of the beers was used to wash off the buck knife.
When Puralewski said he wished they hadn’t had to kill Mays, Drew responded, “I f—ing enjoyed it because it got blood on my leather.”
The car reached the Houston area in the early morning of February 22, stopping first at a nightclub called the Booby Rock. Puralewski said he was going to find a homosexual to rob and went into a bar. That was the last Landrum and Drew saw of him until he was arrested later.
About 3:45 a.m., while Drew was driving on Kirby Drive near Rice University, he was pulled over for speeding and failing to use a turn signal. The officer noticed that Landrum was extremely nervous and that Drew had blood on his clothes.
When Drew produced Mays’ driver’s license, the officer became more suspicious. He approached Landrum and noticed that he was “very, very pale; very, very nervous; almost in a state of shock.” When the officer learned that the Maverick was possibly a wanted vehicle (Mays’s body had already been found and the clerk who sold Drew the beer called police after seeing the blood on his clothes), they were arrested.
What followed for Drew was a fairly routine death penalty trial (the murder occurred in Texas). He was convicted and sentenced to death after the jury heard that he had previously been on probation for marijuana possession but had violated the terms of that probation by leaving South Carolina and had broken into the home of a man who fired Drew’s wife because her husband’s bad behavior in his restaurant and stabbed the man in the chest. Drew managed to plead that crime down to a misdemeanor with the promise that he leave the state.
After Puralewski pleaded guilty to the murder of Jeffery Mays and was sentenced to serve 60 years, he executed a sworn statement claiming that he alone committed the murder. The courts rejected Drew’s requests for a new trial and none of his pleas for habeas corpus were granted. He claimed to the moment he died that he was innocent.
When the the last of his appeals failed, his sentencing judge signed Drew’s death warrant with a smiley face, which upset anti-death penalty advocates. The judge defended the move, saying he had signed all of his orders that way for years.
For those looking for a bit of vengeance, they may be satisfied that tears streamed down Drew’s face as the lethal cocktail was pushed into his veins. It appears that at the end, despite the tattoo on his arm that proclaimed he was “Big Bad Bob,” Drew was just as afraid to die as Jeff Mays.