Bill Howard, a central figure in an alleged arson at Texas Lil’s Dude Ranch that drew national attention, died Saturday while helping a stranger who’d been injured in a highway accident. Howard was 55.
He was driving in Burleson while working early Saturday morning when he came upon an accident on Interstate 35. He stopped his truck and got out to help a victim and was struck and killed by a passing vehicle, police said.
Howard gained notoriety (and a prison sentence) while working as a ranch hand at Texas Lil’s Dude Ranch (“Still Wranglin’,” Jan. 19, 2005). Police accused him of setting a fire that caused $2 million in damages in November 2004.
Howard denied setting the fire, and his boss, Lynda “Texas Lil” Arnold, defended him vehemently. Howard was never convicted of arson but served six years in prison anyway. The night of the fire, he grabbed a shotgun – Arnold said he was trying to protect the premises – and this prompted his arrest. He’d been convicted of a previous felony and was prohibited from possessing a gun. Howard worked at the ranch for 15 years.
“They never proved anything about the fire,” Arnold said. “It was easier to nail him for that felon in possession, and all he used that gun for was to shoot snakes around the pond.”
Howard was released from prison in 2009, and he and his wife, Tina, lived in a house near Springtown. I visited the Howards and Arnold at that home in 2011, and when I arrived Bill Howard was working in the yard. He obviously took great pride in his property, but he was quiet and didn’t say much. Arnold said the prison sentence depressed him.
“That bum rap really got to him,” she said. “He was not a very happy person when he got out, but he got happier and liked his job and everything was pretty cool for him. He didn’t smoke cigarettes or drink a beer or nothing. He was so sure that he didn’t ever, ever want to go back to prison again.”
Tina Howard bought the property while her husband was in prison, and it took awhile for him to adjust after his release, she said.
“He came home out there and he’d never seen the place, it was like it wasn’t really home to him,” Tina Howard said. “It took a while for him to feel like it was home. Just in the past year he’d started making it his house. He was building a carport. We were going to hang the last two rafters on Saturday.
“He mowed every day,” she continued. “There wasn’t a weed anywhere in the yard. He was so proud of it. He said he wanted it to look like a park.”
Howard worked for Chaney Trucking as a night-shift supervisor in oilfield operations. His job required him to drive around North Texas, and this wasn’t the first time he’d stopped to help someone in need.
“It didn’t matter if it was a person or an animal,” Tina Howard said. “He couldn’t stand to see anybody hurting without trying to do something to make it better.
“One night he called me and said a truck had hit two horses in the road,” she said. “He parked his truck and got out with a flashlight and was flagging traffic around the horses until the highway patrol showed up. One of those horses was still alive when they dragged him off the highway to make it safe for the cars. He thought they should have shot the horse before they dragged it off the highway. He was so tore up about it.”
Tina Howard hopes the end of her husband’s life overshadows the notoriety from the arson accusation and prison sentence.
“After all that horrible publicity and false information about him, I’d like everybody to see the real person,” she said. “Everybody that has called and talked to me has said they remember Bill always having a smile on his face and always willing to throw in and lend a hand to anybody who needed help.”
She laments losing six years of togetherness during his prison stint but is grateful for the time they had after his release.
“We waited so long,” she said. “But we had a little over two years, and he was really happy. At least we had that.”
Arnold said he died like he lived — being a good samaritan.
“He was always helping people out,” she said. “It’s such an unbelievable thing that he lost his life after he’d been in prison all that time — and unjustly at that.”
Howard’s boss, Dusty Chaney, had warned him to be careful when helping others.
“He worked at night and I had talked to him about stopping and doing that and being careful,” Chaney said. “He was just a good cowboy. It was a huge loss to us.”
Chaney hired Howard despite his prison record — and never regretted the decision.
“We gave him a shot and he worked his way up through the ranks,” Chaney said. “His work ethic was impeccable. He came in every afternoon with a positive attitude and asked where we needed him. That kind of work ethic nowadays is hard to find.”
A memorial service is at 2 p.m. Wednesday at White’s Funeral Home in Springtown.