Six United States presidents.
The Gulf War, Operation Enduring Freedom, 9/11 and the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster.
The widespread rise of the internet and World Wide Web, the first iPhone and Facebook.
Electric cars, bullet trains and commercial space flights.
All of these events have come and gone since Kathryn Hudgins lost her son one dark day in Kilgore.
Time has seen many other unsolved murders and cold cases be solved since that day. Just last year, law enforcement used an unprecedented DNA technique to identify the suspect in a series of infamous deaths known as the Golden State Killer murders.
Still, after all this time, and so many advancements in criminal forensic technology, no arrest has been made in her own son’s murder.
Clarence Ray Hudgins, who went by “Ray”, was shot to death at his home just outside Kilgore Oct. 17, 1981, 38 years ago this October.
For all these years, Hudgins has been her son’s advocate, saving information related to the crime and her own thoughts. This has left her with boxes and folders stuffed with papers – newspaper clippings, old photos and the poems she has written.
“It can be solved,” Hudgins said, remarking on the case which has taken her on many twists and turns over the decades as she has searched for answers.
“Throughout this whole thing, there’s different things that’s happened that you wouldn’t believe in. You just wouldn’t believe it.”
At 91 years old, Hudgins’ memory of that night still stands brightly in her mind. Her nightmare began with a phone call from her son, Ray.
“This is what I think and what I remember. When I got that phone call, we went over there. Ray had called and said ‘Mama, you need to come over here. I need to talk to you.’ I said ‘Well, I’m busy…’Well, I need you to come over,’ so I went on over there. I don’t know why he wanted me over there, I never really figured it out.”
Her trip over to her son’s house began just like any other trip, only this one was to end in the discovery of a tragic scene.
“When we started from our house, we got on Goforth Road and come to 42, right on Goforth Road. As we got to 135, we fell in behind this fire truck. It was a new, green one they just bought from Kilgore. It was coming from Liberty City, not Kilgore. They turned in there and we followed them down there and they come across the cattle guard and when you got right down here, here was the three or four acres that Ray had, and his house was burned.”
At first, Hudgins didn’t realize a fire had taken place but the news she received was worse than any she could have feared.
“My daughter-in-law didn’t tell us the house was burned. She just said ‘Ray’s been shot.’”
While no case of murder can be said to be simple, the murder of Clarence Ray Hudgins is exceedingly complex and mysterious.
Several publications have covered the tragic case over the years.
Ray, a successful businessman, was the owner of Oilfield Blasting and Coating Co. in Kilgore, according to his obituary in the Oct. 18, 1981 article of the Longview Morning Journal. The obituary states he was survived by his wife, Phyllis, and two sons, Clarence Jr. and Michael Wayne.
In a Longview Daily News article from Dec. 10, 1981 titled “Crime Stoppers Seeks information on Kilgore slaying”, authorities posted notice of a $1,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of any suspect’s in Ray’s death. The article states, on Oct. 17, 1981, at approximately 1 a.m., “an unknown subject set fire to a mobile home belonging to Clarence Ray Hudgins located on an oil lease located east of Jerry Powell House Movers Company on Hwy. 135 just out of Kilgore.”
The article goes on to state, shortly after the fire was set, an unknown person knocked on the front door and, as Ray exited the door to investigate, he was killed by two or three shotgun blasts fired by an unknown person. Ray’s wife Phyllis found him shortly thereafter.
On Oct. 17, 1987, a Tyler Morning Telegraph article by staff writer Marilyn Covey recounted some facts in the case. These facts were restated, in part, by Kathryn Hudgins in 2019.
The oilfield business was booming in Kilgore at that time, the article read, and Ray had some fierce competition. In the months leading up to his murder, Ray had allegedly received threatening phone calls and, in Feb. 1981, some of Ray’s employees found a makeshift firebomb in the bed of one of his work trucks. Miraculously, the bomb had not exploded.
Ray then moved his family onto the site of his business in order to better protect his property. On the night of Oct. 16, 1981, Ray invited several friends over for a fish fry. At some point during the night, the article reads, Ray’s two guard dogs disappeared, a fact reiterated by Kathryn Hudgins in 2019.
The cause of the fire at Ray’s home was three bombs, the article states, and their explosion was followed shortly after by the shotgun blasts which slew Ray on his own front steps.
Kathryn Hudgins’ search continued.
“I didn’t know why it happened, to start with, because he made good money, he was a good guy, people liked him and everything,” she said.
Over the years, she developed theories about who was responsible for her son’s death. She claims the murder was committed by more than one suspect, though she also claims two of those suspects are now dead.
She has named a primary suspect, who cannot be named in this article because allegations unsupported by concrete evidence cannot be printed.
She now believes Ray’s murder may have been related to corruption in the local area, with cutthroat businessmen, possibly even part of an “East Texas Mafia”, killing her son in order to further their own plans.
One continuing theme of her comments, which also appeared in articles written about the case over the years, is her accusation of inaction on the part of law enforcement.
In an article printed on March 22, 1995, in the Tyler Courier-Times, Hudgins was said to bring two briefcases full of tapes and documents related to Ray’s case to the Rusk County Courthouse, which was hearing testimony in the case of the Kentucky Fried Chicken murders at that time.
The Kentucky Fried Chicken Murders were an armed robbery and mass murder of five people who were forced from the Kilgore restaurant, taken to a nearby field, and executed in 1983. That case went unsolved for more than 20 years, until two men, Darnell Hartsfield and his cousin Romeo Pinkerton, were convicted in 2007 and 2008.
Hudgins’ sister Jerri Nelson was subpoenaed to testify in that case and was allegedly threatened, with an unknown caller threatening to burn her house down.
Law enforcement has never named any suspects in Ray Hudgins’ murder.
In 2009, Gregg County Sheriff's Department Lieutenant Mike Claxton said the case has been an active, ongoing investigation since that terrible night in Oct. 1981. Claxton said hundreds of people had been interviewed from Texas to Baltimore, Maryland, but all potential suspects had been eliminated.
At one point, Hudgins said, law enforcement investigated notorious serial killers Henry Lee Lucas and Ottis Toole for the murder. Lucas, at one time, confessed to more than 600 murders across the county, with many allegedly occurring in Texas. However, law enforcement later determined Lucas likely fabricated the details of many of these confessions.
At the time of this writing, Clarence Ray Hudgins’ case is still listed as unsolved on the Gregg County Crime Stoppers website.
For her part, Kathryn Hudgins keeps going, determined to push past any obstacle in her way to find justice for her son.
“Today I got up and I had to do a few things and I thought, well, I have to be careful. I have to keep my house cold so I can breathe. I have a Pacemaker. I have two leaky valves in my heart.”
Her reasoning for her continued persistence is straightforward.
“In the first place, I promised Ray I’d get this solved. That’s been my main goal. I have never given up and I’ve never let go.”
Her great-grandson offered to move her in with him, where she could be close to family and even close to casinos where she could enjoy spending some time.
“This thing with Ray is done,” he told her.
“Oh, I can’t do that,” she replied.
“I promised God, just let me live until I got this solved. I don’t worry about things. Now, I can’t sleep at night. That’s because you can’t turn your mind off.”
One of the ways Hudgins has processed her emotions and dealt with her grief over the years is her poetry. She has poured her sadness into words on the page, trying to come to terms with her sorrow and reaffirming her resolve to find justice.
“Your birthday on the twenty-second is here again.
How hard these two years have been.
I won’t let you down, you will see.
I still remember what you said to me,” begins her poem “In Memory of My Son”.
Her poem, “I Don’t Worry”, deals with her ongoing mission to do right by her child.
“I don’t worry about things to come.
I’ve filled my problems, one by one.
I don’t worry about things that might have been.
I know God will be there with me until the end.
I have to worry about things unknown to me,
The unknown killed my son, you see.
When Ray was born and laid into my arms,
I promised to love him and protect him from harm.
I promised him before he died,
I would find the truth after wading through the lies.
He said if I am killed – don’t let it be hid away.
I’ll never quit – I promised Ray.
“A lot of the stuff you find in my poems is things I’ve done, what I’ve done, how I felt, how I accepted things,” she said.
Kathryn Hudgins has had to accept quite a lot over the years.
In the early 2000s, her eldest son got cancer while her husband was in the hospital. While he was still there, her eldest son died. Her husband died shortly thereafter and, the year after that, her daughter died.
Still, Kathryn Hudgins remains. She’s still searching, still looking for clues, still encouraging someone to find out about the truth of that horrible night in October 1981.
“Everything that you go through, you either go nuts or you go on,” she said.
“So, I just decided to go on.”
If you or anyone you know has any information about the Oct. 17, 1981 murder of Clarence Ray Hudgins of Kilgore, please contact Gregg County Crime Stoppers at 903-236-7867.