Old Soul

Bill Maddox died violently under bizarre circumstances – and left a legacy of music, love, and friendship

Bill Maddox
Bill Maddox (Photo courtesy of Max Crace)

Bill Maddox was a born musician.

As a child growing up in Abilene in the late Fifties, Maddox was already well on his way to becoming an accomplished and respected musician – whom friends and associates describe as a true musical genius. Maddox started with the piano, says his childhood friend, composer Stephen Barber, who would eventually play with Maddox in several later ventures – including the legendary band that Maddox founded, the Electromagnets. The two shared a piano instructor and met when they were just 6 years old. "I know he played the piano first, the saxophone, and then got into drums later – by later, I mean before junior high," Barber recently recalled. Later, Maddox would also learn the guitar. "It's not like he played at an amateur level – he could play all of those instruments at a professional level. And he was also a good singer and songwriter, so he was very multitalented."

Maddox, who would eventually be best known as a drummer, was just 13 when he began playing drums in his first band, Maltese, with another of his childhood friends, Noel Kelton. The band – which included several other boys from school – lasted for about a year, Kelton recalls. It was 1966, Beatlemania was in full force, and the band played six gigs – birthday parties – for which they were paid $15 a pop to split among the band's five members. "And that's pretty good for eighth-graders," Kelton said recently. Playing with Maltese was the first of what would become a string of musical successes for Maddox – often playing in bands with members who were also close friends, including, notably, guitarist Eric Johnson.

That was not all that Maddox could do. After studying music at the University of Texas with renowned percussionist George Frock, Maddox landed at tech school, and later became one of the first 10 employees of the company now known as Dell; he battled with – and conquered – addiction, going on to counsel and act as a sponsor for scores of people trying to better their lives with 12-step help. Not long ago, friend Charlie Hatchett, the now-retired longtime Austin agent who booked one of Maddox's early bands (and later played with him in Hatchett's band the Fabulous Chevelles) says Maddox was proud to earn his Alcoholics Anonymous 24-years-sober chip. And although he'd had two difficult and short-lived marriages, Maddox had also found the love of his life, a petite and striking brunette beauty named Rhonda, with whom he recently celebrated his 11th wedding anniversary. Life was good, the 57-year-old Maddox would often tell his friends.

Maddox demonstrated his love for music at an early age.
Maddox demonstrated his love for music at an early age.

Abruptly, just two days after Christmas, it all ended. On Dec. 27, 2010, at roughly 7:30am, Rhonda Maddox made a frantic call to 911. Someone had broken into the couple's far Southwest Austin home and had attacked them. Rhonda pleaded with authorities for help; shots were fired. Bill died at the scene. Three days later, on Dec. 30, 2010, Maddox's attacker, John DeBrecht, a 63-year-old neighbor in the quiet Scenic Brook enclave just west of Oak Hill off Highway 290, also died from injuries sustained during the fatal incident at the Maddox home. The tragedy stunned the neighborhood and the families and friends of the two men.

Eric Johnson was in Houston when Rhonda called him that morning to tell him what had happened; Johnson, stunned, immediately drove back to Austin. "I didn't know what to think," he said recently. "I mean, it doesn't make any sense. It's just so bizarre. [Maddox was] such a peace-loving guy that never got [into] trouble. ... He never had any problems."

According to Travis County Sheriff's Office spokesman Roger Wade, the official inquiry into the incident is ongoing; when complete, the investigative findings will be forwarded to the Travis County District Attorney's Office for a hearing before a grand jury. In the meantime, the TCSO remains silent on the details of what happened inside the Maddox home that December morning. Whatever the cold facts, it was a tragedy that directly claimed two lives and has affected many more. Two families and countless friends mourn; many more in Austin and beyond are left wondering what exactly happened that day, and why did these two people, Bill Maddox and John DeBrecht – who, although neighbors living just a half-mile from each other, did not know each other before their deadly encounter – have to die?

Signs of Life to Electromagnetism

Maddox became a musician by both talent and heritage. His father, Ray Maddox, a well-known dentist in Abilene, was also an accomplished musician who in the Thirties had trained at New York's Juilliard School of Music. The elder Maddox played a number of instruments, says Bill's older brother – also named Ray – who owns an Abilene florist and greenhouse business. Their father was the longtime frontman of the Ray Maddox Orchestra, which played for decades all over town, including at the Abilene Country Club, where little Billy would, at times, also take the stage. Bill had "a very special relationship with Dad," recalls his brother, Ray. Their father had chosen dentistry "for the money, but he was a musician at heart. He played six instruments: the sax, the clarinet, the piccolo, the flute – lots of wind instruments," he said. "He was a musician, and Bill got that from Dad."

Trudy and Ray Maddox doted on their boys and did their best to create an idyllic childhood. "We believed in Santa Claus until the seventh or eighth grade," recalls Ray. "Mother and Daddy went to great lengths to preserve that" and were sorry when they finally had to break the news to the boys that the fat man in red did not exist. "We believed in the stork until, I don't know, a few years back," he jokes, recalling that when his parents brought little Billy home from the hospital, Ray, then 6, told them that they should call the bird and return the baby. "I said, 'We don't need him; you can take him back,'" he says. The brothers developed a tight relationship, Ray recalls, although the Maddox's parenting style was decidedly different for each child. "[Bill] was an average student. I have the [family name] – I am 'the third' – so I was expected to be in the honor society, the band. They raised me by Doctor Spock, and Bill [sort of] raised himself."

Maddox (center) flanked by Alien Love Child members Eric Johnson (l) and Chris Maresh (r)
Maddox (center) flanked by Alien Love Child members Eric Johnson (l) and Chris Maresh (r) (Photo courtesy of Max Crace)

That may explain in part why it seemed so easy for Bill Maddox to develop his own expansive musical life. After his first band, Maltese, broke up, Maddox quickly got involved in a second band, the Signs of Life, also with his friend Noel Kelton. The band also featured two older schoolmates from Cooper High School, and the association gave Maddox and Kelton a broader social circle – and listening audience. "There might've been something that Bill was into that I don't remember," Kelton says, "but I don't think you'll find too many things in the back of the yearbook that listed our names. We wanted to be rock & roll guys – that was our goal.

"The Beatles had come out a year or two before, and in Abilene there wasn't much to do. ... So with the advent of that, you wanted to be a Beatle. ... We both came from musical families, so it was pretty easy for us to do that kind of stuff. We didn't do much else. We worked at it, so it came pretty easy – plus, it was a lot of fun." That band stayed together nearly three years, remembers Kelton – a good run for a high school band – before its first incarnation dissolved. Although the older members had tried to hang on after graduating and moving on to college, they finally bailed.

Kelton and Maddox then brought on another friend, Keith Landers. Landers, eventually to be known as Johnny Dee, frontman of Austin-based oldies group Johnny Dee & the Rocket 88's (with which Kelton, known as T-Bone, plays bass), joined on guitar. Landers had also known Maddox since childhood; the Maddox family lived down the street from Landers' grandparents, and Landers recalls his first experience with Maddox there – the two boys, side by side on riding lawn mowers, cutting across the lawn while singing the theme to Rawhide. The three, along with another friend, kept Signs of Life going for at least another six months before changing their name to Omaha. With that band, the young musicians got their first taste of the road: They bought a green Chevy van, painted the name on the side in orange psychedelic letters, and started playing gigs around West Texas. Omaha, playing popular radio music, lasted about a year before splitting.

They were quickly back at it, however, with a new venture – Cadillac – bringing in Stephen Barber on keyboards. They traveled a lot, and the band was a hit; they caught the ear of Austin agent Hatchett, who began booking them regularly at UT fraternity parties and at clubs around Austin. After Maddox graduated from high school in 1971, the band members moved to Austin that July. "That was definitely one of my musical memory highlights," says Kelton. "I thought we had a really good band. And, right or wrong, in some other bands I didn't think we were on equal footing. But in the Cadillac band, I thought we were all right about the same quality at that point in time. We had so much fun. It was really a blast."

Landers agrees that the band was tight; music was quickly becoming their lives. Maddox, especially, was almost hyperfocused on his musical career. "Here's the kind of guy that Bill was," recalls Landers. One weekend back in Abilene when the band didn't have a gig, Landers and Maddox were hanging out at the Maddox family home. "We were spending the night ... working on music ... [and] we had our equipment truck [parked] out front – we had all these big Beatles amps and stuff, and [Bill] goes, 'Keith ... let's set our equipment up.' I said, 'How come?' And he says, 'Just so we can look at it,'" Landers says. The pair loaded into the house all of their equipment and "set the whole band up, just so we could sit there and look at it and dream," he continues. "That's the kind of kids we were. We were just so into it."

Maddox's 
early days as 
a drummer
Maddox's early days as a drummer (Courtesy of Park Street © 1975)

After moving to Austin, the band members played on the weekends and went to school during the week. At UT, Maddox made an impression on professor George Frock. "He was an excellent student," he says, and excelled "beyond what I was teaching in class." Often, Maddox would come to class with ideas about how to add to the music they were studying. "It's nice when a musician has some creative input," says Frock. Beyond preparing for what is assigned, he says, it's "nice always if beyond that they're saying, 'I'd like to try this or try that.'" Maddox was that kind of student. And as he progressed, Maddox's musical style began to move beyond the pop music and R&B and soul that his bands had thus far been playing – he liked fun and whimsical, says Kelton, but he also thought more seriously about music.

"Steve [Barber] and Bill started going into a different area," Kelton says. "They wanted to go off and play Emerson, Lake & Palmer, and like some other groups that were just starting up that some people called 'jazz fusion' or 'new electric music.' It was kind of like Chick Corea – Return to Forever and Weather Report. And I enjoyed those groups too." But Kelton and Landers were more interested in finding a solid, long-term revenue stream to make their livings playing music than they were in exploring the margins – they started Johnny Dee & the Rocket 88's, a sort of Sha-Na-Na-esque showman band playing oldies. (With Landers and Kelton still on board, it remains an active touring band 37 years after its founding.)

The diversion of the friends' musical aspirations began to show more and more, and although their friendships remained strong, it wasn't long before Maddox founded the Electromagnets. In 1974, Eric Johnson joined the band. Johnson and Maddox met when Maddox was still playing with Omaha. "One day they came out to where I was rehearsing. There was this place off City Park Road, a house out there, and I used to rent this shed in the back where I would practice, and they just came out there to jam with me one day," recalls Johnson. Johnson and Maddox hit it off right away. So when Maddox asked Johnson to join the Electromagnets, it was a no-brainer. "It was really cool. At the time there wasn't really anybody around this part of the country doing that kind of jazz-rock fusion. ... They were dabbling and doing that kind of stuff, and I was kind of aware of it, but it was kind of a departure for me."

The Electromagnets, although not a commercial success, became a cult favorite, and it solidified the long-lasting friendship and musical kinship of Maddox and Johnson. When the Electromagnets broke up and the Eric Johnson Band took over, Maddox came on as Johnson's drummer for a time; continuing forward, Maddox, still living in Austin, would play with Johnson whenever the guitarist went out on tour in support of a new project. But it wouldn't be until the late Nineties that the two got together on an entirely new project.

The Dellionaire

At some point during the late Seventies or early Eighties – friends aren't precise about the timing – Bill Maddox developed a substance abuse problem. He was drinking too much, friends recall, and might have been having other issues – friends are also circumspect about the details of his troubles – but agent Hatchett says he never realized Maddox was struggling. "I didn't know he had a problem until I started playing with him" in the late Nineties, in the Fabulous Chevelles, he said. "Three of our guys in that band are in AA, so there was some talk and they made fun of themselves," Hatchett says. The important thing to note about Maddox's problems, his friends agree, is how he "completely healed himself of that disease," as Johnson puts it. "And what came out of that was a person who was many times better than he was before. Out of that challenge came the blessing of becoming just an amazing person who was just so thankful for every day he was alive." Barber suggests that the stress of trying to make a living playing the music that he loved might have factored into Maddox's substance abuse. Indeed, when Kelton and Landers broke off to form Johnny Dee & the Rocket 88's, they say they would have loved to have had Maddox come on as their drummer; they never asked, however, because with his evolving musical interests they doubted he would take the job. One night, Kelton says, he could hear the ice cubes tinkling in a glass during a phone conversation with Maddox, who sounded stressed; his dad was asking him why he hadn't joined Landers and Kelton's new band.

John Joseph DeBrecht
John Joseph DeBrecht

It wasn't long after that, say Kelton and Barber, that Maddox joined AA and enrolled in the Southwest School of Electronics. After finishing the program, he found a good job with a small start-up company, then called PCs Limited. "It really came at a time where he realized he had to make a move into the program and make a move out of music – a kind of new renaissance in his life, and that's when he got into Dell," recalls Barber. "And they really supported him a lot in that. ... That got him straightened out and moving in a direction that was very stable for him," he continues. "And then the rest is history." That is, the history of the "Dellionaires" – the first employees of Dell who amassed stock options early, and when the company hit big, were able to cash out and either stay with the company (as some did) or to move on to finance the rest of their lives. For Maddox, that's exactly what happened. He could return to his first love, music, without having to worry about how to pay the bills.

DeBrecht's Journey

John Joseph DeBrecht was born in St. Louis in 1947. He married Linda George in 1972 and the couple moved to Texas, where DeBrecht landed a job as a mechanical engineer for NASA; from there he moved to underground engineering, designing equipment for downhole and horizontal pipeline exploration. In all, DeBrecht spent nearly 40 years as an engineer. He was a voracious reader and extremely intelligent, friends and family recalled during a February memorial mass at the Catholic church where the family had reportedly been congregants since the late 1970s.

Six years ago, DeBrecht took up running, and at age 61 finished the Boston Marathon in less than four hours. What drew him to running in the first place was a mystery, one of his daughters said. But it was a good thing, and the family was proud of him: At 57 he could barely walk up a flight of stairs without being out of breath, but his time at Boston was good enough to qualify him to run the race again – he'd planned to do so this spring.

In fact, in just a few short years DeBrecht had made a name for himself in Austin's tight-knit running community, says Mac Allen, who coached DeBrecht as part of his teammac running group. Allen met DeBrecht roughly five years ago when Allen was working at RunTex. DeBrecht told Allen that he'd been running on his own but "wanted to see how good he could get, and could I help him? I said, 'Sure,'" Allen recalls. DeBrecht worked hard, he said. "He wasn't a real boisterous, gung-ho kind of guy, but he was real focused. He would show up all of the time for workouts. He was that kind of leader in the sense of watching him, he would have the work ethic."

DeBrecht was kind, complimentary, and very encouraging to the other runners in his group, and he was very grateful for the encouragement fellow runners gave him. "He had a competitiveness, but he was a gentleman competitor," Allen recalls. "There is a person who will trip, kick, scratch, or anything to get the edge," and there is a person who "wants to be better," but only by working hard and earning it; that was DeBrecht, Allen says. Where the music community has lost a favorite son in Maddox, the running community has lost one of its well-known friends too, says Allen.

A view of the Maddox home in Southwest Austin.
A view of the Maddox home in Southwest Austin. (Photo by Jana Birchum)

DeBrecht was, by all accounts, also a devout Catholic. He made rosaries for his children and said the rosary for each of the four every morning without fail; the grown children used those same rosaries when they gathered by his bedside upon his death on Dec. 30, 2010, three days after the altercation at the Maddox home left the drummer dead. He was a private man who loved his family and was deeply spiritual, his family said. (His wife, Linda, did not respond to a request for an interview for this story.) When one of his daughters was having a bad day, she recalled at the service, her father gave her a bouquet of gerber daisies – the flowers were actually intended for Linda, but DeBrecht knew his daughter needed a pick-me-up. The flowers were her favorite variety, she told her dad; then they were truly "a gift from God," he replied. Those flowers, she told the mourners, lasted a seemingly impossible three weeks before wilting. She knew, indeed, that they were a gift from God, handed down through her father.

Reports in the Statesman shortly after the incident suggested that perhaps the fatal incident at the Maddox home was connected to an illness. Rita Wright, whose son is married to one of DeBrecht's children, told the daily that DeBrecht had been struggling with taking medications. "Maybe he was confused and thought that was his home," she said.

Allen says he saw DeBrecht just days before his death, during a hill-running workout near Lady Bird Lake; nothing seemed amiss. "Nothing was out of the ordinary," he says. In fact, he says, DeBrecht's behavior and manner were nothing if not consistent over time – if there were something going on with DeBrecht, no one in his running group saw any signs. He was on time for his workouts and focused on his goals. "He was very dependable," says Allen.

Allen said he first heard about the altercation at the Maddox home from teammates who texted him that morning; he still doesn't understand what happened. "It's just unexplainable," he said. "I don't see him having that violent side to him at all. ... I never saw that."

Speaking before the more than 200 people who gathered for DeBrecht's memorial, Linda DeBrecht displayed a Midwestern practicality and strength; she wholeheartedly extended her prayers to Rhonda Maddox, but she did not discuss what might have happened the morning Maddox died – aside from acknowledging that DeBrecht had been facing "challenges" over the past two years. Nonetheless, she noted, she and her husband were on a "spiritual journey."

Breathless Morning

A wreath sits at the end of the driveway to the Maddox home.
A wreath sits at the end of the driveway to the Maddox home. (Photo by Jana Birchum)

Noel Kelton was still asleep when Landers rang him up on the morning of Dec. 27, 2010. The two had a couple of things to discuss about a Rocket 88's New Year's Eve gig. "Then he said, 'You know what happened this morning?' This was at about 8:30am," Kelton recalls. "He said the sheriff had come to his door and asked if that's my pickup truck" parked outside. "Wow, that's weird," Kelton replied. "He said, 'Oh well, I'll see you,'" and hung up. Kelton got up and was listening to the radio while going about his morning routine. Suddenly on the radio he heard something about an occurrence in the 9300 block of Rock Way Drive. "I said, 'I know where that is,'" Kelton recalls. "I pulled out my ... Mapsco and looked, and it was right within two blocks" of Maddox's house. He got on the Internet and saw a picture on the news of a house next door to Mad­dox's; he got back on the phone to Landers. He told Landers what he'd seen and said, "I'm afraid somebody got shot, and it may be your next-door neighbor," Kelton recalls. Kelton and Landers hung up, and Kelton got right back on the phone: "My next call was to Bill," he said; he got voice mail. "I said, 'Billy, this is T-Bone, and there's something weird happening in your neighborhood. I sure would like to hear from you to make sure you're OK,'" he recalls. "I never got a call back."

Indeed, by that time, Maddox was already dead. What exactly happened that morning is still under investigation by the Travis County Sheriff's Office, but according to a person close to the case, the incident apparently began when Maddox went out to pick up his morning paper. What follows is reconstructed and unconfirmed but is based on our conversation.

On the driveway, DeBrecht allegedly approached Maddox and followed him up the drive, saying, "This was a safe house for drug users." Maddox replied, "No, this is the Maddox house." Maddox went into the kitchen and shut the door behind him. DeBrecht picked up a large landscaping rock, threw it through the window, and broke into the house. Once inside, he threatened to attack Rhonda. "[DeBrecht] said, 'I want your wife; I want your woman.'" Rhonda went upstairs, frantically calling 911; DeBrecht allegedly followed and tried to attack Rhonda, who'd picked up a small pistol: "Don't come any closer or I'll have to shoot," she allegedly told DeBrecht. She fired the gun, but the shot only nicked DeBrecht and he fell on top of her.

Maddox began to fight with DeBrecht in an effort to protect Rhonda; the two men tumbled down a flight of stairs. Somehow, DeBrecht had retrieved the gun Rhonda had used and fired it at Maddox. As Maddox began to bleed from the fatal wound, the two continued to struggle, and Maddox was able to ram DeBrecht's head through the Sheetrock wall. Maddox died quickly; DeBrecht held on for three days before an internal head injury claimed his life.

Landers, who lives on a piece of land that abuts the Maddox property, was stunned by the news. "Bill was such an incredible musician; he'd be playing drums to a Stevie Wonder song and singing it and playing the synthesizer with one hand. No kidding. He was just an amazing drummer and an amazing musician," Landers recalls. "And for this to happen in this violent way to end his life, it's still taking the breath out of me."

Passionate Dreamer

After Maddox cashed out his Dell stock, he built himself a house just behind that of Landers. Landers had been living in the small cloister of that neighborhood for years, and Maddox liked the land – rolling Hill Country punctuated by large, graceful oaks. In fact, Maddox bought several plots of land that were slated to be sold individually. He wanted to protect the local wildlife, especially the deer that roamed there. "He bought all of that land behind me so that nobody would build and the deer would have a place to eat," Landers recently recalled. "That's the kind of person Bill was."

He also was now free to play whatever music moved him. In the late Nineties, he and Eric Johnson started another band, Alien Love Child, and he began to play regularly with Charlie Hatchett's Fabulous Chevelles. "Really, for the last three or four years that he played with us, he didn't miss a gig," Hatchett says. "Until we finally lost him. ... I don't know if I've ever had so [many] problems with a death as I did with his, because he was really number one ... just a really good person."

His friends say the last 15 or so years of Maddox's life were especially happy. He built a beautiful home – with a studio and a place to show off his large guitar collection; played music with friends; met, fell in love with, and married the "love of his life," Rhonda. The couple liked to travel – to New York, to Chicago, sometimes taking a sleeper train, recalls Johnson. They were social, but also very private. Maddox was gregarious in public, on the road and onstage, and was always eager to volunteer his time to help others struggling with substance abuse, but he also immensely enjoyed just being home and walking around his quiet neighborhood.

"His favorite thing to do in the neighborhood was to walk all the way around ... with his pockets full of fruit to feed the horses and the goats," Landers says. "Bill was an old soul. He just understood a little bit more, not that he was any smarter. He just had an insight; he had a spiritual insight." Ironically, Hatchett says, just a week before Maddox's death, the Chevelles played a gig up at the Abilene Country Club, taking the same stage that Maddox's father had played so many times for so many years. "He told me this at that time, 'This reminds me of when I used to play ... with [my] daddy,'" he says, "which to me was so neat." The world lost a great musician in December, Hatchett laments. "You won't find a better drummer." Indeed, Johnson says Maddox had a passion for music that never faded. "He was as passionate about it at his age as he was when he was 20, which is rare to find," he says. "A lot of people get jaded or they lose their dreams – but he never lost that."

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

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