At home on the range in Lil’s new Meridian digs. (Photo by Jeff Prince)
The Dance Hall conference center after it burned on Nov. 4, 2004 ... (Photo by Jeff Prince)
... and as it looked upon completion in 1998. (Courtesy of Lynda Arnold)
Ranch hand Bill Howard in August, a few months before his arrest. (Courtesy of Tina Burns)
Texas Lil wearing Cullen Davis’ coat. (Courtesy of Lynda Arnold)
Evicted from her dude ranch, Texas Lil moved her belongings to Meridian. (Photo by Jeff Prince)
Texas Lil has come through tough times to ... more tough times.
By JEFF PRINCE
The Dodge pickup rumbles along a North Texas highway on a freezing, overcast January morning. Surrounding farmland is flat; the sky is gray. The passenger side door, wrecked from a previous mishap, allows a cold and noisy wind to swirl inside the cab, making conversation difficult.
The driver has a lot to talk about. She’s busted, jobless, and suspected of being involved in a fire that caused $2 million in property damage and brought a prominent business to a standstill. She’s on her way to federal court in Sherman to attend a hearing for a former employee accused of starting the blaze. When she left her home in Meridian at 6 a.m. it was 65 degrees. The temperature has plummeted in the three hours since, and she is underdressed. It’s not the first time lately that life has caught Lynda Farr Arnold by surprise.
It wasn’t long ago that Arnold — better known as “Texas Lil” — was a queen straw boss, living in a nice home on prime ranchland in a booming area near Texas Motor Speedway. She owned and operated a successful dude ranch, catering to corporate types and anybody else who wanted an escape to a comfortable version of the Old West.
Her fall was steep after tv cameras showed three main buildings burning amid questionable circumstances and, two weeks later, the queen herself being led off, in handcuffs, to a police car.
Arnold is decidedly unglamorous on the drive to Sherman. Stretch pants, tennis shoes, simple cotton t-shirt, disheveled hair. She looks like a middle-aged soccer mom. But she’s no shrinking violet even amid scandal and chaos. After several hours on the road, she steps from the truck, stretches with a groan, and stands straight, appearing taller than her 5 feet 9 inches, younger than her 66 years. She speaks loudly, with confidence and a quick laugh, like a character barreling through a Larry McMurtry novel, not seeming the least bit sheepish despite being painted as an arsonist and thief.
Standing in the courthouse parking lot, she pulls on knee-high cowboy boots, dons a mink coat, and applies makeup (two different shades of lipstick). Her nails are hot pink, they’re always hot pink. The touch-ups make her more closely resemble the busty, brassy, ballsy woman that people expect. The soccer granny is transformed: Texas Lil is ready to make her entrance.
Only once, on the return trip, did her spirit visibly dip. For a brief moment, she leaned her head against the truck door’s cold glass, chin on palm. “I can’t believe the crap my life has turned into,” she said. “I’ve always tried to have a good life.”
In the only interview with news media since her arrest, Arnold told Fort Worth Weekly that she expects to be exonerated — and to get her ranch back. She owned the spread for a quarter-century before being forced into Chapter 11 bankruptcy and losing the 194 acres to foreclosure in October. “I feel sure I can get the ranch back, but at this point I don’t know what I’d do with it,” she said. “It’s been so contaminated that it would be hard for me to put my heart back in it.”
Arnold doesn’t have a lot of money for attorneys these days, but she’s still kicking and swinging. She called her arrest “a witch hunt” and characterized Northlake police officers as a “bunch of Keystone Cops.”
And she has an ace — well, maybe just a card — up her sleeve. She’s starting a new business, a women’s weekend getaway for “de-stressing” at her 300-acre ranch in Meridian, on the Bosque River. She calls it Texas Lil’s River Ranch Resort.
Seems she’d be the most likely candidate for de-stressing, but Arnold is handling her notoriety with aplomb. This ain’t her first rodeo. She’s been bucked and trampled before. A rocky marriage, divorce, a lost child, a brother killed in a car wreck, another murdered by a mysterious man in black at a Fort Worth mansion, heartbroken parents — she’s endured them all and survived.
“We’re not to the end of the story, that’s for sure,” she said.
The fire was among the largest in North Texas history. Three buildings scattered across the dude ranch erupted in flames on the same night, one of them set ablaze an hour after emergency crews were already on the scene. The glow could be seen 20 miles away. Without doubt, it was an arsonist’s work.
Destroyed were the 38,500-square-foot conference center, or “dance hall” as it was called, that Arnold had built with a $2 million bank loan in 1998, along with a 4,000-square-foot restaurant and bar, and a 2,500-square-foot office. Television news cameras hovering in a half-dozen helicopters captured the devastation. On the ground, a teary-eyed Arnold watched her life’s work become fuel for flames.
Working the ranch had never been easy. She was a single mom with two kids when she bought the property near Justin in 1977 — and immediately found herself in a fight. A previous tenant claimed ownership and sued Arnold for possession. Arnold prevailed in district court and justice of the peace court. “She beat me fair and square,” said Denton attorney Bill Trantham, who represented the plaintiff. Trantham later came to admire the woman he dubs “a tough ol’ bird,” and he has provided occasional legal services through the years for Arnold and ranch employees. “I’ve known her for 30 years; she’s hard-working — a loud-mouth that’s for sure — but straightforward, and all of a sudden they pile this crap on her.”
Arnold turned the ranch into a moneymaker with the help of a crew of wranglers and roustabouts. She funneled much of the profits back into the property, making steady improvements, and eventually began focusing on corporate events. By the 1990s, the parties she put on had become legendary for Texas-size fun. In 1998, the demand prompted her to stick her neck out, and she borrowed the money to improve the ranch’s infrastructure and build the dance hall. The steel building offered a stage, three bars, meeting rooms, VIP lounge, full kitchen, a balcony, pine-paneled walls, and white aspen ceiling. An Old West saloon storefront was the final touch. She built a towering wagon wheel to hang from the ceiling but it was too heavy, so she put it near the front gate instead.
After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, six months’ worth of bookings evaporated. Like so many others related to travel and tourism, Arnold’s business went into the red and stayed there for three years. But by 2004, things were turning around. Business picked up, and gas drilling revenues promised to fill the coffers even more. However, the bank wouldn’t wait, and forced a foreclosure.
New investors promised Arnold a job as a figurehead, the ranch’s “Mickey Mouse” as one investor put it. She accepted the offer, even while still vowing to get the ranch back by proving that the bank had unfairly foreclosed. New owners took possession on Oct. 29. Six days later the ranch erupted in flames.
Northlake police led the investigation. They arrested longtime ranch hand Billy Gene Howard at the scene for arson and possessing a firearm. Howard, a high-school dropout with previous jail stints for DWI, drugs, and larceny, wasn’t the only ranch employee with a spotty record. Arnold believed in second chances. She also needed people who’d work in exchange for basic shelter, food, and mediocre wages. She hired people who were searching for a place to land. Some stayed, others were told to keep moving. “Some people aren’t ready for a second chance,” she said.
Most who stayed were fiercely loyal, and none more than Howard. He learned the ranch, its buildings and infrastructure, and became the primary mechanic and fix-it man. Employees would later tell police that Howard was acting suspiciously before and after the fires, darting around the ranch on a four-wheeler, carrying a shotgun. Police questioned him at the scene and noted the stench of diesel fuel on his clothes. He was taken to the Denton County jail and later indicted on a federal arson charge. A trial date is expected to be set during a Feb. 7 pre-trial conference.
The case against Howard seems strong. In written reports, Northlake police said that the story Howard told them doesn’t jibe with witness statements, physical evidence, and his own words and actions at the scene. “You’re not going to arrest anybody you don’t feel is 100 percent guilty,” Police Lt. Brian Harpole said.
Arnold backs Howard’s claim of innocence. “He loved the ranch, he said he would never go back to jail, and he knew that I thought I was going to get the ranch back,” she said.
Howard was watching tv with his girlfriend, Tina Burns, before the fires were started. She fell asleep. When she awoke, Howard was coming into her house, saying that the ranch was on fire. “They’ll not do this,” he said, getting the shotgun that Burns kept for protection against snakes. When police arrested Howard, they didn’t find the gun.
“Miss Lil, I didn’t do this,” a handcuffed Howard said.
“Police say they have Bill [Howard] wrapped up and tied in a bow, but they are looking at the wrong person,” Arnold said.
At least two incidents led police to look more closely at Texas Lil herself.
On the night of the fire, Arnold had told police that all of her personal letters, awards, and memorabilia were destroyed in the office. Yet ranch employees said they had seen her moving two plastic tubs of memorabilia prior to the fire. Arnold said those boxes were filled with items belonging to a former public relations director and that she had removed them several weeks — not several days — prior to the fire.
Then, on the afternoon after the fire, Arnold’s son, Trace, noticed the shotgun on the roof of his mom’s residence — how or why it got there is still a mystery. Arnold told her son she would tell police about it, but was exhausted and decided to call them the next day. However, officers arrived that night with a warrant to search a storage bin at Trace’s house, where Arnold had taken the two plastic tubs. Trace mentioned that he had spotted the shotgun on the roof, and so officers showed up at Arnold’s at 11:30 p.m. and questioned her about why she hadn’t reported it.
Relations between Arnold and Northlake police went downhill from there. Police accused her of hampering the investigation. She accused them of being backwoods bullies without brains enough to handle an investigation of this magnitude. Arnold said enemies she’d made over the years when she served as Northlake’s justice of the peace, mayor, and chamber of commerce president were influencing the investigation. Police said their actions were based on clear evidence. “To me it was textbook,” Officer Harpole said. “We had over 30 suspects and conducted over 50 interviews. To say we limited our scope of investigation is a wrong statement.”
On Nov. 16, police arrived at the ranch and arrested Arnold on a felony charge of tampering with evidence. She was handcuffed and led outside, where a helicopter carrying a news crew videotaped her. More photographers and reporters were waiting at the sheriff’s office in Denton. One television station later used her arrest footage again and again to promote its news programming. “I wanted to hide,” Arnold said. She’d always been on the receiving end of favorable press, from reporters covering events at her ranch in recent years, such as a Republican dinner with Charlton Heston and a Willie Nelson concert. Now she felt like the media’s newest punching bag.
After Arnold’s arrest, her daughter requested a federal investigation, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives stepped in to take the lead role, although they appear to be relying heavily on Northlake police for their information.
Police speculated to reporters that frayed emotions and a desire for sympathy might have prompted Arnold to become involved in the torching. “I asked them what possible motive I would have, and they said ‘publicity,’” she said. “What kind of publicity is that?”
Arnold didn’t profit from the fire, which burned her out of a job and forced her from the ranch she loved. She had filed a lawsuit to win back the property. She points to several other people with motives. “Follow the money trail,” she said.
The new owners have told several people that they took out a $5 million insurance policy on the ranch prior to the fire. Police said they have investigated the new owners, a limited partnership called DKM Property Co. “That certainly was a part of the investigation, and it’s still a part of the investigation,” Harpole said. “The case is still very active.”
DKM spokesman Ty Shannon Millsap did not want to talk about the case. “I don’t know that it would be wise to do it right now with the investigation going on,” he said. “We’ve been advised to wait until the ATF is through with their investigation.”
The new owners have renamed the ranch Coyote Texas and have begun to run ads for it. “We’re going to try to make it more day-to-day activities for family events and things of that nature, whereas before it was more corporate driven,” Millsap said. “We’re looking at putting in paintball fields, a skateboard park, a couple of restaurants. Eventually we’d like to come back with another convention center.”
Arnold, meanwhile, had posted $100,000 bail and returned to her home at the ranch. Her arrest for evidence tampering meant, in effect, that police were linking her to the arson. The DKM partners retracted their “Mickey Mouse” job offer and on Nov. 26 served her with eviction papers. She fought it in court, was granted a week’s reprieve, and appealed that ruling, to buy more time.
DKM changed the locks at the front gate, requiring Arnold to call for an escort each time she showed up to move another truckload between Northlake and Meridian, a four-hour round-trip.
The story got even weirder. On Dec. 3, Millsap, who was overseeing the ranch, called police and accused Arnold of stealing money from two coin-operated laundry machines at the ranch. Arnold’s version is that she removed the quarters because of rumors of minor looting at the ranch and had tried to take them to Millsap, who wasn’t home. A ranch employee told Millsap that Arnold had taken the money, and so he called police. Arnold later went back to Millsap’s house, just as police were responding to Millsap’s complaint. She handed police a bucket with $63.50 in quarters. Millsap didn’t buy her story and wanted to prosecute. Two days later, police arrested Arnold for misdemeanor burglary and took her to jail, where she spent the night. The new owners, it seemed, were intent on sending her a message. “They are making life miserable for me,” she said.
Arnold posted $5,000 bail the next morning, wondering what else could go wrong. Her boisterous personality, fringed vests, tall boots, and big cowboy hats had often brought smiles to people’s faces. Now she felt like the joke was on her.
Arnold and a brother co-own the 300-acre Meridian ranch with a rustic ranch house, where their parents lived the last 20 years of their lives. They owe plenty of money on it, but at least no one there would kick her out, and it was situated far from the chaotic dude ranch. Worn out, Arnold headed for the hills.
On a recent Sunday, Tina Burns and a dog sat with Texas Lil on the back porch of the Meridian ranch house, relaxing on a warm afternoon. The dog was Bill Howard’s boxer, Doc. Howard himself was penned up in the Grayson County Jail, since he hasn’t been able to make bail.
The porch looks out at a guesthouse, an old barn, a windmill that creaks as it turns, horse pens, pastures, and towering, gnarled live oaks. It’s peaceful — beautiful, really. A trailer next to the porch was still packed with Arnold’s belongings that she and Tina had fetched from the dude ranch the previous day. Arnold was too tired and sore to unload it. She made unusual sandwiches for lunch — pork sausage, sweet pickles, and mustard on Texas toast. “Sometimes the simplest things are the best,” she said.
Simplicity marked her early life, when she was growing up in rural Texarkana in the 1940s with four siblings. At age 7, Lynda moved with her family to the San Fernando Valley in California. Her father, Lynn Farr, wanted to become a western movie star but managed only a few small roles as a bit actor. After his savings ran out, the family returned to Texarkana. Their homestead included stables, and Lynda spent much of her time tending to horses. “I’ve had horses all my life,” she said.
Her brothers called her Liz (short for lizard) or Lil. Everybody else called her Lynda. After graduating from high school, she attended a modeling school in Dallas. Lynda was tall and pretty but didn’t thrive in her new career. “I was too busty to be one of those kinds of [runway] models,” she said.
She met Hap Arnold, a handsome radio disk jockey in Dallas, and they married in 1960. She worked as a secretary until she became pregnant and then became a fulltime homemaker. A daughter was born in 1962 and a son in 1966. Money was tight, and Lynda and Hap decided to earn extra income by setting up carnival-style games and refreshments for private parties, schools, churches, and company picnics.
In 1968, their third child was born, but lived only two days. The death staggered both parents and strained the marriage.
The Arnolds had opened a party supply business in Fort Worth, on 7th Street near the Montgomery Wards store, and called it Hap’s Fun Factory. Hap lost interest and become infatuated with Silva Mind Control, a form of self-hypnosis that was popular at the time. “After the baby died, he got heavily involved in that, and our life just started unraveling,” Arnold said.
Hap traveled the countryside during the freewheeling late 1960s, teaching the convoluted Silva method, and spending weeks at a time apart from his family. The marriage was over, and Hap told his wife to keep the business. She recalled his parting words: “You can have the son of a bitch; you’re so stupid you’ll be bankrupt in three months,” he said. (Hap moved to Las Vegas and died of melanoma in 1982.)
Lynda Arnold and the kids moved to an apartment, and she continued running the Fun Factory. Then, in 1972, her brother Paul Farr died in a car crash. The death traumatized Arnold’s parents, and she and her children moved to their Meridian ranch to comfort the older couple. The party business was paying bills, but barely. Arnold moved the Fun Factory to a location on Fort Worth’s South Side with cheaper rent.
In 1975, she was looking to expand her business and inquired about a recreation ranch near Justin available for lease. The owner had operated a church camp for children on the property and refused to lease to Arnold after she admitted that alcohol would most likely be consumed at her parties. “I don’t allow drinking on my ranch,” he said. She offered her business card and left.
The following year, her brother Stan Farr, a former basketball standout at Texas Christian University, got divorced and moved into an Arlington apartment with Arnold and her kids. At the Fort Worth Stock Show that year, Stan — who stood 6 feet 10 inches even without his Hoss-style cowboy hat — met a bleached-blonde socialite named Priscilla Davis, and the two started dating. “They hit it off pretty good,” Arnold recalled. Before long, Stan had moved out of Arnold’s apartment and into the mansion.
Arnold had heard plenty of gossip about Priscilla being a tramp and was surprised to discover, instead, a charming and graceful woman. “Priscilla was one of the most misjudged people there is. She was a kind, giving person and not remotely what they made her out to be,” Arnold said.
One day when Arnold was at the mansion, Priscilla was showing off her fur vault. Arnold, always a sucker for fur, admired two identical leopard-skin coats that Cullen and Priscilla had custom ordered while visiting Africa. Priscilla snatched Cullen’s coat off the rack and gave it to Arnold, who took it to a furrier, had it redesigned, and added a fox collar with mink tails. She still wears the coat.
Priscilla’s 12-year-old daughter, Andrea Wilborn, took a liking to Arnold and her daughter, Dana. On Aug. 7, 1976, Andrea was alone at the Davis mansion while Stan and Priscilla were attending a birthday party. Andrea called and invited Arnold and Dana to come visit. Arnold was bushed from a long day’s work and told Andrea they would come the next day. “She was dead 15 minutes after we hung up the phone,” Arnold said.
A hitman wearing dark clothes shot and killed Andrea and then waited for Stan and Priscilla. When they entered the house, the assassin shot and injured Priscilla and then wrestled with Stan, who was shot several times and died. Priscilla survived. Cullen Davis was famously charged with murder and, even more famously, eventually acquitted.
In late 1976, still depressed from her brother’s murder, Arnold received a phone call from the rancher with the church camp. His scruples had faded, and he offered to sell. After helping her parents deal with the violent deaths of two sons in less than five years, Arnold needed something to keep her mind occupied. “I was still having to deal with my parents, who were just devastated,” she said. “But I found that piece of paradise in Justin.”
Actually, it would evolve into paradise over time. “It was a falling-down piece of junk, to be truthful,” she said. “It took me three years to clean up the junk.”
Arnold and her two kids moved to the ranch and settled into an old farmhouse just as a snowstorm hit. They spent the first two weeks in their new home sawing up old bois d’arc fence posts for firewood. Dana, who was 16, looks back on that winter fondly despite the hardships. “The pipes froze because the well froze up,” she said. “We had to gather up snow to melt it to wash dishes and whatever else we needed to clean. It was a like a group effort to make it fun.”
Skunks lived beneath the pier-and-beam house. “When we’d walk across the floor they’d spray, and it was horrible — it would permeate through the whole house,” she said. “We’d go to school smelling like skunks.”
Arnold merged the recreation ranch with her party business and named it The Ranch at Justin. A few months later, newspapers began covering a story about malnourished horses that had to be shot at The Dude Ranch in Justin, a smaller recreational ranch with a different owner. “Everybody thought it was me starving these horse,” Arnold said. “It’s kind of like this fire thing.”
She decided to change her ranch’s name to end the confusion. Popular nightspots at the time — Gilley’s, Billy Bob’s, Cutter Bill’s — were named after colorful people, and Arnold decided to give herself a glittery nickname. Most people knew her as Lynda, but she chose the nickname given to her by her brothers. “Texas Lil worked, Texas Lynda didn’t,” she said.
Texas Lil’s Diamond A Ranch was born. But she didn’t like it when people took to calling her Diamond Lil, so she changed the name yet again — to Texas Lil’s Dude Ranch.
The business grew into a popular seasonal ranch, but profits were slim during the 1980s, when real estate and other industries were going bust all over Texas. She sometimes had to pawn jewelry to make payroll. “During the ’80s I was just surviving,” she said. “Things started turning around in 1990 and 1991. We built the restaurant in 1992.”
As her situation improved, she spread her good fortune, carrying thousands of pounds of meat to flood victims in North Dakota in 1997 and cooking it on a 57-foot rolling barbecue grill. The next year she delivered three truckloads of bedding and household goods to Seguin after a flood. “We’ve had floods at the ranch, and I know how devastating they are,” she said.
She also has a soft spot for children and established a foundation called Children 2000 to provide book nooks in community centers and teach life management skills to underprivileged children. “They put on programs and things, and if the kids can’t afford it, she takes care of it,” said Bill Colville, a transportation company owner and friend. “She has a big heart, and she spreads it out. I’ve never seen anybody that’s been up against what she’s been through and still have a positive attitude. She’s a fun lady, she’s always a hoot.”
Arnold’s increasing reliance on corporate events seemed a smart strategy in the booming ’90s. She decided to build an indoor facility for convention-related parties. She had no idea that it would lead to a downward financial spiral and eventual loss of her business. Still, she said recently, she’d do it again.
“I don’t regret getting that loan,” she said. “That was a beautiful building. We had Fortune 500 companies out there all the time.”
Sometimes, it’s difficult for Arnold to fathom all that’s happened. Her life, seemingly charmed as she entered her senior years, has become increasingly shaky. The charges hanging over her head are troublesome, even though one of her attorneys tells her not to worry.
“I call it the dumb-ass cops case,” Trantham said. “I can’t figure out what the hell they charged her with. Nobody else can, either. They want to accuse her of tampering with evidence because she failed to tell them about something. ... The town of Northlake is kind of a joke, and the police department is a major-league joke.”
Tampering with evidence is a third-degree felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison. Denton County Assistant D.A. Kevin Henry said he expects to present the felony case to a grand jury in late January or early February.
As for the misdemeanor, “they’re going to have a hell of a time proving that one,” Trantham said.
Investigators are tight-lipped while the arson investigation is active, but they are obviously trying to link Arnold to the fire. Burns said she and Howard have been encouraged to make deals in exchange for telling everything they know, including any role that Arnold might have played. Burns and Howard have insisted they know of no arson plot.
Arnold said she sleeps with the ease allowed by a clear conscience, although the hassle of moving, the bad press, the loss of a job and the dude ranch, and the police intimidation can be unnerving. Here she is, at a time when people start thinking about retirement or at least slowing down, and Arnold is faced with starting a new business from scratch and trying to pay off another ranch. Still, Arnold isn’t one to sit around and mope. She’ll do what she’s always done — don a mink coat, pull up her tall boots, put on two shades of lipstick, and climb back on the horse that threw her.
“Maybe I should write a book,” she said.
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