Longest Serving Sheriff


From 1896 to 1904 A.B. Shackleton worked as a deputy sheriff and a constable. In 1903, he decided to run against his boss and incumbent sheriff of Lunenburg County, Virginia, C.S. Bagley who had hired Shackleton as a deputy when he was first elected. The deputy defeated his former boss in that election and remained sheriff until his retirement at the age of eighty-three in 1955.

I first heard of Sheriff Shackleton when a friend sent me a magazine he found in old family papers. It was The National Sheriff magazine of August-September, 1951. Sheriff Shackleton shared the front page of the magazine with a twenty-two year old sheriff from Scott County, Kansas. The headline was 'The Oldest and the Youngest' and the magazine declared that Shackleton, at 79, was the oldest sheriff in the nation.


A 1946 bulletin of the FBI reported that the Sheriff was one of the most popular men in Lunenburg County and was more familiarly known there as 'Shack'. The bulletin also reported that during his tenure as sheriff from 1904 until the article was written in 1946 there were only two major unsolved crimes in his jurisdiction.

There are several newspaper accounts of the Sheriff's exploits in law enforcement. In 1910 he is reported to have arrested a black man who was accused of attempting to attack the eight year old daughter of a prominent citizen. Under the cover of darkness, Sheriff Shack spirited the inmate from Lunenburg County to a jail in another city to prevent the suspect from being lynched by an angry mob.

In 1937 Sheriff Shack arrested a member of a prominent Virginia family for taking part in a bank robbery. A bank employee was shot during the robbery. The publicity surrounding the crime prompted the Virginia legislature to begin a movement to establish a state police radio and teletype system to aid officers in the battle against such brazen crimes committed in the glare of daylight.

When he retired, he is reported to have said that he'd been in office longer than any other sheriff in the nation. He also said that, "people are not any worse now than they used to be."

Sheriff Shack began his law enforcement career in the horse and buggy era of transportation, when bare knuckles, fast shooting, and a hangman's rope ended many crime sprees. When he retired, police radios, radar, and polygraph (lie detector) machines were in use. There were rumors of atomic wars and still to come was the age of high-tech computers,  GPS systems, Tasers, DNA evidence, drones and rubber bullets. If he was still with us, my guess is that Sheriff Shack would accept these new law enforcement tools as just a part of the ever improving science associated with his life-long profession.

Sheriff Shack, a life-long resident of Lunenburg County, married his sweetheart, Mary Belle, just a year after being elected sheriff. Mary Belle was also a native of the county. When asked what he was going to do in retirement at the age of 83, Shack simply said, "I'm going to stay home with my pretty wife." He did just that until his death three years later in 1958.

Sheriff Lawrence Rainey – A Law Enforcement Embarrassment

Sheriff Rainey & Deputy Price
This is a re-run of a very popular story I published some time ago.

One of my most popular blog stories was titled A Police Chief during times of change. The story was about Houston’s Police Chief Herman Short. (still available to read on this blog) Short served as Chief during the 1960’s, a time in the South when traditional white values were being challenged and law enforcement leaders were measured by their response to the tides of change.

It is tempting to compare such leaders to those who followed 20 or even 50 years later, but doing so gives no context to the times during which they served. A more accurate comparison is with other southern law enforcement leaders of the time. As you read about Neshoba County, Mississippi Sheriff Lawrence Rainey, consider how each man, Chief Short and Sheriff Rainey, responded to change. 

Lawrence Rainey was a one-term sheriff in Neshoba County, Mississippi. He campaigned for the job by responding to those traditional southern white values of segregation and keeping ‘negroes’ in their place. During the campaign he said, “I’m the man who can cope with the situations that might arise,” a reference to dealing with the civil rights activism then coming to the south. And “cope with the situation” he did!

Rainey completed eight years of formal education before becoming a mechanic. But, to the detriment of the profession, he soon found his way into law enforcement. In 1959 he was working as a Philadelphia, Mississippi police officer. His reputation was that of a brutal enforcer, especially in the black community. He killed one black man and is reported to have whipped another with a leather strap after stripping his shirt from his back, exacting his own form of justice on the streets of this small Mississippi town that became infamous in the movie, Mississippi Burning.

In 1963 he ran for sheriff of Neshoba County and won. He was known as a tobacco chewing, back-slapping Klansman, whose reputation suggested he supported the status quo in its quest to stop the freight train of change coming to the south. Just months into his term, three civil rights workers, James Chaney, Michael Schwermer, and Andy Goodman went missing after being released from Rainey’s jail.

A quote from the Sheriff at the beginning of the investigation is interesting. He said, “...and if any semblance of violence should seem to be in the making just leave it to the law enforcement officers." Was it a slip of the tongue or a veiled reference to what had already occurred?
Wright and Rainey


Not long after that comment, Rainey, his deputy Cecil Wright and 15 other men were indicted in federal court for the murder of the three men. Seven, including the deputy, were convicted, but Rainey was not. Their arrogance was amazing. Shown in the photo above, Rainey and his deputy, display a confident smugness upon their indictment.

Maybe the bravest comment made at the time was by the eleven year old son of James Chaney, who, even before the sheriff was indicted, said publicly, “and I want us all to stand up here together and say just one more thing. I want the sheriff to hear this good. WE AIN’T SCARED NO MORE OF SHERIFF RAINEY!”


Things didn’t go well for the former sheriff after the trial. He moved to Franklin, Kentucky to work as a policeman. But when the newspapers reported his arrival, civil rights activists sounded the alarm, and the offer of a job was withdrawn. Lawrence Rainey never worked in law enforcement again!

“The FBI set out to break me... and they did it.” Rainey said. “They kept me down to colored folks money,” apparently referring to his job as a security guard at a trailer park. He died in 2002 at age 79.
Lawrence Rainey didn’t accept a changing society, and as a result, lost the only career that apparently ever made him feel important.

Galveston Bookshop

Galveston Bookshop 

317 23rd Street, Galveston, Texas 409-750-8200

Murder on the Seawall

Saturday, April 9th, 2:00-4:00 p.m.
Larry Watts joins us Saturday, April 9th from 2:00-4:00 p.m. with his detective mystery set in Galveston
murder-on-the-seawall-cover-340wMurder on the Seawall
Murder on the Seawall is the third book in the Tanner & Thibodaux series featuring a retired Delta Force soldier and a retired cop, who have teamed up as detectives to fight for justice in the small towns of Texas. Now they travel to Galveston to solve the murder of a wealthy businessman whose tough-as-nails mother has not only hired them, but has instructed them as to who should be arrested for the murder. Tanner & Thibodaux quickly learn the family’s Galveston history which began in the whorehouses and gambling joints at the water’s edge. They also rule out family matriarch, Molly B’s favorite suspect along the way.
Larry Watts likes to say that he reinvents himself every 20 years going from country boy, to cop, to labor negotiator, and now author of social justice, crime and mystery novels. Larry draws on his many years in law enforcement in representing Texas peace officers and their investigative procedures in his novels. This is his sixth published novel. He lives on the Texas Gulf Coast with his wife Carolyn.

KING KENT, AN OUT OF CONTROL FEDERAL JUDGE

"KING" KENT
Judge Sam Kent was appointed to the federal bench by George Bush in 1990. He was the only federal district judge in Galveston, Texas. During his tenure on the federal bench he was described by those who spent time in his court as a bully. In an article written after his downfall, Texas Monthly Magazine described him as the most powerful person in Galveston. His reputation was such that some referred to him as 'King Kent' and he was reported to enjoy using the moniker himself at times.

In 1994, when sentencing a former police officer, Billy Sanchez, to prison for sexual assault of several Galveston prostitutes, Kent was attributed with the following quote, which, if he had replaced the words 'police' with 'judge' and 'uniform' with 'robe' might well have applied to his own behavior. 

"This court views illegal police conduct as being akin to treason. Cloaked with the awesome mantle of power, honor and responsibility with which society imbues its police, the rogue cop uses that mantle as a cloak of evil..." said Judge Kent. He went on to say that Sanchez behaved like a cowardly predator, using his very uniform and police status to victimize what he perceived to be weak and vulnerable prey. When offered the opportunity to address the court, Mr. Sanchez declined.

Just a few years after sentencing Sanchez to fifteen years, the maximum allowed, King Kent himself would be facing a prison sentence for obstruction of justice, a charge to which he admitted repeatedly engaging in 'nonconsensual sexual contact' with two female employees who worked for him. The accusations included the judge grabbing the breasts, running his hands up the skirts and sodomy of those whose very jobs depended on the whim of his desires. So instead of the power of a uniform and police badge, King Kent used the judge's robe and his standing as a federal judge to abuse women who worked for him.

The judge, however, would receive a more lenient sentence of just 33 months in prison than that which he had bestowed upon the errant cop. But even that was too much for the bully judge. Once in prison, he whimpered that he should be released because he was treated inhumanely and that prison officials were mistreating him. Fortunately, the magistrate hearing his pleas dismissed his whining accusations and, at least temporarily, left his sentence intact.

According to Wikipedia, Sam Kent was furloughed in July 2011 to attend his daughter's wedding and permitted to serve the remainder of his prison term at his home in west Texas. Billy Sanchez should be out of prison as well, but it is likely that he served much more of his sentence than did King Kent.

THE JUDGE WHO HAD A PRICE TAG

Judge Bates after arrest
Texas elects all its judges. Some say the need to raise campaign funds and placate the wishes of various political constituencies, corrupts the wearers of the black robes. That may be true, but that's not the subject of this blog. This blog is about a district court judge in Harris County, Texas who was willing to sell his integrity one felony case at a time. It's also about others who worked in the criminal justice system who took on this powerful judge and sent him to prison.

Sergeant Bob Rees and Officer Stan Plaster worked in Houston's Vice Squad. One of their informants told them he'd been in a poker game at which there was some talk about bribing a judge by pawn shop owner Nukie Fontenot. Seems Nukie had been indicted for receiving stolen property, theft and aggravated robbery. But he was a lucky guy. His case ended up in the courtroom of Judge Garth Bates.

The case that Nukie Fontenot was charged in was being worked by Detectives Sam Nuchia and Earl Musick, two cops who enjoyed their work. They took a simple approach to this case. Although there's little debate that the "briber" and the "bribee" are equally criminals, a judge has a higher standard to live up to. So the detectives contacted Nukie and told him simply that they knew he was trying to bribe the judge. The old saying that there is no honor among thieves proved to be accurate once again. Nukie agreed to record conversations, become a state's witness and help put the good judge away.

I won't lay out all the details of the pay-off, but for $60,000 Bates agreed to see that Nukie didn't have to spend time in prison. After the money was paid, the intermediary between the Judge and Nukie, a man by the name of Ed Riklin, was arrested outside his apartment on McCue Street in Houston. As that task was completed, the detectives got a pleasant surprise. Judge Bates, driving his Cadillac, pulled into the parking lot. When he realized his friend was being arrested, he attempted to leave, but was stopped by the officers. Detective Musick arrested him, found $2,900 of the marked money in his coat pocket and a pistol on the seat of the Caddy.

Earl Musick
Now Earl Musick took his job seriously. He carried a card with the Miranda Warning printed on it and read the warning to the good Judge as required. Bates was insulted and interrupted Detective Musick to assure him he was a district judge and understood the law. Maybe so, maybe not, but he continued to talk to the detectives, telling them what a grave mistake they were making by arresting him. Some of that conversation was used against him at trial.

When the case went to court, the prosecutor admitted into evidence the little blue card with the Miranda Warning printed on it that Musick carried. After Bates was convicted, the Detective was allowed to retrieve the card and still has it as a memento, since he is one of the few, if not the only, law enforcement officer in Texas who has ever read a sitting district court judge his legal rights.

Bates got 8 years in prison for selling justice from the bench, but he only served 3 months. Seems fellow District Court Judge Thomas Routt managed to change the former judge's sentence to allow him to be placed on shock probation. The two men not only served as district court judges together, but both had been municipal (or traffic) court judges previously for the City of Houston.

Sam Nuchia later became Houston's police chief, an attorney and a judge himself. Earl Musick obtained his law degree and now practices law in Houston. I wasn't able to learn much about Garth Bates after his conviction. He'd be 100 years old today if still alive, but then they say, only the good die young. I'm pretty sure of one thing though, he's no longer wearing a long black robe with a price tag hanging off it.

THE PIMPING POLICEMAN

In 1950 politicians hadn't invented the "war on drugs" and J. Edgar Hoover was still denying that the U.S. had an organized crime problem called the "mafia". Law enforcement had yet to learn that convincing the public the legitimacy of the war on drugs would be a huge cash cow for police and swell their ranks beyond anything imaginable.

So, when local politicians needed a law and order issue to campaign on, they accused their opponents of being soft on, or if running against an incumbent, ignoring the gambling and prostitution going on right under their noses. That's what Houston Mayor Oscar "the old gray fox" Holcombe faced from his two opponents that year. So Mayor Holcombe, who had a legitimate reputation of allowing such vices to thrive in his City, needed a police crackdown.

Windal "Dick" Sherman Satterfield was a 21 year old former high school football player who was later described in newspaper accounts as tall and handsome. He had a job making $90.00 a week. He left that job in the summer of 1950 and became a rookie Houston police officer at a salary of less than $50.00 a week. Some might have thought he had suffered a concussion on the football field. But Officer Satterfield wasn't stupid. He was an entrepreneur.

Only months into his new career, Satterfield rented an expensive apartment and installed his new girlfriend, Tony Middleton, there to run his call-girl operation. He then added Vicki Fillbeck and Bonnie Jean Day to his stable and began bringing in $2000 a week in his new business. All three ladies were described in newspaper accounts as shapely and attractive. But Tony wasn't happy for long. She told her new boyfriend that she wanted to retire from "turning tricks" and just be available for his pleasure.

Now being a young and inexperienced pimp, Dick Satterfield didn't respond as most pimps would have by beating his number one whore with a clothes hanger. Instead, he hit the streets and found another lovely girl who had just arrived from Dallas and was plying her trade independently of a business manager/pimp. He suggested that she join his stable and she declined. Dick decided to convince her by giving her the beating any self-respecting pimp would have given Tony. But it didn't work. She reported him to the police and then accused those she reported it to of beating her as well.

But remember, Mayor Holcombe needed to "clean up" the City for the upcoming election. So Officer Satterfield and his three employees were arrested and held at the police station until they gave confessions. As is often the case, there was one embarrassing detail the good Mayor might have preferred not been made public.  Satterfield told reporters that in Houston, prostitutes had to pay police $40.00 a week to work at their trade. A grand jury was convened but his appearance postponed as they looked for other witnesses.

Satterfield was fired, the Mayor won another term and there was no more mention in the newspapers of a grand jury to investigate pay-offs by the local whores to police. Research indicates that the young officer lived more than 50 years after being fired and is buried in his birth state of Alabama, never again making the news.

NEW RELEASE! MURDER ON THE SEAWALL

My latest is now available for purchase in paperback or as an e-book. Murder on the Seawall is the third in the Tanner & Thibodaux Series. The first in the series is Homicide in Black & White. 

The latest, Murder on the Seawall, takes place in Galveston, Texas. Tanner and Thibodaux solve the mysterious murder of a wealthy businessman whose mother insists on bringing the killer to account. Molly B is a character in her own right, having grown up in the bordellos of Galveston Island and married a young gambler who ran a numbers racket for the mob. Both turned their entrepreneurial spirit toward creating a successful and legitimate business and becoming very wealthy in the process. Come with the two detectives as they explore the local culture on the Island while searching for clues to who murdered Molly B's son.

If you would like the paperback version of Murder on the Seawall, it is available at the following link, as well as all the on-line bookstores you usually shop. 
https://www.createspace.com/5505726




THE MAD BUTCHER

Ed Gein
Ever wonder who inspired the insane characters in movies such as Psycho, The Silence of the Lambs, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and for the hardcore followers of such movies, Deranged and In the Light of the Moon? In all those movies it was probably a man whose name you’ve never heard.

Ed Gein was one of the most bizarre murderers in history. He was born at the turn of the 20th century and raised on a farm in Wisconsin with his older brother, Henry. Their mother raised them alone as the father was an violent alcoholic who abandoned the family. Ed’s mother was a fanatical religious zealot who taught her sons that all women, except herself, were whores and prostitutes who would cause them to be condemned to hell.

The two sons stayed with their mother on the farm after becoming adults. Their father died in 1940 and the older brother, Henry, began to reject his mother’s view of the world and probably more specifically, her view toward women.

Four years later, he and Ed were fighting a brush fire on their property. When the fire was extinguished, Ed reported to the sheriff that his brother was missing. When authorities arrived, he led them directly to his brother’s body. Although the brother had a wound to his head described as a blunt trauma wound, the death was ruled accidental as a result of asphyxiation. This may have been Ed Gein’s first murder.

Inside the madman's house

Not long after Henry died, Ed Gein's mother also bit the dust. So he was left alone to grieve and what a way he chose to deal with it. In 1957 a store clerk disappeared. The last sales receipt she wrote was to Ed Gein. The sheriff went to his house to interview Gein, but apparently he wasn't at home. As the sheriff walked into a shed on the property, he saw a headless woman's body hanging like a gutted deer from the ceiling. It was the missing clerk's body.

Gein soon confessed to also having murdered a barmaid in 1954. Numerous body parts were recovered at his home. It was a sick mind of a man who skinned a woman to create a body suit from the skin. He apparently wore the suit at times. Gein also made a belt with female nipples attached as studs around it. He was particularly interested in harvesting and preserving female body parts. But there weren't that many missing women in the entire State.  Who where the women whose body parts Gein had collected?

Gein arrested
When questioned, the deranged man told investigators that he had taken the body parts from recently buried females in the local cemetery. He said he had recruited an ally, who was identified by only the first name, Gus, to go with him to the cemetery the night after a funeral, dig up the body, harvest the parts Gein wanted, from skin to sex organs, and then return the body to its grave. Authorities confirmed his story after opening several graves and finding the mutilated remains. By the time Ed Gein was arrested, his accomplice, Gus, had been placed in a nursing home and was apparently not prosecuted.

Gein said he wouldn't have started killing women except that when his friend Gus went to a nursing home, it was too hard for him to dig up the corpses by himself. When asked if he performed sexual acts with the corpses, he consistently denied it, saying simply that the bodies smelled terrible.

Ed Gein was determined to be insane and spent the remainder of his life in a mental hospital. But he is immortalized, after a fashion, by becoming the model for deranged characters in movies, some listed at the beginning of this story and others, including the release in the U.S. in 2001 of the movie In the Light of the Moon, under the new title, Ed Gein, the Butcher of Plainfield.





POLICE CHIEF FOR 41 YEARS!

Billy Neal moved from deep East Texas to Vidor when his wife, Sue, got a job there as a teacher. He drove a truck for a construction company. The problem was, it rained so much he couldn't get a full weeks pay more often than not. So Billy, at the age of twenty-two, drove to the neighboring town of Nederland to see his friend, Bill Pardon, who was the City's Assistant Police Chief. He hoped his friend would have advice about a job that didn’t depend on sunshine.

“We’ve got a job for a patrolman,” his friend said. “If you want it, it’s yours.”

“I don’t know anything about police work. I’ve never even sat in a police car,” the future police chief responded.

Apparently never having been in a police car was qualification enough, because the following week, Billy Neal was the night shift patrol officer for the Nederland Police Department. He didn’t know how to write a ticket and when he made calls for police service, he had to rely on common sense, because he had no training. After a couple of weeks, they sent him for a week of training. Neal took the job just to tide him over financially until he could find other work.

When he told his wife he’d taken the job as a policeman she wasn’t happy. “Oh, no you’re not taking that job. I’ll never be married to a policeman,” Sue told him. She eventually relented, as long as he stayed only until he found other employment.

His wife continued to suggest other jobs he might pursue, but after a few months he quit looking. Billy Neal said he loved the work. He insists that until his last day, he was always eager to go to work and never remembers a time that he was unhappy with the job. When he quit looking for other careers though, he needed an excuse. The City had bought him some uniforms, so he rationalized that after they spent that much money on him, it would not be right to quit right away.

Two years later, at the age of twenty-four, both his friend Pardon and the Chief left the Department. The City hired a Chief from another town, but he didn’t last long. The City Council offered Billy the position with a $175 a month raise and a trip to Texas A&M University for a crash course on how to be a better policeman.

When he became police chief, Billy Neal was the youngest chief ever appointed in Texas. Forty-one years later, when he retired, he was (and probably still is) the longest serving police chief. His successor, Chief Darrell Bush, says he believes Neal is actually the longest serving police chief in the nation, but such records don't exist, making it difficult to verify.

Neal served as Nederland’s Police Chief from 1960 to 2001, I asked him about the famous James Commission investigation that occurred in Jefferson County (where Nederland is located) during the 1960’s. The investigation was initiated to ferret out police corruption related to prostitution and gambling, mostly in Beaumont and Port Arthur. Two police chiefs and a sheriff, along with other officers, lost their jobs as a result of the investigation and stories about the corruption were published throughout the nation.

Chief Neal said the investigation never really got to Nederland, mainly because there were no whorehouses or gambling joints in the City. He said his only encounter with corruption was shortly after he became Chief. A housewife called and complained that her husband was losing money every week when he went to a local bar and gambled in the back room. The Chief drove to the bar on a Friday evening and marched through the establishment to the back room, where he found the bar owner overseeing a gaming operation. He told the owner there would be no arrests that night, but that it was the last gambling he expected to take place there.

The businessman followed him out of the bar and asked, “How much do I need to pay you each month to keep my operation going?” The Chief repeated his no more gambling edict and told the man that offers of bribes landed people in jail. It was the last problem he had with that operation.

What about the Nederland Police Department’s reaction to the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960’s? Chief Neal said there was little unrest in his City. There was one neighborhood made up primarily of black residents.  He recalled only one conversation with the local NAACP during which both he and the representative made their positions clear, but there was no trouble. Chief Neal said he believed that was the case because of his approach to police work. He always believed and told his officers to treat everyone you come in contact with, the way you want to be treated. The Chief quickly added that he also made sure his officers understood they did not have to take abuse from anyone, regardless of race or any other factor.

Chief Neal always tried to take care of his officers and he was disappointed when he learned that they formed an association and were pursuing the right to collective bargaining. He’d never lost a political battle in his town. This would be the first time.

“This whole county is really union friendly and the voters agreed to let my guys form a union. It worked out alright though. I still ran the Department and they got some good pay raises. Once it was done, when I saw their union rep, I walked up to him and simply said, ‘Take care of my boys’,” the Chief said without a hint of animosity.

One of the Chief’s most memorable incidents was also the only occasion he ever wore a bullet-proof vest. A local resident shot and killed a woman, then barricaded himself inside the home. Officers arrived and surrounded the house. Meanwhile, Chief Neal obtained the phone number and called the man. A few minutes conversation allowed the Chief to establish rapport with him. He knew it had occurred when the man told him, “Chief, you might want to tell your officers they’re surrounding the wrong home. I’m next door to where they are.”

The Chief laughed as he told the story, but it didn’t end there. The man refused to lay down his pistol and come outside, saying he believed the officers would kill him. He insisted that the Chief come to the scene, enter the home and walk out with him. That’s when the Chief donned the bullet-proof vest.

When he arrived at the scene, he was met by Assistant Chief Kenneth Secrest. “What are we going to do if he shoots you?” the Assistant Chief asked.

Chief Neal didn’t waste words. “Kill him,” he said, as he began what he described as one of the longest walks of his life. It was only a few yards from the street to the house, but it seemed like miles. Chief Neal admitted to the fear he would be killed, but he got in the door and subdued the man. He said it was very little physical activity, but because of the adrenalin rush, he was worn out. When other officers took custody of the suspect he had to sit down for a few minutes.

The Chief credits his wife, Sue, with raising their three children almost by herself because he spent so much time at the Police Department. She was a school teacher in Nederland for thirty years. Their two daughters and son are all involved in education as well and have remained in their parents adopted town of Nederland.

Chief Billy Neal was an “accidental” police officer. He didn’t grow up with a burning desire to wear the badge. He, like so many others, simply stumbled into the career. His easy going manner and philosophy of treating everyone like he wants to be treated, caused him to excel, not only as police officer and chief, but as a man.

“I really didn’t want to retire,” he said, “but I knew it was time. “A year later I ran for City Council in Nederland and have served there ever since.” He's eighty years old now and shows little sign of slowing down.

“I’m proud that during my time as Chief I got to build a new police station and increase the number of officers. When I walk in today, I still feel like it’s my Department, although it’s now in the very capable hands of Chief Darrell Bush, my long-time personal friend and successor.”

It’s obvious that those at the Department today understand that too. They still address him as Chief even though he’s been retired for nearly fifteen years.





DEAD-EYE AND THE GHOST RIDERS GANG

Dead-eye Virgil Watts
It was a cool Tuesday evening in mid-March, 1948. Already one could feel that spring was fast approaching, but as dusk settled over the small Oklahoma town of Ripley, the shadowy figure wore a jacket to ward of the chill created by a mild breeze. He stepped onto the porch at the home of local horse trader, Cliff Cantrell. Quickly and quietly he pushed a tack with a note attached to one of the porch columns next to the front door. He moved swiftly back into the street and disappeared in the darkness. Thus began the short-lived crime spree of the Ripley Ghost Riders Gang.

There were four of them, none with criminal records. The note they left demanded the horse trader deliver seven horses to the bridge that crossed the Cimarron River just outside town. If, by dusk the next evening, the horses weren't there, he wouldn’t see his son again. Of course, the Cantrell’s son wasn’t missing, which was a flaw in the Gang’s plan. Jake, Otis Ted, and my brother, known within the gang as ‘Dead-eye,’ a nickname well-suited for a member of a ruthless gang of kidnappers, had dipped their collective toes into the cold waters of a criminal adventure.

Ripley was a peaceful community with virtually no crime. Those who saw the note questioned whether it might be just a prank, but the Sheriff was notified and the investigation began. A surveillance team staked out the road and the small, steep hills or bluffs that ran alongside the meandering, red clay tinted waters of the Cimarron. After hours of quietly waiting for the gang to appear, the deputies tired of swatting mosquitoes and called off the stake-out.

There were questions to consider. Did the gang get word of the surveillance? Would they make further demands? Was the Cantrell boy safe? A deputy sheriff by the name of Ralph White came up with a theory which he tested the next day.

When the Ripley Public School bell rang, signaling the start of the day’s classes, Deputy White asked the school principal to call all the boys into his office, one by one, to give handwriting samples. Word spread quickly through the halls that the kidnappers might be students and the Lawman was there to ferret out the guilty parties. This heavy-handed abuse of police powers worked before the Deputy had time to make the first comparison. The Ghost Riders Gang, ages 12 to 15, walked together to the principal’s office and confessed their crime.

Ted, the ringleader of the Gang, was reported in the local paper to have commented, “We really didn’t even want the horses and didn’t go to the bridge to see if they had been delivered. It seemed like it would be fun, but now it doesn’t seem so much. It just didn’t turn out like the cowboy movies.”

Deputy White reported that he gave all the boys a stern lecture and no charges would be filed. “The Ghost Riders,” he said, “had been dehorned once and for all.” He was right; none of the four continued lives of crime.

Virg' on the steel
‘Dead-eye’ Virgil Watts went on to become an accomplished steel guitar player. In a recent interview, he said that he and Otis were only involved in listening to Ted lay out the plan. They didn’t help write or deliver the note, but took their lecture along with their buddies. Ted had thought it would be a lot of fun and carried out the prank.

‘Dead-eye’ admitted that he might have had at least one other brush with the law. In the mid-1950s he was playing music at the Knickerbocker Inn, a working-class bar, reputed to be owned by a member of the Chicago Mob.

One night shortly after he arrived in Chicago and before he’d even unpacked his car bearing out-of-state license plates, he was stopped by a policeman. Now ‘Dead-eye’ says he’s sure he looked a little suspicious, what with the back seat full of clothes, guitars, amplifiers, and other assorted musical instruments. 
At the Knickerbocker

Upon questioning, he told the officer he was new in town and playing music at the Knickerbocker. The officer, apparently suspicious of the story, told him to drive to the club so he could verify it. Once there, ‘Dead-eye’ was instructed to stand by the door as the officer walked to the bar and talked with the owner. After a short conversation, his boss pulled a wad of bills from his pocket and gave a ten to the cop who left, ignoring ‘Dead-eye’ on his way out.

Once the officer was gone, his boss said, “When they stop you, just wrap a fiver around your driver’s license or lay it on the seat beside you. Don’t look at it. When he gives you back the license, the fiver’ll be gone. You won’t get a ticket and I won’t have to waste my time talkin’ to a copper.”

The advice worked and the boss was happy that he didn’t have to bail ‘Dead-eye’ out again. But it turned out that Dead-eye had to find other ways to get to work. Seems the officer recognized a regular source of extra income and stopped ‘Dead-eye’ every time he saw him.


All these years later, Dead-eye Virgil Watts still plays the steel guitar and will be inducted into the Western Swing Hall of Fame next year. If Deputy White was still around, he would likely take pleasure knowing that his compassionate approach to law enforcement with four young miscreants was a success. His lecture to the members of the Ripley Ghost Riders Gang and letting them slide on criminal charges was the right way to handle this prank that could also have been a crime.

UNCLE HILTY – FORMER COP, CROOK, & KID KILLER

McKay Everett called him Uncle Hilty. He was a neighbor to the Everett family and a friend of McKay and his parents. During his life, Hilton Crawford was identified by many names. He was a police officer in Beaumont, Texas for three years, a deputy in Jefferson County, Texas for fifteen, and a candidate for sheriff there when he ran against his boss, Sheriff Dick Culbertson in the 1970’s. He was also called business owner because he later owned a security guard services company. But what he would eventually be best known for and put to death as a result of, was the title murderer. He brutally took the life of his young friend and neighbor, Samuel McKay Everett. During his trial, he was also identified as a man engaged in fraud and murder for hire, all in the pursuit of more money.

As early as 1976, when he was campaigning for Sheriff, rumors swirled that Crawford’s campaign was financed by the Mafia. But he struck back, raising allegations against his opponent. It turned out to be a particularly nasty campaign in which he accused Culbertson and Beaumont Police Chief Willie Bauer of spreading rumors of Mafia connections in an effort to defeat him. He spent more money than any other candidate in Jefferson County that year, but Dick Culbertson remained sheriff then and for many years after.

By the 1990’s, Crawford and his family were living in Montgomery County, Texas. He had owned a security business which failed and left him without enough money to live as he was accustomed. He began working for another security guard company. But his lifestyle needed a large infusion of cash. It was then, apparently after attempting the less violent crime of fraud and the more serious attempt to hire another murderer, that Crawford himself kidnapped and murdered McKay.

After his conviction for kidnapping and murdering young McKay Everett, witnesses testified during the sentencing phase of the trial that he had tried to hire a hit man to kill a business associate. An insurance investigator testified that Crawford also staged a theft of his own property in order to get a settlement.

Finally, his demented mind struck upon the idea of kidnapping his friends’ son and collecting a ransom. Crawford enlisted a female accomplice to make the ransom demands. Next he set up a meeting with Mr. and Mrs. Everett to get them out of the house, never intending to be at the meeting himself, because he would be at their home kidnapping their young son. When McKay answered the door, he could never have believed his Uncle Hilty would commit the vicious acts that led to the boy’s death.

Crawford hit the boy over the head, stuffed him in the trunk of his car and drove away. One might have thought that a crook with eighteen years of experience in law enforcement would have a reasonably well-conceived plan for his heinous crime. But not Hilton Crawford. First, he didn’t show up for the meeting he’d arranged with the child’s parents, no doubt casting immediate suspicion his way. Next, he drove to the victim’s home in his own car which was observed by neighbors. Finally, at the first sign that his plan wouldn’t work, he murdered his victim, although that may have been the plan from the beginning, since McKay would certainly recognize him as the abductor.

It must have been surprising that night, after his accomplice Irene Flores called the father demanding a ransom, that his phone rang and it was his friend, McKay Everett’s father. He knew Hilton Crawford had experience in law enforcement. After calling 911 and his wife, Mr. Everett’s next call was to, unbeknownst to him, the murderer, to ask Crawford’s assistance in finding McKay. Hilton Crawford’s trip to the death chamber was made certain once he learned that his keystone kops kidnapping caper had failed miserably.

So the former cop was arrested and in hours had confessed to the kidnapping and divulged the location of the body. He continued to maintain, however, even as the death cocktail seeped into his veins, that a mysterious man by the name of R.L. Remington had actually killed McKay Everett. Most believe that Remington was a figment of Crawford’s imagination. McKay’s mother said she believed it represented the pistol her former neighbor and friend used to murder her son. He was convicted and sentenced to death.

Like many death row inmates, Hilton Crawford found Jesus as he waited for his sentence to be carried out. He was simply known by other death row inmates as “old man” and when executed, he was the second oldest inmate to have died in Texas’ death house. 

As he lay on the gurney, Crawford asked McKay’s mother, who was there to witness his execution, to forgive him and said he’d had a wonderful opportunity to serve Jesus while on death row. She responded to reporters later that forgiveness was God's job, bringing to mind that maybe Crawford had finally had a bit of good luck, finding Jesus on death row and all. 

Had Hilton Crawford pursued his religious reformation earlier in life, or have just practiced common decency, this story might well have been about the success of the man who McKay Everett might have become. We'll never know, but knowing of Hilton Crawford, we know for sure that evil exists in places we least expect.

FRENCH FRIES! THE EXECUTION OF JAMES FRENCH republished from November 2014

French said he wasn't afraid and took a seat
James Donald French was cool as a cucumber, self-assured, and a real showman, which may be the only positive attributes of his miserable life. He was convicted in 1958 by Oklahoma jurors for the murder of Frank Boone. Boone had given French a ride when he was hitchhiking in the Texas Panhandle. After driving into Oklahoma, French murdered the Good Samaritan and took his car. Arrested while he was driving the dead man's car, French was convicted and sentenced to life in prison

Smarter than the average killer.
By 1961, he murdered his cellmate, Eddie Shelton, and was again facing murder charges, this time from a prison cell. Either he or prison workers promoted the idea that he committed the murder because he lacked the courage to commit suicide, but did not want to remain in prison for the rest of his life. That idea was further promoted when he did his best to make a quick trip to Oklahoma's hot seat, the electric chair. But others who worked at the prison didn't buy the story, nor did they ascribe to a defense theory that he was insane.

James French
Questions regarding French’s sanity were raised as early as when he was arrested at sixteen, but while in federal prison (on unrelated charges) before the first murder, he finished high school and completed two years of college. He was reported to have written a book, WE, about the compulsion to commit crime. No record of the book was found by this writer. Psychiatric testimony, raised during one of his trials, revealed that his IQ was 117. The average intelligence score on most tests is 100.

After the murder of his cellmate, he admitted to the offense, saying he executed Shelton, just like the State executes people. French said his victim was like a rotten tomato that would destroy the whole basket. He determined there was no alternative but to kill the man. He also said Shelton had called him 'nuts.' In keeping with the tradition of providing the condemned a last meal, French allowed Shelton to have breakfast before strangling him to death.

He told the Court he wanted no appeal of his conviction and was not afraid of the electric chair. But the system wasn't inclined to grant his wish right away. His conviction was overturned and he was tried twice more before the Grim Reaper came to call. After the third conviction, he begged his family not to intercede and to let him die.

French remained calm and confident to the end. Talking to members of the press shortly before he was to be strapped in the chair, he said, “Hey, fellas. How about this for a headline for tomorrow’s paper? French Fries!

A few minutes later, when the Warden asked him if he had any last words, he said, "Everything’s already been said.” He shook hands with the Warden and a prison guard before taking a seat in the chair that would end his sorry life.

No record was found indicating any newspaper used his recommended headline the next day.