Read Luggage By Kroger: A True Crime Memoir Online

Authors: Gary Taylor

Tags: #crime, #dallas, #femme fatale, #houston, #journalism, #law, #lawyers, #legal thriller, #memoir, #mental illness, #murder, #mystery, #noir, #stalkers, #suicide, #suspense, #texas, #true crime, #women

Luggage By Kroger: A True Crime Memoir (10 page)

BOOK: Luggage By Kroger: A True Crime Memoir
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Late 1970s

Each capital murder trial in those
early years of the new process promised its own special twist.
Early in my tenure came the trial of "Sleeping" Billy Wayne White,
who, at age twenty in March of 1977, became the youngest killer
sentenced to death to that date from Harris County. I gave him his
nickname and made him an international celebrity.

Billy had capped a short but
illustrious juvenile record by killing a sixty-five-year-old woman
who ran a furniture store with her husband. Billy shot her dead
while robbing the couple in their store, killing her in front of
her husband without provocation and for no reason anyone could
fathom. No one could figure why he left the old man alive to
testify at his trial, either. Billy had no defense and presented no
witnesses. His court-appointed attorney, Leroy Peavy, emerged as
his only hope. I discussed the case with Peavy before trial and
eagerly awaited the event. It was to be Peavy's first death penalty
defense, and he planned to put capital punishment on trial. He
boned up for weeks, gathering all facts ever used against capital
punishment. He knew Billy would never win an acquittal on the
evidence. But Peavy hoped he could turn jurors against the system
itself and convince them to sentence his client to life in prison
instead of death.

I watched as Peavy began his
impassioned plea. But I couldn't hear him clearly. Another sound
was drowning him out. I looked around for signs of a broken air
conditioner or some other mechanical malfunction and saw nothing.
Then I spotted Billy at the defense table. While his lawyer begged
for his life, Billy had laid his head on the table and gone sound
to sleep. Billy wasn't just dozing. He snored like a big dog just
home from a run in the park. Jurors poked each other and pointed at
Billy while Peavy continued, pretending to ignore him. The lawyer
resembled a singer who forgets the lyrics but continues to hum with
the melody because the show must go on. Once Peavy completed his
summation, however, he succumbed to his own disgust and that only
made things worse. Taking his seat beside Billy as the prosecutor
rose to offer the state's final argument, Peavy tried to nudge
Billy with an elbow and jostle him awake. Billy raised his head,
glanced at Peavy, and then waved him away with one of his hands
while clearly mouthing the words: "Fuck off, asshole."

The jury deliberated all of thirty minutes
before sending Billy to Death Row, and the wire services picked up
my front page story to share it with the world. I felt sympathetic
for Peavy as the hard working advocate, but he seemed unfazed the
next day. He smiled and told me he would appeal the conviction on
the grounds his client suffered a sleeping ailment and could not
assist with the defense. So, for two days in a row, Sleeping Billy
made front page news in Houston and around the world. The State of
Texas eventually executed Billy on April 23, 1992, after exhausting
all appeals.

About a year after Billy became the
county's youngest immigrant to Death Row, eighteen-year-old Anthony
"Bo Peep" Williams dislodged him from the record books. Bo Peep
earned his nickname from the neighborhood where he had gained a
reputation for peeking around trees and corners while hiding from
other kids who generally wanted nothing to do with him. One night
in 1977, Bo Peep was cruising through a bowling alley parking lot
when he saw thirteen-year-old Vickie Lynn Wright walking to her
sister's car. Vickie was really excited because this was the first
time her parents had ever let her accompany their older daughter to
bowl. She had left something in the car and went outside to
retrieve it. But she never made it back inside. Bo Peep grabbed
her, took her in the nearby woods, raped her, and then beat her to
death with a two-by-four he'd found in a trash pile.

He had no defense
for his crime, either, and faced an overwhelming collection of
physical evidence. But his appointed lawyer also did his best,
presenting witnesses to show that Bo Peep lacked the mental
faculties to accept responsibility. The night before a psychiatrist
testified in court, I received a copy of
National Geographic
magazine and read
the cover story about a research gorilla with a verifiable I.Q. of
eighty-two at the Yerkes Primate Center. The next day I stared at
Bo Peep in the courtroom and listened while that psychiatrist
estimated his I.Q. at seventy-five. I thought about that little
girl who had paid the ultimate penalty for leaving something in her
sister's car. I thought about the older sister who likely would
never forgive herself for letting Vickie run to the car alone. I
thought of the parents in the hallway crying throughout the trial.
I thought about that gorilla at Yerkes who probably had spent his
day showing off his eighty-two I.Q. by moving wooden blocks around
on a table while scientists recorded grades. I wondered: What are
we supposed to do? Then I had to leave the courtroom because I
realized I was fighting a nearly irresistible urge to grab Bo Peep
around the throat and stomp his ugly face.

I would see Bo
Peep again in 1987 on assignment for
magazine shortly before his
execution that year on May 28.
was researching a broader story on the death
penalty and assigned me to interview three residents of Texas's
Death Row. I picked the subjects myself and included Bo Peep in
that group because I had never been able to shake him from my mind.
On Death Row, Bo Peep had found religion. But he remained adamant
about his innocence. Another Bo Peep had killed that girl, he told
me. He had been there, too, but he hadn't struck the blows. Those
came from the other Bo Peep, the bad one who always got him
trouble. And I wondered again:
What are we
to do

Daily the courts beat offered more
difficult lessons on cruelty and violence than I had ever
experienced covering police. While the police beat exposed me to
the gore at crime scenes, trials provided the final review with all
the pieces in place—excuses and whining from the defendants
drowning out the cries of the victims as each case presented a
neatly finished story to digest. Every time I thought I had heard
it all, I would arrive at court to hear something worse, and it
hardly came only from the capital trials.

One assault case, for example,
involved a strip club bouncer convicted for beating a customer into
a vegetative state, overreacting to his resistance when evicted
from the club. Prosecutors wheeled the customer into the courtroom
on a gurney where he lay in a coma like an organic Exhibit A while
jurors heard testimony from witnesses. The bouncer went to prison,
and the customer never left the nursing home.

Another case involved a mother who
had intentionally infected her own child with feces to keep her
sick and bedridden in a hospital because the mother was infatuated
with physicians. The mother suffered an obsessive psychological
disorder known as Munchausen's Syndrome by Proxy that forced her to
constantly seek the excitement of hospitals while pretending to be
a victim of unexplainable illness to her child. A jury convicted
her of injury to the child.

Although odds usually favor the
state, some sensational cases did end with acquittals. In 1979,
prominent attorney David Berg won acquittal for a woman accused of
killing her lover, cutting his body into five pieces, and burying
him in an orange grove. He convinced the jury that the dead man had
been a monster who beat his client regularly, read books on Satan
worship, and even rooted for the Nazis during a television movie
about the Holocaust. At Berg's victory press conference I couldn't
resist the urge and asked in front of the cameras: "Is it true you
were paid an arm and a leg?"

Two of the biggest cases on my
watch did not involve capital murder. First came the 1977 trial of
two Houston cops accused of murder in the drowning of an Hispanic
laborer named Joe Torres. They had thrown him into a creek after he
resisted arrest for being drunk. Even before the trial, the
incident had swallowed the city, pitting its Hispanic community
against the police department, and spawning a riot. The two cops
hired top legal guns Mike Ramsey and Bob Bennett, who had the trial
moved to Huntsville seeking an impartial jury. The trial was held
in an auditorium at Sam Houston State University's criminology
school, allowing students to fill the audience seats and witness
real justice in action. Reporters sat at a table on the main floor,
right beside the defendants taking notes. I lived in a dormitory
room at the school for about three weeks, sending stories back to
the newsroom every evening.

In the end, prosecutors could not
prove that the cops had intended Torres to die when they tossed him
into the bayou. The cops admitted losing their tempers and beating
on Torres. But they said they meant to cut him a break by releasing
him instead of taking him to jail. They were surprised he didn't
survive. Prosecutors Bert Graham and Ted Poe argued the cops
probably didn't want to take Torres to jail where his beating would
be discovered. Nevertheless, they couldn't sell all the jurors on a
theory of murder-by-drowning, and the jury compromised with a
verdict of negligent homicide. I thought that decision pretty fair
after hearing all the evidence, but Bert considered it the first
case he ever had lost. The sentence of one year's probation on the
misdemeanor charge only incited new animosity among Houston's
Hispanics, and the Torres case remained a sore spot for

I couldn't know it then, but Bert
was destined for an important role ahead in the explosion of my
relationship with Catherine Mehaffey.

Between October of 1978 and January
1979, Houston hosted one of the sensational trials of Fort Worth
industrialist and millionaire T. Cullen Davis. A leading Fort Worth
citizen and socialite, Davis had been embroiled in a high stakes
divorce case that reached a crescendo when someone entered his Fort
Worth mansion and killed his estranged wife's boyfriend as well as
her daughter from a prior marriage. Police focused on Davis as the
killer and took him to trial in 1977 with a hung jury as the
result. While waiting for a second trial on the murder, the case
took another bizarre twist as police arrested Davis again, alleging
he had tried to hire a hit man to assassinate the judge in his
hotly contested divorce case. Because of Davis's standing in Fort
Worth, prosecutors wanted to move the Davis cases elsewhere. So,
they showed up in my courthouse seeking an impartial Houston jury
to hear their charges of conspiracy to commit capital murder in the
plot on the judge.

The Davis trial in Houston gave new
meaning to the phrase "legal circus." The millionaire had a
high-priced defense team headed by legendary Houston attorney
Richard "Racehorse" Haynes, who had just won the mistrial for Davis
in the first murder trial and eventually would succeed in clearing
Davis on all charges. But the Fort Worth prosecutors boasted strong
evidence in the alleged plot on the judge. It had begun when police
character David McCrory visited police claiming Davis had hired him
to kill the judge. Detectives enlisted McCrory as an undercover
operative and told him to continue with the plot while they
secretly monitored his negotiations with the millionaire. They
persuaded the targeted judge to feign a death pose in the trunk of
a car with ketchup splattered on his body for a photo used by
McCrory to collect his fee from Davis. They wired McCrory for sound
and took film of him meeting with Davis in the parking lot of a
Fort Worth diner. Essentially, they had captured the conspiracy on
film. Jurors needed only to watch the screen and listen to the
tapes. But Racehorse had other ideas.

After Percy Foreman and with the
possible exception of Foreman protégé Dick DeGuerin, Racehorse
still ranks as the most colorful criminal defense attorney ever in
a city that seems to breed them. His nickname stemmed from high
school football in Houston where he excelled as an undersized but
aggressive linebacker. Pacing back and forth behind his line
waiting to move for the kill, young Richard's coach compared him
with a racehorse and the name stuck. It also became a great handle
for a criminal defense icon in Houston, and Racehorse had achieved
that stature by the end of the 1970s. Handsome, eloquent, and
witty, he enthralled jurors with his language and knowledge of the

For Davis, he conducted a clinic on
how to drag out a trial until no jurors remember the evidence or
why they even are there. He questioned all witnesses relentlessly,
asking the same questions dozens of different ways. Even as the
judge overruled his questions on objections from prosecutors, he
hammered away. He attacked McCrory head on, questioning every word
uttered on the tapes, and challenging his unsavory background. On
the defense, he called multiple witnesses designed to paint Davis's
estranged wife, Priscilla, as the cause of the trouble. The parade
included an old boyfriend whose motorcycle had left oil stains in
the Davis driveway. Outside the courthouse one day, the biker sold
custom T-shirts that displayed pictures of Davis and Racehorse
sitting beside a chimpanzee above the slogan: "What price justice,
Racehorse?" Although overpriced at ten dollars, I bought a couple
as souvenirs and took the biker out for a few beers. The defense
finally climaxed with testimony from Davis himself claiming the
plot had been McCrory's idea. He said he had gone along with the
plot as a self-appointed undercover agent gathering evidence
against McCrory and just hadn't had time to deliver his case to
police. Racehorse painted Davis as the victim of a prosecutorial
scam motivated by their failure to convict him in the murder. The
jury hung up eight-to-four for conviction, and Fort Worth's
prosecutors decided against retrying that case, choosing instead to
move ahead on the original murder. Eventually, that ended with an
acquittal in Fort Worth.

BOOK: Luggage By Kroger: A True Crime Memoir
13.88Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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