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 (8 page)

BOOK: Luggage By Kroger: A True Crime Memoir
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So, I was paying my dues, spending
every night trying to make sense of a cacophony of radio
conversations on the wall—listening specifically for the red light
codes of "DOA" or "officer down" or any other cry with news
potential. Usually once a night we'd hear something interesting,
interrupt our chess game, and drive to the scene of a crime. Back
then, the cops usually allowed us to walk around the dead bodies
with them as long as we didn't intrude or offend.

The big story from my one year of
night police duty occurred in November of 1972 when I fielded the
report of a DOA at an upscale address in Houston's posh River Oaks
section. The call came blaring from a police speaker early one
Sunday evening when I was alone in the press room. As a result, I
was the first reporter to arrive on the scene of the murder of Dr.
John Hill, a plastic surgeon who would become immortalized in Tommy
Thompson's best-selling true crime book Blood and Money. Hill had
been suspected in the poisoning death of his first wife, the
daughter of a wealthy Houston oil man. He was facing a second trial
in the case when intruders shot him dead in the doorway of his
River Oaks mansion.

I finished that one-year tour of night police
satisfied I had made the right move coming to Houston. The stories
just seemed to keep growing larger and more exciting. As a reporter
in Houston in the 1970s, I felt like a dog abandoned in a butcher
shop.

TEN

Mid-1970s

The larger
community of reporters in Houston was closer to my own age, and I
had no mentors to help me navigate the rivalries of this more
political environment. Reporters can be among the most egocentric
of professionals and back-stabbing ranks as a natural hazard of the
job. We could work together as a team, have some beers, and laugh
about outsiders. But once the
Post
presses rolled, we were as competitive among
ourselves as with our rivals at the
Chronicle
. The hidden side of every
newsroom resembles something out of Wild Kingdom as the reporters
cautiously circle each other while looking for weaknesses. It's a
rough place for anyone with thin skin, but that same natural system
also works more efficiently than pay hikes at producing special
stories. Peer pressure pushes almost everyone to reach while also
holding them in check against abusing their
power.

Of course, no
system is perfect, and, despite the fear of social scorn, every
newsroom produces its share of laggards content to slide by on one
end and overachievers willing to risk exposure for an exaggerated
scoop on the other. Overstepping the public trust with exaggeration
generates more vicious peer contempt than goofing off. Goof-offs
pose little threat to reporters vying for a chance to cover the big
one. Like jackals attacking a wounded lion, however, reporters move
faster than management when they see a chance to bring down a prima
donna from their own tribe by uncovering a fireable offense such as
plagiarism or invention of a source. And it's no coincidence that
the well-publicized scandals of plagiarism and fictionalized copy
at major news institutions in recent years were sparked primarily
by opportunistic whistle-blowing peers rather than any quality
control system designed by management. I watched journalism's
version of this natural selection process unfold in its basic state
during the 1970s at
The
Post
.

In the tradition of all the night
police beat reporters before me, I spent much of my time that first
year plotting a plan to escape it. Although the beat offered many
moments of excitement, night police overall resembled fireman's
duty that involved hours of waiting for something to happen. But
night police ranked as the standard first stop for new reporters,
forcing them to learn about the city by rapidly driving its streets
and testing their ability to get facts straight. I learned quickly
that success in this business springs not from talent as a writer
but from credibility as a reporter. The writing part of journalism
is less than 20 percent of the job. If a story is compared with a
journey, reporting is the selection of the destination and the
mapping for the trip. Writing is just the vehicle used to go there.
You may be driving a Porsche, but, if your destination is just a
McDonald's, you're still only eating fast food.

Over the next few
years I worked a variety of beats at
The
Post
that kept me outside the newsroom
itself. I covered county government and civil courts, working from
the press room at the civil courts building downtown. I also
created a state prison beat on a part-time basis, convincing
editors to let me spend one day each week looking for stories in
Huntsville, seventy miles north of Houston, where the Texas
Department of Corrections had its headquarters and primary unit
known affectionately as "The Walls." I also worked general
assignment for a while, just hanging out at the city desk and
taking any stories that might come along. Eventually I nabbed one
of the glamour beats, assuming the criminal courts mantle in
1977.

During those years between police
and courts, I developed a reputation as a trustworthy reporter who
could handle a wide range of stories, from the serious to the
silly. One of my major assignments began the night of July 24,
1974, when a south Texas drug lord named Fred Carrasco seized
control of the Walls prison unit in Huntsville. Aided by henchmen
Rudy Dominguez and Ignacio Cuevas, he grabbed eighty hostages using
pistols smuggled inside a ham. Taking refuge in the prison library,
they whittled their hostage roster down to a more manageable eleven
that included the system's chaplain, educators and some other
inmates. Aware that Carrasco was reputed to have murdered more than
a hundred persons running a drug empire along the border, prison
officials prepared for the worst and began negotiating a solution
to what would become, at eleven days, the longest prison hostage
siege in US history.

The national press quickly joined
us locals at the TDC headquarters in Huntsville, covering the
grounds around the stately, dark bricks of The Walls like some
invading army. Various news organizations pitched tents on the
grassy prison grounds for use as shelter while waiting for the
standoff to play out. The duty involved hours of monotony broken by
two or three daily briefings that allowed the prison staff to share
their latest exchanges with the inmates.

Our mood turned somber and serious on the
Saturday evening of August 3 as we sensed something set to happen.
Word spread through the press corps that a vehicle of some sort had
been moved into the unit, and we waited silently for a showdown. We
would learn later that prison officials had teamed with the
legendary Texas Rangers and hatched a plan to offer the inmates
transportation out aboard an armored car. As the inmates and their
hostages moved from the library to the car, lawmen hoped to knock
them down with high pressure water hoses and avoid a
bloodbath.

But Carrasco feared a trap. Before
leaving the library, he and his sidekicks taped together
chalkboards and textbooks to build what became known as their
"Trojan Horse" to shield them as they and the hostages walked
through the door and down a ramp to the armored car. When the hoses
failed to topple the horse, the shooting began. Within minutes, two
of the hostages lay dead beside Carrasco and Dominguez. And Cuevas
would spend the next seventeen years fighting the death penalty,
with the state's top criminal appellate lawyer, Will Gray, winning
appeals for Cuevas on three convictions before Cuevas finally
received a lethal injection in 1991. I did not know it then, but
Gray was destined to play an important role in my relationship
later with Catherine Mehaffey.

My previous work developing the
prison beat paid off the morning after the siege when I got an
exclusive interview with the system's bedraggled director, Jim
Estelle. With most of the deadline work completed just after the
shootout and unable to sleep, I had wandered over to The Walls from
our offsite motel room sanctuary to find the prison grounds
deserted, the tents emptied, and the grass littered with coffee
cups and other debris. Concluding no one was around, I prepared to
leave when a car drove by. Estelle sat behind the wheel, all alone,
and he spotted me. He pointed a finger toward his office window and
nodded. While he parked his car, I entered the administration
building that stood just a few hundred yards from the last night's
carnage. We talked for two hours about the event, the burdens of
responsibility, the realities of crime and punishment, and the myth
of rehabilitation. When we were done, I had a page one story. And
Estelle had the rest of his life to punish himself for all the
tragic things that went wrong.

I wish I could say I nailed the best story
from the Carrasco siege with my interview of Estelle, but another
reporter trumped that the next day. He cornered the local justice
of peace who had authority in that rural area to declare the cause
of death for Carrasco and Dominguez. His decision:
Suicide.

"Suicide?"

"Yep, suicide," said his honor.
"Everybody knows it's just plain suicide to go up against the Texas
Rangers."

ELEVEN

Mid-1970s

As a general
assignments reporter at
The Post
during the 1970s, I polished a reputation for
versatility. I showed I could handle soft features, hard-breaking
news and investigative challenges. The paper sent me to spend a
weekend in a Texas nudist camp. I covered a Ku Klux Klan rally. I
sat with blind children at a circus. I attended an underwater
wedding held in a tank on the front lawn of a church where a
skin-diving minister married a skin-diving couple who wrote their
"I dos" on an underwater slate. I stood in line for the
movie
Jaws
and
wrote a feature about the people willing to wait to see a movie. I
covered explosions. Every day was a new adventure. I joined a
prison inmate as he left The Walls after serving a sentence for
marijuana possession and experienced his first three days of
freedom with him. I won a statewide enterprise reporting award for
work on a series of stories exposing the use of electric cattle
prods by a local police department to extract
confessions.

In late 1975 I
received an unexpected phone call from a recruiter for the weekly
tabloid scandal sheet,
The National
Enquirer
. He said he had read one of
my
Post
features
about the tactics of bill collectors headlined "Wolf at the Door"
and thought that I might be
Enquirer
material. Still a bit confused over whether I
wanted to be "
Enquirer
material," I nevertheless joined him for breakfast. As a
result I used four weeks of vacation in January 1976 living in the
Lantana, Florida, Holiday Inn and earning about three times
my
Houston Post
salary on a "tryout" with
The
Enquirer
to sample the tabloid
experience.

My sojourn
at
The Enquirer
proved to be one of the most interesting escapades in my
journalism career. It also served to invigorate my imagination when
I returned to
The Post
after learning that I probably was not "
Enquirer
material." Or, maybe I would
have been had I not gotten caught in the middle of an internal
political squabble between the paper's British and American
editors. At the end of my "tryout" working for one of the American
editors, the paper offered an extension with no guarantee of a job.
Since I had exhausted my vacation time, I declined, choosing
instead to return to a sure thing at
The
Post
.

Contrary to what
might be the popular perception, I found my
Enquirer
colleagues to be the most
professional group of journalism heavyweights I had ever
encountered. The staff included many burned-out mainstream stars
who sought a high-paying change of pace. One example was a former
political writer from
The Chicago
Tribune
who greeted me with a smile and
said, "Can you believe this place? I just got back from Rio doing a
story on a bleeding statue of Christ. What a hoot!" That list also
included
The Houston
Post
's Pulitzer winner, Gene Goltz, who, I
was told, had been assigned to stake out the Jackie Onassis
apartment in New York City. What an image for me: Gene Goltz on the
Jackie O nightshift waiting for her to step into the street so he
could scream embarrassing questions.
The
Enquirer
remains an incredible commercial
success, providing mostly entertainment but also, I found, a good
deal of important information buried behind its facade of outrage.
As such, the paper carefully monitored its sales demographics, and
it was well known that any time Jackie O's face appeared on the
front page, sales soared off the charts.

The current star
on the staff, however, was a former
Boston
Globe
reporter about my own age who took me
under his wing. Jeff had done a story the month before that sent
sales to a record for the year. Crashing Frank Sinatra's birthday
party and being physically evicted by Old Blue Eyes himself, Jeff
had written an unforgettable piece on celebrity rage that shared
the experience of having the legendary crooner spit in his face.
Beyond the smokescreen of celebrity coverage that paid the bills,
however, Jeff offered an anecdote demonstrating the way the paper
actually developed solid stories of general interest that even the
nation's most prestigious publications would want to have.
Searching through obscure historical journals, Jeff had uncovered
an academic treatise by some anthropologists who had analyzed some
old stone tablets discovered in New England and linked them to
ninth-century Iberia to show that the Spanish had reached the New
World some five hundred years before Columbus. He wrote a story and
presented it to his editor who smiled and said: "Something isn't
right."

BOOK: Luggage By Kroger: A True Crime Memoir
2.54Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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