(1953) The dope dealer’s name was Earl Voice. His girlfriend’s sister called police when she saw someone bury two jars of heroin in her backyard during the darkness of night. It was Earl’s dope.
Eight months later, after being arrested, Voice asked to speak to Captain Joe Clark, who was in charge of the Vice Division. Clark said in an interview that he had no idea why the dope dealer asked for him. But the story Earl Voice told was intriguing. A Burglary Detective by the name of Sidney Smith approached Voice about a week after the heroin was recovered from the backyard. He proposed selling the dope back to Voice and the two made a deal. Soon, the heroin made its way back onto the streets of Houston. Voice later said, everything I got, I got from the police station. He even alleged that the dope was sold to him originally by Smith and then resold to him after it was confiscated.
Sidney Smith and Captain Foy Melton were indicted. Smith was sent to prison, not for his dealings with Earl Voice, but with other dealers he was doing business with. Later, Smith would be interviewed in prison by an investigator from the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. He had interesting comments to make about the death of Detective Martin Billnitzer, but none of his revelations were ever confirmed.
Before the arrests of Melton and Smith, officers Conley and Bennett, who, along with Billnitzer, recovered the dope, began to worry they were being set up to take the fall if it was discovered the heroin was missing from the police department. They heard nothing of the “important investigation” Captain Melton told them about when he took the heroin. In an effort to protect themselves from false allegations, they confided in a fellow officer, William C. Pool, about what had occurred the night they brought the heroin to the police station.
Officer Pool was concerned when he learned that Captain Melton had taken the heroin and later that Detective Smith was selling it to the dope dealer, Earl Voice. He decided to take his suspicion of missing dope to the district attorney. The reception he received was less than enthusiastic. According to press reports of an interview with Pool, he was told “It wasn’t enough to go before the grand jury.” He also reported that Assistant District Attorney Ben Morris told him, “Forget about the whole thing. If you can’t forget about it, you’d better quit the police department.”
Officer Pool decided if the local authorities wouldn’t take action, he’d seek help from the feds. He turned to a Houston Federal Customs agent by the name of Al Scharff and told him the story.
Pool’s actions would cause a federal investigation to be initiated. When Chief Morrison learned of the federal investigation, he may have had concerns beyond that of the missing heroin. He had a personal issue with the use of prescription drugs that might be discovered by the inquiry. It would be embarrassing at best and criminal at worst.
Next episode; Chief Morrison’s delimna as the investigation by Federal Narcotics began. My novel based on these events, Dishonored and Forgotten, will be available later this year.
My book, Dishonored and Forgotten, a fictional account of this scandal, will be released later this year. The call came in on the night of August 11, 1953 from Vivian Timms. She lived at 3306 Bacchus in Houston, Texas. Her home was about five miles north of the new Houston Police Department building at 61 Riesner Street. Billed as the most modern police facility in the South, it had opened three years earlier.
Officers M. A. Billnitzer, J.T. Conley and E.H. Bennett, who worked in the Vice Squad, made the call. Vivian told the officers she saw two men come into her backyard, dig a hole, and bury a garbage can. Once they left, she dug it up and found that it contained two jars filled with a white powder. Vivian Timms was no stranger to narcotics. Her sister was dating and probably whoring for a man known in Houston as the Kingfish of drug pushers. His name was Earl Voice. He would play a major role in the police scandal that unfolded.
Billnitzer, Conley and Bennett, after interviewing Ms. Timms, took the narcotics to the police station where they inventoried it and opened some of the packets for testing. Their field test indicated the substance was heroin. They knew the street value of their discovery was many thousands of dollars. The confiscation of such a large amount of dope was likely to have major implications in the drug culture on the streets. As they inventoried the dope, Captain Foy ‘Junior’ Melton strolled into the room. As reported in T. Lindsey Baker’s book Gangster Tour of Texas, J.T. Conley later recalled, “Melton came in and asked where we got the stuff.” The captain left for a few minutes, taking the dope with him, after informing the three officers he would secure the drugs. He emphatically told them that only he and the three of them knew about the haul and said he wanted them to stay quiet about the discovery because otherwise it might blow an important investigation.After thirty minutes, the Captain returned, telling Conley that he had put the stuff in the chief’s safe. And that’s how the intrigue began! It would last nearly a year, but that night, neither Conley, Bennett, nor Billnitzer could have imagined that in just a few months one of them would be dead, the police chief would resign, others would be accused of corruption and federal agents would be investigating. So began the first narcotics scandal in the Houston police department. In the next episode of IF THE WALLS COULD TALK – A Houston Police Scandal readers will be introduced to Earl Voice, the drug dealer and pimp who bought his own dope twice — from a cop. You’ll also meet William Pool, a cop who refused to ignore corruption in the H.P.D.
In anticipation of the release later this year of my book, Dishonored and Forgotten, I am re-posting a series of stories relating to the 1953 narcotics scandal in the Houston police department. My book is a fictional account of the events. In 1967, after joining the Houston Police Department, I heard stories of a narcotics scandal that occurred several years earlier. Those who talked about it usually related that a Captain had been involved and a detective died of gunshot wounds on the third floor of the old headquarters at 61 Riesner Street. His death was ruled a suicide, but most seemed to presume, often with a nod and a wink, that he had been shot by someone else. I never learned the details and regret that I didn’t ask more questions. Most of the officers involved were still on the department then. If only those walls could talk at the old police headquarters, I’m sure there are some things many wouldn’t want to hear. But might they tell of the murder of a hero who has been judged a suicide victim for more than fifty years?
Fast forward to a recent trip I took to Galveston with my wife. We strolled along The Strand shopping and exploring. In one shop, I found a book titled Gangster Tour of Texas written by T. Lindsay Baker. As I thumbed through the book I found a chapter with the heading The Houston Police Dope Scandal: Selling Heroin Back to the Dealers. I couldn’t resist! Sale made! Even at the thirty-four dollar price.
After reading that story and completing some initial research I recognized several of the officers involved. Most were “old heads” when I first met them. I decided to dedicate a few of my blog stories to events surrounding the scandal.
The following summarizes some of the details I’ll explore here in the weeks to come. Heroin was taken in as evidence, but went missing. A police chief, L.D. Morrison, resigned as an indirect result of the scandal. Assistant Chief George Seber kept some of the suspected stolen heroin in his office. Officers J.T. Conley and E.H. Bennett were caught up in the scandal simply because they answered a call where the dope was recovered. Detective Martin Albert Billnitzer was not suspected of being involved, but allegedly committed suicide after talking to federal investigators about the missing heroin. He supposedly shot himself in the heart…twice! Captain Foy Melton was charged and tried twice on charges related to the missing heroin, but was not convicted. A few years later he too was reported to have committed suicide. Officer William C. Pool learned of the scandal from his two friends, Conley and Bennett. He reported the wrongdoing to the District Attorney and the Feds. Detective Sidney Smith was the only officer to go to jail.
Fifty years after his death, the family of Officer Billnitzer asked the Houston Police Department to reopen the investigation. In part, their request was made because of documents they had discovered in Federal Government archives through freedom of information requests.
It’s a fascinating story. If the family is correct, was Detective Martin Albert Billnitzer killed in the line of duty? And, if so, should his name be on the City, State, and National Memorial Walls. I’ll explore the possibility in a future blog.
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.
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?
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.
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
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 Wattslikes 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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