May 26

IF THE WALLS COULD TALK – A Houston Police Scandal

61 Riesner Street
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.
 
Feel free to e-mail me with comments or information at Larry@LarryWatts.net.
 
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April 20

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.

Category: Cops | LEAVE A COMMENT
April 10

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.
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March 2

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.
November 10

RONNIE BECK – NOT A HERO BECAUSE HE WAS A COP

Ronnie Beck
Ronnie Beck was a friend, killed in the line of duty in Houston, Texas in 1971. He was run over by a drunk after he stopped another car on Houston’s Southwest Freeway. He was a hero for how he lived.

Ronnie was a character! Although he was only twenty-three years old when his life ended, everyone at the Houston Police Department had a story to tell. I related a few of those tales in a fictional short story published in my book, The Park Place Rangers. A more in-depth look at Ronnie’s life can be found in Fallen Heroes of the Bayou City by Nelson J. Zoch.

He was a hard-charging cop, who worked the night shift and never waited for crime to come to him. He sought it out. But that was just part of his life. He worked an extra-job at a low-income housing project. When he realized many of the young boys with long shaggy hair couldn’t afford haircuts, he bought a pair of clippers and became a part-time barber, albeit one dressed in a police uniform. He volunteered in the Big Brothers Program, becoming a mentor for some of these same kids. Ronnie donated much of his earnings from this extra work to programs designed to keep kids off the streets through athletic and other programs.

Maybe the best compliment was written by Nelson Zoch in his book. He wrote, “In his own way, he (Ronnie) was geared toward the community-oriented approach, which many police administrators have unsuccessfully tried to imitate in later decades.”

Ronnie Beck was from Fordyce, Arkansas. He moved to Houston to become a cop.  A tall and affable country boy with a big smile, Ronnie soon earned the nickname Jethro. The name was bestowed upon him because of his enormous appetite and uncanny resemblance to the lovable character by that name on the television show, The Beverly Hillbillies. He’d been married less than three weeks when he was killed. His widow became a Houston officer for a time after his death.

There’s an old saying that a police career can be described as years of pure boredom accentuated by a few moments, interspersed throughout that career, of sheer terror. But Ronnie Beck’s career wasn’t boring, nor was his life to be defined by those moments of terror that took it. 

Had he lived to complete his career, he would have been a legend within the Houston Police community and probably in the lives of underprivileged young people whose lives he impacted. To those who knew him, he is a legend. 

We overuse the term hero. Ronnie was a hero, not because he was a policeman, nor because he was killed in the line of duty. He was a hero because of who he was as a man. He would have been a hero, no matter what vocation he had chosen.