Click on the headline to link to a Wikipedia entry for Orson Welles' Touch of Evil.
“Get that stinking bracero out of my sight before I kill him with my own two hands,” barked El Paso County Sheriff Harry White. Although barked did not, did not by a long shot, convey the menace in the good sheriff’s voice but after this length of time, almost thirty years, I think that barked will suffice for today’s more tender ears. And with that barked venomous sentence I was introduced to Harry White, El Paso Anglo justice, south Texas Mex sensibilities and small town Anglo justice along the tenuous border between Estados Unidos and Mexico. Let me tell those who though that I only breathed the rarified airs of the big questions-war, more war, and more war, saving green mother earth, trying to shine a little light on the rotten deal most of the little guys (and gals) have been dealt in this wicked old world you don’t know nothing about my rocky road start in the public prints.
After doing a hard two year stretch on the city desk as a glorified gopher for every rotten police blotter detail that the drunken copy editor could foist on me (else he would have to go and “miss” his date with Mr. Johnny Walker Red) at the Portland Daily Gazette (that is in Maine, I don’t think they have crime in the Oregon one) I had had it. Especially after spending a tough few months covering the Lady In Shay’s Pond case from the first day when some hikers found the first body until the Greer sisters drew life, no parole, for their little escapades. So I gave my notice, asked for a little recommendation (granted since I was given some half-ass award for my Lady coverage), and decided to head back west.
Oh, did I mention that that reignited desire to head west again (I had spent a few years out their cadging this and that, under my New Age a-borning name of the Prince of Love, as part of being “on” Captain Crunch’s yellow bus magical mystery tour and drug coma) did not seep into my crime frazzled head but was put there is one Lucy Defarge whom I met as part of that wild wind Lady story. She covered it for the Kittery Times and so we spent a fair amount of time on that, and kind of half- circling each other in the process. Then one night we just kind of united, and decided to live together on the road west. It was that kind of times for those who did not live through it. The idea was to pull up stakes in the East and see what happened picking up free-lance newspaper jobs (or “think” pieces for exotic New Age journals who had the “trust fund baby” financed wherewithal to pay for articles on whether solar or wind was better as an energy source for mother earth and stuff along that line. Don’t laugh. In a forty year career such “manna from heaven” got me, and mine, through some cold Maine winters.)
So Lucy and I headed out in a used Volkswagen bus (of course) in early 1976 and had an uneventful, and mainly interesting time, making some money here for a few weeks writing about the corn harvest for the Omaha Times, and there about some local celebrity in Winnemucca (that is in Nevada and there is definitely crime there, a money pit draws it like flies to honey) who donated his winnings at five card stud to help some orphanage. Strictly for cash stuff, and no apologies or dreams of high art reportage about it. Along the West Coast we mainly “lived off the land” as only the creative (and white) can do in those sunny climes. Then we started heading southwest rounding our way back East and south was best to avoid crazy rocky mountain white out squalls and other crazy western plains weather disasters.
So that was how I (we) came to be in El Paso, a little broke, a little road tired, and, frankly a little in need of some action right around the time Harry White blew his top. This is how I came to see this scene. My recommendation from the Gazette t(and my having been on a big town, I think the editor though it was that other Portland , although he never said as much), and my portfolio articles got me, well, got me right at the top of the pecking order on the city desk at the El Paso Chronicle. And, naturally, having been an “ace” crime reporter before I was a no on- the-job-training necessary top candidate when the Larkin story broke out over our heads.
Joe Bob (real names, not nicknames) Larkin was the biggest rancher/grower in southwest Texas, with tens of thousands of prime ranching and growing (cotton, mainly) acres right along the border. So, of course, he needed thousands of people willing to work that hot, dusty south Texas sun getting in the crops). And very conveniently he had some neighbors south of the border who would be more than happy to come and pick, hell, pick anything for fifty cents a bushel, a tin roof shack, and some gringo food. As now, braceros, wet-backs, mexs, tio tacos (y tias tambien) whatever mal nombre you wanted to call them this work required massive numbers of illegal workers to cross the lines, do the work, and then suffer whatever fate was in store for them after they were all used up. And Joe Bob Larkin was just the good old boy (from all accounts) to grease the hand of the devil himself to get his workers. And the king hell king of proving such services for his top constituent was one Sheriff Harry White.
So when one Joe Bob Larkin wound up (along with his bleach blonde, ah, personal secretary, although her employment status was a little fuzzy, especially to his wife back on the ranch) very dead in a flea-bag hotel room in Cuidad Juarez after some arsonist, some professional arsonist from the way the job was done, including jamming all the doors, torched the place big Harry White was across the border in a flash. No niceties of international diplomacy for Harry, big, no obese, gruff, cigar-chomping with a sweat-stained shirt and hat to match. Something out of an Orson Welles idea of what a borderland red neck sheriff, full of anglo hates, and anglo would look like.
But Harry had missed out on that community/international relations class that cops, gruff cops or meek, were supposed to take in order to smooth the tensions in some high risk situations. Old Harry just hated braceros, stinking braceros, from some tio taco on up. But this is where Harry really blundered. He didn’t realize that 1970 something was not 1940 something when he could have covered this whole thing up with no questions asked on either side of the border, and no reason to. The money exchanged was too good. And that too is where Harry underestimated Mexican National Police cop, Johnny Rivers, specially assigned to the case by the Mexican government because of his previous work with these illegal obreros.
Johnny Rivers (born Juan Rios down Sonora way) was a good cop, a cop not on the take, if you can believe that. Funny, he hated, hated maybe worse than Harry White the braceros, the stinking braceros, with their ten children and their manana ways always ready to eat crow when a gringo came around, or some batos locos looking for easy dough. See he was from them, his father and mother were from them, hell, probably back to the conquest he was from them. So his hate was driven differently from Harry’s, but still hate. And hate that some gabacho Anglo sheriff was coming into Mexico, taking his case, and beating down “his” braceros.
Harry just looked at good cop Johnny Rivers, noted the anglo-ized names, noted the gringa wife (probably some tramp from some Tijuana joy house from the look of her, but she was definitely gringa and knew how to stir a man, even an old sweat-stained leather cigar man), and noted those Pancho Villa charcoal eyes and that Zapata burning sense of national pride and knew he had to take this Juan Rios down a peg, maybe two.
But here is where it all got crazy, crazy for Harry, trying to cover up everything and no questions asked like always. Harry was the guy who set old Joe Bob up. He knew when Joe Bob would be in Juarez with his blond honey, knew that Joe Bob was trying to bring in his own bands of braceros, and paid, paid big money to that arsonist to “scare.” Joe Bob. The pro was just too good for his job (and was found face down later in some outback arroyo, food for the coyotes, after everything came out). Harry, instead of leaving well enough alone, decided that he would “solve” this one by bringing down everyone in the operation who could connect him with those thousands of border crossings. So he brought each and every one he could find in turn to the American side and “put the frame” on them. And that is where I came in, during one of his “hearings,” nightstick in hand.
And that is where Harry went over the edge, where his old ways did him dirt. Harry figured that Johnny was closing in on him, or would figure things out pretty soon and not give up until some bracero justice was done. So Harry just did what he thought was called for, he had that pretty gringa wife of Johnny’s kidnapped, held in a tough spot, and laid the bait for Johnny to come looking for her on the Mexican side of the border. Then he would have them both killed and set face down in some Mexican side arroyo, everybody figuring that some “coyote” rogue elements got to them. What Harry didn’t figure was that Johnny wasn’t one of those old time bracero take it and like it guys. Through about sixteen different connections he had with some mex drug lords he found her, offed her captors and headed straight back over the border.
Needless to say Harry got his just deserts, a couple of slugs in the right place from the gun of one Juan Rios, and he lying face down in a pool of oil at the oil well field where he finally hunted Harry down. And I, well, I got to write it all up for that old El Paso Chronicle. See, in the old days, Captain Crunch and his merry pranksters used to “winter” in LaJolla just above San Diego and the place we wintered at was a big old mansion which belonged to some heavy-duty drug dealers who let us stay there as caretakers. We did that for a couple of years, maybe three. So how do you thing a guy like Juan Rios, a good cop, got the sixteen different connections with those Mexican drug lords. Ya, life is cheap, and not just south of the border.