Leo Lera: The scapegoat for ‘The Free State of Galveston’

Mike Calandra, left, and Leo Lera look through the bars of their Galveston County Jail cell shortly after their arrest. (The Galveston Daily News)

Mike Calandra, left, and Leo Lera look through the bars of their Galveston County Jail cell shortly after their arrest. (The Galveston Daily News)

Galvestonians have always taken pride in their tolerance, especially during the years when they called their home “The Free State of Galveston.” For decades, the island’s well-known underworld dons flouted state bans on gambling, prostitution, and just about all other kinds of illegal vice. Islanders—including law-enforcement officials—overlooked most of the bad behavior with a wink and a nod. But at the end of 1938, one of Galveston’s shady characters took one too many steps into the light, revealing an ugliness the rest of the community could no longer ignore.

Calls to clean up the lawlessness lasted for a few years—long enough to make sure the scapegoat paid the ultimate price for everyone’s sin. But the demand for virtue soon dissipated, softened by the mellow sea breeze and Galveston’s laissez-faire entropy.

In the early hours of Christmas Day 1938, Harry Phillips and Winifred Woodier were celebrating their engagement with two friends at Deppen’s bar, a popular beachfront hangout at the corner of 37th Street and Seawall Boulevard. Not long after midnight, Phillips took Woodier back to Rebecca Sealy nurse’s quarters. He returned to the bar just long enough to ask his friends, John Miranda and Paula Sharp, if they were ready to go. As Phillips half sat, half leaned on a stool next to Sharp, a man in a dark suit walked up and tapped him on the shoulder.

“Hey buddy, do you mind? That’s my stool,” said the man, later identified as Leo Lera, a thug working for the Maceos.

According to Sharp, Phillips apologized and started to stand up when Lera punched him in the face. When Miranda tried to intervene in the ensuing scuffle, Lera’s friend Mike Calandra, also a Maceo enforcer, pinned him against a wall. Four shots echoed through the small space. Phillips crumpled to the floor.

Miranda carried his friend to the car and rushed him to John Sealy Hospital. Doctors pronounced him dead a few hours later. The fatal shot entered just below his left ear and exited from the top of his head, giving him zero chance of survival. Lera and Calandra turned themselves in to police the next morning, but it’s likely they didn’t expect to be behind bars long.

Police Chief Tony Messina, along with Miranda, Sharp, and Woodier all said they received threats and warnings to drop the charges. “You keep quiet. Maybe you’ll be run out of town,” read a postcard addressed to the chief.

The threats might have worked had outrage over the murder and the universal cry for justice not been so loud. Messina did eventually get run out of office but only because islanders viewed him as complicit with the city’s out-of-control lawlessness. Phillips’ murder, simply for sitting on the wrong bar stool, created a community-wide uproar. Threats of mob violence against the jailed gangsters prompted the Texas Rangers to offer assistance, which an indignant Sheriff Frank Biaggne refused. Instead, he increased his stock of tear gas bombs at the jail and put his two infamous prisoners under extra guard.

Phillips, 24, worked as the assistant chief engineer, under his father the chief engineer, at Galveston Ice and Cold Storage Co. He had no ties to the organized crime woven through so much of Galveston society. Later accounts of the murder and the subsequent trials described him as a “well-known Galvestonian.” Attempts during the trial to paint him as the aggressor fell flat. So did Lera’s attempt to claim the shooting was an unfortunate accident, which would have justified nothing more than a manslaughter conviction.

County Attorney Charles Theobald charged Lera with murder with malice aforethought and demanded the death penalty. The trial began Jan. 24, less than a month after the shooting. Testifying for the prosecution, Sharp painted a picture of Lera’s callous indifference as Phillips lay bleeding on the floor. When she attempted to get him to stay at the bar until police arrived, she claimed he told her, “Lady, you can’t keep me here.” Miranda testified no one would help him carry Phillips out to the car. “It was like no one wanted to touch him,” he recalled. Both insisted Lera instigated the fight and shot Phillips for no reason.

The defense called just one witness: Leo Lera. He claimed it was Calandra who tapped Phillips on the shoulder and asked him to get off the stool. Lera said he pulled his gun intending to fire into the air to break up the scuffle between Calandra and Phillips. The gun went off by accident, he claimed, blaming the number of shots on the gun’s hair trigger. His attorney, Marsene Johnson Jr., asked him if he had intention to shoot Phillips that night.

“No, sir, none whatsoever,” Lera said. “I don’t think anyone could have been any sorrier than I’ve been. I had no reason to shoot him. I never had any hard feelings toward him.”

That testimony and the assertion by both sides that Lera and Phillips had never met before might have made the malice conviction hard to get. But Galvestonians had grown tired of armed mobsters roaming the streets. Simply having the weapon amounted to a level of malice. If Lera had left his .45-caliber pistol at home, Phillips probably would have survived such an inconsequential altercation.

The jury deliberated for three hours before returning its verdict—guilty—and issuing the sentence: death.

Supporters of Phillips’ family burst into applause. Lera slumped in his chair. He was the first white man to get the death penalty in Galveston County in 50 years and the first white man a Galveston County jury had sent to the electric chair.

After Phillips’ murder, a group of frustrated islanders formed an action committee to demand changes to election procedures and law enforcement. Several days after Lera’s conviction, the group issued a statement commending the prosecutors and the jurors.

“We can derive no pleasure from the thought that a man must pay with his life for the act that united us in our demand for a clean and safe city in which to live. We can sympathize with the Lera family at this time just as sincerely as we sympathize with the Phillips family.”

But Lera’s attorney refused to accept the verdict. Johnson demanded a new trial, a request Judge Charles Dibrell denied. The persistent lawyer appealed to the state criminal appeals court, which eventually agreed Lera deserved a new trial.

Come back tomorrow to find out whether Lera would escape the death penalty in his second trial.

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