Texas City love triangle shattered in 1960s shootout

Charlene Lewis (The Galveston Daily News)

Love can drive a man to distraction. But can it make him a murderer?

Richard Villareal’s attorneys insisted it could. He was a man whose life was wrapped up in a woman, entangled in a web he could not escape. His lawyers painted the picture of a pitiable victim pushed to the breaking point by a heartless woman. They didn’t deny his deadly actions but argued he shouldn’t be held responsible.

On May 28, 1966, Villareal burst through the backdoor into the kitchen of the home at 4015 18th Avenue in Texas City. Without saying a word, he started shooting, hitting Wiley Rogers Barganier four times. Barganier’s wife of two weeks, Charlene, ran into the living room to call police. Villareal chased her down, catching up with her before she could dial the number. He ripped the receiver from her hand, threw her on the couch, and pointed the gun at her face.

Then he pulled the trigger.

The bullet entered near her chin and exited through her neck. Bleeding profusely, Charlene struggled with her attacker, eventually breaking away and running into the bedroom—where she found her own gun. Villareal’s defense attorney later asked where she planned to shoot his client.

“I was just shooting,” she recalled. “I didn’t care where I shot.”

Only one of Charlene’s .22-caliber bullets hit its mark, striking Villareal in the right shoulder. She ran out the door, through the yard to a neighbor’s house, where she called for help.

Richard Villareal (The Galveston Daily News)

Galveston County District Attorney Jules Damiani charged Villareal, a 46-year-old marine engineer, with murder with malice aforethought. He pleaded not guilty, and when he stood before a jury 16 months later, his defense team put Charlene on trial.

The two first met in 1964, when they were both married to other people. But they began seeing each other whenever they could. Under some very direct questioning by defense attorney Clyde Woody, Charlene admitted she and Villareal began sleeping together in September 1964. They first met at motels in Kemah, Beaumont, New Orleans, and Texas City. Later, Charlene became such a constant presence at Villareal’s apartment that the manager assumed they were married. Villareal’s wife died in October 1964, and Charlene finally divorced her husband in April 1965.

A few months later, she began seeing Barganier, along with other men.

Charlene admitted she had been engaged to Villareal but broke it off four times. She insisted Villareal knew how she felt, recalling a conversation they had in early 1966.

“He asked me if I was going to marry him this year and I said no,” she testified. “He asked if I was gonna marry him next year and I said no. He asked if I was ever gonna marry him. I said no.”

When Barganier asked her to marry him in December 1965, she told him about Villareal. She claimed both men knew where they stood. Woody offered a different perspective.

The newly opened Galveston County Courthouse, in about 1966. (Photo courtesy of the Galveston and Texas History Center, Rosenberg Library, Galveston, Texas)

“You played one man against the other,” he told her in a packed Galveston County courtroom.

The Galveston Daily News described Woody’s questioning as a “scathing attack.” He asserted Villareal was trying to “make an honest woman” of Charlene, and she “drove him right out of his mind.” Woody worked hard to convince jurors a common-law marriage existed between the couple, which would have forced them to disregard all of Charlene’s testimony.

Although Charlene insisted they were not married, Villareal testified he considered her his wife, in practice if not by law. He gave her money for household expenses, and they lived together like man and wife. He suspected nothing when she took him to Baytown for his last trip to sea on May 8, 1966, promising she would pick him up when he got back to port. But when he called from Florida to tell her the ship was headed home, she bluntly announced an end to their domestic bliss. She’d married Barganier shortly after Villareal’s vessel sailed out of the Houston Ship Channel. She told him to come collect his things from her house as soon as he disembarked.

Crushed, Villareal had a friend pick up him up at the port and take him to Charlene’s house. Then he retreated to his apartment and started drinking. He later recalled he only emerged when his bottle ran dry. He even hung a do-not-disturb sign on his door. He testified he had no memory of the night he walked into Charlene’s house and began shooting. He vaguely remembered buying the gun earlier that day but claimed he didn’t intend to kill anyone.

During closing arguments, Woody’s assistant, Mariam Rosen, told jurors Villareal could not have been of sound mind at the time of the murder. She blamed Charlene for what happened that night.

“What kind of woman plays with the emotions of those who love her?” Rosen asked. “He wasn’t himself. Poor, tormented soul, his heart burning for the woman he loved.”

Damiani called Villareal’s amnesia claims “hogwash.” He said if that argument held, anyone could get drunk, shoot someone, and go free. Jurors evidently agreed. After five hours deliberation, they declared Villareal guilty. After another seven hours, they sentenced him to 15 years in prison.

During his closing arguments, Damiani said the power of love has it limits: “Love is precious, the defense says; but I submit that life is precious, too.”

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