The body in the Fort San Jacinto bunker

Battery Croghan, Fort San Jacinto, Galveston, Texas (Creative Commons/Flickr/Patrick Feller)

Battery Croghan, Fort San Jacinto, Galveston, Texas (Creative Commons/Flickr/Patrick Feller)

Several hours after the hot sun melted into the horizon on Aug. 21, 1960, three 13-year-old boys ran along a narrow strip of sand on Galveston’s far East End. They were supposed to be fishing, but a torrential summer downpour drove them toward a bunker at old Fort San Jacinto. The gaping black entrance to the crumbling fortress, built in the early 1900s, probably seemed like it offered endless opportunities for adventure. But I doubt the three Boy Scouts from Houston had any idea their night’s excitement would make them witnesses in a murder investigation.

As they felt their way into the abandoned bunker, the boys stumbled across the body of a dead woman. Her hands were folded across her chest, and a cross made out of two bamboo sticks rested on her stomach. In the sand nearby someone had scratched a message: “I dide (sic) not want to kill her. Roy told. Tell mama I love her very much.”

The boys fled back to the beach where the father of one of them drove to the police station.

The woman turned out to be Mildred “Sandy” Ferro, a 32-year-old waitress at the Idle Hour Club, 1903 Tremont. Seven hours before the boys found her body, Sandy’s estranged husband came rushing into the club waving a gun.

Continue reading The body in the Fort San Jacinto bunker

The crime Galveston refused to forgive

Leo Lera (The Galveston Daily News)

Leo Lera (The Galveston Daily News)

Leo Lera’s second murder trial began 14 months after he shot Harry Phillips over a stool at Deppen’s bar early on Dec. 25, 1938. Perhaps confident of a acquittal the first time, Lera offered the only testimony in his own defense. The strategy backfired when the jury voted after just three hours of deliberation to send him to the electric chair.

For the second trial, attorney Marsene Johnson Jr. subpoenaed Lera’s mistress and his friend Mike Calandra to corroborate his version of events. Calandra, who was never indicted for his role in the shooting, claimed he was the one who challenged 24-year-old Phillips over the bar stool, punching him in the face and starting the scuffle that Lera felt obligated to break up by firing his .45-caliber pistol in the air. Lera’s mistress, Jen Bennett, also testified Calandra started the fight, although in the sworn statement she gave prosecutors several days after the shooting, she said she hadn’t seen a thing or realized anything was amiss until Phillips was lying on the floor in a pool of blood. Calandra likewise gave a contradictory statement to police the night he and Lera turned themselves in.

The testimony of the other witnesses didn’t differ from the evidence offered during the first trial. Lera maintained the shooting was an accident. Phillips’ friends insisted it was an act of unprovoked violence fostered and encouraged by Galveston’s unfettered criminal underworld. During closing arguments, Johnson urged jurors not to punish his client for the island’s political climate.

“Don’t send this boy up because of some myth as to any conditions—any political conditions—that may exist in this city,” he said. “Be sure, gentlemen, be sure, before you agree on anything like death.”

Much of the emotion and tension surrounding the first trial had dissipated by this time, according to The Galveston Daily News reporter covering the proceedings. Although curious spectators packed the courtroom as before, the “general atmosphere” was “noticeably different,” lacking the embittered hostility over Phillips’s death. When the jurors lingered over their decision, spectators began whispering about a possible hung jury. Judge Charles Dibrell sequestered the 12 men overnight in the courthouse. By the time they were ready to deliver their verdict the next morning, most of the crowd had gone home. Leo Lera stood at the front of an almost empty courtroom to hear the jury pass its judgement.

Continue reading The crime Galveston refused to forgive

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.

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

Houston gangster wages epic legal fight over 1927 Texas City bank heist

shiloh_scrivnor

Shiloh Scrivnor (The Galveston Daily News)

On Nov. 1, 1927, teller Chester Griffin was sitting at the counter of First National Bank in Texas City when two men walked in waving guns. One of the men ordered Griffin and bookkeeper Elizabeth Lege to stand against the back wall while the other ran into the vault and started sweeping stacks of bills into a bag. The robbers locked Griffin and Lege in the vault before speeding away in a Buick sedan.

They made off with about $6,000—the equivalent of almost $83,000 today.

Police brought Griffin in to look through photographs of criminals, and he picked one well-known robber out of the lineup. W.S. “Shiloh” Scrivnor, then 32 years old, had already had an illustrious career that included several spectacular heists and a stint in prison. Texas City Police Chief A.E. Addison assured Griffin that Scrivnor was a very bad man.

Two weeks after the Texas City robbery, police knocked on the door of Scrivnor’s Houston home just before midnight. He was in his pajamas, just about to turn in for the night. The officers brought him to Galveston, where Griffin identified him in person. The other well-known robber identified in the photo lineup, Johnny Martin, could not be located.

Scrivnor—who swore he was trying to go straight—proclaimed his innocence. And so began one of the longest legal battles in Galveston County history.

Continue reading Houston gangster wages epic legal fight over 1927 Texas City bank heist

A crime of passion and the ‘rape of justice’

Thomas Pittman (right) and his lawyer, L.J. Krueger. (Photo by Linda Westerlage/The Galveston Daily News)

Thomas Pittman (right) and his lawyer, L.J. Krueger. (Photo by Linda Westerlage/The Galveston Daily News)

Shirley Ann Lester was ready to celebrate one year of freedom from her husband, Thomas Michael Pittman III, when he called and asked to see her on Oct. 19, 1963. She agreed, even though she had no intention of reconciling.

That afternoon, Pittman drove from Houston, where he worked in a bakery, to Galveston, where Lester had moved back in with her mother after the couple divorced. Lester’s mother answered the door and served her former son-in-law a glass of tea while he waited in the dining room for Lester to come downstairs.

As the couple talked, Lester’s mother retreated to the kitchen to refill Pittman’s glass. She heard him tell Lester he wanted to get back together. But Lester wasn’t interested. She told him it was over for good and said she planned to marry someone else.

“I don’t care if they put me on a peace farm,” Lester’s mother later recalled Pittman telling her daughter. “If I can’t have you, nobody else can.”

Then the woman heard her daughter scream.

When the panicked mother ran into the hallway, she saw her daughter clutching her chest, blood seeping through her fingers while Pittman ran out the door.

He didn’t stop running for nearly four years.  Continue reading A crime of passion and the ‘rape of justice’

‘It’s not a natural mother’s act’

Percy Foreman announces he will defend Ann Williams, flanked by her mother and sister (right) and a family friend. (The Galveston Daily News)

Percy Foreman announces he will defend Ann Williams, flanked by her mother and sister (right) and a family friend. (The Galveston Daily News)

Famous Houston attorney Percy Foreman held a news conference at the Galveston State Psychiatric Hospital on March 25, 1955, to announce he had agreed to defend Ann Williams in her upcoming murder trials.

“I don’t think she’s sound of mind now, and I don’t think she was sane then,” he told reporters. “It’s not a natural mother’s act.”

A Galveston County grand jury indicted Williams on two counts of murder almost exactly one month after she buried the dismembered bodies of her two young sons behind an Algoa auto shop. Although Williams confessed to killing 9-year-old Calvin and 8-year-old Conrad about five hours after her arrest, she recanted that admission just a few days after the indictments.

Williams, the 28-year-old five-and-dime store clerk alternately described in news accounts as “attractive” and “comely,” initially said she strangled the boys to stop the suffering they endured from their classmates’ teasing. She also said she didn’t want to see them grow up in poverty, as she had. But after spending a few weeks in jail and at the Galveston State Psychiatric Hospital, she began to blame the murders on a “junkie” drug dealer who sent her away from her Pasadena trailer and killed the boys in her absence.

During his news conference, Foreman stood next to Williams’ mother, sister, and a family friend to announce his defense strategy: insanity. But Galveston County Attorney Marsene Johnson Jr. told The Galveston Daily News the doctors evaluating Williams had yet to establish a definite diagnosis. Beyond that, Johnson wasn’t talking.

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‘I bet you buried that woman’s kids’

Morris Johnson points to the site where he buried four packages of "spoiled venison" for Ann Williams, pictured right, shortly after she confessed to killing her two children. (The Galveston Daily News)

Morris Johnson points to the site where he buried four packages of “spoiled venison” for Ann Williams, pictured right, shortly after she confessed to killing her two children. (The Galveston Daily News)

Morris Johnson didn’t think twice when Ann Williams drove her light tan car up to his garage in Algoa on Feb. 22, 1955, and asked him to bury four packages of spoiled venison. The mechanic met the young mother and her husband, Hoyt, when he worked on their car the previous fall. When Williams learned Johnson’s wife was sick, she stayed with the woman for three days, tenderly nursing her back to health.

So, Johnson was only too happy to help Williams dispose of the ruined meat. She backed her car into the field behind his shop, stopped at a hollow depression, and opened the trunk. One of the packages had started to leak, and Williams quickly threw her jacket over it, scooping it up and placing it in the hole herself. Johnson and his son, Clayton, carried the other packages. Williams asked them to leave her coat covering the package she had carried, saying it was old and she no longer needed it. Once the men had covered the parcels with a layer of dirt, Johnson and his wife asked Williams to stay for dinner. It wasn’t until the family sat down to eat that they thought to ask about Williams’ two young sons—9-year-old Calvin and 8-year-old Conrad. They were at home in Pasadena, she said, and no trouble at all because they could fix their own supper.

The Johnsons accepted her explanation, although they later admitted it was a little strange. During dinner, Williams talked about the children and how they loved watching television. She gave no indication anything was wrong. But after she left, one of Johnson’s mechanics, Gene Wetmore, came in the house with a copy of the evening newspaper. It contained a story about a missing five-and-dime store clerk and her two young children. They looked at each other with wide eyes when they read her name—Ann Williams.

“I told him right  off, ‘I bet you buried that woman’s kids,’” Wetmore told Galveston Daily News reporter George Belk the next day. “We went out to look and then called the police.”

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Terry MacLeod: The woman who penned four decades of Galveston stories

Galveston Daily News reporter Terry MacLeod

Galveston Daily News reporter Terry MacLeod

Galveston Daily News reporter Terry MacLeod walked into Ellis Lauhon’s cell at the Galveston County Jail on July 4, 1955, knowing she didn’t have much time to unearth a good story. Deadline loomed. But readers desperately wanted to know Lauhon—who he was, where he came from, and the answer to one question in particular: Why did he kill a 12-year-old boy, his mother, and his grandmother while they slept in their Texas City home?

MacLeod’s jailhouse interview covered the front page the next day and gave readers every detail they craved. A few days later, she returned to the jail to capture Lauhon’s first meeting with his estranged father after the murders. She recounted their stilted exchange in excruciating detail. The father’s desperation to save his son did a cannon ball into readers’ Corn Flakes.

Coverage of the Lauhon case won MacLeod first prize from the Headliners Club of Austin in 1956. Ten years later, a colleague called it the apex of MacLeod’s career, but it was hardly downhill from there. MacLeod spent the next two decades writing the island’s stories. She was one of the paper’s longest-serving reporters, a natural news hound at a time when women were more likely to stay home than pound the pavement in search of a good story.

“In her years of reporting, Terry has had broad experience in all phases of newspaper work,” wrote Lillian E. Herz in a 1967 column announcing MacLeod’s appointment as society editor and head of the paper’s Women’s Department. “Some have been exciting, some have touched the heart strings, others have been of scientific and research value. And throughout the years, she has helped to write the stories of thousands of Galvestonians.”

Continue reading Terry MacLeod: The woman who penned four decades of Galveston stories

Suspicions of incest trigger deadly Galveston family feud

"New $2,000,000 Causeway, Galveston, Texas." Card. 1930. Digital Commonwealth

“New $2,000,000 Causeway, Galveston, Texas.” Card. 1930. Digital Commonwealth

Twelve-year-old Donald Sedgewick trotted down the steps of his grandfather’s house to get a piece of apple pie from a family friend who had stopped by during the early evening of Nov. 6, 1930. Just as he hit the sidewalk, a gray sedan rolled up to the house. He recognized it immediately as his father’s, and it sent him running back inside. He grabbed his mother and pushed her into a back bedroom, where he locked her into a wardrobe. When he heard gunshots, he jumped out the room’s back window.

A few minutes later, Donald heard his grandfather, 62-year-old William Ruenbuhl, on the phone with police, telling them his son-in-law was back again—apparently planning to follow through on the threats he’d been making for a week. The police chief dispatched three motorcycle officers to the house, at 1114 33rd Street, but before they arrived, Donald heard more gunfire.

This time, the bullets found their mark. Ruenbuhl lay in a pool of blood in the hallway behind his front door, glass shards covering his body. Next to him rested his double-barreled shot gun. He never had a chance to fire it.

Continue reading Suspicions of incest trigger deadly Galveston family feud

All in the family: Mother-son duo tried for 1974 Galveston murder

Creative Commons/Vincent Louis Carrella

Creative Commons/Vincent Louis Carrella

Harold Joseph Norwood was sitting in his car outside English’s Place on July 22, 1974, when another car pulled up behind him, blocking him in. At least two people got out. Charles Lynn Sellers walked up to Norwood’s window, crouched down, and began to talk to him. Sellers’ mother, Pinkie Lee, walked around to the passenger side.

According to four eyewitnesses, after the two men talked for about 10 minutes, shots rang out through the thick summer night. Muzzle flashes lit up both sides of Norwood’s car. By the time the shooting stopped, Norwood had six bullet holes in his neck and chest. Bystanders gaped from the sidewalk, running for their lives when Pinkie yelled, “Kill the witnesses!” and began firing in their direction. Before anyone could call the police, the mother and son climbed back into their waiting car and sped away.

It took investigators two days to arrest them. Along with Pinkie Lee, 37, and Charles Lynn, 21, police arrested Josephine Edwards, Pinkie’s 36-year-old sister, who drove the getaway car, and Kenneth Martin, 27, alternately described as Pinkie’s husband or live-in boyfriend. A grand jury charged all four with murder. They stood trial 10 months later.

Continue reading All in the family: Mother-son duo tried for 1974 Galveston murder