Chuck Lanehart

Chuck Lanehart is a shareholder in the Lubbock firm of Chappell, Lanehart & Stangl, P.C., where he has practiced law since 1977. He is a 1977 graduate of Texas Tech University School of Law. He is board certified in the field of Criminal Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization.
Chuck is a former director of the Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association. He is co-organizer of the annual TCDLA Declaration of Independence statewide readings and serves on TCDLA’s ethics committee. TCDLA awarded him the President's Commendation for "Outstanding Service to the Citizen Accused" and honored him with the President's Award for his service to the TCDLA's Strike Force. He is a charter member and former president of the Lubbock Criminal Defense Lawyers Association.

Chuck served as director of the State Bar of Texas, District 16, and as president of the Lubbock Area Bar Association. He was the founding editor of the LABA's monthly publication, The Lubbock Law Notes. He was a founding member of the South Plains Trial Lawyers Association. He is a life Fellow of the Texas Bar Foundation.

He has published numerous articles on legal history in TCDLA’s Voice for the Defense, HCCLA’s The Defender, Lubbock Law Notes and the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal history series “Caprock Chronicles.”

In 2018, the Lubbock Area Bar Association presented Chuck the Distinguished Lawyer Award, the Bar’s highest honor.
In 2008, Chuck was named among the “200 Most Influential People in the History of Lubbock” by the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal.

A Diary of Declaration Readings

Declaration reading in Gail, Borden County, Texas, USA. Population 231. There may not be much to this one-jail-cell-town out on the Caprock of West Texas – except a great sense of American pride. The entire courthouse staff (yes, all six) showed up to support the reading today!

-Laurie Key, Lubbock

My Dad, Philip Fickman, despised tyrants and bullies. Perhaps that is because most of our family was murdered in the pogroms.

My Dad loved this country and the freedoms we are all guaranteed. He always made July 4th a fun celebration for my brothers and me. Annually, my Dad and the other young fathers on the block put on a large, joyous, and probably illegal, fireworks display in the middle of our street.

When I became a dad, I always hosted a big barbeque on July 4th. Everybody was eager to eat, but before we ate I had my young sons, Sam and Daniel, read aloud the first and last paragraphs of the Declaration of Independence. I wanted them to understand the meaning of this holiday.

By 2010, many members of the Harris County judiciary were acting as if they were King George III. They were stepping all over the rights of our clients. Like our Founders, the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association had finally suffered enough of this tyranny.

So, in 2010, before we headed out to our family barbeques and fireworks,  members of HCCLA staged a symbolic protest against our local tyrannical judges by reading the Declaration of Independence on the courthouse steps. We sought no permission. That would be akin to our Founding Fathers asking the king for permission to declare independence.

I told my sons about our readings and about how it all started in our backyard with them. They liked it and they were supportive. For several years, Sam, who has a film degree, has edited TCDLA Declaration reading videos.

This year, Sam and Daniel were in town. I invited them to join us in the reading.

Watching my sons read the Declaration of Independence was something I will always treasure. In strong, resolute voices, they joined me and my colleagues in open defiance of tyranny. These readings are not about my family or how we celebrated the 4th of July. These readings are about all our families and our communal rejection of tyranny inside and outside of the courthouse.

-Robb Fickman, Houston

The Henderson County Bar Association gathered on the courthouse steps Friday to read the Declaration of Independence. Congress signed the unanimous declaration of the united thirteen colonies of America on July 4, 1776. It is the foundation for this country.

As the words rang out over the square, flags waving, the voices of speakers bounced back in echoes from the other buildings confirming the eloquent and courageous words of freedom and independence:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness . . .”

A crowd gathered on the lawn to hear the words that still ring true today. Shana Stein Faulhaber, local event organizer, said the words move her to this day every time she reads or hears it.

“I still get goosebumps,” she said.

Although she is new to the area, she has quickly jumped in and embraced community involvement.

Zane Faulhaber closed the ceremony by playing the “Star Spangled Banner” on electric guitar.

The practice was originally started by a group of criminal defense attorneys and has quickly grown to a state-wide event.

-The Athens Review

Following our first reading in Hopkins County, we hit the road to read in Delta (Cooper) and Rains (Emory) counties. We then joined up with Mac Cobb to read the Declaration of Independence in Morris (Daingerfield), Marion (Jefferson), and Cass (Linden) counties. Six counties, lots of miles, a few mispronounced words, but high spirits.

-Brent McQueen, Sulphur Springs

Shelby County criminal defense lawyers Deck Jones, Jeff Adams, April Prince, and Stephen Shires gathered at the front of the Historic Shelby County Courthouse July 2, 2021, to give a ceremonial reading of the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights.

The Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association has encouraged this annual event since 2016 across the state of Texas.

An audience gathered in front of the courthouse to hear the lawyers recite the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights. Although a heavy rain moved in on the event, the lawyers pushed through until they completed their task.

A handful of citizens came out Friday at noon to the Hale County Courthouse as county lawyers conducted their annual reading of the Declaration of Independence as part of the Fourth of July holiday celebration. This was the eighth annual reading of the Declaration, a tradition started in Plainview in 2013. The reading is an event put on annually by the Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association. Mayor Charles Starnes was among the nine readers during Friday afternoon’s reading.

-Plainview Herald

A long-standing tradition for South Plains lawyers kicked off Independence Day celebrations with a reading of the Declaration of Independence reminding us of all the Fourth of July isn’t just for cookouts and fireworks. It’s a time to celebrate the official beginning of our country.

It was a great day for the readings in Archer, Baylor, Knox, Foard, and Wilbarger Counties. Thanks to Robb Fickman and Chuck Lanehart for helping with this tradition and my dear friends Scott Stillson and Todd Greenwood of Wichita Falls for the fun road trip.

-Dustin Nimz, Wichita Falls

Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Bowie County (Texarkana, Texas) and Miller County Texarkana, Arkansas) simultaneously in front of the Federal Courthouse with Mac Cobb and Jeff Harrelson.

-Brent McQueen, Sulphur Springs

Freedom and the liberties that come with it were celebrated ahead of the 4th of July holiday on Friday when attorneys recited the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights in front of the Brazos County courthouse.

The annual tradition is celebrated across more than 150 Texas counties. Locally, the event is organized by the Brazos County Defense Lawyers Association.

Local criminal defense attorney Shane Phelps helped organize the event. He says the time for complacency about freedoms in the United States and Texas is over. Phelps says citizens need to appreciate why we celebrate this holiday and understand and exercise our rights.

“We stop every year to celebrate the 4th of July, but sometimes we don’t really appreciate what it’s all about. This is an effort to try and remind people of the sacrifice that was made by our founders so that we can enjoy the freedoms we do,” said Phelps. “So before we get started on our parties and our barbecues and boating, it’s a good thing to hear the words of the founders in the Declaration and the Bill of Rights, so that we understand and appreciate as we enter this festive holiday weekend just how important those rights are to Americans in Texas.”

Phelps says it’s up to everyone, including attorneys, to help protect the rights of American citizens.

“Criminal defense attorneys are champions of liberty. We step into the courts of Texas every single day, and we defend these rights. We remind jurors and judges of the Fourth Amendment, the Fifth Amendment, the Sixth Amendment, all of those rights that guarantee freedom to citizens,” said Phelps. “An important message and important part of that is to understand that if you don’t know what your rights are and if you don’t exercise them, then when you really do need them, they’re just not going to be there.”

Cameron Reynolds, president of the Brazos County Defense Lawyers Association, says knowing your rights and freedoms is crucial, and more people should take the time to read the constitution and Bill of Rights. Reynolds says those documents are more than just words on paper.

“I’ve been doing this defense work for the better part of 25 years. I’ve represented judges, police officers, doctors, lawyers, and I can tell you it’s a lot different when something’s happening to them,” said Reynolds. “It doesn’t mean that much until something happens to you or your family. Then you realize, man, I really need this. I need these rights to mean something.”

-KBTX-TV, Bryan

To commemorate the Fourth of July holiday, the Harrison County Criminal Defense Lawyers Association will host the group’s ninth annual public reading of the Declaration of Independence, this Friday, July 2.

The event will begin at 11:30 a.m., in front of the working 1963-model Harrison County Courthouse, located at 200 West Houston St, and not at the historic courthouse.

“The public is invited,” organizers stated.

Those who want to participate remotely can watch the live broadcasting on KMHT radio’s Facebook page.

“This is the ninth annual reading in front of the Harrison County courthouse,” organizers said. “Your local defense bar is committed to protecting and ensuring by rule of law the individual rights guaranteed by the Texas and Federal Constitutions in criminal cases.”

The local defense lawyers will be joining other defense lawyers across Texas and the United States as they recite the Declaration of Independence.

In honor of the nation’s freedom, lawyers across the state pause for a few moments of the designated day to read the Declaration in front of Texas county courthouses, and anywhere globally that a Texas attorney is.

“Since 2010, Texas criminal defense lawyers have gathered on courthouse steps across the state early each July to publicly read the Declaration of Independence,” the Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association’s website,, states. “The tradition—unlike any other in the nation — is supported by members of the Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association.”

The event has been carried on locally, in Marshall, since 2012.

-The Marshall News-Messenger

Miles: 250

Courthouses: 5

Speeding tickets: 1

Happy Birthday, America!


-Michelle Ochoa, Beeville

After I participated in the wonderful, colorful,  inspirational 11th annual Lubbock Criminal defense Lawyers Declaration reading the morning of July 2, I changed into my snazzy US flag shirt in honor of my great friend, the late David Hazlewood, who never missed an LCDLA Declaration reading and always wore is lag shirt. Then  it the road for the Texas  Hill  country, companionless, in my beat-up Chevy Tahoe. Along the way, I read the Declaration  of Independence in Post, Sweetwater, Coleman, Brady, and Llano.

Unfortunately, I forgot my own advice and did not forewarn the citizenry to witness my oratory until I was five miles outside of Post. I phoned my buddy Ted Weems, the Garza County Attorney, but he was out. His assistant promised to come downstairs with the County Judge, his secretary, and maybe others to hear my presentation.

I guess the assistant was like me—forgetful—and no one from inside the courthouse appeared. A random young lady happened to wander up the courthouse steps, and she enthusiastically took my photo,  but she did not stick around to hear my rendition of the Declaration.

In Sweetwater, another young lady—wearing a US flag scarf—firmly refused to photograph me and hurried away as if I were a leper. So, I took my first snapshot self-portrait—known as a “selfie”—with my trusty cell phone camera.

The friendly Justice of the Peace court coordinator was my only audience in Coleman, and she graciously agreed to take my picture.

The courthouse in Brady was closed. With no assemblage, I delivered the most eloquent recitation of the Declaration heard anywhere ever, and there is no evidence to the contrary. Having mastered the art of the selfie, I snapped away, shuddering at my semblance.

When I arrived at the beautiful Llano County Courthouse, I was confronted with driving rain, so I ducked into the quaint gazebo on the courthouse square and read the Great Document. I did the selfie thing again: I hope it was my last.

What a hoot! Six counties, 304 miles, and three selfies. God Bless America!

-Chuck Lanehart, Lubbock

Over in Marathon, there was a Dog and Pony Show parade Saturday morning with  Brewster County Sheriff Ronnie Dodson leading participants through downtown. There was also a chili cook-off, dancing under the stars, and fireworks.

Marfa was mostly quiet over the weekend but famed criminal defense lawyer Dick DeGuerin continued his tradition of reading the Declaration of Independence aloud to a gathered crowd in front of the Presidio County Courthouse.

-Big Bend Sentinel

Judy and I  have read the Declaration in ten countries, including Russia twice on our travels as United Methodist missionaries. Here we are in Prague, only a few feet from a Jewish internment camp from Hitler’s death squads. It gave us a great sense of pride to be free and standing over so many who were gassed and horribly mistreated. So many people from foreign countries came up to us and simply said, “Yah! Yah!” Meaning yes to the end of tyranny and injustice!

-Ken Mingledorff, Houston

Travis County attorneys and TCDLA staff gathered outside of the Blackwell-Thurman Criminal Courthouse in Austin for our annual Declaration of independence reading. While this year’s reading didn’t feature our usual donut and coffee reception, we were pleased to keep the tradition alive, even during a pandemic. In the rare in-person gathering, the Austin Criminal Defense Lawyers Association members were pleased to see their colleagues and participate in this meaningful reminder of our shared passion for defending our community.

 – Bradley Hargis, Austin

Get Back to Where You Once Belonged: TCDLA Declaration Readings July 2, 2021

It is early July. The morning is crisp and cool in the Texas town. Just before 9 o’clock, people converge from all directions, mingling on the shady west lawn of the courthouse square. Nearby, a historic whitewashed gazebo is the meeting place for a dozen or so well-dressed local attorneys.

A young lawyer curls her baby in her arms as an older lawyer shoos his toddler grandson from the makeshift stage. Children seem to be everywhere, running across the expansive grassy space with little American flags. Clerks, judges, and prosecutors file out from the courthouse to join the multitude for the familiar annual patriotic ceremony.

A man stands tall before the gazebo and proudly announces the reason for the gathering. He leads the crowd in the Pledge of Allegiance. “God Bless America” follows, performed by a talented young lawyer in a dazzling blue dress. A few tears are dabbed away.

The lawyers take turns reading the paragraphs of the great document. Some readers are talented orators, powerful advocates familiar to all. Others have lesser voices, but even the small children are silent, spellbound by the majesty of the message.

Another lawyer in a blue dress belts out a rousing rendition of “This Land is Your Land,” with everyone joining the chorus and clapping hands. Kids dance. There are hugs and group photos, interviews from the local media and salutations all around. Everyone is excited to do it all over again next year.

But next year is 2020. The pandemic hamstrings TCDLA’s great tradition of sponsoring local readings of the Declaration of Independence. Many local criminal defense lawyers are able to stage modified readings, mindful of health concerns. It is certainly not the same.

Meanwhile, the pandemic kills more than half a million Americans. What it can never kill is the American quest for liberty. The principles enunciated in the Declaration of Independence are eternal for all Americans.

By July 2021, it seems likely the TCDLA Declaration readings will return to normal. It is a chance for Texas criminal defense lawyers to publicly champion liberty and individual rights.

The founder of this wonderful tradition—Robert Fickman of Houston—will join me in coordinating statewide readings again this year. Those of you who have been involved in the past—you know who you are—will soon be contacted with information about the 2021 readings.

Visit to see county coordinators. Email  to be added. Watch the 2020 TCDLA Declaration Video.

Please join us in honoring our nation’s most sacred document in the spirit of independence.

WE WILL NOT BE DETERRED: Reading of the Declaration of Independence 2020

TCDLA is committed to celebrating our freedoms by organizing local readings of the Declaration of Independence throughout Texas every year. This year, perhaps more than ever, our annual patriotic project is especially warranted.

Criminal defense lawyers are at the point of the spear against despots, unreasonable laws, and misguided regulations. We therefore must remind the public how America’s founding document is relevant even in the face of a worldwide pandemic.

State Declaration reading co-organizer Robert Fickman and I invite all members to celebrate the Declaration of Independence on or about July 3 in a reasonable fashion depending on health risk circumstances. We hope you will follow whatever social distancing measures are recommended in your community. It may mean just one TCDLA member will read the Declaration on the courthouse steps without inviting an audience. It may mean a ZOOM reading. Whatever works best in your town is okay, as long as the Declaration gets read. As always, your event should be properly memorialized, so please send TCDLA your best photos/selfies of the reading, and please post the pix on social media.

We will not be deterred by the pandemic. Our commitment to the principles enunciated in the Declaration has never been stronger.

THE SAGA OF SLIPPERY SAM CATES, Crosby County’s Crafty Miscreant

Two shotgun blasts 100 years ago rocked Crosbyton, exposing the tiny Texas South Plains town as a seeming cauldron of sexual promiscuity, leading to death, scandal, and intrigue. Yet the compelling Roaring Twenties tale of Sam Cates, at the center of the drama, seems to have been forgotten. Until now…

Cates and Burton

Samuel Wavely Cates was born to Maggie and Samuel Absalom Cates in McKinney, Texas, in 1896.1 The fourth of 11 children, he completed eight years of school.2

Little is known of his childhood, but a family tragedy must have had a devastating effect on young Sam. In 1915, Sam’s father, Samuel, attended a Methodist Church ladies’ box supper at Jean, in north Central Texas. Following the meal, Samuel was shot three times and killed.3 He was 49 years old.

Two young men were arrested for the killing of Samuel but no-billed by the grand jury.4 Predictably, there was idle talk in the Young County community about the reason the men were not prosecuted.5 Samuel’s 47-year-old widow, Maggie, was left to care for her three youngest children on her own. She never remarried and died at age 82.6

Samuel’s son, Sam, was rather small, 5’8” tall and 135 pounds, with brown eyes, light hair, and gold crowns covered his two front teeth. He did not smoke or drink.7

His registration form for the 1918 World War I draft listed his occupation as “farmer,” and he listed his residence with his mother in Walters, Oklahoma.8 Perhaps Sam was attempting to dodge the draft, for he did not live in Oklahoma in 1918. Since 1917, he had lived in the tiny South Plains town of Crosbyton—population 800.9

Sometime prior to 1920, Sam was accused of homicide, though no details of the crime are known. Attorney J.W. Burton of Crosbyton was said to have helped him avoid the hoosegow.10

Joseph Warren Burton was born in Iowa in 1873. He and his wife, Metta, an Indiana native, were married in 1905. According to a newspaper account, he was the first man to settle the town of Crosbyton, yet no evidence backs the dubious claim.11 12 He was “a well-known practicing lawyer” on the South Plains and was called “Judge” Burton.13 There is no record of J.W. having served on the bench, but his father was once a district judge in Iowa.14

Despite the mysteries surrounding the relationship between J.W. and Sam, it is clear J.W. hired young Sam to work as a clerk in his law office and as a chauffeur for his wife, Metta.15 16 Sam also boarded at the Burton home.17

The Killing

On Monday, March 8, 1920, Sam drove to Lubbock to pick up Metta, who had been hospitalized for a “mental and nervous” condition.18 When Sam and Metta returned to their Crosbyton home at about 10 p.m., J.W. was waiting.19

Jealous accusations flew, as Metta accused her husband of having an affair with her young niece, Florence Carlton, a houseguest. Sam had informed Metta that, while she was away, J.W. and Flo had taken two excursions, one to Lubbock and one to “the canyon,” each time returning home after midnight.20

Sam told Metta, “They might have found an opportunity for the gratification of any mutual desire they might have had.”21 According to Sam, “Mrs. Burton had been taught from past bitter experiences that her husband was not immune from the lure of the opposite sex.”22

Then all hell broke loose.

Metta began “fighting and upbraiding” her husband, Sam said. J.W. accused Sam of spreading lies about Flo and the lawyer. He told Sam to leave the Burton home the following morning. As Sam described the scene, an enraged J.W.—over six feet tall—suddenly attacked the smaller Sam and then backed Metta against a wall, violently beating and choking his wife.23 24 25 

Sam settled the dispute. He grabbed a shotgun and fired two blasts, the first hitting the lawyer’s arm, a superficial wound. The second blast, to J.W.’s side, proved fatal.26

Sam placed a pillow beneath the head of the dying lawyer and apologized.  “Mr. Burton, I’m awful sorry this happened.” He heard J.W.’s reply, “Sam, I jumped on the wrong man, I jumped on two innocent kids.”27 J.W. clung to life and remained conscious for hours, whispering his last words early Tuesday morning. He was 46 years old.28

Metta’s Will

If J.W. Burton left a will, it was never probated.29

Immediately after J.W.’s death, Metta executed her will, leaving almost half of her estate to Sam Cates! Within a few weeks, the widow was dead. “Her constant refusal of nourishment in any form, together with the sorrow caused by the untimely death of her husband is conceded to have been the cause of her death,” according to her obituary.30 She was 45. Sam’s inheritance amounted to about $7,000, worth $90,000 in present-day dollars.31

The relationship between 23-year-old Sam and 45-year-old Metta must have generated much local gossip. Sam eventually admitted the couple was involved in a torrid two-year sexual affair.32

Another major beneficiary of Metta’s estate was her maid and cook, 22-year-old Mary Steffen. Mary, who had worked for the Burtons since age 16, was—like Sam—bestowed property valued at $90,000 in modern dollars.33

A smaller bequeath went to J.W.’s law partner, Parke N. Dalton, who may have also had a love affair with Metta.34 35 

Despite the shameful controversy, J.W. and Metta Burton were buried side-by-side in an Iowa cemetery.36

The First Trial

The district attorney and district judge arrived in Crosbyton and conducted a “preliminary trial,” probably an examining trial. Sam was immediately arrested and jailed.37

In May of 1920—only three months after the shooting—the Crosby County Courthouse was the setting for Sam’s trial. The indictment charged “murder with malice aforethought,” a capital crime. If convicted, Sam faced the prospect of execution by hanging.38 39

The prosecution alleged Metta and Sam conspired to murder J.W..40 There was speculation Sam would enter a plea of insanity, but instead Sam said he acted in self-defense and in defense of Metta.41 42

The jury was told of Metta’s generous bequest in favor of Sam. They also heard of Sam’s intense interest—from jail—of whether Metta had executed her will before her death.43

Sam testified, and denied having a sexual relationship with Metta.44 But in later court documents, he described their love affair in quaint prose.

Sam “had access to the person of Mrs. Burton almost as unlimited and free as that of the deceased himself,” court pleadings revealed. “Such relations were invited by Mrs. Burton and took place not only in distant parts of the country, but also in the home of the deceased.”45

Sam attempted to deflect the issue of his inheritance from Metta. He alleged one of the State’s witnesses, attorney Parke N. Dalton, had engaged in a love affair with Metta. Dalton was J.W.’s law partner and was left a small inheritance from the lawyer’s wife.46

An eyewitness to the shooting was 22-year-old Mary Steffen, the Burton’s maid and cook.47 She was expected to be the prosecution’s most important witness.48 Instead, Mary testified for the defense. She portrayed J.W. as the aggressor on the night of March 8, “jumping” on Sam and choking Metta.49

However, on cross-examination, Mary’s testimony did not help Sam.

The defense argued the prosecution used unreasonable pressure to persuade Mary to reveal evidence harmful to Sam’s defense. According to Sam’s lawyers, “She was not accustomed to quick thinking . . .  readily susceptible to psychological suggestion.”50

She described in explicit detail Sam’s love affair with Metta, including far-flung liaisons she witnessed in Texas, Iowa, and Illinois.51 Mary’s testimony may have sealed Sam’s fate. She said a defenseless J.W. was on the ground—and not choking his wife—when the fatal second shot was fired.52

Several State’s witnesses discredited Sam’s claim that J.W. choked Metta, offering testimony that there were no marks or bruises found on Mrs. Burton’s neck.53

The defense countered, “Mrs. Burton was wearing a high fur collar closely fastened about her neck . . .  of sufficient thickness to have prevented . . .  the leaving of marks upon the flesh of her neck.”54

The prosecution made a “herculean effort” to obtain the death penalty.55 Sam dodged the hangman’s noose but was convicted and sentenced to 99 years in prison.56 He appealed.57

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ruled in Sam’s favor: The evidence of his inheritance from J.W.’s wife Metta was inadmissible.58 The matter was returned to Crosby County for a new trial, but the case was so notorious, an impartial jury could not be found.59 Lubbock County was chosen for a change of venue.60

The Second Trial

Lubbock was four times larger than Crosbyton but was still a small town—population of 4,000. The city was just 40 miles west of Crosbyton, so the residents had been subjected to a fair amount of publicity on the Sam Cates case in the Lubbock Avalanche. But it was June of 1921, and the Burton killing was now a year in the past. Twelve male jurors were chosen in less than a day.61

Sam’s defense lawyer was the powerful W.H. Bledsoe of Lubbock, famous for winning an acquittal for his client in the first Lubbock County murder trial eight years earlier.62 In 1923, as state senator, Bledsoe would sponsor legislation that brought Texas Technological College to Lubbock.63 The establishment of the college was the defining moment in the educational, economic, and cultural history of Lubbock.

How Sam was able to afford such a prominent attorney is curious, as Sam’s inheritance from Metta never materialized. Her sister, Letta McCullough of Illinois, contested the will. Many witnesses testified Metta was of “unsound mind” when she executed the document.64 Affidavits were filed claiming she was “ranting and raving” much of the time following her husband’s death.65

Witnesses said Metta suffered from a variety of “mental and nervous diseases” for many months. After her husband’s death, she would talk about how much she loved “poor Jodie,” which was J.W.’s nickname. In the next breath, she would talk about her affection for “poor Sam,” and then she would rage against everyone in Crosbyton in the most “vile and obscene language.”66

The probate judge agreed the will was illegitimate.67 Both Sam and Mary Steffen lost their claims to Metta’s estate.68 Ironically, Bledsoe represented the successful will contestant, Letta McCullough.69

It seems the lawyer who convinced the court to deny Sam his inheritance would have a serious conflict of interest representing the same man in his murder trial, but that’s exactly what happened. Perhaps legal ethical rules of the day were not well understood or enforced. Or did Bledsoe feel guilty and offer to represent Sam pro bono? No records show Bledsoe was court-appointed, so the matter remains a mystery.70

The Crosbyton Review and the Lubbock Avalanche published dramatic accounts of the second trial in June 1921.

The gathering of legal talent could have been called the West Texas “dream team” of the 1920s.

The defense was led by Bledsoe, assisted by Lloyd Wicks of Ralls and Lubbock lawyers W.C. Huffhines and Clark Mullican. Prosecutors were District Attorney Gordon McGuire of Lamesa, R.E. Underwood of Amarillo, Parke Dalton of Crosbyton, and John R. McGee, Lubbock county attorney.71 Judge W.R. Spencer, the first district judge to be based in Lubbock, presided.72

Many witnesses were “taken through a close examination, and when the State would draw out several points in their favor, the counsel of the defendant would tear down the evidence until so to speak, they would break about even.”73

Metta’s niece, Florence Carlton, a houseguest at the time of the shooting—and accused by the defense of having an affair with J.W.—testified she heard no threats from the lawyer.74 She saw Sam fire both shots and saw J.W. lying on the ground when the second shot was fired.75

Sam testified for five hours. “Answering in a very mild and polite tone of voice, and sometimes with a smile,” he swore J.W. attacked him and then attacked Metta.76

He said his first shot was not to kill, but to show he meant business. Sam said he accidentally wounded J.W. in the arm. The lawyer did not fall but continued to choke his wife. J.W. cried, “Kill me, damn you!” Sam then shot to kill.77

“I knew at this time my life was in danger,” Sam testified. “Judge Burton was in the habit of keeping a revolver in the house. I have known him carrying a revolver with him. He was looking for trouble all the time.”78

If J.W. was in the act of choking his wife when Sam fired the shotgun, it is remarkable Metta was not injured by the deadly blast.

The prosecution subpoenaed Mary Steffen to repeat her vivid description of Sam and Metta’s love affair, and to testify she saw a defenseless and wounded J.W. on the ground when Sam shot-gunned the lawyer to death.

However, in a bizarre but brilliant move, minutes before she was to take the witness stand, Mary and Sam were joined in holy matrimony in a civil ceremony at the courthouse! Mary’s testimony, harmful to Sam’s case, was never heard, barred by the marital privilege.79

The legal-stunt marriage probably saved Sam from a much longer prison term. After a week-long trial, the Lubbock jury convicted Sam and sentenced him to 14 years in the Texas penitentiary.80

The law of the era provided a successful appeal and retrial could result in no worse than the lenient 14-year sentence Sam received. So, with little downside to filing an appeal, Sam’s lawyers took his case to the Court of Criminal Appeals a second time.81

But this time his appeal did not get far, because Sam took an unauthorized leave of absence.

The Escape

In August of 1921, while housed at the Lubbock County Jail awaiting transfer to prison, Sam wrote a letter to Clyde Anderson of Dallas: “Listen, Clyde, we are in great need of some ‘hack saws.’ You get a half dozen, and pack them in a box of candy. You know how to pack them so ‘would-be Sheriff’ won’t find them. Do this as quick as possible. Address the candy to Hewlett Smith, your brother. Have it to return to a fake name, you will know how to do that old stuff.” A deputy intercepted the note, and no hack saws were delivered to the jail, averting a possible getaway.82

A month later, when Lubbock County Sheriff Charles A. Holcomb and his wife, Minnie, served lunch at the jail, Sam and two other prisoners attacked.83

The sheriff fought back, but the prisoners overpowered him, and Sam took the sheriff’s gun, commanding Holcomb: “Throw up your hands! Put ‘em up!”84

As Sam held the gun on the sheriff, the others attempted to gag his wife and “choked her severely.”85 Suddenly, Deputy Sheriff John McCulloch appeared and leveled his pistol on Sam.86

The sheriff shouted, “Shoot him, John!” The deputy fired, but the bullet passed under Cate’s arm. After the deputy’s miss, Sam sprang for the door. The sheriff took advantage of the chaos and tackled Sam, wrestling the gun away. All prisoners were subdued.87

When the dust settled, the inmates were locked away in the jail’s “dark cell,” which the sheriff thought was escape-proof.88 As Sheriff Holcomb busied himself investigating a major chicken theft involving 35 hens and seven fryers, he was confident the prisoners were secure in his dungeon.89

But the sheriff was wrong.

On September 30, 1921, Sam and his accomplice, Hewlett Smith, busted out of jail.90 Parts of their cots were strewn about the cell, and a small steel bar about the size of a pencil was also found.91 It was a mystery how the two broke out of the escape-proof dark cell.

Later, the sheriff gave the editor of the Crosbyton Review a tour of Sam’s escape route. The editor wrote, “It is a miracle how Cates and his companion effected their escape from the dark cell, but after going through the jail and having the situation fully explained, one is convinced that such a thing is possible, for the time lock on the cell is defective and a mastermind with nothing else to do but experiment with such things might do wonders.”92

Sam left what might be described as a sarcastically tender parting note to Sheriff Holcomb: “Dear Charlie and Family, I hope you all the best of luck all the rest of your days. Don’t think too hard of me for doing this. I too am very sorry for our other troubles so please forgive me. If you people don’t ever catch me, you can bet that I will always be a good boy. Give my best regards to my Mary. With love, always, Sam.”93

Sam and his accomplice, Smith, went their separate ways after the jailbreak.94 Three days later, traveling by foot at night, Sam reached Seminole. He caught a ride to Midland, sold his watch to his driver, and used the money to reach El Paso. He made his way to Mexico and eventually surfaced in the remote desert town of Indio, California. Using the name of John Lewis, he waited tables at a restaurant and made many friends in the small town of about 1,000 residents.95

The Recapture

Unfortunately for Sam, he made the mistake of telling a friend he was wanted by the law in Texas. The remark was passed along and reached the local sheriff’s office. In January of 1922, a deputy approached Sam from behind as he was cutting bread in the restaurant. He pressed the barrel of a revolver against Sam’s back and ordered him to put his hands in the air, but the outlaw kept the knife in his hands until forced to drop it. Sam was handcuffed and initially feigned ignorance of his Texas arrest warrants, but he soon admitted his identity.96

Upon his recapture in California, Sam had $250 in the bank ($3,000 in current dollars), fine clothes, and other valuable possessions. A letter signed by Indio’s most prominent citizens attested to his excellent character.97 He had been in Indio less than four months.

His employer said, “He was very faithful and honest with me,” and asked authorities to keep him informed of Sam’s fate.98 He seemed always to be “a good boy” in Indio.

Sheriff Holcomb hurried to California to retrieve Sam, the man who had held a gun on the sheriff and choked his wife during a failed escape attempt. He was naturally curious how Sam had broken out of the sheriff’s not-so-inescapable “dark cell.”99

Sam was happy to brag on his intricate and complicated jailbreak. The Avalanche reported, “He and Smith worked out a plan for turning the combination on the jail with a belt made of strips of their cot, opening the other doors and locks with a mechanical device constructed of the lumber in the cot, using as a guide to direct their work on one of the taps they had to take off a small looking glass which was fastened to a long cot rail. The wrench they constructed of two pieces of the cot, making a V shape instrument out of it, pounding the tap off after several tedious attempts and when they finally reached the top of the jail and the open windows, made a ladder of what sheeting and other cloth they had in their cell and swung to the ground.”100

Meanwhile, the Court of Criminal Appeals refused to hear Sam’s appeal of his 14-year Lubbock County murder sentence, deciding “the jurisdiction of the appellate court does not attach because of the escape pending appeal.”101

The Penitentiary

Soon transported back to Lubbock for court, Sam had two years added to his penitentiary term for his assault of Sheriff Holcomb during his failed jailbreak in 1921.102 In addition, Sam was sentenced to four years in prison for a Crosby County forgery, with the sentence to run concurrently with his other convictions.103 The assault sentence was stacked atop the 14-year murder judgment, so he was to be imprisoned for a total of 16 years.

His prison release date was calculated: February 25, 1938, when Sam would be 42 years old.104  Sam set about to rearrange his release date. 

Soon after arriving at an East Texas penitentiary in March of 1922, Sam appeared to assume the demeanor of a model prisoner. He wrote to the Avalanche, reporting the prison library had burned all its books. Sam politely requested donations for the new library, and the newspaper promised to send a carload of books and magazines.105

But Sam had no plans for casual reading.

Within a year of writing the letter, Sam sawed through the bars of his cell window, stole a car, and escaped.106 When recaptured, “20 lashes” were ordered, but somehow the “punishment [was] set aside and lost [good] time restored,” according to his prison conduct record.107

In 1926, after having served less than four years of his 16-year sentence, Sam was granted a full pardon by Texas Governor Miriam “Ma” Ferguson, and he was released from prison.108

Governor Ferguson—who granted more than 4,000 pardons during a four-year period—was rumored to have granted many reprieves in exchange for cash payments.109 Most of Ferguson’s pardons were for those convicted of liquor-related crimes during the Prohibition era.110 As Sam was not a bootlegger and apparently had little money, it is a mystery why he was favored by the governor’s pardon.

The Aftermath

In 1940, census records show Sam was living in Harris County and was employed as a cook at a downtown restaurant. He was divorced, and there is no record he ever fathered children.111

Mary—the girl Sam wed just before she was to testify against him—seems to have disappeared after her name appeared in the 1920 census as a “servant” in the Burton home.112 Records indicate she may have been buried in Wisconsin in 1966 at age 66 or 67.113

When he registered for the 1942 World War II draft, Sam was 45 years old. In 1918, he had registered for the draft during World War I, but never served in the military during either World War.114

In his 1942 draft registration documents, Sam described himself as self-employed and gave the same address he gave as his place of employment in the 1940 census. Perhaps by 1942 he was the proprietor of the downtown Houston restaurant.115

Nothing more is known of Sam’s life after 1942. He died in 1984 at age 87 and is buried in Parker County, Texas.116

It seems Sam Cates, Crosby County’s crafty miscreant, was “always a good boy” after his pardon by Governor Ferguson. He had no more troubles with the law and made no more daring escapes.

It remains a mystery how Slippery Sam—mostly—got away with it all.