Nobody who has been in any type of business or profession for any length of time hasn’t run into some “characters.” I am certainly no exception, and after working in the criminal justice system for over 36 years, I had some unforgettable people cross my path.
So I thought I might take a moment and reminisce about some of the offenders I’ve dealt with over the years. Unfortunately in so many cases, their lights were on but nobody was home.
Let’s start with Little Joe. When I first became an Assistant District Attorney, I was assigned like most new prosecutors to work in Justice of the Peace Courts. That’s where I first met Little Joe.
I was a young prosecutor and he was a young thief. I prosecuted him several times for Class C misdemeanors. Then I got promoted to County Court at Law cases, and sure enough, here came Little Joe, now stealing in Class A & B amounts.
As my career advanced, I was assigned to felony court. Who do I see there but Little Joe, now committing Third Degree Felonies. I later became the Chief of the Trial Division, and Little Joe moved up to Second Degree offenses. And as a newly elected judge, I got to sentence Little Joe to life in prison under the then-mandatory habitual offender statute.
Our careers paralleled each other. As I went up a notch, so did Little Joe.
And then there was Frank. I was prosecuting misdemeanor offenses when I first ran into him. Way back then, our jail was on the top of the courthouse building. The sheriff didn’t have funds to hire professional cooks for the jail kitchen, so inmates had to handle all of the food preparation. And an inmate who knew how to cook was very valuable.
Frank was a seaman and cooked on ships when he wasn’t in jail. And he had been in almost every jail and prison in the country at one time or another. He was at the time in our jail charged with felony forgery. Frank was so valuable to the sheriff that he asked to have the charges handled as misdemeanors so Frank could serve all of his time in our jail—and do the cooking. The judge agreed, a deal was struck, and Frank got sentences totaling several years in our jail.
About two years later and during the Vietnam War, Frank wrote the judge. He indicated that he had a chance to become a seaman on a ship under contract to the government of Vietnam. If he could get on that ship, he would be in Vietnamese waters for more than three years. He promised that if he wasn’t killed, he would never enter our jurisdiction again for the rest of his life.
All of the county criminal justice officials finally agreed to give Frank some trustee credit and cut him loose early. The ship was to leave the Port of Beaumont at 3 p.m. on Saturday. The Port is exactly one block from the jail, and the judge ordered the sheriff to release Frank at 2:50 p.m., drive him to the ship, watch him board, and watch the ship sail away.
At precisely 2:50 p.m. Frank got in the sheriff’s car for the one-block ride. Next to the only red light at that time was a small building known as “Smokey the Bar.” Frank asked the deputy sheriff if he could go in and get some cigarettes, as the ship wouldn’t get to Vietnam for three months. In a few moments Frank was back in the car, rode to the ship, and the deputy watched it sail away.
The next week I received a forgery complaint from Smokey the Bar. Seems Frank went in there·and forged a check for the cigarettes. Now that’s a criminal. Not only did he commit a new crime; he used a deputy sheriff as the get-away driver! They don’t make many like Frank anymore. By now Frank is certainly deceased and probably residing in an exceptionally hot environment. I’ll bet anything that he’s figured out a way to steal gasoline from the devil!
And finally, there was the Old Gray Fox. He was called that because he had a full head of thick gray hair, and he could break into almost anything. His specialty was safe jobs, and he was a recognized expert. Unfortunately from his standpoint, he got caught fairly often and spent a considerable portion of his life in prison.
But his reputation as a safe burglar remained strong. Let me tell you just how strong. Our police once caught two burglars and were interrogating them about other crimes they had committed. The police told them they would only file one charge against them but wanted to clear the books regarding their other offenses.
And this is the story they told. They had entered a local business one night by cutting a hole in the roof. Once inside, they attempted unsuccessfully to open the safe. Nothing they tried worked. So in desperation they picked up the phone and called the Old Gray Fox, who was at home asleep.
They described their problem, and he told them to put their punch in a particular location. But that didn’t work. So he told them to place their drill in another spot on the safe. Again, their attempts failed.
So the Old Gray Fox got dressed, drove down to the building, climbed on the roof, dropped down to the office, and opened the safe for them. Seems there was almost $40,000 in the vault, and the grateful burglars asked him what part he wanted as his share.
The Old Gray Fox told them that this was their job and he didn’t want anything, but in the future if they couldn’t handle the job, don’t call him at home when he was sleeping! Now that’s a professional.
Way back then, so many criminals were professionals in the sense that when they were caught they knew it. And all they tried to do was lower their business expense and get as little pen time as they could. None of them would think of physically hurting an officer or anybody else for that matter.
In their minds, they were crooks—but besides being thieves, not really bad people.
Things have gotten so much more dangerous throughout the years. Violence has become the overwhelming focus of our modern-day criminal justice system. So in a strange way, it’s refreshing to remember a time when most of the crooks were characters. Not killers.
Senior District Judge Larry Gist of Beaumont, a Presiding Judge at the Drug Impact Court, is also a member of the Judicial Advisory Council (JAC), which advises the director of the Community Justice Assistance Division and the Texas Board of Criminal Justice on matters of interest to the judiciary. He received his undergraduate degree from Notre Dame and graduated from the University of Texas Law School, serving initially as an assistant state’s attorney before the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. He is a member of the adjunct faculty at South Texas College Law, Houston, teaching criminal law and criminal trial advocacy. Larry previously served as an adjunct professor in the criminal justice department and of psychology and law in the College of Graduate Studies at Lamar University, Beaumont, Texas. Besides writing for the Voice for the Defense, he is a regular contributor to the Texas Prosecutor and the Texas State Trooper.