Saturday, January 22, 2022

Home on the Range? FBI Agents Fit Right In

Goodland Life

J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI excelled at fugitive apprehension. In my experience, nobody did it better. In the early ‘70s an intriguing fugitive case landed on my desk in the backwater Phoenix Field Office. The case bore the caveat “Armed and dangerous” and came in the form of a teletype, our most urgent form of communication.

Bill Cox, a central Florida motorcycle gang leader, had been implicated in the brutal murder of the wife of one of his gang members. The murder was apparently an object lesson to the widowed member. Before Cox could be arrested by the local sheriff, he disappeared without a trace. With reason to believe that Cox had fled the state of Florida, the sheriff prevailed upon the Tampa Field Office to obtain a warrant charging Cox with Unlawful Flight to Avoid Prosecution, which had been made a federal offense for cases like this. The Tampa office was the Office of Origin and began setting out leads to interview Cox’s known associates and family members. This is a standard opening gambit in a fugitive case when there is nothing else to go on.

One of Cox’s aunts living in the mid-west admitted that Cox did call her occasionally but gave no clue as to where he was. She became the main focus of the investigation. She was all we had. Finally Cox let his guard down. I am guessing that alcohol was involved. Cox told his aunt that he was working as a cowboy and that there was a dog track nearby. The agent promptly rushed back to his office and sent a teletype to every FBI field office west of the Mississippi. Did any western office know of a situation where one could work as a cowboy in proximity to a dog track, the teletype asked.

The abandoned Black Canyon City dog track.

When I saw this, alarm bells started going off. There was in fact a working dog track in Black Canyon City (BCC), about 40 miles north of Phoenix. Until 1919, BCC had been a stage coach stop on the road to Prescott. Inquiries reflected that the village (pop. less than 1,000 in 1970) was situated in the midst of open range used by area ranchers for grazing their cattle. Cowboys were needed to move the cattle from the upper summer range to the lower winter desert range surrounding the village. I had no trouble rounding up a team of agents to go up to BCC to try and find this guy. We had some young eager beavers in the office who lived for stuff like this. Those young agents were good at what they did. They were specialists in fugitive apprehension and had a lot of hubris and esprit de corps.

On a warm and sunny winter, day about six or seven of us piled into two bureau squad cars and took off for BCC. We had no plan of action and would react whatever situation we found there. As we pulled into the dusty, one street, no stop light town, I suggested we pull into a small café by the side of the road and come up with a plan. Our server seemed friendly and congenial, so I took a chance and showed her Cox’s mug shot from a prior arrest. Have you seen him around town, I asked. She recognized him immediately. “He stops in here often,” she said, “As a matter of fact he is across the street right now drinking with his buddies at the saloon.” She pointed to the Javelina Crossing Saloon, which was then the only watering hole in town. She couldn’t recall if Cox had ever packed a gun, but it was not unusual to occasionally see a cowboy with a gun belt and holstered six-shooter going into the saloon – perfectly legal under Arizona law. Throwing alcohol into the mix, it was a potentially volatile situation, especially as Cox had bragged to his buddies in Florida that he would not be taken alive.

The plan was that the young agents, dressed as nearly as they could to look like cowboys (one had on a beautiful black Stetson hat) would leave the café at intervals and belly up to the bar in the saloon across the street. When Cox had been positively identified, a signal would be given to the next agent to enter who would get next to Cox and order a drink. Likewise, the next agent would station himself on the other side of Cox. As case agent, and the old man of the bunch (I was then 34), I would park my car outside the saloon in case more back up was needed. In the event that gunfire erupted, I would make sure that Cox couldn’t escape through the front door.

It was very dark and crowded inside the saloon, making the situation potentially volatile.

Within minutes after the last agent had entered the bar, it was over. It turned out that Cox wasn’t packing. Some of those at the bar didn’t even know an arrest had been made until they saw agents leading Cox, handcuffed, out of the bar. Cox was completely surprised and never knew what hit him. On the way back to Phoenix, he had recovered his composure enough to promise us untold riches if we would just let him go.

Such was life in the small Phoenix office of the ‘70s. We had an awful lot of fun in some weird and hairy situations.

Barry was a practicing attorney before he worked as a Special Agent of the FBI for 31 years. Barry worked for several government agencies another ten years before retiring to Goodland in 2006. Barry is a former Secretary of the Goodland Civic Association.

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