The Waitress Who Shook New Mexico: Part Two

Editor’s Note:

The second piece in a series on gender violence and related issues in New Mexico and the Paso del Norte borderland. Today’s story is part two of a retrospective of the Cricket Coogler scandals that rattled New Mexico politics and law enforcement after the suspected murder of a young Las Cruces waitress in 1949. This story was made possible in part by a grant from the New Mexico Humanities Council.

The Waitress Who Shook New Mexico: Part Two

In the Coogler affair, the Fourth Estate played a crucial role in exposing a vast underworld that was poised to become the latest conquerors of New Mexico and the state officials who were willing to facilitate the take-over.  The scandals that flowed from the 1949 disappearance and mysterious, violent death of 18- year-old Cricket Coogler outside Las Cruces, New Mexico, became hot regional copy. Soon, the story even made the New York Times and Time magazine.  A young journalist for United Press International named Tony Hillerman was one reporter who followed the trails leading from Cricket Coogler’s desert grave near the village of Mesquite.

Hillerman never forgot the story.  Decades later, when the New Mexico author was a renowned fiction writer, he was interviewed for the 2000 documentary “The Silence of Cricket Coogler: A Political Murder,” which was ironically narrated by John Erlichman  of Watergate fame. Nominated for a Pulitzer Prize because of his relentless and impacting reporting, Walt Finley of the El Paso Herald Post even moved to Las Cruces to cover the story.  Finley later claimed he was threatened by a boozed up, gun-waving Sheriff Happy Apodaca.

Cricket Coogler’s associations with individuals suspected of involvement in illegal gambling soon turned a homicide probe into a full-blown organized crime and public corruption scandal that threatened to bring down the state’s power structure.  In the Land of Enchantment of the 1940s, illicit gaming was an open industry.

“There were slot machines at the service station and prostitutes hanging around,” Mesilla Valley resident Gerald Smith recalled. “It was like Las Vegas. It was totally corrupt-the whole state.”

A retired New Mexico State University administrator, Quintin Ford, too, has vivid memories of the era, and even has gaming artifacts including a British-style slot machine and a “punch-board.” Widely available in bars, a punch board held small pieces of paper that were removed from the back with a key and contained eight possible winning number combinations with prizes of up to ten bucks.

“There was table gambling and roulette gambling in the more organized sense, but that was not unusual in everywhere in New Mexico,” Ford added.

Prior to the rise of Las Vegas, mobsters from Cleveland and other Mafia strongholds were scoping out New Mexico as a potential “gambling Mecca,” according to Paula Moore, author of a 2008 book on the Cricket Coogler case.

Coogler’s mysterious death, which smelled of murder, stirred law enforcement into closing illegal gambling houses that operated between Las Cruces and El Paso, including three businesses in Anapra,  a small community on the New Mexico-Texas line which later became part of the city of Sunland Park.

In an interesting tidbit uncovered by Moore, the modern-day water supply problems Sunland Park residents confront are nothing new. Back in the 1940s, some Anapra residents complained that one of the gambling houses had priority use of a well.

Called the “hottest spot” between Las Cruces and the border by Moore, Anapra was strategically placed to draw the potential, steady clientele from Fort Bliss in El Paso.

“Some FBI informants alleged that protection pay-offs from those three and other joints between (Las Cruces) and Juarez were paid to state politicians, a judge and Sheriff Apodaca,” Moore said in an interview earlier this year.

In the months after Cricket Coogler’s body was recovered, a grand jury convened to probe the case issued a slew of indictments. In an unprecedented fashion, grand jury-led law enforcement raids shut down Dona Ana County gambling houses.  Dona Ana County Sheriff Happy Apodaca and his friend, State Corporation Commissioner Dan Sedillo, were tried on a variety of charges ranging from gambling to morals violations but either acquitted or otherwise set free.

In addition, Apodaca was accused of raping a Canadian national and at least one other local woman, a 17-year-old domestic worker, but never convicted of any crimes in those cases, according to Moore.

In 1950, however, Apodaca was less lucky. Along with New Mexico State Police Chief Hubert Beasley and state police officer Roy Sandman, Apodaca was convicted of civil rights violations arising from the torture of African-American vet Wesley Byrd, who was initially held incommunicado as a suspect in Coogler’s murder.  Conducted in the state capital of Santa Fe, the trial proceeded far from the local pressures of Dona Ana County and Las Cruces.

The three men received one-year prison sentences and were sent to La Tuna federal prison down the road in Anthony, Texas, but got out early. The Santa Fe civil rights trial of the three lawmen was the first of its kind in a nation at the dawn of the Civil Rights Movement.

In a 2005 book, Sandman’s son, the late Peter R. Sandman, challenged the culpability of his father as well as aspects of Byrd’s torture account, a story which was backed up by the FBI.

The author, who was a very young child at the time of the Coogler-plus scandals, contended that his father was an honest cop who was killed in 1953 after he was close to breaking the case on his own. Peter
Sandman also questioned the mysterious deaths of other individuals linked to the Coogler episode.

As for Happy Apodaca, the former sheriff and ex-con later returned to politics and was elected a magistrate judge in Dona Ana County in 1974.  He died in 1981 after falling from his roof.

Both Moore and Sandman concluded that all the heat generated from the death of Cricket Coogler caused organized crime groups to pull back from their grandiose plans for New Mexico.

Citing Hillerman, Moore opined that “if it hadn’t been for the Cricket Coogler case, Santa Fe might well have been Las Vegas and maybe Las Cruces would have been a kind of Reno”

Not unlike criminal enterprises in Italy or Mexico, mafia interests in 1940s’ New Mexico commanded a complex system of official pay-offs to different levels of government and law enforcement and held exclusive rights to local markets, using intimidation when necessary to secure their business supremacy.

“They threatened tavern and café owners who refused to allow their (gaming) machines onto their property,” Sandman wrote. “Proprietors used their machines or else!”

As Moore points out in her book, New Mexico eventually turned out to be a gambling center, albeit not quite on the scale of Las Vegas. Nonetheless, the contemporary revenues generated by legalized gaming make the amount of money that traded hands in the 1940s look like peanuts.

In a recent report, the New Mexico Racing Commission and Gaming Control Board, calculated the money flowing through the state in the racing and casino industries was in the $1.55 billion ballpark for fiscal year 2012.  The number excludes money spent on lottery tickets.

Just up the road from the Anapra gambling joints raided in the 1940s, the Sunland Park Racetrack and Casino offers slots and seasonal, live horse racing. Growing from bingo in the 1980s,  gaming has become the driving enterprise of New Mexico tribes, with casinos dotting Native American lands from Mescalero in the south to San Juan in the north.

In the 21st century, casinos are both cultural signposts and economic mainstays of the Land Enchantment.  In 1996, the New Mexico State Legislature even decided to address the crisis in higher education affordability by creating a state lottery scholarship for eligible university students. The New Mexico Lottery reported that purchasers spent $1.91 billion on lottery ticket sales between fiscal years 1996 and 2011.

The spread of legal gambling even continued during the Great Recession. According to the Navajo Nation Gaming Enterprise (NNEG), the tribe opened three New Mexico casinos from November 2008 to January 2012.  Located near Gallup, Fire Rock Navajo Casino alone boasts live roulette, bingo, 9 table games, and 917 slot machines. Overall, 1,500 people, mostly Navajos, are employed by the NNEG, the agency said in a recent press release.

Additionally, New Mexico counts 55 small casinos licensed to veterans’ and fraternal organizations like the VFW and Moose Lodge, 95 licensed bingo and raffle operators and five racetrack/casinos, according to the New Mexico Gaming Control Board’s 2012 annual report.

Opened in 2013, the latest non-native addition to the gaming scene, the renovated Downs Racetrack and Casino of Albuquerque, glitters next to the New Mexico State Fair and in the middle of one of the city’s low-income zones.  Hovering over brick-and-mortar gaming is the lure of Internet gaming.

Although legal gambling is now prevalent, illegal forms of the activity persist.

In November 2013, state and Valencia County law enforcement cracked down on an illegal horse track operating seven miles west of Los Lunas south of Albuquerque, arresting a couple on felony charges of commercial gambling.  Valencia County Sheriff Louis Burkhard said his office had been working on the case for a “number of years,” and counted between 300 to 500 people who would attend the illegal races.

The events attracted “a whole lot of traffic from around the state and even out of state,” Burkhard told FNS. “People travel the circuits. We’re still working on the inner-workings of the organization.” Similar horse tracks have also been detected around Bernalillo County, Grants and Roswell, the country sheriff said.

Earlier, in September 2013, federal prosecutor Douglas Gardner was quoted by the El Paso Times saying that the 2010 million-dollar Futurity Race at New Mexico’s Ruidoso Downs was likely fixed by members of Mexico’s notorious Zetas drug cartel.

The winning horse, “Mr.Piloto,” was seized by the U.S. government as part of a massive, Zetas-linked money laundering investigation in the horse racing industry and later sold off with more than 400 other confiscated quarter-horses for nearly $12 million, according to the US Attorney Office for the Western District of Texas.

Back in Las Cruces, the Cricket Coogler story has largely faded from public discussion but it lives on as a defining moment for a New Mexico town, a political watershed in state politics and an enduring example of impunity.

In light of recent public corruption scandals in El Paso, Sunland Park and many other places in New Mexico, the Coogler episode stands as an important frame of reference to gauge how far the region has progressed or regressed in meeting standards of good government, honest law enforcement and equal access to justice.
In 1949, the political and social atmosphere in New Mexico favored “heady” individuals imbued with an almost unlimited sense of power, Moore said. “I think vestiges of that resound today-in every state,” she said.
Likewise, the Coogler case exists as one historical yardstick to measure how New Mexico deals with violence against women, and metes out justice when the victim and victimizer(s) do not share equal status in the halls of power.

Was Cricket killed because she knew too much about powerful men and criminal activities? Did a violent “date” abuse and kill her? Was she raped and murdered in a vicious attack? Was she even murdered?

Gerald Smith, whose discovery of Coogler’s remains and subsequent exposure to grand jury proceedings as a young man helped inspire him to choose the legal profession for a career, speculated that Coogler was in company of “big shot politicos,” probably including Happy Apodaca,  when she made a drunken leap from a moving car, a behavior she was said to have previously engaged in  to escape the clutches of some men, and then died from the fall.  Hoping to avoid embarrassment, Cricket’s erstwhile companions dumped Cricket’s body in the desert, Smith hypothesized.

The late Peter Sandman held that evidence unearthed by his father indicated that Coogler was picked up by a man after the bars closed early on March 31, 1949, driven out-of-town, raped and brutally killed near Mesquite.

A tireless researcher, Moore encountered trouble compiling all the necessary background information on a nagging mystery. The criminal file, she said, simply vanished from the Dona Ana County Courthouse. According to the Las Cruces author, other papers related Coogler’s death were reportedly stolen from her mother’s home after the older woman died in 1994.

From the very beginning of Cricket Coogler’s disappearance, the truth was clouded by different levels of law enforcement, Moore said. “I think that evidence and leads were obscured from the local police right through Santa Fe,” she added.

Will historical justice ever emerge in the Coogler case? “I hope there is someone, somewhere who left a letter in a wall or something,” Moore pondered. “You know, these miraculous things do happen. Someday there might actually be a solution to it, but it’s doubtful after many years…”

For eternity’s sake, Happy Apodaca, Cricket Coogler and Roy Sandman are buried in close proximity to one another in Las Cruces’ Masonic Cemetery.

-Kent Paterson

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