Thursday, August 24, 2006

ROUNDHOUSE ROUNDUP: A RICH HISTORY OF CORRUPTION

A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
August 24, 2006


Listening to recent New Mexico political ads and blogosphere chatter — with all the reports of kickbacks, cronyism and special favors for campaign contributors — one might think we’re living in the sleaziest era of corruption in the history of the state.

Not even close.

A recently published book about a murder near Las Cruces 57 years ago is a sobering reminder that political corruption is nothing new here. In fact, this state has a rich tradition of official corruption and chicanery.

In many ways, the current crop of scoundrels are amateurs compared with the cast of characters in Peter R. Sandman’s Murder Near the Crosses.

This is a nonfiction account of the infamous Cricket Coogler case, the slaying of an 18-year-old Las Cruces waitress/”party girl” written by the son of a sheriff’s deputy who was part of the investigation.

As also documented in Charlie Cullin’s 2002 film The Silence of Cricket Coogler, the Coogler case wasn’t just a run-of-the-mill sex murder. A maverick grand-jury investigation and the work of a brave reporter named Walter Finley revealed the victim was a playmate of high-level politicians who frequented illegal Mafia-run gambling joints.

In the first chapter, Sandman, relying on FBI records received through the Freedom of Information Act and papers from a judge involved in the grand jury investigation, says the Cleveland mob and gangsters from Los Angeles were involved in New Mexico gambling. While the federal government never prosecuted any of the Mafia gambling interests in New Mexico, apparently the FBI kept tabs on the operations.

In Doña Ana County, Sandman wrote, Mafiosi made direct payments to Sheriff “Happy” Apodaca, a judge and a state corporation commissioner, who divided his share among politicians in Santa Fe.

Though nobody was convicted for the homicide, a state corporation commissioner was tried on morals charges for serving Coogler liquor when she was a minor and having her “in his possession for evil purposes.”

Commissioner Dan Sedillo was acquitted of those charges after the three major prosecution witnesses invoked the Fifth Amendment.

Sedillo was in the Las Cruces area the night Coogler was last seen alive. He had flown to El Paso with then Lt. Gov. Joe Montoya — later a U.S. senator. The book cites testimony from a witness who saw Montoya, Sedillo and Coogler in the same motel room hours before the killing. (Montoya, a Democrat, never was charged with any crime.)

Another Coogler-related case that went to trial was a federal civil-rights case. Sheriff Apodaca, state Police Chief Hubert Beasley and Deputy Roy Sandman were accused of torturing a black man in an attempt to get a murder confession. The three were convicted and served a year in prison.

Author Sandman has a personal ax to grind here. Roy Sandman was his father.

Pete Sandman said in a telephone interview this week that he believes his father was framed and that accounts by the torture victim, Wesley Byrd, were full of discrepancies.

The author said his father didn’t believe Byrd was guilty. Roy Sandman, who left the Sheriff’s Department to work for the district attorney shortly after Coogler’s murder, was instrumental in revealing many of the illegal-gambling connections with the case, his son said.

In 1953, when Pete Sandman was 4 years old, Roy Sandman died of a gunshot wound to his head. While law-enforcement officials called the death a suicide, a coroner’s jury only would classify his death as “gunshot wounds, causes unknown.” Pete Sandman believes his father was murdered as payback for his investigative work.

Sandman quotes a former state representative, Sixto Leyva of Santo Domingo, who in a speech on the House floor in 1951 over a bill to fund a full investigation of the Coogler case said:

“Any time any members of one party become so powerful they can dictate to the judiciary to cover up a crime, as they did in (Doña Ana) County, it is up to us as elected representatives of the people to solve that crime. ... Somebody from high up was covering up the murder of this girl. Some high official is involved in this case.”

What happened to that bill? According to Sandman’s book, it passed the House. But “it was sent to the Senate where it disappeared.”

(Murder Near the Crosses is published by Barbed Wire Publishing. A page for this book should be up soon, Sandman said.)

Blog Bonus: An Aug. 15, 1949 article about the Cricket Coogler murder can be found HERE

A little excerpt:

At 18, pretty, ignorant little Ovida ("Cricket") Coogler was a
product of New Mexico's political corruption. ... Under Happy (Apodaca) and his political friends nobody cared if a girl like Cricket ran wild. Occasionally, as a matter of fact, flashy politicos from the state capital itself came to Las Cruces and obligingly helped her get drunk.

Back to the present: A group that was indicted in 2004 on a charge of making an illegal $100,000 campaign contribution to former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay’s political action committee is running television ads in New Mexico supporting U.S. Rep. Heather Wilson, R-N.M.

The Alliance for Quality Nursing Home Care is an umbrella group for 15 for-profit members of the American Health Care Association.

The ad never suggests voting for Wilson. It just thanks her for “Fighting for New Mexico seniors. Voting to protect Medicare funding for quality nursing home care (and) standing up for New Mexico seniors.”

“Heather Wilson likes to talk about her integrity,” said Heather Brewer, a spokeswoman for Wilson’s Democratic opponent, Attorney General Patricia Madrid. “She needs to stop talking and take action by standing up to this scandalous organization and demanding they stop spending their tainted money on ads supporting her campaign.”

Wilson spokesman Enrique Carlos Knell said Wilson has no control over third-party ads “any more than we do over the thousands of dollars spent to bash Heather Wilson in support of Patsy Madrid.”