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Dixie Mafia Part 3: Interview with Jesse Sublett PT 2
(2/2) Timmy Overton of Austin and Jerry Ray James of Odessa were football stars who traded athletics for lives of crime. The original rebels without causes, nihilists with Cadillacs and Elvis hair, the Overton gang and their associates formed a ragtag white trash mafia that bedazzled Austin law enforcement for most of the 1960s. Tied into a loose network of crooked lawyers, pimps and used car dealers who became known as the "traveling criminals," they burglarized banks and ran smuggling and prostitution rings all over Texas. Author Jesse Sublett presents a detailed account of these Austin miscreants, who rose to folk hero status despite their violent criminal acts.
Mobidi was the end of a string of burglaries that these guys have gone out on, almost like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Maybe they should have known that they were under surveillance and they should have known that they couldn't keep this up. But maybe they figured, Well, what the hell? We're having a ball. But the task force organized between Ernie with the state forces and Austin with the city police, had also reached out to law enforcement all over the state and surrounding States, alerting them that the overtones were out.
Burglars are rising banks and to be on the lookout. And that intelligence told them that they might be in North Texas. And this was quite an accomplishment at that time, because local law enforcement agencies didn't necessarily cooperate with each other. In fact, just like in some of your sort of Southern Redneck movies, they were actually regarding their jurisdiction as their own private fiftom. And if the Feds or another agency told them that some outlaws were in their county, they would just say, Well, fuck off. It's my county.
I'll take care of it. I don't need your help. And in fact, they might make a deal with these guys. You just didn't know. And so communications weren't what they are today. They didn't operate on the same frequency. So they had circulated these bulletins, which had literally dozens of characters on them who are associated with the gang. And then they also had the page after page after page of cars that were associated with these guys. Not all of them were Cadillacs, but a lot of them are.
[00:04:17.390] - Jesse
This. Heist went wrong because they had intelligence that they were in North Texas. They had a source in Shamrock who's keeping tabs on one of their close friends named Donald two jump Sparks. And so they got in touch with him to see how the lay of the land was there. And so when they got to Mobidi, they've been staying in Amarillo, and that was their base of operations. And they went on some trips around the area that I'm not sure why, but they came down to Mobidi from Canadian, Texas.
And I'm not that familiar with the area, but it's up in the very Panhandle that rectangular top of the state. Actually, it's Prairie land, and it's very empty. It's kind of for saying so kind of trashy. Mobidi is just a tiny town of about 200 people in one 1966. Today. I believe it's 200 people. They came to town and a night watchman was on the lookout and spotted them. I believe he was in the beauty shop when he spotted them. And so he stayed inside the beauty shop and looking out the window and he saw them come back through town.
When they dropped the guys off, the driver dropped the guys off to go to the bank, to the alley and then parked the car on the road to the dump about a half mile away. Knight Watchman saw them and he phoned the County Sheriff's office, which was in Wheeler County about 15 minutes away. And so the deputy came and the boys were working on the vault and stuff when they heard gunshots and turned out that the deputy was shooting out or trying to shoot out the tires on the Cadillac.
I think he expended quite a bit of ammunition trying to hit them off. So that alerted the guys. And they sprang out of the bank and went in four different directions and it was snowing and raining. And I visited that area, and I was just astonished that these guys spread out in that area and there's hardly any trees up there. Even some of these guys were at large for three and a half days. Jerry and Hank were apprehended. I don't know. About 3 hours later, they had stolen a pickup truck and they were out there.
They told the cop they were working for the guy whose pickup truck. It had a butane tank on the trailer in the back. And they said they were and fencing materials. They said they're working for the guy, except jury is wearing his alligator's shoes and a red pullover. And I forgot what Hank was wearing. Jerry had $3,400 on them. I forgot what a handcad. Plus, they had a semi automatic rifle in the car. So the cops just didn't buy that story.
[00:08:24.510] - Ben
I was struck by your description of what happened to Lucky Brown stops to eat breakfast at a Denny's where he picked up.
[00:08:35.250] - Jesse
Yeah, he almost got away. He slipped into the hotel. He had been at large the longest. It was all messy. He had gone up to the atomic weapons plant to Mummy ride from a security guard. Security guard gave him a ride. And then the security guard started thinking about that guy and he had heard the bulletin about these bank robbers on the loose and thought, oh, Mayor's, the phone ran in. So he did. And the guys who are watching this motel, I don't know what they did.
They went off to get breakfast themselves or what. So he managed to slip in and take a shower and grab some stuff. But he stops. He eat breakfast, and then they catch up with him. There was a police chase. Tim and Lucky had been. They made pretty good time. They made it down to Route 66 and stole a dump truck, but ran into a roadblock, which is very good. Exciting scene for the movie. Whenever that gets made.
[00:09:59.770] - Ben
I have to say, I was impressed before they find that dumb truck. Tim makes it 30 miles on foot. And you were speaking earlier about his athletic prowess here's proof of that, right?
[00:10:14.390] - Jesse
Yeah. And a little over a month earlier had been shot and still had a bullet lodged in his back. So he had to have been in pain. I really respect his physical prowess there.
[00:10:33.870] - Ben
You write that after Mobidi, I'm going to quote you here. You say everybody who wasn't in jail already was headed there soon.
[00:10:45.990] - Ben
Mobidi represents really the first major indictment that the fed can bring against the Overton gang. But even that doesn't quite pan out the way that the government wants it to. What happened there?
[00:11:05.900] - Jesse
Well, the funny thing, they didn't actually catch them in the bank. So there's a little bit of deniability there. And the guys had been very careful not to leave fingerprints. But now and then, if they had to leave a bank in a hurry, they would leave little things behind, like the blocks that they would put underneath a safe to pull it out from the wall or occasionally a tool. And the task force had collected clues, forensic clues here. And there nothing great. They had statements from informants.
And anyway, so all that went into the federal case. But Mobidi, what they did was they charged the five of them with bank burglary there. And let's see. And the guys played out because they were told that they would not be prosecuted for this. Again. This was the only conviction, right. And so that was a promise from the US attorney there. But what happened later was attorney from the Northern District. And so the Western District indicted them. They used Mobidi as the Lynch pin in their Burglary conspiracy indictment.
And when that was challenged in court, the US attorney said, but that was the Northern District. This is the Western District. We never promised that we would not use that case against you because otherwise, all they had was little bits of conspiracy allegations, which might have worked out. Now, it's also apparent from your book that the jail time that they serve while waiting for the trial is just as ridiculous and over the top as the heists themselves. And then you have the gang members getting out on bail at various times and going to Rob Moore banks while they're out just for a few hours at a time. You have these guys barring their jail cell doors so they couldn't physically appear in court that had to be broken up with tear gas.
And then there are some other more salacious aspects, which I'm going to let you describe, because I'm not sure that I am supposed to, if you know what I mean.
[00:14:26.850] - Jesse
Yeah. There's a lot of things in bad taste. At one point when they're being held into Del Rio, people would come by and holler things at the window, and so the guys would flash them and make really lectures remarks to them. But the really big thing that everybody remembers. And it's funny. I've been told the story 100 times, I think by different cops and lawyers say, well, what happened was and what happened was the guys, especially Tim and Jerry. And I'm not sure who else they would have their girlfriends come to talk to them down in the holding cell, and they would get one of the lawyers to watch stand guard duty while the girls serviced them through the bars.
And no one told me exactly physically how they hooked up. But there's a way and you can put a picture in your mind, but this really happened.
[00:15:46.170] - Ben
So the trial is just as surreal as the pretrial detention. The evidentiary matters are just farcical, I think my favorite that you write about is the bank directory that the fed had seized in the evidence hall. It was a bank directory, a book, of course, physical book in those days, which had a list of all the different banks in the region. And the First State Bank of Mobidi, which is the one that the gang had hit, was circled. But on the stand, of course, not a single one of the perks knows anything about it.
[00:16:32.300] - Jesse
Yeah, that was a good one. And I don't know, man. Also, one thing we haven't talked about is they would also Rob gambling games. They might be playing a game one night, and the next night they come back with hoods on and shotguns and hold up the game. So they had a collection of leather hoods and ponchos and stuff and big guns that were also seized during this time. The amount of that kind of evidence that was presented in court was just they had to build a lot of tables to hold all this stuff.
And they also brought a Cannonball safe that Tim had purchased a used one to experiment on. So they brought that. And that was around inside the courtroom that people had to go outside to look at that.
[00:17:41.330] - Ben
Yeah. You write about sort of special tools that Ernie Shul had used. He had kind of more or less doctored these tools so that whenever the gang used them on particular say, they would leave telltale marks. You also have witnesses flipping like Fat Jerry's girlfriend. But it's interesting because by the end of the trial, the Fed, there's a lot of evidence against them. It's not all kind of fun and games, but the Fed only got six convictions out of 20 total indictments. Why was there such a poor showing here?
[00:18:28.470] - Jesse
I think they indicted a number of people just to put pressure on them to confess and turn States witness also, that applying pressure to the guys to just throw them off their game. And I think they also just overreached. And so it didn't really look good because the trial cost so much money. And the more defendants you had, the more chances for chaos, because these girls would come into court on Monday morning looking like they'd spent the weekend working really hard.
[00:19:22.850] - Ben
And you mean working in a very particular sense.
[00:19:25.380] - Jesse
Yeah. That's doing what they did. And just to reinforce what you said earlier about it being the system. Some of the girls worked at a facility called the Poodle Farm in San Antonio, and one of the largest, Freddie Samanth would show up on Friday or Saturday night to collect his money from the girls. Anyway, there was that aspect, and several of these girls would have what they called seizures during court. And what that meant? I don't know. They might have passed out from drugs, who knows? But that happens a number of times.
Yeah. It was a mess.
[00:20:32.610] - Ben
I think that might be the understatement of the year. Nevertheless, because of what happened at Mobidi and because of some obstruction of justice charges, Tim goes and more or less engages in a little witness tampering on the side. He gets five years and he does his time. It's by the time Tim gets out of the penitentiary, the gang has fallen apart. His longtime girlfriend, Judy, has gone to Houston. Many of his former accomplices have been murdered. You name five of them in the book. He gets out.
He is declared to have been reformed by the judge, which is kind of a laugh. He goes up to Dallas, and he gets a new girlfriend and he gets some new clothes, probably some new alligator shoes. And he also gets some new ideas about taking over that city, too. It's kind of proof that you can take the Tiger out of the jungle, but you can't take the jungle out of the Tiger, right?
[00:22:08.950] - Jesse
[00:22:10.430] - Ben
But none of these new ideas pan out, do they?
[00:22:16.470] - Jesse
Yeah. I'm not sure exactly what was going on. There was always this outsized aspect to Tim. We don't really talk about. He had a great sense of humor. He was a prankster, and he was always talking about taking over and whether that was a joke. I don't think it was a joke. In fact, one of his old school buddies told me about when they were, like, nine or ten, and they walked past one of the brothels that was downtown at that time, and Tim was sitting on the steps and saying, hey, I'm the star boss of this outfit.
So maybe he even had ambitions back then. I don't know when one of his old school buddies, a lawyer, ran into him right after he got out of Leavenworth, he said, hey, wait. And he said, Just rent an office. I'm taking over this town. And he had rented an office in a building kind of an interesting area on the edge of downtown. And yet there were certain spurious businesses set up there. There was a bookie. There was a nearby. It was called a country store, and they sold art.
But the guy ran the place was a fence. Also, there are a lot of fences around there anyway. So he had set up an office that he was taken over. He was supposed to be taking over the sports book of a major Dallas gambler and with Freddie Hedges, who was a long time member of his team. But he had also planned to pull his art burglary with Little Larry, another guy he had grown up with and who was a little bit of a different stripe. He might have done some burglary and stuff like that, but he was mainly a gambler and an up and coming hitman.
And I think it was also a police informant by that time. But Little Larry was kind of a mean guy. And one of the stories goes that the people in Dallas who wanted the art that they were going to steal told Larry that, yes, we want the goods. But we also want you to kill Timmy Overton. He said, okay, and I don't know. Also, they say that Timmy was making moves in Dallas, maybe Fort Worth. And the guys there just didn't want him around. And also things had changed.
Some of the people in Austin were probably behind it also, because the guys like Hiram Reed and various other names, I don't want to mention they didn't want them around anymore either. Timmy represents that sort of cowboy style of outlaw, and people are just doing things differently then. So he was assassinated by Larry along with his girlfriend. And it was made very obvious that they were hit because they were shot in the head several times, and the cash that they had on them was left. I think Timmy had $800 on him.
His girlfriend had at least $100, and Larry was at large. For several months. He had been spotted having his hosing out the inside of his car at a car wash at like, two in the morning, and it was freezing temperatures. It was not really a typical time to go to the car wash. And he dumped some of the evidence at the Lake Ray Hubbard, which was a favorite dumping spot for Dixie Mafia at that time and was caught up with in Alabama, right. It brought back to town.
And this is one of the cases where I got the criminal file from the county office. And there's all this stuff about evidence in there and stuff. And, like, things get delayed. He hires Charlie Tesmer, who is the top criminal attorney at that time, at least in Dallas. If you're a gangster, you would hire Charlie, and it gets probation. Ten years probation, which was cut in about half a few years later after he, I think, very mysteriously located a plain load of pot on a Ranch that he had been working in South Texas.
Larry's family owned some property around Attiscosa, which is just Southern part of Bear County, I believe. And he comes upon this plain little pot. And the Sheriff says Larry is a great guy, and he's always been a great guy. And he found this pot.
[00:28:28.770] - Ben
Killer. But he's a great guy.
[00:28:30.410] - Jesse
Yeah, but he's our guy. So he got off. And not long afterwards, he was arrested in a weapons charge. And then at 79, he was hanging out with Charles Harrelson, scouting the assassination of Judge John Wood. Stuff like that.
[00:28:55.510] - Ben
What is Tim's legacy? Do people still talk about him in Austin, the places he hung out, the bars and the dance halls and the music joints. Does he still cast a shadow in that city?
[00:29:29.910] - Jesse
Tim does still have a legacy here. People who knew him, people who are around that aura remember it. He was a tough guy yet people who grew up with several guys I talked to said that he looked out for them. He said he would protect you. You didn't have to worry. And he had lots and lots and lots of girlfriends. I've done talks where women would come up to me and say, I dated Timmy. They're happy about it. Funny. It's like they picture the Timmy that they knew and that's Timmy the stuff that came later.
Yeah, he did that. But Timmy was a good guy. And people would say the overtones and did this. They did that. They used to hang out here or there and they met the whole tribe. It was a culture of not just ex athletes who had gone bad, but lots and lots and lots of used car salesman. Back then, when you said used car salesman, it was a lifestyle that encompassed a whole lot of stuff, not just maybe selling you a lemon, but going off and doing the burglary job that night, hooking up with your heroine dealer, these gamblers and safe crackers and used car salesmen.
It was a whole culture. There was something about Tim that my best source on all this. I call her Betty King in the book, she's deceased now. Her real name was Mediejo Overton. She married Darryl, and she said, Tim, he actually wasn't very good looking, but his personality, he would just light up and he would be really funny. Ridiculous. He and Jerry Ray were like Laurel and Hardy together. They're doing all this stupid stuff that they thought was hilarious, but also sometimes just crazy in a bad way.
Or you just wanted to be somewhere else. And he had this thing. He was not kind to his girlfriends or wives. In fact, it was cruel in awful ways. But yet, like with Betty, she was his confidant and his friend. He left all these photo albums and mementos. That meant a lot to him. And in fact, I met with one of his girlfriends from high school, and she brought along to our meeting a big box of stuff that he had left with her, including his diploma.
So what does that say about him? I don't know, but it's touching.
[00:33:18.150] - Ben
Jesse. I thought several times as I was reading your account, that Tim really was in a sense of Shakespearean villain. He was not one sided. He was incredibly layered as a person. And yet there's attention, isn't there because Shakespeare writes all the world's stage and all it's men and women merely players. Right? Tim played a role. The gang played a role, and many of these roles were predefined. They were almost predestined. And one of the great tragedies of your book, not just the trail of broken bodies and broken safe dumped in cow pastures. But one of the great tragedies of your book is that there never seems to be any capacity for change in their lives.
[00:34:13.400] - Jesse
You're right. One thing that hooked me on this thing early on when I kept trying to get a hold of it and figure out how to make it into a palatable story. But I kept reading the ending and thinking like, Did it really turn out like that? One guy told me if just one thing, one thing had turned out right for Tim had not fallen apart. He could have come back. But I don't know if that's true or not. Like you say, it doesn't seem to be an Avenue for a happy ending.
And like you're right, there are playing parts. One of the cops and you invest. George Fyffer said, I really liked him. I liked him a lot, but he was always trying to sell you something. He was always trying to pull something over on you.
[00:35:18.970] - Ben
How did you go about digging into the material for this book? Jesse, was it nerve wracking researching the known underworld? I just couldn't help but think too many questions to the wrong people, and you start to attract some attention that maybe you didn't really want.
[00:36:02.080] - Jesse
Yeah. When I first started out, Larry was not as old as he is. Now. None of us were. But I was worried about it because everybody, some people who knew him best said, look, there's not room enough in the world to run from Larry. And at one point, I got a mistake in the report that Larry had died. And so I told this guy, Look, Larry's dead. He said he's not dead enough. I don't care. That was frightening seriously. And my wife was concerned, too. And he still owned some property here in town at that time.
And so I wasn't sure if he was here or what. But I found out eventually that he was in Houston. And I think it's okay now I got a cryptic message not too long ago on my website because at one point, I wrote an essay and I referred to Little Larry as Big Ted as a precaution. And there was a message from Larry's last name is Culbros. And so it was a message from A. Jb. Culbros that said, Big Ted. That's pretty funny. I don't know if that was actually Larry or a son or what, but that was frightening.
But mostly I talked to a few old characters. Not too many, not enough. But one guy, an X Pimp and character. He was in his 70s, and he was small and wiry. He had been a flyweight boxer or something in his 20s. And I swear, he was so full of energy, I felt like if I said the wrong thing, he would not break my jaw. And in fact, at the end of the interview, he said, look up. So what am I going to get out of this?
He wanted to be paid. And I said, no, but I just kept pouring through newspapers back then, it was microfiss, and that was tough. Those things are hard on your eyes for one thing.
[00:38:46.430] - Ben
Sitting in that chair.
[00:38:48.170] - Jesse
But over the years, newspapers. Com, their search engine has gotten better and better and better. So I go back and find more and more stuff. And I keep collecting. And sometimes I don't know why. But like I said, just yesterday, I learned that this forgery thing that Tim started out on was a statewide thing. It wasn't just local, which adds more perspective.
[00:39:21.090] - Ben
Another wrinkle to the story. You remind me of our conversation last week with Janice Tracy, who wrote about sort of the bootlegging trade in Mississippi and the Dixie Mafia aspects over there. I mean, one of the things that she had to do in her research as well was you got to know somebody, you got to know who to ask, where to go for the questions. And you start following these clues. And these leads, just like an actual investigator would, don't you?
[00:39:48.960] - Jesse
Yeah. Sometimes he's got to get sent some when people are lying to you. I mean, Ernie was I thought very forthright and honest, but there were certain things I know that he lied to me about and some things it hits me. Years later, I realized he was lying to me when he marked the tools. This is when Chester claimed that the other cops beat the shit out of them. Well, Ernie is prowling around in the shed marking the tools, and Chester is in his house. He comes up with all these injuries.
Yeah. I think it was getting pretty well beat up. But Ernie claimed it was baloney.
As I was reading Jesse, your book is kind of like a Bloodhound on a scent. I mean, you're chasing this story and you're chasing this story, and it's always just a little bit ahead of you. But you keep going after and finding the next new wrinkle, the next dimension. And even though Tim's story ends in 1972, your story of trying to understand that time period and what was happening in Austin and in Texas does not end.
In fact, you have another book coming out on a related topic, don't you?
[00:41:45.070] - Jesse
Yeah. Frank Smith was a Bell bondsman and junkyard kingpin here in Austin, and he was very powerful. And he was part of the scene when Timmy Overton was operating. But he was not as active as his real period was the 70s, when his junkyard Empire, he controlled the auto salvage in town until a broker started here in town and working with the insurance companies. And it was an era when the 70s story really marks Austin's transition to a big city because a lot of things were unregulated and kind of Wild West.
The ambulances, for example, if there's a car wreck on the edge of town, they didn't call EMS. They just called the horses from the funeral homes would race out there, and sometimes it'd be a rag. Sometimes there would a fist fight, same with the record drivers. It was the Wild West. And that was also part of an underworld scene. And it was all tied together. And Frank ended up with a lot of power in the county. And then Ronnie Earl was elected district attorney. His first big case was a trial against Frank from organizing this ridiculous over the top Dixie Mafia, a robbery of arrival.
And what compelled me about it is that just like with the Overtoon gang, you read a story about these events, and there are elements that you think. Did I read that? Right? Did that really happen? And there's so much context woven into the story where the reporter knows what actually happened. But he can't come out and say it yet. And also everybody else in town probably knows what really happened, but they can read between the lines. So I had to play catch up and read 100 stories before I really knew what was going on.
And once I ran that far, I was totally over my head with this thing.
[00:44:27.890] - Ben
you're being in over your head comes at great benefit to us as your readers and Jessie, I would love just to sit here all day and talk about this stuff with you. It has been such a pleasure to have you on. Thank you.