Violent Men Don’t Scare Easily

Austin Police Chief Robert A. Miles had a tough decision to make, strangely enough about a type of crime which would not normally put him in the spotlight. It was about so simple a matter as putting a stop to a rash of car burglaries. Only this wasn’t so simple as supposed, for it involved young Black men from the other side of IH 35, East Austin. As I recall, it was the early Fall in 1967, and things were handled differently back then, although Chief Miles was trying to bring about changes.

The perpetrators were breaking into cars in the city parking lot on the west side of the expressway, at 12th and 35, and doing so brazenly in broad daylight. What drew the Chief into the imbroglio was that the perpetrators were turning violent, and in the past few instances, people had gotten hurt, for when the owners of the vehicles confronted the perpetrators they had been set upon and beaten, some even needing hospital care. With strong armed tactics added to the mix, it was just a matter of time before someone got killed.

Adding to the chief’s embarrassment was the fact that the police station was only four blocks away, and still the thugs could not be apprehended. The chief put out a public warning to the perpetrators reminding them of the possible consequences of their actions if caught, but to no avail. It was as if they knew when units were dispatched to their location, for by the time officers arrived, they were gone. This went on for two more weeks, and the public clamor could no longer be ignored.

It was decided to put snipers armed with high powered rifles atop the Austin Municipal Credit Union Building. Two detectives volunteered to do the job. That is as I recall it. I remember that I had gone in service from the station one afternoon when the radio came alive. It was the two detectives calling into the portable squawk box they carried with them. “We got two of them! A third guy got away, and he’s headed back over the expressway on foot!”

It was beginning to get dark when another call came over the air. “A man on 14th Street just east of the expressway reports noises coming from under his house.” Officer Ronnie Boatright was assigned the call. I volunteered as back up and headed in that direction. Ronnie, at age 22 was a year my senior. He had come out of the police academy two classes before mine, with the 32nd Academy Class. His older brother Bob was already a seasoned veteran, working with the Narcotics squad. Big and rawboned, and of quiet temperament, Bob would one evening take a .45 caliber bullet in the upper leg during a raid. His leg shattered, he crawled into a corner of the room he was in, while his companions took out the shooter.

We located the house. It fronted the expressway, and it was one of those old houses standing a couple of feet off the ground. The homeowner, came running out to the street. “I think there is someone under my house,” he exclaimed excitedly. We followed him to the back of the house which was higher off the ground then the rest of the house. Ron pointed his flashlight under the house and we saw him, far to the back, where the front of the house rested on the ground. He wasn’t coming out.

Ron quickly commented, “I not going in there. If I do, and he resists, I’m liable to have to shoot him!” I looked at him for a minute, and then volunteered. “Guess I have to do it.” He quickly responded, “Chris, if you get into to trouble under there, I’ll have no way of getting to you in time to be of any help.” Indeed, I almost regretted having volunteered to go in after the perp, because it was filthy under that house, and I had on a clean uniform! Further, given the limited space between the ground and the floor support boards, there was little to do but to low crawl in face down, and the further in I got, given the slope of the ground, the less space there was for me to crawl in. The fact that I was wearing my gun belt and gear only added to the difficulty of traversing toward the perp. In addition to the added drag factor, with the exertion induced heat I began dripping sweat, which mixed well with the dust I was stirring up.

When I was almost within hand reach I told the perp to come out, or, I added, I would take him out by force. (Man, how I hoped he would agree to come with me! I dreaded having to fight him in such limited space!) In retrospect I realize the poor fellow was scared, having just seen, I suppose, his compatriots shot. A big no! He wasn’t budging. I would have to come in after him.

I did a lot of dumb things back then. In the years since then, I’ve developed some good sense, and have come to realize that I have always been looked after by a Higher Power, for I was aggressive, and mine was a penchant for finding trouble that others shied away from. I was more fortunate than most, for I had a mother who prayed fervently for me. And fortunately I was in top physical condition. During an era of large cops, at 147 pounds I was one of the smallest men on the force, but I can say by way of fact that pound for pound there were few, if any, on the force who could hang with me. An exception to that fact would have been my mentor on the force, big Tom Graham, a 2nd Dan in Judo. He was tough, but he wasn’t under that house with me, and he would probably have resorted to shooting the perp.

I latched on to him, and the fight was on. I quickly realized the danger I was in. Under that house with little room to move in, I had lost any advantage I would have had outside standing up. And there was the problem presented by my holstered pistol, which I had no inclination to use on him. But if I exposed my right side to him, he would certainly have access to it, and he was strong. For just a second I hesitated…and then I went after him. We whaled away at each other, and oh my, did we stir up dirt and dust, breathing it in and tasting it. Putting forth all my effort, I managed to turn him on his face, but oh, he was hard to hold down! Then I was on his back, and with the top of my head bumping against the floor boards above me, as I steadied myself with my left, I put everything I had into right hand punches to the back of his neck and side of his jaw, and it did the job, until that last punch caught his head as he lifted it up.

I can remember the awful pain, for it felt as if I had punched a bowling ball full force! He stopped moving, apparently out cold, and I was glad of it, for looking down at my hand I saw that my right thumb had flopped backward, completely broken, and was lying almost on my wrist. Oh, the pain! I couldn’t bear to look at the thumb, and how it hurt!

Taking the collar of his coat in my left hand, and hold my damaged right hand against my chest, I scooted backward and out, pulling him with me, slowly making my way toward where Ronnie Boatwright was waiting. Ronnie reached in and took him from me. It was at this moment that the guy came to, and almost immediately Ron had his hands full. Ronnie was stout, but he was in trouble, and hurt as I was, I could not now offer much help. It was at this moment that the homeowner, an Hispanic guy, jumped into the fray, and together the two of them were able to subdue and handcuff the guy.

Ronnie took the prisoner in. I believe he got two years, and sometime after he got out of the pen, I arrested him on another offense, and can remember feeling pity for the man, for he had not much to look forward to, as he was likely headed back to the pen. There was no fight in him then, for he was a beaten man, and I could only feel compassion for him.

I headed over to the hospital to see Doc Dryden, who was to stitch me up, mend me up, and pronounce me fit for duty several times during the eight years I spent with APD. On this occasion, with my right hand now in a cast, I was threatened with office duty, because, the brass informed me, “Your gun hand is out of commission.” In response, I spent a week at home dry firing at selected spots on the wall with an empty pistol in my left hand, and when I was satisfied I could shoot left handed, I drove down to the police pistol range on Bee Caves Road and qualified, shooting as well with the pistol in my left hand, as I had with my pistol in my right. The brass had no recourse but to give in to my entreaties, and I went back to the street with my right hand in a cast and my pistol in a brand new holster on my left hip.

The Chief’s decision in the case was unduly harsh, but it had the desired effect. The several weeks run of car burglaries and assaults of innocent people at 12th and the Expressway came to an abrupt halt. Violence prone men do not scare easily. Words will not do it. When dealing with such men, one does not draw a red line in the sand and then fail to act when that line is crossed.