The Inmate

Why has Vanessa Leggett been in jail longer than any journalist in U.S. history? Herein lies the true crime.

December 2001By Comments

DOING TIME: Leggett's case is a cause célèbre.

WHEN SHE WALKS INTO THE VISITORS AREA of the Federal Detention Center in downtown Houston, she is wearing a neatly ironed khaki uniform, freshly applied red lipstick, and eyeglasses with oversized frames. She is a mere five feet two inches tall, with the kind of thick, brunette hair you used to see on the models who posed for Breck shampoo ads.

“You look like the prison librarian,” I tell Vanessa Leggett as she sits in a chair and crosses her legs.

“That’s what everyone says,” she replies with a sigh. “Even the other female inmates tell me that I don’t look like someone who belongs behind bars.”

But that’s exactly where the 33-year-old fledgling writer has been since July 20, when she refused to obey a subpoena from the U.S. attorney’s office ordering her to give up all the research she had gathered on Robert Angleton, the multimillionaire Houston bookie who was accused of murdering his wife. Since 1997 Leggett, a part-time lecturer at the University of Houston’s downtown campus, had been interviewing people connected with the Angleton case in hopes of writing a book. Assistant U.S. attorney Terry Clark, of Houston, a veteran prosecutor heading a federal grand jury investigation of Angleton’s alleged criminal activities, wanted to listen to every interview she had taped, see every transcript, and get a list of everyone she had interviewed, including those who talked to her only if she promised them anonymity. Clark went so far as to demand that Leggett not be allowed to keep any copy of her tapes and transcripts for herself, which essentially would keep her from writing a book. When she resisted the subpoena, Clark persuaded a federal judge, at a hearing that the public was not allowed to attend, to jail her on a civil contempt citation.

It was the most curious of confrontations: the federal government versus a completely unproven writer who, before the subpoena, had published only one article, in an obscure law enforcement manual. Leggett’s jailing made headlines in newspapers around the country, and her story was featured on the Today show, Good Morning America, CNN, and PBS’s NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. Civil liberty groups turned her into a cause célèbre, defending on First Amendment grounds her right not to reveal her sources. Yet Clark would hear none of it. He argued that a federal grand jury investigating criminal activity has an obligation to find out anything that anybody—including a reporter—might know about crimes that might have been committed. Besides, he claimed, as a novice writer not associated with any media organization, Leggett isn’t entitled to the same protections given to more-established reporters.

Predictably, the standoff between Clark and Leggett—which is now in its fifth month, meaning Leggett has been in jail longer than any journalist in U.S. history—has touched off a debate on freedom of the press. But I’m far more interested in a different issue altogether, one that almost no one has talked about: Why is Clark (whose policy is to refuse all interview requests related to ongoing cases) focused on Leggett? I have a theory, and it’s not based on the idle speculation that has driven much of the media coverage thus far. I wrote a long article about Angleton for Texas Monthly in November 1997 (“The Bookmaker’s Wife”), and since then, I’ve talked to Leggett dozens of times about her reporting. I’m the only person, outside of her family, her attorneys, and a literary agent, who has read the six chapters she has written. Based on what I’ve seen and heard, I’m confident that she hasn’t found some previously unknown smoking gun that could help prosecutors win a criminal conviction against Angleton. I’m not even sure she has anything of value that prosecutors would want to introduce as evidence.

So why are Clark and the feds obsessed with what Leggett is going to write? Do they really think she knows something about Angleton that they don’t already know? Or, as I suspect, are they more worried about what she might write about them?

I FIRST MET LEGGETT IN EARLY 1997, when I gave a speech at the Houston Public Library. She was dressed in a dark skirt with a matching blazer, and she was wearing thick-framed eyeglasses that gave her a scholarly appearance. I figured she was a law school student. But then she came up to me and told me her goal in life was to be a true-crime writer.I tried not to smile. If you’re in the business for a long time, you meet plenty of budding authors, most of whom have ambitions to write a great novel, but rarely do you meet someone whose sole interest is to write true-crime books. For the past several years, the true-crime genre has fallen on hard times. The days when books like Blood and Money and Fatal Vision topped the best-seller list are long gone. Today, a sensational crime is so thoroughly covered by the media—especially by the prime-time television newsmagazine shows—that most people are weary of the story by the time a book comes out. A true-crime author is now lucky to get a $15,000 advance, and true-crime books are rarely published in hardback.

Leggett told me, however, that she had been in love with true crime since she was a teenager, when she read Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood for the first time. “What fascinates me is the duality of human nature,” she said solemnly, “our ability to be imbued with such goodness and yet have a capacity for such evil.” Needless to say, I was charmed. The true-crime writers I’d known were hard-boiled ex-newspapermen who liked to sit at bars and talk about exit wounds. Here was one with perfectly manicured fingernails.

The daughter of a successful Houston oil trader, Leggett was raised just down the street from the home of George and Barbara Bush. She attended private schools and earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of St. Thomas in Houston, where she also took classes in theodicy (the study of good versus evil) to prepare herself for a career as a true-crime writer. In 1992, after reading about Robert Coulson, who had tied up five members of his family, placed bags over their heads, and set their bodies on fire, she showed up at the Houston jail and asked him for an interview. To Leggett’s astonishment, Coulson agreed, and she found herself working on what she hoped would be her first true-crime book.

Two years later she married Doak Leggett, a landman for an independent oil and gas contractor. He was a kind, patient husband who was intrigued with his wife’s need to write about the dark side of human life. When she was not writing, she worked as a paralegal for a white-shoe law firm, Vinson and Elkins, and taught business and technical writing at the U of H’s downtown campus (she later taught courses in criminal procedure and police-report writing in the university’s criminal justice department). She also worked part-time as a private investigator, corralling witnesses and tracking down information for attorneys, including high-powered Houston lawyer Mike DeGeurin, who is now representing her in her fight with the federal government.

Leggett used her research into the Coulson case as the basis for an article that was published in an FBI manual. She also delivered a paper at an academic conference on popular culture in which she claimed that true-crime writing had turned into a lifeless, uncreative genre in need of a major overhaul. (While researching this story, I learned that Leggett’s paper cited one of my Texas Monthly articles as an example of true-crime writing that did not give readers the “full story.” Thank you so much.)

By 1997, however, it didn’t look like Leggett would help with that overhaul. She had worked for nearly four years on her book about Coulson and had not come close to finishing it. Then came the arrest of Angleton for the murder of his beautiful socialite wife, Doris, who had been found shot to death in their grand River Oaks home. Angleton was one of Houston’s great characters: Not only did he take bets from the city’s richest and most powerful men, but he also served as an informant for the FBI and the Houston Police Department, informing on other bookmakers as a way of keeping them from cutting in on his business. Initially, the police speculated that one of Angleton’s rivals had killed Doris out of revenge. Or perhaps the rival had been looking for Angleton himself and had mistakenly come across her.

But weeks after the killing, Angleton’s brother, Roger, was arrested in Las Vegas. In his possession was a briefcase that contained tape recordings of two men plotting Doris’ murder and typed notes explaining how to deactivate the Angletons’ burglar alarm. Houston homicide detectives were convinced that the two men talking on the tapes were Robert and Roger. They theorized that Robert had hired Roger to kill Doris because she had decided to divorce him and perhaps threatened to expose his bookmaking operation during divorce proceedings. For his part, Robert claimed he had been framed by his brother, an eccentric, unstable man who was constantly down on his luck and had, in fact, tried to extort money from him several years earlier.

It was a terrific story. At the pretrial hearing, I sat in a row near the front with a large group of Houston newspaper and television reporters. When I took a moment to look around the rest of the courtroom, I saw a young woman sitting a few rows back, her head bent toward her lap, furiously scribbling notes. I did a double take. It was Leggett. “This is just like Blood and Money,” she breathlessly told me out in the hallway, referring to the Tommy Thompson best-seller about the 1969 murder of a River Oaks socialite. “This is the book I want to write.” Again, I tried not to smile, and I wished her luck. If someone had told me at that moment that Leggett would soon become one of the most interesting and controversial figures in the entire Angleton saga and that I would end up writing about her, I would have laughed out loud.

Then Leggett scooped me and every other reporter on the story: She got between forty and sixty hours of taped interviews with Roger just before his mysterious suicide in a Harris County jail cell before Robert’s trial. In those interviews, he told Leggett in detail how Robert had hired him to murder Doris. When the Harris County district attorney heard about the tapes, Leggett was hit with a subpoena demanding that she turn them over. She willingly provided copies to the DA, though the interviews ultimately were not introduced at trial because, according to the judge, they amounted to hearsay from a dead man who could not be cross-examined. With that potential bombshell under wraps, Robert Angleton was acquitted of murder charges in August 1998.

Although the rest of us in the news media moved on, Leggett became more obsessed with the Angleton case than ever, and when word broke last year that the U.S. attorney’s office and the FBI were investigating him again—according to Angleton’s attorney, they were trying to amass evidence to reindict him for capital murder and racketeering charges—she found herself way ahead on the story. By then, she had done several interviews with Angleton. She had gone to New York to investigate Angleton’s alleged underworld connections. She had interviewed his schoolteachers and childhood friends along with River Oaks residents who had socialized with him and his wife. She had spoken to his former employees and clients in the bookmaking business, as well as rival bookies and Houston cops who had used him as an informant. Many of those sources, she says, talked to her only if she promised not to reveal their names.

Apparently, she was also way ahead of the feds. I remember Leggett telling me last year that she was meeting with the Houston-based FBI agents who were looking into the Angleton case. She said she told them the things she knew and they told her the things they knew. She also appeared before the federal grand jury investigating Angleton and talked about what she had learned. Clearly she was no stereotypical anti-establishment reporter. She loved cops, loved talking to them, and didn’t mind helping them out.

But in November 2000, when the FBI took the unusual step of asking her to become a paid informant, her willingness to cooperate came to an end. She feared the feds would try to control the dissemination of the information she was gathering about Angleton, complicating her plans to write a book, so she turned them down—and only then did she receive the subpoena asking for all of her information and sources.

“I’m going to be an inmate,” Leggett told me, nearly in tears, when she called me the day after a judge ruled she’d go to prison if she didn’t comply with the subpoena.

“Look on the bright side,” I said, naively assuming her incarceration would last only a few days before a deal would be struck to let her out. “You might get a little publicity out of this. It might even help you get a book deal.”

ACCORDING TO THE JUDGE’S RULING, Leggett must remain in custody as long as the federal grand jury investigates the Angleton case. The grand jury is scheduled to expire in early January but may be extended for another six months, which means Leggett would be behind bars until at least next summer. Even then, the U.S. attorney’s office could keep her in prison by indicting her and trying her on a new set of criminal contempt charges.I agree with Leggett’s tormentor, assistant U.S. attorney Clark, about one thing: If a journalist has information that can help law enforcement officials get to the bottom of a crime, he or she should quickly publish it or make sure the authorities know about it. But what is so peculiar about his subpoena is that it specifically asks Leggett to reveal the content of her conversations with Angleton’s attorneys and certain Houston homicide detectives and FBI agents. Why in the world would he need to find out from Leggett the names of the law enforcement officers she had spoken to? And how would that information help Clark put together a criminal case against Angleton?

I wanted Leggett to tell me why she thinks the subpoena is so broad, but at the request of DeGeurin, who has counseled her not to speculate about what Clark’s motives might be, she won’t say. Still, there are several possible explanations. Clark could be worried about how Leggett characterizes the FBI agents in her notes. If she writes, for instance, that the feds told her about their determination to find a way to bring down Angleton, then Angleton’s attorney, Michael Ramsey, could use that information in a future trial to argue that his client was the target of a vindictive government prosecution. Maybe Clark believes Leggett has shared information with Ramsey about her conversations with the FBI, and thus he wants to know what Ramsey knows. Leggett insists, however, that she has told Ramsey nothing. Ramsey tells me too that Leggett has not shared the content of any of her interviews with him. Then there is the possibility that Clark and the FBI are trying to prevent Leggett from getting her book published before any trial because they don’t want to be embarrassed by any anecdotes she might have gathered on Angleton’s role as an FBI informant. Or maybe they want to punish Leggett because she wouldn’t become an informant herself.

Whatever the case, Leggett spends her days in an eight-by-ten cell. In August a three-judge panel from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit refused to overturn her contempt citation, saying there was no evidence of “governmental harassment” against her. DeGeurin says he’s willing to take the case to the U.S. Supreme Court. “If they are allowed to do what they’ve done here, then all reporters are in jeopardy of becoming lapdogs instead of watchdogs,” he declares.

That’s a bit of a stretch. When I was researching my Texas Monthly story, I talked to Robert Angleton. I had drinks with other bookies and former Angleton employees. I had plenty of intimate conversations with his attorneys and friends about what might or might not have happened between Angleton and his wife. Did FBI agents ask me to act as a confidential informant? They did not. But DeGeurin may have a point so far as freelancers are concerned. I think Clark and the FBI saw a chance to take advantage of Leggett because she was vulnerable: She had no ties to a major media organization and therefore no one to defend her. They figured they could use Leggett to get information out of shady people they hadn’t been able to get to themselves. They thought the subpoena would scare her into working with them. They had no idea she’d fight back.

I think Clark knows he’s in a jam here, but he doesn’t want to humiliate himself by backing down and letting Leggett go. But at the very least, if he’s determined to keep her in prison, he should tell us what he’s looking for, which I’m not sure he can. Even the Harris County assistant district attorney who prosecuted the Angleton murder case has told reporters that he doubts Leggett has anything of value to help Clark.

If Clark does not find the evidence to try and convict Angleton on some federal charge, Leggett could end up spending more time in jail than Angleton ever did (he was released after twelve months in August 1998). Nevertheless, she remains in good spirits, as earnest as ever about her career as a true-crime writer. During my visit with her, she tells me she is passing the time by rereading a true-crime book by Ann Rule, one of her heroines. When I ask her how her own book is going, she gives me a pained expression and tells me she hasn’t been working on it that much because she is worried the authorities might come into her cell without warning and confiscate what she has written.

For a moment, it occurs to me that Leggett might never finish her book—that all she’ll get out of this will be pats on the back from other journalists for standing up for her principles. But she assures me her plans won’t be derailed. She has come up with a working title for the book, Million Dollar Murder, and she’s written a new first paragraph. “The book opens with my meeting Angleton in a lonely parking garage after his acquittal,” she says excitedly. “The paragraph now begins, ‘Those who got too close to the man I was about to meet tended to end up dead or behind bars. Women were no exception.'”

This time, I finally smile. For a true-crime book, it’s a hell of a lead.

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