ON ONE OF THOSE DANK, sweaty, angry evenings that Southern cities seem to incubate in early Spring—April 25, to be exact, 1970—Willie Pierce and two friends were on the streets, looking for action. Tough kids, city-smart. Tom Tirado was parked on a haphazardly lit Houston street, preparing to go home after a late stay in his office. Quite wealthy, elderly, suburban-naive. Willie Pierce shot him twice in the head with a .25 caliber pistol.
Existential murder it ought to be called, violence sprung full-blown from a twisted age, an accidental intersection of weapons and weather, culprits and cultures. They are a homicide detective’s nightmare, lacking all of those rational reference points, motives, modus operandi, telltale signs of premeditated action and post-facto fear through which TV cops can induct and deduct their way to fit resolution of TV murders. Lt. Jim Gunn, who has to work for the Houston Police Department instead of NBC, was (as they say on the tube) baffled.
A week later, May 2nd—8:45 p.m., according to police files—Gunn got a call from Dudley Bell, a Houston private investigator. Bell said he was going to enter the case if Gunn didn’t mind, Gunn responded that that was fine: “We need all the help we can get.” Bell checked periodically with Gunn after that, apprising him only of a lack of progress. Then, on May 20th, Bell called Gunn and asked to meet him at a small apartment project where Bell introduced Gunn to Norris Victoria, one of the three youths. Then, according to Gunn’s police report, “acting on information provided by Mr. Bell I sent detectives to the home of Norman Gladney and he was requested to come to the Homicide Division.” Gladney and Victoria both confessed to what had been their roles in a fumbled stick-up, fingered Willie Pierce as the man who pulled the trigger.
“Based on the information provided by Norris Victoria,” the file continues, “a warrant for murder was sworn out against Willie Pierce. I requested Detectives Adams and Gibson to attempt to arrest him at a location provided me by Mr. Dudley Bell. He was at that location and was arrested.”
“Hell, I’ve never been anything but a private investigator. I started out in high school. I’d read all those books, y’know, private eye novels and stuff, and I got started in just by going ‘shopping.’ That’s where you go around checking on sales clerks to make sure they’re not cheatin’ on the stores, ringin’ stuff up wrong and all.
“Then while I was going to school [University of Houston, ‘58, business administration] I was doin’ a lot of part-time work for other investigators. After I graduated I just went into it full-time on my own and been doin’ it ever since.”
The office appears on the surface to resemble that of any other white collar professional: phoney walnut paneling, color-coordinated rugs and wallpaper, a little sliding glass window separating the receptionist from the waiting room. The waiting room offers a stack of somewhat offbeat magazines— Security World, Popular Electronics, Bulletin of the International Association of Private Investigators—and the usual assortment of personal momentoes: a note from Diana Hobby expressing thanks for help in Bill’s campaign; an autographed picture (“to the super-sleuth”) from his uncle, Joe Tonahill, together with Melvin Belli and their client, Jack Ruby; a letter from Congressman Bob Casey regarding Hell’s investigation of the Apollo 204 fire for Gus Grissom’s widow; a few examples of Dudley Bell’s private collection of elephants, numbering some 200 in all, stuffed, molded, carved, etched, painted.
Inside, in his private office, Bell pulls back the curtain to show visitors the dangling microphone cord. See, he laughs, we took the mike out so you’ve got nothing to worry about. Whew, sighs the visitor, relaxing, prepared to be less guarded in conversation. No one points out the tiny hole in the acoustically-tiled ceiling, through which protrudes a miniature microphone. Bell does not open his desk drawer to reveal the tape recorders, running almost always, some connected to the seven different telephones in his offices. There is no mention of the microphone just beyond the door in the elevator landing; “You’d be surprised what people will say right after they leave your office and think you can’t hear them. And then there’s people who come up here who want to talk to me outside of my office, like trying to bribe me or something, and this way I can record those conversations.” When you’re not looking, he or an assistant snaps your picture with a subminiature camera.
“Hell, we’ve got people coming in here all the time masquerading as clients. They could be working for other investigators, trying to find out how we work, or federal agents trying to catch us doing something illegal.” He points down the street, two blocks away, where the telephone repairman sits high up on a pole, playing with wires and circuits in a switchbox. “Now that switchbox down there handles all the telephones on this block. That fella is probably workin’ for the DPS or some state law enforcement agency and is tappin’ my phone. Happens all the time. Federal agents don’t ever have to screw with that sort of thing, they just go down to the central exchange and tap in there. Ninety percent of the security people for the phone company used to be FBI agents, and you tell me they ain’t helpin’ their old friends out when they want to tap somethin’.”
Room 6623 of Houston’s Federal Building is labeled on elevator maps as the Communications Room and is surrounded by unmapped corridors belonging to the FBI, IRS, U.S. Marshalls, various arms of the Federal Government’s effort to find out what’s going down in America. It is one of the largest rooms in the building and houses a complex wall of electronic equipment, machines that jump to life when certain Houston phones are picked up, stamp the time of the call on a little card, kick back to trace the number