WEST OF THE PECOS THERE IS NO LAW; west of El Paso there is no God.” So went the saying in unsettled West Texas—until the day in 1882 when Roy Bean became a justice of the peace in dusty little Langtry, where the sign over the Jersey Lilly, his combination courthouse and barroom, promised “Ice Cold Beer and Law West of the Pecos.” After his death, in 1903, Langtry began to languish, but in 1939—following renovations by the Texas highway department—the Jersey Lilly became a tourist attraction, particularly for Big Bend–bound summer va
ON NOVEMBER 27, 1996, WILLIAM Guess sat in a rented maroon Nissan Maxima surrounded by Harris County sheriff’s deputies, holding a blue steel semiautomatic to his head. Guess was 46 years old, and he was a big man—more than six feet tall, around 240 pounds. He had graying blond hair and a square face. At that moment he was wearing a windbreaker, blue jeans, low-heeled boots, and glasses, bearing little resemblance to the person who had just robbed Guaranty Federal, a small bank north of Houston.
THE RAPE CASE IN BRENHAM ATTRACTED NATIONAL attention for all the wrong reasons. It appeared to be a predictable melodrama, shocking and familiar at the same time. There was the setting of the sweetest town in Texas, the home of Blue Bell Ice Cream.
WHEN THE HOUSTON PROCESSING CENTER, a for-profit prison, opened in 1984 near Houston’s Intercontinental Airport, area residents were aware that the minimum-security facility would house illegal immigrants awaiting deportation. What they didn’t know was that Nashville-based Correction Corporation of America, which runs the prison, hoped to make a little extra money by shipping in sex offenders from a maximum-security facility in Oregon.
WHEN FIFTY-YEAR-OLD JOE CHAGRA flipped his Toyota Landcruiser on Interstate 10 west of El Paso in December, killing himself and two passengers, it was a sad final chapter in the life of a man best known as one of the conspirators in the 1979 murder of San Antonio federal judge John Wood. But there’s a postscript: I feel certain that the youngest of three brothers in El Paso’s infamous Chagra crime family knew nothing about Wood’s murder until months after the fact.
ITALY HAD ROMEO AND JULIET; France had Héloïse and Abélard; Texas had Bonnie and Clyde. It’s no surprise that a state obsessed with money and guns boasts as its most famous lovers a couple guilty of far more than crimes of passion. From 1932 to 1934 the Dallas gangsters indulged in a gory spree through eight states, robbing at least a dozen banks and businesses and killing fifteen people.
THEY PROBABLY FIRST SAW EACH OTHER at a cross-country meet in the early autumn of 1995—two high school girls from neighboring small towns, competing in the two-mile run. There is no evidence that they said hello. Nor did they shake hands, as athletes sometimes do before the start of a race. Why should they have? It is doubtful the two girls even knew one another’s names.
AROUND MIDNIGHT ON JULY 1, 1995, JUAN CHAVEZ and Hector Fernandez hopped into a Chevrolet Caprice they’d stolen from a Greyhound bus maintenance center and headed north toward the apartment complexes of Northwest Dallas—terrific territory for ganking. The latest inner-city fad, ganking is essentially what used to be called a stickup, only these days the victim frequently, and needlessly, ends up dead.
THE MOST INFAMOUS RESIDENCE IN ALL of Texas suburbia sits in a small development of two-story tract homes just off Texas Highway 66 in the sleepy east Dallas County town of Rowlett. The front yard is small—a strip of grass, really, no more than half the size of a typical suburban yard. The red-brick home that lords over it brings to mind the main office-restaurant of someplace called the Colonial Motor Court on some lonely highway in West Texas.
At what point should we wash our hands of a troublemaking kid? That question has been on my mind since I reported on the six Silsbee youths who had beaten a horse to death (“The Horse Killers,” March 1996). A number of readers expressed outrage that the offenders, aged ten to fourteen, had received less than one-year sentences to juvenile facilities. “As sure as the sun rises,” one reader predicted, “we will hear from these perpetrators in the future as they are charged with other crimes.”