The Bingo King Is Dead. Long Live the Bingo King.
For two decades, alongside the likes of John Monfrey and Morris Jaffe, Eddie Garcia was one of San Antonio’s behind-the-scenes powers. When he was shot dead last September, the good ol’ amigo network died too.
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WHEN A GUNMAN WALKED INTO A DINKY SAN ANTONIO OFFICE last September and ended 53-year-old Eddie Garcia’s remarkable life, more than just a man died; so did the good ol’ amigo network that had run parts of the city for two decades. Although the network’s demise was long in coming, Eddie’s murder was the last straw. Typically, he was on the phone at the time, making a deal. He was the consummate dealmaker in a community where the public and the private sectors are inextricably linked. The San Antonio media christened him the Bingo King, a tribute not only to the fact that he owned three profitable bingo parlors but also to his skill at manipulating the politics of the game, which he learned from his sponsors and mentors in the back rooms of the West Side. Others called him Fast Eddie. They marveled at his ability to spot an opportunity, joking that he would rather make a bad deal than no deal at all. That’s why everyone assumed the killer had to be a professional: Otherwise, Eddie could have talked him out of it.
“If anyone wanted to smoke Eddie, it would have been easy,” says his longtime friend Jack Pytel, a former assistant district attorney of Bexar County. “Everyone knew where he worked, where he ate lunch. He was a creature of habit.” But why would anyone want to smoke him? The question has been asked countless times in bars, grocery stores, pool halls, and gyms, as well as in the corridors of city hall and the state capitol.
Eddie’s murder stunned San Antonio, a city that’s seen it all. A crowd of nearly one thousand, including a few of his current and past girlfriends, packed San Fernando Cathedral to say good-bye. Regulars at Callaghan Plaza and the two other bingo halls that Eddie owned put aside their felt card markers and bowed their heads for a moment of silence. The high and the humble gathered in clusters on street corners or in cantinas, sharing memories and swapping theories of who could have done it. “It was almost as if Luca Brasi had been hit,” one acquaintance of Eddie’s says, referring to the loyal but unlucky foot soldier in The Godfather.
WHO WOULD HAVE DREAMED THAT a poor kid from the South Side could have come so far and gone so swiftly? Eddie Garcia was exactly the sort of ambitious drone who energized the power structure behind the scenes and helped it take root in the seventies. Before then, the city was bonded to the Good Government League (GGL)—that is, the white business community—whose mentality and social conscience were perfectly summed up in 1970 by then mayor Walter McAllister when he told a television interviewer, “Our citizens of Mexican descent are very fine people…they love beauty, they love flowers, they love music, they love dancing. Perhaps they’re not quite, let’s say, as ambitiously motivated as the Anglos to get ahead financially, but they manage to get a lot out of life.” The league’s lock was broken in 1973 when grocery tycoon Charles Becker bolted from the old guard and won the mayoralty. Two years later young Henry Cisneros, the GGL’s mexicano choice for city council, won his race and immediately declared his independence. Six years after that he was elected mayor.
During the same period, the venerable Henry B. Gonzales was establishing himself as a power player in the U.S. Congress, having won his seat in 1961 with the invaluable support of an old friend, Morris Jaffe. The two had met during World War II, when Jaffe drove their mothers to mass; they grew close soon thereafter as Gonzales was starting his political career and Jaffe was piloting an airplane for the president of Mexico and beginning to accumulate a fortune in oil and gas exploration. Jaffe was one of those worldly, resolutely cantankerous characters who make San Antonio so unique. He had a Jewish father and a Spanish mother and the disposition of an Army mule; nothing seemed to stop him. He was equally comfortable sipping whiskey at the country club or swigging beer in a barrio cafe where the left half of the menu was Mexican and the right half Chinese. He became a friend of Lyndon Johnson’s and a force on the national political scene, conferring daily with Texas Democrats in Washington, D.C.
The network came together largely because of Jaffe’s access to wealth—his own and others’—and his ability to pull together disparate interests. Rather than monolithic, it was like an extended family: Its members didn’t have to like or even trust one another, but they had to work together, the theory being that unity was strength. Eventually the network elected a second congressman, Albert Bustamante, while supporting the ambitions of numerous Hispanic politicians, including the triad known as Los Tres Panchos: Frank Madla, who was elected to the state House before he moved to the Senate; state legislator and, later, U.S. congressman Frank Tejeda; and former San Antonio city council member Frank Wing, Cisneros’ right-hand man in San Antonio and eventually in Washington.
To succeed in the barrio, one needed a patrón, someone older, wiser, and better- connected. Eddie Garcia’s patrón was a prominent West Side businessman named John Monfrey. Through Monfrey, Eddie was introduced to nearly every important person in his life. Eddie had grown up hustling odd jobs, selling fireworks and peddling nickel-and-dime insurance door to door to help his working-class family. “He never had time to join a gang,” recalls Henry Rodriguez, a onetime neighborhood tough who is now the district director of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC). “He was a talker, not a fighter.” Later Eddie sold ads for a radio station, a job that put him in the company of radio and TV personalities. His big break came in the early seventies when he was hired on at Monfrey’s Falstaff beer distributorship. Monfrey was something of a rake, a gambler and horse-racing proponent with impressive connections; he was even rumored to have ties to the Mafia. He genuinely liked Mexican Americans, and not just because Falstaff was the best-selling beverage in the barrios. He let his friends use his condo on Padre Island and made the party room at his corporate office available for weddings and fundraisers—always with plenty of free beer.
After Monfrey died, Eddie got into real estate and other enterprises. Eventually his empire grew to include appliance stores and a home health care business; he also promoted prizefights and tejano music concerts. Before he was murdered, he was said to be considering investments in a soccer team, an ice hockey team, and a medical school in the Caribbean. “If there was a profit to be made, he was interested,” says Walter Martinez, a former city council member and state legislator who began managing Eddie’s real estate interests in 1982. “And when he got into a new business, he learned it inside out.”
In time everyone knew Eddie Garcia, and Eddie knew everyone. Though his reputation was a tad shady, he mingled with bankers and power brokers as easily as he got on with senior citizens, Hispanic activists, gangbangers, boxers, barbers, and bartenders. He worked the phones and the streets sixteen hours a day, compulsively checking the pulse of the city. In the network, friends did favors for friends, good deeds were rewarded, and connections were gold. Whatever was required—cash, votes, goodwill—Eddie delivered. Somebody’s business was in trouble? Eddie turned it around. A widow couldn’t pay her rent? Eddie took care of it. A Little League team needed equipment? Eddie provided it. Of course, the system worked both ways: When Eddie needed a favor at city hall or in Austin or, say, a non-profit sponsor for one of his bingo halls, someone delivered for him.
More than anything else, perhaps, Eddie’s pet project was tending to his heritage. “He was very proud to be a Chicano,” Rodriguez says. “At heart he was a revolutionary.” He helped organize a fundraiser for Hispanic FBI agents who were suing the agency for alleged discrimination—an activity that made him decidedly unpopular at the U.S. Justice Department. He rescued the Zarzamora Street Gym from bankruptcy, then chased off the prostitutes and drug dealers who had made it their hangout. He led a protest of Mexican American bar owners against what he saw as the “gestapo tactics” of the Texas Alcohol Beverage Commission, and the TABC subsequently named a Mexican American to head its South Texas regional office. Naturally, the regional supervisor, Gus Martinez, was one of Eddie’s friends; he was even a pallbearer at his funeral.
WHEN EDDIE GOT INTO BINGO IN THE late seventies, it was still illegal in Texas. Not that it wasn’t being played: Churches and charities in all of Catholic South Texas had been in the business seemingly since the Battle of the Alamo, subverting gambling laws by requesting “donations” at the door rather than charging admission. The games were small, however, and they were not well attended. Eddie realized that with proper ambience and advertising, there were huge profits to be made—if not by the charities in whose names the games operated then certainly by the landlord. His first parlor, the Woodlawn Ballroom, was only marginally successful, leading him to conclude that the law needed to be changed.
In 1980, Eddie crusaded with customary passion and success for passage of a constitutional amendment. By the end of the decade he was the landlord—or “licensed authorized commercial lessor,” as rent collectors were called once the games were regulated—of four bingo halls. Rounding up sponsors for the games was easy, since Eddie had plenty of contacts from his days with Monfrey. With legalization, however, came rules to be obeyed and government agents to ensure that they were, a problem Eddie never completely solved. “Eddie Garcia stretched the law every way he could,” says one licensed lessor. “He was an in-your-face type of guy with the agencies, and he used LULAC and other Hispanic groups as leverage.” In the beginning bingo was regulated by the state comptroller, then by the TABC, and then by the Lottery Commission. In 1989 Eddie pushed successfully for a change in bingo regulations that froze the issuing of new commercial lessor licenses, thereby making existing licenses far more valuable. Madla, his friend at the Capitol, was named to the Senate Interim Committee on Charitable Bingo and continued to look out for his interests. In 1993, for instance, Governor Ann Richards had nominated a member of the Holy Cross brotherhood to the Lottery Commission. Because it was between legislative sessions, Daly served for nearly two years before he could be officially confirmed. He never was, however, because Madla blocked his confirmation in committee and the full Senate never got a chance to vote. Daly was (and still is) the executive director of the Texas Catholic Conference and appeared to be perfect for the position, but Madla thought him “unsympathetic to the charities.”
Eddie and his minions did not take criticism lightly. In the early nineties, when the San Antonio Light first bestowed his now-famous nickname upon him, he detested it: He regarded himself as an entrepreneur and believed that his talents were never appreciated. Later in life, however, he quit sparring with journalists, hired a publicist, and began wooing them, offering his favorites sweetheart deals. Eddie never doubted that someday he would find the big score, a success so unqualified that the skeptics would have to stand and salute.
He came close on at least two occasions. In 1985 Morris Jaffe’s son Doug—who was president of the Jaffe Group, the family holding company—brought in Eddie as the president of Falcon Foods, which was losing $200,000 a month on its food-service contracts, including a big one with Lackland Air Force Base. Eddie began to turn the business around, though unfortunately the government did not renew the Lackland contract, despite overtures from Bustamante. Then, in 1988, Eddie worked on an agreement with the Kickapoo Indians to build and operate a 7,000-seat bingo hall on the tribe’s reservation near Eagle Pass. The Kickapoo contract could have been Eddie’s ticket to the big time, and it probably would have been if he’d kept his mouth shut. He envisioned pots of $500,000 or more in an environment free of state regulation, and he had every reason to be optimistic. The Indians were Bustamante’s constituents, and the congressman—who as a young man had worked in the fields alongside men who were now tribal elders—wrote Eddie a glowing letter of recommendation. The deal never came together, though, and while Eddie blamed negative media coverage, as usual he was his own worst enemy. Friends recall that he had been telling anyone who would listen, “We got a congressman on board! We got the Bureau of Indian Affairs! We got it wired! This time we’re gonna cut the big hog!”
In situations like this, Eddie practically invited enemies to thwart him—and they often did. In December 1990, as Eddie was in the middle of talks with the Kickapoos, word leaked that the feds were looking into the negotiations and all the other business practices of Eddie and his friends. Initially the targets of the probe were Eddie and Bustamante. But the investigation, which lasted almost four years, eventually expanded to focus on the Jaffes and nearly everyone else in the network.
While Justice Department investigators interrogated dozens of San Antonio businessmen and politicians, a federal grand jury subpoenaed business records and called a seemingly endless stream of witnesses. It took its direction from a prosecutor in the Justice Department’s Public Integrity Unit: Jackie Bennett, Jr., better known today as one of Ken Starr’s prosecutors in the Whitewater probe. As in Whitewater, damaging information mysteriously made its way to the media, making Eddie and the others sound more corrupt than the evidence indicated. “Eddie believed that Bennett was twisting information and hiding behind the secrecy of the grand jury,” remembers Jack Paul Leon, another attorney who represented him. “He tried going to the media to rebut the charges, but it was like throwing fuel on the flames.” Convinced that Bennett’s actions were racially motivated and related to the FBI anti-discrimination case, Eddie filed a $1 million civil rights suit against him (the suit was ultimately dismissed).
As the investigation limped through its third year, an editorial in the San Antonio Express-News advised, “Fish or cut bait.” Bennett had already opted to fish. In July 1992 the prosecutor had charged Doug Jaffe and two of the Jaffe Group’s lawyers with conspiring to make $19,000 in illegal campaign contributions to Democratic candidates. It was a questionable case—the kind of thing that would normally be adjudicated in civil court—and to members of the network, it seemed part of an ongoing vendetta. In 1989 Morris and Doug Jaffe had been hauled before a congressional committee to explain an oil deal that involved U.S. Speaker of the House Jim Wright and allegedly earned them a profit of $340,000 on an investment of $99,000. The FBI had also investigated the sales of refitted Boeing 707 jets by one of Doug’s companies to buyers in South America, implying that he was engaged in money laundering. Doug believes Bennett’s motive was political payback and that his true targets were his father and Henry B. Gonzales. As the chairman of the House Banking Committee, Gonzales had launched an investigation that showed that U.S. government grain guarantees were used to help Saddam Hussein build his war machine.
In November 1992 a San Antonio jury acquitted Jaffe and his lawyers of all charges. Following the verdict, federal district judge Lucius Bunton called the case a “witch hunt” and rebuked prosecutors, warning them against “wasting time on rinky-dinky matters.” Bennett had no intention of backing off, however. Within weeks, Doug Jaffe received a letter informing him that he was the target of yet another investigation. The FBI had uncovered a $35,000 check written by him to Eddie, another by Eddie to Bustamante, and back again. The alleged conspiracy began in 1986, when Eddie was working on Jaffe’s Falcon Food contract with Lackland. At the time, according to Bustamante and Jaffe, the Bustamantes needed $35,000 to pay off a home loan in Virgina. When Albert ran into Eddie and explained he was about to borrow that amount against a lien on a house he’d recently sold in San Antonio, Eddie—ever anxious to help out a friend—asked to buy the note himself. Albert agreed, and Eddie wrote him a $35,000 check. To cover it, Eddie went to Jaffe and asked him to write a check for that amount. Jaffe did so without asking why or what it was for. When Rebecca Bustamante found out that Fast Eddie had bought the note, she demanded that Albert buy it back. A few weeks later, Albert borrowed $35,000 from San Antonio Savings to repay Eddie, who returned the note. Eddie then repaid Jaffe using Albert’s check, which ended up in one of the Jaffe Group’s bank accounts at Horseshoe Bay, the resort Jaffe owned a piece of at Lake LBJ. Elsewhere, the feds discovered another $30,000 that the Jaffes had paid to Rebecca Bustamante for consulting services.
Depending on where you sit, this complex transaction could be interpreted as either an example of the loosey-goosey way business has long been done in San Antonio, especially by Eddie and his pals, or—as Jackie Bennett insisted—clear evidence that Eddie and Doug had bribed Bustamante to win a renewal of the Lackland contract. If the exchange of checks was indeed intended to be a bribe, it was a puny and worthless one, since (1) Falcon’s contract wasn’t renewed, and (2) Bustamante had use of the $35,000 for only 27 days. Nevertheless, the Bustamantes were indicted on eighteen charges of racketeering, bribery, and accepting illegal gratuities. Eddie was named as an unindicted co-conspirator. He could have made his life easier by testifying for the government, but he chose not to. Apparently, the jury accepted the prosecution’s interpretation of the facts, at least partly: Rebecca was acquitted on all the charges, but Albert was found guilty on two counts of corruption and went to prison for nearly three years. His career in politics was ruined, and the amigos network was showing signs of wear.
After the trial Eddie went back to making deals; he was still looking for the big score. In late 1992 he made waves when he got the mighty Hearst Corporation to negotiate with him for the sale of the San Antonio Light, using as leverage the Justice Department’s dim view of monopolies. Hearst was proposing to buy the Express-News and planned to shut down the Light, which it already owned. That would have left (and ultimately did leave) one of the largest cities in the U.S. with a single major daily newspaper. With the support of Morris Jaffe, Eddie forced the big shots from Hearst to sit across the desk from him. Of course there was almost no chance that he could pull off such a deal, but friends maintain that he was dead serious. “There were a lot of jobs at stake, and making San Antonio a one-newspaper town had inherent dangers,” says Jack Pytel. “In the back of his mind, though, I know what Eddie was thinking: ‘At last I’m going to force them to write something good about me.’”
EDDIE DIDN’T COLLECT FRIENDS AND favors without acquiring debts and formidable enemies. “I can give you fifteen reasons why someone would want to get Eddie,” one of his friends told me. The killer may have been hired by a business rival or even one of his partners. Or a cuckolded husband. Or a jilted lover. He bullied, coerced, and used so many people for so long, cut so many corners, hustled so relentlessly, that he made himself an obvious target. He exuded flash, sparkle, and prosperity, no doubt inspiring envy and resentment as he tooled around town in his red Mercedes, preening like a Latin playboy. Friends joked that Eddie owned 150 pairs of shoes. He did own a mink coat—a gift from attorney Joe L. Hernandez, an old gambling and drinking buddy with whom he made frequent trips to Las Vegas. Eddie had connections there, not only with hotels and casinos but also with fight promoters. Eddie hung with some dangerous types.
Yet Fast Eddie’s life wasn’t the open book it seemed to be. People saw the Eddie that Eddie wanted them to see. “Hell, I didn’t even know his real name was Evaristo Garcia until we were doing a deposition in a lawsuit in the late eighties,” Jack Pytel told me. Another contradiction: Eddie prided himself on being a family man, even though nearly everyone knew he had a weakness for the ladies. He had seven children by multiple wives, and while he and his wife Rose Mary lived a life that seemed outwardly happy—splitting their time between condos in Mexico and Horseshoe Bay and a fine home far from the barrios where he grew up—he instigated divorce proceedings against her at least once (though they were still married at the time of his death). “I don’t think he was serious about a divorce,” says Hernandez. “I think he filed to prove his good intentions.”
Whatever the truth, in the months leading up to his murder, the Bingo King was moving into the bar and nightclub business. The Players Club, next to his office in Callaghan Plaza, had been leased to various “corporations,” but TABC agents had no way of knowing the true identity of the owners. Eddie had plans for the Players Club: Though the liquor license and permit were in the name of his administrative assistant, Maria Alvarez, Eddie had asked a contractor friend, David Cleary, to give him a bid on remodeling the place. “Eddie wanted to fix it up and take over,” Cleary told me. “He said the owner was pissed that his lease wasn’t being renewed.” Eddie had to know that TABC regulations prohibited him taking over a club unless his name was on the license and permit.
Simultaneously, Eddie was running another joint called Mexico Q’Nice at the request of one of its owners, Pedro Zamora. In late May 1998, according to documents obtained under the Texas Open Records Act, he went to work for the club’s ownership group. The TABC had heard about Eddie’s involvement, and an agent had begun investigating what was really going on—whether Eddie was, in fact, an owner himself. The agent, Al Luna, had recently transferred to San Antonio and had no sense of Eddie Garcia’s influence, though he was about to. Other agents began warning him: “Don’t look at Mr. Garcia’s activities or you’ll be stopped.” Luna, however, had been hearing reports of illegal activities at the Q’Nice, from selling liquor to a minor to illegally refilling bottles, a violation of TABC rules. When Luna refused to look the other way—when he decided to file charges against the Q’Nice—Eddie grew outraged. According to the documents, Gus Martinez eventually called Luna into his office and got Eddie on the phone, at which time Eddie offered the excuse that it didn’t matter if his name was on the permit, that he had the “power of attorney” necessary to operate the Q’Nice. Based on that information, Luna slapped the Q’Nice with a lesser charge, though he continued his investigation of the club’s ownership.
Three months later, Eddie was dead. Shortly after the shooting, police officers found the weapon—a tar-taped .38 throwaway straight out of gangland mythology—in a vacant lot not far from Callaghan Plaza. Near the gun was a briefcase. Prosecutors intend to trace both to James Legate, a 37-year-old ex-convict who minutes before the murder was seen drinking at the Players Club, carrying a briefcase, talking on a cordless phone, and bragging to anyone who would listen that he was a bounty hunter. In fact, he was a repo man; ostensibly, his business that day was to seize a car purchased by a woman who had worked for a home health care business at the address that housed Eddie’s office. “He walked outside, and ten seconds later we heard the shot,” recalls a witness who was at the Players Club at the time. “I ran to the front door and saw him run by. Eddie was face down on the sidewalk. I turned him over and he was dead.” The witness, one of several likely to testify for the prosecution, told me, “No way in hell anyone except Legate could have killed Eddie.”
Not all of Eddie’s friends are so sure. Many things about the case don’t fit. For one thing, while Legate has a long record of drug possession and assault charges, his profile is hardly that of a professional killer. Pros don’t get sloshed and shoot off their mouth in a bar next door to their intended victim. Legate had indeed gone from the bar to Eddie’s office: The police found some papers that had spilled from his briefcase on the floor. Legate said that Eddie had motioned for him to take a seat while he finished his phone call, and as Legate was taking some papers from his case a gunman appeared at the door and started shooting. Legate drew a sketch of the shooter that his attorneys provided to the police. For another thing, as Eddie stumbled out and fell dead on the sidewalk, Legate fled on foot, leaving his car in the plaza parking lot. That’s not exactly the exit strategy of a professional. And when the police checked Legate’s bank account, it contained only a couple hundred dollars, hardly the fee a pro would command for a high-profile job.
Nonetheless, Legate’s lawyers—veteran defender Bill Berchelmann and relative newcomer Bill Davidson—have an uphill climb. They must convince a jury that the police botched the investigation and failed to follow obvious leads; otherwise their client seems sure to take the fall. Who killed the Bingo King is essentially beside the point, however. What people in San Antonio need to know is why, and chances are they never will.
Ironically, one of the only people who could have gotten to the bottom of it—working the phones, calling in chits, coaxing his friends into doing his bidding—was Eddie himself. But he and others like him are no longer on the scene. Henry B. has finally retired. Four months before his conviction, Bustamante was defeated by a Republican; after serving his sentence, he is now working the old neighborhood as best he can. Cisneros, once touted as our first Mexican American governor or maybe even our first Latino president, got caught in the sights of an independent counsel while serving as a Cabinet secretary in the Clinton administration and is out of politics, probably for good; he’s not even living in Texas anymore. Morris Jaffe has survived a bout with cancer. Doug Jaffe is building planes and working to expand Horseshoe Bay.
A new group of power brokers will invariably step in to fill their shoes. Already we’re seeing a group of young Hispanic pols emerge, including Gonzalez’s son Charlie, who was elected to his father’s congressional seat. But it won’t be the same. An era has ended in San Antonio. The Bingo King is dead; long live the Bingo King.