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