It is said by many people in Houston—assistant district attorneys, convicted felons, and even his office secretaries—that when Clyde Wilson issues an invitation, it is not just an invitation. “Lemme buy ya a cuppa coffee,” the lanky 69-year-old private investigator will say, or “Les go smoke a cigarette.” This offer, delivered in a voice as rich and as resonant as that of a country preacher, is not really an offer but a message, and the message is that Wilson has something you need to see. Usually it is a file containing what he considers to be the goods. What Wilson does next depends on what you do from that moment on. If you fess up after seeing the evidence, more than likely he’ll ease up. If, on the other hand, you refuse what could loosely be described as his kindness, God help you.
“I don’t like to see a guy who acts like the epitome of propriety when he’s dirty as hell,” Wilson snarls from behind an ever-present plume of cigarette smoke. Call it a pet peeve or a personal philosophy—either way, it has placed Clyde Wilson at the center of many of Houston’s grandest scandals for decades. When, in the sixties, the trustees of the University of Houston suspected their school was being corrupted by homosexuals and student radicals, they hired Clyde Wilson to snoop around. When, in the seventies, Ash Robinson wanted someone to investigate his errant son-in-law, John Hill—the case that culminated in Joan Robinson Hill’s high society murder, immortalized by Tommy Thompson in Blood and Money—he turned to Clyde Wilson. When, in the eighties, the board of Hermann Hospital believed some of its own members were abusing the hospital’s charitable trust, they went to Clyde Wilson for answers. So did Galveston’s Moody Foundation, when someone was stealing from within. When the State Bar wanted someone to go after flamboyant personal-injury lawyer John O’Quinn, Wilson was its hired gun; when sensational revelations demolished Sylvester Turner’s mayoral ambitions last fall, the man responsible was Clyde Wilson. For more than thirty years, Wilson has served as the city’s most public of private investigators.
Owing to his accomplishments and his aggressively unpretentious manner—he favors cowboy boots and jeans, curses extravagantly, and has a habit of removing his glass eye as an icebreaker—Wilson has been rewarded for his success with a place in an august class of Houston eccentrics. Like bewigged consumer watchdog Marvin Zindler, ditsy social doyenne Carolyn Farb, and irascible trial attorney Joe Jamail, Wilson has become a beloved figure. He is beloved because he is proof of Houston’s most powerful myth: You can be yourself and still get to the top.
But Wilson proves something else about Houston that belies another of its most cherished myths. This is, after all, a city that has always prided itself on its tolerance and its openness, from the breadth of its opportunities to the accessibility of its elite. If you believe in the myth of openness, you might also believe that Houston is a place with fewer secrets, that there are fewer alternate narratives behind the headlines, fewer skeletons in the closets of its most prominent citizens. Clyde Wilson, of course, knows differently, and it is as the historian of this hidden world that he exerts his power. He knows all too well that the man who knows the secrets can do just about anything he pleases.
Most of the time the pace of Wilson’s west Houston headquarters is amiably active—there is always time to share a doughnut and coffee, to coax one of the recalcitrant parrots from its perch in the reception area or his office, to study the clippings and memorabilia that give this semi-converted ranch house the feel of a small-town museum. But when the subject of Sylvester Turner comes up, the mood shifts from harmless eccentricity to menace. The fire that burns in his wood stove even on warm days seems to glow brighter, the cigarette smoke grows thicker, the ceiling fan that revolves incessantly is rendered more ineffective. Wilson’s Sunday-in-the-hammock body language vanishes as he takes an anti-Turner tip over the phone, leaks it to reporters, and then uses the shredder for an incriminating fax. Even now, half a year after Wilson’s old friend Bob Lanier won the nasty runoff campaign that prevented Turner from becoming Houston’s first black mayor, Wilson is keeping up his attacks. “Sylvester Turner is a state legislator,” Wilson growls. “He’s in Austin making laws we have to live with.” Even though his lawyer has advised him to stop speaking publicly about Turner—litigiousness is in the air—Wilson just can’t help himself.
This is Wilson unleashed. It was Wilson who decided that Turner should not be mayor, and it is Wilson who has now decided that Turner should be obliterated from the Houston landscape. Perhaps because of the driven side of his nature (“You can’t control Clyde Wilson” is a truism among those who know him well), perhaps because of the dark side of his character (the one that declares that the qualities we detest in others are those we fight most furiously in ourselves), perhaps because Sylvester Turner turned down his offer for coffee, Wilson has launched a full-scale attack against a man he has never met.
When Channel 13’s Eyewitness News aired its first investigative report on mayoral candidate Sylvester Turner last December, most Houstonians didn’t realize that Clyde Wilson and his far-reaching network of tipsters and news outlets were behind it. Most believed simply that inveterately hyper investigative reporter Wayne Dolcefino had somehow stumbled upon the scoop of the mayor’s race. A week before the runoff between Turner and Lanier, Dolcefino took to the air with a report linking Turner to an old $6.5 million insurance scam. On film, a young man named Dwight Thomas nervously denied knowledge of the affairs of a man named Sylvester Foster. The owner of a chain of hair salons, Foster had hired Sylvester Turner to draft his will—just after he was indicted for credit card fraud and three