Crime and Publishing
Inside a small-town paper’s police blotter.
The modern American police blotter was born in 1833, when George W. Wisner, a pioneering New York crime reporter, began regaling readers of the Sun with pithy one-liners from the city’s 4 a.m. hearings. Almost 180 years later, Wisner’s droll sensibility lives on, nearly unchanged, in the blotter of the Lufkin Daily News, a wry account of the strange, sad, and surprising misdemeanors and felonies that afflict the city of 35,000 deep in the Piney Woods of East Texas.
Items run the gamut from the mundane (“A purse was found floating in a ditch full of water Sunday”) to the bizarre (“A man reported finding a steak knife stuck in the ground outside his apartment”). Themes emerge. Like meat thefts: “Pork chops, pork loin, and ground ham-burger were reported stolen from a home Thursday,” and “A mother reported her son stealing meat from her Sunday.” Also, assaults with everyday objects: “A woman handing out sweet roll samples on Saturday at a business reported that a customer took a sample and threw it in her face,” and “A Lufkin woman was arrested for reportedly striking her uncle with a handheld vacuum cleaner.”
The blotter is the first thing many Lufkinites turn to when they open the paper, and the mind behind it is Jessica Cooley, a petite strawberry blonde: “Our [blotter is] basically one part daily media report from Lufkin police and one part my morbid sense of humor, topped off by my editors’ clever headlines.” For instance: “Dust-Busted.”
Born in Lufkin, 27-year-old Cooley studied journalism at Stephen F. Austin State University, in nearby Nacogdoches, and was planning to do graduate work in forensic anthropology at Texas State University, one of two schools in the state with a “body farm,” a research facility for studying the decomposition of human remains. But when a reporting position opened up at her hometown paper in 2009, she sprung for it. Cooley covered education for nine months before switching beats.
Now she spends her days listening to the police scanner and heading out to murder scenes, fatal wrecks, and house fires. Sources wander in and out of the newsroom, and a number of the same people show up on the arrest logs week after week—“frequent fliers,” Cooley calls them. “When they go away to prison it’s like, ‘Okay, bye,’ for a little while.”
One muggy June afternoon, Cooley recognized a face in a booking photo—not because it belonged to a frequent flier but because Cooley had often passed this one-armed man, Rick Mahone, on the shoulder of U.S. 69, hawking samurai swords. That morning, law enforcement clad in riot gear had raided Mahone’s house, finding three handguns, a shotgun, and a pound of marijuana. It wasn’t a particularly big haul, as raids go, but the law prohibits convicted felons from possessing illicit drugs or firearms. And Mahone, who goes by Nub, had served time for cocaine distribution and forgery.
At ten-thirty the next evening, Cooley trekked out to Nub’s brick, ranch-style home in Huntington, a sleepy town of two thousand located ten miles east of Lufkin, to interview Nub’s wife, Kelly Mahone, who had just gotten off work. Mrs. Mahone—who goes by Mama Cat—opened the door wearing a large blue T-shirt, white Nikes, and a downcast expression. Puffing a cigarette, she gave Cooley a tour of the damage: the soot mark on her linoleum kitchen floor where the flash bang had exploded, the broken cuckoo clock, and the kick marks on her spare-bedroom door. Nub was still in jail, but his prosthetic arm sat in a rocking chair a few feet away.
Before the Mahones married, Nub had worked as a doorman at a bar in Dallas, where a disgruntled patron shot him in the arm. With only one arm and a criminal record, his wife said, even the local chicken plant wouldn’t hire him. So he scraped together $500 and started selling knives and the samurai swords that now lay on the carpet in long, skinny cardboard boxes.
In her East Texas drawl, Cooley peppered Mahone with questions to tease out her feelings on the raid. “When they let me back in the house, I had to listen to those guys laugh and joke,” Mahone said. “I understand you gotta have a little fun at your job, but this is my life, and it’s going to hell.”
As Cooley tried to leave, Mahone lingered in the doorway near a dry-erase board with “I love my husband very much” scrawled across it. It was almost midnight, and Mahone said she was wary of spending the night alone. Then Jessica Cooley, the eyes and ears of the Lufkin police blotter, leaned in to give Mahone a hug.