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June 01, 2008
The introduction to the book Cricket in the Web by author Paula Moore about the unsolved 1949 murder of Las Cruces, N.M. waitress Cricket Coogler.
by Paula Moore
Editor's Note: The University of New Mexico Press released Paula Moore's Cricket in the Web on March 31, 2008, in conjunction with the anniversary of the notorious and still-unsolved murder of a Las Cruces waitress, Cricket Coogler, in 1949. This excerpt is taken from the introduction to the book, which you can learn more about at www.unmpress.com.
In an old aerial photograph of the City of Las Cruces, New Mexico, the eye is drawn instantly to the largest and most noticeable structure in 1949—the Doña Ana County Courthouse, a gleaming white symbol of justice. Trials and grand jury hearings were held in its courtrooms, and it contained the county jail. The sheriff's small corner office managed to accommodate a desk for state police business.
During the day, Main Street was a center of industry. Neighbors visited on sidewalks or across café tables about everyday concerns, like the cost of living. Levi's jeans were advertised for $3.25 and a Chrysler Royal four-door sedan for $2,411. People worried about the polio epidemic, and a few local cases were reported.
The downtown area featured several hotels, including the grand Herndon and the historic Amador Hotel, established in 1850 to serve the stagecoach trade. The rooms in the Amador featured feminine Spanish names: "Dolores," "Margarita," etc. Its kitchen once served as the county jail. Just across from the Rio Grande Theatre, the grounds of St. Genevieve's Catholic Church filled an entire block. The church had stood in that spot for a hundred years, the most heavily attended church in the predominantly Catholic town. The Sprouse-Reitz Building was the oldest brick building in the town. Guards in the 1880s had been posted on its roof to watch for hostile Indians.
On Saturday nights, both sides of Main Street could be packed with people—especially during harvest times, when hundreds of Mexican laborers swelled the numbers. Work in the local cotton fields brought them to town—fields that in the 1920s had produced cotton plants high and strong enough that a small child could climb them like a tree.
For decades, the cotton fields and other industries had helped make the town a welcoming place, not only for Mexican migrant workers but also for black settlers. Over half of the founders of the city were of Hispanic descent. All races seemed to work and socialize together with mutual respect and little conflict. A black man owned the imposing Herndon Hotel on Main Street and adjoining properties.
Then came the Depression, with so many people desperate for money. More and more Southerners discovered the rich, cheap land in the Mesilla Valley and moved in, bringing expectations of segregation with them. Discrimination grew with the town. Race became a noticeable issue. Some Hispanics whose Catholic Church records could not prove their U.S. citizenship were sent to Mexico. By 1950, blacks in the entire State of New Mexico numbered about 8,000. Las Cruces schools were suddenly segregated, with Las Cruces Union High for Caucasians and Booker T. Washington for black students (at least until some Booker T. Washington boys were drafted for football at Union High). A black suspect would play a huge role in the Coogler case.
Although black soldiers were entitled to the benefits of education under the GI Bill, only a few enrolled at New Mexico A&M College on the southern edge of the town. However, many returning Caucasian GIs were enjoying the benefits of the GI Bill. Some were serious students, focused on earning a degree to help them provide for their wives and families, but some had learned to drink well and party hard. In any case, the college crowd was older and worldlier than those of other times. Because the schools back east were glutted with GIs, a variety of out-of-staters sought admission to New Mexico A&M.
College students looking for nightlife could be found seven nights a week, milling around a dozen downtown bars and all-night cafés, mixing with a surprising percentage of the city's population, even after midnight. When darkness fell in Las Cruces, activities in the county could grow dark as well. Several bars were located on Main Street, such as the rough Del Rio Bar and the Welcome Inn, where fights broke out with unfortunate regularity.
Gateway Gardens, one block east of Main Street (sometimes called Barncastle's Bar), may have hosted a few fistfights, but it also offered a banquet space for clubs and an outdoor patio for dancing. Within a short drive were other lounges, including some in the adjacent older village of Mesilla, where one who drank too much might be thrown out of a hundred-year-old building.
Soldiers and civilians working at the army's White Sands Proving Grounds, less than an hour's drive east, were often in town. Another group frequenting downtown Las Cruces included officials from the state capital of Santa Fe, a long 282-mile drive from the north. It was worth the drive for a few of them, so it was rumored, because Las Cruces and the 45-mile stretch of land from there to the Mexican border offered a sexual playground, and for some, payoffs to be collected from illegal gambling houses and pocketed without accountability. Today, casinos are dotted all over New Mexico, where gambling is legal on American Indian reservation land. But in 1949, owners of illegal gambling joints and prostitution houses, as in other states, made under-the-table payoffs to lawmen and lawmakers for protection. In New Mexico, the most notorious sites were found along the southern border.
Currently, vehicles heading for El Paso/Juarez use I-25. But in 1949, they had to choose one of two old roads (still available) that closely follow the Rio Grande River into Texas: Highway 80/85, or Highway 28, which still passes through the old village of Mesilla and beautiful Stahmann Farms, one of the largest pecan groves in the world.
The hottest stop along Highway 28 south was Anapra (now called Sunland Park), New Mexico, a little town built by the Southern Pacific Railroad in the 1920s to house employees and their families, almost at the point where Doña Ana County meets the State of Texas at El Paso, and the State of Chihuahua at Juarez, Mexico. Frank Ardovino's place was an elegant high-roller draw. And if the desired vice house could not be found on the way to Mexico, it was an easy skip into Juarez, which offered its own.
If one wished to stay in Las Cruces for a night on the town, "making the rounds" was typical—that is, having a drink or two at one place, then moving on to another because it was the hour music began, or because it was the hour the college crowd or the Santa Fe crowd usually congregated there. This spontaneous agenda could be based on restlessness or simply whether one wanted to avoid or catch a certain crowd. A little gambling in the town was available at some of the private and service clubs.
Some effects from the end of World War II contributed to this nighttime traffic. For some, euphoria that the war was over mixed with a compulsion to live every moment to the fullest. The war had hammered home how precious life was, how final death was. Rules of all kinds loosened. Ordinary townspeople found themselves caught up in the lax atmosphere and convenient access to alcohol, gambling, and sex.
Milder entertainment could be found at downtown movie houses. On the critical evening of March 30, 1949, the Rio Grande Theatre, the oldest two-story adobe theatre in the United States, offered Burt Lancaster and Yvonne de Carlo in Criss Cross. Another 1949 release, Flamingo Road, starred Joan Crawford as an ambitious waitress who marries well to a politician and is threatened by a corrupt and very powerful sheriff.
Ironically, March 30, 1949, fell in the middle of the Catholic season of Lent—a period of 40 days prior to Easter Sunday in which Catholics are supposed to enter a time of sorrowful reflection marked by three common practices: prayer (justice toward God), fasting or the sacrifice of a favorite food or pastime (justice toward self), and charitable offerings (justice toward neighbors). Unfortunately, a few persons were headed into downtown Las Cruces on the evening of March 30, 1949, seeking excess and intending to avoid justice of any kind.
By nine-thirty on Wednesday evening, March 30, 1949, Cricket Coogler seemed already to be having a bad night. It would become, horribly, the worst of her life.
According to witnesses, she finished a shift at the DeLuxe Café on Main Street at 3 o'clock in the afternoon. She hung around downtown a while, although her home was only a couple of blocks west. The DeLuxe, open 24 hours, seven days a week, was a long, narrow café, about 20 feet wide and 50 feet long back to the kitchen wall, with a row of booths along the south wall, one row of tables for four in the center, and a counter with stools and serving space along the north wall. Customers could select jukebox music from each booth. Cricket had only recently begun working at the DeLuxe.
Although slacks were becoming fashionably acceptable, Cricket typically wore dresses, complemented by high-heeled shoes in a variety of colors. Cricket was petite—some people said tiny—weighing as little as 90 pounds. As she left her home about 7 in the evening, Cricket told her mother she had a dinner date. She did not say with whom.
Cricket lived with her mother Ollie and twin brother Willie. Her two sisters were married and living elsewhere. In 1943 the family had moved to Las Cruces from Cottondale, Florida—perhaps due to the tuberculosis of Cricket's father Ben, who died only one year later when Cricket was 14. Cricket then dropped out of Union High School and began working as a waitress in several downtown cafés. The Tortugas Café, incorporating the Greyhound bus station, was the place she worked the longest. Why she left the Tortugas for a job at the DeLuxe is uncertain, but she had been known to take off, unannounced, for a few days, even a few weeks, and that alone could have been reason to fire her. Nevertheless, Cricket seemed to drift back to the Tortugas again and again, where some of her friends still worked. The common concerns of her classmates, like geometry and history, cheerleading and baton twirling, no doubt seemed of less value to Cricket than a paycheck. Her wages from café work were minimal, but her family could use any extra money she provided. It was assumed that Cricket was paid by men for sex, although no one had the indiscretion to state that in public.
Some said the nickname "Cricket" came from the sound of her clicking high heels; but a friend says the nickname was hers from childhood, because from the beginning she was so small and always on the move. Cricket was variously described as vivacious, outgoing, confident, but also moody and uppity. Often, a sad story about her love life edged into conversations with customers.
In 1948, one young admirer, taxi driver Art Marquez, visited the DeLuxe Café at every possible opportunity whenever he knew Cricket, whom he called "Ovie," was working. He tried to work up the courage to ask her out, but she always seemed so much older and wiser, hanging out with law-enforcement and other officials, and he was very young and intimidated by the company she kept. He nevertheless was about to succeed in arranging a date with her when he joined the army and went off to Japan in January 1949. Ovie agreed that when he returned, they would go out together. Returning to Las Cruces in 1950, Art went directly to the DeLuxe Café with plans to follow up with Ovie Coogler, who had been on his mind during his whole tour of duty. The manager shocked him with the news that Cricket was dead.
Cricket reportedly went out not only with some politicos from Santa Fe but also local working men—men from White Sands Proving Grounds, soldiers from El Paso's Fort Bliss, and local men.
The word "date," however, was too mild a term to describe what was going on between Cricket Coogler and at least a few men. Darker stories about her dates were in abundance. A Las Cruces dry cleaner told reporters he had been cleaning Cricket's clothes for years, and they were sometimes thoroughly bloody. Sadomasochistic sex and/or brutal men in alcoholic rages could have accounted for some of the blood on Cricket's clothes, and even her death. Border patrolman Sylba Bryant remembered that not long before her disappearance, as Cricket served him in the café, he noticed that the side of her head was banged up and she was complaining about a shoulder. He said he asked her whether some man had given her a hard time, and she answered, "Hell no, I just got mad and jumped out of the car." About two weeks later, she was dead.
Other evidence of Cricket's reckless participation in dangerous activities had surfaced a couple of years earlier. In late 1946 or early 1947, two college students, both of them veterans on the GI Bill, were studying in their temporary dorm room in a barracks-type building. When they answered a knock at the door about 9 in the evening, a rather disheveled young woman told them she needed help and a ride into town. They agreed and asked if she wanted to be taken to the sheriff's office or police. She said no; she wanted to be taken to the Tortugas Café. She didn't say much during the ride, but they gathered she had been assaulted in the desert, abandoned, and had walked toward the campus. They said the girl was Cricket Coogler.
Even if Cricket Coogler was grappling with some serious problems, her life was not all negative: an attractive appearance, health, youth, good friends, a lifetime of choices ahead, the attention of an array of men and the promises of some. Cricket had the spunk and the will to survive a great deal. Yet, the evening of March 30, 1949, she commented when a spilled drink threatened her suit, "I'll never live to wear it again anyway."
Cricket may have somehow anticipated her fate, but she would not have imagined that her name would become a household word in nearly every city, town, and village in the State of New Mexico and in El Paso, Texas, and that it would command national attention in Time magazine and the New York Times. Nor would she have dreamed that for decades, her name would rattle the nerves and the consciences of the man or men responsible for her death, as well as those who aided in a cover-up of the crime. And what would she have thought of writer Tony Hillerman's speculation that had it not been for the death of petite little Cricket Coogler and the tangled and bizarre aftermath of that death, Santa Fe, New Mexico, might have become the gambling capital of the nation? And if that had happened, would Las Cruces have then become a sort of Reno?
On the night of March 31, 1949, Cricket Coogler in some ways was doing what many young women her age had always done—that is, making some terrible choices, following reckless ambition, ignoring common sense, looking for escape in alcohol, experimenting, considering the physical body temporarily expendable. But in other ways, Cricket was doing what very few young women her age would do. She had pushed the edges of dangerous experiences, and she had pushed her luck past the odds for several years.
She was so very young.