Book Review: Ronnie Earle, Gangbuster

Jesse Sublett revisits Austin’s criminal past in Last Gangster in Austin

Here's a true-crime story that's every bit as compelling as your favorite pulpy, fictional counterpart. Set here in Austin, primarily back in the 1970s, it was a time when our fair city was still largely a backwater, far less enlightened in terms of its criminal justice system and rampant with official corruption. The blossoming music scene was still a well-kept secret to the outside world.

It's a story ripe for writer/musician Jesse Sublett, whose portfolio includes a trio of hard-boilers introducing bassist/private eye Martin Fender, a heart-wrenching murder mystery/memoir, and, most recently, another true-crime saga, 1960s Austin Gangsters: Organized Crime That Rocked the Capital. This new book, featuring adjacent time frames and compatible storylines, could easily be viewed as a companion volume. It's a tale replete with genuine heroes, repellent villains, and a slew of supporting characters any self-respecting crime novelist would be proud to have created on the page. At the end of the day, Sublett points out, it's a story that boils down to good vs. evil.

The antagonist here is the physically imposing, sociopathic ex-felon Frank Smith, a millionaire junkyard dealer and bail bondsman with deep ties to the good ol' boy network within the Travis County judicial system. He eventually runs smack into newly elected District Attorney Ronnie Earle, a blast of fresh air whose outsider status, acceptance of social changes forged throughout the 1960s, and open-minded views of criminal justice all run counter to the previous status quo. Caught in the middle are Ike and Jane Rabb, decent, hardworking folk whose family-run junkyard business becomes the obsessive target of harassment, arson, and attempted murder at the hands of Smith and his accomplices.

Sublett earns kudos for fleshing out and humanizing this fascinating cast of memorable characters, most notably Smith himself, whose charming swagger and affable personality are simply camouflage for his dark, corrosive impulses. The author gives us a good sense of a pre-ATX Austin, from the descriptions of long ago shuttered businesses and eating establishments to the astonishingly cozy and downright corrupt relationship Smith had with officials at the courthouse. He makes a point of spotlighting the truly progressive, transformative, and nationally recognized accomplishments of Ronnie Earle during his 30-plus years as Travis County D.A. There is also a hardy appreciation for the tireless crime beat reporting of Bill Cryer, who documented it all in real time for the American-Statesman. For his part, Sublett constructs the story with a sharp eye and a hard-boiled flair. This stuff is his bread and butter, and although hampered in his research by the pandemic lockdown, he was still able to give us a gripping account of this true Austin crime saga.

Last Gangster in Austin: Frank Smith, Ronnie Earle, and the End of a Junkyard Mafia by Jesse Sublett, University of Texas Press, 224 pp., $21.95 (paper)

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Last Gangster in Austin: Frank Smith, Ronnie Earle and the End of a Junkyard Mafia, Jesse Sublett, Ronnie Earle

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