Obscene Calling

Law enforcement crosses capitol politics, and the Rangers get burned

Obscene Calling
Illustration By Doug Potter

In the last half of the 20th century there was a governor of Texas who had a mistress in West Austin, and he visited her once a week.

This particular governor -- not now living in the White House -- instructed his bodyguards from the Department of Public Safety never to follow him to the weekly rendezvous because, presumably, when a man is cheating on his wife he wants privacy.

"They followed him anyway," says a former high official of a succeeding administration, noting that while the state troopers were obliged to obey the great man's orders, they were also required to protect his life. If something happened on the governor's journey to get his extramarital groove on (a car accident is the obvious possibility or, more ominously, an angry husband home early from work), the fornicating state executive's life might be at risk -- but so might the troopers' careers.

Recently, the DPS became publicly embroiled in state politics, as troopers were assigned to chase down missing Democratic legislators like criminal fugitives. A court eventually ruled that the Lege had gone out of bounds in its use of the DPS. As for the agency itself -- which includes the Highway Patrol, the antiterrorist Special Crimes squad, the bad boys of the Narcotics Service, and the fabled Rangers, in all 3,100 men and women in "Texas tan" uniforms serving a state the size of France -- it's fair to say that the DPS likes to avoid politics, if possible.

An obscure incident of a few years ago neatly illustrates the danger -- to the troopers -- when the state police mix in the affairs of high-ranking officials. The case involved an elected public officeholder -- very senior in the state government pecking order -- and more directly, his beautiful wife.

The era is the fairly recent past, some time after The Case of the Straying Governor. Hidden away by the Austin police -- who first caught the squeal -- the notes on the investigation can be found in the state's official crime archives, stamped: "DPS Sensitive."

The Heavy Breather

"The calls had begun several months prior and in all these [earlier] cases, nothing had been said." The complaint, apparently innocent enough, involved a prank caller. The report was passed on to the Rangers, for no other reason than that the victim was a VIP.

In each instance, the caller's modus operandi was the same: "It was reported that the caller appeared to simply leave the phone off the hook for a period of time," the Rangers noted as they began work. "The calls varied in frequency, but occurred most often in the evening hours."

Before turning the file over to the state, city investigators had started telephone-tracing. Five numbers were captured immediately. Three belonged to the great man's associates, who spoke with him regularly on business. One was traced to an Asian gentleman named Kim, who lived in West Austin and spoke little English. ("It was the investigator's opinion," the Rangers concluded as their first deduction, "that the call from [Kim] was a wrong number.") The fifth came from the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company in San Leandro, California. This call quickly became the focus of an intense investigation by Texas' most formidable defenders of law and order.

Goodyear corporate security was contacted to begin background checks on the San Leandro site's 40 employees. The Rangers requested a review of "the background of each [worker] to ascertain all past or present connections with the State of Texas." It was rather a tall order, and even the use of DPS investigative resources to track down a prank caller might seem unjustified -- but such was the power and influence of the state official involved. The case took a dramatic turn a day after the Rangers took charge. Another anonymous communication was received at the great man's home. This time, rather than just prolonged silence, three words were said: "Suck ... my ... dick."

The wife described the caller's voice as probably belonging to a white male, perhaps in his 30s. No noticeable accent. That left a few million suspects in this state alone, to say nothing of California. But the pressure to solve the case must have been unreal. The Man at the Capitol, the victim's husband, was known as the ultimate ballbuster -- even to his friends. An object of fear and envy in Texas politics, he was the most admired and most hated man in state government.

The French Implement

The telephone continued to ring. Whenever the husband answered, the caller hung up. MCI had carried the most recent heavy breathing, and the long distance company's security department offered the Rangers a couple of theories about how the calls were being placed. Both involved computers, but only one is worth repeating.

Goodyear used "computer calling," in which a company automatically makes thousands of designated phone calls. MCI's speculation was that the officeholder's telephone number in Austin "could have been accidentally entered by a programming error. Thus the calls could have been made from the computer system itself." The major hole in this theory is that -- in the annals of contemporary information technology -- no record exists of a computer ever asking for a blow job. The list of employees from San Leandro turned up no connection with the State of Texas, either. Bad luck there too.

With the approval of the victim, recording equipment was placed on the great man's home phones, to capture the incoming voice. One day, the chief of the Rangers accompanied a DPS technician to the house to do the job. The presence of the senior captain of the Texas Rangers for this kind of task is roughly akin to Bill Gates coming to your home to install software, but was, once again, a sign of the importance of the victim, if not the case.

Meanwhile, at the great man's Capitol office, unwanted communication of a different kind was received. Correspondence arrived in a foreign language ("possibly written in French," the Rangers noted, as if the text were secret code or an obscure tribal dialect). In the same package with the letter came a metal spike, rounded at the top, approximately eight inches long. DPS took possession of the suspected phallic symbol and sent it to their crime lab, while "the University of Texas [where, presumably, somebody could tell French from ancient Mayan hieroglyphics] was requested to assist in the investigation by attempting to translate the numerous other items received earlier." Freaky-deaky had become a little spooky and -- potentially -- scary shit.

"It is unknown at this time if the correspondence is related to the telephone calls," wrote the semianonymous Ranger investigator (calling himself throughout his narrative "the writer" or "this writer"). The iron dildo suggested it might be.

One Pervert, Two Rangers

Another call was received. The message itself has been lost to history, but the meaning of the words was less important than their provenance. "The call," the Rangers' file reads, as the writer joyfully reported progress, "has been tracked and positively identified through US Sprint Long Distance. Subscriber information for the origin of the call has been obtained."

The telephone credit card number belonged to a private company near Houston -- specifically in Sharpstown. A quick call to the secretary of state's office produced the corporate background, and then the Ranger from Austin traveled to Houston to hook up with a sergeant stationed there. A precedent existed for this increased use of manpower. The historical rule is "one riot, one Ranger," but the corollary is two Rangers for one obscene phone caller -- if the victim's husband has control over the DPS budget.

The address for the credit card holder was a condominium in a well-manicured part of town. No one home, but the Rangers "obtained" information, as they discreetly explained in their report, identifying one occupant: a 40-year-old woman. They soon discovered her place of employment, and she was contacted at work to arrange a meeting.

Before the interview could take place, her husband called investigators to find out what was going on and was asked if he would like to talk too. Everyone sat down together at the couple's condominium in Sharpstown, and immediately the lawmen realized that the husband's voice was not the voice on the recordings. The husband was, though, owner of the company to which the last message in Austin had been linked, and identified himself as a "personal friend" of the official's wife in Austin. He said that he had called her several times over the past few months regarding "her assistance in obtaining employment." The only other person with access to their home, the husband and wife insisted, was their son, in his 20s, away at school in another part of the state.

They asked to listen to one of the tapes of the calls. The couple did not recognize the voice. "As a result of the above interview, the telephone call," the Rangers wrote, rather hastily, considering the evidence that had tied the most recent messages to their credit card, "is eliminated as the source of the harassing call."

Wrong Number

The Rangers had sleuthed themselves into a corner. The origin of the call had been confirmed "positively" by both Southwestern Bell and the long distance company, Sprint. The official in Austin had three home telephone lines, and the anonymous calls were received on all three -- which may suggest that the caller knew his victim, or knew the home.

A police file tends to collapse time -- weeks of work can appear as only a few lines of notes -- and already the Rangers had been on the case for three months. Calls on the public official's phones had been under surveillance for two months, but DPS had, basically, shit to show for the effort. The Rangers are included among the elite police forces of the world, but after so much time and effort they were no closer to a solution than the more modest Austin police detectives had been. (Or it may be that in Houston the Rangers were closer to the truth than they knew.)

Regardless, within days of the interview in Sharpstown, another call was received in Austin -- this time, at DPS headquarters. The great man's executive assistant telephoned, from the Capitol, to tell the Rangers that the case was to be "terminated." Terminated with extreme prejudice. The boss had decided to change the numbers on his home phones, and he wanted all taping equipment removed. A sudden and peremptory note -- "This investigation is closed" -- became the last words in the file. But that was not the end of the case, at least not for DPS.

Eventually, during one of the periodic shuffling of face-cards in the agency's management, the DPS began to build evidence for firing the chief of the Rangers, who had supervised the obscene-call investigation and had personally helped install the wiretap equipment. The official charge would be that the senior Ranger captain had become too involved in politics, and was doing too much socializing with legislators and with state leaders. Unofficially, the captain discovered when he tried to get his job back, tipping the scales toward his dismissal was that he had somehow gotten himself on the wrong side of a great man at the Capitol. end story

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