Adaptation

One writer's long, strange trip from fact to fiction.
by Published on
Adaptation

The double shotgun blasts were fired at such close range that wadding from the shells would be found inside the dead man’s left kidney. Sitting in his black vinyl chair at the DW Rubb massage parlor on Lavaca Street, Travis Schnautz, age 43, was a veteran Austin hood in addition to being a longtime junkie. At 6:30 in the morning, it’s possible he was nodding out and never even saw the man his wife allegedly hired to kill him. Perhaps he didn’t feel a thing.

But boy, I sure did. On the morning of August 13, 1976, when the report hit the front page of the Austin American-Statesman, the police didn’t have a clue about Mrs. Schnautz’s apparent motive, so the coverage enumerated the reasons that detectives’ suspicions initially focused on former members of the Timmy Overton Gang, an Austin-based, white-trash mafia syndicate (a term I would later coin) and perennial headline-maker in the 1960s. Twenty-six years later, as those headlines blasted out at me from the dim screen of a funky microfilm machine at the University of Texas Center for American History, I knew the story would make a great book. And I’d be just the guy to write it.

Schnautz was bumped off a few hours after the gang-style murder of Joe Soriano, another veteran Austin hood and junkie. Police suspected that Soriano, like Schnautz, was associated with former members of the Overton Gang. Despite being dismembered by a massive federal conspiracy trial in 1968 and the murder of their titular head, Timmy Overton, in 1972, the now middle-aged hoodlums were apparently still a source of mayhem and semi-organized crime long after their heyday.

The newspaper recounted the history: They were white guys, old-school thugs. Safecracking and prostitution were their mainstays, but they also had a hand in various other criminal opportunities abundant during that era in the River City.

I started my career as a crime novelist a little over 20 years ago with Rock Critic Murders, followed by two more Austin-based novels, a crime-and-music memoir and a handful of short stories and novelettes. Yet I’d never come across this chapter of local crime history. I was so fired up about making this my next book project that I may have failed to take sufficient note of the date on that newspaper clipping, Friday the 13th. In retrospect, I think that may have been an omen.

James Timothy Overton was born in 1940 and grew up in a rough, working-class neighborhood in East Austin. At school, the west-side kids taunted guys like Timmy with epithets of “cedar chopper” and “poor white trash”-the n-word equivalent for poor whites. But he gained their respect with his charisma and his athletic abilities, notably football and fighting. He was a Golden Gloves champ and one of the top bare-knuckle fighters in town.

He graduated Stephen F. Austin High School in 1958 with a football scholarship from UT, where Darrell Royal had just taken over as coach. To a kid like Overton, in a football-worshipping state like Texas, that scholarship represented a ticket out, a brass ring. Instead, he chose the path of a Beat-era Texas Tony Soprano.

At UT, he supplemented his scholarship with pimping, drug sales, and burglary. Halfway through his second year, Royal gave him the boot. The university followed suit. Timmy’s friends claim that Royal could’ve done more to help, that football players were routinely released from police custody after a visit from someone with the Longhorn athletic department. They say Timmy never forgave Royal for turning his back on him.

True or not, those rumors are part of the legend, and they seem to illuminate what made Overton tick. He was still basically a jock, but without the gridiron or the boxing ring, he had to find some other way to continue receiving the affirmations he obviously craved. Look at his yearbook photos: You see a tentative young man, unsure of his place in the world. Then look at the photos of him standing on the courthouse steps, flanked by Texas Rangers, cracking wise for reporters. He’s beaming, he’s on top of the world. More accurately, he’s onstage, playing a role he enjoyed: Austin’s white trash godfather.

By 1963, a lot of Timmy’s teammates and high school running buddies had finished college. Former teammates Mike Cotten and Johnny Treadwell were entering law school, as was Dick DeGuerin, today one the country’s best-known criminal attorneys. Back in high school, DeGuerin was a wannabe tough guy and fellow party animal. Among the fond memories DeGuerin has of running with Overton, he told me, was crashing parties and participating in the infamous Halloween riot of ’56.Timmy started 1961 with a stay in Huntsville penitentiary for his role in a safecracking operation. By the spring of ’63, he had settled into his new role in the Austin underworld. Wherever he went, he trailed an entourage of usual suspects: burly thugs, hookers, used-car salesmen, domino hustlers, paper-thin junkies, and the cleverest, crookedest barristers that UT Law School ever turned out.

One of Timmy’s best pals was a rich kid from Laredo who co-owned a six-passenger Cessna and would periodically fly some of the gang and their gals down to Puerto Vallarta for R&R.

It was a time of outrageous behavior by outsized characters. One showcase for both was Ernie’s Chicken Shack, an after-hours joint on the east side that offered bootleg hooch and gambling. The owner, Charlie Gildon, a black entrepreneur who also owned Charlie’s Playhouse (a hot spot that catered to white college kids), always gave Timmy the best table in the house. Another Chicken Shack VIP was Bobbie Layne, a UT football hero turned pro who was almost as famous at the gambling table as on the gridiron.

Gasoline was around 30 cents a gallon, and if you were any kind of a pimp or a hustler, you drove a Cadillac. Hattie Valdes, Austin’s best-known madam, drove a pink one. One pimp drove a pink goat around in his. Overton owned several Cadillacs and had numerous back-up vehicles for traveling incognito. My working title for the book was The Cadillac Hoods.

Timmy invested some of his heist money in a used-car lot on East First Street (now Cesar Chavez), next door to the transmission shop he co-owned with his father. The shop, which had more or less legitimate need for some of the same tools that worked so well in cracking bank vaults and safes, also doubled as a safecracking school. Classes were held after hours.

The 1968 federal trial named Overton and 19 colleagues as members of a criminal conspiracy engaged in an ongoing criminal enterprise: conspiring to burglarize more than a dozen banks over the course of two years, though the actual number was probably at least twice that.

Also charged were four women, all prostitutes. One was Sue Overton, Timmy’s wife; another was Judy Cathy, his No. 1 girlfriend. Cathy was already the most popular hooker in Austin when she was mentioned in Time magazine’s Texas-themed January 1964 issue, which introduced the public to the home of newly sworn President Lyndon B. Johnson. An article on Austin listed three main attributes: the University, the Capitol, and a South Congress brothel called M&M Courts, where the main attraction was a stunning girl (Cathy) with twin skunk tattoos on her buttocks. The article put an extra swagger in Timmy’s walk.

The conspiracy trial, which lasted almost six months and ended with only six convictions, was an expensive and embarrassing fiasco for the prosecution. But the trial records, which I found at the federal archives center in Fort Worth, proved to be a writer’s gold mine. The daily transcripts alone ran to 7,000 pages. There were eye-popping crime-scene photos, surveillance reports, all kinds of great stuff.

It seemed like a story that would write itself, and I thought it would be an easy pitch. Friends said it sounded like a great movie. Most of them urged me to make it a novel.

No, this stuff is like good whiskey, I said, it’s best taken straight.

I pitched it to several agents and a couple of editors, but they all passed. The story just wasn’t big enough, they said. “Could be a great movie, though … Why not try a novel?” I decided to write it as nonfiction and then try to sell it.

Structure-wise, I was convinced the book should end with Timmy’s death. I wanted the narrative to have a tragic arc. It didn’t hurt that Timmy was murdered by a former classmate.

In December 1972, just one month after being paroled from Leavenworth, Timmy returned to Austin and, as a record-setting blizzard blew in, drove to Dallas. It happened to be the weekend of the UT-University of Oklahoma game. In the early morning hours of December 8, he went to meet someone at the apartment of his girlfriend, a 22-year-old prostitute named Wanda Long.

He was shot in the back with a .45 and, as he lay on the frozen ground, finished off with a shot to the head. The killer, Big Ted Jones, allegedly paid Wanda $100 to arrange the meeting. Afterward, she was taken for a short ride, shot in the head, and thrown from the car. Police found a trail of skull fragments between the pavement and the curb.

Big Ted Jones is still living. Though he’s now 67, almost everyone who ever knew him still describes him as one of the meanest people you’d ever not want to meet. And by the way, Big Ted Jones isn’t his real name. As much as I wanted to write this book, I never thought it was worth the risk of tempting someone like Big Ted to show up at my door bearing a grudge and a gun. I’ve already written about fighting to survive cancer and ghosts, so excuse me if I don’t want to tempt fate again when there’s literary license to exploit.

There are many theories as to why Big Ted killed Timmy. Some say it was payback for something Timmy had done. Others say the Dallas underworld ordered it, or the Dallas cops. Big Ted’s punishment for the double murder-10 years probation-would tend to inspire cynicism.

Fear of Big Ted wasn’t my only problem. After many months of research, including hours of interviews with retired lawmen, lawyers, former classmates, boxers, and at least one ex-pimp turned cockfighter, I had way too much material. Also, Overton’s death in 1972 robbed me of some great post-1972 material. As the Schnautz murder story proved, remnants of the gang were still plying their various trades in the ensuing years. They were involved in drug smuggling, murder and arson for hire, massage parlors, a plot to assassinate the sheriff, and violent junkyard feuds-the latter being the subject of a 1977 federal trial that was the first major case prosecuted by Travis County’s then newly elected district attorney, a fresh-faced lawyer with a Beatles haircut named Ronnie Earle.

God, I loved all this stuff. Did I mention that Timmy’s best friend in high school punched out Elvis Presley after his show here in 1956?

Despite the overabundance of detail, I kept looking for more. I couldn’t stop.

Fading memories and death also conspired against me. At least two of the top thugs and one top cop died just before I found them. Robert Burns, a writer and special effects expert who worked on the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre, promised me access to a wealth of materials acquired during his own research on the gang and the world of Austin vice. When I finally got serious about setting up an interview, I Googled his name to find his e-mail, and found instead a link to a photo of Burns posing as a corpse, with a tombstone at his head, his name engraved on it.

It turned out to be his suicide note. He’d been diagnosed with kidney cancer, and rather than go through a painful, expensive, and probably hopeless process of treatment, he decided to go at his own choosing. All his friends said it was “just like Bob” to do it that way.

I went through the peculiar hell of surgery, radiation, and chemo for stage-four throat cancer in 1998, so I could relate to his decision. I still wish he would’ve called me first.

The Cadillac Hoods just wasn’t working. The rough draft ran almost 150,000 words, and a lot of it was unreadable. I had too much material and too little coherent story. After working on it off and on for five years, I was still in love with the subject matter, but I was sick and tired of the book. It was played out. I was played out.

So I began writing a new novel. They say to write what you know, so I made my protagonist a freelance writer and author. A guy kind of like myself, except younger, more clever, more mercenary, and, to heighten interest in his private life, more single.

I had some material I’d been saving for the plot, and my protagonist started coming to life right away. I had doubts about the plot. I wanted my hero to be utterly obsessed about a writing project, like a hard-boiled detective who can’t let a case go. A project that’s driving him crazy. It’s not making him any money, it’s alienating everyone around him, and it may even be threatening his life.

Naturally I thought of the Timmy Overton book. With the story set in 2007, my protagonist would be hired to investigate rumors that, back in the 1960s, a couple of Old Money Austinites had criminal ties to the Overton Gang. Strange characters would start coming out of the woodwork, the writer’s life would be threatened, yet he would keep digging to find the truth.

Talk about adaptation: I realized that with just a little tweaking, my own adventures in trying to write The Cadillac Hoods would make suitable dramatic experiences for my hero. In the first chapter, I would send him to Fort Worth to dig through the federal archives. His second day there, he’d be accosted by a stranger who warns him that nosing around could be bad for his health. Later on, after discovering who Big Ted was to Timmy Overton, my hero realizes that the stranger was none other than Big Ted.

Robert Burns’ suicide? In the novel, my alter ego would go to Burns’ house for a meeting. He senses something amiss, breaks in, finds the body, and gets knocked out by an unknown party, ending up in the hospital with no health insurance-another hardship of the hard-boiled crime writer.

I felt very much like the day I first read about those shotgun blasts that ended Schnautz’s career and opened my eyes to the Austin underworld of the 1960s. I knew I had my novel. Or I was as sure as I ever am about anything related to writing or music or love or any other art form.

We make mistakes, but we go on. To be a writer, you must write. Sometimes you have to write to figure out the truth, to figure out what you were thinking in the first place. It’s one of the main reasons I started writing, and one of the main reasons I’m still doing it. I’ve been working on the novel a little over six months, and I hope to finish this summer.

An editor sent me a note of encouragement after reading the first 100 pages. Wish me luck.

And if you run into Big Ted, tell him I moved to Barcelona.

Jesse Sublett is a songwriter, performing musician, novelist, and screenwriter, which explains why Kinky Friedman has called him “the funniest, cleverest bass player on the planet.” In addition to his novel, Sublett is working on a nonfiction film project about the subprime mortgage meltdown, which involves criminals so vile they make the Overton Gang look like Cub Scouts.