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. a. 4. . 4 4 DATELINE SOUTH TEXAS 1 Liars and Fools BY LUCIUS LOMAX y arrival in South Texas was a fluke, an accident of circumstance. A friend of a friend was Starr County correspondent for The Monitor, the after noon paper in the “big city” up the valley, McAllen. Starr County fell into a kind of No Man’s Land of news coverage too far south for either of the San Antonio papers to reach, too far east for the Laredo daily, and a weekly newspaper that wasn’t worth shit. The county was covered by The Monitor, which wasn’t shit either. The presence of a reporter in Rio Grande City didn’t mean that anyone really cared what happened there. The editors in McAllen just wanted to have someone in Starr County in case there was a big drug . bust, or a fire at the high school, or something happened that would make The Monitor look bad if McAllen didn’t know about it. “One story a week, maximum,” my friend’s friend, who had done his time in Rio Grande City and wanted out \(he was balling a divorcee up the Valley in Harlingen, and the late nights and long commutes promised me. He drove me around for a while in his funky old Volvo and then took me to McAllen to meet his editor. This white guy Jack was his name, real nice, but he had a bad heart and didn’t want any trouble eyed me doubtfully. To my surprise he agreed to pay me a couple of hundred dollars “moving expenses” \(my duffel It was a pretty sweet deal. The Monitor’s office was in an apartment at La Borde House, an old hotel favored by cattlemen and oil & gas attorneys. The Monitor paid half the rent and paid for the telephone as well, and there was a computer in the room and daily maid service. The people in town were friendly enough, especially after they no longer believed there was an undercover policeman or a Federal agent in their midst, but it was hard to be an outsider in a community that made its living in secret. No one told me anything that they didn’t have to tell me, and sometimes people seemed nervous even to be seen talking to me. , “Work” consisted of a routine that began each morning before the sun rose. The first stop of my morning, after coffee, was the basement of the courthouse, to the sheriff’s office and jail, to see if anything violent and/or newsworthy had happened overnight. The Starr County Sheriff’s Department was small, probably no more than a dozen or so officers, including the sheriff himself. The first few minutes of my visit were always spent in an outer office, trying to squeeze information out of the chief deputy. The deputy had been a cop in Houston and risen to the rank of sergeant, and as a consequence he had a pretty healthy distrust of reporters. He was friendly and personable in that small-town, rural-county way, but he always answered my questions with the same few words: “You’ll have to ask the sheriff about that,” or, if he was being particularly familiar, “You need to talk to Gene.” Eugenio “Gene” Falcon, Jr., was the elected sheriff of Starr County. Gene Falcon looked like exactly what he was a former high school football star, with wide shoulders and a thick neck, and brown hair cut close at the sides and back but hanging down across a round, ruddy face. His cheeks were flushed, the color of a teenager’s who has just taken his first strong drink. The sheriff was from one of the “good” families in the county. His brother was a doctor my doctor, in fact. It was only natural to wonder if the two brothers shared confidences and my bet was that almost certainly they did. There were no secrets in Starr County, someone had told me, a fact that was professionally to my advantage. The morning in question the chief deputy led me right in to see the sheriff. That should have been my first hint that something was wrong. Gene Falcon was on the telephone. When he saw me he started speaking Spanish to whomever was on the other end of the line. The conversation was brief. After a moment the sheriff put down the telephone receiver. “I guess you heard,” Eugene Falcon said; as always picking his words slowly, “that we had a little excitement last night.” It was a critical moment. A reporter doesn’t like to show how little he really does know especially not to cops. With policemen you want to act as if you know nothing, which the average cop will not believe and will, therefore, speak freely, suspecting that you already know everything. At least that was my theory. “What happened?” “There was an escape from the jail.” Instinctively my hand reached into my back pocket for my notebook. The interview had begun. The sheriff had on the desk before him a sheet of paper with a desprip don of three men and he read slowly and clearly, drawing out each syllable. The first two were wanted by courts in Harris County, their probations revoked. By. profession the men were, if my memory is correct, burglars. The third man was in jail for something less serious. All three had been awaiting transfer to the state prison. “None of them can really be considered dangerous, huh? I mean, it’s not like we have three escaped killers, is it?” The regret in my voice must have been unmistakable. “Anybody who just escaped from jail is dangerous. Let’s just say that they weren’t convicted of violent crimes.” “How’d it happen? How did they get out?” “I just told you.” “But I don’t understand, sheriff. How did they get away?” At that stage in my moral development there were only two kinds of people: those who lied, and those who simply refused to answer difficult questions. My own weakness often led me to lie and what you don’t like in your own character you like even less in others. “What do you mean, ‘get away’ ?” the sheriff asked. “I just told you.” “Okay. Let’s go back. The jail doors were accidentally left open. What time was that?” “As near as we can estimate,” the sheriff said, “early morning.” “The jail doors were open ” Eugene Falcon nodded his head. He 12 THE TEXAS OBSERVER OCTOBER 6, 2000