Inside the Capitol

Friday, September 29, 2006

10-4 Murder Near the Crosses

Syndicated Columnist
SANTA FE -- Can you imagine Santa Fe as the world's gambling capital? Or Las Vegas, Nevada as a dusty, little desert town, a fraction the size of Las Vegas, New Mexico?
It almost happened. Were it not for the brutal murder of a young waitress in Las Cruces and an outrageous cover-up attempt by the local sheriff, the Land of Enchantment likely would be very different today.
In the late 1940s, the Cleveland Mob decided to expand its gambling operation to New Mexico, Arizona and Nevada.
Bugsy Siegel was sent to scout around. He chose the little town of Las Vegas, Nevada to build a hotel and casino he called the Flamingo. It was a $5 million bust.
So he set his sights on the much more attractive town of Santa Fe that already was teeming with tourists. He found New Mexico's politicians friendly and easy to buy.
Soon he set up gambling dens in other resort towns like Ruidoso, Eagle Nest and Red River. He also found a friendly political climate in Dona Ana County. He opened a hotel in Radium Springs and three gambling halls in Anapra, on the border with Texas and Mexico.
He learned that state politicos loved to escape to Las Cruces, away from the glare of publicity in Albuquerque and Santa Fe. And he found the county sheriff, Happy Apodaca, extremely accommodating. Soon the big boys from Cleveland were visiting New Mexico and making friends in the state capital.
But in the spring of 1949, the good times began to change with the murder of Cricket Coogler, a favorite girlfriend of the Santa Fe politicos. The murder was tragic but what infuriated the public even more was the incredibly botched job of investigating it.
Everyone assumed that Sheriff Apodaca was covering up for his political friends who wanted Cricket out of the way because they had talked too much around her at their wild parties.
The story that circulated for 50 years among politicos was that she accidentally was run over when she jumped out of a car full of top state officials headed for party time in Anapra.
But that may not be what happened, according to a new book by Peter Sandman, the son of a deputy sheriff who continued investigating the murder, gambling and political corruption on his own, long after the case was closed.
As Roy Sandman was getting close to solving the case in April 1953, he was murdered gangland style. He also knew too much. So Cricket Coogler's murder remains unsolved.
But after poring over his father's notes and diaries, Sandman feels he can identify the killer, which he does in "Murder Near the Crosses," from Barbed Wire Publishing, in Las Cruces.
Ironically, Sandman doesn't tie Coogler's presumed killer to corrupt politicians or to the mob. It was a brutal sex murder that the sheriff likely would have solved if he wouldn't have been so busy trying to protect the politicians he presumed were responsible.
But Sandman thinks the politicians bungled their attempt. He thinks Coogler expected the politicians to kill her and she fled them into the car of someone she knew and thought she could trust.
Although the murder remains unsolved, it precipitated events that ended the Mafia's attempt to take over New Mexico. It also ended some political careers. Ed Mechem, a Las Cruces attorney became the first Republican governor in 20 years by vowing to wipe out gambling.
There were other heroes too. A citizen-called grand jury ignored the district attorney and conducted its own gambling raids. The state Supreme Court chief justice and a district judge, both from Roswell, stepped in and "virtually kidnapped the executive branch of state government," as Sandman put it.
Sandman spent many years obtaining and scrutinizing FBI files and court documents. He names those his father thought were crooked and identifies those he could trust.
The book is a stranger-than-fiction look at an era of New Mexico political corruption that rivals the Santa Fe Ring of the late 1800s.
WED, 10-04-06

JAY MILLER, 3 La Tusa, Santa Fe, NM 87505
(ph) 982-2723, (fax) 984-0982, (e-mail)



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