Inside the Capitol

Saturday, April 19, 2008

4-23 NM's Biggest Murder Story

WED, 4-23-08

SANTA FE -- Some brave souls now have courageously ventured to look into the blackness surrounding New Mexico's biggest political murder.
We aren't talking about who killed Billy the Kid and where his bones now lie. We're talking about the 1949 murder of an 18-year-old, politically connected Las Cruces waitress, Cricket Coogler, Who did it and why?
Everyone knows about the cover up that embarrassed and shocked Dona Ana County and the entire state. It led to the conviction of politicians and lawmen, the withdrawal of the Mafia from the state and the election of New Mexico's first Republican governor in 10 terms.
But almost nothing is known about Cricket's death. Except, one night she drunkenly weaved from bar to bar in downtown Las Cruces muttering about how it would be her last night and refusing rides in several cars, including one with a state license plate and a police car, only to get in an unknown car, never to be seen alive again.
Her corpse was found in a shallow grave a week later, battered and beaten. Had Dona Ana County Sheriff Happy Apodaca investigated the murder using standard police methods, many speculate he easily would have found a surprise murderer.
But possibly Apodaca thought he was covering up for various politicians who had reason to want her dead. Whatever, the totally botched investigation prevented any knowledge of what really happened.
Consequently, 59 years later, we are as much in the dark as ever. There always were myriad questions. But now there are even more. Why has no further light been cast on such a high profile crime. With Cricket being involved with so many people, many of whom interacted with her the day of her disappearance, why have there been absolutely no loose lips?
Gov. Ed Mechem, of Las Cruces, was elected in 1950, vowing to clean up illegal gambling in the state and find the killer of Cricket Coogler. He accomplished his first task, but failed at the second and seemingly brushed it off.
Noted journalist and author Tony Hillerman reports that Gov. John Simms, who succeeded Mechem, said when he walked into the governor's office for the first time, there was one file lying on Mechem's former desk. It was labeled "Cricket Coogler." He says Simms never revealed the contents and the file was never seen again.
Why has everyone been so quiet? Why has almost no one ever wanted to talk about Cricket's death? Why has no one, in or out of law enforcement, ever taken a crack at the case?
We know the Mob left the state soon after the murder and that gambling houses were shut down. We know politicians were involved from the local level all the way to Washington. We know J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI were very interested. We know that President Harry Truman pardoned the convicted politicians. We know local businessmen were involved with Cricket.
But why has no one revealed or discovered why these things happened?
Three efforts finally have been made this decade. In 2000, Charlie Cullin presented "The Silence of Cricket Coogler, a series of video interviews of jury members and others connected with the case. It was narrated by then-Santa Fean John Ehrlichman, with analysis by Tony Hillerman, Jack Flynn and others.
It was an excellent contribution to the story of how Coogler's death has affected New Mexico. As evidence of how difficult the information had been to compile, it took Cullin 11 years, many rejections for interviews and constant fundraising difficulties.
In 2006, Peter Sandman finally found a publisher for a book, "Murder Near the Crosses," providing background for the events and a defense of his father, Roy, one of those convicted for the murder investigation.
In the past month, the University of New Mexico Press published "Cricket in the Web," by Paula Moore, a look at the facts of the investigation through the eyes of a Las Cruces native.
It gets us the closest yet. But reputations are at stake. There needs to be more.

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