Towns have stories like this.
Stories where the good guys turn out to be bad guys, where the courtroom unearths corruption, where a town is forced to question its identity. They usually involve a girl who lives a little too fast with a father who exited early and an overworked and tired mother. They are girls who grow up fast and hard with bright smiles.
In Ada, Oklahoma, it’s the story of the wrongly imprisoned Ron Williamson. A dead girl, a fallen baseball hero, dirty cops and an imprudent district attorney helped John Grisham hit the NY Times Bestseller List with An Innocent Man. Head north and a little west to Kalispell, Montana for the story of Dick Dasen, the seemingly altruistic businessman who fed the meth habits of young girls in exchange for sex. Turn straight down and east to Las Cruces, New Mexico to find the story of Cricket Coogler, most recently chronicled by Paula Moore in Cricket in the Web.
Moore writes that Cricket was one of those girls. A waitress, a high school dropout, the daughter of a dead father and a hard-working mom, Cricket Coogler lived hard and fast for a seventeen year old girl in 1940s Las Cruces. She ran with political types from Santa Fe who were drawn to Las Cruces by the sparse and friendly law enforcement and the prolific illegal gambling. On March 31, 1949, the last night she was seen alive, she frequented no more than five bars in the company of three different men. Seventeen days later they found her body under a creosote bush in Mesquite, New Mexico.
We never find the identity of the murderer, or if it was indeed a murder or a horrible accident. Moore concentrates on the aftermath of the murder. We watch the mighty of Southern New Mexico fall. A sheriff is ousted, a judge unseated, illegal gambling shutdown, a political party voted out of office. A town of fifteen thousand in 1949, the death of Cricket Coogler puts Las Cruces on the radar of J. Edgar Hoover.
The best part of these stories? There is always a hero. Sometimes he rides into town, like Ron Williamson’s attorney, Barry Scheck. Sometimes, he’s a dogged, honest official, like Frank Gardner in the Dasen case. And sometimes, it’s ordinary citizens, like the case of Cricket Coogler. A grand jury composed of Doña Ana County ranchers, shop owners, and hourly wage earners hand out 52 indictments to political big shots, large illegal gambling operations, judges, and state policemen. Cox served as the foremen of the grand jury. A former rancher, Cox had recently had his land condemned by the federal government for the war effort, yet he still had the strength and character to lead ordinary men on a maverick hunt for corruption. Six men took the death of a 90-pound girl and turned it into opportunity to clean up an entire county. They did so under threat to their own families and serious financial hardship.
It’s a familiar story. We’ve watched it in countless westerns: High Noon, The Man from Laramie, Rio Bravo. We love it when unlikely good guys return a town to order. Real life is not always so gratifying. In the case of Ron Williamson, the district attorney in charge of his case and the detective who falsified evidence remained in place until their retirements. However, the people of Kalispell believed the stories of young meth addicts and sentenced Dick Dasen to twenty months in prison. Yet the girls, the girls who took the money for sex acts, they still exist.
At the time of the Dasen trial, I taught in the Kalispell school system. I had taught the brothers and sisters of the “Dasen Girls.” The girls were stuck in a cycle of poverty, addicted to meth by fourteen, having babies at fifteen. The boys were angry. Their fathers had either lost a good job in logging or the mill, or there had never been a father. They broke my heart everyday. I had little faith that anyone would believe the stories of girls addicted to meth, living in trailer parks. Kalispell was gentrifying. No one wanted to hear about the fifteen percent living in poverty. We were an outdoors sports mecca, a beacon of Northwest beauty, not a harbor for meth. The trial unfolded. Hal Herring did a hero’s job of covering the story for NewWest. Dasen was found guilty. I had a little more hope in the justice system.
But the girls. The girls like Cricket, like the ones I taught in Kalispell, they are still poor, pretty and a mess. They are easy prey in any town. They want something better than ordinary. They want to be important. They think maybe money, drugs, sex will shake the mundane out of life. It rarely does, yet Cricket in the Web is a book about such a girl, a girl who wanted a big life. She got an infamous death.
Moore doesn’t spend long telling the story of the ordinary men who decided to clean up Doña Ana County, though I wish she had. Instead, she goes on to tell about the lives of the fallen and corrupt. Her interest in the death of Cricket Coogler was first sparked in the 1980s when she heard Tony Hillerman deliver an essay on the case. Hillerman posited that the death of Coogler kept New Mexico from becoming a gambling mecca, and indeed, her death changed the face of politics in New Mexico, if only for a little while. She got anything but an ordinary ending.