Read The Boys from Biloxi: A Legal Thriller Online
Authors: John Grisham
To avoid a crowd, and to protect the defendant, a hearing was hastily arranged for 1:00
Friday, December 13, in Judge Oliphant’s courtroom. Fritz Haberstroh stood before His Honor with Duff McIntosh on one side and Jesse Rudy on the other. As the DA went through the indictment, Fritz quietly answered “Guilty” to all charges. Duff asked the court to release his client on the same appearance bond. His Honor granted the request and informed the defendant that he would be sentenced at a date to be determined. He was free to go.
Following Jesse and Duff, the Haberstroh brothers left the courtroom through a side door and took the janitors’ stairs to the first floor. Near the rear entrance, they all shook hands and said goodbye. The brothers hopped into the rear seat of a waiting car and hurried off.
Joshua Burch was in the courtroom and watched the guilty plea in disbelief. It was not just bad news for Malco’s defense, it was devastating. Burch was losing clients rapidly as Jesse Rudy flipped them like pancakes. There was little doubt he would go after the other two managers and probably corral the hookers who had not already caved in. The defense was staring at a firing squad and Rudy was giving the orders.
Burch left the courthouse and walked three blocks back to his office, a beautiful three-story Victorian home he had inherited from his grandfather, himself a prominent lawyer. Joshua had turned it into an office, filled it with associates and secretaries, and enjoyed the perks of a big staff. At the front desk, he growled at the
receptionist as he checked his phone messages. She shoved over a package and said it had just been delivered. He smiled as he cradled it. His favorite smuggler, an ex-client, had come through again. He took it upstairs to his magnificent office overlooking downtown, and unpacked a box of black cigars, Partagas, pure Cuban and heavily embargoed. He could almost taste one as he took off the wrapper. He lit it and blew smoke out a window. He called Lance and invited him over.
Three hours later, after the staff had been sent home early, Lance, Hugh, and Nevin Noll arrived. Burch met them at the front door and welcomed them to his conference room on the first floor. It was Lance’s favorite room in all of Biloxi: walls lined with walnut shelves that held thousands of important books, large portraits of prior Burch lawyers, bulky and weathered leather chairs around a shiny mahogany table. Burch passed around his new box of Cubans and everyone lit up. He poured bourbon on the rocks for Lance and Nevin. Hugh preferred water.
They talked about Haberstroh’s guilty plea and the problems it caused. Burch still represented Bobby Lopez and Coot Reed, both of whom were still employed by Foxy’s as the manager and floor manager. They were being watched closely by everyone around them. Neither had ever mentioned the idea of a plea bargain and Burch certainly had not. He had no idea how Jesse Rudy weaseled himself into Haberstroh’s orbit and cut the deal. When Fritz fired him, Burch had called Jesse with some questions but got nowhere.
They sipped and smoked and bashed Jesse, but it was all a rehash.
Lance asked, “Have you found him an opponent?”
Burch exhaled and sighed in disgust, shook his head and replied, “No, and we’ve been through the entire bar. Right now there are seventeen lawyers in Hancock County, fifty-one in Harrison, eleven in Stone. At least half are unelectable because of age, health, race, or gender. There’s never been a female DA in this state, nor a black one. Now’s not the time to blaze a trail. Most of
the others couldn’t get ten votes because of incompetence, alcoholism, or contrariness. Trust me, there are some bad apples out there practicing law. About a dozen are big firm guys making plenty of money. We whittled our list down to three young lawyers, guys who might do well in politics and need a steady paycheck. In the past month I’ve mentioned it casually to all three. There’s no interest whatsoever.”
“What about Rex Dubisson?” Lance asked.
“He said no. He’s built a good private practice, making some money, and doesn’t miss politics. That, and he got his ass kicked last time. He thinks Jesse Rudy is the most popular lawyer on the Coast and is unbeatable. That’s the current sentiment out there on the street.”
“Did you mention the money?”
“I told Rex there would be fifty grand for his campaign, plus twenty-five a year in cash for four years. He said no, without hesitation.”
Hugh partially raised his hand like a real smart-ass and said, “May I ask a question?”
Burch shrugged, took a puff.
“Okay, so we’re talking about electing a new district attorney, right? Assuming we can pay someone to get in the race, and assuming that person can win, the election is in August. The trial is in March, three months from now. What good is a new DA once the trial is over?”
Burch smiled and said, “We’re not going to trial in March. I’m not finished with the delays. Gotta few more tricks up my sleeve.”
After a long, heavy pause, Lance said, “Mind sharing with us?”
“How old are you, Lance?”
“Why is that important?”
“Fifty-two. How old are you?”
“It’s not important. You’re old enough for heart trouble. Go see Cyrus Knapp, the heart doctor. He’s a quack but he’ll do what I
say. Tell him since you got arrested you’ve been having chest pains, dizziness, fatigue. He’ll give you some prescriptions. Buy ’em but don’t take them.”
“I’m not playing sick, Joshua,” Lance snapped.
“Of course not. You’re building a trail, paperwork, another ruse to keep you away from the jury as long as possible. Go see Knapp and do it soon. Wait a few days, then have chest pains at the office where Nevin and Hugh can see it all. One of you calls an ambulance. Knapp checks you in the hospital, keeps you a few days for observation, runs all sorts of tests that leave all sorts of records. He sends you home to rest. You see him once a month, get some more pills, tell him the stress is getting to you and you’re afraid of having the big one. When we get closer to your trial, I’ll ask for another continuance, for health reasons. Knapp will file an affidavit, maybe even testify. He’ll say anything. Rudy will object again but you can’t go to trial when you’re laid up in the hospital.”
“I don’t like it,” Lance said.
“I don’t care. I’m your lawyer and I’m in charge of your defense. After this morning and that crap with Haberstroh you’re a helluva lot closer to Parchman. Things aren’t looking so good, Lance, so do as I say. We’re desperate here. Start acting sick. You ever seen a shrink?”
“No, no, come on, Burch. I can’t do that.”
“I know a guy in New Orleans, a real wacko who specializes in treating wackos. Same as Knapp, he’ll say anything if the money is right. He’ll do a psycho exam and give us a report that’ll scare the hell out of any judge.”
“On what theory?” Lance snarled.
“On the theory that you’ve come unhinged since being indicted and getting arrested and looking at a future in prison. The stress, the fear, the sheer terror of going to jail are driving you crazy. Maybe you’re hearing voices, hallucinating, all that stuff. This guy can find it, does it all the time.”
Lance slapped the table and growled, “Hell no, Burch! I’m not playing the lunatic. I’ll see Knapp but not a shrink.”
“You want to go to prison?”
Lance took a deep breath as the wrinkles in his face relaxed. With a narrow grin he said, “No, but it ain’t that bad. I got friends in the slammer now, and they’re surviving. I can take anything the State can dish out, Burch.”
The three drinkers reached for their glasses and took long sips. Hugh smiled at his father and admired his toughness. It was an act. No man in his right mind would say that Parchman “ain’t that bad,” but Lance pulled it off. Privately, the two had begun to discuss the possibility of Lance going away for a few years. Hugh was confident he could run the businesses in his father’s absence.
His father wasn’t so sure.
Burch exhaled thoughtfully, blew another cloud, and said, “It’s my job to keep you out of prison, Lance. I’ve succeeded for about twenty years. But you gotta do what I say.”
Hugh said, “So it’s possible to stall until after the election, right?”
Burch smiled and looked at Lance. “That, sir, depends on the patient.”
Noll stated the obvious. “But the election is irrelevant if we don’t have a horse in the race.”
Lance said, “We’ll find one. There are plenty of hungry lawyers out there.”
For decades the FBI had shown little interest in the notorious criminal activity in Harrison County. There were two reasons: First, the crimes violated state statutes, not federal; and, second, Fats Bowman and his predecessors didn’t want the Feds snooping
around their turf and possibly discovering their own corruption. The FBI had enough business elsewhere and little desire to stir up more trouble in an unwelcoming jurisdiction.
Jackson Lewis was the only Special Agent from the Jackson office who ventured south as far as the Coast and he was rarely seen in Biloxi. Jesse had met him several times, even had lunch with him shortly after taking office. His goal during his next term, assuming he was reelected, was to establish a better relationship with Lewis and the FBI and lean on them.
In the first week of January, Lewis called and said he was passing through and wanted to say hello. The following day, he arrived at Jesse’s courthouse office with Spence Whitehead, a rookie agent on his first assignment. For almost an hour they drank coffee and chatted about nothing urgent. Whitehead was intrigued by the history of the Biloxi underworld and seemed ready to jump in the middle of it. There were hints that the FBI was being pressured to establish more of a presence on the Coast. Jesse suspected Governor Waller and the state police were having back-channel conversations with the Feds.
“When is the Malco trial?” Lewis asked.
“How does it look from your point of view?”
“I’m confident we’ll get a conviction. At least eight of the girls will testify against Malco and describe the sex business in his nightclub. One of his three managers has flipped and is cooperating. We’re squeezing the other two but so far they’re playing it tough. His prostitution racket has been common knowledge for a long time and the community is tired of it. We’ll convict him.”
The agents glanced at each other. Lewis said, “We have an idea. What if we drop in on Malco and have a chat? Introduce ourselves.”
Jesse said, “I like it. As far as I know, he’s never been confronted by the FBI. It’s about time you guys showed up.”
Lewis said, “Perhaps, but in all fairness the folks who control
the Coast have never wanted us around. You’re the first person with real authority who’s had the guts to take on these boys.”
“Yes, and look where it gets me. These days I’m carrying a gun, one my wife knows nothing about.”
Lewis said, “Look, Mr. Rudy, we’re in town now. We’ll introduce ourselves to Lance Malco, Shine Tanner, and some others.”
“I have the list.”
“Great. We’ll knock on some doors, cause a little trouble, stir up the gossip.”
“I know these thugs. Some will scare easily, others less so. Malco is the toughest and won’t say a word unless his lawyer is in the room.”
Lewis said, “Well, we may go see his lawyer too. Just a friendly drop-in.”
“Please do. And welcome to Biloxi.”
Lance Malco’s declining health took another blow when Jesse Rudy picked off another underboss. Ten days before the trial of Coot Reed, the longtime general manager of Foxy’s, the pressure finally got to him and he lost his loyalty.
Early on a Friday morning, Coot drove to Gulf Shores, Alabama, and found the beach cottage where Fritz Haberstroh was hiding. Fritz was under subpoena to return to Biloxi and testify against Coot, a scenario that neither wanted. During a long walk on a deserted beach, Fritz described the deal Keith Rudy had laid out for his brother George. Fritz was of the opinion that the same deal was on the table for Coot and Bobby Lopez, the other floor manager, whose trial was three weeks away.
Facing years behind bars and fearing for his life, Coot was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Those who stuck with Malco would go down with Malco. The tide had shifted against them and the game was over. Jesse Rudy would slay them in front of a jury and send them away. It was every man for himself. Fritz convinced him to save his own neck by doing what he had done: plead guilty, cooperate with Rudy, testify against Malco, then get the hell out of Biloxi and never look back.
Joshua Burch’s defense strategy was flailing. When he took the phone call from Duff McIntosh and was informed that he, Burch, had been fired by Coot Reed, and he, Duff, was now his lawyer,
Burch slammed the phone down and stormed out of his office. He drove to Red Velvet for a tense meeting with Lance, who looked surprisingly well in spite of his mounting cardiac issues. Looks were one thing; his attitude was another. He was livid and accused Burch of bungling the entire defense game plan. Demanding separate trials for himself and his three managers was a boneheaded strategy—just look at the results. It allowed Rudy to put enormous pressure on Fritz Haberstroh and Coot Reed and flip them. Only Bobby Lopez was left and his trial was only weeks away. There was little doubt Rudy was after him too. Lance would be left alone to face the jury with his once faithful employees singing like choirboys and embellishing their testimony in order to impress Rudy and Judge Oliphant with their cooperation.
When he calmed down, Lance fired Burch and told him to leave his office. Nevin Noll escorted him out of the nightclub. As Burch walked to his car, Nevin said, “He’ll be okay once he settles down. I’ll talk to him.”
Burch wasn’t so sure he wanted to be rehired.
An hour later, Bobby Lopez was called on the carpet in Lance’s office and faced his boss, Nevin, and Hugh. He swore he’d had no contact with the DA’s office and was not about to flip. He would stick with Lance regardless of the pressure. He would remain loyal to the end, whatever the outcome. He would take a bullet if necessary.
There was no doubt bullets were being considered. Like all of Malco’s employees, Bobby was terrified of Nevin Noll and considered him a cold-blooded killer. Nevin relished the reputation and had always thrived on the intimidation. During the meeting he glared at Bobby with hot, glowing eyes, the same psychopathic gaze that they had all seen before.
Bobby left highly agitated and frightened out of his mind. He drove home and started drinking. The whiskey settled his nerves, calmed him, and allowed him to think more clearly. He thought of his old pals, Fritz and Coot, and their gutsy decisions to turn on
Malco and save themselves. The more he drank, the more sense it made. Going to prison with Lance was certainly better than taking a bullet from Noll, but Fritz and Coot were planning to avoid both outcomes. They would survive the nightmare and start new lives somewhere else as free men.
Then Bobby had a terrible thought, one that almost made him sick. What if Malco decided to eliminate him first and avoid the risk of him flipping and cooperating with Jesse Rudy? In the underworld where they lived and worked, such a drastic move would be perfectly acceptable. Malco had been rubbing out his enemies for years, with impunity, and knocking off a potentially disloyal underboss like Bobby would seem obvious.
By noon Bobby was drunk. He slept two hours, tried to sober up with a gallon of coffee, and forced himself to go to work for the evening shift at Foxy’s.
Burch was rehired the following day and immediately filed a motion to consolidate the trials of Bobby Lopez and Lance Malco. Jesse was amused by the chaos he was creating on the other side and knew he had the outlaws on the run. He did not object to the motion. Lance Malco was still the target, not his underlings, and he was relieved at the prospect of only one big trial, not two.
On March 3, two weeks before the trial, Burch filed a motion for a continuance, claiming Mr. Malco was too ill to defend himself. The motion included affidavits from two doctors and a pile of medical reports. Jesse was highly suspicious of the move and spent hours with Egan Clement and Keith discussing how to respond. Over coffee, he and Judge Oliphant considered their options. The gentlemanly thing to do would be to agree to a delay of a month or two with a firm date on the docket. The longer they waited, the harder Jesse could squeeze Bobby Lopez.
Jesse did not contest the motion and a trial was set for May 12. Judge Oliphant informed Joshua Burch, in writing, that there would be no more continuances, regardless of Mr. Malco’s medical problems.
on the fourth day of April, the deadline for filing, Jesse walked down to the office of the circuit clerk and asked if he had an opponent. The answer was no; he was unopposed. There would be no costly and time-consuming campaign. He drove to the offices of Rudy & Pettigrew where cold champagne was waiting.
Since the FBI’s surprise visit to his office five months earlier, Jesse had seen Agent Jackson Lewis only once. He had dropped by in early March for a quick cup of coffee and some interesting stories about showing up at the nightclubs unannounced and flashing his badge.
In late April, Lewis was back, along with Agent Spence Whitehead.
They talked about the upcoming Malco trial and what a spectacle it would be. They planned to be in the courtroom watching it all.
Lewis said, “I don’t suppose you’ve ever heard of the jewelry store robberies, have you?”
Jesse drew a blank and said, “No, I have not prosecuted a jewelry store robbery, yet. Why do you ask?”
“It’s a long story and I’ll give an abbreviated version. About five years ago three people, two men and a woman, strong-armed five jewelry stores, sort of a smash-and-run game. They chose mom-and-pop stores in small towns, none in Mississippi, cleaned out the display cases, hit the road. Not very sophisticated but pretty successful, until the sixth store. In Waynesboro, Georgia, they picked
the wrong place. Owner had a gun, knew how to use it, a gunfight broke out. A thug named Jimmie Crane was killed, as was his girl, a hooker named Karol Horton, last known place of employment was Red Velvet. Crane was a recent parolee and living around here. The third guy was driving the getaway car and fled the town, but six people at the first five stores got a good look at him.”
Jesse said, “I missed this story. Again, I have enough crime to worry about around here.”
Lewis slid across a police artist’s sketch of the third suspect. Jesse looked at it and did not react.
Lewis continued, “The Bureau finally tracked Crane and Horton to Biloxi. Two agents spent a few days around here but got nowhere. No one seemed to recognize this guy, or if they did, they kept it quiet. With time the investigation fizzled and now five years have gone by. Two months ago we busted a fencing operation in New Orleans and picked up some clues. Still can’t find this guy, though. Any ideas?”
Jesse frowned and shook his head and did a passable job of showing little interest. He said, “Look, guys, I have enough on my plate right now. I can’t be worried by a string of old armed robberies in other states.”
He gave them a smile, then returned to the composite and looked into the cold eyes of Hugh Malco.
He asked if he could keep the sketch, said he might show it around. They left after half an hour. Jesse made several copies of it and hid them in his office. He told no one, not even Keith and Egan.
May 5, 1975, one week before the highly anticipated trial of Lance Malco and Bobby Lopez, Judge Oliphant summoned the lawyers to his chambers for a conference. He had promised to hand over the list of prospective jurors and they were eager to get their
hands on it. Jesse and Egan sat on one side of the table. Joshua Burch and two of his associates looked on from the other side. All pre-trial motions had been argued and decided. It was time for the battle and the tension was thick.
Judge Oliphant began with the usual inquiry about a settlement. “Have there been discussions about a plea agreement?”
Burch shook his head no. Jesse said, “Your Honor, the State will offer Mr. Lopez the same consideration we made to Fritz Haberstroh and Coot Reed. In return for a plea of guilty, and full cooperation against Mr. Malco, we will recommend a reduced sentence.”
Without hesitation, Burch said, “And we reject the offer, Mr. Rudy.”
“Don’t you think you should consult with your client?” Jesse shot back.
“I’m his lawyer and I reject the offer.”
“Understood, but ethically you have a duty to inform your client.”
“Don’t lecture me about ethics, Mr. Rudy. I’ve spent hours with Mr. Lopez and I know his intentions. He looks forward to the trial and the opportunity to defend himself and Mr. Malco against these charges.”
Jesse smiled and shrugged.
Judge Oliphant said, “It seems to me as though Mr. Rudy has a point. Mr. Lopez should at least be informed of this opportunity.”
Burch replied, somewhat smugly, “With all due respect, Your Honor, I have a great deal of experience in these matters and I know how to represent my clients.”
Almost gleefully, Jesse said, “Don’t worry, Your Honor, I withdraw the offer.”
Judge Oliphant scratched his jaw as he stared at Burch. He shuffled some papers and said, “Okay, what about Mr. Malco. Any chance of a plea agreement?”
Jesse said, “Your Honor, the State has an offer for Mr. Malco.
In return for a plea of guilty to the crime of operating a place used for prostitution, the State will recommend a sentence of ten years and a fine of five thousand dollars. All other charges will be dropped.”