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Desert Companion

History: Death of a Party Girl

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New Mexico State University Library Archives & Special Collections
New Mexico State University Library Archives & Special Collections

The violent murder of a teenager in Las Cruces, New Mexico, spawned a national corruption scandal that would ripple to Las Vegas — and change the future of gambling

These days it seems all roads lead to Las Vegas. But there was a time when the trail wasn’t so clear. Even as Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel was busy overspending on the construction of the fabulous Flamingo in the months after the end of World War II, there was no shortage of gambling competition outside Nevada. Illegal casinos, many of them mob-influenced, were going concerns from Wheeling to Omaha, Pittsburgh to Palm Springs.

Legalization would eventually become the great Las Vegas trump card, making it a sanctuary city for gamblers from places like Steubenville, Ohio, and Covington, Kentucky, Miami, and Cleveland. Caravans of professional dealers and dice men were chased out of their hometowns by reform-minded sheriffs and, in the new decade, the famous organized-crime fighter, U.S. Sen. Estes Kefauver of Tennessee.

Still, there was a time when Las Vegas’s preeminence as a gambling center wasn’t so secure. It had real competition from an unlikely place — Santa Fe and other New Mexico outposts from Las Vegas to Las Cruces. The 1949 death of an 18-year-old party girl was the improbable factor that would drive a generation of visionary gangsters out of the Land of Enchantment and into the Silver State.

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Her name was Ovida Coogler. But she would become best known to New Mexico news readers as “Cricket,” an apocryphal nickname for the clicking sound her red stiletto pumps made on the sidewalk the night of her murder. A barfly and escort to powerful men since the age of 14, the pretty brunette high school dropout was a popular figure in the southern New Mexico desert crossroads of Las Cruces. The town of 13,000 brimmed with saloons and gambling halls, and Democratic Sheriff A.L. “Happy” Apodaca — a large, jovial former prizefighter who was a chauffeur and pimp for the mob figures who owned and frequented the joints — administered the law.

New Mexico itself was a hotbed of illegal gambling that operated more or less in the open from Raton in the north, through Santa Fe and Albuquerque, east to Ruidoso and Las Vegas, and south to Hot Springs, Las Cruces, and Hobbs. You didn’t have to be an undercover investigator to find lively card and dice games and slot machines in bars, roadhouses, and hotels.

Although the efforts of local sheriffs and the state police filled plenty of column inches in New Mexico’s newspapers, arrests of operators and their accomplices often resulted in veritable wrist-slaps of small fines or a few days in jail. In short order, the news wags would observe, it was business as usual at clubs with names such as the Mint and the Centro.

In Las Cruces, it was no secret Happy Apodaca had a piece of the action and the muscle it took to keep it.

 

Playing Adult Games

Maybe that’s why Cricket’s disappearance on March 31, 1949, initially didn’t attract much attention. She epitomized the “high-risk lifestyle,” as law enforcement euphemistically referred to the harrowing lives of young prostitutes. In the then-wide-open gambling town, her clients included the state’s most prominent politicians and officeholders. She also consorted with notorious national hoodlums who had set their sights on Santa Fe as a new gambling mecca and were paying protection money to New Mexico government officials. “Like many another teenager, she was chiefly interested in excitement, romance, and escape from throttling poverty,” as Time magazine reported that summer. Petite and vivacious, Coogler was attractive in the fitted blue plaid suit she wore on the last night of her life. And although she was playing a woman’s game, it is important to remember she was little more than a child. Friends said she was a hopeless romantic, and her favorite lyrics were from the 1949 chart-topper, “There’s No Tomorrow.” “Under Happy and his political friends nobody cared if a girl like Cricket ran wild. Occasionally, as a matter of fact, flashy politicos from the state capital itself came to Las Cruces and obligingly helped her get drunk,” Time reported.

But when rumors began to spread that Lt. Gov. Joseph Manuel “Little Joe” Montoya had killed her — and that Apodaca, the county’s political czar, had personally covered it up — the public became more interested. Sixteen days after her disappearance, when four boys hunting rabbits on Easter morning found her bruised, decomposing, partially clad body in a shallow grave, her pale hand reaching out of the earth, the public was outraged. 

Apodaca announced that Cricket had been raped and murdered, and ordered her body sprinkled with lime and buried again without an autopsy or funeral. A civic uprising led to the influx of reform-minded state police officials and FBI agents, who directed a grand jury that threw Apodaca out of office, raided Doña Ana County’s gambling dens, confiscated slot machines, gaming tables, Western Union equipment, and mimeographed horse racing sheets, handed down 58 indictments, and, as Time reported, “brought the cold sweat of apprehension springing to the brows of many a high-placed gambler and politico.” Twenty-five political and organized crime figures statewide were indicted on various corruption charges. But the man with whom Cricket was most often linked was not among them.  Instead, Montoya would go on to become a powerful U.S. senator, though the Coogler case would remain an albatross around his neck during his entire political career. 

By the time a young Santa Fe newspaper reporter named Tony Hillerman arrived on the scene in 1952, things were “coming apart,” as he put it, leaving him to witness “only the aftershocks of the earthquake.” He found illegal gambling everywhere in the one-party state controlled by a corrupt Democratic regime. Its judges, politicians, and law enforcement officers were taking bribes from the Mafia, as Hillerman, who would go on to write a string of national best-selling mystery novels, described the milieu.  The “bunch of scoundrels” in New Mexico government had been selling out the state to a national crime syndicate that was eyeing Santa Fe as a replacement for the casino empire in Nevada.

“Bugsy Siegel had been murdered in California, and it would surface that the Mafia wasn’t impressed with the remote desert town of Las Vegas and was making efforts to take over New Mexico and make Santa Fe a gambling capital,” Hillerman would later recall.  “The Chicago Mob had bought a bunch of good land outside of Santa Fe” and had hired an architect to design a “really big Las Vegas-style flossy casino.”  

In the immediate years leading up to Cricket’s death, such infamous Syndicate figures as Siegel, Meyer Lansky, Moe Dalitz, and Mickey Cohen had interests in illegal casinos throughout the state, and were frequent visitors to Santa Fe. The most conspicuous was Siegel — the notorious mobster whose Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas was a $5 million failure for his Chicago and Cleveland mob bosses — who had been buying up real estate for casino sites in the state capital before his 1947 assassination in Beverly Hills.  “The Cleveland Mob found Santa Fe politicians receptive and began holding regular meetings at a hotel at Radium Springs just north of Las Cruces,” according to an account by journalist Peter R. Sandman. Sightings of the Vegas gambling kingpins touring in and around Santa Fe in their big black sedans were ubiquitous. Like Siegel, Dalitz was also an early investor in New Mexico real estate.

“The rules for the (illegal) gambling enterprises, as set down by the mob, are these,” wrote Sandman. “Since gambling was already open and protected, the mob would operate the casinos without hindrance and be protected by the highest offices in the state assisted by city, county, and state police agencies.” Small-town governments profited greatly. The central New Mexico resort town of Hot Springs — which would be renamed Truth or Consequences in 1950 — invested the gambling kickbacks directly into its street improvement fund. “Slot machines paid off this way: 40 percent to the owner of the establishment, 40 percent to the owner of the machines, and 20 percent to (NM) Revenue Commissioner Victor Salazar, who was also secretary of the Democratic Central Committee.” Journalist Kent Paterson likened criminal enterprises in Italy or Mexico to Mafia interests in 1940s New Mexico. They “commanded a complex system of official pay-offs to different levels of government and law enforcement and held exclusive rights to local markets, using intimidation when necessary to secure their business supremacy.”

  Illegal operators often maintained a cozy proximity to police, politicians, and judges. Some casino men were suspected of keeping sheriffs on their payrolls as a way of ensuring their joints would stay open — sometimes at the expense of the competition.

  Will Harrison, a longtime political columnist for the Santa Fe New Mexican, spent decades chronicling the close proximity of public officials to the gamblers. In a front-page story in 1947 about the investigation of a casino operation, he concluded that despite a few arrests, the gambling joints remained open and law enforcement’s efforts “have done nothing to restrict the activities of the Ruidoso gang.”

 

‘Totally Corrupt — the Whole State’

Frustrated citizens and independent-minded grand juries more than once took justice into their own hands by going public with their suspicions about government corruption.

Cricket became national news when FBI head J. Edgar Hoover took a personal interest in the cover-up of her death by state and federal law enforcement officials — one of many deaths and disappearances related to rampant illegal gambling and organized crime in postwar New Mexico. “There were slot machines at the service stations and prostitutes hanging around,” a resident of Mesilla Valley near Las Cruces recalled decades later. “It was like Las Vegas. It was totally corrupt — the whole state.” Other local citizens recalled gaming artifacts included roulette tables, British-style slot machines and old-fashioned “punch-boards” that held winning number combinations. 

The extent to which Hoover kept a close eye on the activity, and especially on the corruption of the state police, only became public with the release 35 years later of FBI files.  Those files from the El Paso field office revealed that the most lucrative of the casinos belonging to the Cleveland Mob were the Sunland Club, Valley Country Club, and La Loma Del Rey Club — all located in Anapra near the New Mexico/Texas line (what is now part of the city of Sunland Park). Gambling operations in the central New Mexico communities of Ruidoso and Alamogordo were also profitable, and the Chicago Outfit ran slots in the Rocky Mountain resort town of Red River north of Taos. Dalitz lackey Edwin Rogers “Butts” Lowenstein controlled the horseracing handbooks in New Mexico through his Silver City News in Albuquerque, which was bankrolled by the Sicilian-born Detroit gangster Peter Joseph Licavoli, who was “entrenched in Santa Fe,” according to one account. While ties to organized crime were rampant in New Mexico during the late 1940s, it was not until the grand jury-ordered raids of Anapra yielded evidence of its statewide depth and breadth, and national impact.

Once the FBI opened its investigation into organized crime and corruption in New Mexico, the mob quickly retreated back to Vegas, as every gambler in the state fled to avoid prosecution. “All of a sudden the Mafia lost interest in New Mexico, and Bugsy’s men were no longer making offers on Santa Fe real estate,” said Hillerman. “If it hadn’t been for the Cricket Coogler case, Santa Fe might well have been Las Vegas and maybe Las Cruces would have been a kind of Reno,” wrote Paula Moore, author of the 2008 book Cricket in the Web.

But the gamblers didn’t stay away from New Mexico. After being driven underground for a generation, ironically there’s more gambling today than there ever was. Following the 1988 passage of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, a state tribal compact signed in 1995 led to rapid expansion of legal casinos on native lands. Racetracks never missed a stride. Today, more than two-dozen full-scale tribal casinos and gaming venues compete for customers with five racetracks that also offer slot play. With the most slot machines per capita in the nation, in 2017 New Mexico generated nearly $1 billion in gross revenues from those alone.

While some investigative journalists have surmised that Coogler was murdered because of what she knew, it is as likely she was eliminated simply because of the company she kept — powerful men prone to violence. Others have speculated that her violent death was accidental. But there is no question the cover-up was systematic and intentional.   

The violent death of a teenage girl spawned a national corruption scandal that shook the state for decades to come. Now, 70 years later, the murder of “Cricket” Coogler remains the most famous unsolved murder in New Mexico, her name still code for expendable witnesses who could be permanently silenced.

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