Episode 2: The Outlaw
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October 20, 2021
Former Customs Agent Dan Dobbs apparently still has a lot of paper records on Chambers that he wasn’t volunteering to share. One interesting detail he did share is that Robert, although in the Marines during Vietnam (1971-1975), did not go to Vietnam. I could not independently verify that. Dobbs said the only military discipline record on Robert was a warning against his collecting curved knives. OK.
I will provide a lot more additional detail on Robert’s money laundering and Dan’s involvement in related cases in future show notes that speak to: Where did all the money go?
Regarding Robert Chambers being a informant for Border Patrol Agent Wayne Wiemers…Well Dan is sure of it. Muckraking reporter Jack McNamara is sure of it too, says he knows details of Weimers and Chambers going to another city with a Border Patrol HQ to document Chambers as a confidential informant. But DEA Agent Dale Stinson remembers not seeing any documentation after the big bust when he looked. Wiemers–who was always good about calling me back–wouldn’t talk to me officially, since he said it could be disruptive to his ongoing part-time work with current Presidio County Sheriff Danny Dominguez. Podcast Correction: I stated that Weimers was “head of the Marfa Border Patrol station.” He was, in fact, a special agent there.
The Lajitas plane crash
One sad detail that isn’t clear in the podcast is that the woman sitting in the co-pilot seat died on impact in the crash. So when Steve Hassenmiller and Robert Chambers were trying to free the trapped pilot, they already knew the woman (the wife of one of the other passengers) was dead. Another detail told by Steve was that the pilot may have been responsible for the crash by not doing an proper engine check before taking off. The pilot, he said, was upset because the touring party was late getting back from Mexico, and the pilot wanted to get to Houston to see his family because it was Easter Sunday.
Chambers later used the incident in testimony at his bond hearing in an effort to display some of the good deeds he had done.
There was a short wire service news account of the crash at the time.
The Ojinaga jailbreak
There are a variety of accounts of how this all went down. Some said one of the three men on the jailbreak was Hispanic–some say two were. Some added the detail of fatigues and masks (ski masks?). Some have suggested to me that Pablo Acosta might have arranged the jailbreak for Robert. Not much of anything has been completely confirmed. This story on it is particularly somewhat amusing with a lot of great detail.
I spoke at length with the rape victim in the case–Jayson Woodward, who ended up marrying Susan Woodward’s brother, Trey. Jayson (who also went by Jan) wrote a book about her ordeal called Borderline: A True Story of Courage and Justice. The book outlines a lot of detail on attempts to get the perpetrator (Refugio Gardea Gonzalez) back from Mexico. Jayson wouldn’t divulge who the jailbreakers were, although she made it clear to me that she knows. Her rationale after some 36 years? She said there is no statute of limitations on kidnapping and thus, the jailbreakers could technically be prosecuted. I’m not buying that this would ever happen. But she wouldn’t budge.
I told her that because of the way she described one conversation with Trey in her book, it seemed to me like he could be one of the three busting out Gonzalez. Jayson said I was the only person who noticed this rather revealing passage…but she still wasn’t telling any more. Another source told me he thinks Trey was involved but stayed on the American side waiting for the others to get back. Gonzalez ended up tied up to a tree or sign at the roadside rest area south of Alpine. Accounts vary on whether he was nude, in his underwear, tied with baling or barbed wire (or both), etc., and whether it was Sheriff Jones of Brewster County who got a call to go pick him up or Sheriff Rick Thompson in Presidio County.
The idea that Robert led the jailbreak is something that everyone in the Big Bend knows as a truth. But those affirmations come from hearing a story from someone that he did it, followed by, “Well I don’t have any proof.” Our podcast team concluded that with the confirmation from Chambers’ best friend Jack Waters, we could accurately say Robert instigated the jailbreak. (Another source very close to Robert told me the same thing.) Robert’s reasons seem pretty clear. Trey was his close friend and right-hand man. As to whether Robert got help from Pablo Acosta, or whether he really had to use his own money or brute force, I am not sure.
Gonzalez and his defense attorney, by the way, tried to claim that his due process rights had been violated. It didn’t work. He was sentenced to 75 years in prison, where he remains to this day. Jayson asked not to be included in the podcast because she is working to get her story into a film or TV version.
And since I remain a bit obsessive about how words/names are pronounced in the podcast…For Refugio, you’ll hear me say Ray-fur-eeo. Old habits die hard. That’s how locals in Beeville, Texas, pronounced a nearby town of the same name. Even though I was only a newspaper reporter at the Beeville Bee-Picayune for a year, that pronunciation stuck with me instead of Ray-foo-heeo.
Mimi Webb Miller
Mimi Webb Miller, like Nancy Burton, was another source that took me forever to get on tape and on the record. First she said she was scared of…not Robert Chambers, but Sheriff Rick Thompson getting out of jail. (She tells a harrowing story of the sheriff harassing her one day in his squad car as she was driving on a lonely stretch of road outside Marfa.) Then she couldn’t do an interview because she was under contract consulting with Narcos Mexico Season 2.
Mimi’s story has been well documented–really over-documented by the media after her character was included in Narcos (in a very fictionalized way) and in her story detailed in Poppa’s Drug Lord. But Mimi finally warmed up to me after a long period of texting, and realizing I had to just show up, I did and found her where she lives in Terlingua Ghost Town.
Added on October 24, 2021…
We met in her cafe next to her La Posada Milagro guest houses, a collection of stone/adobe vacation rentals perched on a hillside with amazing views south to the mountains on the river. After recognizing the cafe music was too loud, we retreated to her home on the hill above, where Mimi was kind enough to share so many stories and photographs of her time on the border.
Bill Ivey is the owner of Terlingua’s ghost town, trading post, and the Big Bend Holiday Hotel, and he formerly ran the Lajitas Trading Post. He didn’t make it into the podcast, but he had a wealth of information on the area. He’s one of those guys who espouses something like, “I mind my business. You mind your business. And we can do business.” His funnest story is how Pablo Acosta would cross over in Lajitas with his men, and Bill would make them check their guns at the door and keep them in bags behind a counter. It was policy for all armed visitors, which kept the Trading Post–which served as a beer/music joint–peaceful.
On Acosta’s death
Nancy Burton’s account of Acosta’s death seems to me more like a collection of memories, perhaps with accounts from others. Because you wouldn’t have been able to hear gunshots from Santa Elena (where Acosta was killed) down river from Lajitas where she was. The helicopters may have landed in Lajitas, though. Bill Ivey said he thinks Terrance Poppa’s Drug Lord account is wrong when it has them landing at Panther Junction in Big Bend National Park. But he said he wasn’t at Lajitas that day. He was actually on his way to the river near Santa Elena to pick up some folks on a river trip and the helicopters buzzed right over his truck on Old Maverick Road. For helicopters heading out of the Marfa Border Patrol Station, Lajitas would have been a logical stopping place for the FBI and Mexican federal police before launching their raid.
What’s interesting to me is that Nancy has an emotional range about Acosta that goes from intense fear of death when she visits him with Robert Chambers to fond memories of him at a lunch they had together with Mimi Webb Miller. Nancy recognizes that Acosta’s death would have been painful for her friend, and Acosta’s lover, Mimi.
If you are a Narcos Mexico fan, the Season 2 portrayal of Acosta’s death is probably the most fictionalized scenes in that series. Mimi Webb Miller was not in Santa Elena running for her life when the raiding helicopters arrived to spray the village with bullets. She was on the U.S. side of the border (I believe in Terlingua). And no, there wasn’t a DEA agent there with papers to sign for Acosta to get protection in the U.S. But as they say, “Makes for good TV.” For a more accurate description of events, you need to read Poppa’s Drug Lord.
On Robert Chamber’s violent incidents
When we reveal Robert’s bevy of violent incidents after Acosta’s death (particularly shooting at people), a lot of those accounts came from the bond hearing to see if he would be released after the charge of illegally purchasing a firearm while under indictment. It seems unbelievable to me that the judge in that case would release Robert on bond after hearing the litany of violence attributed to him (not to mention Robert–at that time–traveling a lot to Mexico to his fishing boats in Mazatlan).
Robert’s aggravated assault charge for shooting his friend, a guy named Larry White, in the ass on the river ended up providing a lot of detail for this story because of that bond hearing and the transcript of it I obtained. (FYI that some accounts have Robert merely shooting over Larry’s head, with one even carrying the colorful yell from Robert of, “Get off my river!”) Paper records on the actual assault case, which would have provided a lot more information, were exceedingly hard to even start tracking down for this story because the event was 34 years old….AND because so many public courthouses/clerk’s offices were in effect shut down during the pandemic.
Not heard in the podcast is the detail that when a deputy went to arrest Robert Chambers on the warrant for assault, Robert was sitting on a little hill at his place taking aim at the deputy with a scope rifle. He obviously went without resisting, though.
I also was under the mistaken impression (hearing from a couple sources) that Larry White was dead. But I had a lingering suspicion that might not be true. So, late into investigating the story, I started looking for him again. Have you ever tried to track down someone named “Larry White?” West Texas is littered with them. Geez Louise. I finally had an “Ah ha!” or maybe “Duh” moment and decided to scour the bond hearing transcript again looking for a clue. Staring me in the face was his middle name “Levy.” But that didn’t work. But when I remembered that Robert Chambers named his youngest son “Levi,” bingo, the “i” led me to Larry. (The “y” was a typo.) Well, it really led me to Larry’s ex-wife who told me Larry was indeed alive and had run off with another woman. She added, “You don’t want to find him.” Well, of course I did, but she stopped answering my calls.
Larry, by the way, was arrested with 90 pounds of pot outside of Alpine in December 1987–not too long after Robert shot him. I assume he did some jail time on that one. But don’t know for sure. I do know he had some connections with the DEA, some cooperation, and that he likely would have been a great source if he talked.
I can’t be sure Robert named his second son after Larry Levi White, but my understanding is that the two were very tight. Larry dropped the assault charges. The local district attorney wasn’t so ready to do the same, but the case died a slow death without the cooperation of Larry.
On Robert owning the plaza
To own the plaza for Ojinaga, as you may recall, means to control all drug smuggling through the area–the ultimate authority on who gets to do what and where. That for a long time was Pablo Acosta. After his death, there would have been a void, with other cartel members jockying (and maybe killing) to assume the role. Eventually that role would go to Amado Carillo Fuentes, who then moved his HQ of sorts to Juarez.
It’s hard for me to find the story from Rod Ponton (Robert’s attorney) completely convincing–the account that Robert pumped his fist in the air and shouted, “I own the plaza!” First, the idea that a gringo would own the Ojinaga plaza seems a stretch, considering how family ties defined so much of the cartel (then known as the Mexican Mafia) world. Second, Ponton’s timing for when this would have happened doesn’t match up well for when it would have been logical–shortly after Acosta’s death. But I will say that the overall idea is entirely believable. In other words, it seems likely to me that Robert would have some point been doing significant work with Amado Carillo Fuentes (the source of the cocaine in the eventual big bust) And perhaps Fuentes–being in Juarez a lot–would have given Robert essentially what was control of the plaza in Ojinaga. A lot of educated guessing going on here, though.
On the pickup loaded with guns and money
Well, first, it may not have been a pickup. I saw another account that it was sedan. Whatever. It had wheels and was loaded with guns and $54,000 in cash stopped at the Border Patrol checkpoint in Sierra Blanca–with the guns headed for Robert Chambers and the cash for Sheriff Rick Thompson. (That checkpoint, by the way, is famous for busting celebrities.)
I heard two different accounts on this–one that the sheriff called out to the Border Patrol agents to let the guy in the truck go, or that he actually drove out there to make it happen. Regardless, these versions of the story came from Dan Dobbs, Jack McNamara, Travis Kuykendall (head of the DEA office in El Paso around that time) and Chamber’s bond hearing transcript. Obsessed as I sometimes am, I tracked down the actual head of the station there at the time. He couldn’t remember details, but he confirmed that the Presidio County sheriff did intercede in a stop to let a guy go at that time.
Regardless, it’s astounding to me that testimony in open court had $54,000 headed to Sheriff Thompson and no one that I know of ever asked, “What the hell is up with that?” It’s rather laughable. Of course, DEA’s Dale Stinson and Custom’s Kelly Cook never knew about it; it was before their time. It shows you how powerful a county sheriff can be. Who really is going to jump up and start an investigation on a sheriff a county over that–especially foot soldiers in the Border Patrol. The incident did, somehow, make it to Custom’s Dan Dobbs, who added it to his colorful, informal rap sheet on Robert. Dobbs said he thought the cash deal to the sheriff was odd as well, but he had other things to worry about.