Episode 4: The Door
Please excuse any typos or other errors. Actually don’t excuse them…just give me a heads up about them. Feel free to comment on anything or ask questions below.
November 8, 2021
On the podcast name…
Now might be a good time to mention that the working title for the podcast for the longest time was “The Door.” (And my working title before that was “Presidio.”) The “Witnessed” part of the final production had to be there, because this will be an ongoing series, with “Borderlands” being the first. No, I’m not working on Season 2 of Witnessed, which was juicing along while we were finishing this one. Not to jinx it, but it sounds like a riveting story, so stay tuned.
“The Door,” of course, is a reference to “La Puerta,” the nickname given to Sheriff Rick Thompson by some folks along the border.
Monroe Elms…former Presidio County Judge
Watching a swarm of javelina rush in swirls around you in the darkness is an invigorating–ok, slightly frightening–experience. But that’s how we capped our night at Monroe’s house after doing about a three-hour interview–with him feeding javelina.
Monroe is a real character and has had an interesting life, mostly growing up around Shafter, which is a little silver-mining town about 40 miles south of Marfa. Shafter is a magical place perched along the slopes of hill/mountains with a spring-fed creek running through the mostly-abandoned town filled with crumbling adobe houses, and a historic church and cemetery.
Shafter is 18 miles north of Presidio and the international bridge that takes you into Ojinaga, Mexico–where Monroe also has spend an enormous amount of time.
In addition to being a non-stop storyteller, Monroe also has racked up some accolades for his work on water conservation and supply in Presidio County.
One thing you might of noticed is that Monroe pronounces his name like “MAHN-Roe,” whereas everyone else says it like “MUN-Roe.” I flubbed it on a couple occasions and put the accent on the second syllable like most others in the world do–“Mun-ROE”
January 2, 2022
It was obvious from the start that getting Dale–as lead investigator–to talk would be crucial to this story. It was particularly important, because the U.S. attorney prosecuting Thompson and Chambers–Tom Beery–had passed. Dale was pretty cautious about talking to me. “Here’s the deal,” he said on our first phone call together. “I will talk to you, but only in person.” He was in Colorado at the time. So I hopped in my car and drove 15 hours to meet him at a brewpub. I think that impressed him, and he became an invaluable source, spending countless hours talking to me. He did have a rather dour refrain, though, that he mentioned in every conversation: “You know, Rob, this isn’t the most significant or interesting case I ever worked on.”
And yes, of course, I recognized Clint Eastwood as Dirty Harry on the poster hanging in his office. But I had to ask about it to get Dale to give his humorous perspective on it. He notes the reason for it hanging there: “Oh, just for old-times sake.” It became clear in early conversations with him that the death of Kiki Camarena had a significant impact on his life. Dale was one of the few people that listened to the recordings of Kiki’s torture, which had to be traumatic in many ways.
It’s interesting that Dale’s initial encounter with the moniker “La Puerta” came so early on in Mexico, without realizing who it really was and that he would eventually come head-to-head with Sheriff Rick Thompson years down the road. More on Dale later.
Katherine Palmira (Kitten Love/Katherine Johnson)
Have you ever spent a long time looking for something, then realized you were holding it in your hand? I talked to Katherine somewhat late into my reporting. I had heard a certain Kitten Love was the sheriff’s secretary, who later was known as Katherine Johnson. Having been a reporter covering sheriff’s department’s in the past, I knew this person would be invaluable: secretaries know everything. But I couldn’t find her. Not even a starting point in all the databases I scoured. Her cousin in Marfa told me she was in Austin, but he didn’t have her number either. I literally spent about a day’s worth of time–eight hours–trying to find her. Finally a woman in Marfa told me she indeed lived in Austin and now goes under the name of Palmyra, like the place in Greece (actually Syria). That was a dead end as well. I was about to call it quits, but then it struck me to replace the “y” with an “i,” and bingo, her name and mobile number popped right up.
And as you hear in the podcast, I was completely surprised on my first phone call to her when I realized it was a former babysitter for my family, and one of the long-serving nannies in my ex-wife’s nanny-referral business. Not only that, but I had talked with her on the phone and corresponded by email just a year prior. Her info was in my Gmail the entire time.
Katherine is an amazing woman, with fascinating stories about her close-up involvement with so many bands (usually kind of punk music) over the years. But it was her enthusiasm for this story that also drew me in. She was the first person I spoke to that truly believed this story needed to be told and was confused why no one had done it before. (Others would say this eventually, but only after they had thought about their experiences at length.) Katherine kept a giant pile of newspaper clippings, court documents, letters, etc. on the case, and she was gracious enough to let me scan them all. The other unique thing about Katherine as a source is that she was close to both the sheriff and Robert Chambers. I’ll have more to say on that for later episodes.