Episode 8: Survival
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.
June 22, 2022
Who shot at Lico’s dad?
One thing I knew I had to do was revisit the opening scene from Episode 1, in which Robert Chambers is trying to kidnap Lico Miller’s dad in Paso Lajitas, the little town across the river in Mexico from the now resort town outside of Terlingua, Lajitas. We left listeners thinking that Sheriff Rick Thompson crossed the Rio Grande to help Chambers and ultimately turn over Lico and his brother to brutal Mexican police. But it wasn’t the sheriff–or at least Lico, his family present at time, and me don’t think so. Lico remembered the wiry figure with the badge announcing he was the sheriff, and we don’t know why this person would have done that, but the guy didn’t look enough like the sheriff.
I learned the details about this story by talking to Lico’s “family.” Lico’s dad was Luis Rosenblatt, but everyone called him “Lucas.” He lived in the Paso Lajitas compound of two houses with his good friend, Feather Radha. Feather had five kids with her at the time–one. of whom was 15-year-old Raja, who Lico considered as his brother. So they considered themselves family and still do.
I knew to hear the whole story I needed to talk to Feather and her children who were there the night Lico and his brother came home to find Chambers shooting at Lucas. Feather, people told me, would never talk. She’s an artist who has adorned Alpine, Texas, with beautiful murals, but keeps her life pretty private. (For a great vignette of her life in Paso Lajitas, see the last few paragraphs of this Texas Monthly piece.) I kept trying to find her, talk to her, and after several attempts, she finally called me back one day. “Rob,” she said. “I am planning a reunion of everyone who was there that night, and I want you to attend. It will be sometime in January.” I replied, “That’s great, but until then, can I talk to you a bit about what happened that night?” She simply responded, “Rob, I am planning a reunion of everyone who was there that night, and I want you to attend.” It was early December, and I was desperate to hear more of the story, but how could I object. I had to wait.
We finally gathered in January on the large balcony of a house perched above a canyon in Terlingua. Feather, Reja, Lico, one of Feather’s daughters and some other relatives cooked/brought a bunch of food, and Lico popped open a bottle of sotol. The family began giving their accounts of the night Lucas had to flee into the desert, along with other recollections of key family events.
Since it’s easy to find as the opening of the podcast in Episode 1, here’s where to listen to the basic events that night.
However, here’s additional detail I learned at the family’s story-telling reunion. When Robert Chambers was threatening Lico’s father, Lico and Feather’s other children were hunkered down in the house next door. But Feather was laying behind a small berm with a .22-caliber pistol trained on the other house, fearing she may have to use it against Chambers. That night she had just returned from a shopping trip in Ojinaga with her one of her daughters. Traditionally, they would travel to OJ and back on the U.S. side, since the highway was much faster than the rough dirt roads on the Mexican side. A boatman in Paso Lajitas would ferry passengers back and forth across the river. Feather ended up crossing the river to Paso Lajitas in the boat with Robert Chambers. She thought he looked strange, out of place, but she had never met him and didn’t know the danger he posed. Little did she know he would end up terrifying Lucas and her family.
When Lucas escaped Chambers and fled into the night, he ran for several hours to a candelilla camp in the desert, where men helped pick hundreds of thorns from his feet (he was barefoot). Later he would travel to a cave, where he spent a month in hiding.
Back in the compound, Mexican police and the mysterious American with a badge were interrogating Feather and family, and the police finally hauled Lico and his brother away to OJ. Lico got the worst of the beatings on the way, because he talked to his captors in Spanish, while his brother pretended not to understand. They had a good laugh about that at our dinner in Terlingua. But also recounted were the horrible beatings of two town folk by Mexican police–likely trying to get information on Lucas; the boatman died shortly after from his injuries in the beating.
So, who was the American cop there? Well, as noted in the podcast, a DEA report noted that both Sheriff Rick Thompson and Border Patrol agent Wayne Wiemers were at the river that night–thus, the flare they shot into the air on the U.S. side to brighten the desert in the search for Lucas.
Here’s my theory–supported by Feather and family. Chambers and the sheriff wanted Lucas out of the picture. Apparently his small-time gun/drug smuggling was interfering with Chambers in some way. Chambers went down to take care of him, but the sheriff likely was on the alert in south Presidio county in case he needed assistance. Feather believes the plan was for Chambers to take Lucas to the American side, kill him, plant a bunch of weed on him, then bring the sheriff in to make the discovery and claim credit for stopping a smuggler. Feather’s family heard Chambers on a radio that night, so he was contacting someone, likely telling them things had gone awry and Lucas escaped.
When the sheriff gets word of this, he contacts Mexican police in OJ, who come to the American side, and he accompanies them on a ride to Lajitas. I know this sounds crazy–Mexican police flying through the night in America with a U.S. sheriff. But you have to realize that this area is very remote and deserted, particularly at that time. If the Mexican police had headed to Paso Lajitas through the mountains and treacherous roads on their side, it would have taken them at least two-and-a-half hours. The trip on the U.S. side is a little over an hour. Feather’s recollection of the time it took for the Mexican police to arrive, made the Mexican-side trip impossible.
Regardless, I believe that Wayne Wiemers crossed the river with the Mexican police to confront Feather and family. He meets Lico’s description of “wiry.” I showed a photo to Lico of Weimers, but he said only that it’s possible, that it fits, but he couldn’t confirm it for certain. Wiemers initially talked with me in generalities about his friendship with Rick Thompson, but by the time I found out he may have been the lawman involved here, he had stopped talking, saying it wouldn’t be appropriate since he’s doing contract work for the current sheriff, Danny Dominguez. Although Rick Thompson refused to talk with me, I did pass this story to one of his sons, Alan. Alan replied and said his father denied ever going into Mexico that night.
Lico and his brother took food to their father while he lived in the cave in hiding for a month or so. Eventually their father told them he was heading south. The story of what happened next is lengthy and amazing. Lico’s nephew is planning to write a book about the adventures that followed, and I’m hoping he does. But Lucas was never seen again and is believed to be dead.
My encounter with Robert Chambers
In the beginning of my investigation, I couldn’t get a good phone number for Robert Chambers. So, it seemed logical just to drive up the 2.5 hours or so from Austin to Granbury, Texas, to knock on his door. Of course, we worked up the tension on this with, “Robert Chambers, the scourge of the Big Bend, was towering over me.” That was true since Robert is almost a foot taller than me, but he also was standing on a high doorstep. The entire encounter actually was more comical than fearful. When Robert answered the door and asked what I wanted, he seemed astounded when I told him why I was there. “One minute,” he said and slammed the door. Some five minutes later, he returned. “I’m on hold with my Internet Service Provider,” he said. “My internet is down.” He went on some more about his router, but we eventually got into me asking questions. What followed was what we reported in the podcast. A lot of answers like, “That was a long time ago, and I don’t have any more to say. I took responsibility for what I did and served my time. The sheriff was and is a good man.” He was fairly genial, but also seemed irritated to face this going on 30 years since the bust.
I could tell he wanted to get out of the conversation, but I kept him going with some stupid questions. “I heard you were shot on a boat in Mazatlan.” We didn’t use this in the podcast, but Chambers for a good while ran fishing trips out of Mazatlan for a fleet of boats called “La Perla.” The feds thought it was all about drug smuggling, but Chambers had portrayed it to others as a true, full-time, hard-working job for him. At some point, Chambers was readying the boat to head out with a film crew, which planned to do some kind of documentary on Pacific fishing tours. Chambers told me a man jumped on the ship and began firing (a pistol, I think) and hit him–one shot in the back, one grazed his back, and another missed. “Were they trying to hit you?” I asked, laying another stupid question on him to keep him talking. “Of course they were!” he nearly yelled. “They were trying to assassinate me!” Chambers went on to say that one of the guys on the film crew went into shock, just from witnessing the shooting, and they thought he was going to die. “It scared the hell out of us,” he said.
We didn’t get much farther on that story. But others told me that they had to bring him to the states for surgery after the shooting. I could never track down that film crew, and believed me, I tried hard, thinking it might have some great video/audio of Chambers.
At one point, Chambers also told me that only he could tell his story, and that he was going to sit down with Mel Gibson, plop a bottle of whiskey on the table, and get a real screenplay done. But he also mentioned that Son of Sam laws–not allowing someone to profit from their crime–might prohibit this, that he was trying to find a way around that obstacle.
Chambers had been holding his phone the entire time on hold, and a voice finally came on from the Internet Service Provider. “I gotta go,” Chambers said, and he slammed shut the door for the final time. But one thing he said that day haunted me for a long time. We reported it in the podcast. When I asked him why he and the sheriff would risk so much on the smuggling, he replied, “Desperate people do desperate shit.” I never have fully deciphered the meaning of it.
Where did all the money go?
We talked a bit about what happened to all the money Chambers must have raked in smuggling. Here’s one more interesting example of what is known. Chambers was trying to launder money through investments, including a funeral home business in Dallas during the late 80s. (Jack McNamara tells most of the story in this column.) Chambers was using a go-between–Betty Allen of Alpine–to transfer millions of dollars to the funeral director, Ronald Hughe’s. Hughes, Allen, and her daughter Jerri, eventually were convicted of money laundering. Court documents in the case revealed some interesting information:
Hughes had no further contact with Chambers until April 1990, when the two met with Allen and Jerri. Ostensibly, the meeting was called to figure out where all the money (nearly $5 million in cash had gone and who was responsible. The meeting degenerated into a shouting match between all of the parties and was followed by Chambers’s mad search through a mausoleum owned by Hughes in which Chambers believed that Allen and Hughes had hid the money. To everyone’s knowledge except Hughes, the meeting was recorded on audio tape.
When I read there was tape of Chambers running through a mausoleum in search of cash, I nearly flipped. Unfortunately, after hours of phone calls (including to a prosecutor who thought I was nuts for asking for a 35-year-old tape) I could not locate that audio. The point, though, is that the feds only seized $284,000 in assets from Chambers. This story alone mentions $5 million, including an airplane trip by Betty Allen took to Arizona to retrieve $2 million from a safe.
So where did all that money go? Speculation runs rampant on that. Nearly everyone I talked to about it believe that Chambers has various hiding places, but his lifestyle and modest home don’t reveal any elaborate spending. Another rumor was that a girlfriend of his in Fort Davis moved a ton of money for him into hiding. (I’m not going to name her, because she refused to talk and I don’t have any evidence of this.) And, of course, the podcast notes the rumor of Chambers sealing PVC pipes stuff with cash and sinking them in his stock ponds; I don’t believe that one.
You can read more about the money laundering trial in court documents and an appeal. A couple other notable passages in the records:
He was reportedly the last “soldier” left in the Pablo Acosta drug organization.
Hughes does concede, however, that Chambers indicated that the money was his, that he had once worked for a man named Pablo Acosta, that he had inherited Acosta’s turf, and that Acosta was “like a godfather” to him.
One other oddity surface in the money laundering court records. I had tried to find someone that Chambers served time with to talk to, thinking I might get a better idea of what he was like then, but those records (as well as visitation logs) aren’t public. The court records on money laundering noted someone, Neal Quigley, who strangely also knew Ronald Hughes and ended up discussing the money laundering case with Chambers in the cell block they shared. Quigley said Chambers was lying about whether Hughes knew the loan money was illicit, and he testified to that in court. I tracked Quigley down and he told me that Chambers seemed like a nice enough guy, but that he would “sell his mother” if it meant a sentence reduction.
Realizing that we never included anything on the Marfa Lights, I penned some stuff to address that and maybe lead toward and end to the podcast. I like what I finally wrote to end it better, but here is what we didn’t include:
It seems a bit odd, but I haven’t yet mentioned the Marfa Lights, something that the little town is known for world-wide, at least if you were googling “things to do in Marfa.” There’s never been an official explanation for this phenomena, but if you’re lucky, or patient and persistent over many, many nights, and if you cast your gaze in the night sky at the mountain tops south of Marfa…sometimes you’ll see more than just a brilliant display of a gazillion stars and the cloudy drift of the Milky Way. You’ll be bedazzled by seemingly magical lights….little glowing orbs, sometimes hovering, often changing color, and alternating from smooth to erratic movements through the darkness in the distance.
Scientists from many different disciplines have studied the lights, as have alien-life experts who are keen on the idea that they are UFOs…or some other form of beyond this galaxy life visiting our little, backwards planet Earth.
The somewhat reasonable explanations? Headlights from the highway headed to the border. Small explosions from significant layers of temperature in the air, a kind of swamp-gas explosion from petroleum and natural gas deposits, geological activity from compressed rock. Well….No one has a definitive, proven explanation. Not since they were first spotted on horseback in the late 1880s. They remain….an enduring mystery.
Locals I’ve talked to said they can tell the difference between the fake Marfa lights–in other words, headlights–and the real deal. I’ve heard stories of locals seeking them out and finding them in the foothills, and that they possessed a rather haunting kind of intelligence…often playing with their observers.
I thought about chasing them. Or perhaps they would end up chasing me. Appearing, disappearing, then reappearing. Trying to prove to myself somehow that they really do exist, and that their movements really do have some connection to the world of humans living in their land. I never did it. Maybe I didn’t want to be dissapointed. And I was busy chasing something akin to the lights…stories that seemed to glow with promise, then fade…sources that were within reach, then disappeared. Enticing tidbits that were only there to tease me. I had chased enough. And it was time to finally unwind and weave back together everything I discovered.
The story you’ve heard may have all the elements of a great western movie, or a narco drug story. But it also is a tragedy. I guess Rick Thompson is the hero, right?–Cursed with a tragic flaw, perhaps exploited by someone like Robert Chambers. But casting away literary allusions, putting it in the perspective of a more modern world, the real tragedy has not been told here. Of the 26 years of painful imprisonment for Rick Thompson, and the 13 years served by Robert Chambers….the devastation to the lives of the sheriff’s wife and children, to Robert’s children–kids that grew up without their fathers, having to possibly explain that they were imprisoned. Even to the dubious impact any of this had in the War on Drugs. And finally, To the blow it dealt to the myth of Marfa as the last bastion of the west.