GALVESTON — Fingerprints lifted by a Galveston lawman from a marijuana-laden shrimp boat ultimately led to a three-year investigation that resulted in the federal indictment and drug trafficking conviction of a Panamanian dictator.
As Sheriff Freddie Poor prepared for retirement, he recently reflected on his storied 45-year law enforcement career and the notable cases he worked, including his roles in the downfall of Gen. Manuel Noriega and the apprehension of a serial rapist.
Poor, 65, began his career in 1967 as a patrolman with the Galveston Police Department. He worked for 17 years as a crime scene investigator and became police chief in 1989. His retirement in 1993 lasted two months until he went to work for the sheriff’s office. Voters elected Poor as sheriff in 2008. He decided to retire this year.
Poor’s role in Noriega’s drug trafficking conviction began in 1981, but Poor wouldn’t learn of the connection until decades later. The revelation came during a meeting in Austin with Bob Dey, a former agent with the Galveston office of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
“I was surprised,” Poor said. “We were on a committee reviewing alcohol abuse by teenagers, and Bob Dey was the chairman of that board. It was probably around 2005.”
Poor remembered Noriega’s last stand against thousands of U.S. troops sent to the Central American country to bring the Panamanian dictator stateside.
“I remember when the military went to Panama,” Poor said. “He held up in a church for two or three weeks before he surrendered.”
Dey worked in Galveston on maritime smuggling cases from 1981 to 1987, covering the area from Matagorda Bay to the Texas-Louisiana border.
“At that time, the Coast Guard based in Galveston overheard a radio conversation that sounded suspicious between a shrimp boat and sport fisherman,” Dey said. “They sent up a helicopter and observed some suspicious activity.”
Dey explained how the smuggling operation worked, and the difficulties law enforcement had in dismantling the trafficking ring.
After losing some shipments and being under heat from federal agents working in Florida, the traffickers moved operations to Texas.
Traffickers paid shrimp boat captains, lined up sport fishermen to pick up the drugs and had tractor-trailers take the drugs to warehouses in rural locations where the narcotics were sold to buyers, Dey said.
“The key players in this were Cuban refugees, some of whom were CIA-trained and involved in The Bay of Pigs,” Dey said. “They knew how to conduct a clandestine operation.”
A shrimp boat called the Little Al left Columbia laden with 30,000 pounds of marijuana destined to rendezvous with two sport fishing vessels based in Freeport, Dey said. Those involved tried to flee after seeing the Coast Guard helicopter, he said.
“At the time when they seized the shrimp boat, there was no one on board,” Dey said. “It was tied off at the Buccaneer rigs 15 miles off the coast of Galveston.”
The Coast Guard detained about a dozen people aboard the sport fishing vessels and towed the shrimp boat to the Coast Guard base in Galveston.
At that time, Poor was in his eighth year with Galveston’s Identification Division, the modern-day equivalent of a crime scene investigator.
He spent at least two days combing the oceangoing, steel-hull shrimp boat for evidence.
Poor focused on the area around the boat’s navigational chart.
“When I found the chart map, that was the best source of latent fingerprints we got,” Poor said. “That was a key piece of evidence in the Little Al case.”
Poor identified the detainees with palm prints or fingerprints.
“I did all the work myself,” Poor said. “I developed the fingerprints chemically on the map. I compared the fingerprints and the latent prints off the map with inked impressions of the known suspects.”
Within a couple of weeks, Poor had identified eight of about 11 suspects and submitted his findings to federal authorities. Those findings led to convictions of 12 defendants based in part on Poor’s testimony.
The fingerprints were also the break in the case that led to a three-year investigation by federal authorities, who dismantled a South Florida criminal enterprise comprised of Cubans, Columbians and U.S. residents.
“That group, in addition to the Little Al, smuggled 425,000 pounds of grass on 12 different shrimp boats, three of which were seized, but at that time the seizure was still puzzling,” Dey said. “We didn’t know who was related to whom or if it was connected at all.”
‘Central Texas kingpin’
Focusing on the Little Al led federal authorities to identify a leader, a person Dey called a Central Texas kingpin.
“This guy was in another operation that involved the same people, a separate conspiracy, but we couldn’t tie it in,” Dey said. “It involved the seizure of 55 tons of grass in Freeport. That guy became a fugitive.”
The Tampa, Fla., office of the DEA called Dey about a year later, telling him they’d arrested the kingpin, who was living in Tampa.
“They arrested him when he had two corporate jets chartered, and he was on his way to go to Panama,” Dey said. “When we arrested him, he became state’s evidence and testified against Noriega. The first clue was that fingerprint that Freddie got on the Little Al.”
Federal grand juries in Miami and Tampa indicted Noriega in February 1988. U.S. troops invaded Panama Dec. 20, 1989, and four days later Noriega sought refuge at the Vatican Embassy in Panama City.
Noriega surrendered to U.S. forces on Jan. 3, 1990, and was flown to face trial in the United States, where he was convicted of drug trafficking.
Dey called the investigation that led to Noriega’s downfall the most rewarding and personally satisfying case he worked in his career.
“The case ended up being so big, one U.S. attorney’s office couldn’t prosecute it,” Dey said. “The U.S. attorney’s office in Beaumont prosecuted part of it, and Miami, Tampa, New Orleans and Georgia had a part of it. It was a huge case.”
The ‘towel rapist’
Poor said he found joy in helping solve crimes, including a case involving Henry Shepard Hegwood, a serial rapist who roamed the island’s East End in the late 1970s and early 1980s, instilling fear among Galveston women.
Police told The Daily News in April, 1981, the department suspected Hegwood was involved with 80 to 100 rapes over three years. Fingerprints linked Hegwood to at least 22 Galveston rape cases. A total of 572 rapes were reported in Galveston between 1977 and 1981.
The towel rapist was among three serial rapists in Galveston in the early 1980s, Poor said.
“He would break into victims’ homes,” Poor said. “He would throw a towel over the victim’s head and beat the hell out of them.”
Poor was on the Identification Division assigned to investigate the cases.
‘We got lucky’
A break in the cases led to Hegwood’s arrest on April 3, 1981, after he was wounded while breaking into a house in the 800 block of 19th Street.
“We got lucky,” Poor said.
Hegwood entered the East End house and picked up a rifle inside that belonged to the victim’s husband, who happened to be home.
“As he came into the home, the victim’s husband had a pistol,” Poor said. “He shot the rifle stock, and it ricocheted into the rapist’s shoulder.”
Shortly thereafter, police received a call about a wounded man in the Cedar Terrace government housing projects.
A fingerprint Poor lifted from a victim’s cedar jewelry box was among the evidence collected against Hegwood. An FBI agent testified in a 1982 trial that the fingerprint was a 15-point match for Hegwood. Hegwood’s rare AB blood type and other evidence also resulted in convictions during three trials, including one moved because of intense media coverage to Beaumont, where he received a 99-year sentence.
“At one point in time I was told that regents at the University of Texas considered moving the School of Nursing back to Austin because of the number of these victims associated with UTMB,” Poor said.
Hegwood, 56, remains imprisoned in Huntsville and has been reviewed for parole five times since 1999. The Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles last denied Hegwood’s parole May 21, and he won’t be reviewed again until March 2015, said Jason Clark, a spokesman for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.
Of the cases that remain open, Poor said he wished he could have helped solve the Oct. 7, 1988, disappearance of Suzanne Renee Richerson.
Richerson, then a 22-year-old Texas A&M at Galveston student, was abducted from her night auditor job at a Galveston hotel. Police believe she was murdered, but her body hasn’t been found.
Poor said he stays in touch with Richardson’s father, Clyde Richerson.
“There were three potential suspects on the case, and although the case has not been solved, I think of those who might be responsible for it, two died of drug overdoses and a third turned up missing a few years ago,” Poor said. “I don’t think any are still alive.”
Poor still hopes for a break in the case.
“I went with Clyde to the visitation funeral of one of the suspects here in Galveston,” Poor said. “With that, I think there was some closure.”
Sheriff-elect Henry Trochesset succeeds Poor at midnight Monday, but Poor will trade his corner office for a smaller cubical will far less responsibility at the Galveston Police Department, where he’ll volunteer as a consultant.
Poor will also look forward to spending time with family, including his wife of 43 years, Karen Poor.
“When I first started in law enforcement, I always said I wanted to serve the city of Galveston for 50 years,” Poor said. “It’s kind of a corny thing, but I want to accomplish that.”