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Fetch the Devil

The Sierra Diablo Murders and Nazi Espionage in America

Clint Richmond

Publication Year: 2014

In 1938, Hazel Frome, the wife of a powerful executive at Atlas Powder Company, a San Francisco explosives manufacturer, set out on a cross-country motor trip with her twenty-three-year-old daughter, Nancy. When their car broke down in El Paso, Texas, they made the most of being stranded by staying at a posh hotel and crossing the border to Juarez for shopping, dining, and drinking. A week later, their near-nude bodies were found in the Chihuahuan Desert. Though they had been seen on occasion with two mystery men, there were no clues as to why they had apparently been abducted, tortured for days, and shot execution style.

El Paso sheriff Chris Fox, a lawman right out of central casting, engaged in a turf war with the Texas Rangers and local officials that hampered the investigation. But the victims’ detours had placed them in the path of a Nazi spy ring operating from the West Coast to Latin America through a deep-cover portal at El Paso. The sleeper cell was run by spymasters at the German consulate in San Francisco. In 1938, only the inner circle of the Roosevelt White House and a few FBI agents were aware of the extent to which German agents had infiltrated American industry.

Fetch the Devil is the first narrative account of this still officially unsolved case. Based on long forgotten archives and recently declassified FBI files, Richmond paints a convincing portrait of a sheriff’s dogged investigation into a baffling murder, the international spy ring that orchestrated it, and America on the brink of another world war.

Published by: University Press of New England

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication, Quote

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Contents

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pp. ix-x

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Preface

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pp. xi-xiv

I first heard of the murders near the Sierra Diablo Mountains in Far West Texas while working as a criminal-courts reporter in Dallas, in the 1960s. I was lucky to be part of a small audience of newsmen, deputies, and other courthouse denizens for some of legendary sheriff Bill Decker’s rare storytelling sessions about the Depression-era bad guys he had personally faced down. ...

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An Unforgiving Place

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pp. 1-2

Her pampered skin was more accustomed to the caress of perfume than the rivulets of hot, wind-driven desert sand abrading her naked back. Only two weeks earlier the beautiful young woman had been dancing in the arms of admiring suitors at the spring ball of her Bay Area sorority. ...

Part I: Murder in the Desert

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[1]

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pp. 5-10

There were two ways guaranteed to ruin a perfectly swell day in the spring of 1938. One was to make eye contact with the ragged little urchins riding in the back of an Okie family’s dilapidated pickup truck. The other was to read a front-page story about what was going on with the Jews in Germany ...

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[2]

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pp. 11-15

Hazel, Nancy, and Mada Frome were college educated, avid newspaper readers, and unusually well traveled for the day. Undoubtedly, they were more aware of foreign and domestic troubles than the average citizen. Yet, like most Americans, they seemed somehow inured to the gathering storms abroad and the potential perils caused by the grinding poverty of unemployment at home. ...

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[3]

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pp. 16-21

Flooding and mudslides in Southern California postponed the departure hour for the women’s cross-country motor trip to visit Mada. The on-again, off-again trip was finally underway shortly before noon on Wednesday, March 23. Perhaps the delay was just as well, since Nancy had been out late the night before, attending the Tri Delta spring dance. ...

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[4]

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pp. 22-25

The first glimpse of Paso del Norte could be as welcome as the discovery of one of Coronado’s fabled Seven Cities of Gold, when travelers caught sight of the skyline shimmering above the Rio Grande River. The glow of the setting sun painted the city’s tall buildings, as the Frome women drove their sputtering sedan off the desolate desert into the city limits of El Paso, just before dark on Friday evening. ...

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[5]

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pp. 26-29

The stranded women woke on Saturday to a serious international incident roiling not far from their hotel. Throngs of Mexican protesters carrying anti-gringo signs could be seen in Juarez just across the river from their eighth-floor window. ...

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[6]

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pp. 30-35

All eyes were on the fashionably dressed California mother and daughter from the moment they crossed the luxurious lobby of the Hotel Cortez. Soon most of the staff and many of the guests were aware of the two women traveling alone across the country and now stranded in their midst by car trouble. ...

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[7]

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pp. 36-41

On Thursday afternoon, March 31, two army engineers surveying land near the intersection of US 80 and US Highway 290, almost two hundred miles east of El Paso, came upon an abandoned, silver-gray Packard. The place was called Phantom Lake, eleven miles west of Balmorhea. ...

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[8]

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pp. 42-45

He was a hulking man with a pie-plate-flat face, broad nose, and close-set eyes in a large head supported by no discernible neck. A wart on the side of his nose and gaps between tobacco-stained front teeth further marked his hard lot in life. His usual attire did little to improve the first impression of many who met him that Jim Milam was a galoot. ...

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[9]

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pp. 46-51

Albert Anderson wasted no time instructing the Van Horn switchboard operator to connect him with his fellow sheriffs in the adjoining counties. The operator first put him through to Reeves County sheriff Louis Robertson at Pecos, whose office was investigating the abandoned car. ...

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[10]

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pp. 52-58

By early Monday morning the awful details of the murder had been broadcast across the country through a steady stream of radio bulletins from El Paso, the state capital at Austin, and the Bay Area. A horrified public began the new week with shocking reports flashed over the newswires, each update more lurid than the last. ...

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[11]

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pp. 59-65

Even lawmen themselves grudgingly admit there is sometimes truth to the old saying, “Possession is nine-tenths of the law.” So Sheriff Anderson should have known better than to let anyone talk him into releasing the victims’ bodies to El Paso County, just because the larger neighbor boasted a forensic laboratory and full-time criminal pathologists. ...

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[12]

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pp. 66-70

Dozens of newspaper reporters had already gathered in El Paso, arriving by air or car from cities in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California. They were clamoring for any bit of new information to wire or phone in about the victims, investigators, or witnesses. ...

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[13]

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pp. 71-75

Melee in the murder case, caused by scoop-starved reporters and the gaggle of rudderless lawmen converging on El Paso, disturbed local community leaders and state officials alike. The need for coordination became painfully clear before the ink was barely dry on newspaper headlines from the autopsy press conference. ...

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[14]

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pp. 76-80

It didn’t take Fox long, as sheriff of El Paso County, to establish a name on both sides of the border. His no-nonsense policing methods quickly gained him the reputation of tough cop. If he was to keep the peace in the thousand-square-mile county, he had to seem as hard as the rocky desert he was sworn to protect. ...

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[15]

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pp. 81-83

As designated coordinator of the Frome case, Chris Fox called the first planning meeting of lawmen from various agencies, four days after the bodies were found. He would need to muster his best diplomatic skills to overcome the jurisdictional rivalries pulling the investigation in significantly different directions. ...

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[16]

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pp. 84-89

The twice-spurned lawman from the county where the bodies were discovered used a legitimate excuse for ignoring the gathering in El Paso. He said he was too busy to sit around jawing about the case in a distant location, when there was real police work to be done where the murders had actually occurred. ...

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[17]

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pp. 90-93

After the first flash of publicity, a dozen of Texas’s best law enforcement officers had rushed to West Texas to address the challenges of the Frome murder investigation. Despite the coordinating committee, the lawmen from various jurisdictions were tripping over one another. ...

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[18]

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pp. 94-101

A silent huddle of more than 150 onlookers stood outside Wilson and Kratzer Funeral Chapel in Richmond, California, on Thursday, April 7, waiting for a glimpse of the grieving family of the most famous murder victims to be eulogized in their area of the country in many years. ...

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[19]

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pp. 102-109

After weeks of chasing down dusty roads that seemed to dead-end at the border river, the Frome-case investigators were frustrated by the lack of progress in identifying the killers. Though a number of new eyewitnesses came forward with stories about suspicious characters and automobiles similar to the ones seen chasing the women on Highway 80, ...

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[20]

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pp. 110-116

The sheriff ’s plea for local citizens to come forward with any and all information relating to the Frome women produced more bad leads than good. A flurry of calls sent deputies chasing all sorts of tales about encounters with female strangers passing through the city during the previous few weeks. ...

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[21]

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pp. 117-123

Almost from the outset, the newspapers and some Austin officials were publicly calling the Frome murders the biggest criminal case in Texas history. The national attention turned up the pressure on the famed Texas Rangers to find a quick solution. ...

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[22]

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pp. 124-128

A sizable case file on the Frome murders was gradually being assembled at the El Paso County Sheriff ’s Office, despite resistance on the part of some lawmen to acknowledge that office as the center for the investigation. Nearly a month after the murders, Chris Fox was diverting considerable manpower from regular policing duties to the Frome case. ...

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[23]

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pp. 129-135

Armed with a new description, albeit not as definitive as most lawmen would have liked, Sheriff Fox sent his deputies back to places the Frome women were known to have stopped. The investigators were now asking questions regarding a man with unusual, memorable eyes. ...

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[24]

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pp. 136-140

Chris Fox often began with that opening remark in his popular lectures to local high school students on the importance of being law-abiding citizens.130 The sheriff coined this bon mot following the untimely demise of cop killer and bank robber John Dillinger, when his girlfriend turned him in to the G-men. ...

Part II: Spies on the Border

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[25]

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pp. 143-146

When Sheriff Fox got back to the office after interviewing the suspect’s wife, he was handed a copy of a report that cast more mystery than light on the investigation. It was from the Texas DPS crime lab and contained an FBI ballistics report sent to Superintendent Gonzaullas by J. Edgar Hoover.132 ...

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[26]

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pp. 147-155

The subject of the statewide dragnet brazenly wheeled his mud-splattered Cadillac into a parking space across the street from the county courthouse at San Angelo on Friday afternoon, April 29. This time the crafty fugitive’s luck had run out. ...

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[27]

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pp. 156-160

Chris Fox was furious when he learned his lead suspect had been whisked away by immigration agents without being returned to El Paso. The sheriff was already in a running feud with more than one Texas Ranger over handling of the case. Now his criticism turned toward the neighboring county sheriff, Albert Anderson. ...

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[28]

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pp. 161-165

A man forty years old would have to work very hard to amass a more reprehensible record than this person with more than thirty aliases, most frequently known as Romano Trotsky. The notorious con man claimed nearly as many birthdates as fake identities, ranging from 1897 to 1904, ...

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[29]

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pp. 166-173

Sheriff Fox was burning the midnight oil, poring over the thick files on Trotsky from the FBI and the American Medical Association. It was clear that the man of many aliases was a master at escaping punishment through the skillful use of guile. His long trail of repeat offenses proved he was a career criminal without a conscience; ...

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[30]

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pp. 174-180

Sheriff Chris Fox considered himself a modern cop when it came to adopting the latest techniques of law enforcement, but in 1938, very little advancement had been made in scientific forensics. So, like his Texas Ranger counterparts, he relied heavily on past experience, knowledge of criminal behavior, and gut instinct. ...

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[31]

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pp. 181-184

Weston G. Frome was as secretive about the projects and products of his company as he was evasive about his job title and description, and to an inquisitive cop like Chris Fox, that was like waving a red cape in front of an angry bull. ...

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[32]

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pp. 185-190

Despite Chris Fox’s close association with individual FBI agents, and the occasional work he had done with the bureau on other cases, he was completely unaware of a large-scale investigation centered on possible subversive activities in the West Coast construction industry. ...

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[33]

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pp. 191-195

When he arrived in Los Angeles, Sheriff Fox headed directly to the Central Division of the LAPD at First and Hill Streets. On his way, he passed the entrance to the imposing Biltmore Hotel at 506 South Grand Avenue. ...

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[34]

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pp. 196-199

Chris Fox took some pleasure in seeing the businessman who had so rudely ignored his past requests squirm under the heat of the new line of questioning about the blackmail. More than that, he was angered by the continued lack of cooperation from both Frome and the Berkeley police. ...

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[35]

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pp. 200-206

In spite of his recent success, or perhaps partially because of it, the El Paso sheriff was powerless to prevent the Frome murder investigation from slipping out of his control. His treatment by fellow Texas officers over the suspect Trotsky and the apparent political pressure from Austin to back off Weston Frome were early warning signs. ...

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[36]

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pp. 207-212

Ostensibly under new direction by Sheriff Anderson, the Frome murder case quickly dropped from the front pages of the nation’s newspapers. When the story did briefly resurface, it sometimes read like a tale out of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. ...

Part III: An Enemy Within

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[37]

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pp. 215-218

Nazi sycophants like Joseph Goebbels convinced Hitler that America’s Achilles’ heel was the loyal Teutonic blood flowing in the veins of a third of its citizens.225 The Nazi leaders were smug in their assurances to the führer that these ethnic German Americans would, at the very least, prevent the United States from entering the fight against the fatherland. ...

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[38]

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pp. 219-222

The self-proclaimed member of the ex-tsar’s family who played such a large role in the Frome investigation, Romano Trotsky, was never more than a minion in the White Russian Fascist organization. Despite his claims of having served the imperial Japanese cause, there was no evidence that the pretender had any ideology other than his own enrichment. ...

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[39]

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pp. 223-229

Atlas Powder Company and Hercules Powder Company, another spinoff of DuPont in the explosives and chemicals field, became early prime targets for Nazi penetration.243 Prior to his assignment as San Francisco consul, Hitler’s aide-de-camp Captain Fritz Wiedemann was personally sent to the United States on a “vacation.” ...

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[40]

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pp. 230-235

Even though Chris Fox had formally ceded his central role in the murder investigation to his fellow Texas lawmen, he was quietly pursuing his own theory about the case, outside official channels. ...

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[41]

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pp. 236-242

On May 21, 1940, Roosevelt quietly but formally authorized the FBI to conduct warrantless electronic surveillance of aliens suspected of subversive or espionage activities in the United States. It was a closely kept secret that the bureau was already employing illegal eavesdropping techniques and break-ins and, with the cooperation of the post office, opening mail. ...

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[42]

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pp. 243-250

The Frome murders were headed for the cold-case files as the second anniversary neared when a spark of renewed interest was lit by the appointment of the eager, young Texas Ranger Hugh J. Pharies to the investigation. ...

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[43]

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pp. 251-254

The Ranger may have been young compared to some of the grizzled professionals on the force, but he had the advantage of having recently been trained in interrogation techniques at the new FBI Police Training School.279 ...

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[44]

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pp. 255-258

Chris Fox had little time to sit around licking his wounds after his ego-bruising ouster from the central role in the Frome murder case in late 1938. He had new challenges even more pressing than solving a two-year-old murder, albeit the most sensational one in years. ...

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[45]

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pp. 259-263

The usually furtive doctor let his Teutonic pride in Hitler’s startling military successes in Eastern Europe get the better of him, in the autumn of 1939. He came very close to blowing his carefully laid undercover identity when he threw a tantrum with, of all people, a newspaper reporter. ...

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[46]

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pp. 264-267

By early 1941, international events overshadowed almost everything else on the front pages of the newspapers. Sheriff Fox and his select deputies were now dedicating significant time to assisting the FBI with the hush-hush surveillance in their own backyard. ...

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[47]

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pp. 268-272

A direct link between Dr. Ebell and the San Francisco consulate was proven beyond a doubt when a bungling German spy, sent on a mission from Mexico to the United States, was arrested in early 1940 by police in San Antonio, Texas, on a misdemeanor driving offense. The German quickly admitted to a stunned cop that he was on an espionage mission. ...

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[48]

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pp. 273-275

It was during this troubled twilight of peace, in the late spring of 1941, that Sheriff Fox and the Rangers rekindled peace themselves. Perhaps the ominous threat of greater external enemies looming on the horizon put their petty differences in perspective. ...

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[49]

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pp. 276-282

It is not often that local lawmen are caught up in the intrigue of chasing spies, but El Paso County’s strategic location on the U.S.-Mexico border placed Sheriff Fox and his deputies on the front lines of an undeclared war. ...

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[50]

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pp. 283-287

The Frome murder investigation suffered another major setback in the summer of 1941, one that almost guaranteed the case would not be solved. El Paso sheriff Chris P. Fox suddenly gave up his illustrious career in law enforcement. With that, Texas lost one of its most progressive and effective lawmen. ...

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[51]

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pp. 288-291

The pressure was now on the remaining cohort of spies to shut down operations in the United States and start making good on escape plans. Kunze informed Ebell that he and Willumeit would conclude the final, grand tour of the western states in El Paso. Once they arrived, they would use the El Paso pipeline to smuggle their trove of secrets and themselves into Mexico and, finally, back to the fatherland. ...

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[52]

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pp. 292-295

On Sunday morning, December 7, 1941, Americans painfully learned what the rest of the world already knew: ignoring tyrants would not make them go away. ...

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[53]

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pp. 296-298

Chris Fox, who had ruefully left law enforcement only a few months before U.S. entry into the war, was undoubtedly chomping at the bit to get back into the action. He even tried to join the Texas Department of Public Safety in any capacity as a peace officer, without pay, for the duration of the war. ...

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[54]

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pp. 299-306

As days passed after the Japanese surprise attack without any sign that he was suspected of spying, the smug Wolfgang Ebell must have enjoyed the thought that the inept Americans were not aware of his still-intact underground railroad. ...

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A Haunting Legacy

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pp. 307-308

Unsolved murders take on a life of their own. What would be a closed chapter if the mystery were solved becomes the stuff of conspiracy theories, ghost stories, and legends. When the murder is particularly brutal, and the victim especially beautiful, the images continue to haunt, long after the deed is done. ...

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Epilogue

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pp. 309-316

The Hazel and Nancy Frome murder case was acknowledged by officials of the Texas Department of Public Safety as the most costly murder investigation in the history of the state. It is still often referred to as the biggest unsolved mystery in the American Southwest. ...

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Coda

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pp. 317-322

In the American criminal justice system, the three primary elements popularly considered necessary for a conviction are means, motive, and opportunity. ...

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Acknowledgments

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pp. 323-326

The accurate telling of a long-ago incident, after all eyewitnesses have passed on, depends on the work of the few who dedicate their lives to what may seem the mundane work of preserving records of the past. They are writers’ best friends, the archivists, who toil without recognition in America’s few institutions that still have the commitment and good sense to preserve history in order to build a better future. ...

Notes

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pp. 327-344

Index

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pp. 345-356


E-ISBN-13: 9781611685619
E-ISBN-10: 1611685613
Print-ISBN-13: 9781611685343

Page Count: 368
Publication Year: 2014