Summary: Texas Ranger Jim Peters decided to forego the usual investigation of heinous crimes for what he thought would be the simple case of locating a stolen shrimp boat in the fishing waters around Port Aransas, Texas. By the time he solved the case, however, it had blossomed into one gigantic comedy of errors involving criminals and law enforcement agencies up and down the Gulf Coast.
Genre: True Crime
Word Count: 4699
Although the culprit was never brought to justice, Texas Ranger Jim Peters’ crafty sleuthing solved the disappearance of the MY JUDY II, a seventy-four foot, steel-hulled, shrimp boat which disappeared from her moorings in the dead of night one weekend in December of 1974. The owner claimed it was stolen. The insurance company wasn’t so sure. Their attorney contacted Peters to investigate. What the tall Ranger discovered was a colossal comedy of errors case.
No one will ever know for sure, but the case probably began in the early 1970s when the United States Government, in a misguided sense of duty, tried to help refugee Southeast Asians establish homes along sea coasts all across America. The plan was to provide fishing boats at ridiculously low interest rates for these immigrants to make their livings. And it was probably a good plan, in general. But for many localities, the idea tragically backfired. One such locality was the tiny fishing village of Port Aransas.
The main…perhaps only…problem with the Government’s plan was that newer boats had better equipment, insuring that the refugees would become too much competition for the local fishermen. It forced the locals to either go out of business altogether, or go heavily into debt by updating their equipment and buying new boats. In the fishing mecca of Port Aransas, the local fishermen totally resented the situation.
Although it can’t definitely be said that the competition was the linchpin in the MY JUDY II affair, it most assuredly played a big role. Sometime on that December weekend in 1974, between the 12th and the 16th, the big shrimp boat slipped her moorings and went to sea for the last time. The owner said someone took her, but when no trace of her could be found anywhere up and down the Gulf Coast, it was Jim Peters’ contention that the boat had been taken out into the Gulf and sunk for insurance purposes. It was one thing to suspect deliberate sabotage, however, and quite another to prove it. Peters had to find the boat’s watery grave before charges could be brought against anyone, and he sunk his teeth into the task with great determination and gusto.
Peters began his investigation in the normal manner by first interviewing the owner and obtaining a description of the boat. The MY JUDY II was a trawler, seventy-four feet long, white with blue trim and black rigging—a steel-hulled ship with all the newest engines and equipment money could buy. Even her miles of netting were like new, having only been in the salt water less than a year before her disappearance. She was so beautiful that she stood out like a queen among her shabby sisters at the dock. Her value was $150,000, and it put her owner heavily into debt.
The owner insisted that the boat had been stolen, and as Peters questioned dockhands and sailors in the immediate area of the boat’s mooring, he worked under the initial impression that the owner was probably right. The boat was the envy of all who saw her, and any number of people wanted her. Still, two questions kept bothering Peters. If the MY JUDY II had been so admired and desired, how could anyone expect to steal her and get away with it? A new boat of her type stood out so conspicuously that no one would have been able to disguise her to use her. It made no sense to steal her because fishermen would have recognized her all up and down the coast. Yet, if theft wasn’t the reason, what was? The questions nagged at the back of Peters’ mind.
In the off chance that the boat really had been disguised and tied up in some shallow back bay, Jim Peters got with the Harbor Patrol and Coast Guard, asking them to be on the lookout for any vessel matching the general size or description of the MY JUDY II. Then, after a day of searching the area himself with no sight of the missing boat, he gave in to the nagging voice inside his head.
Peters’ intuition told him that the boat had been scuttled, for whatever reason he could only guess, although insurance money stuck out like a sore thumb. With that in mind, he proceeded to re-interview every fisherman and dockhand along the wharfs and docks in the whole general area. He struck pay dirt almost immediately when he began asking the right questions. Instead of seeking the boat and the people who stole her, he asked who would profit the most if she disappeared completely.
Fishermen have a unique fraternity. Not only do they know everyone in the fishing business for miles around, they also know everything there is to know about everyone’s business in the fishing industry for miles around. The only real problem is that they are such a close-knit fraternity that outsiders are looked upon with suspicion. Jim Peters could feel the underlying current, the tenseness of mistrust when he was around. Although he was no stranger, having questioned many of the same people in the Coast Guard murder case and the Randy Farenthold murder case a few years earlier, no one really wanted to talk. Just as he was about to start elsewhere, he made friends with an old salt in one of the popular sailor hangouts by buying the old man a beer.
Peters learned from the shrimper that the owner of the MY JUDY II had four shrimp boats. Two had already been seized for non-payment of bills, and papers had been drawn to seize a third one. The only reason the papers were not drawn against the MY JUDY II was because of the lien still on the boat. Desperate for cash, rumor had it that the owner had hired someone to scuttle the MY JUDY II at sea.
Peters understood shrimping, and he knew the owner of the MY JUDY II had to be heavily in debt. It costs a lot of money to operate a shrimp boat. The fuel costs alone are astronomical, since a shrimp boat trolls all night and sometimes all day with its nets out and the engines running. Adding to the financial worry are also the maintenance costs on the engines and hydraulics, the boat upkeep, netting repairs, fish holds, and so on. Nowadays, shrimp boats must also include turtle excluder devices (TEDs) on their nets, as several endangered species of turtles inhabit the Gulf waters. Installing and maintaining the TEDs are an added expense, not to mention that the skipper has to bring his nets in often to ensure he hasn’t trapped dolphins or porpoise. The whole operation cuts down on the catch. To top it all off, unlike the charter fishing boats taking paying customers, the shrimp boats rely solely on their catch for their income.
Asking carefully pointed questions, Peters quietly learned that all the electronic equipment had already been removed from the boat, as well as one of her engines. An old engine had then been installed, but on the second trip into the Gulf, the crankshaft had broken. The owner promptly filed an insurance claim stating that the “new” engine had failed, but he had not yet been paid. As the plot thickened, so did Peters’ determination to find the missing boat.
Once Peters satisfied himself that the boat was genuinely missing, and suspecting that the owner had something to do with her disappearance, since the owner seemed in a mighty big hurry for the insurance company to settle the claim, he began questioning characters in shrimping communities up and down the coast. He also notified all agencies to be on the lookout for the missing boat.
The insurance company posted a $5,000 reward to be paid to the first person furnishing information leading to the location and recovery of the missing shrimp boat. As a result of the reward, an informer called the insurance company’s attorney with an enlightening story. He said that he and his wife were fishing at the jetties around 11:00 p.m., and they observed the MY JUDY II going through the jetties approximately sixty feet astern another shrimp boat. The informer gave the attorney the name of the other boat. The informer was also under the impression that the missing boat was being towed by the first boat because of the close distance, but he could not see a tow line between the two boats. In Peters’ earlier investigation, he had already discovered that the first shrimp boat in the two-boat lineup witnessed by the informer as going through the jetties that night was also a boat owned by the owner of the MY JUDY II.
Another informer after the reward also called and said that he had seen the MY JUDY II going out to sea without any lights.
On 1 February 1975, Jim Peters received information from Drug Enforcement Agency Officer Ed Courtney of Corpus Christi that they had an informant in New Orleans in possession of a newly painted shrimp boat, approximately seventy-four feet long. According to Agent Courtney, there was no earthly way that the informer could have obtained the money to purchase such a big boat. Courtney advised Peters that one of the DEA agents in New Orleans would investigate. Although the informer was, indeed, squatting on a large shrimp boat garnered by ill-gotten means, the boat was not the MY JUDY II.
Six days later, another lead led Jim Peters to a nurse at the hospital in Aransas Pass. She said that her daughter, Debbie, had met a man named James Falloway and had run off with him to Texas City. From there, the couple had gone to Mobile, Alabama, to live with Debbie’s grandmother. Debbie told her mother that Falloway had been the captain of a shrimp boat that had been taken into the Gulf and sunk at the owner’s request. The owner had been a friend to the owner of the MY JUDY II. The scuttling of the other shrimp boat had been for insurance purposes, and Falloway was to get a “cut” of the money after the insurance company paid. Supposedly, he was to have captained the MY JUDY II, only he had gone to the public health service hospital in Galveston for an operation.
Jim Peters checked with the hospital in question, and hospital authorities revealed that Falloway had checked out of the hospital around 3:00 p.m. on that Friday, December 12th. He had not returned until Monday morning. It was the time frame of the MY JUDY II’s disappearance. Peters’ also discovered that Falloway was wanted for aggravated assault on an officer, having attacked a DPS Narcotics Agent in a courtroom in Sinton, a small town up the coast from Corpus Christi, but had jumped bail. Peters sent the information to the Mobile Police Department, requesting that Falloway be arrested and detained for extradition to Texas.
Two weeks later, Jim Peters and a deputy sheriff from San Patricio County were in Mobile, Alabama, to escort Falloway back to Texas for trial. While there, Peters talked to Debbie, and he learned that Falloway and Debbie had spent the time of the MY JUDY II’s theft in a motel in Galveston. While escorting Falloway back to Texas, Peters had the information verified by the prisoner. Falloway also confirmed Debbie’s information to her mother about the mysterious shrimp boat that had sunk while he was captain, stating that the seacocks had accidentally been left open. According to Falloway, the boat sank, and he and the crew had spent five-and-a-half harrowing hours in the water before being rescued. He was supposed to have been the captain of the MY JUDY II, but had to go to the hospital in Galveston. By the time he had returned to Aransas Pass, the MY JUDY II had been stolen. He did say, however, that he was very familiar with her gear, and he saw all the electronic equipment sitting on the dock.
Two days later, Peters learned of David Grant. Grant was in the Nueces County Jail for possession of marijuana, and he was being held without bond as a parole violator. Grant offered to give Peters the details of what happened to the MY JUDY II for a price. He wanted the tall Ranger to see what could be done about the charges pending against him and also help him collect on the reward money. Although Peters made no promises, David Grant decided to talk anyway.
Grant said that a friend named Bennie Martinez had taken the shrimp boat into the Gulf of Mexico, opened the seacocks, waited for the boat to sink, and then returned to the dock in another boat, which had followed the doomed ship out to sea. The MY JUDY II had sunk just outside the twelve-mile limit at night.
Bennie was already well known to the police, having been in and out of jail on a variety of miscellaneous charges for years. He was a heavy user of heroin and had pulled several burglaries, including a safe job where he was apprehended towing the safe down the street behind his car. He was a likeable, friendly fellow, always in need of money, and always willing to do just about anything to get it. The word on the street was that he had disappeared shortly after the MY JUDY II had mysteriously vanished. Supposedly, he had stolen the boat with two other men at the owner’s request.
Jim Peters began hunting for Bennie, and the first place he went to get information on the suspect was the Corpus Christi Police Department. To his surprise, he discovered that the Corpus Christi police already had a warrant for arrest on Bennie on theft charges unrelated to the MY JUDY II, only Bennie had fled the State. Bennie chose as his sanctuary, an Indian reservation somewhere in Washington State, which effectively shielded him from the clutches of any South Texas law.
Deciding that the suspect would sooner or later contact his mother, or she would contact her son, Jim Peters obtained the mother’s address and went to see her. He asked, “The next time you hear from Bennie, would you have him call me collect at my house?” He then gave the woman his home telephone number.
The woman agreed, and in March 1975, Peters got the call.
“Bennie,” Peters said, “I need for you to help me bring an end to this case. I know you took the MY JUDY II shrimp boat out in the Gulf and sunk it. I know who hired you to do it, and I know why the man who owned the boat had it done. If you come down here and help me find that boat, I’ll see what I can do about the cases pending against you.”
Bennie Martinez listened carefully to everything Peters had to say, but he wasn’t sure he wanted to return to Texas. It took several days of negotiating before Bennie finally agreed to cooperate.
“I’ll have a plane ticket sent up there to you,” Peters told the fugitive, “and you’ll fly to Houston where I’ll pick you up. Then we’ll have a leisurely drive back to Corpus Christi where we can talk and visit. Along the way, we’ll also stop for a nice meal of rock shrimp in Port Lavaca.”
Bennie was suspicious. Corpus Christi has no direct flights into the city and no matter what airline Jim Peters put him on, he would have to change planes in Dallas. Once back on Texas soil, what would prevent him from being nabbed by authorities the moment he deplaned in Dallas? Also, he couldn’t understand why Peters wanted him to fly to Houston and then drive south to Corpus Christi. If the “Sparkling City by the Sea” was to be the ultimate destination anyway, why not just fly there in the first place?
“It’s because I want to talk with you,” Jim Peters said. He then went on to explain that no one knew Bennie would be changing planes in Dallas for Houston, so no one would be waiting to seize him the moment he deplaned, and once in Houston, Peters could take him before a Houston magistrate, which by law, Peters had to do. The Houston magistrate would then read Bennie his rights and turn him over to the Ranger for the journey south. They could enjoy a leisurely drive and chat, stopping along the way for a nice lunch in Port Lavaca.
“But if you come straight into Corpus Christi, I’ll have to take you before a Corpus judge. Then, you’d be arrested, put into jail, and everyone would be wanting to get at you. I wouldn’t have a chance to talk to you.”
Bennie agreed, and everything happened just as Jim Peters said it would. Peters met the plane in Houston, read Bennie his rights, took him before a Houston magistrate, who again read him his rights, and on the journey south, stopped in Port Lavaca where they had a nice meal of rock shrimp.
“I didn’t believe you, Peters, but now I do,” Bennie said. “I just knew when the plane landed in Dallas, someone would be there to arrest me. What do you want to know?”
Bennie gave Peters everything. He said that a man named Eddie Salazar had hired him and two friends to steal the MY JUDY II and sink her in the Gulf of Mexico. Bennie also confessed that the owner had hired Salazar. As he talked, some of what Bennie said seemed almost like a comedy of errors. It was all Peters could do to suppress a big, belly laugh.
Bennie revealed that all three of the thieves knew that some places in the Gulf waters around Port Aransas were not deep enough to hide a boat the size of the MY JUDY II, and they almost got into a shouting match and fight trying to decide which would be the best place to take the ship for the sinking. One of the men wanted to head straight out to sea, figuring they’d reach deeper water sooner than by sailing up or down the coast, and the sooner the boat was sunk, the sooner they could escape possible detection from snooping trawlers in the area.
Bennie liked that idea, but the third man pointed out that commercial fishing also occurred straight out the jetties, and the chances of being discovered by at least one boat were practically guaranteed. Although shrimp boats don’t generally cluster when they cast their nets, if one boat had good luck, others were sure to follow suit. Odds were that the three men could end up right in the thick of night fishing just as they were hacking holes in the boat.
Also, the men wanted to sink the MY JUDY II near one of the sunken liberty ships. Two liberty ships had already been sunk in the Gulf near Port Aransas as an artificial reef, and a third one was planned to be sunk between the other two in a few days. If the men could get the shrimp boat close enough, it would become part of the reef. There was risk in that plan, however, because of all the charting and mapping by the Texas Coastal and Marine Council in placing the third liberty ship.
The three men finally decided to take the shrimp boat a little up the coast before heading out to sea. They had discovered a place on the charts, which indicated deep water, and it was a spot where no one would accidentally find her, especially fishing trawlers plowing the sea with their monstrous fishing nets. The grave was also out of the mainstream shipping lanes and away from the offshore drilling routes where most of the boats associated with those activities had sonar and would be apt to stumble over the wreck, causing an investigation.
On the night of the theft, the seas were running very high, and they almost called everything off. Transferring from the MY JUDY II to the standby boat in high seas was deemed too dangerous, but Bennie needed the money, and he finally decided to risk it. His father was a shrimper, and he used to help his dad on the boat all the time. He had lots of experience boating in rough seas.
The two accomplices slipped aboard the MY JUDY II around midnight, started the engines, and silently headed up the coast toward Port Lavaca, following Bennie in the other boat. They followed a predetermined course that would take them into deep water and away from major boat traffic. At the designated spot, the men opened the seacocks so the MY JUDY II would sink. They then tied the two boats together with a half-inch-thick line, and stood by on the other boat, watching and waiting for the doomed ship to go under.
But, the MY JUDY II had a mind of her own. She didn’t sink right away. She floated, decks awash, slightly beneath the water with most of her riggings above the sea. And there she stayed…and stayed…and stayed.
After waiting more than two hours with no signs of further sinking, Bennie re-boarded the MY JUDY II in an effort to determine why she still floated. Apparently, none of them had taken into consideration that the MY JUDY II had been a working shrimp boat, that she had been decked out to keep shrimp fresh. He found about ninety bars of slowly melting ice in the hold, which kept her afloat.
Bennie returned to the standby boat, and the seas were so rough that the trip back scared him. At one point, the half-inch rope between the two boats snapped, striking him in the chest and knocking him down. At approximately 4:20 a.m., the men abandoned the MY JUDY II and returned to port, leaving the doomed ship still floating low in the water.
The next night, the three men returned to the area of the MY JUDY II, and during the night, ten or twelve other shrimp boats entered the area. Sending out their nets, the three men disguised themselves as part of the fleet, all the while listening anxiously to the radio traffic between the boats. It was during this time that they overheard alarming news.
It seems that one of the other boats, while dragging its nets in the water in the dark night as it trawled south, was suddenly blinded by a spotlight from a boat trawling north. The southbound boat captain shone his spotlight back. The northbound boat captain then came on the radio and told how he had just narrowly missed hitting a big steel-hulled boat with decks under water, no lights, and no one in sight. According to the northbound boat captain, the big boat was definitely sinking. The boat captain also said that he was very familiar with the MY JUDY II, and “it looked like it was the MY JUDY II that was under water.” Everyone else in the fleet was then made aware of the sinking vessel and steered clear of her.
By morning, the MY JUDY II had finally gone down. Bennie told Jim Peters that while waiting for the ship to sink, they took Loran readings. Unfortunately, he could remember only one of the readings, but he did remember that the ship sunk in nineteen fathoms of water.
Peters spent several months attempting to locate the grave, exhausting agencies and clues one after another. The Naval Air Station in Corpus Christi promised to check the site with divers if the area could be pinpointed more accurately. A seismograph boat had recorded the bottom of the Gulf southeast of Port Lavaca, and Peters obtained copies of their charts. No luck. A charter fishing boat captain reported a sunken wreck about 300 feet inshore from the first liberty ship, but Peters was unable to find it when he looked for it. The sinking MY JUDY II could have drifted in any direction as she went down.
Using the Loran reading that Bennie gave, which was in an area of the Gulf where one mile of travel equaled about one fathom of water, and knowing the boat lay in nineteen fathoms, Jim Peters finally took Bennie to Rockport in early 1976. They boarded a Parks and Wildlife boat piloted by Game Management Officer E.L. Billings. They went approximately twenty miles southeast of Port Lavaca to the suspected area with depth finders and side-scan sonar. Although they searched a four-mile-square area of the Gulf, they could not find the sunken boat.
Next, Peters approached the owners of the fishing boat SCAT CAT in Port Aransas and made arrangements for them to loan the boat to him for one day. The SCAT CAT is one of the largest charter fishing boats in the entire area. It is equipped with depth finders, side-scan sonar, fish finders, Loran, and several other pieces of high-tech electronic gear guaranteed to find fish for the paying customers. On that day, the captain was Gene Williams, an experienced seaman trained in the use of the side-scan sonar. FBI Agent John Newton and Texas Ranger Morgan Miller from Victoria also came along.
John Newton originally grew up in Victoria—for many years, his daddy was the DPS Chaplin—and he and Morgan Miller were already fast friends long before they became brothers-in-law. Both are professional divers, and each had been in law enforcement for many years. They had made many dives as lawmen. They now planned to dive together on the wreck as soon as it could be found.
It didn’t take long to get back out to the area Jim Peters believed to be the grave of the sunken shrimp boat, and after a couple of passes, they heard the welcome “ping-ping, ping-ping, ping-ping” that signaled a wreck on the ocean bottom. The sunken vessel was a steel-hulled ship, about the right length for it to be the MY JUDY II, and it was lying on its side. All the lawmen needed to prove that it was the missing shrimp boat was to read the name on the boat. And they had that all worked out. The divers would go down and read the name on the bow of the boat.
Sometimes, the best-laid plan can go awry at the most inopportune time, and that’s exactly what happened. Newton and Miller dove on the location, but the visibility was only two feet at the bottom. The current was also running very swift. They were unable to leave the anchor chain and search for the boat.
Arrangements were next made with the SCAT CAT for June 17, 1976. On the arranged date, several divers were on hand, including two men from the FBI with underwater cameras. But the weather turned sour with high winds and seas running about ten feet, and the trip was cancelled. A week later, another attempt was made with the SCAT CAT, but this time there was a different captain, and they found nothing. It was the lawmen’s opinion that there may have been a deliberate attempt to keep them from relocating the vessel and diving on it.
Agent Newton then came up with a solution. He said he would make arrangements to get another ship, and they’d all go back out at another time. Before he could arrange it, however, the statute of limitations ran out on the crime.
Although Jim Peters had signed confessions from Bennie and his two accomplices who had sunk the MY JUDY II, and he knew who had hired them to do the job, and he had a wreck on the ocean floor matching the size of the MY JUDY II, he never did prove that the wreck was, indeed, the MY JUDY II. And with no photographic evidence as proof, no warrant for arrest was ever brought against anyone.
The lack of a satisfactory solution didn’t faze Jim Peters. Being an ardent fisherman himself, he says with a grin, “Oh, well. It makes a great fishing reef.”