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THE NATION

1949 N.M. Murder Mystery Getting Star Billing

August 03, 2001|From Associated Press

SANTA FE — A vivacious, dark-haired young woman disappears, then is found dead. The investigation sends shock waves through the political establishment. The murder is never solved.

The story that gripped New Mexico half a century ago began with the killing of a teenage waitress in Las Cruces.

As it unfolded, it exposed public corruption, sent law enforcement officers to prison and put a lid on the state's flourishing gambling industry.

The tale is retold in a feature-length documentary, "The Silence of Cricket Coogler," which has its New Mexico premiere Saturday.

Ten years in the making, it revisits an era when New Mexico was still the "Wild West" and Las Cruces was a playground for politicians--"an oasis of money and fun," according to the documentary.

"New Mexico was a wide-open state in the late 1940s," said Charlie Cullin of Santa Fe, one of the filmmakers.

Ovida "Cricket" Coogler's murder eventually made it less so--but only because of a dogged citizen grand jury that, tired of being stonewalled by officials, hired its own lawyers and kept digging.

"This strange little murder, and the incredible effort to cover it up, caused a kind of outrage that cleaned up New Mexico," mystery novelist Tony Hillerman says in the documentary.

The grand jury explored the illegal gambling that flourished openly at the time as well as civil rights violations by police.

"The main thing about the story is the grand jury that wouldn't give up," said Cullin, a former journalist and public relations specialist who once headed the state's film commission.

Cullin was drawn to the Coogler story by Jack Flynn, a longtime Capitol reporter and observer who died last year, and George Glass, a Santa Fe attorney who later worked for the Indiana judiciary. The trio formed Trespartes Films.

The documentary, which cost about $80,000, was screened last fall at the Denver International Film Festival. Its New Mexico debut Saturday at the College of Santa Fe is a fund-raiser for the Santa Fe Film Festival, which will be held Dec. 5-9.

Narrated in part by the late Watergate figure John Ehrlichman, who lived in Santa Fe, the documentary features interviews with the late Jerry Nuzum, a Clovis native and star running back for the Pittsburgh Steelers who was falsely accused of killing Coogler.

Grand jurors and others tell their stories--among them Walt Finley, a reporter at the El Paso Herald-Post, whose persistent digging drove many of the developments in the case.

Finley recalls in the documentary how scared he was when his life was threatened by Dona Ana County Sheriff A. L. "Happy" Apodaca. "Well, now, Happy, you can kill me," Finley remembers warning the sheriff. " 'But if you do,' I said, 'Scripps Howard will send in a good reporter.' "

The body of Coogler, 18, who was known to socialize with the sheriff and with Santa Fe politicians, was discovered by rabbit hunters in the desert a couple of weeks after she disappeared on March 31, 1949. She had been raped and, it appeared, run over by a car.

Nuzum, who had been seen briefly outside a bar with her, was arrested. But Finley reported that two city police officers saw her get into a car that had an official state license plate hours after she was seen with Nuzum.

Students at New Mexico State University were incensed that Nuzum, a popular athlete who was studying at the college after his rookie year, was being railroaded. They collected enough signatures to call a grand jury, and Nuzum was released for lack of evidence.

The grand jury also heard testimony from a black man, Wesley Byrd, who had been tortured in the desert in an effort to get him to confess to the Coogler murder. Sheriff Apodaca, State Police Chief Hubert Beasley and sheriff's Deputy Roy Sandman were tried in federal court and sentenced to a year in prison for civil rights violations. But no one was ever charged in Coogler's murder.

"It's kept people wondering forever, and they'll continue to wonder--because there's never been an answer," Cullin said.

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