Evil Dwight took time from his busy schedule to send me a link to a local Houston blogger who apparently works for Half Price Books saying “This should bring back memories” to which I responded “Yea, memories of being held up at gunpoint!”
Back in the 80’s I worked for Half Price Books when it was located in the converted church building on Waugh Drive.
One night as I was working the late shift I recall being in the process of chasing off the habitual and perpetual browsers so we could close up for the night.
As I was doing this I remember asking one particular customer if he wanted to go ahead and make his purchase. He said he needed to find his wife and went into the back shelf area. I headed back to the checkout and then felt a tug at my sleeve.
When I turned around there was that guy. In his hand was a .38 caliber revolver. He walked me the rest of the way to the register and demanded the money. I pulled about $300 out of the till and handed it to him.
At this point he asked me to come outside and around the back of the building. I knew why. I knew he was going to kill me. I looked at him, I looked at the gun and I thought…”I’m going to die”
Somehow I managed to speak. I said “Look, just leave. You have the money. I’ll lay down behind the counter. I won’t see which way you went and I won’t call the cops.” He looked at me, he looked at the door and he looked at me again. He told me to lie down. I did. He left.
I stayed in the floor until a co-worker came up out of the back sorting area a few minutes later and asked why I was on the floor. He had missed the whole thing. I could barely speak. I told him (as best I could) to call 911 and that we had been robbed.
The cops came and I gave my report.
One might think that would have been that. Chalk up another personal experience and let’s move on. But no, there’s more to this story…
Some two weeks after the robbery I was leaving my house to go out for the evening. As I wound my way up the back roads this I spot this guy walking down Missouri St. He was walking the same direction I was driving so I only saw the back of his head as I approached. As I passed him I glanced over to the sidewalk and just about had a heart attack.
I made the corner and turned around for another pass. I had to be sure. Now I am driving toward him and it’s true. It’s him. The guy who robbed me.
This was in the olden days before cell phones were prolific so I had to drive off in search of a cop. And yes, I did think about just driving up onto the sidewalk and smashing him beneath my 1971 Plymouth Valiant.
I drove to the Stop and Go (now Hollywood Grocery) knowing a cop would be there like there always was. But not this time.
The nearby donut shop was oddly devoid of a police presence as well…
Suddenly I notice a blue and white headed north on Montrose. I gun the engine and blow the red light at Westheimer in pursuit. That’s right, I am chasing a cop…AND breaking a traffic law to do it!
I managed to flag him down and breathlessly explained what was happening. I told him what street I saw the guy on and his general description and off he went! I followed behind and sure enough, the guy was still walking on the same street, just a few blocks further down from where I spotted him. When I arrive at the location I see the cop is out of his car and has detained the suspect. I park and jump out of my car and start shouting, “That’s him! That’s the guy who robbed me!!!” I was just a teeny weeny bit worked up, as you might imagine.
The policeman does a quick pat down and low and behold, he has the gun in his waistband. I am nearly faint from the experience.
The following Monday I was called in to identify the guy in a line-up. No problem. It was number such and such. His face was etched in my memory. My co-worker came for the line-up and was able to identify him as being in the store that night although he was not a witness to the actual robbery.
Eventually the case came to trial and I was called to court to testify. The district attorney (who I believe was Johnny Holmes) talked with me at some length about what to expect in a criminal trial like this. He explained that the defense attorney would make every effort to discredit me. He warned me to keep my cool and stick to the facts.
When I was called to the stand the D.A. was the first to question me. He was VERY Texan.
He was so calm and spoke in a slow, comforting drawl and stated things so simply and so matter-of-factly. He was, in a word, likable, likable in that southern ”good ole’ boy” way.
He took me through the events of that night and you could see the jury paying close attention. On occasion one would shake their head slowly as if commiserating with my painful ordeal.
At one point the D.A. handed me the gun that was found on the suspect. He instructed me to show they jury what happened. The D.A. would be me.
I stood there with this gun in my hand. The very gun used to rob me”¦not only of the money in the till but rob me of my sense of well-being and dignity, the gun that could have killed me, the gun that probably SHOULD have killed me.
I can’t even describe what that felt like. I stood there staring, motionless.
The D.A. got my attention and pulled me from my reverie. I stuttered and lurched forward nearly dropping the gun. He was patient and reassuring and offered me a moment to collect myself.
I then re-enacted the crime from the gunman’s point of view and after that we swapped roles and I showed how it concluded. It was very odd.
When the D.A. was through it was time to be questioned by the defense attorney.
Mr. Weiss was the antithesis of the district attorney prosecuting the case. Slender bordering on anemic, his hair was dark and slick. His suite was dark and slick. He was dark and slick.
He embodied the slimy New York lawyer stereotype.
He approached the stand where I was sitting and gave me a most disturbing smile.
“Good morning Mr. Lee” he said.
I wish I had the transcript of what followed. What I remember is Mr. Weiss alluding to me possibly being a homosexual who was spurned by the defendant, alluding to me having a vendetta and other such things. All in an attempt to discredit me. Something they warned me would happen.
At one point he was trying to say that I was only paying attention to the gun. Obviously a man about to die would only be able to focus on the instrument of his impending demise.
To this I responded that I knew that if I lived I would have to give a description to the police so I looked at the suspect.
It’s true, too. I watched police shows a lot and wondered if I could readily describe someone to authorities. You know those scenes where the victim is asked to work with a sketch artist? It always troubled me.
It’s an odd thing that I did, in fact think about at the time of the robbery.
I explained this to Mr. Weiss. He was very dismissive.
He then moved on to the concept that I might be a racist. The defendant was black and I was white. Don’t all blacks look alike to you Mr. Lee?
During this phase of the questioning I am, as you might imagine, getting very agitated. The D.A. looked at me with concern in his eyes and it struck me that Mr. Weiss was doing exactly what he warned me he would do.
Mr. Weiss was batting me around like a ping-pong ball. I was flustered and upset. I was turning red and getting angry.
I took a deep breath and answered Mr. Weiss’s question. What I said turned the tide in my favor.
“Mr. Weiss, my intention here today is not to put an innocent man in jail”
Silence. Obviously rattled Mr. Weiss looked at me and made his biggest mistake.
“What IS your intention, Mr. Lee?”
In any criminal case the worst thing you can is pose an open ended question like this, especially as a defense attorney to a witness for the prosecution.
This question allowed me to go into detail about how I felt about the robbery.
“My intention is to see that the defendant OBJECTION! overruled go to jail for the crime he committed against me OBJECTION! overruled and how I felt it was important to keep someone like the defendant OBJECTION! overruled off the streets OBJECTION! overruled.”
Earlier in the courtroom I met this couple. Turns out they were there to observe the trial as they were going to go to trial against the same defendant for a similar case. The arrest I facilitated lead to their opportunity to prosecute this guy for a robbery against them.
As I was answering the question I gestured toward the couple I met earlier and alluded to the fact that I was not only doing this for myself but for others this person had robbed or threatened. OBJECTION! overruled .
Mr. Weiss motioned for a mistrial. The D.A. responded that Mr. Weiss asked the question and that I should be allowed to answer it. The judge agreed.
I wrapped it up and Mr. Weiss indicated that he had no further questions.
The judge excused me and I left the courtroom. In a trial like this the witnesses are not allowed to be in the courtroom while one is testifying. My co-worker had to take the stand to place the defendant at the store so I had to wait outside in the hall.
At this point something strange happened. The bailiff came out of the courtroom and approached me. I was sure I must be doing something wrong or he was going to call me back or he was about to reprimand me.
Instead, he offered me his hand and said he just wanted to shake the hand of the man who could so successfully rattle Mr. Weiss. He went on to say how much Mr. Weiss was despised and that I had the respect of the entire court staff for the way I handled myself during his questioning.
I was still quite rattled myself but I shook his hand and smiled and said something I am sure was quite trite.
After my co-worker was finished testifying the proceedings moved to closing arguments. The D.A. eloquently summed it all up. Mr. Weiss went on about something, which I don’t recall.
The jury was sent to deliberation and the court recessed but was not dismissed. I think it was around 9:30 or 10:00 am.
Seven minutes later the bailiff announced that the jury had reached a decision.
Everyone was stunned. a 7 minute jury deliberation? This was unheard of.
Everyone returned to the courtroom and the jury was brought out and seated.
The jury unanimously agreed that the defendant was guilty of aggravated assault.
That was that. The next phase was the punishment phase. Mr. Weiss approached me and confessed that by using his name to address him had unsettled him and probably won the case for the prosecution. I was unresponsive. He then went on to ask if I would plead for lenience in the punishment phase. I declined saying I had accomplished what I had come for and would let the jury decide his punishment.
The defendant had a few witnesses pleading for leniency. His mother, his wife and so forth. It was short. He was a 3 time loser so that was working against him. The jury deliberated again and came back with the maximum sentence. 45 years in jail.
After all that the court was adjourned. I think it was like 1:30. The judge said his docket was clear for the rest of the day as they had anticipated the trial lasting a bit longer.
When the judge asked what they should do with the rest of their day the bailiff suggested putting me back on the stand and letting me run Mr. Weiss around for a bit.
Everybody laughed”¦there was even a sheepish chuckle from Mr. Weiss.