Inside the story behind the book “1960s Austin Gangsters:Organized Crime that Rocked the Capital.”
Welcome to Austin Noir. Today people think of Austin as a pleasant, artistic, quirky, music-crazed town, bursting with smart people, cool restaurants, and reclaimed dive bars. But just beneath the surface simmers a spectral past–a weirder, sleazier Austin, one that the Chamber of Commerce brochures and real estate brochures don’t talk about. Back in the sixties and the fifties, the rapidly transforming area east of I35 around Cesar Chavez, then known as East First, was home to a white trash thug culture that fed the conveyor belt between the Travis County jail and the Walls Unit at Huntsville, as well as the federal prisons. The best known of these was James Timothy Overton, better known as Timmy Overton, Number One, etc. Timmy was charismatic and athletic. He fought in Golden Gloves in the mid-fifties and graduated from Stephen F. Austin High in 1958 with a full ride scholarship, recruited by that hero of 21st century college football, Darrell K Royal. Timmy’s dream was a not uncommon one for an underprivileged boy growing up on the wrong side of the tracks in a town where no matter where you stood, you could see two icons: the state capitol dome and the UT Tower. Timmy wanted to play football for the Texas Longhorns.
Overton attended UT for two years and played under Royal in the Cotton Bowl Classic against the Syracuse Orange, New Year’s Day 1960. But Overton’s football career crashed and burned after as he was seduced by Austin thug culture. Royal knew Timmy was a troublemaker when he offered the scholarship.
Timmy’s mother had died of a brain tumor in the fall of 1957, the day before his 17th birthday, his senior year. There were other problems at home. His father, Snooks Overton, shacked up with a serial divorcee named Florine. Timmy and two of his brothers chose not to live in the same house with her. It was just as well: Florine had six kids of her own and a contagious barbiturate habit.
Starting at UT in the fall of 1958, Timmy was already involved in the Austin underworld, selling drugs, possibly pimping girls at Hattie’s M&M Courts on South Congress Avenue. The second time Timmy got busted on a payroll check fraud scam, Coach Royal booted him off the team and turned his back on him.
Embittered at Royal’s treatment, Timmy didn’t just go over to the dark side, he schemed to get even. Industrious, he wasn’t just a criminal slacker, but a sports jock gone bad. One of the most interesting episodes in “1960s Austin Gangsters” is that of Timmy’s heist of the UT Co-op safe during the Thanksgiving Day game between Texas and A&M 1964–a clear case of revenge against Darrell Royal, the coach so revered in Texas that they put his name in front of Memorial Stadium, a facility originally dedicated to the American soldiers who gave their lives in World War I (Let’s assume they were all big football fans and talk no more about it).
Overton was convicted and spent Christmas 1960 in jail, awaiting sentencing. After a few months of R&R at the Walls Unit, Timmy returned to Austin and moved into full-time hustling: safecracking, forgery, pimping, dealing drugs, cross-roading and other aspects of the Dixie Mafia lifestyle.
The Overtons had a fearsome reputation. Timmy was a renowned bare knuckle boxer. He toted a sawed off shotgun and a .38. If you saw the Overton entourage in public, there were usually several other hulking bruisers in the group mixed in with fast-jiving junkies, domino hustlers, party girls and always a used car dealer or two. They drove Cadillacs and other large, pimp-worthy luxury American cars. They collected big cars and swapped them amongst themselves, using various ruses to make it harder for the authorities to track ownership. Star Steel Erection Company doubled as in-joke and a holding company used for obscuring the chain of title.
They were local stars, constantly in the papers, in court, in all the local watering holes, and particularly, on the road, doing their gambling thing, pulling heists, circulating hookers through the circuit, and their specialty, burglarizing small town banks.
Law enforcement agencies across the South and Southwest had a terrible time coordinating their efforts in dealing with the gang’s depredations.
Not a few lawmen were living too well on bribes, and some–precursors of today’s Tea Party nutters–didn’t want any outside cops involved in their little redneck kingdoms, or even asking questions about why the local sheriff could afford a new Cadillac, gem-studded pinkie rings, and $100 alligator shoes on a $50 a week salary.
Timmy Overton’s outfit was eventually decimated in a massive example of federal excess, a conspiracy trial in 1968 with 20 defendants and hundreds of witnesses that lasted almost six months and costs millions of dollars back when that was a lot of money. Timmy was convicted on multiple federal counts sent to the federal pen at Leavenworth, Kansas for five years. Released in October 1972, he was he was bumped off two months later in Fair Park in Dallas, on December 9, 1972. There were and still are a lot of murky questions about who paid for the hit, why, etc.
A few years later, Timmy’s best pal, Jerry Ray “Fat Jerry” James, went on to greater fame. He earned a spot on the FBI Most Wanted list in ’66-67. Fat Jerry was already famous in the underworld when he was suspected as being a trigger man in the ambush attack that killed Pauline, the spouse of Buford Pusser, sheriff of McNary County, Tennessee. True crime aficionados may recall that Pusser’s battle against the Dixie Mafia and State Line Mob on the Tennessee /Mississippi border was immortalized in the 1973 film Walking Tall (best to not mention the sequels).
Later, Fat Jerry and various other Overton alumni popped up in the plot to assassinate Federal District Judge John H. Wood, Jr. in 1979. Between the JFK assassination and the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, the Wood assassination was the biggest federal investigation in US history. You can read about that in the fine book, Dirty Dealing. It’s a very good book about that case, although it glances over the Timmy Overton Gang in the sixties. For that, you have to read my book.
Timmy Overton did business with the same guys that Sheriff Buford Pusser waged war against in Walking Tall, with all those big cars speeding down two-lane roads, mobile homes getting perforated with shotguns and Tommy guns, gambling, strong-arm, prostitution, dope and bootlegging. All those things happened during the early Dixie Mafia era in Austin and other nodes of the white trash underworld of the South and Southwest.
Did I mention that the Overton gang has been mentioned in connection with the JFK assassination? It’s probably just a flaky myth, but it’s a fact that they were part of the extended orbit of Jack Ruby, Lee Harvey Oswald, the Campesi brothers, R. D. Matthews, George Albert McGann and the dancers and B-girls from Ruby’s Carousel Club and Abe Weinstein’s Colony Club.
Timmy Overton’s best friend and fellow pugilist, Don Jester, went backstage at the Coliseum in 1956 and punched out Elvis. People who grew up with Don Jester will not be surprised to hear it.
“Are you kidding me?” I said to Timmy’s old running buddy, Ronny Smith.
“Yeah, I mean, he cold-cocked ol’ Elvis. Knocked him on the ground.”
“But why? Why did he do that?”
Ronny shrugged. “He was just jealous, I guess. All them girls oohing and ahhing over Elvis. Don, he was a hillbilly singer, too.”
[As some of you know, I’ve been working on this case for many years now. My attempts to produce the kind of nonfiction book-length treatment have not been satisfactory to date. I’ve still got my files and I’m still deep into it, however, and for now, this is going to be my outlet for that project. A few years ago, I wrote about my experiences doing this research, and decided to write a novel about it–then changed my mind again. But I got a pretty decent essay about it, and you can read more about the Overton Gang and my writing life in the Texas Observer article titled Adaptation: One Writer’s Long, Strange Trip From Fact to Fiction.]
I’ll be posting more updates on the blog and on this page, so check out the book, the posts, the photos, etc.