Death of an Informant

Donald Chaline died as he had lived: in a tangle of crime, alcohol and mystery.

It wasn't surprising that Donald Wayne Chaline turned up dead. The 50-year-old hustler had relished living large and flashing cash when he had it. He spent most of his life on the outside edges of the law, by turns a high-stakes gambler and a cocaine user, dealer and smuggler. When he was flush, he was generous to a fault; when the cards weren't falling his way, he wasn't above ripping off a friend. A heavyset man, with gray hair that he combed straight back, he swaggered as though he thought he could beat the crap out of anyone in the room, and over the years, he'd held his own in any number of fights. The surprising thing, that morning this March when his body was discovered outside his townhouse, wasn't that Chaline was dead, but that he'd managed to live so long. When his daughter, Melinda Rogers, was informed that her father had died of a skull fracture, she assumed he'd been murdered: a death that fit his life.

Eventually, law-enforcement officials told her she was wrong. After an autopsy, a pathologist from the Harris County Medical Examiner's Office ruled that Chaline had not been killed but, instead, had died as "a result of blunt impact injuries of the head, accidental fall." The report also noted that Chaline had heart problems as well as a substantial amount of alcohol and cocaine in his system at the time of his death. Those factors, the pathologist suggested, could have caused him to black out or stumble, striking his head when he fell. Based on the autopsy, the Houston Police Department's homicide division closed its investigation.

Melinda Rogers, though, still believes that her father was murdered. In a low, husky voice, the dark-featured Rogers explains that she feels she's getting "the runaround" from law enforcement, that calling her father's death an accident offers police "the easiest way out." Rogers comes by that skepticism naturally: If anyone knew that a pathologist can sometimes make a mistake, it was Don Chaline. He'd known it for 18 years. And, Rogers believes, that knowledge might have killed him.

Johnny Bonds didn't like snitches. They were a pain in the ass. They bugged him all the time. And they always wanted something. Don Chaline, though, was different.

Bonds, then an HPD homicide investigator, met Chaline in January 1981, 18 months after the cop had begun investigating what he believed to be a triple slaying. The county medical examiner had ruled that Diane Wanstrath, a former River Oaks debutante, shot her husband John and their adopted infant son Kevin, then turned the gun on herself. Bonds refused to accept that ruling. It didn't make sense to him: After all, no murder weapon had been found in the Wanstraths' house on tasteful Briar Rose.

The family left behind a sizable estate, the largest portion of which was claimed by Diane Wanstrath's brother, Markham Duff-Smith, a ne'er-do-well with a history of shady investment deals. When Bonds had interrogated the Wanstrath relatives, Duff-Smith had seemed the least upset; and, alone among the relatives, he'd invoked his right to an attorney.

Another clue also pointed toward Duff-Smith. The day the story of the Wanstraths' deaths appeared in the Houston Post, reporter Rick Nelson received an anonymous call. On the other end of the line, Don Chaline refused to identify himself, but offered a piece of information that, he warned, might not have anything to do with the Wanstrath case: Four years before, he said, he'd heard Duff-Smith brag that he'd had his mother killed.

Nelson passed the information to Bonds, who desperately wanted to talk to the anonymous caller. But it was a year and a half before Chaline called the Post again. At the reporter's urging, he reluctantly agreed to meet Bonds, who still had not been able to bring murder charges against Duff-Smith, his prime suspect.

Chaline told Bonds what he'd told the reporter -- and eventually, he told the same story to a jury. Aided by that testimony, Bonds sent Duff-Smith and three other men to prison for the four murders-for-hire. And rightly so: In 1993, just before Duff-Smith was executed, he confessed that he had, in fact, hired a hit man to kill his mother, sister, brother-in-law and nephew.

Bonds understood why Duff-Smith would hire killers: Both times, he stood to inherit significant estates. But Chaline's role as an informant was more puzzling. Why had he waited four years to reveal that Duff-Smith had hired someone to kill his mother? Why did Duff-Smith tell Chaline in the first place? And why did Chaline, who normally devoted a great deal of energy to avoiding the police, come forward?

Bonds's investigation eventually convinced him that he'd found the answers. He believes that Chaline was the first potential killer Duff-Smith approached to shoot his mother, but that Chaline's price was too high -- $10,000 up front. Chaline denied the story; Bonds still believes it. Why else, he asks, would Duff-Smith have told Chaline about the murder?

Despite that suspicion, Bonds believes that Chaline snitched for the most honorable of reasons: because he was horrified by the murder of the Wanstrath infant. Disgust, Bonds believes, drove Chaline to cooperate with the police, though it went against every grain of his being. Despite his outlaw life, Chaline believed some things were outside the bounds of decency.

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