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.

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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.

Even as a kid, Coady Reynolds remembers, Don Chaline was drawn to the wild side of life. His brother Nolan would grow up to be an HPDofficer, but Don was clearly destined for more nefarious endeavors. "He was like standing beside a tornado," recalls Reynolds. "And if he didn't like you, he'd let you know."

Reynolds and Chaline grew up together on Houston's rough-and-tumble blue-collar north side. They lost touch for a while after graduating from Sam Houston High in 1965, but a decade later, their shared love of nightlife reunited them. When they ran into each other at Name Droppers, a club on Hillcroft, Reynolds saw that Chaline hadn't changed: He still liked to drink and was still good with his fists.

It became Reynolds's job to keep Chaline out of brawls, and it was no easy task. Members of the Houston Oilers sometimes stopped at Name Droppers to quench their powerful thirsts, and Reynolds recalls that former center Carl Mauck was one of the thirstiest members of the team. Although Mauck was a friendly sort, one evening he apparently said something that irked Chaline. And for the rest of the night, Chaline wondered aloud whether or not he could whip Mauck's butt. Recalls Reynolds, "He was convinced that if he got the first punch in, and got Mauck to his knees so he could kick him, he'd have a 50-50 chance of taking him." Reynolds convinced Chaline to let the slight slide.

The friends -- both recently divorced -- became roommates, and over the next ten years or so often shared an apartment or lived in the same complex. In many ways, it was an odd relationship. Reynolds always held down a nine-to-five job and tried to keep Chaline out of trouble. Chaline, Reynolds says, kept life interesting: He was always on the move, doing things that he and Reynolds didn't discuss. "He didn't want me to be in a position to hurt either of us," Reynolds explains.

They both loved gambling, especially poker. When they played for stakes Reynolds could afford, he generally beat Chaline. "But if you were playing for big money," Reynolds recalls, "he could make you fold with three aces in a heartbeat. He was a bluffer."

Over the years, the two fell in and out of relationships with women. In the mid-'70s -- around the same time Markham Duff-Smith had his mother killed -- Chaline developed a close relationship with Kathy Cobb, a woman in her early twenties, about ten years younger than he was. The couple tooled around Houston in matching canary-yellow Cadillacs; the vanity plates read "DON I" and "ON II." At one point, they even settled down briefly in Surfside, where Chaline fished and operated a water-sports concession. But he wasn't meant for the quiet life; he and Kathy broke up.

Though he wasn't meant to be a one-woman man, Chaline felt something for the two kids from his previous marriage, and occasionally attempted to perform his paternal duties. On the weekends that he had custody of son Donnie and daughter Melinda, his ex-wife would meet Chaline at Northwest Mall for the exchange. He'd then take the kids to the bars he frequented -- places like Wildcatters and the Frontier Club. While the children occupied themselves with the jukebox, pinball and video games, Chaline drank vodka and 7-Ups and held court with his friends, many of them outlaws and con artists. Donnie, the older of the kids, came to feel right at home.

At the McClennan County Jail, located just east of Waco, visitors line up to talk over telephones to the incarcerated family and friends who sit behind one of five windows. The glass is smudged with handprints and lipmarks.

Behind one of the windows sits a 26-year-old man of medium build, with short dark hair and dark eyes. Like his fellow inmates, Donald Wayne Chaline II is clad in a bright orange jail uniform. Donnie, as he's still known to his family, is awaiting resolution of the forgery charges that have brought him to McClennan County. He also faces forgery charges in Liberty County and has pled guilty to similar crimes in other counties.

"I've got a bit of a paper-hanging problem," he says over the jail phone. He laughs at the understatement.

Since beginning his life of crime several years ago, Donnie estimates that he has forged between three and six million dollars worth of stolen payroll checks. "I'd go to a city and get a temporary driver's license," he explains. "Then I'd break into a building and get checks off the bottom of the ledger." He'd make the checks payable in amounts of $400 to $500 each, always to one of his alter egos: Stephen Mark Albarron or Donald Marcello, the latter surname borrowed from the New Orleans crime family. Then he'd cash each check at a different store.

Donnie claims that while he was "working," he raked in about $5,000 a day -- a figure that sounds fairly accurate to a prosecutor in one of the counties where Donnie still faces charges.

"He ain't blowing smoke," says the assistant D.A., who asked not to be identified. "At one point he had purchased cars for five topless dancers. And when it comes to forgers, he's one of the smartest I've ever seen. Whoever taught him taught him well."

Donnie greatly enjoyed the weekends he and Melinda spent hanging out in bars with their dad. At the age of 15, Donnie decided to move in with Chaline -- and he began leading quite a life for a teenage boy.

According to Donnie, Chaline was often on the road for a week at a time, setting up high-stakes poker games -- with $50,000 buy-ins -- in places like New York, Chicago and Atlanta. Chaline would take over a hotel suite and stock it with booze and topless dancers; the marathon games could last 18 hours or longer.

While Chaline was out of town, he gave Donnie $300 a week in spending money and allowed him to drive the Cadillac. He didn't worry that Donnie would skip school; he knew the boy liked to be seen driving the luxury car.

As Donnie got older, he and his dad became best friends and running buddies, hitting all the topless bars in town, taking trips to Las Vegas and generally flirting with trouble. Once, Donnie remembers, they were watching an Oilers game on a bar's TV. When another patron said he "hated the fucking Oilers," Chaline punched the man in the head.

"He told the guy, 'Don't talk like that in front of my son,'" laughs Donnie. "And I was 24 years old."

Donnie also became Chaline's partner in crime. Donnie doesn't say who taught him the finer points of the art of forgery, but he does claim that he and Chaline transported up to 60 kilos of cocaine at a time from the Rio Grande Valley to Chicago for a Mexican drug family, the name of which he says he can't remember.

"Mom was mad that he got me involved in his lifestyle," says Donnie, "but it was me that chose that route. There's more romance to living on a prayer than working your ass off."

Three years ago, Donnie remembers, he was leaving the Tampico Bay Beach Club on FM 1960 when he heard someone call his name. As he turned around, Donnie was punched in the mouth and fell to the ground of the parking lot. The next thing he knew, he was lying face up on the asphalt, and a stranger was shoving a pistol into his mouth.

The man asked Donnie where his father was, and whether he was still living with his girlfriend Kathy. Donnie successfully feigned ignorance, and his assailant let him go.

Donnie figures that whoever jumped him hadn't seen his dad in quite some time; it had been around eight years since Chaline and Kathy had been a couple. Perhaps, Donnie speculates, the stranger hadn't kept up with the world because he'd been in prison.

The information Chaline provided on the Wanstrath murders had helped convict four men, including Duff-Smith. Allen Wayne Janecka, the hit man, is still on death row. Paul MacDonald, who helped arrange the murders, was released in 1984. But Bonds, who has kept track of his former prey, thinks he's highly unlikely to have threatened Donnie, much less to have killed Chaline. MacDonald, says Bonds, is not a dangerous man.

The fourth man, Walter A. Waldhauser Jr., was released from prison in 1990. The mastermind of the murders, he changed his name to Michael Davis, and according to state records, last November renewed his Texas driver's license using his father's Houston address.

But Bonds says he doesn't suspect Waldhauser either: "Walt wouldn't have the guts."

After her father's death, 24-year-old Melinda Rogers, along with her second husband and their infant son, moved into her father's townhouse. Every day, she walks past the bloodstained sidewalk where his body was found.

Chaline's death obsesses her for other reasons, as well. She'd only recently reconciled with her father, who hadn't been around much when she was growing up and whose shady dealings she disapproved of. (Straight arrows, she and her husband both hope to go into law enforcement.) In February 1992, two weeks before her first wedding, Chaline called her and said he wanted to be part of the ceremony. Rogers agreed, and the two began to repair their strained relationship.

In 1995, Rogers was diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease and had to undergo chemotherapy. Chaline moved in with his daughter, helping to care both for her and for the foster children that she and her husband had taken in. And last year, after Rogers gave birth to Chaline's first grandchild on his 50th birthday, he once again made himself handy.

In other ways, too, Chaline began settling down. He found straight employment bidding jobs for a construction company. And plagued by congestive heart problems and dizzy spells, he started paying attention to his health. Rogers says he was trying to lose weight, had cut back on his drinking, was using salt substitute and was actually going to a doctor when he was sick.

She feels cheated by her father's death; unlike her brother, she'd only felt close to him for a few years. In the townhouse's living room, she has set up an office where she spends hours on the phone, searching for information related to her father, hoping to convince officials to reopen the case.

Since his death, she has discovered more about his shady life -- and most of what she's found makes her only more convinced that he was killed. Melinda notes that her father died on March 16 -- the anniversary of the day in 1980 that Waldhauser and MacDonald entered guilty pleas.

In 1981, Chaline had been shot while walking across a field next to the Target store on Westheimer. He was hospitalized for the wounds; Rogers remembers going to his hospital room as a child of nine. But no one was ever arrested, and she never knew why he'd been shot -- at least, not until after her father's death. Inexplicably, at his memorial service last March, a friend of Chaline's confessed to Rogers that he had been involved in setting up her father to be shot 16 years before.

That revelation, of course, didn't explain anything about Chaline's death. To unearth more information, Rogers hired a pair of private investigators, John Bozman and his wife Carolyn. Over the past couple of months, they've compiled a list of incidents and circumstantial evidence -- facts that say Chaline had plenty of enemies, but not that anyone actually killed him. Among their findings:

*Shortly before Donnie was arrested last February, he'd agreed to sell his Jeep to a friend for $2,000 down and assumption of the $400 monthly payments. Instead of the full $2,000, the friend gave Donnie only $400, with the balance due that weekend. But by the weekend, Donnie was in jail for forgery, and the Jeep had been impounded for the friend's traffic tickets. Chaline paid to have the vehicle released, but he refused to return it to its would-be owner until he paid the remaining $1,600. Donnie's friend was not pleased, and investigators say he has dropped out of sight since Chaline's death.

*Rogers says her father bought a waitress an expensive ring. But not only was the waitress married, she also allegedly had another boyfriend -- one of Chaline's drinking buddies and his sometime errand boy. Chaline was reportedly upset when he learned of that relationship. And like the man who purchased the Jeep, the boyfriend hasn't been seen much around the usual watering holes since Chaline's death.

*Two weeks before Chaline turned up dead, he helped a female friend buy a van. Flush from a $26,000 insurance settlement from a car crash, he also loaned the woman and her husband $1,000 to help them and another couple pay bills. The two husbands, though, allegedly took the money and the van and headed to Mexico. After the wayward men returned home, as some sort of consolation, Chaline took their wives out for a night on the town. Word soon spread that the jealous husbands were looking for someone to kick Chaline's butt. Police questioned the wives and the alleged hired muscle, and decided there was nothing to the story.

Taken individually, says John Bozman, the incidents are less than ominous. And even collectively, he admits, they prove nothing -- except that Donald Wayne Chaline's death should not have been an open-and-shut case.

On March 16, the last evening of Don Chaline's life, Coady Reynolds arrived at Liars Sports Bar around 6 p.m. Chaline was already sitting at the large L-shaped bar, just beyond the pool tables and dart boards. That Saturday night was a special occasion: the birthday of Sun Woo, one of the bar's owners. Reynolds said he and Chaline planned to help her celebrate by "getting as drunk as she could."

Chaline didn't drink as much as he often did. Instead, the two old friends reminisced about old girlfriends and the trips they used to take. Reynolds describes the conversation as one of the best they'd had in years.

By 10 o'clock, the birthday group began to thin out, and the bar's late crowd was starting to arrive. Reynolds announced that he was headed home, and Chaline, as usual, said he was leaving right behind him. And as usual, Chaline wasn't.

Shortly after Reynolds left, Jeanette Hill, the bleached-blond owner of the Cork Club, dropped by Liars. When Woo decided she wanted to go bar-hopping, Hill says that Chaline suggested the birthday entourage make the short trip down Bissonnet to the Cork Club. Inside the dimly lit dive, Woo sang on the karaoke machine, and Hill kept an eye on Chaline. It was something she was used to doing; she liked him, but didn't trust him.

Her reservations stemmed from experience. According to Hill, she once lost $5,000 she invested in a bail-bonds business with Chaline; the venture went belly-up. Most of the money, she claims, went to pay Chaline's living expenses. Still, she later gave him a job at her bar. His kids say he was responsible for the Cork Club's success, but according to Hill, she caught him stealing from her vending machines. She never felt entirely sure of him again.

So while Woo and her friends belted out karaoke tunes, Hill tried to make sure Chaline behaved himself. He did. As a matter of fact, she says, he spent the rest of the evening on the other side of the bar, deep in conversation with a man none of the regulars from the Cork Club or Liars had ever seen. Hill describes the visitor as a large, somewhat older man who was going bald. The only thing she recalls for certain was that Chaline and the man seemed to have known each other for years but had not seen each other for quite some time.

She couldn't tell whether the conversation was friendly. "One time I walked by," she remembers, "and I heard Don say, 'That's just the way it is. That's what happened, and I can't help it.' They must have talked for two hours. And Don paid for most of the drinks, so he must have been into the guy for something."

After the stranger departed, Chaline settled his bar tab and returned briefly to Liars. The bartender there says when Chaline left for his townhouse around 2 a.m., he didn't appear drunk: "He had his snap and was making sense." Seven hours later, he was dead.

Just before 9 a.m. Sunday morning, one of Chaline's neighbors left her unit at the Maison De Ville townhouse complex and, while walking along an interior sidewalk, was stunned to find Chaline's body. He was lying face-up, and his feet were about three yards away from the staircase's bottom rung. His head was a few feet away from a white brick wall.

The Houston police were called, and they in turn notified the Harris County Medical Examiner's Office. According to a report by an investigator from the medical examiner's office, Chaline's front door keys were in his hand. He also had in his possession the remote control for his Blazer's alarm, $16.06 in cash and a small plastic bag of cocaine.

The investigator found "no sign of trauma" to Chaline's body, although the sidewalk at the bottom of the staircase is still stained with blood where the back of Chaline's head came to rest. A closer inspection at the morgue found that Chaline had suffered a fractured skull, and the cause of death was listed as an accidental fall.

Harris County's new chief medical examiner, Dr. Joye Carter, did not perform the autopsy herself, but she gave it a close review. She points out that all of Chaline's major organs, including his heart, were congested and enlarged. She suspects that he might have passed out or experienced some form of arrhythmia -- a scenario made more likely by the quantity of alcohol and drugs in his blood.

A toxicology report showed that Chaline had ingested a considerable amount of cocaine the night he died, and that his blood alcohol level was .07. Although that percentage is below the threshold of legal intoxication, Carter explains that it doesn't mean Chaline wasn't intoxicated when he fell -- if he didn't die immediately, his body would have continued to metabolize the alcohol in his system. Carter also says Chaline's head injuries -- the main one a fracture to the right side of his skull -- indicate a fall rather than a blow.

"The brain has the consistency of a very soft egg," she says while explaining his injury, known medically as a "contrecoup." "In falling, the brain will kind of bounce around and hit the inside of the skull. And that does leave a different kind of injury than if someone is hit directly on the head. You have the brain moving around and bouncing as the head hits the ground."

Carter says Chaline could simply have struck the hard pebblestone sidewalk or perhaps the cement bench at the bottom of the stairs. The bench, though, seems unlikely, since Chaline's skull fracture was on the right side of his head. Because he was still carrying birthday cake from Woo's party, his family -- as well as police -- believe that when he died, he was heading home, walking toward the stairs. That would have placed the bench on his left, not his right.

Still, homicide detectives also agree with the medical examiner that Chaline died as a result of a fall. Officer R. E. King, who inspected the crime scene, found no traces of blood on the cement bench or the brick wall. Police don't know what Chaline hit his head on.

In one respect, that's not surprising. Unlike cheese, crime scenes don't improve with age. Because the patrol officer who first investigated Chaline's death described what appeared to be an accident, homicide detectives were not immediately sent to the scene. King and his partner, Sergeant Larry Ott, were assigned to the case two days later after some of Chaline's friends called the homicide division and suggested that foul play might have been involved. In addition to inspecting the area where Chaline's body was found, the two detectives also interviewed several of the dead man's acquaintances. And their investigation led them to concur with the opinion of the medical examiner.

"This is a textbook example of an accidental fall," King says adamantly.

Out of loyalty to his old informant, Johnny Bonds -- now an investigator with the Harris County District Attorney's Office -- took some time to review the facts of Don Chaline's death. He found nothing to make him believe the death was a homicide, and he says he has great confidence in the homicide detectives assigned to the case.

"If somebody had been out to kill Don," says Bonds, "they would have done a better job of it."

Still, Bonds leaves himself a bit of wiggle room on the question. With as many enemies as Chaline had made over the years, Bonds concedes, there are plenty of suspects. If somebody did kill him, he says, that person will probably eventually talk about it. And when he does, police can only hope that an informant comes forward -- an irony Chaline might appreciate.

"It's going to take somebody making that phone call," Bonds says, "just like he did.

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