Murder, She Testified

A federal grand jury aims at a fledgling author's notes in a long-running murder probe

Call it the case of the bookmaker and the book maker.

In August 1998 bookie-to-the-rich-and-famous Robert Angleton was acquitted of capital murder in the killing of his estranged wife in their River Oaks home the year before. As it turns out, his legal problems are far from over.

That also goes for would-be crime reporter Vanessa Leggett, who has been attempting to write and publish a book on the homicide of 46-year-old Doris Angleton. Although the crime is technically unsolved, many local law enforcement officials believe that Robert orchestrated the slaying -- despite the not guilty verdict in his state district court trial. Local lawmen seem to have convinced U.S. Department of Justice officials of the righteousness of their theory, as a federal grand jury continues its own investigation of Robert. Grand jurors also are apparently intent on having Leggett help them get to the bottom of Doris's murder.

On April 16, 1997, police found the bullet-riddled body of Doris inside the Ella Lee Lane house that she shared with her husband and their 14-year-old twin daughters. The woman had been shot 13 times -- seven times in the head -- while her husband and the girls were at a softball game. It was Robert who called police to the scene, and homicide detectives first looked at the possibility that Doris had been killed by one of Robert's underworld enemies. Those enemies could have come from either his bookmaking or his role as an informant for the Houston Police Department, a revelation that greatly embarrassed HPD. Robert also said that his sometimes oddly behaving brother -- Roger Angleton occasionally dressed in rabbit costumes -- could be involved in some sort of extortion plot.

Despite those theories, both brothers were eventually charged with the murder. Investigators contended that Robert hired Roger to kill Doris. The alleged motive was either jealousy because he thought she was having an affair, or to stop her from revealing his bookmaking operation during their divorce proceedings and/or to keep her from getting a large portion of his money. That contention was bolstered by items found in Roger's briefcase when he was arrested in Las Vegas: typewritten notes about the crime, $64,000 and money wrappers with Robert's fingerprints on them, and tape recordings of two men plotting a murder. However, the jurors who acquitted Robert explained later that they were not convinced that it was Robert's voice on the tape recordings.

After the verdict, the Harris County district attorney's office reluctantly agreed to return to Robert half of the $3.4 million that had been seized from him during the homicide probe. Then-D.A. Johnny Holmes Jr. also referred the case to federal authorities pursuing possible illegal gambling and/or tax evasion charges against Angleton. A federal grand jury began hearing testimony last November, and it now appears the panel is looking at more than the gambling and tax evasion aspects of the case.

The other key figure in the case, Roger Angleton, never made it to trial -- either his own or his brother's. He committed suicide in his jail cell, leaving behind notes in which he claimed he had framed his brother as part of a shakedown for money. However, federal grand jurors apparently are now interested in listening to some tape recordings of Roger reportedly telling a different story to writer Leggett when he was in jail in Nevada.

None of what Roger said to Leggett has been made public. Leggett discussed with at least three news outlets, including the Houston Press, the idea of publishing her story on the Angleton case in advance of her book. So far, none of her material has appeared in print, and her book has yet to be published. Late last week Leggett was still pondering what to do about a ruling by U.S. District Judge Melinda Harmon ordering her to appear -- with her notes and tapes -- before the federal grand jury this Thursday.

"I want to say something, because if it can help me, I want help," said Leggett last week. "I just don't know how much I could say, or what I should say or anything. I don't know. I'm just feeling sick to my stomach right now."

Nausea notwithstanding, this is not the first time Leggett, who may be the most prolific Houston true-crime writer never published, has been in this position. In fact, she testified before the federal grand jury last December, albeit sans notes and tapes. She also testified in the 1997 probate trial of convicted killer Robert Coulson. A jury assessed $25.6 million in damages against Coulson to prevent him from profiting from the 1992 slaying of his family. Leggett also claimed to be writing a book about the Coulson case. It, too, has yet to be published.

As for the Angleton case, Leggett says prosecutors are indeed looking at Angleton not only for tax evasion and money laundering but murder as well. She says they will claim jurisdiction because Roger crossed state lines when he allegedly hired his brother to kill his wife.

Leggett says she is trying to decide whether to appeal Judge Harmon's ruling to the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.

"I don't have the money," says Leggett. "That's the problem. And I don't have a publisher behind me. I'm feeling just very helpless right now. And I don't know what to do.

"This book has basically sunk me. I feel like the more I've found out, the more trouble I've gotten. It makes me never want to write nonfiction again."

Leading the investigation is Assistant U.S. Attorney Terry Clark, who headed the successful murder prosecution of polygamist cult leader Aaron LeBaron in 1997. Clark did not return calls from the Press. However, attorney Mike Ramsey, who represents Angleton, says he believes forcing Leggett to surrender her notes and tapes is a violation of the First Amendment, although he also calls it "a tempest in a teapot" since Leggett previously turned over her interview material to the state grand jury. Those tapes are already in the hands of federal authorities. Ramsey also has no doubt about which way the feds are coming at his client.

"They're going to retry the murder case," says Ramsey. "That's No. 1. Now, they'll do anything else they can do. They'll reach for taxes. They'll reach for money laundering. They'll reach for all the traditional federal things."

Ramsey maintains that federal authorities may be reluctant to go after Angleton on the tax or money laundering issues. That's because Angleton also has done some informing for federal investigators as well as HPD, Ramsey says. He refuses to say which cases Angleton has worked for federal authorities.

Harris County District Attorney Chuck Rosenthal, who took office after his predecessor's decision to refer the case to federal authorities, was out of the office last week and not available for comment.

The Justice Department would be violating its own internal policy by prosecuting Angleton after he's already been acquitted by a state jury, Ramsey insists. He points specifically to what is known as the department's Petite policy, which sets out guidelines to determine whether to bring prosecution in cases already handled in other state or federal proceedings. According to a June 6, 2000, article in the New York Law Journal, "The policy precludes such a prosecution unless the matter involves a substantial federal interest which was demonstrably unvindicated in the prior proceeding, and the government believes that the defendant's conduct constitutes a federal offense as to which there is probably sufficient evidence to sustain a conviction." The article goes on to say that an assistant U.S. attorney general must approve any such prosecution under the Petite policy.

"That means that they are not supposed to reprosecute after state acquittal unless there are extenuating circumstances," says Ramsey, "and there are none. It's just that the D.A.'s office got a bloody nose and doesn't like to lose."

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