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Pick a heroine for the lead role in a national judicial showdown on the rights of journalists to protect sources, and you couldn't get much worse than self-styled Houston crime writer-without-portfolio Vanessa LeVrier Leggett.
After years of promoting herself as a soon-to-be-published author investigating assorted spectacular murder cases, Leggett has finally found a national stage as a jailed media Joan of Arc. Without ever publishing a word, she's become a household name, at least with news junkies.
In truth,her real vocation in the recent past is that of private investigator and college lecturer -- not the budding journalist and book author she and her lawyer have portrayed her as in a string of interviews on national newscasts and talk shows.
Attorney Mike DeGeurin argued her right to protections traditionally accorded to journalists before a panel of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals last week in Houston. But he never mentioned to the justices that his client had previously been on his payroll as an investigator.
After chewing up DeGeurin during the oral presentation, the conservative jurists upheld Leggett's jailing.
Leggett catapulted from unpublished unknown to celebrated media defender when she refused U.S. District Judge Melinda Harmon's order to comply with a federal grand jury subpoena to turn over her research material on the 1997 River Oaks murder of Doris Angleton. The 33-year-old Leggett entered jail at the federal detention center July 20 and could be in as long as 18 months for contempt.
Leggett says she has more than 200 hours of taped interviews with the late Roger Angleton, the brother of Mrs. Angleton's estranged husband Robert and the admitted killer. Roger's attorney, Jim Skelton, was a friend of Leggett's and introduced the two. After extensive interviews with Leggett, he committed suicide in his Houston jail cell. He left behind a note denying state charges that he'd been hired by Robert to kill Mrs. Angleton.
Robert, a bookmaker to the wealthy, got an acquittal in his murder trial. Federal authorities then opened a new probe of the killing and related crimes. Despite having turned over transcripts of the Angleton tapes to state prosecutors, Leggett was targeted by a catch-all federal subpoena demanding everything she had accumulated on the Angleton case.
Leggett and DeGeurin argue she is entitled to First Amendment protections afforded working journalists. While she has no track record as a published journalist, Leggett stated on a résumé to the University of Houston-Downtown that she was licensed by the state in 1995 as a private investigator. Her résumé said she has been a private eye for the Houston firm Creg Hargis and Associates.
The Society for Professional Journalists and other media organizations have embraced Leggett's case and filed legal briefs on her behalf. They have not addressed the contradictions inherent in her dual role as a journalist wanna-be and paid professional investigator. Legitimate newspeople do not moonlight as private eyes peddling their skills to clients.
She also has a master's degree in liberal arts from the University of St. Thomas. UH-Downtown hired her five years ago as an adjunct professor- lecturer for technical writing and criminology courses. At that time, Leggett described her areas of investigative expertise as those that included "internal theft, commercial bribery, product counterfeiting, theft of intellectual property, and proprietary information."
Michael Dressman, UH-D dean of humanities and social sciences, says Leggett was hired as an adjunct lecturer initially to teach business, and technical and legal writing. Using her qualifications as a private investigator, she later taught in the school's Criminal Justice department. Leggett earned approximately $2,000 per semester per course, and usually taught one or two courses a semester. She is currently not scheduled to teach next fall.
Investigator Creg Hargis met Leggett in 1994 during the Robert Coulson investigation, another high-profile murder case about which she claimed to be writing a book entitled "Unnatural Affections." Hargis was an investigator for attorney Skelton in that case, and he decided Leggett would be an asset as an investigator for the firm.
"She just seemed to have the aptitude and the mental wherewithal to do well at the kinds of investigations I do," recalls Hargis. He says her PI work for the firm involved civil litigation, and tracking down and interviewing witnesses. He registered her with the state as a private eye.
"She did great work," remembers Hargis. "She's a really good interviewer, I mean, she does really well at that. She's very tenacious and will stay after it till it gets done."
Mike DeGeurin confirmed that Leggett has done investigative work for his law firm, but refused to discuss the cases she had worked on or the type of investigations.
As to whether her role as investigator compromises her claims to be a legitimate journalist, DeGeurin put himself in his client's shoes.
"It's not like I'm writing a book and I'll sell my information to a lawyer investigating the case. There's a difference [between that and] when you're running the background on someone."
Skelton says he warned Leggett early on that she would have trouble protecting the confidentiality of her research in the Angleton case.
"I told her when she was doing all the talking with Roger, and told both of them, that if she ever got subpoenaed before a grand jury she'd probably have to divulge the information," remembers Skelton. He was surprised Leggett was not called to testify in the state trial of Robert Angleton.
"They saw each other on an almost daily basis when he was in jail here," recalls Skelton. "She knew more about Roger than any living human being on the planet."
Lyn McClellan, the assistant Harris County District Attorney who was co- prosecutor in the Angleton trial, says there was no way to use either Leggett or her tapes in the state case. The tapes, contends McClellan, amount to hearsay from a dead man that could not have been introduced without turning the murder trial into the Vanessa Leggett soap opera.
"They were going to cross-examine her for days, and it was going to be made into a sideshow. In our opinion that was going to do as much harm as good."
"I'd love to try the case again," says McClellan wistfully, "but I'd never come close to putting Leggett or any of that stuff in there." McClellan can't understand the federal strategy in going after Leggett's files, since he believes they are unusable as court evidence.
Leggett's interview techniques are not quite those taught in journalism school. According to McClellan, Leggett told prosecutors that Roger Angleton told her to stop tape-recording their sensitive conversations in jail. So she shut off her visible tape recorder for his benefit -- and tricked him by continuing to tape with a recorder hidden in her purse. Such behavior might be S.O.P. for a private investigator but is clearly in violation of journalistic ethics.
Asked his opinion of Leggett's status as a journalist, McClellan laughs. "We've both published the same amount. She hasn't published anything and neither have I."
Another prosecutor in the Angleton case, Ted Wilson, has authored a book on search and seizure. Quips McClellan: "He's more of a journalist than she may be."
Both the Houston Press and the Houston Chronicle rejected accounts Leggett wrote of the Angleton case. While a Chronicle editorial described her as "a credible magazine journalist," her contacts with Texas Monthly never resulted in either a bylined story or payment for work.
TM Executive Editor Skip Hollandsworth recalls encountering Leggett when he was writing on the Angleton murder. He was impressed with her sources. When Leggett claimed she could get an interview with Roger Angleton, who was then being held in Las Vegas, Hollandsworth gave her an introductory letter to Nevada authorities designating her as representing TM.(The Press also furnished her with a similar letter.) Leggett paid her own way to Nevada but never got the interview, and Hollandsworth wrote his story without Leggett's assistance.
After her subsequent jailhouse interviews with Angleton, Hollandsworth suggested that she write a story for the magazine. Leggett never followed through with it, he says. That seems to be the extent of her track record as a magazine journalist.
When Leggett got the federal subpoena, Skelton says she turned to him for advice. He told her, " 'Vanessa, I don't think this is going to work.' Then she hired some media [attorney] who blew a bunch of smoke up her skirt. After the hearing when Harmon said, 'You've got to turn it over,' she called me and said, 'Is what she said right?' And I said, 'Yeah.' "
Skelton keeps up an almost daily correspondence with the jailed Leggett. In a recent note, Skelton wrote the detainee: "You may be the only person in the world who gets a book published and an agent because you got your ass thrown in jail."
While he likes Leggett as a person, Skelton has trouble accepting her defense as a print journalist.
"I just didn't think that she qualified as that, and I've always discouraged it I've just never been optimistic about her chances of being able to stay out of jail and not disclose the information."