The Devil You Say

Was Jeffery Prible the cold-blooded murderer of an entire family? Or the gullible target of an opportunistic jailhouse informant?

His words didn't satisfy detectives, but they had nothing to charge him with -- at least at that point.

Shane McCoy, a tall sheriff's detective with a slow Jimmy Stewart voice, answered the phone in the office he'd been assigned to since 1994: the multi-agency Houston Area Bank Robbery Task Force. An investigator who had been working the Herrera murders wanted to relay a conversation he'd had with Jamie Lyons, a woman who had been having an affair with Herrera.

Prosecutors taunted Prible about his looks at the trial.
Prosecutors taunted Prible about his looks at the trial.
Beckcom (left rear) admitted arranging a Thanksgiving photo with Prible and their mothers to show he was his confidant.
Beckcom (left rear) admitted arranging a Thanksgiving photo with Prible and their mothers to show he was his confidant.

Rumors were that Herrera's buddy Prible had been robbing banks. In fact, the young woman told how Prible had once brought Herrera a sack of cash bound in paper wrappers like those used by banks. Nobody believed the explanation that the money was meant to pay for a car, because they knew Prible didn't have one. Another friend would talk about how Herrera presented him with aging $100 bills for a dope buy -- which looked like the traceable money banks would hand over to robbers.

McCoy got a mug shot of Prible and compared it to those taken from surveillance cameras of the 15-Minute Bandit.

It was a dead-on match.

Prible's distinctive features, particularly those deep-set eyes, left no doubts. Six of six robbed tellers picked Prible from photo lineups. Some of Prible's own relatives identified him when shown a cropped photograph taken from the bank cameras. His mother broke into tears at the image.

"Jeff made a mistake, a stupid mistake, when he robbed those banks," his sister, Angela Beacham, wrote later. "He didn't even know how to rob a bank. He went in dressed in normal everyday clothes, his face showing plain as day, and [he] stood in line."

On May 21, 1999, McCoy took Prible in and had his confession less than an hour later. Prible said Herrera advised him it would be easy for him to rob banks because tellers "were trained to do what they were told during a robbery."

"After doing this enough times, Steve [Herrera] said that we would have enough money to buy the club," his confession said. "After we bought one club, we would then open some more." The statement ended with his saying that Herrera had been taking care of the money, although the $1,300 found in the burned house didn't match with any holdup loot.

"I trusted Steve with the money, and I thought that he could use his drug connections to make us a lot of money," Prible told the cops. "Steve was a smart guy when it came to things like that."

By the end of September, Prible was on his way to federal prison in Beaumont to begin serving a term of about five years for the robberies. Relatives had pleaded for a light sentence.

"Jeff has always been affectionate, loving, hugging, kissing all kin," his grandmother, Ethel Prible, told the sentencing judge. "I know he has been a troubled boy for a while. I begged him to go to the VA hospital, but he told me he was not crazy." She explained that he'd suffered from insomnia and he "talked too fast." Prible had a prescription for Valium, and was put on Prozac before his arrest.

He was described as a model prisoner, and by 2000 Prible wrote his former attorney: "I am anxious to get back home to my family and put this behind me and go on with my life."

In the meantime, the guy who had picked a small-time drug dealer as a confidant would soon find a new friend, a popular inmate who preferred to be known inside prison as "The Rock" or "Rocko."

By 2001, Michael Glynn Beckcom was a big man -- literally -- at the Beaumont federal prison. On the outside, he'd pumped iron and shot testosterone and steroids to bulk up his already brawny build. And he was doing time for the prime crime to command respect behind bars: murder.

"Interstate murder-for-hire -- tough guy," as fellow inmate Brent Liedtke described him.

He grew up in the Port Arthur area and had been in and out of legal problems. Beckcom was convicted for receiving stolen goods in 1986, then had his probation revoked three years later when he stepped up to dealing cocaine. By 1993 he was in the Houston area -- he said he played guitar at a jazz club and managed a Gold's Gym.

That changed when an associate introduced him to flamboyant Mark Crawford, from the hamlet of Ingleside near Corpus Christi.

A former welder whose construction business soared, Crawford kept a Bible tucked under his arm as he campaigned for Ingleside mayor in 1988, defeating the beer-drinking incumbent, Roy Culver. After four years as mayor and an unsuccessful run for the state legislature, Crawford found a fortune in the fresh field of employee leasing companies. He amassed exotic cars and aircraft, a huge house stocked with his own mistress and other trappings of wealth -- some of it in questionable enterprises.

Beckcom went on his company payroll in a job that was described as Crawford's bodyguard and go-to guy. And Crawford needed him by 1996. IRS agents had seized many of his assets in a tax dispute. Worse yet, he heard that a key business partner, Nick Brueggen, was about to turn federal informant.

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