The Devil You Say

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

In May 1996, Brueggen's body was found in a shallow pit and Crawford had disappeared, only to be arrested while hiding in a small camper in Biloxi, Mississippi. Kirk Johnson, a friend of Beckcom's, was the first to confess to authorities. He said Beckcom had recruited him, promising to pay him $2,500 to help "sit on somebody" for his boss.

Only days before Crawford and Beckcom were to be tried for capital murder, Beckcom hammered out a deal with prosecutors to testify against his former benefactor. Beckcom and Johnson both took the witness stand to tell how Crawford forced Brueggen at gunpoint to climb into a box. The two went to a discount store to buy Beckcom's favorite snack, pistachios, along with a hose and other materials used to pump exhaust from Beckcom's Ford Explorer into the box to execute Brueggen.

Nearby Rockport eagerly awaited the summer trial, conveniently held in the high school auditorium after the courthouse air conditioning failed. Crowds were entertained by the apparent hit men's colorful mob terms -- guns, for example, were "artillery." And they were appalled by details of the cold-blooded killing.

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.

But it soon became apparent that the state had erred badly in cutting the deals with the two enforcers. They heavily implicated Crawford and each other, while describing their own roles as those of virtual bystanders.

Beckcom admitted he first told investigators he only picked up trash outside the small building where Brueggen was gassed. Then he admitted that, well, yes, he went in. Was Beckcom armed? Of course not. Okay, so maybe he had a gun, he conceded; but he was just bringing it back to Crawford.

Crawford defense attorney Bill May was incredulous: "When you say you went in and you'd pulled out your gun, it wasn't because you were going to point it at anybody. You were just returning your gun and just happened to be in the middle of a kidnapping?"

"Correct," Beckcom answered.

After hearing the mishmash of testimony and Crawford's defense that he was with relatives at the time, jurors deadlocked. When the case was retried in San Antonio later in 1997, the deals with Johnson and Beckcom backfired even more -- jurors acquitted Crawford.

Finally, it went to the feds. The government assessed the star-crossed witnesses and relegated Johnson to the sidelines. With Beckcom now polished in his third round on the witness stand, Crawford was convicted of the murder and, along with several associates, found guilty of conspiracy and fraud and related crimes in various business dealings.

Johnson walked away from the state murder charge with ten years' probation. Beckcom faced U.S. District Judge Oliver Wanger for his sentencing in Fresno, California, in February 2000.

"The jury believed you in part. The court believed you in part," Wanger said. "But there were certainly areas where you gave false statements either to the investigating officers or your testimony on the witness stand was false." The judge ended up accepting the prosecution's motion for ten years in prison for a crime that could have put him on death row.

Wanger also allowed him to serve his term in the Beaumont federal prison, near his family -- and even closer to another young inmate named Prible. The Rock and his young friend -- and the rest of the convicts, for that matter -- knew there is only one way to gain an early release: become a so-called jailhouse snitch.

Jeffery Prible himself was hardly naive when it came to the early exit opportunities. He'd passed along information that connected authorities to a drug ring based in California. Five suspects were arrested and about 65 pounds of crystal meth were seized in an investigation stemming from his inside tip.

On May 31, 2001, U.S. District Judge Melinda Harmon considered his assistance and, on the recommendation of prosecutors, slashed Prible's 63-month robbery sentence to 36 months.

But he was hardly on his way out the door. Within five weeks -- on the day after Independence Day -- the state charged him with capital murder in the Herrera killings. A lengthy probable cause warrant prepared by sheriff's detective Curtis Brown detailed the crimes and the investigation.

Prible was the last person known to have been with the family before the shootings and fire. His DNA was detected in Tirado's mouth; he'd admitted having oral sex with her -- he said it was consensual. He was a confessed bank robber, but evidence seemed scant at best about the slayings.

The mystery of the murder weapon continued; Brown's affidavit said the slug recovered next to Tirado is consistent with a .38-caliber projectile. Officers seized several weapons from his residence, but there was no .38 among them. However, Prible had once bought a .38-caliber Taurus from Carter's Country gun shop, although authorities hadn't located that gun.

Capital murder charges did serve to elevate Prible's reputation in prison, and he hardly shielded his situation from other convicts. He openly approached inmates to discuss the case and ask how he could defend himself against the charges.

Brian Maurice Fuller, a Wichita Falls antique dealer, lived in Prible's prison housing unit until he completed his 136-month term for money laundering, conspiracy and aiding and abetting. He winced while retelling how he kept cautioning Prible to stay quiet about the case because there "are always eyes and ears" in prison -- regardless of a convict's innocence or guilt. Fuller said he finally refused Prible's regular requests to discuss his case.

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