The controversial jailhouse snitch nicknamed "The Rock" has moved one year closer to freedom as his reward for helping to send Ronald Jeffery Prible to death row.
Michael Glynn Beckcom, a former steroid-shooting bodybuilder convicted of participating in the execution-style murder of a federal witness, gained a 12-month reduction in his ten-year term and is now headed for release in about four years.
He had testified that fellow inmate Prible confessed to him about shooting a Houston couple and then torching their house. Two of the couple's young children and another girl also died in that 1999 blaze (see "The Devil You Say," December 5).
Terry Gaiser, Prible's trial attorney, accused Beckcom of fabricating the testimony in a blatant effort to gain his freedom. Gaiser was somewhat surprised that the payoff for Beckcom was only a one-year reduction, but he compared the convict to a worm edging his way to release.
"The worm moves inch by inch," Gaiser said. "That may not seem like much, but that's the way the worm moves. That's still one more year that he won't now have to serve."
Beckcom had become a veteran informant over the years. The Prible case was the fourth time he had appeared in a trial as a witness for the prosecution, in exchange for leniency in his own case.
Prible prosecutors Kelly Siegler and Vic Wisner were on vacation last week and unavailable for comment. Federal court records showed that, in the bid for the reduced sentence for their star witness, Siegler had told the government that Beckcom's testimony "was truthful, articulate and crucial in obtaining a conviction."
Siegler told jurors in the Prible case that Beckcom was despicable but that a deal with him was necessary to bring the murderer of the five Houston victims to justice. She said the only conditions were that she would put in a good word for him with his judge if he was truthful in his testimony.
Beckcom, 41, is a former Houstonian who had been in trouble with the law for receiving stolen goods and dealing cocaine. He went to work in the mid-'90s as bodyguard and aide -- some say "enforcer" -- for Corpus Christi-area businessman Mark Crawford, a former mayor of Ingleside.
In 1996, they and Beckcom's friend Kirk Johnson were charged with killing Crawford business associate Nick Brueggen, shortly after they learned he was turning federal informant in an investigation of Crawford's businesses.
Johnson and Beckcom both became prosecution witnesses against Crawford, but their conflicting stories led one state jury to deadlock and the second to acquit Crawford.
Then the federal government got involved and sidelined Johnson as a witness, leaving Beckcom as their star in a trial that netted a federal murder conviction against Crawford and various other fraud-related charges against him and others associated with his shady businesses.
U.S. District Judge Oliver Wanger concluded that Beckcom had lied in some parts of his statements and testimony against his former boss. The judge did agree with the prosecution to limit his sentence for retaliation against a witness by murder to the same ten years he got in the deal with the state on that murder plea.
While in prison in Beaumont, Beckcom befriended Prible, who had received a term of about five years after confessing to a series of Houston bank robberies in 1999. He told officers he turned the robbery proceeds over to his friend Esteban "Steve" Herrera Jr. because they planned to use that loot -- along with money Herrera made by dealing drugs -- to open a nightclub.
However, Herrera and his girlfriend had been shot to death and set ablaze in a fire that killed the three children sleeping at their house. Prible was the last known person to see them alive and became the prime suspect, but authorities had little more than that circumstantial evidence to link him to the crimes.
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Then Beckcom contacted Siegler and said Prible had repeatedly referred to the killings in their conversations, saying he'd used his U.S. Marine training to murder the couple. Prosecutors referred to Beckcom's details about the killings as proof that Prible had confessed to Beckcom. Some other inmates, as well as defense lawyers Gaiser and Kurt Wentz, said Prible's penchant for discussing his defense -- and for sharing various court documents -- made it easy for a scheming Beckcom to fabricate a supposed confession.
In arguing later for a one-year reduction for Beckcom, Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Cullers told Wanger that it was justified because of the convict "voluntarily coming forward with information which directly led to the conviction of a multiple murderer, and his truthful and important testimony at trial that resulted in the conviction "
Prible's appeal is expected to sharply challenge the authenticity of the confession. Gaiser said he has some regrets that Beckcom did not gain an outright release, as he's the one person who could get Prible off death row if he recanted his testimony.
"Of course, Beckcom will never do it while he's in the joint," Gaiser said. "So, in one way, it is too bad he didn't get out now."