Dead Man Talking
Ben Guillory is a nervous wreck. Sitting in a purple chair around the blond wood conference table at the Houston Press offices, Guillory fears for his life. He is a desperate man who sees the paper as his last hope.
It's early February, and Guillory has just come from the law office of Dick DeGuerin. The high-profile criminal defense attorney told Guillory there was nothing he can do for him except advise him to hide in plain sight -- convince some journalist to write a story about his situation. In DeGuerin's opinion, the publicity might provide Guillory a bit of protection from the people he is convinced are plotting to do him in. Now, after an introductory call to a reporter from the attorney, Guillory finds himself at the offices of the Press.
Guillory explains that his journey into a state of constant paranoia began last October when he contacted the local office of the Drug Enforcement Administration. Guillory, an admitted illegal-drug user in the past, says he was concerned about drug sales to and use by children, so he offered to give narcotics agents information about dealers in his far east Harris County neighborhood. Guillory agreed to help set up transactions between the dealers and DEA agents, and he even claims that he became a registered informant. His only caveat was that when it came time to make the busts, it be done in such a way that the suspects not realize he had narced on them. But instead, Guillory charges, the DEA dropped him in the grease. He says threats have been made on his life. He is convinced it's only a matter of time before he's murdered.
After spending an hour or so listening to his story, you come away with the distinct impression that Guillory might have indulged in illicit substances a few times too many. He rambles. He digresses. He whispers of conspiracies involving former presidents and foreign countries. He acknowledges having been busted for marijuana possession in his home state of Louisiana. Occasionally he weeps as he talks about kids and drugs. He also reveals that he is currently taking a shopping list of prescription medications for work-related injuries, as well as antidepressants. It's tempting to simply dismiss Guillory as someone who needs a psychiatrist instead of a journalist.
Guillory contends his dream to help the children of his neighborhood turned into a nightmare this past December when he arranged for undercover agents to purchase a large amount of marijuana from some of his eastside contacts. He says the deal went down December 13 in the parking lot of the Wal-Mart on the East Freeway. That led to a raid on a house on Falling Tree Court in northeast Harris County. In all, five people were arrested. The problem, says Guillory, was that DEA officials, who did not return phone calls from the Press, promised him that there would be no busts, that the agents would make several buys before finally bringing down the hammer, in order to provide Guillory some cover. It didn't play out that way. The dealers were arrested, and Guillory says he's recently been told there is a contract out on him.
As unbelievable as the story sounds, significant elements of it do pass the pee test. A check of criminal charges on file in the Harris County district clerk's office confirms that on December 13 members of the Harris County Organized Crime and Narcotics Task Force, of which the DEA is a participant, arrested five people and seized 2,000 pounds of marijuana in connection with raids at the same Wal-Mart and the house on Falling Tree Court. Suddenly, Guillory sounds much more credible.
"Now, I'm a walking dead man," says the stocky, graying and fidgeting 50-year-old Cajun with pathetic hangdog eyes and salt-and-pepper mustache. "And what bothers me is that I'm dead because I tried to help the kids. And it's all the fault of all those people over there at the DEA."
If he is nothing else, Ben Guillory is a talker. By his own assessment, the Louisiana native is more than a little obstinate, and extremely opinionated. Indeed, he ended up in Houston, he says, "because of my mouth." That orifice, which seems to rarely take a break, has obviously kept him in trouble here. Because much of the time when Guillory is running his mouth, he is usually holding forth on doing the "right" thing: saving the kids, exposing union corruption, and ridding his eastside neighborhood of the dealers whose drugs he has consumed. The problem for Guillory is that, sometimes, people just don't want to hear it.
During a brief departure from his main story line about being a marked man, Guillory reminisces about growing up in a shotgun shack on a 14.5-acre farm in southwest Louisiana. The closest town was a small community called Iowa (pronounced "I-oh-way"). His father provided the family with laundry water by exploding dynamite on the property.
"We used to haul water out of those dynamite holes so my mother could do the washing," says Guillory. "Our drinking water and our water for cooking came from a water cistern built on the side of the house. I was about six or seven when we finally had a well dug."
But according to Guillory, he almost didn't live long enough to see the well. Sort of like the song by Lucinda Williams, Guillory as a small child was fascinated by the sound of car wheels on a gravel road. But one day, as he lay on the running board listening to the gravel hit the underside of the vehicle, there was an accident, and the car ran over Guillory. He suffered multiple broken bones, and the hide was ripped from the left side of his face.
During the recovery period, Guillory had an extended stay in a body cast. The doctors didn't think he would live. Over the years, he went from crawling around like a lizard in his cast to, by the age of 15, running sub-four-minute miles for his high school track team, a claim that again clouds his credibility. By that time, his family had moved to Westlake, Louisiana, just across the Calcasieu River from Lake Charles. Although he excelled in distance running, he had trouble with his teachers. He blames it on a reading problem: He read too much. When textbooks were handed out at the beginning of the semester, Guillory would take them and read them cover to cover in a matter of weeks. The practice, he says, upset his teachers, who didn't like him getting so far ahead of the other students.
While Guillory was still in high school, his father obtained a carpenter's union work permit for him. Guillory had found his calling. He loved construction, and he loved the union. But once again, Guillory eventually met with resistance.
"I was always speaking up," he says, adding that he would often accompany the union chief to the state capital to lobby for workers' rights. The chief "loved the way I talked, the way I explained things to people, because I was very passionate about it."
But following the passing of his union ally, Guillory's passion for doing the right thing soon pitted him against an up-and-coming union representative who, according to Guillory, wasn't opposed to cutting a corner here or taking a kickback there. When he revealed this to higher-ups in the guild, Guillory maintains, he was blackballed and forced to relocate to Houston, where he went into the car-detailing business. That ended when the Environmental Protection Agency told him to make changes in the operation or shut down. Guillory chose to close his shop following a back injury that has left him disabled today. At the same time that his career as an auto detailer was ending, Guillory was beginning a long-term relationship with Helen Hum. It was Hum, says Guillory, who introduced him to the people who now want him dead.
When it came to Helen Hum, for once Ben Guillory kept his mouth shut. This time he let his food do the talking. It would get him in trouble, too.
In early 1988 Guillory was living on State Highway 249 across the street from a salvage yard where damaged cars are auctioned. While there, he became friends with a wrecker driver who was dating Hum, an olive-complected woman with dark black hair and a round face. One day Guillory invited the couple and some of his neighbors over for a meal.
"I cooked a pot of crawfish, and she came over," says Guillory. "Then I barbecued some ribs, and she came over. Every time I cooked, she was coming over more and more often. She loved my cooking, and that's how we got together."
That June, Guillory and Hum moved in together, first into an apartment on Greens Road in north Houston. About four years later they relocated to a modest but pleasant house in Galena Park just south of Interstate 10 East. It was there that he began meeting the people he now fears. Although Hum denies it, Guillory claims one of her male friends introduced him to several people who also lived in the eastside neighborhood. Those people, he charges, turned out to be drug dealers.
"Once we moved in there, he started bringing all of his friends and relatives over to the house because he loved my cooking," says Guillory, who specializes in Cajun, Mexican and Chinese recipes. "They were all constantly eating."
That is, when they weren't smoking dope or snorting cocaine, he says. At first that didn't really bother Guillory much. In return for cooking, he was given drugs for free. His attitude changed when the regular visitors began bringing friends and relatives who were in their teens and younger. The fact that the youths were allowed to partake of the illegal substances offended Guillory's sensibilities. He became even more outraged after learning that some of the kids were given drugs to sell at school -- some of them by their parents in lieu of an allowance.
"That's when I really started looking around," he says. "They all loved my cooking, and that's how I got to know everybody. And that's how I got to find out who was who."
Guillory decided to contact the DEA. In October of last year Guillory simply pulled out the telephone book, found the main number for the agency's local headquarters, called it and asked to speak to an agent. Guillory says he was connected to an agent who agreed to meet him at the McDonald's on Post Oak Boulevard. There, Guillory reported the rest of the details. According to Guillory, the agent told him that he stood to make a considerable amount of money as an informant if his allegations proved true but that the DEA would need the names and addresses of suspects before he could be put on the payroll.
Guillory did as requested. He also learned about shipments of marijuana and coke headed to the Houston area. DEA officials apparently were impressed with the information, as Guillory claims he was officially signed up as a registered informant. He went into the DEA office and had his mug shot and fingerprints taken. But from the beginning, he had a bad feeling about the arrangement.
"It kind of put me off," says Guillory, "because it was as if I was a criminal about to be put in jail."
After becoming a full-fledged informant in October, Guillory went to work gathering information about planned drug transactions and shipments in Houston. Guillory says he was instructed to report to agents Brian Brockman and Dan Neal, and he began having meetings with the two men at the Jack in the Box on San Felipe at the West Loop. Over a period of several weeks, Guillory told the agents about various deals -- some involving cocaine, some marijuana -- but his DEA contacts didn't move on the tips. In early December Guillory heard about a load of pot headed from Houston to Tennessee that seemed to interest Brockman, but he says the agent later blew it off, opting for a long weekend instead.
Finally, about a week later, Guillory told the agents that some of the eastside people he knew were looking to do business in Louisiana -- a place where, Guillory contends, many drug dealers fear to tread because of an active interstate interdiction program. This time the DEA was immediately interested, and Guillory was instructed to set up a 200-pound marijuana buy, putting his eastside source in touch with a DEA agent posing as a pot dealer in Louisiana. Guillory agreed, but on the condition that no arrests would be made, so that the targets wouldn't know he had set them up.
"Because if you arrest anybody, I'm dead," Guillory says he told the agents. "No ifs, ands or buts about it. I'm dead."
Guillory says the agents assured him that no arrests would be made, that two or three buys would go down before anyone was busted. But it didn't play out that way.
On December 13 members of the Harris County Organized Crime and Narcotics Task Force converged on the parking lot of the Wal-Mart, where they seized an undetermined amount of marijuana. They also arrested three of Guillory's alleged eastside associates. Charged with possession of marijuana were 25-year-old Ruben Benavides, 21-year-old Petra Muñez and 42-year-old Diana Barrera, all of Houston. The charges against Muñez eventually were dropped. Additionally, charges of possession of 2,000 pounds of marijuana were filed against 22-year-old Mexico native Raymundo Gonzales, most recently of Rio Grande City, Texas, while Jose Maria Galvan, 19, of Roma, Texas, was charged with delivery of marijuana. Of the five, the Press was able to reach only Barrera, who acknowledged being arrested but denied knowing anyone by the name of Ben Guillory.
A couple of days after the bust, Guillory says, he again met at the Jack in the Box with Brockman and Neal, who gave him $750 as compensation for his role in the takedown. Guillory was horrified to find out that arrests had been made. He wasn't especially pleased to get $750 for his trouble, either.
"They said, 'This is a lot of money,' " recalls Guillory, who begged to differ. The agents also allegedly told him not to worry about being identified as a snitch -- that he should just go right back among his friends and act as if nothing had happened. But almost immediately he began to receive threats on his life. The threats, he says, were relayed to him through Hum's male friend, the person who had first introduced Guillory to the drug dealers. That contact was concerned for his own safety as well as Guillory's. Guillory was told that the people arrested knew that he had fingered them and that they were going to get revenge.
Guillory went into a panic. To be identified as a snitch is an informant's worst nightmare, and one from which the informant sometimes does not wake. As reported in the Miami New Times, the Press's sister paper, in the early 1990s during a Miami cocaine conspiracy trial, both prosecutors and defense attorneys presented evidence that clearly showed that Bernardo Gonzalez was the man who had turned on his friends and tipped law enforcement officials to a suspect's hideout. The next day, both Gonzalez and his brother were killed in what was described by police as a professional hit. What Guillory fears is indeed real; it doesn't just happen in movies.
When Guillory reported his problem to the agents, he says, they were less than sympathetic. So he turned to defense attorney DeGuerin for help. Unfortunately for Guillory, DeGuerin told him there's little he can do for anyone who decides to lie down with the DEA.
"I could tell when he first came in that the guy was scared," says DeGuerin. "And what concerns me, not only about him personally, because I am concerned about him, [is that] he could have very easily been dealt with by DEA in such a manner that his story never would have surfaced. But I'm also worried that there must be a number of other people like him that they just throw away like so much used toilet paper."
DeGuerin suggested to Guillory that he find someone to do a story on him because, he says, "I've always been of the opinion that a high profile is the best protection you have against retaliation. I've always been of the opinion that if you're being blackmailed, the best thing to do is take out an ad about whatever you're afraid of being exposed so they can't expose it. I think the best protection is his being public about it. Then, if anything does happen to him, it will be pretty easy to find out who did it. And whoever might want to do something might be more reluctant to do so because his story is well known.
"That includes not the just the persons he may have informed against," says DeGuerin, "but the DEA. They are the ones from whom I'd expect the real retaliation."
During a recent telephone conversation taped by Guillory, with someone who identifies himself as DEA agent Tony Scott, Guillory expressed a similar concern. During the call, apparently made by Scott in response to a complaint filed by Guillory with the local DEA, the voice purporting to be Scott asks the informant to come to the agency's headquarters to get to the bottom of the matter. The result is a circular discussion nearly 20 minutes long during which Guillory repeatedly objects to the idea of agent Brockman attending the meeting:
Scott: Sir, we are going to try and get to the bottom of it. So if you come down here, you can be interviewed, and we can continue on and do what we have to do.
Guillory: I will be there, but I am truly afraid of Mr. Brockman.
Scott: There is no reason to be afraid of Mr. Brockman.
Guillory: Mr. Brockman is the one who put my life in danger. And he's going to set it up where there will be some type of accident.
Scott: Sir, nobody's going to set up anything where there's going to be any type of accident. And most of all Mr. Brockman. Okay? Please come in so we can get this set up. That's all I'm going to tell you. You don't have to fear Mr. Brockman. He's not going to do anything to put your life in danger.
Guillory: He already has. He's the one who has put my life in danger as it is now. My life is in danger at this time. And it is because of Brockman.
Scott: Sir, if you come in here and speak to us, that's that.
Guillory: Yes, sir. Yes, sir.
Guillory: So y'all are giving me up.
Scott: Did I say we were giving you up, sir? Nobody's giving you up. I'm telling you to come in here so you can be interviewed about these threats you feel have been made against your life.
Guillory: It's not that I feel they have been made.
Scott: That's what you're going to be interviewed regarding. So we can go through some follow-up on whoever you said made the threats. We do our follow-up investigation. Okay? And we can do what we have to do to make sure the threats are gone against your life.
Guillory: Well, I guess I might as well go ahead and write a last will and testament. With Brian Brockman there, I'm as good as dead.
Despite Guillory's foreboding, he did show up for the meeting. In a windowless, subterranean interrogation room with a concrete floor, in the bowels of the building's parking garage, Guillory says, a female agent and Brockman asked him questions from a prepared list for about an hour. The only interruption, he says, came when a supervising officer walked into the room and ordered the female agent to destroy the tape recording that Guillory was making of the meeting. Afterward, the informant felt more vulnerable than ever. The man who introduced Guillory to some of the people he set up feels no sympathy for the snitch.
"The reason he's stabbing his friends in the back is because he's lazy," says the acquaintance and intermediary who asked not to be identified. "He doesn't want to work, so he's trying to get money out of the DEA. He uses people, and he lies."
Asked about Guillory's fear that his life is in danger, the friend would say only, "If that's what he thinks. Who knows what's going to happen?"
Over Easter weekend, Ben Guillory's plight did not get any better. On the Thursday before Easter, he drove to Louisiana to visit his ailing mother. She died on Good Friday. When Guillory returned to Houston to get a suit to wear to the funeral, he discovered that he had been evicted from the house that he had shared with Helen Hum.
Earlier in the week, Hum had gone to family court and won a restraining order against him. During a break in the hearings, Hum had little to say about Guillory except to suggest that "Benny's problem is he always thinks he's right."
Attorney Deborah Lozano, who took pity on Guillory and is representing him pro bono, says her client eventually may be able to stake a partial claim to the house, and perhaps some money from its sale, if the lawyer can prove that Guillory and Hum had a common-law marriage. But for now Guillory is homeless, and that means he's exposed.
"If I end up dead, it's going to prove that the DEA allowed this to happen," says Guillory.
Of course, some people might say he has it coming.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Houston Press' biggest stories.