Slipping into Darkness
Houston Police Department homicide investigators face a daunting task in sorting out the last hours in the life of 46-year-old municipal lobbyist Ross Allyn. Possible murder suspects range from the male hustlers-for-hire he occasionally took to his Timbergrove Manor rental house, to a circle of cocaine dealers he patronized for years, to local business folk and politicos with grudges over his recent city contract successes.
On his final evening, Allyn confided to a friend over dinner at the Heights-area Hickory Hollow barbecue joint that he believed his phones were tapped. He told another associate that he had done drugs with public officials and had tape-recorded another politician making illegal demands for a cut of a government contract.
A neighbor recalls the rough-looking young men who came and went, amid occasional shouting and cursing, from Allyn's home in the predawn hours.
"He was preppy and drove a Lexus -- these people weren't and didn't," says the source, who was alarmed enough to take down license plate numbers. Last May, police fielded a 911 call about alleged drug activities and two men and a juvenile at the bungalow at 919 Worthshire. Officers apparently found nothing when they followed up on the report.
Whoever shot the popular, perpetually wired Allyn in the neck drew a smoky veil over the evidence. A fire was set that gutted the house and charred the victim and his auto. The pressure is on to solve the case quickly, with Mayor Lee Brown, acting police chief Joe Breshears and District Attorney Chuck Rosenthal closely following the investigation. But where to start on a probe with more loose ends and red herrings than a vintage CSI or Law & Order episode? The suspects, real or imagined, could make for a lineup that stretches around a city block.
Several onlookers at the scene the morning of the murder marveled that visitors -- they included state Senator John Whitmire and City Councilwoman Carol Alvarado -- were allowed inside the house for tours while evidence was still being collected. A close friend of Allyn's, attorney Lisa Liles, retrieved framed photos from the building.
There seemed to be confusion at the house, with chief arson investigator Roy Paul telling reporters he believed the fire was accidental, while homicide officers were indicating to others it was intentional -- and therefore murder. Police have declined comment on any aspect of the investigation.
The killing was the final chapter in the life of a mostly behind-the-scenes City Hall player who publicly advocated honesty in government but seemed drawn to corruption and risky business in both politics and his personal life. He moved to Houston in his teens from San Antonio, graduated from UH-Downtown and South Texas College of Law, but did not pursue a legal career.
Even though he did not speak fluent Spanish, he became the right-hand man for then-councilman Ben Reyes, arguably the most crooked city official of his era. For a time, Allyn worked in a lobbyist business with Reyes's eventual successor, John Castillo. When Reyes and Castillo were indicted for bribery-conspiracy in the federal Hotel Six sting, Allyn was swept up in the net. As it turned out, the FBI had been taping his phone conversations for months in the secret investigation.
Allyn made the front pages when he was charged as a co-conspirator, but later escaped with a directed acquittal while his former boss was convicted. Castillo survived two hung juries, and charges were dropped. Ironically, Reyes would turn out to be safer and live longer in a minimum-security federal prison in Georgia than Allyn would be out walking the streets of Houston.
During the investigation, promoter Bob Borochoff did Allyn a favor by hiring him for a Fun Day in the Park operation in North Carolina, providing a source of income and an out-of-town refuge. Even after the charges were dismissed, Allyn's legal fees were a burden that set him back years. He owns no property in Houston and had only recently begun to explore the possibility of buying a town house.
He did draw some measure of satisfaction when his lawsuit over unpaid fees in 1999 ended in a settlement from developer Wayne Duddlesten, one of the federal witnesses against him in the Hotel Six trial. Allyn was normally very cautious with the media, but on that occasion he called The Insider to gloat over the confidential legal agreement, reported to be in the range of $100,000.
"He had more clients at City Hall than I did," says consultant-lobbyist Marc Campos. He recalls Allyn saying he customarily charged clients an initial $10,000 retainer "for them just to walk in the door."
Allyn also rebuilt his standing by abandoning old allegiances and finding new friends, including Alvarado, whom he supported in her first bid for City Council. In return, the councilwoman became a close ally with Allyn, and after his death called him "a member of the family."
At Allyn's funeral service last week at St. Anne's Catholic Church, the Reverend John Robbins seemed to be preparing the overflow crowd with a warning that news reports in coming days would reveal unsavory details of his parishioner's life.
"There wasn't one part of Ross's complex personality that wasn't welcome here," said the priest, who spoke of their mutual love and respect. Still, he acknowledged Allyn's "moments of great torture and unhappiness" as well as self-destructive tendencies. "I will always regret," said Robbins, "that he could not be as good for himself" as he was for others.
The last person known to see Allyn alive is Heights developer Alan Gomberg. He describes Ross as a loyal friend whom "you could depend on for a favor." He adds, "If I had a problem with public works, he could make a phone call or visit with somebody and get something smoothed out a lot quicker than me going through normal channels, so to speak." Gomberg recalls that when his father died, Allyn volunteered to pick up relatives at the airport and helped usher the funeral.
On his final night, Allyn and Gomberg had hopped from a fund-raiser for Annise Parker, the councilwoman and controller candidate, to an abortive attempt to find a similar affair for Councilman Bert Keller at the River Oaks Country Club. They ended the evening at Hickory Hollow. After saying he was heading home, Allyn called Gomberg's home an hour later and left a message about a morning meeting. The house fire erupted at about 4 a.m.
Asked about the nightlife at the house, Gomberg says Allyn was quite open about it. "He was one who liked to go out and find a friend for the night and tell 'em to leave in the morning," says the developer. "It really wasn't a secret that Ross did that."
Allyn had a wide circle of professional and personal friends and was devoted to his family. But he never felt the need for a partner or long-term relationship.
As for a drug habit, Gomberg says Allyn used cocaine but was discreet. "He told me on occasion he was dabbling in that Maybe he was smart that way, by not letting certain friends see him do it, or letting anybody really see what he was doing."
"He had at least three or four lives," says another source. "He talked about his gay nightlife more than he should. I knew about his drug life and who he did drugs with, some of whom are public officials."
On his last night, Gomberg says that aside from the remarks about possible wiretaps, Allyn seemed upbeat. He had just gotten some sizable payments from an airport concessionaire and was gearing up on a new project, a massive 5,000-unit low-income housing development planned for next year. Allyn was talking with Gomberg about how Allyn could be involved in the real estate as well as the lobbying side of the deal. He was also preparing for a vacation for much of this month.
Another friend believes City Hall matters might have played a role in Allyn's death. He recalls the lobbyist saying he had received threatening phone calls related to an unspecified city contract.
"Yes, it's possible he picked some guy off the street who killed him, and I guess it's possible a drug dealer killed him," says the source. "But from the things he said to me the last six weeks, I think it was business-related."
As for his own theories in the case, Gomberg doubts that it was a simple robbery that escalated to murder.
"I don't think it's random street violence. Why would somebody burn the place down? They didn't steal his car, and I don't know he had anything of real value.
"I tend to go the other way, but I can't even begin to speculate," concludes Gomberg. "I'm just waiting to see what our professional homicide detectives come up with."
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.