We have in these pages actually already encountered one of Ertman and Pena’s slayers in these pages: Jose Medellin, who was executed in 2008. That case was notable for the litigation resulting from Texas’s failure to comply with the Vienna Convention by notifying the Mexican consulate of Medellin’s arrest — and the Medellin post focuses on that issue. This post turns instead to the crime itself.
On June 24, 1993, Ertman and Pena — 14- and 16-year-old Waltrip High School students desperate to beat curfew — took a late-night shortcut along a railroad skirting the White Oak Bayou.
At a railroad trestle in T.C. Jester Park, just moments from home, they encountered our man Derrick O’Brien, Jose Medellin, and four other young men toasting a gang initiation. The six fell on the vulnerable girls and raped both, then strangled them with shoelaces.
Even for a city as large as Houston, it was a shattering crime that still haunts the lost girls’ friends and neighbors.
Memorial to Ertman and Pena in T.C. Jester Park. (cc) image by Pepper Hastings.
Politically, it thrust gangs to the front of the agenda for Houston pols. The girls’ kin* also fought successfully to adjust Texas Department of Criminal Justice procedure in order to permit victims’ family members to witness executions, an innovation that is now widely used throughout the U.S.
O’Brien, barely 18 when he took part in the murder, turned up in the crowd gawking at the crime scene when it was first discovered, and some video footage chances to catch him smiling and laughing. He would eventually be the first person put to death for the Ertman-Pena murder.
Craig Ogan had worked as an informant for the federal Drug Enforcement Agency since January 1988. Upon his request, the DEA relocated him from St. Louis to Houston in late 1989 after his identity had been revealed in a court proceeding. Ogan was under orders to not personally get involved in any drug transactions. He was also prohibited from carrying a weapon. Despite these instructions, Ogan insisted on arming himself and seeking involvement in drug transactions.
On 8 December 1989, Ogan, then 34, called the DEA agent who supervised him and told him that he was in a restaurant where he had just had an armed confrontation over a drug deal that fell through. He said that a man pointed a gun at his head and called him “narc.” He said that he feared for his life and asked for an escort from the restaurant. The agent arranged for two Houston police officers to escort Ogan from the restaurant back to his apartment. Once at the apartment, the officers watched as Ogan packed his belongings, which included a pistol, a sawed-off shotgun, and some knives. They then followed him to a motel. Ogan checked into a room, and the officers left at around 9:00 p.m.
At about 12:30 a.m., Ogan went to the lobby to complain about his telephone charges and the heater in his room. He argued loudly with the clerk and began kicking at a door. When the clerk called 9-1-1 for assistance, Ogan left.
Around this time, Houston police officers Clay Morgan Gainer and James C. Boswell pulled a car into a parking lot across the street from the motel, for a minor traffic violation. Ogan, then 34, walked over to them and knocked on the passenger window. Officer Boswell, 29, lowered his window and asked Ogan what he wanted. After a heated exchange, Boswell got out of the car. Ogan took Boswell’s pistol and shot him once in the head. He ran. Officer Gainer chased Ogan on foot, shot him in the back, and arrested him.
At Ogan’s trial, Gainer testified that when Boswell lowered his window and asked Ogan what he wanted, Ogan replied, “DEA dropped me off out here, and I’m cold.” Boswell told Ogan that they would help him as soon as they finished with the traffic stop, and to back away from the car. Boswell then raised his window. Ogan, however, demanded immediate attention. He knocked on Boswell’s window again, repeating that he was a DEA informant and that he was cold. Boswell told him, “You need to get out of here if you are not willing to step out of the way and wait. You either need to leave, or you are going to jail.” Ogan persisted with his demands. Boswell got out of the police car. According to Gainer, Boswell removed his sidearm from the holster and held it down against his leg. As he was reaching into the car to unlock the back door, Ogan grabbed Boswell’s gun and shot him once in the head. Ogan then said, “Well, [expletive] you then” and ran.
In addition to the above testimony, Darryl O’Leary, one of the two officers who escorted Ogan from the restaurant, testified that Ogan was “extremely excited” when he arrived. O’Leary said that when he told Ogan he could not take him until a backup officer arrived, Ogan became “impatient, hostile, and loud.”
Ogan had no prior criminal convictions. He had numerous assault charges that had been filed against him, then dismissed.
Sally Webster, a psychologist testifying for the defense, said that Ogan suffered from paranoia and had a passive-aggressive personality, but that these disorders were not mental illnesses and had no bearing on his competency to stand trial. She described Ogan’s mental state on 8 and 9 December as “anxious, agitated, almost hyperactive, very touchy, very worried.” Ogan’s lawyers called Webster to testify in an attempt to assert his mental state as a mitigating factor in determining his punishment, but the tactic backfired. Instead, prosecutors convinced the jury that Ogan’s history of high-strung paranoia made him a future danger to society.
A jury convicted Ogan of capital murder in June 1990 and sentenced him to death. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed the conviction and sentence in April 1993. All of his subsequent appeals in state and federal court were denied.
In his appeals, Ogan’s attorneys claimed that their client suffered from a mental illness and that his trial counsel was incompetent for failing to use that in his defense. Ogan, who had an IQ of 140, had attended college, and spoke several languages, told a reporter, “They’re trying to sell me as a nut case. I don’t appreciate that.”
Ogan had a longstanding interest in espionage and had ambitions of joining the Central Intelligence Agency. In one of his letters from death row, he claimed that he had an appointment for an interview with the CIA the day he killed Officer Boswell. His career as a spy, however, never took off. At his trial, DEA agents testified that they considered Ogan to be, though a “marginally successful” informant, mostly a comical figure who ducked behind newspapers whenever a stranger entered their office. They derisively called him “special agent double-oh-five” behind his back. They also criticized him for getting involved in a drug deal without their permission, then calling for their assistance when it got him into trouble.
From death row, Ogan wrote letters that were posted on an anti-death-penalty web site. In one of them, he claimed that his execution represented the “premeditated mass murder” of possibly thousands of his potential descendants. He also provided his version of the conversation between himself and Officer Boswell. In Ogan’s account, he was extremely polite, courteous to a fault, and non-confrontational. Boswell and Gainer, on the other hand, were hostile to him without provocation and called him a “[expletive] DEA snitch.” Ogan wrote that when he told Boswell, “All right, sir; I was only asking for help,” Boswell then threw his door open and burst out of the car “in an insane rage, running/lunging furiously right at me, like a football tackle gone berserk, and clawing frantically at his gun/holster.”
An anti-death-penalty spokesman who visited Ogan on death row described him as “extremely tense.”
Ogan’s execution was delayed for nearly an hour as the Supreme Court considered late appeals questioning his mental competence.
“I would like to say first of all the real violent crimes in this case are acts committed by James Boswell and Clay Morgan Gaines,” Ogan said in his lengthy last statement. “I am not guilty; I acted in self-defense and reflex in the face of a police officer who was out of control,” he said. Ogan referred to a head injury Boswell had suffered and suggested that he had mental problems. He described Boswell as “filled with anger” and “mad at the world.” The lethal injection was given while Ogan was two minutes into his last statement. At 7:05 p.m., he was still talking about Boswell when he paused briefly to collect his thoughts. The lethal drugs took effect as Ogan then snorted, gasped, and lost consciousness. He was pronounced dead at 7:13 p.m.
By David Carson. Originally posted on 20 November 2002. Revised on 5 December 2002.
Sources: Texas Department of Criminal Justice, Texas Attorney General’s office, U.S. Fifth Circuit Court documents, Associated Press, Houston Chronicle, letters from Craig Ogan.
When white police arrested a black infantryman who tried to prevent their detaining a drunk black woman, then beat up and shot at a black corporal sent to inquire after him, hostility boiled over. Over one hundred soldiers marched through the city — confronting a mob of white citizens and police who had likewise armed themselves. Fifteen whites and four blacks were killed in the ensuing confrontation.
This documentary segment is from Mutiny on the Bayou:
Their lenient treatment has led negro soldiers to believe that the government is in sympathy with their arrogance and impudence toward white people …
A COURT MARTIAL, A HOLLOW SQUARE AND A FIRING SQUAD WILL SETTLE THE MATTER FOR ONCE AND FOR ALL.
No white Houstonian was ever prosecuted for the day’s events, but the largest court-martial in U.S. military history tried 63 black soldiers and condemned 13 to die:
Sgt. William C. Nesbitt
Corp. Larsen J. Brown
Corp. James Wheatley
Corp. Jesse Moore
Corp. Charles W. Baltimore*
Pvt. William Brackenridge
Pvt. Thomas C. Hawkins
Pvt. Carlos Snodgrass
Pvt. Ira B. Davis
Pvt. James Divine
Pvt. Frank Johnson
Pvt. Rosley W. Young
Pvt. Pat MacWharter
The sentence was carried out without appeal, the time and place only announced after the men had already hanged but evidently witnessed by the New York Times reporter who wrote that “the negroes, dressed in their regular uniforms, displayed neither bravado nor fear. They rode to the execution singing a hymn, but the singing was as that of soldiers on the march.”
Two more mass courts-martial would follow, resulting in six more hangings the following year.
For years afterward, the incident clouded and complicated race relations, especially in the War Department.
Some blacks openly applauded the mutiny as a justified resistance against racist provocation. This inflammatory opinion piece, quoted in Mark Ellis’ Race, War and Surveillance, landed the editor who agreed to run it in federal prison:
We would rather see you shot by the highest tribunal of the United States Army because you dared to protect a Negro woman from the insult of a southern brute in the form of a policeman, than to have you forced to go to Europe to fight for a liberty you cannot enjoy. Negro women regret that you mutinied, and we are sorry that you spilt innocent blood, but we are not sorry that five southern policemen’s bones now bleech [sic] in the graves of Houston, Tex.
Meanwhile, the Army noted “the tendency of the Negro soldier, with fire arms in his possession … to become arrogant, overbearing, abusive and a menace to the community in which he happens to be stationed.” It held down its black enlistment throughout the interwar period.
Sympathizers with the policy would continue — until the raw manpower requirements of World War II trumped the discussion — to cite the Houston riots both as evidence of the dangers of arming blacks, and the disloyalty of a populace willing to register open disgust with lynch law during wartime.
* Baltimore was the soldier who had come after the missing men; his altercation with a white policeman who answered, “I don’t report to any negro” and pistol-whipped him — and, it was incorrectly rumored among the 24th Infantry that night, killed him — triggered the riot.
Baltimore’s role is developed in a fascinating study of primary documentation on the case in Edgar A. Schuler’s “The Houston Race Riot, 1917″ published in The Journal of Negro History, Vol. 29, No. 3 (July, 1944). Schuler also treats the interesting tensions between the Houston black community and the black regiment, and the emergence of a white narrative of uppity, out-of-control Negroes rather than ones responding (however wrongly) to specific provocations … which conveniently turned Jim Crow law from the problem into the solution.