REPORTING ON LIFE—and people along the way
1953 to 1974
No way will I ever forget walking through the dark streets of our nation’s capital around midnight July 27, 1974. I’d hoofed it a lot on muggy evenings that summer from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s Washington bureau on Pennsylvania Avenue to my small apartment in Foggy Bottom. But it was different this time. I was oblivious to the deserted George Washington University campus, the landmarks and the more than one shadowy corridor on my route.
I could think of nothing but the event I had covered just a few hours earlier—a cataclysmic milestone in our nation’s history.
The Judiciary Committee of the United States House of Representatives had climaxed months of the unraveling of a sordid saga of political espionage by adopting an article of impeachment charging Richard M. Nixon, the President of the United States, with obstruction of justice.
Any remaining hope of Nixon’s presidency surviving the politically cancerous Watergate scandal was doomed by the committee’s action. Wishful thinking by a few die-hard Nixon supporters aside, the Washington establishment knew the President was a goner. The House Judiciary Committee had ensured his downfall. It came with his resignation from the presidency the following August 9.
I was one of the reporters sitting in the hushed silence of Room 2141 of the sprawling Rayburn House Office Building as the committee members, all with solemn faces, approved the impeachment article. Another scribe present was Post-Dispatch colleague Lawrence E. Taylor. Many of the biggest names in American political journalism were in the room. If memory served me right, the person crowded into a seat next to me was Anthony Lewis, a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for the New York Times.
Dapper & Deadly - The True Story of Black Charlie Harris
Excerpt from Chapter Nine
Carl Shelton may have been accorded celebrity status by some, but not by a number of his Pond Creek neighbors. They found Carl to be overbearing in squabble after squabble over allegations that Carl allowed his cattle to roam at large while continuing to engage in land-grabbing schemes. The Sheltons also were accused, among other things, of trying to impose a levy of a few cents per bushel on loads of soybeans and other crops carted past their places.
The scenario was ripe for a needed counterbalance to the fear fostered by Shelton potency. Shelton hegemony had to be breached; its bubble had to be pricked. A remedy was at hand. The setting couldn’t be more ready-made for Charlie Harris, a person no longer shaking in his boots at the specter of challenging the family. Besides, Charlie was close to an extended family of Pond creekers known as the Harris-Vaughan clan.
His open hostility to the Sheltons had been mounting. His track record also suggested to some that he might have an underside as sinister as that of the gangster brothers. For that reason, he too made some uneasy. But, the Shelton problem was paramount, and none but loyal Shelton followers objected when Harris seized the opportunity to project himself as a protector of Pond Creek farmers at odds with the Sheltons.
Standing up to the brothers—which primarily meant confronting Carl, the principal target of Charlie’s ire—cast him in a role comparable to that of a tough western hero galloping into town to save the good folks from entrenched bad guys.
Carl might not have taken Harris’ comeuppance as fully as he should have, a serious miscalculation. Still, it was evident that Charlie had made himself a burr under the Shelton saddle. It had to be galling for Carl to realize that Harris, in the view of a growing number, was making headway in the intimidation game.
In the eyes of many, Carl Shelton may have been living on borrowed time. It was miraculous that he had reached fifty-nine years of age. Still, as long as he kept to his home county of Wayne, it was reckoned, getting rid of him was no easy task. He simply knew the lay of the land too well. Anyway, he didn’t advertise his movements ahead of time.
Moments after passing Harvey Wagner, Carl’s jeep and the following truck approached a small bridge on Pond Creek Road. When the jeep got there, all hell broke loose.
A volley of gunfire exploded out of dense brush and trees on the west side of the bridge. Carl toppled out of the jeep. Little Earl and Walker, who were not armed, leaped from the truck and scrambled into a ditch near the bridge. On the way, they caught a glimpse of a car, enough to later describe it as a black Ford sedan, perched in a side lane near the underbrush from which the shots rang out.
After hitting the ditch, Walker heard the voice of Carl Shelton pleading, “Don’t shoot me any more, Charlie. It’s me, Carl Shelton. You’ve killed me already.”
The only reply was another burst of gunfire echoing through the lonely countryside.
A slender fellow in his upper thirties, Stine had just come from the nearby Indiana town of Madison, where he’d made stops at the Jefferson County Courthouse and the local newspaper. He was prowling for background on a matter that, for him, was an irresistible hot potato. While he hadn’t pinned anything down in the musty documents he’d scoured a few hours earlier, he was sure he’d score when he resumed the search the next morning. For the moment, though, he needed to find a motel room for the night, which should be easy judging by the vacancy signs he saw back out on the highway.
Returning to his car, Stine drove slowly across the empty campus, wondering where he might have landed had he spent his college-age years in a private school refuge such as Hanover instead of sweltering back rooms of printing shops and small newspapers. The return drive to the highway was scenic, winding through a dense woods for a mile or more. Suddenly, Stine noticed another automobile, rounding a turn. As it drew closer, it abruptly swerved across the road and stopped, forcing Stine to do the same. Wondering what in the world was going on, Stine watched as a man in a dark summer suit jumped from the other car and walked briskly toward him. Even though the other guy’s face was partly obscured by a wide-brimmed straw hat, Stine could see he was older.
“Is something wrong?” Stine asked, sticking his head out of the window. The only reply was a slight grin. As the eyes of the two locked for a second, Stine’s visitor deftly moved a hand inside his suit coat, pulled out a pistol and fired once into the astonished face of Stine. As birds flapped loudly out of trees, Stine slumped sideways onto the passenger seat of his car, his steel-rimmed glasses askew while a hole in his forehead yielded a bright-red trickle. The assailant then leaned through the window and pumped another bullet into Stine’s head.
Turning quickly, the triggerman raced back to his car, absolutely certain that no life remained in the crumpled body of Peter Stine.