The Rio Grande Sniper with author & Judge John W. Primomo
Untangle the complex conspiracy that led to the tragic deaths of Charlotte Kay Elliott and Kevin Edwin Frase on the banks of the Rio Grande.
On the night of July 13, 1980, a hitman fired a high-powered rifle into the crowd at Pepe's On the River, an outdoor bar in Mission, Texas. He missed his target, a witness in the Loop 360 drug case, but killed two young bystanders. While state court prosecutions for capital murder inexplicably faltered, a federal court gave the assassin a life sentence for attempted murder of a grand jury witness. A member of the judge's staff who was present throughout the trial, author John W. Primomo revisits the dramatic twists and turns surrounding this murder on the Rio Grande.
John W. Primomo served twenty-nine years as a U.S. magistrate judge for the Western District of Texas in San Antonio. He previously authored two books: The Appomattox Generals: The Parallel Lives of Joshua L. Chamberlain, U.S.A., and John B. Gordon, CSA, Commanders at the Surrender Ceremony of April 12, 1865 (2013) and Architect of Death at Auschwitz: A Biography of Rudolf Höss (2020). For thirty-plus years, he has volunteered with Camp Discovery, a summer camp in south Texas for children with cancer. He is also the president of the nonprofit corporation that operates Camp Discovery and several other camps for children with life-threatening illnesses and their families throughout the year.
Speakers: Benjamin Morris & John Primomo
Benjamin Morris (00:24):
John, welcome to Crime Capsule, and congratulations on the publication of your book.
Thank you very much, Ben. I'm very glad to be here.
Benjamin Morris (00:36):
Tell us a little bit about your background. You are a retired magistrate judge, and this is your third published volume, is that right?
Yes. I wrote two other books before this. One entitled The Appomattox Generals about Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain from Maine, and John Brown Gordon from Georgia, who were the generals at the Surrender Ceremony at Appomattox. Which is the anniversaries actually today, April 12th.
And I also, wrote a Architect of Death at Auschwitz about Rudolf Hoss, the Commandant of Auschwitz, who actually created the camp and was responsible for many of the atrocities that occurred there. So, this is my third book, The Rio Grande Sniper Killings.
Benjamin Morris (01:22):
Tell us a little bit about your path to the bench. How did you end up as a judge?
Well, I always knew probably very early on that I wanted to be a lawyer, probably from the age of 15. So, that was not a hard career path for me to choose. I don't know that I ever thought I was gonna become a lawyer or a judge, rather.
But as time went on, the opportunity developed and I was appointed as a United States Magistrate Judge in 1988. And I served in that capacity until 2017. So, it was for 29 years. I was very privileged to be able to serve in that capacity for that length of time.
Benjamin Morris (02:07):
Your retirement, is that what they call time off for good behavior?
I think so.
Benjamin Morris (02:14):
Well, we're delighted to have you. Now, help us to understand how you did this sort of sidestep into authorship? Where did the opportunity and the inclination to do the research on these historical topics come from?
I've always been a fan of history, and I never really considered myself to be an author. I'm more of a writer that enjoys these subjects. I'm a big fan of the Civil War, and I liked these two particular individuals, and so, I wrote about them.
And then I was planning a trip to overseas and I was gonna go to Auschwitz and I was doing research about the Commandant and realized very little had been written about him. So, I decided to write a book about Hess or Hoss. And so, that turned out to be a very interesting project.
And then the most recent book, it was a case that when I was a law clerk back in 1980, the federal judge I was a briefing attorney for — it was a case that just had a very deep impression on me, and it's something that stayed with me throughout my legal career.
So, I ended up writing the last book, was about that particular case.
Benjamin Morris (03:54):
Yeah. Let's jump in right to that moment because as you write early on in The Rio Grande Sniper Killings, this case quite literally sort of fell in your lap. I mean, you had no idea it was coming, and then suddenly the case enters your courtroom's docket, and there you are having to prepare materials for your judge.
Benjamin Morris (04:15):
Did you have any idea at the time how profound this case would become?
No, not at all. In fact, federal court is very different from state court. Normally, we do not handle cases involving violence at all. The reason this case was in federal court at all, because it involved a drug conspiracy.
But it evolved into a case involving violence because of the fact that some of the conspirators who did not want to be identified, decided that they were going to prevent one of their accomplices from testifying for federal grand jury.
And when they did that, it evolved into a violent crime. And it was that violent crime that ended up in federal court. So, it was very unusual to have the case end up in federal court at all.
Benjamin Morris (05:14):
This is a case with some serious twists and turns in it, which really none of the parties could have ever seen coming. And that takes place from the moment of the attempted assassination all the way through to the proceedings within the trial.
Benjamin Morris (05:29):
Let's start just by introducing some of the cast of characters here. You mentioned, first and foremost there is this informant whom you identify in the book solely as Jimmy for his own privacy and out of respect, and you maintain that all the way through. You're sort of still keeping his identity a secret.
Yes. He was a member of the drug conspiracy, but he has never, to my knowledge, committed any crime since then. He was a young man. He's as far as I know, engaged in a productive life.
And I know I tried to contact him and he was very concerned about the effect that the book might have on his career. And so, I had no intention to hurt him in any way, certainly. So, I used just the name Jimmy to identify him as the victim in this case.
Benjamin Morris (06:35):
Right. And his main role, which is of course, pertinent to the entire scenario here, is that he was the pilot.
Yes. He was flying the marijuana. He rented the airplane down in South Texas, and he flew down into Mexico, they loaded the marijuana into the private plane. And he was flying the plane back to Austin, Texas where it was going to be unloaded. And then the intent was to distribute it to willing distributors and then marijuana users.
Benjamin Morris (07:11):
And you write in the sort of interesting aside, you say that of the payroll sort of scheme in a truck running operation, the pilot actually stands to make quite a bit of money. It's a high paid position, so to speak.
I was quite surprised how much he was going to make. He was a young pilot, probably about 28 years old, I believe, at the time. And for renting the airplane one day, flying to Mexico, and then flying the marijuana to Austin, he was going to make $15,000 in 1980. Which was a significant amount of money.
And so, yes. And he was making a lot more money than anyone else in the conspiracy other than the organizers.
Benjamin Morris (08:02):
In our previous interviews with Texas authors, we've had E.R. Bills who wrote a great book called Texas Oblivion in our Great Escape series. And our sharp eared listeners will remember from that particular interview that we had another disappearing pilot who was involved in an alleged drug running scheme.
Benjamin Morris (08:23):
I mean, the question is, with that kind of money at stake, you have to be extremely careful, first of all, and you have to not get too excited about all those Cadillacs that you're gonna buy as soon as you get back on the tarmac, aren't you?
Well, it was interesting doing some research about the marijuana importation industry back in the '80s. There were so many young kids doing this that they just thought it was a game.
They were just running around with all this money in their pockets and they just felt like they were beating the man at the game. And they didn't consider themselves to be big time criminals. They just were making easy money as far as they saw it.
Benjamin Morris (09:13):
Well, we'll come to that in just a moment. Let's keep putting our characters on the stage here. I do want to foreground the true victims in this particular case because they never should have lost their lives on this day in 1980.
Benjamin Morris (09:31):
Charlotte and Kevin, these innocent bystanders at the bar who were killed when the assassin missed Jimmy. And we'll unpack all this in a moment, but just tell us a little bit about Charlotte and Kevin.
Charlotte had just graduated from high school in Rolla, Missouri, and she was 18 years old. Her parents gave her this trip down to McAllen, Texas as a graduation present.
She had a friend down there who had moved there from Rolla, Missouri. And so, she was going to visit her friend had been down there for a couple of weeks, two or three weeks.
And the trip down to Pepe’s On the River where the shooting occurred was they'd been there several times. And this was going to be one of their last trips to Pepe's before she went back to Missouri.
And Kevin was a South Texas native. He was about 26, 28 years old. And he was grown up in South Texas. He was born with cerebral palsy, so he had some weakness on his right side.
But I talked to Keith, his brother, and he didn't let any of his handicaps affect him. He worked as a gunsmith down in South Texas. And he and his brother were just extremely close.
And he had just gotten off from work and was gonna taking a one week vacation. And so, he and a friend of his had gone down to Pepe’s to spend the evening on the night that this happened.
Benjamin Morris (11:21):
And it was interesting to me as I was reading your account, because (and please correct me if I'm mistaken about this) it sounded like both Charlotte and Kevin had not actually met before. They were sort of friendly that night at the bar. They were sort of chatting as they were listening to the music and just enjoying the company of the people at Pepe's and so forth.
Benjamin Morris (11:44):
But am I right in understanding that prior to this particular day, they were actually strangers to one another?
I believe so. I don't have any information to indicate that they knew each other prior to July the 13th, 1980. I think they were just visiting there at the bar.
There was a huge crowd there that Sunday. And I think they just happened to be talking to each other because they were some of the last people at Pepe's before it closed that night. And they were just sitting there at the bar visiting with each other and talking shortly before the bar closed.
Benjamin Morris (12:21):
So, we have two ring leaders, sort of master conspirators involved in setting up this attempted assassination. We have Boyce Rummell, we have David
Benjamin Morris (12:34):
And from your account, it sounds like these guys had just been full of trouble since day one. They'd come out of their mama's kicking, screaming and hollering and determined to just raise hell wherever they went. And was there a decent bone in their body? I have to ask.
Well, I couldn't say there's not a decent bone in their body, but I think that when it came to involvement with drugs, I don't think they had too many qualms about doing that. I think both of them had been to federal prison before.
And he could be that both of them were very involved with drugs and smuggling drugs. And Esky would continue to do it after this.
Rummell, this would be his last foray into drug smuggling. But they both had no hesitation about dealing in drugs.
Benjamin Morris (13:51):
And it struck me, John, that as you described, their kind of very checkered histories as young men in Texas, in the '70s and so forth, they really were in and out of jail very frequently.
Benjamin Morris (14:06):
And what I wanted to ask you from the legal perspective, I mean, I know that sort of three strikes in your outlaws are not uniformly applied everywhere. Not all states have them and that sort of thing, but these guys had such a long rap sheet, and yet they kept getting bonded out.
Benjamin Morris (14:24):
So, I was wondering, was there never a recognition on the sort of prosecutorial side that as soon as you get them out, they're just gonna go right back to their old ways? It just kept happening.
I think I pointed this out, especially in the introduction. The penalties back then, especially for drug crimes at least in federal court, were not nearly as severe as they are now. These guys faced much less severe penalty, which makes the killing of Charlotte and Kevin even more tragic than they would if they were convicted today.
So, getting convicted did not really seem to have any severe consequences for them. So, they get convicted and then they'd go back out. And they might serve their time, which would be minimal, and then they'd go back out and get convicted again and serve a minimal amount of time.
And it just did not seem that the prosecution and punishment for drugs was nearly as severe as it is today. And it probably was after that a lot of laws came out. The three strike law, and other laws about crack cocaine and other things that are really severe, came out after the '70s.
Benjamin Morris (15:47):
Well, we have one more antagonist, then we have one more protagonist to cover before we get into the lay of the land at the time. And we need to talk about the trigger man, just briefly, Lloyd Walker.
Benjamin Morris (15:59):
Here on Crime Capsule, we do not glorify those who participate in violence, but we do seek to understand them. And you write that Walker had served in Vietnam, and he had come back, like many veterans had very profoundly changed by the experience. And that he had dealt a lot of violence in that particular theater, and some of that returned to American shores.
Benjamin Morris (16:27):
So, one thing I wanted to ask you was, you have this very interesting description of him which the investigators and the folks kind of who were tracking the case and so forth, you describe him as quote unquote, "an Austin type," unquote.
Benjamin Morris (16:49):
And for those of us, myself included, who are not extremely sensitive to the fine distinctions of Texas geographies, and sort of the types of folks who live in different cities, can you just unpack what it meant for Walker to be an Austin type?
Well, Austin type was a characterization that the owner of Pepe's gave to the police long before they knew who Lloyd Chris Walker was. I guess say in South Texas, there was certain individuals that would patronize Pepe’s.
And when Lloyd Chris Walker walked into the bar, he just stood out like a sore thumb. Long blonde hair and wire rim glasses. And I guess the clothing he was wearing, and he just did not look like somebody from South Texas who was a regular customer at Pepe’s.
And the owner at Pepe’s just picked him out immediately. And he's the one that told the police, "Yes, there was this Austin type guy here. And this is where he was sitting." And he even knew what he was drinking.
So, that's how he identified him to the police and his keen observations is what was really critical in helping to eventually identify Walker.
Benjamin Morris (18:21):
Yep. I'm trying to think of a good analogy, and I wonder if it's sort of like a straight laced businessman from the Florida panhandle, going all the way down to Miami and hanging out in some of the Cuban American neighborhoods, and folks just kind of saying, "Bit of a fish out of water, aren't you?"
Well, it was interesting that it did not occur to him that walking into the bar would be an unwise decision because when he could see — Jimmy was pointed out to him from the parking lot because this was an open bar. But he decided that he wanted to get a close up look at Jimmy.
So, he went into the bar where people could see him, and in particular the owner of Pepe's. And he did stick out and that was a mistake.
Benjamin Morris (19:21):
Well, we'll move from the Texas underworld here to the overworld and to your good friend Carl Pierce who was the assistant US attorney at the time.
Benjamin Morris (19:32):
And he ended up sort of leading the case along with sort of a small team of folks who were working on this particular case, because it did get to be so extensive. But tell us just a little bit about Carl.
Carl is a very interesting individual and he's a very unique prosecutor. I remember Carl very well from my time as a briefing attorney for Judge Garcia. Because Carl was one of the most efficient and effective prosecutors.
And I think I mentioned that in the book because I always remember how he would just get right to the point with cases. And I believe he really had a positive impact on juries and knew exactly how to tell the juries, get to the point that the juries needed to hear. And he was a good prosecutor. And I think the people, the supervisors in his office knew that.
And he and another attorney from the US Attorney's office, John Murphy, were handling a lot of drug crime cases. And he was already in charge of the Loop 360 case, which is the marijuana conspiracy involving Jimmy and the importation of marijuana from Mexico.
And so, he naturally also, got the case against Lloyd Chris Walker for attempting to assassinate Jimmy before he could testify before the federal grand jury.
But he was a very, very effective prosecutor and a good person to watch if you wanted to learn how to be a prosecutor and how to effectively communicate with a federal jury at trial.
Benjamin Morris (21:25):
Now, I want to take a quick look at the context for this crime. You write that drug running in Texas in the '70s and the early '80s, you actually used the term glory days, which I thought was really interesting.
Benjamin Morris (21:52):
You say it was rampant, that everybody was kind of getting in on it, that oftentimes the folks who were using it were also, the ones smuggling it and vice versa. Why was this such a golden age for drug running in that area?
Well, I think back then it was early in the marijuana days where a lot of marijuana was being imported. People were seeing how easy it was to get it across the border. There was a lot of investigation and prosecution, but there was so much marijuana that the prosecutors and the police were having a hard time keeping up.
And the border between Texas and Mexico is large. One of the things I point out in the book is that the district, there are two federal districts, the Southern District of Texas and the Western District of Texas. And their criminal caseloads are enormous because of the amount of drugs that are imported from Mexico.
And back in the '70s, it was just beginning with marijuana and other drugs as well. But marijuana at that time, was really probably the early drug of choice. People just weren't getting into the harder drugs as much yet, but it didn't take long for that to come along.
Marijuana was just easy to get in, and lots and lots of people were using it. University of Texas in Austin, where this load of marijuana was flown to, was a ready source of abusers of marijuana.
Benjamin Morris (23:45):
Yep. It's interesting because of course, economists and sociologists have looked at the pure business model of drugs. I mean, independent of any kind of moral dimension you might want to add to them, it's just what is the structure of an operation like this?
Benjamin Morris (24:02):
And it struck me as I was reading your account, that there is a lot of money to be made in one shipment. The way that it gets parceled out and sold with different profit margins, but pure payroll, not overhead is high.
Benjamin Morris (24:16):
I mean, you have a lot of people who are involved in the operation from start to finish. Whether it's the guys who pick it up in the vans, whether it's the distributors, whether it's the pilot like Jimmy. In situations like this, you can have a payroll, which is for one smuggling run, 10 people deep.
Benjamin Morris (24:36):
And then as they say in the music world, you gotta cut the bread. You gotta cut the profits, you gotta distribute all that.
Benjamin Morris (24:41):
So, you have to be very careful not to piss anybody off first of all. You have to be careful to protect your assets, as they say. But then you also, have to be careful to make sure that you're making money off the whole thing.
Benjamin Morris (24:56):
And it sounds like from your account, that if it all goes well, (obviously this case did not) you can come away with thousands and thousands of dollars in the 1970s, and that does take you a long way.
The marijuana in Mexico was very cheap. The people in the United States, like the lead conspirators in this case had connections to Mexico, which was one thing that was necessary. And the Mexican marijuana was very cheap.
So, it did not cost so much there. And they were able to make a very big profit once they got it here to the United States.
So, they always had to have some helpers. They had to have somebody to load, somebody to transport. And they were always paid something, but it was of course, a less amount, depending upon their role in the conspiracy. But the leaders, they made a good sum of money, and they would do this repeatedly until they were caught.
And in this case, as the book points out, it was not necessarily good investigative work by police that foiled this marijuana conspiracy. It was just poor luck.
Benjamin Morris (26:26):
Yeah. So, tell us what the Loop 360 operation was supposed to look like, how it was supposed to go, and then tell us how it actually went and how that luck ran out on them.
Well, Jimmy was supposed to fly into Mexico, get the marijuana, and then fly to Austin and it would be distributed from there. And he rented the plane in McAllen, flew down. They took the seats out because they needed the room for the sacks of marijuana.
And he flew down about 300 miles into Mexico, and he met Boyce Rummell, who is one of the lead conspirators in the case. And he and one of the other conspirators, they loaded the marijuana into the airplane and paid a Mexican down there a certain amount of money. Plus, I think a shotgun and some shotgun shells was part of the payment for the marijuana.
Benjamin Morris (27:35):
For the product. Yeah.
And he and then one of the other conspirators and John Christopher Burrs were flying back to Austin, and they intended to make a night flight. So, what Jimmy did was they were going to tape over the navigation lights on the private plane.
And so, he landed in Falfurrias, Texas and before, on his way back to Austin. Well, when he landed in Falfurrias and he and Burris got out to tape over the navigation lights, someone in Falfurrias saw them doing that and suspected that they were up to no good.
And so, this person in Falfurrias, notified law enforcement. And law enforcement at that time was becoming more aware of these importation efforts, whether it was by on the ground or flying it in, or sometimes even by boat on the Gulf of Mexico.
But law enforcement was advised. They notified Houston Air Traffic Control and Houston Air Traffic control began tracking Jimmy's airplane. And they notified the customs agent here in San Antonio about this airplane.
And the customs agent had his own plane and then went towards Austin so that he could find out where Jimmy was going. And by that time, Jimmy was in trouble.
They found where Jimmy was going. The Austin Air Traffic Control began tracking his airplane. They saw that he landed over on Loop 360 in west Austin and they unloaded the marijuana there. David Esky was there with other conspirators to unload the marijuana and transport it to a location in West Austin.
And then Jimmy and Burris flew from the short distance there to the Austin Municipal Airport, or International Airport. But by then they knew what they were up to.
Austin Police tracked the cars to the location in West Austin where they found the marijuana and agents were waiting for Jimmy and Burris at the Austin Airport, and he was arrested at the Austin Airport. So, that was the beginning of the investigation into the Loop 360 marijuana conspiracy.
Benjamin Morris (30:26):
To the best of your knowledge, do you know whether Jimmy was aware as he was flying the plane, that his goose had been cooked, that he was being tailed?
I don't know. I was never able to speak with Jimmy about that. He testified at the trial of Lloyd Chris Walker, but he did not testify whether or not he was aware at that point that he had been tracked and that he had been caught.
I think that there was someone else at the scene who had seen the customs airplane circling around the landing site. And that was testimony at the trial. Whether or not Jimmy was aware of that, I am not a hundred percent sure. It seems logical he might have been.
I don't know if he had any choice but to go to the airport. He might not have had enough fuel to go anywhere else. And maybe he was just hoping that he and Burris could get away before he was arrested. But once he landed at the Austin Airport, the agents were already waiting for him.
Benjamin Morris (31:43):
Yeah. I was trying to put myself kind of in his position and thinking, "Yes, you only have so much fuel. You gotta land somewhere." And if there's a funny little ping on your radar, on your six that you weren't expecting, what options do you really have in that moment, especially, in the pre satellite phone kind of age? You have to make a decision on the spot, don't you?
Benjamin Morris (32:07):
But let me ask you, one of the major parts of your analysis ... and I really appreciated this as I was reading it, John, it's with your legal expertise, you keep the discussion of the legal dimension as far from jargon as it can get. I found it to be very clear, and I know that your readers elsewhere will also, appreciate that.
Benjamin Morris (32:35):
You write that as soon as Jimmy is picked up and brought in, he faces this kind of unique situation regarding incrimination and the stakes of what it means to plead the fifth in this particular case.
Benjamin Morris (32:50):
Can you just unpack that for us a little bit? It's not as simple as saying he can plead the fifth, because it's not about self-incrimination in this case. There were so many other conspirators that that method of self-protection did not apply. Am I right in framing it that way?
Well, initially, he had the right to the Fifth Amendment to claim that he could not testify because of self-incrimination. He lost that once he was convicted. He and Burris both decided they were not gonna cooperate with the government.
And so, which is usually what happens if you decide to reach a plea agreement with the government, because the government will often, as part of the plea agreement, require that you cooperate, provide some information about the conspiracy, which will usually include the names of the other conspirators and details about the conspiracy. But they did not want to do that.
So, they went to trial. They were both convicted and they were both sentenced for their roles in the Loop 360 conspiracy. Once that happened, he no longer had a right of not to incriminate himself because he was already convicted.
it was at that point that he could not refuse to testify. And it was at that point is when Pierce summoned him and Burris before the federal grand jury in Austin to identify the other members of the Loop 360 conspiracy.
Benjamin Morris (34:32):
Because Pierce wants to get to the top. He doesn't know who is at the top, but that's where he wants to get. Right?
Well, and he knows that there are other members. He would like to get to the top. It's always hard for the prosecutors to get to the very top, but a lot of times they have to chip away at these conspiracies and they want to get from one conspirator to another. If they can get to the very top, that would be their ultimate goal. It is often very hard to do.
But with Burris and Jimmy convicted, they knew that there were other people involved. And to get them before a federal grand jury and to get them to testify that they would be able to learn more information, more details about the conspiracy, and the names of the other conspirators.