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Sublett scrapes Austin’s underside — again

Author and musician’s ‘1960s Austin Gangsters’ elicits more gritty tales.

Michael Barnes
mbarnes@statesman.com
Timmy Overton, center, flanked by Texas Rangers, being led from federal court in Austin on May 17, 1967. Courtesy of Jesse Sublett.

Turn over another rock, find another snake.

Austin author and musician Jesse Sublett spent 10 years researching “1960s Austin Gangsters.” Still, in the months since the slim book came out last spring, Sublett has learned much more about the slippery Overton Gang, which brutalized not just Austin but also the rest of Texas and beyond.

“It’s a sort of secret history of Austin,” Sublett says. “People light up when you mention them.”

Sublett has a gift for getting people to talk. The gang’s few survivors and offspring spilled the beans about the burglaries, prostitution, murders and other crimes — spread out over more than a decade, mostly up and down Interstate 35 — as did bigwigs such as Roy Minton, Ed Wendler, Dick DeGuerin and Armadillo World Headquarters founder Eddie Wilson, who was a huge help.

Sublett goes beyond interviews and archives to paint a gritty picture of each scene. Although his geography is sometimes a bit skewed — he admits that some bad typos made it into this edition — he packs “1960s Austin Gangsters” with distinctive Texas towns, highways and street addresses.

Since the book came out, he has visited the former Travis Heights residence of Hattie Valdes, the infamous madam whose tale is woven into the main story of the Overton brothers and their associated “characters.”

“It’s on Le Grande Avenue, but it used to be 401 Riverside Drive,” he recounts. “The current owners were having a garage sale and told me: ‘Hattie used to own all these houses on this alcove. We gave a party to celebrate her birthday.’ Hattie used to have backyard barbecues and was an avid gardener. One of the times (the gang) robbed her by coming up through the floor. It’s been preserved like a shrine, along with a secret safe room.”

Scraping Austin’s underside

Sublett, 61, grew up in Johnson City and attended Texas State University for two years.

“I quit to come here and become a rock star,” he says. Sublett did just that.

Among his outfits in the 1970s and ’80s were the Skunks, the Violators and Jesse Sublett’s Secret Six. His firsthand knowledge of the city’s clubs and evolving music scene gave him a leg up in exploring Austin’s underside for this book. After all, some of those characters from the ’60s were still hanging around.

“You always had a connection with the outlaws and the lawyers and the politicians,” Nick Kralj, former club owner and Austin backstage historian, told Sublett. “It was all connected because they all liked the same things. You know, whores and booze and other stuff like that.”

Austin’s early musical innovators, such as the psychedelic rock peddlers 13th Floor Elevators, played the venues, such as Le Lollyop, a go-go discotheque at 1818 Lakeshore Drive, patronized by the gangsters and their molls. The cops treated both facets of the drug culture as equally suspect.

In 1987, Sublett moved to Los Angeles to concentrate on writing crime novels. “Because that’s where Raymond Chandler is from,” he says. “And I wanted to be the rock ‘n’ roll Raymond Chandler.”

He cut a deal with Viking for a series of detective novels set in Austin and continued playing music gigs with the likes of Kathy Valentine and Carla Olson. After his short stories and novels were optioned for films, he started writing screenplays — spec work, adaptations and history documentaries more than anything else.

He moved back to Austin in 1994. Sublett recently celebrated 18 years cancer-free, having survived a case of stage 4 throat cancer in 1997. He lives with wife, Lois Richwine, and they have one child, Dashiell, named after crime novelist Dashiell Hammett.

“I started doing more journeyman writing,” he says. “As if history docs were not journeyman enough. But I really enjoy the writing.” Among his more recent works are “Gravedigger Blues,” in which the world ends in the first chapter, and “Broke, Not Broken: Homer Maxey’s Texas Bank War,” co-written with Broadus A. Spivey, about a successful country-style lawyer.

As Sublett told American-Statesman columnist John Kelso, he took on the Overton Gang project in 2002 while researching the serial killer who murdered his girlfriend Dianne Roberts in 1976. A story in the newspaper archives, “Austin Underworld of the ’60s; Overton Gang Capers recalled,” transfixed him.

He learned that parts of Austin — even Hyde Park — were really sketchy in the 1950s and ’60s. The Overtons operated a multistate enterprise out of their dad’s transmission shop on what was then East First Street, when that neighborhood was a mix of Latinos and working-class Anglos.

“One of the unusual things about Tim Overton was his Austin rootedness,” Sublett writes. “He bought new cars more often than he changed addresses and logged thousands of miles a month on gambling and burglary runs, but by comparison, even his roommates were nomads. You could tell by their arrest records.”

Their wives and girlfriends were often prostitutes, some of them working for Valdes at locales on South Congress and elsewhere. Though they play supporting roles, the women in the book, including Valdes, emerge as fairly full characters. So do cops such as Harvey Elwood Gann and Ernie Scholl.

One ticket out of tough circumstances, then and now, was sports. Tim Overton, whose abusive, addicted father married his short-lived mother when she was just 13, was recruited from Austin High School by coaching legend Darrell Royal. He was part of the team that met Syracuse University in the Cotton Bowl in 1960, though he didn’t play.

After multiple arrests, Overton was dropped from the Longhorn team. He vowed revenge on the University of Texas, as did, for different reasons, his sometime fellow poker player at the Goodall Wooten dorm: Charles Whitman.

The latter’s shootings from the UT Tower on Aug. 1, 1966, were a far more horrific payback.

Aftermath

The Overtons and their gang were dangerous — although sometimes likeable and popular — criminals. How did their friends and families respond to the book?

“I’ve heard from relatives of these guys, including a guy from Huntsville whose great-uncle is Jerry Ray James, one of the main thugs,” Sublett says. “The interesting thing is that they own this history. They aren’t mad because I dug up ‘dirt.’ They accept it as a part of the past.”

He has also met the daughter of Don Jester.

“He wasn’t much part of the safecracking gang, but he was a super-gifted stud athlete, graduating Class of 1958 at Austin High,” Sublett says. “He became untethered. That’s what happened to a lot of those guys”

In fact, so many of the gangsters were football players, one wonders whether head injuries had anything to do with their later, sometimes sociopathic activities.

Sublett has heard from a number of former car dealers, tow truck drivers and Austin attorneys who were very familiar with Tim Overton and the gang.

“You can imagine that they did a lot of business with them,” Sublett says. “In Dallas, a friend of mine mentioned my book to some people in the auto business and was told, ‘Oh, yes, we knew them all. Once, Timmy and the boys came by and bought a large quantity of battery acid. We asked if they had a lot of bad batteries, and Timmy said: No, we’re just going around making collections.’”

Author and screenwriter Bill Wittliff was in a UT fraternity when the gang was pulling tricks on student gamblers.

“It was serious,” Wittliff told Sublett. “I didn’t think it was fun or that it was funny. Poker games put me through college — that and selling sandwiches and stuff out of my dorm room, which I’d made into a store. But when the Overtons showed up to a game, they were there to take all your money, so me and my friends would just fold.”

Some relatives of the Overton family are haunted by how “off the grid” they really were.

“The adopted stepchild of one of Timmy’s brothers, when it was over and he was out on his own, learned that when you got in trouble, you called the police,” Sublett says. “When you got hurt, you went to the doctor. Not like his father and his gang.”