My own experience verifies what cops have told me — that 10 percent of the criminal population commits 90 percent of all the crimes they investigate. That 10 percent represents the best and the brightest of the criminal element. The other 90 percent are too stupid or too strung out or both to get away with jaywalking.
That would apply to the two young dudes I will call Moe and Curly that I picked up in my cab at the Bluebonnet Motel on South Lamar one morning in 1978. Like Bozo and other ne’er do wells I picked up, they didn’t have a ready answer when I asked, “Where to?” The sticky smell of harmless Mexican weed accompanied them.
The one I will call Moe because he did most of the talking said, “Well, dude, that kind of depends. We got some very cool coins here, see, and we’re trying to cash some of them in. You know any, like, coin shops around here?”
Moe opened his palm to give what looked, in that fleeting glimpse, to be an 1878 gold piece. Maybe a twenty-dollar gold piece? Moe said the coins might be worth thousands of dollars. A nice tip was in store for me if I could hook them up with a buyer. Even before I took them to a neighborhood coin shop at South Lamar and West Mary I had little doubt that my two stoned stooges had stolen the very cool coins.
The guy at the coin shop didn’t think the coins were cool. He lightly touched one of the gold pieces and jerked his hand back.
“Ow!” He touched it again and pulled his hand back. “Ow!”
Moe and Curly didn’t get it.
“Look fellas — this stuff is too goddamn hot to even touch.”
“Hot? What do you mean ‘hot?’”
“I mean scalding hot. Red hot. Sure, that’s real gold you got there, but that’s also damn near the sloppiest counterfeiting effort I’ve ever seen, fellas, and I’ve seen a bunch of ‘em. You don’t even have to know what to look for to see this is a bunch of crap. Look at that date! It’s like my five-year-old learning his numbers.”
He laughed and laughed and still appeared to have some laughter left in him when he cut it off and said with special emphasis, “I’ll pass on these, fellas.”
Back in the cab we all agreed that the coins looked real to us and, hey, at least they were made of real gold. Somehow, the encounter buoyed Moe's and Curly’s spirits. Mine too. The meter was still running and we were on our way to another coin shop, this one on Guadalupe. This proprietor wasn’t as theatrical as the first one.
His minimalistic appraisal: “Get those out of here before I call the cops.”
The admonishment seriously bummed out my two stooges, who had been so lighthearted and giddy when I first picked them up. They passed a joint back and forth in the backseat and pondered their next move. Did I know any other coin dealers, maybe someone who wasn’t so uptight about the coins’ provenance?
Well, there was one more guy, I said, but his shop was in North Austin, “a pretty fur piece” from there and a considerable distance from the Bluebonnet, where I assumed they wanted to return. I called this dealer Tricky Dick because he had a reputation to warrant it. Moe and Curly finished the joint and said it was worth a try. The meter kept on clicking. The dudes assured me they had plenty of money.
Not for long, I thought.
The trip turned out better than we had any reason to expect. Tricky Dick was willing to make a deal. He gave the coins a thorough going over. He shook his head like he couldn’t believe it but he was smiling all the while.
“These coins are phony baloney,” he said. “But you know that, don’t you?”
Moe and Curly stammered and shuffled their feet and shrugged.
“But there’s good news!” Tricky Dick broke into a wide grin. “The good news is gold is selling for six hundred dollars an ounce! Each one of these coins weigh right at a quarter of an ounce! I’ll buy them, cash money, no question asked, for one-fifty apiece.”
We all had a little celebration there at the coin shop as Tricky Dick took money from the cash register, counted out hundreds of dollars and paid Moe and Curly, who had given up their dreams of a six-figure payday but were dizzy with the reality of the mid-three-figure payoff they got instead.
Back at the Bluebonnet, they dropped a fifty on me.
Because of their generosity, and maybe because I had a contact buzz from all the reefer they smoked on the way to Tricky Dick’s and back, I gave them a card with my name and cab number on it and told them to ask for me special if they needed a cab again. Unless, of course, they ran out of money.
Then I headed for a car wash to get rid of the reefer smell and give the cab a good overall cleaning. That’s when I spied one of the fake gold pieces on the floorboard. I put it in my pocket and took it to Tricky Dick the next day.
“They missed one.”
Tricky Dick laughed, a true conspirator. “So they did. Well, their loss is your gain!”
This coin also weighed a quarter of an ounce and he backed it up by giving me $150 and no receipt. We agreed on an alternate reality that did not include this particular transaction.
Flash forward two or three weeks. I am in my humble abode, minding my own business, when there comes a rapping, as of someone furiously pounding the goddamn door. Two detectives with badges and guns ask if I am who I am and then they show me a crudely counterfeited 1878 gold piece.
“You need to come with us.”
What was happening to me became even clearer when I saw Moe and Curly in the backseat of a squad car parked in front of my apartment.
Moe called out like this was some goddamn joyous reunion. “Hey, dude, how’s it going?”
A couple of my neighbors were outside and didn’t seem as surprised at what was taking place as I would have hoped. Two plainclothes detectives (is there any other kind?) led me to an unmarked car. An Austin police car carrying Moe and Curly pulled away. I never saw them again.
My captors introduced themselves as detectives from Pharr, Texas. They found my business card on Moe and Curly and went to Roy’s Taxi to ascertain my whereabouts. My boss gave me up, no questions asked. I pointed out that I had never been to Pharr and didn’t even know where it was but I figured it must be pretty “Pharr” from Austin. That led to an awkward silence.
The detective driving finally said they were tracking stolen merchandise and the trail had led them to Austin. And me.
The other detective said, “You’re in big trouble, kid.”
They took me to an interrogation room at APD’s north substation. It looked a lot like interrogation rooms I’d read about and seen depicted on TV and in the movies. Things usually didn’t end well for the person being ushered into these particular rooms. The suspects usually tried to lie their way out of it and, as a direct result, got beat up, charged or both. Cops tend not to believe you even when you’re telling the truth. Lying only complicates an already unpleasant process.
This much I knew so I told the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, over and over, with no variations. I was tempted to embellish the events a bit, round off some of the edges to make me look more like an unwitting dupe than I actually was, but I knew without them reading me my rights that a court of law could hold anything I said against me. So I stuck to the facts, mundane as they were, employing a "don’t-shoot-me-I’m-just-the cab-driver" defense strategy.
The two Pharr detectives wasted the Good Cop-Bad Cop routine on me because I really didn’t know the difference. Good Cop kept saying that he and his partner were just trying to track all the stolen goods and I was only there to provide them with some information and it wouldn’t take long. He continued to say that even as my interrogation moved into its second hour. Bad Cop kept reminding me that I was in big trouble. He asked if I thought going to jail was worth $150.
I’ll say this for him: He asked easy questions.
When Bad Cop left the room to go to the bathroom, Good Cop said he was going to let me in on the Real Story. Somebody (Moe and Curly, no doubt) had stolen some gold coins and gold objects from a wealthy rancher in south Texas a few months prior to this current misunderstanding. The rancher went to the local newspapers and TV stations to announce how inept and plain dumb the Pharr cops were for not finding and arresting the perpetrators. He suggested the cops were “in on it.”
The detectives followed a trail of pawned and phony gold merchandise from the Rio Grande Valley through San Antonio and finally to Austin, where they followed the same general trail I’d blazed in the cab with Moe and Curly, ending at Tricky Dick’s coin shop.
Good Cop said the stolen objects were pure gold but the coins were, of course, fakes—and not very good ones at that. The detectives suspected the rancher of melting gold objects to make counterfeit coins that would, if they were real, fetch small fortunes. Moe and Curly messed things up by ripping off the rancher and hitting the road with his fake gold coins.
Bad Cop came back to the room more subdued, like he’d taken a chill pill. He asked me quite nicely to go over my story just one more time. When I was through, he nodded and even smiled. That was about the time Tricky Dick came into the room, accompanied by an Austin detective.
“That’s him!” Tricky Dick pointed at me with a clenched fist. “That guy owes me one hundred and fifty dollars! He sold me the goddamn coin! Son of a bitch knew it was phony too!”
This was where telling the cops the truth paid off. They already knew what the deal was and so didn’t react at all, other than to restrain Tricky Dick, who it appeared was stupid enough to assault me in front of a bunch of cops.
I had just one question for him: “Who the hell are you?”
Tricky Dick reminded me that he was the poor unsuspecting small businessman who made the mistake of trusting me and was now in a world of trouble because of it. I told him I thought I remembered selling somebody who looked like him a gold coin but, hell, I couldn’t find a receipt or anything else to prove it. “What about you? Got a receipt?”
Tricky Dick promised to kill me just as soon as he was able.
Good Cop declared that Tricky Dick and me should settle the matter between us without involving law enforcement unless, of course, Tricky Dick filled in the hollow threats of murder with a dead body — mine or anybody else’s.
In the meantime, they had some questions for Tricky Dick. Me, they let go.
Tricky Dick called for me “special” a few times after that, but always from the coin shop so I always refused the call and urged dispatchers not to send anyone in my place. Why Tricky Dick didn’t call from another location if he wanted me to actually show up for a killing or maiming I have no idea, but I have a strong suspicion that he wasn’t any trickier or smarter than the two stooges.
Maybe I wasn’t, either. I was just a poor Austin cab driver. Other than the city, what was I supposed to know?
Clay Coppedge © 2018
Clay Coppedge is a freelance writer, former contributor to the Austin Sun and a former cab driver. He lives on the outskirts of Walburg, Texas and is a proud supporter of the statute of limitations.