By Patricia Smith Wood
“The high desert of New Mexico is a lonely place to die.
Only coyotes, jackrabbits and prairie dogs heard the screams. . .”
Excerpt from the Prologue
Cricket Coogler, an edgy, undersized, eighteen-year-old waitress, was last seen on March 31, 1949, in Las Cruces, NM sometime between 3:00 and 3:30 a.m. Her partially clad body was discovered in a shallow grave seventeen days later on the Saturday before Easter 1949 by four young men out rabbit hunting.
Because of Cricket’s murder, a Republican was elected governor of New Mexico in 1950, and illegal gambling in the Las Cruces area was destroyed. In addition to that, three law enforcement officials went to federal prison for violating the civil rights of an early suspect, several prominent state politicians were forced from office, and I wrote my first book–The Easter Egg Murder.
Ovida “Cricket” Coogler seemed unexceptional when she disappeared in the early morning hours of March 31, 1949. As a waitress and party girl, she gained a measure of notoriety in the town of Las Cruces. She became a frequent companion of politicians from the local scene, and some from as far away as the capitol in Santa Fe.
New Mexico’s population was still scattered and sparse in 1949, and many illegal activities were ignored in small towns. Las Cruces was a notorious open gambling town, thanks to the politicians who received bribes to look the other way. It wasn’t unusual for gamblers to travel long distances from all over the state to participate in the delights Las Cruces had to offer.
When four rabbit hunters discovered Cricket’s body in the desert south of Las Cruces on the day before Easter, April 16, 1949, the coverup began in earnest. She had been missing several days before the Sheriff even put out a bulletin on her. From the beginning, the investigation into the murder was shoddy and inept. Most of the residents knew Cricket, but they also knew the politicians in the area, and nobody wanted any trouble.
The Sheriff arrested one man and held him in jail for several days. Before his release, the Sheriff and others took the suspect to the area where Cricket’s body was discovered. There they tortured him to force a confession, but he didn’t give them what they wanted. Eventually, another man was arrested and placed on trial for the murder. He was acquitted, and after that, no attempts were made to charge anyone else for Cricket’s death.
How I Came To Write The Book
My father was an FBI agent, and in June 1951, we were transferred to the Albuquerque office. The previous September the Dona Ana County Sheriff, his deputy, and the State police chief had been tried for the torture incident. The federal prison sentences they received were just beginning, and my father was very aware of the Coogler case. I heard him talk about it often over the years.
In the late Sixties, I became close friends with a woman raised in Las Cruces in the Forties. Her sister knew Cricket and went to high school with her.
In the mid-Seventies, I met a former newspaper reporter who lived in Las Cruces shortly after the Coogler murder. He had much first-hand information because he knew most of the principals involved. We talked about the case often, and he had definite ideas about who committed the murder or had ordered it.
It was during the late Seventies that I became entranced with the idea of writing a fictional account of the Cricket Coogler murder. My idea was to create an interesting mystery, loosely based on the actual case, but I would have the advantage of revealing a fictional killer.
I had opportunities to interview several former FBI agents who had first-hand knowledge. I also spoke briefly with former Governor Ed Meachem. He became governor in 1950 largely as a reaction to the scandal that swept the state, and the spirit of reform that took most of its politicians from office after the murder.
In the mid-Eighties, I taped interviews with my father, my friend, and the former newspaper reporter about the Coogler murder and the aftermath.
I searched for all the information I could find about the murder. I found two fine men who made a video titled, The Silence of Cricket Coogler. This video included a particularly interesting interview with author Tony Hillerman, who had been a newspaper reporter in Santa Fe in the years just after the Coogler case. In later years, I had two occasions to discuss the murder with Mr. Hillerman and tell him about my book. He was generous with his encouragement, and my resolve strengthened.
I made several attempts at writing the mystery but didn’t find the voice and the characters I wanted until 2000. After that I developed the story and created some wonderful characters who I hope will live on in a series.
While working on my manuscript, I found Paula Moore’s book, Cricket in the Web. This is an excellent presentation of the details of Cricket’s last night, the timeline, and the story of the investigation and the aftermath. I congratulate her on her excellent research and thoughtful presentation. She interviewed many people from that era and gave us a feel for the locale and its history.
A friend invited me to join a critique group in 2004, and these wonderful women became my advisors and teachers. With their help and encouragement, I finally completed the first draft in mid-2008. The endless job of editing was my focus after that.
Another piece of good fortune happened in late 2008 when I took a class from best-selling author Sandi Ault at the Hillerman Writers Conference. Not only is Sandi a fabulous teacher and writer, but she is also a generous and helpful friend. Her expert guidance and encouragement have meant so much to me on my journey.
I secured a publishing contract in September 2012 with Aakenbaaken & Kent. It was published on February 14, 2013. The book is available online at IndieBound, at Amazon as both the Kindle edition and the paper book, and other independent books stores across the country. John Hoffsis at Treasure House Books & Gifts in Old Town Albuquerque keeps a supply on hand. It was a finalist in the 2013 NM/AZ Book Awards in two categories: Best Mystery and Best First Book.
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Patricia Smith Wood