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September 14th, 2011
Bartee Haile: Crime-fighting DA murdered in bloody Borger

This Week in Texas History: A column

After a seven-month absence, the Texas Rangers returned to Borger on Sep. 15, 1929, this time to hunt down the killer of a courageous crime-fighter.

Two days earlier, District Attorney Johnny Holmes made the final preparations to appear the next morning before the Hutchinson County grand jury at Stinnett. Finished at last with his probe of crime and corruption in Borger, the prosecutor was ready to eradicate lawlessness in the Panhandle boomtown.

On that Friday the 13th evening, Holmes stopped his car alongside the house to let out his wife and mother-in-law before driving into the garage. As he lowered the door, a concealed killer fired five shots. Three bullets hit the flesh-and-blood target, and the D.A. dropped like a rock in the driveway.

Mrs. Holmes ran out the back door to see the gunman, smoking pistol in hand, bending over her dead husband. In the dim twilight, the dazed woman did not get a good look at the assassin, who vanished leaving his victim lifeless on the gravel.

Forty-eight hours after the murder of the crime fighter, the Texas Rangers were back in Borger. The state lawmen had left the wild oil center the previous February with the faint hope that vice and violence had been weeded out during their two-year stay. But the bloody boomtown refused to stay cleaned up.

Borger did not even exist until the spring of 1925, when oil was discovered 40 miles northeast of Amarillo. A.P. Borger and other oilmen from Oklahoma and Missouri opened a tent town not far from the strike and braced for the inevitable flood of fortune hunters. Forty thousand frantic souls inundated Borger, each one eager to grab his or her share of the instant riches.

To enforce their own brand of law and order, Borger and his associates imported Dick “Two-Gun” Herwig, a convicted murderer free on appeal. The notorious Oklahoman brought along a gang of felonious friends to staff his city marshal force and to establish the infamous Borger “line.”

The “line” was organized crime Panhandle style. Herwig sanctioned and supervised wide-open saloons in defiance of Prohibition while supplying the illegal barrooms with his own beer and hard liquor. Proprietors were licensed, the local version of protection, and coerced into selling only “line” alcohol. Dozens of these saloons, which also offered oilfield roughnecks gambling and narcotics, soon flourished.

Two thousand prostitutes practiced their ancient profession, each paying a weekly “fine” of eighteen dollars to stay in business. From this source alone, Herwig took in an estimated half million dollars in just six months.

The city marshals also made money hand over fist. In addition to a share of the “line” loot, they padded their pockets with on-the-spot collections of arbitrary fines, the buying and selling of stolen cars plus a personal piece of the saloons, gambling, drugs and prostitution.

The marshals were far too busy to bother with such unprofitable duties as protecting law-abiding citizens. At the mercy of armed robbers who pulled stick-ups around the clock, honest townspeople carried “courtesy rolls,” bundles of bills they contributed to the criminal cause in exchange for their lives.

In the summer of 1926, two deputy sheriffs were shot down on a Borger street by one of the many fugitives, who had bought sanctuary from Herwig. Like all homicides this double murder went unpunished and provoked a crackdown by state and federal authorities.

An army of Prohibition and narcotic agents, U.S. marshals and Texas Rangers raided Borger in October 1926. The bars and gambling dens were padlocked, and an ocean of confiscated booze along with tons of gaming equipment were destroyed. Hundreds of suspected criminals were herded into a domino hall by shotgun-toting federal marshals and strongly advised to relocate.

The Rangers were the last to leave, staying in town until February 1929. No sooner had they exited, however, than the bad guys were back in business.

The Holmes slaying in September was the last straw. The Rangers returned and were joined two weeks later by the Fifty-Sixth Cavalry of the Texas National Guard mobilized by Gov. Dan Moody to put teeth in his martial-law decree. Neither the Rangers nor the governor pulled any punches in an all-out effort to cleanse the tainted town once and for all.

Dick Herwig and his henchmen were arrested, and all known characters were escorted to the city limits. Moody appointed a close friend as district attorney and replaced the mayor and county sheriff after both opted to resign.

When military rule ended on Oct. 29, 1929, only a fraction of the original residents remained. That minority reformed Borger into an outstanding community chosen a generation later as an All-American city.

But as for the killer of D.A. Holmes, he got away with murder.

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