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May 4th, 2012
Bartee Haile: The real story behind The Sugarland Express

This Week in Texas History: A column
by BARTEE HAILE

As the sun came up on May 2, 1969, a young couple got the drop on the highway patrolman who answered their phony plea for help at an isolated ranch in southeast Texas.

Robert “Bobby” Dent, 22, was passing through Port Arthur at 2 a.m. with his wife of one year, Ila Fae Dent, 21, when flashing red lights suddenly appeared in his rearview mirror. The ex-convict, out of the joint just two weeks, did not know what the lawmen wanted, but he was not about to hang around and find out.

Roaring out of town on state highway 73, the Dents’ car broke down near Anahuac. With the police only seconds behind them, the two eluded capture by dashing into the woods that bordered the blacktop.

Bobby and Ila Fae made their way north in the darkness to a ranch house between the tiny Jefferson County communities of Fannett and Nome. In dire need of a four-wheel getaway, Bobby hit upon the ironic idea of calling the cops for a ride.

The dispatcher gave directions to Kenneth Krone, 27, and told the DPS trooper two hitchhikers that claimed to have been beaten and robbed would be waiting for him. It was six o’clock in the morning, when Krone walked into the kitchen of the ranch house and found Bobby and Ila Fae holding handguns pointed right at him.

Bobby disarmed the stunned state trooper, making his better half a present of Krone’s .357 Magnum, and forced him to try on his own handcuffs for size. Marched at gunpoint to his patrol car, Krone did as he was told and slipped behind the wheel. Bobby sat next him in the front seat with the cocked Magnum in his ribs, while Ila Fae stuck the trooper’s shotgun in his ear from the back seat.

Obeying Bobby’s terse instructions to “drive,” it did not take Krone long to realize his captors had no plan nor even a destination. To make matters worse, they clearly had not counted on the attention a state trooper under such obvious duress would attract on the heavily traveled highway to Houston.

When the commandeered cruiser reached Texas’ largest city, a lengthening line of law enforcement was in close but restrained pursuit. The caravan, which eventually numbered more than a hundred vehicles, included additional highway patrol, local police, deputy sheriffs from several counties, news media vans and an ambulance.

By the time the “chase” turned north toward Conroe, DPS captain Jerry Miller was in charge and in constant two-way radio communication with the fleeing fugitives. As Miller saw it, his job was to calm Bobby Dent down and keep him from flying off the handle.

“I told him what you are doing is foolish,” Capt. Miller later recounted. He advised Bobby to “pull over and stop” only to be told “I’m not going back to the penitentiary.”

On another occasion, Miller suggested that Bobby at least let his wife out of the car, but the former inmate could not bear the thought of being separated again from Ila Fae. “She doesn’t want to come back there with you!” was his heated response.

In attempt to earn the Dents’ trust, Miller allowed them on two occasions to stop for gas. True to his word, he kept the army of pursuers at a distance while the three stars of the real-life drama filled their tank, went to the restroom and bought snacks and drinks.

Not long after the second time-out, Bobby offered to release his hostage if Miller would let him visit his two step-children, Ila Fae’s from a previous marriage, at their grandparents’ place near Bryan. Miller agreed to the deal and sealed it with a promise to give the couple a 15-minute head-start after the reunion.

Bobby Dent was not only a third-rate petty criminal, who had done hard time for vandalizing vending machines, he also was incredibly gullible.

It was nearly noon, when the Dents pulled up to the white frame house in Wheelock. As per Miller’s orders, the caravan parked a mile down the dirt road.

The three climbed the front steps with Patrolman Krone in the lead, Bobby behind him with the shotgun and Ila Fae bringing up the rear with the .357 Magnum.

As his eyes adjusted to the dim light, Krone could make out his rescuers. He stepped to the side and dropped to the floor just as Sheriff Sonny Elliott of Robertson County and FBI agent Bob Wiatt opened fire.

The shotgun blast and pistol rounds propelled Bobby Dent right back out the door and onto the steps. “Oh, my God, you’ve killed him!” screamed Ila Fae dropping her pistol to the ground, and she was right.

For her part, Ila Fae Dent was given five years but served only five months. She died of natural causes in 1992 while working at a motel in Livingston.

“The Sugarland Express” hit movie theaters in 1974. Despite a cast with two Academy Award winners (Goldie Hawn as Ila Fae and Ben Johnson as Capt. Miller), the first feature film by 30 year old Steven Spielberg laid an egg at the box office.

It might have helped ticket sales if the script had stayed true to the real story. Case in point: Ila Fae did not bust Bobby out of prison. But to his credit Spielberg did show a lot of recognizable Texas countryside during the marathon chase scenes.

Bartee Haile welcomes your comments, questions and suggestions at P.O. Box 152, Friendswood, TX 77549 or haile@pdq.net.

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2 thoughts on “Bartee Haile: The real story behind The Sugarland Express

  1. Dear Mr. Halle: The story about The Sugarland Express brought back many memories of my brothers 30 plus years with the FBI. As you mentioned in your article, Spielberg’s first feature film not only “laid an egg” at the box office, it laid an egg with my brother, also. He was very upset with Spielberg for portraying Dent as a hero and not giving law enforcement the credit they deserved. (Incidentally, I believe officer Crones name is spelled with a “C” and not “K”).

    My brother was also involved with the Fred Gomaz Carrasco prison break in July 1974 at the Huntsville State Penitentiary, among many other high profile cases.

    My brother passed away August 13, 2010 at home in Bryan

  2. I remember the caravan of law enforcement officers coming through Navasota Texas. not sure but I was told that Carrols Giant burger fixed them a burger and had it drop off near the Navasota river just outside of Navasota Texas.

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