Saturday, June 21, 2014

Interview with Clint Richmond, Author of Fetch the Devil

I recently conducted an online interview with Texas author Clint Richmond about his compelling book, Fetch the Devil.  Years of obsessive research has culminated in a break-through theory of what really happened to Hazel and Nancy Frome in 1938, when they disappeared while traveling.  One of the most infamous unsolved cases in Southwest history, Richmond used information unavailable to lawmen at the time to reignite this long-cold case.  Fetch the Devil is a must-read.

Fetch the Devil: The Sierra Diablo Murders and Nazi Espionage in America
Clint Richmond
ForeEdge (An Imprint of University Press of New England), 2014

Why did you choose to write about the Frome case?
When I covered the criminal courts beat for the old Dallas Times Herald in the early 1960s, I was privy to some of the storytelling sessions about the lawless 1930s conducted by legendary sheriff Bill Decker. He described working on the unsolved murders of the Bay Area socialites during his early law enforcement career. Unsolved murder cases—particularly the infamous ones that are investigated for years—always pose a challenge to journalists. Decades later, as a freelance writer, I decided to delve into the murders to see where the case stood, and if it had book potential. During a hiatus between other projects in the 1990s, I began poring over newspaper stories on the Frome murders in the archives of the University of Texas history library. The more I read, the more intrigued I became.
When did you first become aware of the Nazi connection in what may, at first glance, have seemed like a robbery gone bad?

In doing background reading on the period and location of the Frome murders, I ran across material on the little known, but prolific, pre-World War II Axis espionage activities on the U.S.-Mexico border. With further research, I discovered that a West Coast spy cell, operating out of the San Francisco German consulate, had a major conduit to South America through El Paso.  Although Hazel and Nancy Frome were from the Bay Area, I did not immediately make the connection. At that point I thought I had another potential book about Nazi espionage in the American West.

Over a period of years I was able to get FBI and military intelligence files declassified under the Freedom of Information Act. I triangulated this information with material from other archives, including a massive cold-case file I discovered at the El Paso Sheriff’s Office, on a Texas Open Records Act request. It eventually became clear to me that there were just too many people, places, and things in common to be coincidental. I realized I was in an evidentiary labyrinth—the espionage activity and the murder were not two stories but one very big, overlapping story!  This case involved blackmail, kidnapping, torture and execution-style murder, Nazi espionage, Texas Rangers, a larger-than-life borderland sheriff,  movie stars, and big-shot business executives in a potential crossover true crime/espionage book.

Do you think that if all the law enforcement agencies had worked cohesively together that this case might have been solved?

As is still too frequently true—in small crime cases and big ones—local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies are reluctant to give up their turf.  This was especially true in the Frome murder case, which was hamstrung by rivalries between individual West Texas sheriffs, between El Paso sheriff Chris Fox and the Texas Rangers, and between Chris Fox and the Frome family’s hometown police force. The lack of cooperation and information-sharing in the Frome case was further exacerbated by the fact that much of the FBI’s concurrent investigation of Nazi espionage--wiretaps, mail surveillance, break-ins of suspected subversives’ offices and homes--prior to World War II was not authorized under U.S. law.  There was no way FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover was going to risk revealing the bureau’s extralegal activities, even if it would help solve a local murder case.

Nevertheless, even closer cooperation between the Texas Rangers and the El Paso sheriff may not have produced better results, since the two sides were holding so firmly to their theories of the crime. The Rangers were adamant that it was a simple case of highway robbery, while Sheriff Fox believed—correctly—that the motive for the crime originated in the Bay Area, not in Texas where the murders took place. What did probably prevent solving this case was the attack on Pearl Harbor. The investigation was simply subsumed in the fog of war and never again allocated the necessary law enforcement resources.

At the end of your book, you write a detailed and compelling account of what you think happened to the Fromes.  Are there any other scenarios that could possibly fit the known facts?

Short of a written confession surfacing in a trunk in a dusty attic, with some contrary evidence to support it, I don’t believe another more plausible solution will be discovered in the Frome murder case. The fact that the women were held for days and tortured and some of their most valuable jewelry was left on their bodies, seems to preclude simple robbery as a motive. The fact that neither woman was raped or otherwise sexually abused eliminates sadistic sex as a motive.  The victims’ apparent dearth of enemies and the innocence of their social associations would seem to eliminate revenge or risky behavior as scenarios for murder. However, as with any officially unsolved true crime mystery, we can never be completely satisfied that the Frome murders are now a closed case. I certainly invite readers to ponder the evidence presented and reach their own conclusions.

Romano Trotsky, the man with 36 aliases and who was likely involved in the kidnapping, scammed hundreds of people.  His career of crime was never stopped for long.  He was a loathsome character, and the fact that he found his “wealthy widow” and lived happily ever after is disgusting.  Who do you think this man really was?

Like the case itself, the man called Trotsky will always remain at least somewhat mysterious. Judging from his approximate age and the fact that his native languages were Eastern European, I think we can safely assume he was a part of the Slavic diaspora of White Russians and Ukrainians or Romanians that flocked to North America as a result of the Bolshevik purges and massacres. Most likely, he was a brigand before he left the Russian environs and continued to live by his criminal wits after arriving in North America.  What little medical skill he had was probably gained as a military medical corpsman during the Russian Revolution or World War I.  While he was a glib liar, his other mannerisms suggested he did not have much formal higher education. I think we can be certain he was not a nephew of the exiled Bolshevik leader Leon Trotsky, and he was certainly not an heir to the deposed tsar Nicholas. His true name may have been none of three dozen aliases whose identity and personae he assumed.


Rosemary Nichols said...

This was a great read. I am not usually a true crime fan, but Richmond produced a fascinating picture of the era when the Texas cowboy West was evolving into a modern state. As he says in answer to your last question, it is hard (given the facts he documents) to solve this famous old murder any other way.

Duncan Nanney said...

It sounded from your book that the elusive "Dr. Trotsky" returned to the United States after escaping to Mexico and that Chris Fox could have had access to him to interrogate him but this sounds like it never happened and I wonder why this meeting never took place. It also sounded like Wolfgang Ebell should have been interrogated too regarding the Frome murder bullet which originated in Germany. Do I assume correctly that the authorities did not wish to stray away from the espionage charges once he had been arrested and that Chris Fox was unable to persuade them to look into this?

I have a friend who is a retired agent in the FBI. He thinks it is highly unlikely that the Texas Department of Public Safety would casually shred the documents in the Frome files since it was still an open case and so high profile historically.

Duncan Nanney said...

Your book is fabulous! I have told a friend of mine who is a former FBI agent (not in Texas) how much I enjoyed FETCH THE DEVIL. He had never heard of the Frome case and plans to investigate it further by reading your book. He told me he thinks it is unlikely that the Texas Department of Public Safety would shred the entire Frome file records, it being still an "open case" and so high profile historically.

I think it is unfortunate that Chris Fox was never able to interrogate the elusive "Dr. Trotsky" nor to ask Wolfgang Ebell what he had to say about that Frome murder bullet manufactured in Germany. It seemed like either or both should have happened but did not. Do I have my facts correct on this?