Rough Skies

Larry Wansley--former Marine, cop and FBI agent--has his biggest task ahead of him: making American Airlines safe from terrorism

"We talked for a few minutes, trying to offer each other a little encouragement. I remember telling him that he and I had just become unwitting members of a very exclusive club."

"Yeah," Davis had wearily replied.

"Let's just hope the membership never grows," Wansley added.

Larry Wansley carries the nickname "Mandrake," which many thought he acquired because of past deeds of crime-fighting heroism. Actually, he got it from a comic strip.
Mark Graham
Larry Wansley carries the nickname "Mandrake," which many thought he acquired because of past deeds of crime-fighting heroism. Actually, he got it from a comic strip.
Shades and a smile: Wansley, here working undercover in Jackson, Mississippi, learned to deal with all manner of underworld operatives while he was an FBI special agent.
Shades and a smile: Wansley, here working undercover in Jackson, Mississippi, learned to deal with all manner of underworld operatives while he was an FBI special agent.


From California, Wansley returned to Texas, assigned to the Bureau office in Dallas. "I thought it would be nice to just do routine field work for a while," he recalls. It was not to be. Shortly after his arrival he was handed a thick file on a corrupt Gregg County sheriff named Tom Welch, described as a "one-man crime wave" who was turning his back on such illegal activities as gambling, prostitution, drug trafficking and fencing of stolen goods--so long as he received a cut of the profits. Wansley headed for Longview in a flashy Cadillac provided by the Bureau, this time posing as a front man for a Las Vegas crime organization interested in establishing illegal gambling operations in Texas. They planned to start, Wansley would explain, with a casino in the East Texas county watched over by Sheriff Welch.

For several weeks all went well. He flashed an impressive bankroll in nightclubs like the New Yorker, El Greco and The Night Life along the highway between Longview and Kilgore, mingling with the region's ne'er-do-wells and dropping hints that he had come looking for "new business opportunities." It wasn't long before he was invited to visit the sheriff's office.

"He didn't beat around the bush," Wansley remembers. "He made it clear that he ran the county and wanted to know what kind of 'business' I was interested in. When I explained that 'my people' were looking for a place to open a gambling joint, he even drove me out to an isolated farmhouse near the county line, suggesting it would be an ideal place."

On the way, Sheriff Welch made it clear that he expected to be involved. Wansley remembers the conversation well: "I assume you understand there are people you're going to have to cut in on the action," the sheriff told him. "Gambling's against the law, but if everything's done right, you won't have to ever worry about getting raided."

It was the lawman's next suggestion that chilled the undercover agent: "If you run into any trouble," the sheriff said, "and any bodies show up, they damn well need to be found on the other side of the county line. I don't like any trouble here in my county."

Having no real intention of actually opening up a gambling operation, Wansley stalled for time while building his case. Finally, he says, the sheriff became suspicious of his slow progress.

One evening, as he was leaving one of the Longview clubs, Wansley was greeted by a deputy who informed him the sheriff would like to speak with him. He was driven to an oil field outside of town where Welch, flashing the same good-ol'-boy smile he'd shown in previous meetings, was waiting. After a few minutes of small talk, he asked about the remodeling progress at the farmhouse.

Wansley recounts what occurred from that point in his 1989 autobiography, FBI Undercover: The True Story of Special Agent "Mandrake":

"In a matter of minutes the lights of downtown Longview were behind us and we were driving down a farm-to-market road at a speed that would have earned a ticket for anyone but the county sheriff. The conversation dissolved into an uncomfortable silence.

"Without explanation, Welch slowed and turned onto a dirt road. He drove past a row of pumps that lazily nodded like giant metallic hobbyhorses, carefully avoiding the ruts until we came to an opening near one of the derricks. Killing the engine, he turned to me and said, 'Let's take a walk.'

"There is something about the darkness that seems to amplify the sounds of night. The rhythmic grinding of pumps, the tiny shrill insect sounds and the crunch of our steps along a path leading away from the derrick provided an almost dreamlike atmosphere.

"'Peaceful out here, isn't it?' the sheriff asked. At the moment, I was feeling every emotion but peace."

The sheriff, Wansley remembers, reminded him of their previous conversations, then expressed concern that perhaps the gambling operation was already up and running without his knowledge.

"As he talked," Wansley writes, "he had slowed his walk slightly and was a step behind me. The next thing I was aware of was the cold steel of a gun barrel pressing behind one ear.

"'Dammit,' the sheriff said, 'much as I hate to say it, I just don't feel like I can trust you.' I heard the hammer cock as he pressed the gun harder against my head. 'Someone screws me around,' he said, 'he only does it once.'"

As he spoke, they reached the edge of a large hole in the ground that, Wansley recalls, looked to him very much like a freshly dug grave.

"When you're working undercover," he says, "a lot of what you do is unscripted; you just fly by the seat of your pants. All I could think was that I didn't want my life to end at the bottom of a hole in that godforsaken place." Thus he immediately went on the offensive, cursing the sheriff for his stupidity. "You're about to let the sweetest deal you've ever had go out the window. My people know ways of making money you've never even thought of. And you're standing here, wanting to blow my head off."

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