Rough Skies

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As is the case in all undercover work, there eventually came a time when it was feared that he had become too familiar to too many West Coast underworld figures. In addition to his successful tenure as a buyer of stolen goods, he had mingled with and made cases against kiddie-porn producers, drug dealers and counterfeiters. It was time, the Bureau advised, to move to a new territory.

By midday inside the American command center, duties were being carried out with military-like precision. "It was chaotic, but it was organized," Wansley remembers. "Everyone knew his or her job and was getting it done."

Once the fast-paced flow of information had begun, the security director turned much of his attention to the needs of FBI investigators. He was soon placing calls to intelligence sources he had developed throughout the world in an effort to help learn more about the hijackers and their mission, searching passenger lists for any clue they might provide, all while continuing to coordinate with operational department officials attempting to secure lodging and ground transportation for American's stranded customers.

It would be 72 hours before he finally heard the voice of a person he'd badly wanted to speak with since the insanity had begun. Rich Davis, the chief of United Airlines security, was on the phone.

"I could tell from the sound of his voice that he was absolutely exhausted," Wansley recalls. "We all were. But, just to talk with someone--probably the only other person in the world who understood what I was feeling at the time--was a much-needed lift.

"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.

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.

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Carlton Stowers
Contact: Carlton Stowers

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