Longform

Rough Skies

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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."

The sheriff slowly holstered his pistol and began to laugh. "Hell, boy," he said, "I was just testing you. No harm done, OK?" The relieved Wansley survived to continue his investigation.

The last time the agent saw Tom Welch was a few weeks before Christmas in 1979 as he sat in a Gregg County courtroom, learning that the sheriff had been convicted of a laundry list of federal offenses and was headed to prison.

There would be other cases after the East Texas investigation, but Wansley began to sense a dulling of his edge. The adrenaline rush, he knew, had begun to fade. Other priorities came into clearer focus.

In those latter days when he wandered among the thieves and conmen and contract killers, there was another dream that began to visit him regularly. Today, he smiles as he recalls it.

"When you're playing a role," he reflects, "you never sleep soundly. You wake and pace, replaying the previous day, searching for any signs that you might have slipped up. Once you've finally convinced yourself that you did OK, you immediately begin to worry about how you'll handle things the next day." It was, he says, a merry-go-round mind game that had no stopping place.

In the dream, the setting might be different, but the story line never changed. "I'd be talking with some crook, trying to make a deal," he says. "...I'd instinctively know he was suspicious and would talk faster and faster, urgently trying to gain his trust while fighting off this feeling of intimidation. I'd put my hands in my pockets to hide the fact my palms were sweating. And I'd strain to see his face but never could. It was always out of focus, always hidden in the shadows. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn't see who he was.

"Looking back on it all, I think the never-ending paranoia and that damn dream was the worst part of the job."

And one of myriad reasons--along with family concerns; he had a wife and two young children--that he finally opted to end his career with the Bureau.

When Dallas Cowboys general manager Tex Schramm decided he needed someone who could not only oversee security for the club but also serve as an adviser and mentor to the players, Wansley--ex-Marine boxing champion, one-time undercover jock at Baylor and lifetime sports fan--had a new custom-made career.

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Carlton Stowers
Contact: Carlton Stowers

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