Part 4, Section 1 —
Bobby BlueJacket and Bobby Wilson strolled across the Stone Brothers Buick jeep lot under lines of lightbulbs strung up overhead like it was a garden party. Bobby Wilson was going to buy his pal a new jeep and—as the dealership with Jeep dealer St. Louis was allegedly connected with the Chicago Outfit—they’d be able to get a discount. BlueJacket had been out of prison only a few days.
As the two old friends reached the glass-walled showroom at the fat end of the lot, a man blew out of doors, ran to his jeep, and sped off down Route 66. BlueJacket and Wilson did a double-take and proceeded inside.
Al Grimes, a Stone Brothers salesman, walked up. “Do you know that son of a bitch that just come out the door?” Grimes asked.
Bobby Wilson shook his head.
“Nah, I don’t know him,”said BlueJacket. “Who was it?”
“Hell, that was the foreman on your jury,” Grimes remarked. “He looked up and seen you and goddamn near had a heart attack.” It was George Roysdon.
What he thought, apparently, was that I hunted him down! Well anyway, I’m not even sure how long it was after that—one day I’m reading my newspaper and here’s this young guy they’re writin’ this story about that’s in jail. They filed a goddamn robbery charge on him: George Roysdon, Jr. And of course, I was thinking how nice it would be to run into that son of a bitch and tell him, “Now how does it feel, goddamn punk?” But the thing of it is, I really didn’t need to do that, because you know why? The minute that that boy got arrested and the police, or whoever it was, called his daddy and told him, “Your son’s in this jail,” what’s the very first thing you think went through his mind? The very first thing: The name “Bobby BlueJacket.”
BlueJacket was relishing these first days of freedom. Just as those guys inside the joint had been “waiting for him,” Tulsans on the outside, like Bobby Wilson, were ready with open arms. Wilson would provide structure and a support system. His life was a blueprint to build from. But, even though Wilson was settled into a a life now, his past few years had been rough as well.
The boxer had moved back to New York City after getting out of jail in Tulsa in 1948. He spent the year of 1949 winning bouts, but by February of 1950, Wilson decided to move again to Tulsa. There was something about that town that always pulled the boys back. Wilson then got into a tussle in Tulsa with none other than detective Al DeMoss, who a few years later would embark on the Lulubel Rossman score. The Daily Ardmoreite described the encounter:
Professional pugilist Bobby Wilson, 21, lost an impromptu match today to detective Alfred DeMoss. The scuffle followed an eight-mile automobile chase punctuated by gunfire. Wilson attempted to subdue DeMoss and was grazed by a bullet from the officer’s gun. DeMoss then pinned Wilson’s head to the ground with his foot and proceeded to arrest the boxer’s two companions.
Bobby Wilson moved on to St. Louis where he worked for a man named Buster Wortman—a mobster, club owner, coin-operated machine entrepreneur, and political operator who worked in Illinois and Missouri, primarily in East St. Louis. After World World II, Wortman was allegedly a Chicago Outfit boss from Springfield to Cairo, Illinois, and St. Louis to Springfield, Missouri. When Bobby Wilson came to St. Louis in the 1950s, Wortman had him doing robberies. These activities led WIlson to a short stint at the infamous Jefferson City prison.
Now, Bobby Wilson was a devoutly religious man in Tulsa and dedicated to getting BlueJacket on his feet. And after buying BlueJacket a new jeep, Wilson set his friend up with a nice girl from church. Her name was Lois Anne. The two quickly married.
Lois Anne played a consequential role in BlueJacket’s life. But the importance lay not so much in their romance. She passed through his world like a momentary fog, and the two were legally divorced by 1960 with no children. It was Lois Anne’s father rather, a man named Clyde Swarthout, who came to direct BlueJacket’s professional trajectory in the free world. Author Ron Padgett described Swarthout as, “one of the few in Tulsa who would cheerfully hire ex-cons.” Clyde Swarthout’s business was the sale of used tires.
The business was essentially salvage work, finding used tires for cheap in junk piles, warehouses, and other tire farms, and then reselling the rubber at a decent margin. BlueJacket described the work as, “Picking up old casings and old tires from different individuals and companies all over this part of the country.” Guys in this line of work were known as “tire jockeys” or “tire retrievers.” Hartley Leroy Enger, who’d later work with BlueJacket, said of tire jockeys: “They’re the people that go out and get tires and then resell ‘em. Like in most cases, people take their junk tires and we retrieve ‘em and sell ‘em … [We’d get them from] a lot of times, landfills, dumps, people’s personal property. You know, like farms and that stuff.” Buying and selling was done almost entirely in cash. Clyde Swarthout’s territory was the middle part of the United States.
BlueJacket got a job on Swarthout’s road gang in 1957, “workin’ for $1 an hour, 10 hours a day.” Bobby Wilson joined up too, having already worked for Swarthout earlier in the 1950s. They operated under the name of the Tower Maintenance and Salvage Company of Tulsa. The original shop was located at Admiral and Utica. It later moved a few blocks to Admiral and Peoria, which was to remain the primary office. BlueJacket quickly rose up the ranks. “[Wilson] come in and we formed a partnership in ‘61,” he explained. “And then we put another store in here in Tulsa over on Pine. We had the big store down on Admiral and Peoria. Had the biggest one around. Goddamn, we was flyin’ then!”
And so, from 1957 to 1959, BlueJacket’s life began to self-assemble. Routines formed undictated by prison guards. Friendships were cemented out of desire, not necessity. He was, for the first time, becoming a legitimate businessman, working his way up from $1 an hour to an autonomous managerial figure in Swarthout’s business. Everything that lay ahead would be better than before. It had to be, because the past had been a bunch of bullshit. Yet, BlueJacket hadn’t forgotten about his friends he left inside the joint. And if he had wanted to forget them, they wouldn’t have let him. Lots of convicts were reaching out for parole help.
Everyone figured BlueJacket must have gotten out of prison the old-fashioned way, by paying someone off. That wasn’t the case of course, but when BlueJacket explained that it was only Tex Bynum, Charlie Chesnut, and Nolen Bulloch’s’ confidence that set him free, he was often met with skeptical eyebrows or cynical snickering. And while parole bribes maybe weren’t uncommon in those days, BlueJacket said Tex never accepted them. But try telling that to guys on the inside.
Charlie Mayhew, the ex-mayor of Vinita, offered BlueJacket $100,000 to get him out of prison. Mayhew was serving something like a 25-year sentence for killing a guy while drunk. “I wouldn’t do it,” BlueJacket said of the bribe. “I couldn’t take that little bit of a chance it could be a setup. Couldn’t take that chance. ‘Cause I’d get my friends swallowed.”
Tex was officially made director of the Pardon and Parole Board by 1960, and he remained a good friend to BlueJacket, as did Charlie Chesnut. So, while BlueJacket didn’t use money, he did use his clout with the parole officials to help out buddies. It was what he called “a friendship deal.” One of the most important “friendship deals” involved his friend from the prison musical band, Bob Knapp. The time had come to get him out of the joint. BlueJacket drove up to Chesnut’s house to see what could be done. “I was so strong with Chesnut,” BlueJacket remembered. “Don’t think he didn’t love Bobby BlueJacket.” The two men discussed the issue in Chesnut’s garage as rain hammered down on a thin roof.
“This boy needs out of the penitentiary and I know you can do it,” BlueJacket told Chesnut.
“Well Bobby, would he ever be a problem?”
“I want to tell you that he’s pure. You’ll never have not one day’s problem with him,” BlueJacket assured. “Give you my word, he’s a good decent guy. He’s not the kind of person who has any problems with anybody.”
“He’ll be out of there,” said Chesnut. And 45 days later, Knapp was free.
Tex and Chesnut’s interest in BlueJacket was part of a greater concern with the rehabilitation of convicts and their reintroduction into society. To these guys, how paroles were executed would largely make or break an ex-convict’s chance at the straight life. As director of the state Pardon and Parole Board, Tex declared, “I believe in the principles of parole and the gospel of the second chance.” He argued that parole would save taxpayers money by reducing prison populations. At the time, there were only nine parole officers supervising 1,200 cases, or, one officer per 140 parolees. That was almost triple the recommended workload.
Public apathy towards paroling issues was coupled with more draconian opinions that believed the granting of paroles should be minimized for the sake of law and order. This was nothing new. Parole, since its inception, had been criticized outside the walls. And in the 1960s, angry citizens and prosecutors demonized Tex and Chesnut. But what the critics needed to understand, argued Tex, was that convicts were bound to be released whether or not the public wanted them to be. “It costs about $100 a year to supervise a parolee against about $1,200 to keep him in an institution,” Tex explained, then citing that 90 percent of paroled Oklahomans “make good.” He said in 1965:
Too often the public does not realize that the real alternative to releasing a man on parole is not a substantially longer period in prison, but turning him loose, free of supervision and guidance. … When a criminal’s sentence has expired he walks down the front steps of the penitentiary a free man. Theoretically he has paid his debt to society and is on his way to sin no more. Actually in far too many cases an embittered, deadly enemy of society is walking out without any restraining influence whatever, ready to start a new series of depredations.
When a man is paroled before his sentence expires society has some control over him. He must report to his parole officer. He is placed in some position of gainful employment on his release, and he is supposed to remain on that job and report periodically. If he doesn’t do that, he has violated his parole and can be returned to prison.
It is, therefore, patently obvious that even in the most desperate cases it is far better to place any prison inmate who shows any signs of rehabilitation on parole than to hold him to the last minute of his sentence and then let him vanish into our crowded civilization, subject to no restraining influence, to engage in activities over which authorities can have no control, and about which they have no knowledge.
Tex’s approach made him a hero behind the walls of McAlester. Editor of The Eye Opener at the time, Rex Fletcher, wrote, “Amen, Mr. Bynum! Your words are like a breath of cool, fresh air to the inmates here. We of the Eye Opener staff have been hammering for some time that more inmates should be granted parole, but at the same time we were cognizant of the fact that the biggest bottle-neck was the shortage of field parole officers to supervise parolees here in Oklahoma.”
Tex Bynum’s modus operandi wasn’t just willy-nilly paroling every Dick, John, and Harry who wasn’t scheduled to be executed. Parole was a responsibility thrust onto the released convict. When an ex-con made bad on his parole, he was actually marring the whole system for everyone else that did good. The safety of society was, after all, the ultimate goal of the whole penal system. “When you violate the conditions of parole, you are not only hurting yourself—you are also hurting your fellow inmates,” Tex wrote in The Eye Opener. “It has always been a puzzle to me why you will dream of freedom, pray for freedom, beg for freedom; live and hope for the wonderful day. Then, after you are free, many of you will almost immediately throw away your freedom for a few dollars or a few drinks of liquor. I just don’t get it. It doesn’t make the least bit of sense.”
Charlie Chesnut likewise proselytized a progressive agenda. He became chairman of the Pardon and Parole Board around 1963—outlawing Saturday meetings when the Sooners football team had home games. “I’ve always advocated that we be practical about these things,” he said in the Tulsa World. But when he wasn’t wisecracking, Chesnut spoke before crowds, attempting to alter the way lawmakers and the public thought about criminal justice. He saw the roots of crime in juvenile delinquency. For positive change to occur, Chesnut believed that an emotionally and intellectually invested public was required. For one, like Tex had explained, most of the prisoners that were sentenced, would indeed arrive back on the streets eventually. At one point, Chesnut cited that 95% of prisoners would rejoin society. Therefore, law-abiding citizens’ unwillingness to confront messy issues or to vote to allocate funding that supported penal reform, he believed, would only come back to bite them. In a 1967 speech to the Will Rogers Rotary Club titled “After Prison, What?”, Chesnut laid out the problem:
In his most publicized moments, the felon naturally is the object of strong feelings. Society wants him punished and wants others deterred from committing his offenses. But, even then, we need to remember that later he will probably be rubbing elbows with some of us on the streets. After he goes beyond the prison gate, what kind of life will he lead? This is a public as well as a private question…. We should quit training our inmates for adjustment to the institution rather than society.
What reform would look like, according to Chesnut, would be vastly different than what BlueJacket experienced in prison. Chesnut called for increased “dress-out” pay and work-release programs. He applauded pre-release centers. He condemned both the low pay and the low requirements when it came to hiring prison guards. More employees and psychological support were needed. At various times he supported up-to-date psychiatric facilities and conjugal visits.
For Chesnut, parole was not just an ethical and social necessity, but also the most financially responsible thing to do. “Parole should not be construed as ‘coddling’ the inmate. It must rather be regarded not only as assisting in the redemption of human lives but also in the tremendous amount of money saved,” he told an Oklahoma City Kiwanis Club in 1962.
Parole sounded great on paper, but as prison historian Larry Sullivan noted, it had some built-in problems. For one thing, parole was supposed to mean that a convict had been rehabilitated. But how do you measure rehabilitation? Is it measured only by a lack of recidivism? If so, then rehabilitation could only really be proven once a parolee slipped up and went back to prison, or died having committed no more crimes in his life. Otherwise, it was guesswork. Was Bobby BlueJacket rehabilitated? Chesnut and Tex hoped so, but other authorities were waiting for him to screw up.
BlueJacket knew in his own mind that he didn’t need to steal anymore. He was dedicated to going straight, and he was real lucky to have Ray Graves as his parole adviser. “I became real good friends with him and his wife Bonnie,” BlueJacket said. Ray Graves would go beyond simple check-ins. He got BlueJacket integrated into political Tulsa.