The 1970s in Austin was a wild time. From explosive growth to the rise of an eclectic music scene, the Texas capitol city had a lot going on. But many people weren’t aware that Austin also had an organized crime problem.
In his new book, “Last Gangster In Austin: Frank Smith, Ronnie Earle, And The End Of A Junkyard Mafia,” Jesse Sublett tells the story of how hired guns, corrupt authorities and a cameo from Willie Nelson all come together in surprising ways.
Sublett frames the story as a conflict between gangster Frank Smith and then-Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle. He says Smith’s pursuit of any kind of financial gain clashed with Earle’s relentless crusade for justice.
The Austin of the 1970s was far smaller and more slower-moving than it is today, Sublett says.
“And yet there was this criminal ecosystem that coexisted alongside the laid-back Armadillo vibe. We had a prostitution network that had been going on since the Great Depression. There was money in sleaze and vice, drugs, safe cracking and all the usual suspects of that era,” he said.
Frank Smith, the gangster of Sublett’s title, began operating at the margins of society, as a criminal , but eventually became connected with powerful people, including senators, prison directors and ex-governor’s. At 25, he became chauffeur for then-Gov. Allan Shivers who pardoned Smith. Sublett theorizes that Smith, an ex-convict, got that job because of his preacher father’s ties to the governor.
In Austin, Smith operated front businesses that hid where his money came from.
“He started an auto junkyard in 1956,” Sublett said. “And even though it’s funky, these places like that were a nexus of the underworld economy. One of the very most popular enterprises they had was car theft. And Frank was the nexus of an interstate car theft ring that was busted in the 60s.”
Unprepossessing businesses like junkyards and auto body shops offered easy opportunities to launder money connected with criminal activity, Sublett says.
Sublett says Smith’s persona offended DA Ronnie Earle, as did his profiting from the bail bond system.
“And Ronnie, having grown up outside of Fort Worth, was familiar with a lot of the Fort Worth hoodlums that were surrounding Frank and who did his evil bidding from time to time,” Sublett said.
Musician Willie Nelson was friends with a former member of Austin’s Overton Gang, an organized crime group. Sublett says Nelson loaned the man money to open a massage parlor in Austin.
“A lot of things were revealed after his friend was blown away,” Sublett said. The man was killed by a hitman with a double-barreled shotgun.