Down Life’s Highway…Remembering legendary Sheriff Holts
Born Oct. 1, 1909, Chester Holts, the son of Charlie and Elizabeth Holts of Jasper County, grew up to become the longest serving sheriff in Orange County. His mother died in 1918 during the flu epidemic leaving Chester and six other children, one as young as 18 months. Unable to cope with the situation, Charles let the children become scattered among relatives. One of the children, Charlie Taylor Holts, went to live with a Mr. Reeves only to drown a month later.
Chester said, “We had a hard go of it. We scattered around and lived where we could. Sometimes we camped on the river or stayed with first one then another. Nobody had anything around those old sawmill towns and nobody could really afford to keep another kid in the house but then, Mr. Fatty Andrews took me in. His son Fred, who had left home, returned, and he and I decided to ‘hobo around,’ going to Michigan, down to Florida and back to Michigan.”
It was in Pontiac Michigan that Chester met his wife Iva Carroll. She and her family had moved up north from Louisiana looking for work. He and his bride moved back to Mauriceville, Texas. He went to work in the shipyard and was later elected business agent.
In 1946, Orange County Sheriff Dick Stanfield offered Chester a job as his deputy.
“No one in my family had ever been involved in law enforcement or politics, except I was then serving on the Mauriceville School Board,” Holts said.
About a year into the job, Sheriff Stanfield died of a heart attack. Commissioners Court appointed Chester to fill out the sheriff’s tenure, which was one year and one day. After this time, he was then elected to his first two-year term. He served as sheriff for 21 years, most in two-year terms. His first opponents were Hobson Meriwether and Jim Morgan. In later elections, he ran against Tom Cockrell, Shorty Landry and twice against Morris Collier.
During that time, he dealt with some gruesome cases. The Paul LaFleur case is one that comes to mind. LaFleur, from Houston, got off the train in Orange, killed a boy in a car, raped the two girls and tied them to a fence post. Sheriff Holts personally posted $500 for information and learned LaFleur was in Sercey, Tennessee, up in the Bald Eagle Mountain, where he had assumed the alias of Ted Taylor. Learning someone was supposed to mail him some winter clothes, Sheriff Holts passing as an insurance salesman, hung around the post office in Sercey. When he couldn’t be there, he hired a man to take his place. The man arrested LaFleur, and Chester brought him back. He received a life sentence and a 99-year sentence.
An Orange taxi driver was murdered by Lester Ray Brown. The Sheriff caught him and he received a life sentence.
The case that sticks out most in my mind was the murder of a 4-year-old girl, whose body was hidden under some cardboard boxes in a shed in West Orange. The girl had been out riding her tricycle. Her parents had missed her and were already looking for her when the murderer called his sister and told her what he had done. The Sheriff received the call while he and Iva were riding down Highway 87 and 105. He luckily spotted the guy, arrested him on the spot, without a gun and brought him in where he pleaded guilty.
These are only some of the dozens of cases that the Sheriff was personally involved in.
Sheriff Holts was a quiet man, but when he spoke pertaining to law enforcement, people listened. He applied common sense knowledge to every situation. He had a small staff of deputies in which Roy Laughlin, of Vidor, was his chief deputy. Others were W.S. Wagner, Charlie Burch, Babe Whittman, Bill Dickerson, Bill Joyce, Bill Potter, Tucker Clayton, Bill McDanial, Larry Gunner, dispatcher and others.
Sheriff Holts knew the criminal element. Each morning he assembled the night crew with the day shift over breakfast that cook Beulah prepared. He found out what went on during the night and gave instructions to the day deputies to bring in certain suspects. That was before having to give Miranda Rights. He would personally question the suspects; he knew the criminal element so well that he usually solved the case and got a confession.
I once rode with him to Lake Charles when Sheriff Ham Reid, from Calcasieu Parish, had called and said they had a suspect in jail whom they knew had committed a crime but wouldn’t give a statement. Sheriff Holts, after visiting with the suspect for a few minutes, announced that he was ready to confess. We drove home, and he never said a word about it.
He never wore a pistol, but when he slipped one on, you knew it was serious.
The Sheriff loved owning dogs. He had some tracking dogs. He often made a deal with a prisoner to cut his jail time if he could elude the dogs. None ever did. I was foolish enough once to tell him I thought I could fool his dogs. We were at his camp called, ‘Bug’s Scuffle’ between Buna and Gist. That was a mistake. When they spotted me, I barely outran them. I though I would die from lack of oxygen. He always kept Beagle hounds for coon hunting. He had a dirt floor camp on Highway 12, next to the hunting club. I spent many winter nights there with him. We slept on Army cots, kept warm and cooked with a 55-gallon barrel, wood-fed heater. He loved to hear those hounds howl.
Sheriff Holts was all business when it came to law enforcement, but he was a very compassionate, big-hearted guy. I’ll never forget the tears running down his cheeks as he watched the reports on television of the shooting and death of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas.
The Holts family lived in the old County Jail and most of the time Mrs. Holts cooked for the prisoners. “The prisoners were no bother, they got fat on my corn bread, beans and meat,” she said. “When it rained, I put out pots to catch the drips. Sometimes when we would get up in the morning, the floor would be a puddle of water,” she added.
The Sheriff had a $97,000 a year budget. Food for the prisoners cost $450 per month. The department had four cars and 12 employees, including seven deputies. If DPS brought in a prisoner at 2 a.m., the Sheriff had to get up to lock him up.
The Holts had three children, Morgan Ray, who died March 19, 1989, at age 61, Nova Dee Strickland, who wrote a book about her dad and family, and Wanda Beth Reinent, who is assisted Nova with the book. There was a fourth child, Howard James, who died as a young child.
Wanda was 10 months old when her family moved into the old jail building. She celebrated her first birthday, started school, graduated and was married while living there. She was raised in the jailhouse. It was the only home she had growing up and was where her roots were set. Old Polly, the parrot, was also raised in the jail. The bird was a gift to Wanda when she entered the second grade.
Throughout all those years, the Sheriff had enjoyed tremendous popularity, being fortunate enough to have the continued support of both labor and management. All of that changed when the Firestone plant went on strike. It turned out to be a bad one. When someone tried to blow up a pipeline, which failed because the explosives were put under the pipe instead of on top, the Sheriff called for assistance. The pipe is still bent from that explosion. Every law enforcement officer available was called to help control the large crowd and make arrest of the overly rowdy. It got bad, really bad. All but one officer lent their help. Chester’s longtime friend, 30-year constable of Pct. 3, Buck Pattillo, never showed and that was by design. Consequently, the sheriff lost both sides of the strike argument. The labor unions and his friends in it, including business agent, Dewey ‘Teddy Bear’ Cox, fell out with him for his enforcement. Management blamed him for not doing enough and arresting whoever had set off the bomb.
Bob Montange, along with Nolton Brown, Tick Granger, H.D. Pate and others organized to run a candidate against him. They chose to back the only law enforcement officer who was unblemished by the strike. Chester never got over the fact that Pattillo, his friend of so many years, who had eaten at his table regularly, would take the opportunity to challenge him when he was coming out of such a bad ordeal. Over the years, the men mentioned have expressed to me, what a bad mistake it was to support Buck. He had little education but was well liked. He also was a native from a pioneer family and knew everyone from being in office for 30 years. The record shows Pattillo was not a very effective sheriff.
Another important factor in the defeat of Holts had to do with Judge Eugene Hoyt. When the 163rd. District Court was created by Gov. John Connally, he appointed Gene, who had no judicial experience, as the first judge of the new court. Hoyt was a title lawyer who owned an abstract company. During the Firestone strike, his rulings favored labor, and he joined in to defeat Sheriff Holts. He named Martin Ardoin, a friend of Montagne and Brown, as Court Baliff. Ardoin later served as Pct. 3 Justice of the Peace and lived to be 100 years old. Friends of Holts recruited Fred Trimble, who had a law license but had never practiced in a courtroom and actually owned the casket company, to run against Hoyt. Holts and Hoyt worked harder to defeat each other than to get themselves elected. They were both successful. The incumbents both lost and were replaced. In a way, it all goes back to the Firestone strike.
Sheriff Holts had eight months left of his tenure when he lost a close race to Pattillo. At the time, I owned the Gulf Coast Bail Bonding Company, the only one in the county. Over the years, Chester and I had done many things together. When Buck won, I knew the jig was up for me also. I gave the business to Cecil Scales, who was from the oil field and had known Buck and his family a lifetime.
Chester never got over the race that he called a betrayal. Even during the election, he never showed the spirit that had made him the longest serving sheriff in Orange County. He used the remainder of his time in office to see that no unsolved, major crimes would be left on the books when he departed. The slate was clean, and on Dec. 30 he and Iva moved out of the jail that had been their home for a third of their lives.
Chester Holts enjoyed his final years despite developing heart trouble that took his life on Aug. 18, 1984, 16 years after leaving office. Mrs. Holts lived another 16 years and passed away May 26, 2000.
The legend of this great sheriff grew with the years, and any old timer will tell you today he was the best that ever was. I’m proud he was my friend as our paths crossed Down Life’s Highway.