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Notorious case haunts state after 70 years

December 3, 2018

Former pro football player Rae Carruth recently was released from prison in North Carolina. Some accounts claimed he had been the first active NFL player tried for murder.

Those stories ignored some of the darkest chapters in New Mexico history. More than two decades before Carruth, 44, was born, Pittsburgh Steelers running back Jerry Nuzum stood trial in one of New Mexico’s most notorious murder cases.

Along with Nuzum, the principal figures were corrupt law officers, a blindly ambitious governor and an 18-year-old waitress named Ovida “Cricket” Coogler.

Coogler, of Las Cruces, vanished the night of March 31, 1949. Rabbit hunters found her body 16 days later under a mesquite bush south of town. She had been raped, beaten and possibly run over by a car.

In the ’40s, illegal gambling and other vice crimes went unchecked in parts of New Mexico. Certain police officers could be counted on to ignore the law in return for payoffs.

What the public could not ignore was the murder of a teenager. Police needed a conviction in Coogler’s murder or an entire system of bribes and other corruption might be exposed.

Nuzum was a big name in a sparsely populated state. He grew up in Clovis and then played football at what is now New Mexico State University in Las Cruces.

For a time after becoming a Steeler, he still lived in Las Cruces during the off-season. Witnesses said they saw Nuzum speak to and perhaps argue with Coogler the night she disappeared.

He became a target in the investigation of Coogler’s murder. So did a man named Wesley Byrd, an Army veteran who was part of an all-black unit that fought in Italy during World War II.

Byrd said law officers beat him in hopes of getting him to confess. When that didn’t work, they escalated the torture. They took him to the desert and clamped a bicycle lock on his testicles. Byrd eventually told reporters and federal investigators that dirty cops wanted to turn him into their fall guy.

Nuzum, a white man, was treated more gently while his rights were trampled. He spent 10 days in jail in 1949, though no charges were filed. Doña Ana County Sheriff Alfonso “Happy” Apodaca would say Nuzum had accepted voluntary incarceration to assist investigators.

Soon after, the district attorney announced he had cleared Nuzum. He returned to Pittsburgh to resume his career, a move that would be short-lived.

Edwin L. Mechem ran for governor of New Mexico in 1950 on the promise of reopening the stalled investigation into Coogler’s murder. No Republican had won the governor’s office in 20 years, but Mechem broke through.

Admirers called him Big Ed. Voters embraced his pledge to reform a corrupt state. A lawyer and former FBI agent, Mechem wanted police and prosecutors to move swiftly in the Coogler case.

Less than four months after Mechem took office, police arrested Nuzum in Pittsburgh, and prosecutors named him as the defendant in Coogler’s death. Nuzum, though exonerated once by the good word of a prosecutor, went on trial in the summer of 1951.

What followed might have wrecked Mechem’s career but inexplicably did not.

So weak was the prosecution’s case against Nuzum that state District Judge Charles Fowler ordered a directed verdict of acquittal on the fourth day of testimony. Fowler said the state had no evidence against Nuzum.

Though free at last, Nuzum was broke and embittered.

“It’s a shame I was arrested by Mechem just so the governor could keep a campaign promise,” Nuzum said.

Nuzum, 27 when he was acquitted, played his last season of football that fall. He remained in the Pittsburgh area, where he ran car dealerships until his death in 1997 at age 73.

Sheriff Apodaca, state Police Chief Hubert Beasley and sheriff’s Deputy Roy Sandman each served a year in prison for violating Byrd’s civil rights during what passed for a murder investigation.

Mechem went on to win three more two-year terms as governor. He resigned from office and arranged for his own lieutenant governor to appoint him to the U.S. Senate in 1962. Voters ousted Mechem two years later. President Richard Nixon later appointed Mechem to a federal judgeship.

And Cricket Coogler’s murder was never solved. Next spring marks the 70th anniversary of her death.

Ringside Seat is an opinion column about people, politics and news. Contact Milan Simonich at msimonich@sfnewmexican.com or 505-986-3080.

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