Notable deathMan imprisoned in Mexico 20 years ago for shotgun shells found in truck dies
Tommy Bean, the Vidor man who sparked a full-fledged international incident when he was arrested in Mexico 20 years ago because he had a few boxes of shotgun shells in his vehicle, died Monday. He was 79.
Bean, a federally licensed firearm dealer, was attending a gun show in Laredo on March 14, 1998, when he and his assistants decided they wanted to cross into Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, for a meal.
Bean told his assistants to clear the vehicle of all firearms, but they overlooked 206 shotgun shells, said Larry C. Hunter, an attorney and longtime friend of Bean’s.
Bean, then a manager at Buddy Chevrolet in Port Arthur, was taken into custody by Mexican authorities and sentenced to five years in prison on arms smuggling charges.
Hunter, who visited Bean in La Loma prison, said the conditions were atrocious. But, Bean had the resources to acquire a thatched-roof hut on the prison grounds and set up a wheelbarrow with a grate to serve as a barbecue, he said.
“He made something positive out of a very negative situation,” Hunter said.
In a 1998 jailhouse interview with Hearst Newspapers, Bean said he passed the time playing dominoes and working on his release. He got by on goods purchased in the prison’s commissary, including large quantities of ice and orange soda.
In his boredom, he said he dreamed of a notice he’d like to put in his local newspapers when he got home. He said it was going to be an open invitation to a big party.
“I think I’ll have it at the KC hall,” he said.
Hunter, working with then-state Sen. David Bernsen and then-U.S. Rep. Jim Turner, both Democrats, managed to free Bean from the Mexican jail on Sept. 21, 1998, and transfer him under a treaty between the U.S. and Mexico to a low-security federal prison in South Texas. He was ultimately released on Oct. 21, 1998.
Bean was free from prison, but still faced legal obstacles to restore his Second Amendment rights, Hunter said.
In January 2000, then-U.S. District Judge Joe Fisher restored Bean’s firearm rights, but the Fifth U.S. Circuit in New Orleans overturned Fisher’s ruling.
It took the arrest of another U.S. citizen for a similar violation in Japan for the U.S. Supreme Court to decide that the laws of other countries should not affect a citizen’s rights on repatriation.
“Once you go through that, you really appreciate the Bill of Rights,” Hunter said.
Commenting on his eventual release from prison, Hunter said Bean appeared as if he had just returned from a fishing trip.
Bean officially regained his rights to own firearms in April 2005. Unfortunately, before then, he had to give up an extensive inventory of firearms kept at his Vidor home, including valuable collectibles, according to Enterprise archive stories.
“You don’t ever miss your water until your well runs dry,” Bean told an Enterprise reporter following the 2005 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in his favor. “It’s a mind game, to me it is. I’ve never been in any trouble all my life, then I’ve got to go through all this. ... I was always under the impression if somebody was in prison, they did something to be there. That’s not always the case.”
Bean was born in Newton County on Nov. 24, 1938, and was raised in the Trout Creek community, according to his obituary.
He and his wife, Sara, also known as Sadie, were married on May 25, 1962, and reared two children; a son, Cory, and a daughter, Julie L. Lightfoot.
“Tommy was a personal friend. He used to babysit our kids. He was a really neat person,” Hunter said.
Dan Wallach is a freelance writer.